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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Illicit Globalization on the Border: Drug War and Transnational Crime

  • ·        Liberal purveyors of the transnational crime threat assessments.
  • ·        Historical amnesia on the border.
  • ·        Counterproductive policy prescriptions to combat illicit globalization.
  • ·        The Obama brand of border security.
Transnational crime defines the border. It’s always been so. 

Yet with its strategies and policies, the Obama administration officials assert that we can effectively control illegal immigration, illegal drugs, and the border itself.  Border security operations, they say, will redefine the border and stop transnational crime in its tracks.

Regional and national politics combined with news reports about the horrifically violent course of the Mexico’s drug war are the immediate drivers of border security policy. They are the political background to the new emphasis of the Obama administration on targeting transnational threats and transnational criminal organizations.

But it is useful (and necessary) to step back from the latest news and policy developments to gain a more penetrating perspective about transnational crime and the border.

A forthcoming essay by border scholar Peter Andreas offers such a perspective.

Andreas, author of the excellent book Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, examines the myths and fears about transnational crime and globalization in “Illicit Globalization: Myths, Misconceptions, and Historical Lessons,” an eye-opening essay in the fall issue of Political Science Quarterly.

Globalization’s Birthing of Transnational Crime

Andreas wastes no time in shattering this myth and calling out its purveyors.

In the essay’s first two paragraphs Andreas names names – of the scholars, politicians, journalists, and pundits who have promoted dire threat assessments about the spread of transnational crime in the globalization era. Among those named are John Kerry, Jessica Mathews, Moises Naim, Misha Glenny, Susan Strange, Robert Mandel, Phil Williams, and James Mittelman –not the usual right-wing fear-mongers who traffic in exaggerated threat assessments but mostly liberals.

Andreas takes them to task for contributing to the dangerous albeit “conventional wisdom about illicit globalization.” According to Andreas, “the popular claims of loss of state control are overly alarmist and misleading and suffer from historical amnesia.”

More than the bad history and lack of scholarship typical of warnings about loss of state power in the face of mounting illicit globalization, Andreas is bothered by the consequences of alarmist threat assessments about transnational crime and porous borders.

The standard narrative of illicit economic globalization is not only exaggerated and misleading but can lead to counterproductive policy prescriptions. Urgent calls to “do something” about the illicit side of globalization can provide ammunition for politicians and bureaucrats to justify costly high-profile crackdowns that may be politically popular but that ultimately fail. It can also contribute to growing calls to further securitize and militarize policing efforts regardless of the effectiveness of using military resources for law enforcement tasks.

Alarmist accounts of illicit economic globalization, observes Andreas, “echo the old familiar arguments in the globalization literature about the withering away of the state in the face of increasingly globalized markets—but in this case, the market actors and forces are considered particularly threatening and sinister.”

Furthermore, “In this narrative, global crime groups, not global corporations, are the growing threats. But while the old “sovereignty-at-bay”- types of arguments have been countered by more-skeptical and -nuanced accounts in the globalization literature, there has not been a similar corrective in the illicit globalization debate.”

Andreas argues that “state capacities to detect, deter, and detain transnational crime have substantially increased since the heyday of smuggling several centuries ago. The number of safe havens for criminals across the world has dramatically shrunk over time as the law enforcement reach of the state has expanded, including through international policing cooperation…”

Counterproductive Consequences of Exaggerating Transnational Crime

The essay examines the ways that “states shape and even exploit the illicit global economy.”  He concludes that the standard story about illicit globalization or transnational crime is “not only overblown but can have counterproductive policy consequences.”

Counterproductive consequences such as: the violence currently sweeping Mexico, reinforced drug-prohibition policies, and a fortified border.

What is transnational crime? 

Andreas notes the problematic of propagating threat assessments without any clear definition of exactly what the threat is. He wryly observes: At base, much of what makes organized crime transnational involves some form of profit-driven smuggling across borders. Transnational organized crime is therefore simply a new term for an old economic practice.”

How can national governments best meet an increase in transnational crime and its threat to national and international stability? For DHS and for the border hawks, the answer is clear: border security and more border security.

