Friday, April 29, 2011

The Numbers Game on the Border

Border fence near Ft. Hancock, Texas/Photo by Tom Barry

The Border Patrol is losing a game of its own making.

For decades the Border Patrol has brandished arrest and drug seizure statistics to demonstrate its success in controlling the border – and to show Congress that more funds are needed next year. Numbers substituted for strategy and policy.

Year after year, decade after decade, border progress has been measured by the number of illegal aliens apprehended, the number deported and the millions of pounds of illegal drugs seized. When the numbers surge higher, this is cited as clear evidence of success. When numbers are lower, the Border Patrol also claims victory, pointing to the decline as evidence of the success of its strategy to prevent illegal entry through deterrence. 

For the Border Patrol, numbers have been key to a win-win scenario of border control.

This heads-you-win, tails-you-win trick of tracking border progress continues today, albeit with variations. Regular reports of the numbers of criminal aliens imprisoned and deported compose part of the litany of Border Patrol and ICE’s great achievements. 

The rising number of immigrants labeled as criminal aliens and the number of imprisoned immigrants slated for removal are offered as data to support the DHS’ contention of its progress toward protecting the border from potential terrorists and criminals.

But these boastful reports are never accompanied with explanations of how many of these criminal aliens and immigrant inmates have achieved their new status as a result of DHS policies and operations that criminalize immigrants for illegal entry and other immigration violations.  Nor do the DHS border and immigration agencies bother to explain that many of the newly categorized criminal aliens are being deported for personal drug violations—yet another way the government has found to criminalize immigration and enforce immigration consequences (removal) for even misdemeanor offenses.

As Peter Andreas observes in Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict, the ambiguity of ICE and Border Patrol’s body count and drug seizure numbers “provides a mechanism to manipulate and distort the evaluation process, obscure and gloss over failure, and rationalize more funding and a continued escalation of drug enforcement.”

Lately, though, the Border Patrol – along with the Department of Homeland Security – is finding that its numbers just don’t add up for many anti-immigration activists and border hawks. That was the case last week when Arizona border sheriffs Larry Dever and Paul Babeu – from Cochise and Pinal Counties charged that the Border Patrol was cooking the books to support DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s contention that the border is more secure than ever.

“There is a perception that the border is worse now than it ever has been," said Napolitano when recently in El Paso. "That is wrong. The border is better now than it ever has been."

Border sheriff Larry Dever takes strong exception to that positive assessment, telling Fox News: “Janet Napolitano says the border is more secure than it’s ever been. I’ve been here for 60 years, and I’m telling you that’s not true.”

Along with his colleague Paul Babeu (who cofounded with Dever), Sheriff  Dever has mounted a two-pronged assault on the border numbers game.

One line of assault is his calling Border Patrol apprehension statistics into question, charging that the Border Patrol is chasing illegal border crossers back into Mexico rather than arresting them. Border Patrol and DHS officials point to a dramatic drop in arrests as an indicator of increased border security.

A more penetrating critique concerns the very concept of border security.

The Border Patrol’s numbers game with apprehension statistics has long sidelined the more pertinent number: How many illegal border crossers successful evade border control operations? But since successful illegal crossings can’t be easily counted, the Border Patrol understandably relies on apprehensions to measure immigration pressure on the border.

This unknown gap between arrests and successful illegal crossings was generally accepted when border control was solely about immigrants and contraband. But since the post-9/11 elevation of border control to border security this partial control is harder to justify.

Under the new security framework of border operations, the Border Patrol says it is protecting the nation against “dangerous people and goods.” By classifying all illegal border crossers and all illegal goods as “dangerous,” as the Border Patrol does, the agency opens itself up to criticism from border hawks like Dever who contend that all illegal crossings threaten the nation’s security.  In other words, there can be no half-measures or compromises when it comes to national security.

“We do not know who’s crossing that border, but that anyone who wants to can. That’s the message our nation needs to hear, that anyone who wants to can, and is. And our own Department of Homeland Security does not have clear definition of what securing the border even means," Dever told Fox.

“I’ll tell Napolitano, in spite of all of your declarations and efforts to the contrary, things are not safe. No, they are not secure,” said Dever. “You can use your numbers to say it’s more secure, but it does not define a sense of safety or well-being. You can say it’s more secure, but it’s more dangerous than ever.”

Neither Dever nor his Babeu can produce the numbers to support their alarmism about the security and safety of the border. Indeed, the crime levels along the border have been dropping and are much lower than the national average, and there are no numbers to support their fear-mongering about terrorists crossing the border.

But DHS and the Border Patrol are still vulnerable to the critiques of the border hawks. By sticking with the ill-considered security framework for border operations, they have raised unrealistic expectations that the southwestern border should be truly secured – meaning sealed against all illegal traffic.

