Threats of terrorism at border overblown

The report [PDF] found that those threats have led to an increased enforcement presence and a confusing patchwork of federal agencies responsible for border security. The buildup has pushed migrants into more dangerous travel routes, but has done little to reduce drug trafficking, according to the report. 

"We were really surprised by the breadth of what had been done in the last 10 years in terms of growing our presence on the border," said Adam Isacson, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, which published the study. "We quickly came to the conclusion that given the threat that we were finding, the U.S. had overbuilt."

The Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group focused on human rights, social justice and democracy in Latin America, found that worsening drug violence south of the border has not spilled over into border cities. For instance, in 2010, there were 80.6 homicides for every 100,000 people in Tijuana, but just 2.2 per 100,000 in neighboring San Diego. For border states, violent crime dropped by 11 percent from 2005 to 2010.

And despite fears that terrorists could use the southern border as a gateway to the U.S., no member of any group on the State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organizations list has attempted to enter the country via Mexico, the report said. 

Threats of terrorism and violence spurred legislators to fund a massive buildup in border enforcement apparatuses over the past decade. Border Patrol staffing has quintupled since 1992, and personnel from more than two dozen law enforcement entities, from the National Guard to the FBI and Border Patrol, all play a role in securing the border. But their roles often are overlapping and poorly coordinated, the report found. 

For instance, Operation Phalanx has deployed thousands of National Guardsmen to the border since 2006. But guardsmen may not patrol or play a role in search, detention or arrests of people, said Isacson, the study's co-author. "Most of them were sitting in lawn chairs, hoping to spot something," he said. 

Military personnel assigned to the Joint Task Force North often accompany Border Patrol agents on rounds, but can carry only unloaded weapons. Several government entities that gather intelligence along the border don't routinely share that information with other agencies, the report found.

At the same time, funding for border security has not targeted the 45 Southwest border ports where the majority of smuggling occurs, and as a result, the buildup has not stanched the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S., the report says. From 2005 to 2010, seizures of marijuana on the Southwest border increased 49 percent, methamphetamine seizures increased 53 percent, and heroin seizures increased 297 percent. Meanwhile, traffickers in busy areas such as San Diego increasingly are building sophisticated underground tunnels to smuggle drugs, the report said.

Officers at the ports are under intense pressure to keep waits short, Isacson said. "At the same time, they're trying to detect all the stuff that goes through, and they are undermanned." 

The border buildup has coincided with a 61 percent drop in apprehensions of migrants crossing the border illegally from 2005 to 2011, and more law enforcement presence likely played a role in that drop, the study said. But the buildup also has pushed more people to attempt dangerous or risky measures to make it to the U.S., the report found. For instance, the report notes that more people are crossing in rickety boats called pangas. Border Patrol reported 866 people caught at sea heading to California in 2010.

The rate of migrant deaths per crossing also has increased, said study co-author Maureen Meyer, a security researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. Migrants who once would have crossed from Tijuana have been pushed into a harsh, mountainous region called La Rumorosa, west of Mexicali, according to the report. The Border Patrol records 30 to 40 deaths, mostly due to dehydration, in that region every year. Many crossers have been pushed farther east into the harsh desert near Sasabe, Ariz.

Interviews also suggest that migrants traveling through dangerous desert regions are increasingly being funneled into corridors controlled by drug-smuggling cartels, said Jeremy Slack, a researcher at the University of Arizona who studies human geography but was not involved in the study.

Slack and his colleagues have interviewed more than 2,000 crossers after deportation. In recent years, more deportees report being kidnapped for wandering into the wrong area of the desert or as a means of extorting money from U.S.-based relatives, he said. Migrants also report that they are more frequently followed through the desert by smugglers carrying drug shipments, he added. Traffickers "know this will distract the authorities, and they can see ahead what's going on without risking the cargo that's more valuable," he said.

Migrants crossing into the U.S. increasingly face rape, extortion, robbery and deportation and might be victimized in many ways on their journey north, Meyer said. "Migrants are being exposed to much more risks," she said.

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Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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