Globalization has certainly facilitated the flow of illicit goods and services along with legal ones.  Yet, there is scant evidence that transnational crime has increased with globalization.

[I] is important to remember that states define what economic activities are illicit in the first place. States monopolize the power to criminalize: laws precede and define criminality. Through their law-making and law-enforcing authority, states set the rules of the game even if they cannot entirely control the play.

This isn’t simply political theory.  As Andreas reminds us:

Indeed, a century ago, much of what today is considered transnational crime (most notably drug trafficking) was not even criminalized by most states—and hence by definition not a crime problem. In fact, some of today’s illicit economic activities were only criminalized a few decades ago, including trade prohibitions on toxic waste, antiquities, endangered species, and money laundering. Illicit globalization is thus not only about more-expansive transnational crime but also about more-ambitious global prohibitions….

At the same time, we should recall that some of today’s licit economic activities were previously criminalized and considered a serious transnational crime threat.

For instance, alcohol smuggling networks linking the United States to suppliers in Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean created a formidable policing challenge during the Prohibition Era—and were eliminated with the stroke of a pen with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933.

As Andreas notes, as he also did in Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts, such transnational crimes as drug trafficking and migrant smuggling are so very profitable because governments impose costly consequences and prohibitions.

Economically speaking, “prohibitions function as price supports—which, in turn, help to attract new market entrants willing to accept the occupational hazards.”

Migrants as Transnational Criminals

DHS now routinely characterizes all illegal border crossings as instances of transnational crime. The DHS-led Alliance to Combat Transnational Crime (ACTC) in Arizona counts the number of illegal immigrant apprehensions as the principal indicator of success, along with drugs seized (mainly marijuana).

The buildup in border security is a prime example of how certain government policies often beget problems that other national policies aim to solve. As Andreas observes:

Migrant smuggling across the border has become a much more sophisticated and organized business since the early 1990s, not because of the weakening of the state but precisely because of the strengthening of the state: migrants used to be able to self-smuggle themselves across the border (and go back and forth with relative ease), but with the tightening of state controls, they now have to hire the services of professional smugglers. The border remains highly porous, but is far more difficult for migrants to cross than ever before (with hundreds dying every year as a consequence).

National policy – or the lack thereof – also contributes to the so-called transnational crime of illegal immigration by facilitating and even encouraging out-migration.  Historically, this has been the case in Mexico where the government and the economy have become dependent on emigration.

Unauthorized migration, for instance, can provide a crucial “safety valve,” helping governments in many labor-exporting countries cope with their unemployment problems, while the remittances sent home from migrants abroad provide a major source of revenue.

Transnational Crime Not Necessarily Violent

Within the U.S. border region, the entry point for smuggled goods and illegal immigrants (as well as the destination of many immigrants), the activities now categorized as transnational crime haven’t traditionally been associated with above-average rates of crime and violence.

Since 2006, however, with the border security buildup and Mexico’s drug war, the crossborder scenario has devolved, as drug-related violence intensifies in Mexico and as illegal border crossings have come under the control of criminal gangs.

Andreas offers a helpful analytical context for the transnational crime-violence nexus, while also underscoring how policy changes in both the United States and Mexico are shaking up the steady state of the transnational crime/violence dynamic.

Lacking the protections of the law, illicit market actors must rely on informal forms of control to resolve their disputes, punish those who impede their livelihood, and deter those who might otherwise interfere. Violence is one such form, a time-honored form of self-help. Nevertheless, actors in the illicit global economy are defined more by stealth than by violence.

Part of the reason that violence and illicit markets are so closely linked in conventional accounts is that episodes of violence draw the most attention and provoke the most concern. Thus, the analysis is distorted by selection bias. Such selection bias privileges the most-violent sectors of the illicit economy—most notably the illicit drug trade, though even drug markets are less violent than is commonly perceived.

Yet as the crackdown on drug flows intensifies, so does the violence, as is dramatically illustrated in Mexico’s ongoing drug war.

High-profile police crackdowns, meanwhile, can unintentionally fuel more market-related violence; as some illicit actors are removed, new ones emerge to fill the void and to claim market share through violent competition. This exacerbating effect can occur in response to substitution of both organizations and individuals. Mexico is the most-dramatic contemporary case of spikes in violence resulting from the unsettling of established relations between crime groups and state authorities.