Despite the new border security framing, they have persisted in measuring the success of border control with numbers they are unrelated to national or homeland security, namely the number of immigrant arrests and number of kilos of marijuana seized.

It’s time that Border Patrol and DHS elevate the debate about the border by stating clearly that its metrics of arrests and seizures are products of policies out of its control, namely drug prohibition and immigration pressures. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Criminal Aliens from "Geopolitical Perspective"

At a time when an immigration reform that would legalize the status of the 10-million plus population of unauthorized immigrants seems like a distant prospect at best, there are virtually no immigration reformers arguing against the removal of criminal aliens. Instead, there is broad consensus – liberals and conservatives, restrictionists and pro-immigration reformers – that criminal aliens should be removed from the country.

Among liberal immigration reformers, there is common ground in the position that illegal immigrants should “get right with the law” – registering, paying fines and taxes, and learning English – and only if they don’t have a criminal record become eligible for legal status. Conservative Democrats like U.S. Rep. David Price (NC) often couch their support for immigration reform on having Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rid the nation of all criminal aliens.

Which seems reasonable – at first. Why, after all, should our country tolerate immigrants who don’t obey our laws when so many others are desperate to stay or come here?

One problem is ICE’s Criminal Alien Program, along with associated programs like Secure Communities, often net more noncriminal immigrants in their sweeps and background checks than the targeted criminal aliens. Another problem with accepting the premise that criminal aliens have not place in our country is that ICE’s definition is so broad – including all legal and immigrants convicted of a crime. This categorization extends to immigrants convicted of illegal entry or re-entry as part of an especially aggressive ICE program called Operation Streamline.

ICE reports that it is deporting an increasing number of criminal aliens every year. But many of those categorized as criminal aliens are not what most Americans would label criminals, including the tens of thousands who have been convicted of drug possession.

Support for programs and reform proposals that target criminal aliens is a slippery slope.
But what about the violent and otherwise dangerous immigrants that the Department of Homeland Security says it targets? Who could dispute that our security and our safety aren’t served by an immigrant crackdown that removes these unsavory immigrants from our midst?

While far outside accepted debate over immigration reform, a strong case can be made that we should keep our “criminal aliens” at home. Back in 1998, when criminal alien targeting had just started as the result of new anti-immigrant legislation in 1996, the Inter-American Dialogue looked at the deportation of criminal aliens from a “geopolitical perspective.”

As the drive to remove criminal aliens deepens and as we consider the criminality raging across our border in Mexico and Central America, it is refreshing to consider the findings of this provocative report. Written by Margaret H. Taylor and T. Alexander Aleinikoff, the paper, titled “The Deportation of Criminal Aliens: A Geopolitical Perspective” deserves our attention.

Although rare, there have been journalistic treatments of the boomerang effect and the transborder consequences of criminal alien deportations, but scholarly treatments such as this are especially valuable. As the authors observed:

Countries in the Western Hemisphere report a number of problems stemming from the increase in criminal alien deportations. Many deportees return as strangers to their country of origin. A lack of advance notice and the absence of any programs to monitor recently-returned offenders impedes receiving countries from assisting with their reintegration. The result, according to many foreign diplomats, is a high rate of recidivism that contributes to sharply rising crime rates. These problems implicate U.S. interests and raise concerns for the international community.

“Out of sight, out of mind" perhaps best describes the traditional U.S. response to these problems. If the presence of foreign-born offenders within the United States poses a threat, then removing them from our streets is the obvious “solution”— or at least the prevailing political rhetoric frames the issue this way. But there are
several reasons why U.S. policy makers should be concerned about foreign—born offenders even after they are deported from the United States.

As the spread of U.S. gangs to El Salvador demonstrates, the deportation of criminal offenders helps to create and reinforce international criminal syndicates. Many drug traffickers also continue their trade once they are deported, and the effectiveness is only enhanced by their ties to the U.S. In addition, an influx of deportees with criminal records exacerbates an already volatile situation along the U.S.-Mexico border, where criminals routinely prey on a vulnerable population. Cross-border criminal networks are common, and an increase in crime plagues residents of Mexico and the United States.
 Recent journalism that documents many of the consequences of U.S. deportation practices lacking a “geopolitical perspective” includes:
Norberto Santana, Jr, “Criminal deportations fuel border crime wave,” Orange County Register, Dec. 18, 2007 at:
Tijuana's Minister of Public Security Luis Javier Algorry said crime in Tijuana keeps rising and getting more violent. He said many of the petty criminals tell the local beat cops they were deported from U.S. jails.
"You've left them too close to the temptation," Algorry said. "If you leave them in Tijuana, they're only going to seek quick money to get back across."
"They're mostly good, honest people who were going to seek the American dream," Tijuana’s Mayor Honald said.
But once they're dropped off in a strange city with no money or place to stay, many turn to crime.
"It's turning good people into bad ones," Algorry said.
Robert Lopez, Rich Connell, and Chris Kraul, “Gang uses deportation to its advantage to flourish in the United States,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 30, 2005 at:,1,4477244,full.story

