Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Sotol Story

Published in Desert Exposure, April 2012, at:

A modern-day adventure on the road to rediscover a classic Mexican liquor.

For John Grady Cole, the first taste of Mexico after crossing the border illegally was a generous draught of sotol.

sotol 1
Celso Jacquez at the Don Cuco Sotol distillery in Janos.
The US and Mexican borderlands were different then — no border wall, no Predator drones flying overhead, and no drug war raging. Today, the cattle fences that obstructed Grady's joy in open range riding are the least of the obstructions in the borderlands. 

Multiple checkpoints, manned by heavily armed soldiers and drug agents often wearing black ski masks, now make traveling through the borderlands something akin to making your way through an occupied zone.

For too many years, the combination of the border security buildup on the US side and the barrage of reports about horrific drug war violence on the other side bred fear and reluctance.

Recently, the violence that has for years wracked the northern reaches of Chihuahua and Sonora has diminished, and you can also find some reassurance in that there have been no reports that noncitizens are being targeted. My eagerness to return to the deserts, grasslands and mountains of the Mexican borderlands has been rising over the past year or two. The border security buildup and the unending drug wars have trapped us in our country.
sotol 1

Unlike Grady in Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses (or Matt Damon in the film adaptation of the great novel), I didn't cross on horseback when I began traveling into Mexico's borderlands a few months ago. But there was something like the same sense of adventure of traveling into unknown parts.

In early January, after driving south from Palomas on a new highway, I turned southwest toward Ascensión and then, after a couple of interviews, headed to Janos — an Apache settlement dating back to the 17th century and later a colonial military outpost. Janos, which sits on the banks of the now-dry Río Casas Grandes, is the gateway to the Paquimé or Casas Grandes ruins that lie about an hour south. Janos is situated almost directly south of the southeast corner of New Mexico's Bootheel. (Google Map it!)

At sundown I arrived at Rancho La Guadalupana on the eastern outskirts of Janos. Celso Jacquez offered me a copa of sotol — and I relaxed into the spirit and enchantment of Chihuahua.
sotol 1
Celso Jacquez and Emma Jacquez in Janos.

I didn't go to Janos to drink sotol, but rather to interview Celso, the former presidente of the Janos Municipio (roughly "county") and Chihuahua representative on the Border 2012 environmental commission, a binantional project of the Mexican and US governments. His counterpart in New Mexico was Allyson Siwik, the environmental expert and determined activist who directs Silver City's Gila Resources and Information Project (GRIP).

But concerns about crossborder water depletion and dust pollution fell away that night as I was treated to a glass of reposado sotol — whose alluring aroma seemed to capture the essence of the desert after a long-awaited rain.

In McCarthy's novel, an amused Mexican girl served Grady and his buddy Lacey Rawlins mugs of a strong homebrew that is still a favorite drink in mountain towns and the rancherias of Chihuahua, northern Durango and Coahuila — the only areas of Mexico where the sotol plant grows. Pleasantly plastered, the two young cowboys let their cares drift away as they began their troubled romance with Mexico.

Even before I took my first sip, I knew that work was over for the day. First the rich aroma, faintly smoky but also with a tantalizing allure of the desert after a long-awaited rain. "Do you know the song 'Viva Chihuahua'?" asked Celso. I did, but hadn't until then understood the reference to sotol in the verse he began singing: "Tierra que sabe a cariño, Tierra que huele a sotol." (Chihuahua, "Land that tastes like love, Land that has the aroma of sotol.")

I, however, was treated by Celso and his son Jacobo to an enticing liquor that poured from a bottle of Don Cuco Sotol into a crystal bar glass. "It is truly more of a spirit, like cognac," explained Jacobo, describing the reposado sotol I started appreciatively sipping. It's a sotol that is picked, cooked, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled by the Jacquez family, which owns the Don Cuco Sotol brand.

Since that first drink, I have been, as it were, on the sotol road in Chihuahua, captivated not only by the quality of the spirit but also pursuing sotol's still largely untold story — one that I am finding out has deep roots in our crossborder history and shared natural world.