New Wars, Border Wars

The linking of illegal drugs to terrorism and insurgencies is part of the official threat assessments purveyed by the U.S. government – and by those calling for more border security and more U.S. military intervention.

Announcing the new border counternarcotics strategy, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano didn’t just warn about the crime and violence associated with drug trafficking, she raised the threat assessment by asserting that the administration’s new strategy would also disrupt the traffickers’ “links to terrorism.”

The association of drug trafficking with political threats -- in the form of terrorism and guerrilla insurgencies -- is common to post-Cold War alarmism about the transnational crime threat. Not only does transnational crime, particularly drug trafficking, constitute a threat to economic and social stability, transnational crime also, it is argued, spurs and supports political wars and terrorism.

Commonly this takes the form of “new wars,” according to the transnational crime literature. As Andreas describes it:

Illicit global trade has also been increasingly blamed for fueling armed conflicts, and vice versa. Indeed, links between the illicit global economy and conflict are considered a defining attribute of so-called new wars.

Certainly, such wars can and do occur, but are neither inevitable nor endemic.

With respect to Latin America, Andreas writes:

Contrast Colombia (relatively high levels of violence) to Bolivia (relatively much lower levels of violence)—both countries that are deeply enmeshed in the coca/cocaine trade, yet Colombia receives far more attention.

[Furthermore], Bolivia has long been a major coca producer (the raw material used for cocaine) and has gone through many bouts of political instability—but so far without turning to armed conflict. In Colombia, the drug trade has been a key factor in extending the armed conflict, providing a major source of financing for both leftist guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries, but it should also be remembered that the conflict long predates the rise of the Colombia drug trade.

And in one particularly prominent case, Mexico (a major heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine producer and the main transshipment point for U.S.-bound cocaine), the country’s large drug trade and small and isolated insurgencies have been strikingly disconnected.


This new essay on the myths and consequences of threat assessments about transnational crime is extremely timely.

Rather than distancing itself from the ideological excesses of the Bush administration with respect to border security, the Obama administration has adopted and reinforced its predecessor’s border security imperative. But it has attempted to mark border security policies, along with the drug war in Mexico, with its own brand.

At first glance, the framing of these policy challenges as transnational crime, transnational criminal organizations, and transnational threats may appears to be less ideological, less vindictive, and more conceptually grounded.  

But a closer look, as provided in this new Andreas essay, shows that the new Obama administration rhetoric about transnational threats -- from Mexico, at the border, and in the heartland -- is equally spurious and doubly dangerous.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The $26 Billion Drug War Addiction


How the U.S. frames and describes its counternarcotics operations, home and abroad, is fundamentally important – measured by the tens of billions of U.S. government dollars spent in drug enforcement, the millions of Americans who have been arrested and incarcerated for drug violations, and the many lives lost in drug wars, including the more than 45,000 dead in Mexico in last four years.

The Obama administration has dropped the term “war on drugs” in official discourse, yet it still lends uncritical support – both financially and in its public diplomacy – to Mexico’s military-led drug war.  

At the same time, however, the Obama administration has given new credence to exaggerated drug-driven threat assessments, which posit that U.S. national security and homeland security are threatened by Mexican drug trafficking and organized crime groups.  Increasingly, U.S. government and military sources refer to the “transnational threats” to the homeland from the Mexico-based Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs).

It is unclear if U.S. government and military strategists have duly considered the meaning and implications of using the transnational threat terminology when referring to the illegal drug trade in the United States. Certainly, there is no publicly available documentation of this reevaluation of terminology and strategy.

Within the policy and academic communities, there has been little or no reflection or debate about the ongoing rhetorical transition from the previously dominant terms – cartels, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), or simply organized crime groups.

As “drug war analysts” like Sylvia Longmire (author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars) and Homeland Security officials increasingly popularize the concept of TCOs and transnational threats, the media, for the most part, is passively following suit.