A deportation policy aimed in part at breaking up a Los Angeles street gang has backfired and helped spread it across Central America and back into other parts of the United States. Newly organized cells in El Salvador have returned to establish strongholds in metropolitan Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities. Prisons in El Salvador have become nerve centers, authorities say, where deported leaders from Los Angeles communicate with gang cliques across the United States.
Matthew Quirk, “How to Grow a Gang,” Atlantic, May 2008, at:

The United States has been down this road before; the mid-1990s saw a similar wave of criminal deportations. That one helped turn a small gang from Los Angeles, Mara Salvatrucha (better known as MS-13), into an international menace and what Customs and Border Protection now calls America’s “most dangerous gang.” It’s not clear that this one will turn out much better.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Border Patrols Returns to "Turn Back South" Controversy

Arizona Sheriffs Dever and Babeu/AP

Pity the poor Border Patrol. 

Whether apprehensions and seizures are up or down, the Border Patrol has under fire from border security hawks for not doing enough.

That’s long been the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Border Patrol came under frequent attack for not doing enough to stop what immigration restrictionists and many conservatives routinely called the “illegal invasion.”

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks set off a steady buildup in personnel and infrastructure along the border. Yet the complaints that federal government isn’t doing enough to control the border have not diminished. Instead, the criticism that the Border Patrol isn’t holding the line has escalated.

Last week Ron Vitiello, deputy chief of the Border Patrol, got a taste of that criticism on live TV when the hosts of Fox & Friends grilled him about the charges of two Arizona sheriffs that the Border Patrol was keeping apprehension statistics down to bolster claims that the Arizona border is more secure.

Immediately following the hostile interview was a fawning interview with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who along with Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever are charging that the Border Patrol in Arizona is under orders to keep arrest numbers down.

The sheriffs contend that instead of arresting illegal border crossers, the Border Patrol is chasing them back into Mexico through an official operation called “Turn Back South” or “TBS.” Dever and Babeu have become media celebrities – particularly with right-wing media outlets like Fox News – because of their hard-line positions on border security and their associated criticism of the Obama administration. They are the founders of, an organization that strongly supports Arizona’s immigration enforcement law SB 1070.

The Fox hosts regarded -- with open skepticism -- statements by Deputy Chief Vitiello (who skirted the TBS issue) that the Border Patrol sought to “to catch all who come across.” But what about the declining arrest numbers, they asked, directly challenging his integrity.

Fox News commonly features Dever and Babeu, both Republicans, in their segments on the border and immigration, uncritically reporting their views.

Two days before the Vitiello and Babeu interviews about the TBS charges, Fox News reporter Jana Winter followed up an April 1 interview of Dever with another story on the statistics manipulation charge in which his assertions were backed up by the National Border Patrol Council and by other current and retired agents.

Resurrecting An Old Canard

This isn’t the first time that the Border Patrol has been charged with fixing its numbers.

In the mid-1990s, when the epicenter of right-wing border activism was in southern California not in southern Arizona as it is today, the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector came under criticism for falsifying its stats.

Today, the purported conspiracy involves lowering apprehension numbers to bolster DHS claims that the border is more secure than ever before. In 1994 the Border Patrol was charged with put the fix in so as to exaggerate the success of Operation Gatekeeper. Along with Operation Hold the Line, which was launched in 1994 by El Paso Sector Chief Silvestre Reyes, Operation Gatekeeper  was a type of pilot project for the agency’s new “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy.

Rather than simply waiting for illegal border crossers, the strategy put new emphasis on deterring immigrants at the border through new infrastructure (such as fencing and stadium lighting) and increased Border Patrol presence on the immediate border. “Turn Back South” patrolling was part of this new deterrence strategy.

Investigating the charges that TBS patrolling served as a cover for underreporting of arrests by the Border Patrol, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General “found no evidence of any conspiracy by the Border Patrol to fraudulently reduce apprehension statistics.”

The charges of fraudulent numbers came initially from the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, and were loudly echoed by California’s border hawks and anti-immigration activists.

 In statements to the media in 1996, two union officials charged that Border Patrol supervisors falsified records, altered intelligence reports, and conducted operations so as to mislead the public about the program's effectiveness.