There is an abundance of possible starting points for the story. You could start with the sotol plant itself. Its name comes from tzotlllin in Nátuatl, is formally labeled a Dasylirion, is often called sereque in Chihuahua, and is known as the "desert spoon" on this side of the border. Its thin serrated leaves circle in rosette style the fleshy core or piña, which after 7-15 years produces a magnificent shaft or quiote, artfully designed to spread its seeds and pollen.
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Rattlesnake in jar of sotol for medicinal uses.

Or you could start the story in Madera with Don Refugio Pérez Marquez — or Don Cuco, as he was affectionately and respectfully known by family and friends in the Sierra Madre. As legend goes, Don Cuco learned the art of sotol selection, fire-pit cooking, fermentation and distilling at least in part from the Tarahumaras who also lived in the mountains around Madera in west-central Chihuahua. His rugged profile appears on the bottles of the Don Cuco brand, which include blanco, suave, reposado, añejo and crema varieties of sotol.

Don Cuco insisted on the high quality of his sotol, making certain that the distilled sotol had the exactly right aroma and necklace of bubbles ("collar de perlas") when shaken and poured. Don Cuco was the grandfather of Celso, whose entire family is involved in the campaign to introduce this spirit of the desert into the US market. It is a product of "Las Generaciónes" — the slogan of this family of five generations of sotoleros.

Yet the story of sotol goes much deeper into this history of culture than the mid-1800s. Throughout Chihuahua you will find abandoned and still-used stone-lined fire pits, where the sotol piñas are buried and then cooked over two weeks until dripping and succulent with their rich desert sugar. Cooking and fermenting sotol is part of the Raramuri/Tarahumara tradition, but you can also find this same type of firepits in the ruins at Paquimé and in other settlements of their precolonial civilization, which emerged around 200 AD and began flourishing around 1200.
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Melquiádes Alvarez takes a rattlesnake from a bottle of sotol.

Sotol is also part of Mexico's revolutionary tradition. Pancho Villa and his army of rebels drank sotol both as an intoxicant and as a tonic. No different than most varieties of liquor, sotol has long been appreciated for its medicinal purposes in Chihuahua — whether to dull pain or to purportedly cure an array of maladies. You may know of the gusano found in the bottom of the bottles of mescal — traditional drink of southern Mexico — and some of us (men) may have even gulped down the mescal-soaked worm in a hopeful attempt to boost virility.

In Chihuahua, folklore has it that drinking sotol that has aged in a bottle containing a rattlesnake can cure just about anything that ails you, including cancer. Telling the story of sotol requires sorting through layers of myths and folktales — the rural legends of the Sierra Madre.

Part of the allure of the sotol story is its history as the traditional home-brewed liquor of peasant revolutionaries, the mysterious and enduring Raramuri people, and the Spanish-speaking mountain men (and women) of the Sierra Madre. When proudly displaying his sotol-soaked snakes, Melquiádes Alvarez, a sotolero in Nuevo Casas Grandes, explained that the rattlesnake sotol cure came not from Raramuri tradition, as is commonly believed. Rather, it had a Chinese origin, not a Mexican curandero one. 

As the story goes, in the early 1920s Sonoran judiciales forcibly rounded up Chinese immigrants and then left them to their fate in the Chihuahua Desert. The new Chinese members of the Casas Grandes community soon began mixing rattlesnakes and sotol for miraculous cures.

The tradition of sotol is not limited to the southern reaches of the Chihuahua Desert. Sotol grows abundantly in west Texas, southern New Mexico, and southwestern Arizona at elevations between 2,600 and 7,900 feet — but only in rocky, well-drained terrain. In times when our nations are so badly divided and when our understanding of each other is rapidly eroding, it's reassuring to know that the architecturally elegant and drought-proof sotol knows no borders.