TCOs Now Making Their Mark on American Home Entertainment

In an article in Homeland Security Today titled “Mexican TCOs Make Their Mark on American Media,” correspondent Longmire summarizes the transition in terminology, as she sees it:

Not too long ago, organized crime groups in Mexico—commonly (and inaccurately) known as cartels, were referred to as drug trafficking organizations, or DTOs. In the last couple of years, US government agencies have stopped using this moniker and switched to using transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) to refer to the narcos because their portfolio of illegal activities has significantly expanded in scope and geographic area.

None of the main federal agencies that have counternarcotics operations (ICE, CBP, DEA, ONDCP, etc.) or the participating U.S. military commands (Northcom and SouthCom) have bothered to offer an explanation for the transition in terminology.

The term TCO is now used interchangeably with DTO, although TCO seems to be in ascendance in official pronouncements and strategy statements. The usage of “transnational threats, “when referring to drug flows through Mexico, is now commonly included in assessments of border security, national security, and homeland security.

It may be, as drug war analyst Longmire indicates, that the introduction of the terms “TCOs” and “transnational threats” stems from careful study and strategic reflection by Washington’s array of drug warriors.

However, there isn’t much of a paper trail to demonstrate this decision to shift nomenclature, or to explain this recent elevation in threat assessment. What is more, none of the civilian agencies or military commands spouting this terminology apparently believes there is any need to explain to Congress or the public just why they have switched drug war terminology.

When asked about the provenance of these terms and their incorporation into such new Border Patrol-led programs like the Arizona-based Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats, DHS officials say that they are “field-sourced” -- meaning that Border Patrol agents on the line initiated the new transnational nomenclature and DHS simply followed their lead.

DHS can’t point to any department-level explanation for the switch.  

It could very well be that that there the switch that Longmire refers to was simply the product of a perceived need to attract attention and support with some new drug war language.

It is also quite possible that the emergence of the new threat terminology is nothing more than a national security version of games Follow the Leader or Simon Says.

One agency or military command merely follows the lead of another, copying their rhetoric and strategic formulations, and so on across the entire national security/homeland security/drug war apparatus.

Along the border, DHS now routinely characterizes all illegal drug and illegal immigrant crossings as “transnational crime” – noting that drug mules and immigrants are commonly part of business enterprises that involve fees, even if only involving small criminal bands that pay the security forces and larger criminal organizations for the right to work the border.  

Straight Talk Absent in Obama Administration

Tens of thousands of Mexicans are being killed and the many millions of Mexican people live in fear. The Obama administration asserts that U.S. national security is acutely threatened by illegal drugs that cross the border and by the organizations that traffic them.

Given this horrific violence, one might expect that more care be given to describe and define the identity of the TCO enemy we are fighting on both sides of the border. 

Straight talking that transcends drug war moralizing and boasts about drug seizures is desperately needed but is to be found nowhere in Obama administration pronouncements about border security and regional counternarcotics strategy.

It may be that one term – whether it be DTO, TCO, cartel, or organized crime – doesn’t adequately describe the constellation of actors in the drug trade.

The reckless use of such terms as “transnational threats” and TCOs to describe national security risks serves to feed the flames of politically motivated fear-mongering about immigration, drugs, and the border.  It also serves to bolster the notion that the drug trade is essentially a national security not a public safety issue, more war than crime.

The lack of definition and nuance also turns these concepts into analytical mush, as when those involved in counterfeit DVDs and CDs are labeled transnational criminals. 

(And why, by the way, as the Homeland Security Today article implies, is the “American media” the only sector adversely affected by this intellectual property theft. Or is it that, true to their nationalist and anti-imperialist convictions, these transnational criminals refrain from pirating Mexican music and films, or European or Latin American media products?)

In response to a New York Times op-ed by drug war consultant Longmire who argued that legalizing marijuana won’t “kill the cartels,” a close observer of the drug trade, Al Giordano of Narco News, argued that the drug market differs radically from normal criminal activity because of the extraordinary high level of profits and the organization needed to manage the production and trade.


What’s happening in Mexico and elsewhere is that cartel drug profits are underwriting conventional types of criminal activity.  Were it not for drugs revenue, conventional criminal activity by cartels would have to support itself, and that would make things far too difficult to sustain a large operation.