The previous year Operation Hold the Line had great success in obstructing illegal crossings through El Paso.  As the OIG noted:

[The] deterrence-based border control strategy in Texas, increased pressure on Operation Gatekeeper to show similar results. Indeed, during Congressional hearings on Operation Gatekeeper in March 1995, the panel extracted a promise from Commissioner Meissner that apprehensions in San Diego would fall 70 percent in the next year.

Union officials alleged that Border Patrol management was hard put to fulfill that promise and instead chose to falsify apprehension figures to make them substantially lower. Besides fraudulently altering the apprehension statistics to show fewer arrests, the union officials contended that agents were instructed to chase illegal border crossers back across the border rather than arrest them.

The OIG interviewed 307 persons regarding apprehension statistics and the possibility that they were falsified, 78 of whom actually prepared reports containing apprehension statistics. In addition, the OIG said that it also reviewed thousands of Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and DOJ reports containing apprehension statistics. It concluded:

Significantly, no witness interviewed by the OIG claimed to have first-hand knowledge that any apprehension statistic during Gatekeeper had been fabricated or claimed to have seen a document containing an altered apprehension statistic. Extensive reviews of intelligence reports at all levels of the Border Patrol and INS, likewise, uncovered no supporting evidence.

In its report, the OIG also addressed Turn Back South” or “TBS.”

This practice was sometimes employed by agents, the OIG reported, was made by individual agents – rather than being a standard agency operating strategy -- and was based on the agent's judgment as to whether apprehension was a reasonable and safe alternative.

Border Patrol agents told the OIG that they did not physically force illegal border crossers back over the new border fence. Rather they were sometimes maneuvered into a position where they had to choose between apprehension and retreat. According to the OIG report, “The evidence showed that turning aliens back south is a legitimate tactic that was in use long before Gatekeeper as a means to contain large groups of aliens and to protect agents from injury.”

But why would officials of the National Border Patrol Council attempt to impugn Border Patrol officials?

The OIG offered a credible explanation, pointing to the increasing tension between many of the agents and the agency leadership as it began to implement new deterrence strategy. Instead of trying to catch and then remove as many illegal immigrants as it could, as had been the traditional agency practice in the immediate border region, the Border Patrol sought to deter them crossing in the first place though increased on-the-line presence and infrastructure.

According to OIG, the field agents balked at implementing the new deterrence strategy because it Operation Gatekeeper represented a “sea change” in their job assignments:

Rather than being free to patrol the station's entire area of responsibility searching for illegal aliens to apprehend, agents were instructed to remain in fixed positions to deter entry. Instead of being praised for apprehending numerous aliens, agents were told that deterrence and lower apprehension numbers were Gatekeeper's objectives.

Under the old system apprehension figures provided a ready measure of an agent's skill and work ethic; under Gatekeeper, the abstract concept of deterrence governed.

Many agents disliked these new methods and believed Gatekeeper was merely a political ploy rather than a legitimate strategy. Some agents believed that political pressure from Washington, D.C. (variously defined as the President, the Attorney General, the INS Commissioner, or Congress) forced supervisors to reduce the number of apprehensions, even if to do so required fraud. Some agents became suspicious of their supervisors' motives and began talking about their suspicions; rumors of alleged falsifications began to spread.

Poor Deputy Chief Vitiello. He can boast that apprehensions are down 44% over last year in the Tucson sector, but border hawks see this as evidence of fraud not that the border is more secure than ever, as DHS insists.

He sticks to DHS talking points about border security, while not daring to mentions that agents are indeed authorized to force illegal immigrants back across the border for fear of adding fuel to the firestorm ignited by Dever and Babeu.

Unable to acknowledge that TBS tactics are employed as part of the Border Patrol’s deterrence strategy, the Border Patrol chief comes across as dissembling, while Dever and Babeu are the straight-shooters.

It is another illustration of how the Border Patrol is caught short by its own numbers game.

The Border Patrol has long played a numbers game, regularly trotting out arrest and seizures numbers to show it is doing its job – and to justify rising budgets. The numbers are impressive: hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrested, even a million plus in some years, and seized marijuana measured in tons.

Yet the Border Patrol often finds it losing a game for which it has set the rules and tallies the score.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cong. Reyes and the Drone Lobby

(In an interview published by El Paso Inc, an El Paso magazine, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes indicated that he favored the deployment of drones in the U.S.-supported drug war launched in December 2006 by President Felipe Calderón. The following post follows up a Border Lines post on this yesterday.)

U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) is a major recipient of campaign contributions from industries that manufacture and service Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones.

Except for the caucus co-chairman Buck McKeon (R-Cal.), no other caucus member has received more campaign contributions from associated industries. In the 2010 election cycle, Reyes received $100,000 in contributions from the UAV industry, while McKeon received $103,000.