But the story of sotol the spirit cannot be told without also telling the story of border control, prohibitions and smuggling — and the visionary plans of the Jacquez family to revive the crossborder marketing of sotol. Before Prohibition (1919-33), drinking sotol was not uncommon in West Texas. Yet soon after the Prohibition laws started limiting American access to booze, Mexican sotol producers began exporting unprecedented quantities of all varieties and qualities of sotol to meet the illegal demand in the US market.

As soon as the US mafia, together with what are now a couple of elite families of Juárez, began opening up their own production facilities for cheap whiskey and brandy, however, the sotol industry went into rapid decline. The Mexican sotoleros — burdened with an arduous process of harvesting wild sotol and a long production process — couldn't compete with the cheap grain liquor being churned out in Juárez. The new liquor magnates, together with their associates in government, also began cracking down on the sotoleros — spreading the new narrative that sotol was not the drink of the gente de razón (nonindigenous) but only of the poor and uncouth.

This narrative that sotol is nothing more than rotgut, a rústico drink of sandal-clad peasants, has over the last century nearly killed the tradition of sotol in Chihuahua. There, like elsewhere in Mexico, cheap tequila and Tecate Lite have come to dominate the alcohol market.

Now, however, the Jacquez family is telling a new story about the plant drink that smells like love and the desert to tequila aficionados. Influential mixologists (bartenders who aim to serve the best-quality liquors and mixed drinks) say there is the potential to create a niche market for sotol — perhaps even sparking a boom in sotol demand, mirroring the tequila boom and the current rise of mescal.

The Don Cuco Sotol story is one of family pride in producing over five generations the highest quality of 100% sotol that is wild-harvested, unadulterated (even by water that doesn't come from the plant itself), and fermented and distilled with care and the wisdom of generations. Sotol, as I have experienced, is a family story.

Truth be told, I don't know much about liquor, let alone the finest of spirits. By no means a connoisseur. A lover of liquor, yes, but an expert? Certainly not.

My appreciation of this special family and the enchantment of the land and people of Chihuahua have undoubtedly contributed to my enthusiasm about the quality, cultural import, and potential of Don Cuco Sotol.

But I am not alone. Don Cuco has been winning gold prizes across the nation. In Albuquerque, I sat down to lunch with Mike Morales at the city's new tequila bar, Zacatecas Tacos. Morales, a self-styled "tequila journalist," sponsors an annual tequila-tasting contest and consults nationally for liquor distributors and destination bars. So, with my own expertise in question, I will quote someone who is nationally recognized as an expert in Mexican spirits.

"I fell in love with this family's spirit as soon as I inhaled it!" Morales told me. "To me, Don Cuco Sotol carries the best of all worlds. It opens up — blooms — so much that it demands to be treated like a fine wine. It has the smokiness of some of the best mezcals, but the flavor is simultaneously reminiscent of the best tequilas and then, not at all."

As a former salesman and closer observer of the liquor industry, Morales knows well that the story and image behind the product are critical to good marketing. What makes the Don Cuco Sotol so unusual is not only that the story is so appealing, but also that it is so true — in marked contrast to most of the "lies of the liquor industry."

"There is no mistaking that Don Cuco Sotol is produced — handcrafted, micro-distilled — and lovingly brought into the market by the Jacquez family," Morales told me.

Fortunately, I am still on the sotol road. Many more stories to hear and tell. Many more copas to drink.

You can buy a bottle of Don Cuco Sotol at the Pink Store in Palomas or buy it at many online outlets. And if you are ready for fun and adventure, if you feel that it is time to reconnect the US and Mexico borderlands, visit the Don Cuco distillery in Janos and then continue on to Casas Grandes and Paquimé. You may also want to visit the Don Cuco Sotol website ( and watch the great video about sotol.

Tom Barry, senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC, is author of many books, including The Great Divide, Zapata's Revenge and, most recently, Border Wars, published last year by MIT Press. (See the November 2011 Desert Exposure) Barry, who lives in Pinos Altos, has been writing on border issues and US-Mexico relations since the late 1970s. He blogs

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Predators on Border, Hawks Across Border, and a Homeland of Drones

(Published in Truthout at:

Tom Barry

Drones are proliferating.