Drug War Addiction

In Mexico and Central America, the violence and frightening reach of the drug trafficking organizations -- along with spread of extortion, kidnappings, and other crime not directly related to the DTOS -- raise pressing policy questions about the character of the crisis and most appropriate response.

By referring to illegal drug trafficking as an “acute threat to the security of the United States” as it did in the new Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy and through its careless (and undefined) warning about TCOs and transnational threats at home, the Obama administration seems intent on conflating the drug wars in Mexico and Central America with a reinvigorated drug war at home.

Alarmism and fear-mongering have proved effective tools of political mobilization by conservatives, immigration restrictionists, and border security hawks across the nation, and especially in the border states of Arizona and Texas.

To a large extent, the transnational threats and TCOs that President Obama, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, and the U.S. military are warning us about are creations of Washington’s inability to break its addiction to drug-prohibition righteousness and $26 billion in annual injections of counternarcotics spending.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Border Wars -- The Book

(Here's the promotion for Border Wars, which will be released in September 2011.)

Border Wars
Tom Barry
MIT Press, September 16, 2011
192 pages
(Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Border-Wars-Boston-Review-Books/dp/0262016672 )

Post-9/11 security anxiety. A renewed war on drugs. Inaction on immigration. Economic collapse. All of it makes for a combustible brew, and the fire is burning hottest on the Southwestern border.

The Tea Party and its allies celebrate the rogue states of the Southwest as a model for the nation in their go-it-alone posturing and tough immigration enforcement talk. In Border Wars, dogged investigative journalist Tom Barry documents the costs of that model: lives lost; families torn apart; billions of wasted tax dollars; vigilantes prowling the desert; and fiscal crises in cities, counties, and states. Even worse, he warns, the entire nation risks following their lead.

As Barry explains, the lack of coherent federal policy on immigration and
drug war conduct and the uncritical embrace of all things in the name of national
security has opened doors for opportunists from boardrooms to governor’s offices
in Texas and Arizona.

Corporate-prison magnates eagerly swallow up undocumented immigrants into taxpayer-funded dungeons, border sheriffs and politicians trade on voters’ fears of Latinos and “big government,” and pro-business policy institutes and lobbyists battle the public interest.

Border Wars offers a stark portrait of the domestic cost of failed federal leadership in the post-9/11 era.

Tom Barry, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for International Policy, is author of many
books, including The Great Divide and Zapata’s Revenge. His article “A Death in Texas”
was a finalist for a 2010 National Magazine Award for reporting in the public interest.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Alarming New Border Counternarcotics Strategy



The Obama administration is bringing the drug war home by making the southwest border the frontline of the government’s international counternarcotics operations. 

Over the past two years, the administration has escalated its own assessments about security and public safety threats along the border. These threat assessments mirror those made by many border politicians and sheriffs, mainly Republicans, who charge that the administration is not doing enough to “secure the border.” At the same time, however, the administration insists that the border is “more secure than ever” – an assessment that outrages border security hawks.

On the occasion of the new National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy in the Arizona border town of Nogales, administration officials were once again caught in this border security paradox of their own making. Escalated threat assessments came side by side with assurances that the border was secure.

In a show of its commitment to border security, the administration brought together the top officials of the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Border Patrol, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which produced the new border counternarcotics strategy.

Alarming Threat Assessments and “Unprecedented” Response

In the press release announcing the new strategy, Attorney General Eric Holder offered an alarming view of border security, cartel penetration, and spillover violence. “Drug trafficking cartels spread violence and lawlessness throughout our border region and reach into all of our communities, large and small,” said Holder.  

Speaking in Nogales, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also painted a frightening picture of security threats at the border – not only from the drug cartels but also from their “links to terrorism.” 

“Disrupting the flow of illegal drugs across our borders is critical to our nation’s safety and security,” said Napolitano, adding that through this new strategy the administration will “interdict drug traffickers and disrupt their links to terrorism and organized crime.”

Joining Napolitano were other senior administration officials, including Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Alan Bersin, commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and DHS Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement Director Grayling Williams.