 In the 2010 election cycle alone, UAV-related political-action committees donated more than $1.7 million to the caucus’ 42 members, according to an investigative report (Feb. 17, 2011) by the War Is Business website.

Leading contributors to Reyes’ 2010 campaign included General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, Boeing, Allion Science & Technology, L-3 Communications, and Raytheon.

All are these industries are members of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (UAVSI).

UAVSI has worked closely with the UAV Caucus and its founder Cong. McKeon. The UAVSI “Advocacy” page provides an overview of all the ways its members can maximize that relationship;In addition to whatever legislation and appropriations, caucus support has manifested in the opportunity to give committee testimony, visits from Congressmen, keynote speeches, meetings with legislators on “AUVSI DAY,” roundtables, and facility tours -- but perhaps most notably, a tech fair sponsored by McKeon’s office at the Rayburn House, as noted by the War Is Business report.

Other UAV Caucus members  who were leading recipients of industry contributions included Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Maryland), Jerry Lewis (R-Cal.), Duncan Hunter (R-Cal.), and Ken Calvert (R-Cal.).

The mission of the little-known Congressional UAV Caucus is to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of UAVs, actively support further development and acquisition of more capable UAVs, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on UAV use and safety.”
In January 2011 the UAV Caucus changed its name to the Unmanned Systems Caucus.
UAV proponents, including UAV manufacturers and high-tech advocates within DHS, have not been above using the controversy over the border fence created by the Secure Border Fence Act of 2006 to promote UAVs for border security. This was a major theme at the 2008 Global Border Security Conference and Technology Expo in Austin.

Michael Rosenberg of E.J. Krause, the conference organizer, said: "Our goal is to bring together government and industry leaders to consider technology and policy strategies that move beyond the fence. The government's demand for advanced border technology is increasing and we are committed to providing a unique opportunity for government officials in homeland security and law enforcement to see first-hand what solutions are available to them.”

Another conference speaker was Rick Morgan of Aerospace Missions Corporation, the UAV development company surviving on more than $5 million in congressional earmarks by Reyes and other members of Congress in the 2005-2009 period (See Tom Barry, "Reyes the Rainmaker.")

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bring the Drones In: Reyes and Homeland Security

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) is not your prototypical border security hawk. Representing the El Paso area, Reyes doesn’t tap fears of “spillover violence” and illegal immigrants to promote his own agenda for increased border funding.

This stands in welcome contrast to the border security rhetoric of fellow Texas congressman and leading border security hawk Michael McCaul, a Republican who represents the state’s 10th congressional district – the nonborder area between Austin and Houston.

Still, the former Border Patrol chief has been a constant cheerleader for increased border security funding – especially high-tech instruments of border management including remote land and air-based surveillance. Like other border security hawks, notably McCaul (see his opening statement this week at the House’s Homeland Security Oversight Subcommittee), Reyes closely associates border security and the drug war in Mexico.

In an interview published by an El Paso magazine this week, Reyes indicated that he supports the U.S. deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to hunt down cartel leaders in Mexico.

“We have to do what we’ve done essentially in Pakistan, and that is start taking out the heads of the cartels,” said Reyes, whose four-year tenure as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee ended in December. Reyes is also a leading member of the House Armed Services Committee and its Air and Land Forces Subcommittee.

According to the congressman’s website:
“As a member of the Air and Land Forces Subcommittee which has jurisdiction over the modernization of equipment used by our military's ground and aviation troops.  With a focus on the Army and Air Force programs, Congressman Reyes' service as a senior member of the Subcommittee allows him be involved in the decisions which affect the future of our national defense.  Specifically, the Subcommittee is responsible for funding key programs of importance to Fort Bliss, White Sands Missile Range, and Holloman Air Force Base include the Future Combat Systems (FCS), F-22 fighter aircraft, the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and all Army aviation programs.”

Reyes has long boasted of his support for the military-industrial complex’s presence in the El Paso area. In 2009, for example, Reyes stated: “As I serve on the House Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, I have been involved with the development of UAVs and know the importance of the intelligence they provide.” (See Tom Barry, “Reyes the Rainmaker.”)

Like Reyes, McCaul is also in favor of escalating U.S. military involvement in Mexico. At the March 31 hearing on “The U.S. Homeland Security Role in the Mexican War Against Drug Cartels,” subcommittee chair McCaul said that the Zetas’ Feb. 15 attack in Mexico on two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents that killed one and severely wounded the other was “a game changer which alters the landscape if the United States’ involvement in Mexico’s war against the drug cartels.”