First, the Pentagon joined with military contractors to breed fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as airborne drones are formally called. Although major new drone species began emerging in the 1990s, the Bush administration's war on terrorism after the 9/11 attacks sparked a major surge of drone production and deployment - not only for reconnaissance, but also for military strikes against targeted terrorists.

The Obama administration dramatically increased the deployment of UAVs in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa, underscoring the rising prominence of Predator, Guardian and Reaper killer drones in US war fighting and CIA covert operations.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Defense have also dramatically escalated drone operations along the US-Mexico border and within Mexico.

The Border Patrol had also been experimenting with drones in the 1990s. However, following the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and surge of funding for "border security," the newly created Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency launched an ambitious plan to deploy unarmed versions of Predator drones along the borders and coastlines of the "homeland" - as part of its new counterterrorism mission.

Like the other components of the border-security buildup - including border wall, virtual fence, doubling of agents - the new "eyes in the skies" have focused on traditional border control missions, namely immigration enforcement and drug war missions, rather than counterterrorism.

Recently, DHS added three more Predators to its UAV fleet, even though it has failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of drone surveillance. What is more, DHS doesn't have sufficient funding or trained personnel to operate its current fleet of seven drones, which mostly remain parked at military bases.

The US military - which hosts the drones on its bases in California, Florida, Arizona and Texas - is closely involved in the UAV operations of DHS.

In addition to participation in border security, which are authorized under its domestic defense and international drug control mandates, the Pentagon is also flying UAVs into Mexico as part of its collaboration with the Mexican military in the drug war. These are Global Hawks, manufactured by Northrup Grumman, while the Predators (called Guardians when used for marine surveillance) that DHS flies along the border are products of General Atomics.

Border hawks hailed the announcement of more drones, but continue to insist that many more UAVs are needed. In August 2011, Gov. Rick Perry asserted that increased UAV deployment will "provide real-time information to help our law enforcement" and thereby "drive the drug cartels away from our border."

Texas border hawks like Perry and Congressional Reps. Henry Cuellar (D) and Michael McCaul (R) argue that with its 1,234-mile border with Mexico, Texas needs more than a couple of drones to secure the border. DHS doesn't disagree. The Air and Marine Division of the Customs and Border Protection agency projects the eventual deployment of 24 UAVs.

DHS argues that the UAVs are a "force multiplier" in that they allow the Border Patrol to increase its "operational control" of the border without adding thousands of additional agents. Congressman Cuellar, who represents a border district including Laredo, says, "The addition will further allow CBP to receive precise, real time surveillance, allowing the deployment of fewer agents in a specific area, while intercepting drugs, human smuggling and acts of terrorism."

Neither Cuellar nor DHS offer any evidence to support these claims. Yet, even if the drones did function as a force multiplier and did provide "precise, real-time surveillance" that decreased illegal border crossings, the high cost of this high-tech solution for border security raises questions about the advisability and viability of the drone border security program.

The close ties that Congressional proponents of UAV deployment enjoy with the UAV industry raise other questions about the credibility and integrity of the leading UAV advocates. Congressman Cuellar is co-chairman of the 50-member Unmanned Systems Caucus, whose co-chairman is Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-California), who represents the San Diego district that is the home of General Atomics.

Yet, drone proliferation isn't confined to security - national, homeland, border - missions. The drone industry, together with the Congressional drone lobby, are also successfully promoting drones as must-have instruments for law enforcement - not only for federal agencies, but also for thousands of police and sheriffs departments throughout the nation. 
DHS and the Department of Justice have special promotional and funding programs to facilitate drone acquisition by law enforcement.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Time for Full Investigation of Operation Border Star in Texas