The White House echoed the heightened threat assessments of the federal agencies, commending ONDCP’s new counternarcotics strategy for the border, saying that “drug trafficking across the Southwest border remains an acute threat to the security of the United States.”

Officials claim that the border counternarcotics strategy is a key component of administration’s “unprecedented efforts to enhance security along the Southwest border.”

A common theme running the counterdrug strategy is the federal government’s commitment to collaboration with the Mexican government and with local and state law enforcement. They boast that both the binational and federal/local counternarcotics cooperation initiatives outlined in the strategy statement are “unprecedented.”

Also without precedent, say administration officials, is the administration’s deployment of personnel and resources to the border under the Southwest Border Initiative, which was announced by DHS in March 2009.  The DHS press release states that the administration “has deployed unprecedented amount of personnel, technology, and resources along the Southwest border.”

The Obama administration has adopted the terms “transnational criminal organizations” (TCOs) and “transnational threats” when describing the national security implications of crossborder drug flows. The ONDCP introduces its new border strategy with an August 13, 2010 statement by President Obama: 

[M]y administration has dedicated unprecedented resources and personnel to combating the transnational criminal organizations that traffic in drugs, weapons, and money, and smuggle people across the border with Mexico.

While discarding the term “drug war” used by previous administrations dating back to the Nixon White House, the administration’s routine labeling of most illegal border crossings as transnational threats and the TCOs underscores its apparent conviction that illegal drugs and other illegal traffic from Mexico do indeed constitute an “acute threat” to U.S. national security.

But it doesn’t explain how exactly our national security is threatened.

In keeping with this threat assessment of illegal border crossings, DHS in September 2009 created a new multiagency counternarcotics initiative called the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats. The new border strategy points to ACTT as an example of the seriousness of its border security commitment in Arizona, where the first multiagency alliance directed by the Border Patrol is based.

Increased Military Participation in Border Security
Another salient feature of the 2011 strategy is the increased tapping of the Defense Department for border security. DOD serves as a partner in DHS, DOJ, and ONDCP border counternarcotics operations to meet most the strategic goals. One indication of the increased role of the DOD in border security is the strategy statement’s mentioning of DOD 74 times in the document.

Most of the military’s involvement in border security comes from the U.S. Northern Command, which among other things provides training and support to the DHS multiagency drug taskforces BEST and ACTT. According to ONDCP:

The U.S. Northern Command, its subordinate organization Joint Task Force-North (JTF North), and the National Guard provide the primary vehicles through which DOD supports law enforcement counternarcotics efforts within the United States and in cooperation with the Government of Mexico.

DHS and DOD have previously shared the expense of National Guard deployment.  But following congressional rejection of presidential request for increased DHS funding, the administration switched the entire National Guard border security costs to the Pentagon.

(Next: Counternarcotics Strategy's Bow to Border Security Hawks)