 “We should explore a joint military and intelligence operation with Mexico, similar to the 1999 Plan Colombia which has succeeded in undermining that country’s cocaine trade, disrupting its cartels and restoring its economic and national security,” asserted McCaul.

“In addition, I have introduced legislation requiring the State Department to classify drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations as a means to limit the groups’ financial, property and financial interests,” stated McCaul.

Reyes also supports such a change, which would open the way for increased U.S. intervention in Mexico by the U.S. military and DHS.

Reyes’ spokesman Vincent Perez said the congressman had proposed designating Mexico’s drug cartels as terrorist organizations to the administration while he headed the House Intelligence Committee.

“They frequently engage in brutal acts of narcoterrorism to undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law, and to incite fear among the people and law enforcement,” Perez told El Paso Inc. “Such a designation would provide additional tools to help combat drug cartels and the threat they pose to the security of the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America.”

In the El Paso Inc interview, Reyes expressed his admiration for President Felipe Calderón at a time of widespread public protests in Mexico against the president’s drug war.

“[Calderón is] probably the most courageous man I have ever met. He and (Colombian President Alvaro) Uribe,” said Reyes.

(Also see: Tom Barry, Fallacies of High-Tech Fixes for Border Security, CIP International Policy Report, April 2010.)

Sharing Responsibility for Bloody Drug War

Boxed marijuana in West Texas' Hudspeth County
Sheriff's Office/Photo by Tom Barry

Critics of the Mérida Initiative will surely find Shared Responsibility: U.S. Mexico Policy Options for Confronting Organized Crime an infuriating assessment of the drug war.

Published by the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC and the TransBorder Institute in San Diego, the editors of this volume of essays accept the legitimacy and worth of the “four-pillar strategy” of the Mérida Initiative.  

The acceptance of the four-pillar paradigm of binational collaboration contrasts with the wholesale rejection of what the initiative’s left-of-center critics pointedly label Plan Mexico (tacitly referencing the Clinton-supported counternarcotics/counterinsurgency Plan Colombia).

The essays address various aspects of the initiative’s “four pillars of cooperation”, namely: disrupting criminal organizations, strengthening law enforcement institutions, building a “21st century border, and building strong and resilient communities.

The 2007 initiative, while based on a binational framework of cooperation, is based on the U.S. commitment of foreign aid to Mexico – and to a much lesser degree Central America and Caribbean nations – to underwrite collaborative efforts to fight the threat of drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).

After three years of funding and enhanced binational cooperation, the U.S. and Mexican governments are hard put to demonstrate progress on any of these four fronts.

Only on the first front – disrupting the DTOs – can the cooperating governments point to concrete achievements, such as captured drug lords and the increased inter-DTO competition for formerly secure plazas. Yet, even here, the progress is superficial as other DTOs emerge and the capos are replaced by other ambitious narcotraficantes, violence spreads, and drug corridors shift.

The volume’s editors, the Wilson Institute’s Eric Olson and Andrew Selee and the TransBorder Institute’s David Shirk, call warn that “there is no magic bullet that will solve Mexico’s security crisis in the near term.” But, as the volume’s title indicates, the editors and the authors insist that any solution must be a shared one. They conclude that among the priority areas for enhanced collaboration are efforts to disrupt the flow of firearms and to improve binational law enforcement and intelligence sharing.

In their introduction to the collected essays, Olson and Shirk assert that “an intelligence-based law enforcement strategy, which allows the two countries to develop the capacity to identify key leaders and disrupt the flow of narcotics moving north and weapons and money moving south, is urgently needed.”
Olson and Shirk write that such a strategy is “fortunately…already underway.” Unfortunately, though, “significant limitations in capacity and willpower in both countries” limit the progress of the four-pillar strategy, noting that success in implementing the strategy “will take time.”

Consistent with the even-handed, politically measured tone of Shared Responsibility, Olson point to two major deficiencies in the implementation of the four-pillar strategy. On the Mexican side, the “presence and patrol” strategy of the military and police “continues to dominate,” despite their stated intention to move toward a more intelligence-based strategy. On the U.S. side, the initiative suffers from the lack of the “underfunding judicial reform while prioritizing the ‘presence and patrol’ strategy.”

Shared Responsibility is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the security and social implications of narcotrafficking in the region. It underscores the fundamental importance of bringing informed scholars and policy analysts into a public and policy debate dominated by news reporting and political grandstanding.

But the apparent objective of fostering binational cooperation has the effect of preempting more penetrating analysis of fatal flaws of the Mérida Initiative (including its drug prohibition foundation and its role in bolstering the military-led character of President Calderón’s drug war) and of Mexico’s capacity to address corruption and structural failings of its criminal justice system. The volume’s commitment to shared responsibility is also undermined by the feeble concluding essay by Sigrid Arzt.

