Tuesday, September 10, 2013

New Mexican highway system will expose flaws in border-security, supply-side drug interdiction strategies

So much of the "border security" talk we hear from Texas politicians falls on a range from trivial to stupid: E.g., calls to further enlarge the already bloated Border Patrol or insistence on building a wall along the border (which would make us perhaps the first ever nation to wall off our own residents' access to a major natural resource like the Rio Grande). Militarizing rural BFE Texas or walling off farmers and ranchers' access to water are such ridiculous suggestions that any sensible person truly interested in border security must oppose or else completely ignore them.

Sadly, American border security and immigration debates tend to focus on myopic, often anecdote-driven issues designed less to solve real-world problems than to amp up culture-war triggers. Those debates do not interest me. Grits has argued at least since 2006 that one of the biggest border security challenges facing the state (arguably number two behind southbound "spillover") was Mexico's decision to massively expand its interstate highway system, specifically to allow easy commercial access to the west coast, where major mountains and minimalist roads made travel times long and even treacherous. The United States has not built a new west-coast port in decades, but trade from Asia is expanding every year by leaps and bounds. Mexico made the (wise) strategic decision to build several new "super ports" on its west coast and to expand its highway infrastructure to position itself as a North American trade hub for Asian goods.

Now, a major superhighway cuts through the mountains in Sinaloa (home to one of the major Mexican cartels) and onto Mazatlan, a major western port, cutting travel times from the Texas border in half. (I'm actually kind of looking forward to driving it.) Highways through Mexico to Brownsville and Laredo have been similarly improved, specifically aimed at maximizing the ease and rapidity of moving commercial goods. A recent article from Southwest Farm Press ("Mexican superhighway challenges Texas preparedness," Sept. 4) depicts local officials struggling with the implications:
Officials in Mexico and Texas are applauding the aggressive highway project, pointing out that trucks servicing the rich agricultural district of Mexico will soon have a shorter and more direct route to Pharr/Brownsville than they do to the Arizona border, where border crossing facilities are already overcrowded.

South Texans have been gearing up for the influx of added Mexican commerce for several years, mostly along the Lower Rio Grande Valley corridor from McAllen to Brownsville. While the McAllen area has increased cold storage and traditional storage significantly over the last five years, the Lower Valley, specifically Brownsville, has been slower to respond, a measure Cameron County and Brownsville leaders say is quickly changing.

At a special meeting of the Brownsville/Cameron County Produce Committee earlier this month, County Commissioner Ernie Fernandez said the community is not ready for the major influx of freightliners expected in the weeks ahead.

"We're not ready...not even close to being ready," he told the committee. ...
USDA estimates confirm that since the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA) was adopted between Mexico and the United States, elevated commerce and traffic has risen significantly. In Texas land ports of entry alone the number of commercial crossings has doubled in just the last 8 to 10 years. In Laredo, for example, land crossing by commercial trucks increased by more than one million vehicles since 1995. In Pharr, statistics indicate more than 300,000 additional trucks have crossed during the same period.
In anticipation of increased wait times at the bridge, local Valley officials say they are hoping to purchase land soon for construction of a staging area adjacent to the Veterans Memorial Bridge crossing.
The story's mainly talking about handling the volume of traffic and goods, at one point estimating the importance of the new highways to be as significant as the construction of the Panama Canal. Mexico exports time-sensitive fruit and vegetable products through Texas, spreading from here across the entire country, and there can already be hours-long waits for inspection at the bridges during peak hours, creating the need for short-term cold storage solutions and other special accommodations for fresh produce.

However, one could say the same thing - "we're not ready" - about the border-security implications of Mexico's new ports and highways. In practice, the overwhelming majority of smuggling into Texas, both people and contraband, comes through the major checkpoints at the bridges. The rise of the maquiladora industry after NAFTA resulted in scores of US companies operating manufacturing plants on the Mexican side of the river aimed at distribution to the American market. Bilateral trade unquestionably benefits both Texan and Mexican economies. But it also masks most human trafficking and contraband smuggling to and from Mexico, and it's about to increase by an order or magnitude.

Building a wall out in the hinterlands or assigning more Border Patrol agents to stalk the brush along the river won't affect the trade situation in the least. And pity the US Customs folks responsible for vetting vehicles at the bridges. It's already physically impossible to check more than a tiny fraction without inhibiting legitimate trade in ways that violate both international treaties and our national interest.

This looming shift in international trade dynamics will utterly swamp Texas checkpoints in the next few years, making a farce of supply-side interdiction strategies that consistently failed to stop drug flows even at much lower volumes.


doran said...

que pasa "rural BFE Texas"?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

D, see the first definition here.

Patrick Butler said...

TILT: The BFE term and others like it are brain dead--i.e., convey no meaning--and create ugly images. Are readers supposed to imagine someone performing sodomy in Egypt or what? I thought Grits took language more seriously.

Anonymous said...

My friend spent last month, August, in a trailer on the border (he opened and closed a gate for an oil drilling operation). He said that immigrants came to his trailer several times a day asking for water. On his little acre, there was quite a number of illegal immigrants passing through.