Border Counternarcotics Strategy's Bow to Border Security Hawks


Leaders of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition/Barry
The new border counternarcotics strategy of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy reaches out to border security hawks with special funding initiatives.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the new strategy “highlights the Obama administration’s support for promoting strong border communities by expanding access to drug treatment and supporting programs that break the cycle of drug use, violence, and crime.” 
ONDCP says that the border region “has borne the brunt of the consequences of the drug trade.”
For the first time, the strategy includes as one of its ten strategic goals its aim to build “Strong Communities” along the southwestern border.  The strategy’s “Strong Communities” goal is to “develop strong and resilient communities that resist criminal activity and promote healthy lifestyles.” This goal directly mirrors one of the four strategic goals of the Merida Initiative, namely “building strong and resilient communities.”
The implication of this strategic goal is that illegal drug flows across the southwestern border disproportionately impact border communities in the rates of drug consumption, drug-related crime and violence, and overall public safety.
Reading about this new “Strong Communities” initiative, one might conclude that border communities are weaker, more crime-ridden, more violent, and more drug-infested than nonborder communities.
Yet neither DHS nor ONDCP present any facts that would support this assessment.
The facts that are readily available from the FBI demonstrate that, at least with respect to crime levels, the immediate border communities and the wider southwestern border region have crime rates that among the lowest in the nation. What is more, these border crime rates have been steadily falling, more or less paralleling the national decline -- even as the percentage of drugs entering from Mexico has increased, and even as drug-related violence in Mexico since 2006 has soared.
The ONDCP border strategy ignores what is perhaps the central fact of crossborder drug flows, namelythat these drugs are not destined for borderland consumption but rather go directly to major distribution centers in the country’s interior, mostly major U.S. cities. That is not to say, of course, that drug consumption and trafficking aren’t problems in the border region a drug problem. But clearly these problems aren’t more serious public safety problems on the border than they are in the country’s interior – and if, measured by crime rates, may regarded as less severe problems on the border.
Breaking the Rules on the Border
The border security buildup has stimulated a minor economic boom along the southwestern border. As alarm about the security of the border has intensified -- paralleling the spreading drug-related violence in Mexico -- politicians and law enforcement officials of border states have seized the limelight to demand more federal dollars for border security.
Yet there is little evidence of spillover violence and no evidence of rising crime rates. Nonetheless, the Obama administration has followed the path charted by its predecessor and increased federal/local collaboration in counternarcotics and immigration enforcement in the border region – in the name of both national security and public safety.
Even the line separating federal and local immigration enforcement becomes ever less distinct with the rise of state immigration-enforcement initiatives and the expansion of collaborative programs such as Secure Communities, the Obama administration is pursuing increased federal-local collaboration in border security programs.
The 2011 strategy takes two further steps to placate the funding demands of border communities. As part of its Strong Communities strategic thrust, ONDCP, which coordinates all federal counterdrug programs, calls for DHS and DOJ to increase border security funding for border communities and to ease existing restrictions on this funding.
ONDCP calls for increased criminal justice and law enforcement funding to the border, stating:
Federal grant programs currently allocate funds based upon violent crime rates and other criteria that do not fully reflect the threat faced by communities along the Southwest border. Year-to-year grant funding should be expanded as appropriate to allow local agencies to spend funds over a longer period of time to facilitate planning and more effective use of grant dollars.
In other words, ONDCP calls for a border security exception to DOJ’s assistance programs to permit disproportionate funding to border communities -- whose low crime levels don’t reflect the high often politically generated levels of alarm about border security and public safety.
In another bow to border politicians and law enforcement officials, mainly border sheriffs, ONDCP calls for changes in border security funding programs such as Operation Stonegarden to permit federal dollars to be used for new hires, not just for overtime and equipment as current regulations stipulate. If DHS and DOJ enact this change, it will make recipient law-enforcement agencies structurally dependent on border security programs – a condition that both departments have consistently said they intended to avoid.
 Next: Intelligence Proliferation in Counternarcotics

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Arizona Alliance's Dubious Achievements in Combating "Transnational Threats"

Border fence along ACTT's Arizona-Sonora corridor/Barry

(This is the second of three articles on the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats – ACTT.)

ACTT is described as “a multi-agency operation in the Sonora-Arizona Corridor (what it calls FA-1) involving over 50 federal, tribal, state, and local law enforcement and public safety organizations.” Its aim is to “deny, degrade, disrupt, and ultimately dismantle criminal organizations and their ability to operate; engage communities to reduce their tolerance of illegal activity.”

In addition to local agencies such as Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, DHS says that ACTT involves the collaboration of the Mexican government to “combat individuals and criminal organizations that pose a threat to communities on both sides of the border.” DHS also asserts that the multiagency operations launched by ACTT are ‘intelligence driven.”

What TCOs and transnational threats has ACTT combated? Which ones have been degraded or dismantled in the last two years?

It’s difficult to evaluate the achievements of ACTT or other similar DHS operations with similar objectives, such as the much-heralded Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BEST), because DHS sets no performance standards and doesn’t provide any specific definitions of either transnational threats or TCOs.

Instead, DHS offers, in the form of occasional press releases, only same measures of progress that typified pre-9/11 border control operations, namely quantities of illegal drugs seized, number of unauthorized immigrants apprehended, and selected reports of individual arrests.

DHS can’t point to any of its “intelligence-driven” operations in Arizona that have led to any arrests of members of the main drug cartels in Mexico.