Border Star Power Point presentation prepared by ALIS
Today, State Senator José Rodríguez called for an investigation by the Texas State Comptroller’s office into the border security contracts of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).
The call for an official investigation was spurred, according to Rodríguez, by a February 2012 state auditor’s report and by “recent media reports on the outsourcing of Texas border security operations to Abrams Learning & Information Systems (ALIS), a private consulting firm based in Arlington, VA.”
The journalistic investigation of Governor Rick Perry’s border security campaign began two years ago when The Nation Institute agreed to support Tom Barry’s research on this issue.
Barry, a senior analyst at the Center for International Policy, wrote an investigative report, “At War in Texas,” for the Boston Review that focused on the abuses and misuses of federal funding by Texas state and local governments.
The funding, including more than a hundred million dollars from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus initiative, came largely from the Department of Justice and also from the Department of Homeland Security.
Five days ago the Border Lines Blog published a three-part series on the Texas outsourcing scandal. Four days ago Alternet published the second of two investigative articles by Tom Barry on the lack of accountability and transparency in Texas border security operations – most of which were outsourced to ALIS. The first article, “How Unaccountable Private Contractors Pocket Your Tax Dollars Militarizing the Texas Border,” was published on Sept. 27, 2011.
The Austin Statesman followed with a report on the same outsourcing scandal on March 15, 2012, which added new details to the unaccountable contracting practices of DPS.
As is often the case in Texas with respect to criminal justice issues, the ACLU and the Grits for Breakfast blog of Scott Henson have been among the first to point to the lack of transparency and accountability in DPS and the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division.
The ACLU’s Laura Martin wrote an excellent report about Operation Border Star titled Wasted Millions, which should at the time of the release of the report have alerted the state’s media and public officials about the public safety implications of the governor’s border program. Martin wrote the alarming report three years ago in March 2009.
Senator Rodríguez, the first Texas politician to demand that the shadowy border security programs be investigated, said that outsourcing “raised significant concerns about the transparency of DPS' bidding and procurement processes as well as DPS' management of millions of state and federal taxpayer dollars.”
Furthermore, the El Paso senator observed. “The issues surrounding these contracts bring to light a serious public policy consideration of whether the state of Texas should have outsourced the bulk of border security operations to a private company with negligible experience in international border operations.”
Despite its alarming findings, the state auditor’s report went largely unreported by the state or national media. The Ft.Worth Star-Telegram mentioned the report – in a Feb. 28, 2010 blog post.
This independent report indicates that, on at least three occasions, DPS was unable to document why "emergency" action was necessary. Not only was there pervasive abuse of the "emergency" contracting procedures by DPS, this appears to be part of a larger failure to open contracts to competitive bidding as required by state law. A startling 83% of the contracts reviewed by the State Auditor in the cluster of federal grants for homeland and border security were not bid competitively as required by state law.
Other disturbing findings by the State Auditor include duplicate payments made by DPS to sub-grantees and that DPS has no process in place to track federal sub-grants, in some cases paying for one program with federal funds intended for another.
The outsourcing of Texas border security is, however, much more than another instance of the misuse of public revenues.
Certainly, it is another example of how accountability and transparency in government are especially lacking in all spending that involves “security” – whether national, homeland, or border security.”
But it is a much larger scandal than faulty accounting or even the bilking of public revenues by private contractors.
This is a scandal that deserves the attention of the oversight committees of the U.S. Congress and Texas State Legislature.
It merits an official investigation that looks into how ideologically staunch politicians and government officials, together with consulting firms closely tied to the U.S. military, are manipulating information and threat assessments about U.S. security and public safety. 

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Boston Review Broke Perry’s Border Security Outsourcing Scandal

Credit should be given where credit is due.

“At War in Texas,” the cover story of the September/October issue of the Boston Review, was the first publication to cover the outsourcing of border security in Texas. That investigative report is now part of Border Wars, a book by Tom Barry that was published by MIT Press and Boston Review Books in September 2011.

The outsourcing of Operation Border Star and just about everything else Governor Rick Perry and Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, has done to “secure the border” in Texas was outsourced to Abrams Learning & Information Systems (ALIS), a Washington Beltway consulting firm, starting in 2006.