The scholarly tone (and quality) of Shared Responsibility contributes to a dispassionate analysis of the threat of the DTOs. But this tone contrasts with the scale of the violence and the growing popular rejection of the prevailing policy frameworks (witness, for example, recent protests in Mexico of drug war) that makes Shared Responsibility seem oddly disconnected  not only with the reality of the drug war but also with any strong advocacy for new policy frameworks. 

At the same time, though, the enormity of the governance challenges in Mexico and in Central America (Guatemala and Honduras principally) and the political strength of the drug prohibition obstruct necessary shared solutions.

Mexican Military’s Drug War Not New

In their essay on DTOs and shared counterdrug strategies, Luis Astorga and David Shirk remind us that the Calderón-initiated drug war in 2006 is not the first instance of Mexican military involvement in drug enforcement. Rather the militarization of counternarcotics operations has been a near constant since the 1930s. They write:

“[T]he militarization of Mexico’s anti-drug initiatives is a decades-long phenomenon, a ‘permanent campaign’ that stretches back to the deployment of troops in counter-drug initiatives as early as the 1930s. The militarization of Mexican domestic security has included not only the deployment of military troops in troubled states, but also the appointment of military personnel to head civilian law enforcement agencies and the wholesale recruitment of soldiers to the ranks of law enforcement agencies. By the mid-1990s, more than half of Mexico’s 32 states had military officers assigned to police command positions….”

President Calderón has insisted that the military involvement is temporary – until the federal, state, and local police forces are overhauled and until what is currently regarded as a national security threat diminishes to a level of a public security threat. But, as Astorga and Shirk rightly observe: “Considering how long the military has been involved in the drug war, it is unclear when the military’s mandate for participation in domestic affairs will finally end.”

In the typically understated style of editors and the main contributors, Astorga and Shirk observe: “Generally speaking, efforts to combat transnational crime – particularly with regard to drug trafficking – through tougher security measures have borne less than satisfactory results.”

Astorga and Shirk note that the militarization of domestic public security has brought “mixed results, at best.” The problem, though, in demilitarizing the campaign against the DTOs is that “Mexican officials appear at a loss for any effective alternative strategy.”

The authors advocate moving toward a policy regime that treats drug use as a public health problem,” which, they contend, could “yield significant results.” Only a couple of years ago, it was rare to have a national policy institute lend credence to initiatives to decriminalize illegal drugs.

Partly the result of changing public opinion and partly seeing the scourge of a drug war just across the border, more policy analysts and politicians are lending varying levels of support to calls to end drug prohibition. Astorga and Shirk note that a possible scenario for reducing DTO-related violence is “to move away from the absolute prohibition of drug production, distribution, and consumption toward a policy regime in which the state regulates these activities in some significant way.”

Not Just Mexico

The chapter on the role of DTOs in Central America by Steven Dudley, codirector of the Bogota- and DC-based InSight, is a must-read overview of the reach of organized crime in the region. For anyone tracking the extent and impact of drug trafficking organizations in the reach, InSight is an excellent resource – and a testament to the foresight of the George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

The chapter offers a concise overview of DTOs in Mexico and Colombia before charting the role of the Central American transportistas and the direct involvement of the Mexican DTOs.

Dudley reminds us that: “DTOs are businesses. Their objective is to limit costs and maximize profits. They do this by trying to minimize the number of participants, borders crossed, and authorities they have to bribe.”

According to Dudley, “large swaths” of Guatemala and Honduras have already been lost to the government.  “The region,” he writes,” seems ill prepared to face what is arguably a bigger threat to regional security than the civil wars of the 1990s.” And “much of the industry [in Guatemala] is run by ex-army intelligence and high-ranking officers, including many with longtime ties to organized crime.”

Limitations of Drug Treatment

Peter Reuter, founder of the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center and currently University of Maryland professor, offers a fact-filled, provocation chapter titled: How Can Domestic U.S. Drug Policy Help Mexico?”

Reuter, who doesn’t address the rapidly expanding scourge of drug consumption in Mexico, states that the violence and corruption associated with trafficking in Mexico is largely a consequence of the large U.S. drug market. “If the U.S. market disappeared, Mexico’s problems would diminish dramatically, even with its own domestic consumption remaining.”

But he isn’t optimistic, even in the event of a major U.S. commitment to prevention and treatment. “Few of even the most innovative programs have shown substantial and lasting effect, while almost none of the popular programs have any positive evaluations.”