In a visit to the border in February 2011, Alan Bersin, director of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), boasted of the increased border security resulting from ACTT operations:

ACTT is one of the many examples of the ways in which DHS is working side-by-side with the law enforcement agencies that have a stake in strengthening border security and improving the quality of life of affected communities. This alliance is significantly strengthening border security enforcement across federal, state, tribal and local jurisdictions, and will continue to do so for years to come.
Just how did border security improve as a result of this new operation to combat transnational threats?

Bersin pointed to these specific achievements since the inception of ACTT.

·        The seizure of more than 1.6 million lbs. of marijuana, 3,800 lbs. of cocaine, and 1,000 lbs. of methamphetamine;
·        The seizure of more than $13 million in undeclared U.S. currency and 268 weapons;
·        Nearly 14,000 aliens denied entry to the U.S. at Arizona ports of entry due to criminal background or other disqualifying factors; and
·        Approximately 270,000 apprehensions between ports of entry;

Yet these figures were not specific to ACTT operations but were CBP totals.

DHS does have extremely detailed reports from its ACTT initiative, but these weekly activity reports are not available to the public. However, a recent hacker attack on the email system of the Arizona Department of Public Safety did produce one of these “law enforcement sensitive” weekly reports, which was attached to a departmental email message. The LulzSec hackers said that targeted “AZDPS specifically because we are against SB1070 and the racial profiling anti-immigrant police state that is Arizona.” 

The October 2-9, 2010 ACTT report for the Arizona-Sonora corridor (the only corridor then covered by the ACTT multiagency initiative) did underscore that ACTT figures of arrests and seizures are compilations from participating federal and local agencies, rather than being the direct result of this initiative.

One section of the report includes a recounting of the “enforcement operations conducted in an effort to disrupt, degrade, and dismantle criminal organizations.”

That week the Border Patrol reported that “agents seized a total of 8,461 pounds of marijuana in 38 incidents.”

At the ports of entry, CBP officers reported the following two incidents categorized as “Degrade, Disrupt, and Dismantle Operations":

·        “CBP Officers selected three male subjects who were traveling together wearing new clothing and shoes for an outbound exam. During the exam it was discovered that all three were Mexican nationals present in the U.S. without admission. All three subjects stated they were returning to Mexico and declared $100 all together. Further exam revealed $433 combined between all three subjects. During the interview they admitted the currency was payment for transporting an unknown amount of marijuana into the United States from Mexico through the desert near Nogales, AZ. All three were processed for removals and returned to Mexico.”

·        “CBP Officers noticed a female traveler walking south in a hurried manner, clutching her purse tightly and avoiding eye contact; and selected her for an outbound exam. The traveler was identified as a Mexican national. A search of her purse revealed an envelope with currency and a second package of currency in her wallet. A personal search of the subject led to the discovery of 4 more packages strapped to hers arms and lower back. CBP seized a total of $15,126 for violation of bulk cash smuggling.”

Under “Impact and Consequences of Actions,” the Border Patrol reported (for the week):

·        “Of the 1,077 aliens arrested in FA-1, 1,009 (94%) were removed through a process other than local voluntary return.
·        “Of the aliens who have been sent out of Tucson Sector via the ATEP [Alien Transfer and Exit Program, which deports illegal immigrants through distant border crossings to discourage reentry] program in FY11, 4.9% have been re-apprehended. Of that 4.9%, 75% have been re-apprehended in Arizona.
·        “Overall, Tucson Sector Border Patrol has decreased 49% in apprehensions, and is up 41% in marijuana seizures by weight compared to last fiscal year.”

The ACTT weekly report makes no mention of cartel members, TCOs, or transnational threats. It does note that ICE agents “identified zero illegal aliens documented as gang members,” and that ICE agents arrests are “conduct[ing] threat assessments at targeted residences and locations in Tucson and Phoenix” and also “continue to focus on identification, disruption, and dismantling of major human and drug smuggling organizations.”

But there was nothing to indicate that it had made any progress on degrading transnational threats or dismantling TCOs that DHS says are endangering U.S. national security.

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