In that 2010 report, Barry wrote:

Since 2006 the Texas DPS has contracted with an Arlington, Virginia homeland security contractor to establish and operate its border intelligence operations. Abrams Learning and Information Systems (ALIS), founded by retired general John Abrams, has received $14.9 million in the past five years from DPS, which it contracts for “Texas Border Security Operations.” In 2009 with the influx of ARRA funds into DPS, ALIS received its largest annual contract award ($4.7 million).

During a three-week “border surge operation” in mid-2006, ALIS Vice-President Leo Rios, told reporters, without any supporting documentation, that the surge demonstrated that “we're capable of shutting down all transports of illegal drugs and criminals in this area to zero for up to seven days.” Rios touted the company’s role in Texas border security operations at a homeland security technology conference in Washington last October, and crediting ALIS’ innovative TxMap crime-mapping system with a 65% drop in “border-related crime” – a figure also used by Perry to tout the impact of Border Star’s surges and which earned him a “Pants on Fire” award by the Austin Statesman.

The investigative article goes on to reveal the political character of Operation Border Star and the dubious value of the array of associated DPS and Texas Ranger border security initiatives managed by the private contractor.

The outsourcing scandal is finally receiving the attention it deserves in Texas – by the state auditor, a few elected state representatives, the public, and the media.

Over the past year the issue has also received in-depth treatment in articles by Barry published by Alternet: Who is Securing the Texas Border?” and “How Private Contractors Pocket Your Tax Dollars Militarizing the Texas Border.”

Yesterday the Austin Statesman was the first Texas media outlet to cover the story. Investigative reporter Jeremy Schwartz had interviewed Barry at length on two occasions over the past several months but failed to mention the earlier investigative reports on this scandal.

It is also worth noting that DPS and the Texas Attorney General’s Office denied requests in 2010 and 2011 by the Center for International Policy for public records on Operation Border Star and ALIS on the grounds that they were “law enforcement sensitive.”  

The Border Lines Blog has covered the border security outsourcing scandal extensively over the past two years.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Texas Outsourced its Own Border Security Model to Beltway Consultants

Ret. General Abrams in Iraq (right)
(Third in a series of reports on Operation Border Star in Texas by Tom Barry.)

It would be hard to exaggerate the degree to which Governor Perry and DPS Chief McCraw have outsourced state border-security, homeland-security, and public-safety programs to Washington Beltway contractors.

ALIS, according to the August 2010 “emergency contract,” was, among other things, hired to do everything from formulating strategy to running operations to managing public relations – not only for Operation Border Start but also for the Texas Rangers and DPS itself.

The “emergency” contract for $1.5 million ALIS services, which was signed by McCraw and ALIS Chief Operating Officer on August 31, 2010, underscored the central role of ALIS in shaping and directing border security operations in Texas.

Echoing the expansive scope of the language used in earlier contracts, DPS once again hired ALIS to:

Develop and refine border-wide security strategies and plans for seamless integration of interagency law enforcement border security operations in the State of Texas.

With a staff of at least 17 analysts and information specialists -- many with military backgrounds --ALIS was contracted to give provide the vision for and the structural foundation for Operation Border Star.

Initially, Border Star had been little more a commitment by the Perry to support the newly formed Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition and its Operation Linebacker, using federal criminal-justice funds controlled by the governor’s office, along with an occasional show of force by DPS police in Texas border counties.

Over the years, with each successive contract, the extent of responsibility outsourced to ALIS expanded dramatically. One of the first contracts gave ALIS the task of developing a computerized crime-mapping system for the greater Texas border region, which is known as TexMap.

By late 2010, however, DPS was paying ALIS to, among other things:

* “Define and write a Border Security Strategic Vision.”

* “Manage and operate the Border Security Operations Center (BSOC).”

* “Develop border-wide strategies and plans to support interagency effectiveness.”

* “Refine and update Operation Border Star 2012-2013.”

* “Develop plans for border-related Mass Migration contingencies.”

* Develop plans for “Texas Ranger operations,” and develop standard operating procedures for “Ranger Renaissance Teams” (including the new gunboat operations).

* “Facilitate creation of the Border Operations Planning Group.”

* “Develop a Border Security media/public information outreach strategy.”