Typical of the intellectual rigor of chapter, Reuter notes that U.S. demand for drugs from Mexico is likely to decline given that drug use, apart from marijuana, is largely an epidemic phenomenon, explaining that the U.S. has entered a “post-epidemic” phase for most Mexico-sourced drugs. But that may not have an ameliorative impact in Mexico, writes Reuter, observing. “It may be that the current violence itself is in part engendered by the gradual decline in the U.S. market [except for marijuana] and that further declines will, for a while at least, increase the inter-gang disputes over falling revenues.”

Repeating what all but the most benighted of anti-drug advocates readily acknowledge, Reuter writes that the “purely didactic prevention programs and some of the most widely used ones, such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), have no evidence of effectiveness…”  

Although not an advocate of incarceration for drug use, Reuter states that “cutting demand through incarceration has been an unintended though predictable consequence of the massive increase in imprisonment.” Observing that it is highly unlikely that incarceration will increase greatly over the next five years – in part because of budget cuts – Reuter concludes that it is “highly unlikely that more drug users will be imprisoned.”

So what are possible paths toward reducing U.S. drug demand?

He briefly describes Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) project – a coerced abstinence project -- as one of the only methods of treatment that may merit widespread adoption. This involves random drug testing for all those on parole or probation. Rather than a treatment program, it involves adverse consequences for those testing positive, and has resulted in dramatically lower positive urine tests, arrest rates, and revocation rates for probationers.

It is also worth underscoring Reuter’s assessment of state-level legalization of marijuana. Referring to the proposed California legalization, he writes:

“It could substantially reduce the U.S. demand for Mexican produced marijuana, simply be eliminating California’s demand for imports. It may turn out to be difficult to prevent smuggling from California, so that Mexico could lose a substantial share of the total U.S. market.”

Military at the Center But in Shadows

The contribution of Roderic Ai Camp, veteran analyst of the Mexico’s military, serves as a helpful primer on the Mexican armed forces. For example, he explains:

“The Mexican officer corps has never collaborated with American leadership to the extent found elsewhere in the region, even when they have shared similar security interests. The reasons for this pattern can be attributed to the historic relationship between the two countries, and to the officer corps success in maintaining its own internal autonomy from Mexican civil and political intervention. It has sustained a closed, secretive posture even to the present day.”

And even though Mexican officers have for decades received military training in the United States for decades, “such career experiences never enhanced institutional cooperation between the two armed forces at the highest levels,” he notes.

Addressing the dramatically changed Mexican views of U.S. involvement and intervention, Ai Camp writes:  “While one would expect them [Mexican public] to direct a large portion of the blame on the United States drug consumption habits…ordinary citizens are far more critical of their own institutional culture, notably corruption.”

According to Ai Camp, the Mérida Initiative has not been solely responsible for increased relations between the U.S. and Mexican militaries. He notes that the initiative, launched by President Bush, has resulted in much closer Mexican relations with Homeland Security and Justice, while military-military relations – and resulting closer personal contacts, especially with the Mexican Navy – preceded the counternarcotics initiative.

“Since 2006,” recounts Ai Camp, “the numbers of Mexican officers in U.S. schools has grown markedly. Mexicans have the most officers in the Department of Defense IMET-funded [– U.S. based training --] program of any Latin American country.”

The Mexican Navy, he says, has “been the leader in cross-national collaboration” – which has precipitated much closer relations with the U.S. military than experienced by the Mexican army and which has contributed to intensifying Navy-Army tensions.

Other Contributions

The contribution by Sigrid Arzta, former national security adviser to President Calderón, on U.S.-Mexico security collaboration is particularly weak.  Descriptive rather than analytical, the chapter contains a series of bland statements that contribute nothing to a sharper understanding of the processes and problems of U.S.-Mexico collaboration, offering not a hint of the intra-governmental tensions in Mexico highlighted in the Wikileaks cables. 

Arzt, a frequent speaker at forums on the drug war and the U.S.-Mexico relations, closes the empty chapter stating:

[I]t is clear that the Mérida Initiative has become an umbrella for increased information sharing, data inter-operability, and the use of common systems, such as fusion centers, that create platforms for information sharing, whether through SIUs [Sensitive Intelligence Units) or BEST [Border Enforcement Security Task Force] teams. The reality is that both governments need to continue strengthening these structures.”

Such uncritical analysis and baseless assertions only serve to cloak the reality of failure of the Mérida Initiative, Calderón’s drug war, and structures as the BEST teams.

Shared Responsibility also includes helpful essays by José Díaz-Briseño (heroin trafficking), Douglas Farah (money laundering), Colbey Goodman and Michel Marizco (firearms trafficking), Shirk (judicial reform), Daniel Sabet (police reform), Dolia Estévez (press freedom), and John Bailey (intelligence and law enforcement collaboration).