* “Provide sufficient manpower to provide leadership, subject-matter expertise, and quality assurance/control in areas of border security planning and operations.”

* “Support and sustain the six Joint Operations Intelligence Centers (JOICs),” which are situated along the Texas border and Gulf Coast.

* “Conceptualize a Sensor Master Plan for the border region,” as part of the “web-based” electronic surveillance systems created by the governor’s officer and DPS.

* “Develop and refine DPS Agency Strategic Plans,” including the DPS Strategic Plan 2011-2015.

* “Facilitate development of a DPS policy document outlining roles, responsibilities, and authorities of Regional Commanders, Ranger Captains, DPS Divisions, and JOICs with regard to countering crime and terrorism in the border region.” 

The August 31, 2010 emergency contract with ALIS built on earlier contracts, which steadily reinforced the centrality of the homeland security contractor not only to execute assigned tasks but also to formulate strategy and direct operations.

An earlier contract had empowered ALIS to formulate the drafts of the Texas Border Security Campaign Plan, the governor’s 2010-2015 Homeland Security Strategy Plan, and the DPS Agency Strategy Plan 2010.

That’s worth repeating.

This little-known, upstart consulting agency from the Washington Beltway had been hired by the state’s public safety and homeland security director to: write the campaign plan for the governor’s border security campaign, conceptualize and write the state’s strategy statement for homeland security, and produce the strategy plan for DPS itself.

One of the most striking and disturbing components of the August 2010 contract was the new public relations and outreach role given ALIS contractors. According to the contract, ALIS would assume a new role that would combine public relations, communications, and policy-advocacy functions.

Instead of merely being a hired gun contracted for predetermined border-security operations in Texas, ALIS contractors were expected to develop strategies, gather information to support these strategies, and then work to shape public opinion and public policy about border security threats and responses. The only border experience that ALIS brought to the table when it was hired was that its founder General Abrams had in the late 1980s commanded a regiment that was responsible for protecting the German “inner-border” prior to German reunification.

Specific tasks outsourced to ALIS included producing “reports, briefings, studies, and recommendations” for “Texas leadership.” ALIS was also tasked to “orient senior government leaders on border security issues,” with possible options including “public affairs strategy and plans, fact sheets, talking points, speeches, presentations, and testimony.”

The stipulated goal of the “Border Security media/public information outreach strategy” was, according to the DPS contract, to “build support for border security” among the public, media, and policy community in Texas. As noted in the contract, ALIS would at times also be expected to leverage its BSOC fusion center staff “to surge for 24/7 information operations.”

Rather than gathering intelligence and analyzing information, DPS tasked ALIS to provide DPS and the Texas Rangers with “the necessary information to assist the ongoing operations.” Its BSOC staff were expected to “discipline the information operations process by serving the state information operations ‘net control” station for border security.”

The BSOC and the JOICs would be tasked, according to the contract, to “provide needed information products as required by Texas Rangers” and to produce “effective information products.”

In review, in the interests of border security and homeland security, ALIS was contracted by DPS – with the approval of the Public Safety Commission and the governor – to manufacture “information products.” What is more, DPS wanted ALIS to ensure that the information was “effective” as well as “necessary” for ongoing operations.

There has been absolutely no review by policy makers or by the public of DPS outsourcing of border-security strategy and operations. 

It’s likely, though, that, if there were ever such transparency and accountability, at least a few policymakers and concerned citizens would caution that structuring information as an instrument may replicate the information- and psychological-ops of the military and intelligence agencies but may not be an appropriate way to consider information gathering and dissemination on the home front. The term propaganda might arise in any public review this type of outsourcing.

Similarly, the concept that a private contractor should participate in information surges that would parallel operational surges by law enforcement officers and state troops might also have sparked discussion about the proper use of state and federal funds. 

As is, it seems that the directors Operation Border Star – Governor Perry and DPS Director McCraw – view information and intelligence as fungible commodities that can be created, manipulated, and shaped to serve the greater good of the nation and Texas border security.

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