12:01am

Tue July 5, 2011
National Security

Texas Governor Wages Own Battle Along Border

Originally published on Tue August 7, 2012 3:30 pm

Note: This is the first of a two-part series

The federal government claims the southwest border is more secure than it's ever been. There are more agents and barriers, more choppers, drones, sensors and hi-tech cameras than ever before.

Yet, state officials in Texas maintain the illegal flow of people and drugs is worse than ever — proof, they say, the border is out of control. To back up his rhetoric, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has declared his own war on the traffickers.

The Border Threat: Real Or Rhetorical?

President Obama came to El Paso, Texas, in May to praise his homeland security directors for the good job they're doing on the southwest border.

"Under their leadership, we have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible. They wanted more agents at the border. Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history," he said.

But not everyone thinks that's true, including Gov. Perry.

"This president either does not know or does not care what is going on on the border of Texas," he said on Fox News for a special report about the Texas border. The on-screen graphic read "Under Attack."

"I don't want the people of the state of Texas to have to be the catalyst that finally gets the administration to understand that there is great terror on our southern border," Perry said.

So, is South Texas being terrorized by Mexican drug gangs, or is Perry trying to score political points against a president he may face in a run for the White House?

The governor's scheduler said he was unavailable to comment for this report.

Public Safety Officers Part Of Border 'Air Force'

What's certain is that Perry has deployed the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) on the border in unprecedented numbers — including an air force of more than 20 helicopters and airplanes. They act as an uninvited, but appreciated, adjunct to the U.S. Border Patrol.

One of the captains of the department's aircraft section is Stacy Holland. Based out of McAllen, Texas, Holland is a lean former highway patrolman in an olive-drab flight suit with a .357 pistol strapped to his tactical vest.

Before taking to the sky, Holland plays some video of recent pursuits in his office. Thermal night images show frustrated drug traffickers high-tailing it back across the river into Mexico.

"I have miles and miles and miles of these type of videotape," he says. "So to suggest that the Southwestern border is secure is absolutely ridiculous."

A half-hour later, we're strapped into a Eurocopter A-star helicopter, hovering 600 feet over the Rio Grande. The river makes up 1,254 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile border. But it's not arrow-straight like the land border — it curls and loops like a serpent, offering countless crossings for contrabandistas.

Holland rides co-pilot as the helicopters moves over Los Ebanos, Texas. On the ground, a group of people on the Mexican side, about to swim the Rio Grande, spots the chopper. They clamber back into a pickup truck and it speeds away.

Border Holes Remain Large

Holland says things are getting wilder in the area. Twice already in June, drug traffickers have fired across the river at U.S. law enforcement agents, who shot back. And in the past year and a half, drug-laden trucks trying to evade U.S. agents and recover their loads have splashed-down into the river 55 times.

"We're talking no border fence, a very open border. Does it look secure to you?" Holland asks as the helicopter follows the people on the ground. "There's nothing to deter a smuggler from getting a load across, getting on the highway and going into the U.S."

More than 8,000 Border Patrol agents work on the Texas-Mexico border. Yet that's still not enough to "seal the border," which is what critics seem to want. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that the Border Patrol has achieved operational control of 44 percent of the southern border. Of that, only 15 percent is under full control.

Rosendo Hinojosa is Chief Border Patrol Agent for the Rio Grande Valley, which has the busiest smuggling corridors in Texas.

"I don't know if you can seal anything. You flew over the river, you saw how many times that river turns and winds and everything else. So, what's it gonna take to seal that border?" Hinojosa asks. "We're here to provide the best protection that we can to mitigate the threats that are coming to our border. And I think we are doing a very good job of that."

Officials Don't Agree On Threat Level

Texas state officials do not agree, and they're pushing back. Even the normally sleepy state agriculture department has created a website called "Protect Your Texas Border." Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples is part of the campaign.

"Let me be clear, the sovereignty of America is being undermined at this very moment by violent drug cartel members that are invading Texas farms and ranches," Staples says.

Some lawmen down on the border agree with his description. McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez testified before a congressional hearing on border violence in Washington, D.C., this spring.

"We have incursions everyday. We have people that are afraid to go out on their property," Rodriguez says. "That's not American."

Other city officials on the border bridle at the notion they're being invaded, or — as the governor says — they live in terror. El Paso Mayor John Cook stands on the U.S. side of a bridge that connects his city to Mexico's most dangerous city. He says he wants Governor Perry to get his facts straight.

"The governor has twice said that there's been car bombs going off in El Paso, not clarifying that it actually happened in Juarez, Mexico, state of Chihuahua," Cook says. "That's their country, that's their side of the border. This is my country, this is my side of the border."

Cook says he doesn't know the governor's motivation but thinks it might just be an attempt to attack the Obama administration "to make it look like they're not doing their part to secure the border," he says.

The rhetoric has, to an extent, followed party loyalty — with more Republicans saying the border is not safe, and more Democrats saying it is.

Street cops, on the other hand, are generally apolitical. Joe Baeza, longtime investigator with the Laredo Police Department, says the overheated language from border hawks, amplified on the Internet, has gotten tiresome.

"The Laredo Police Department has known what homeland security was before the term was coined post 9/11," Baeza says.

"Is it safe to be on the U.S. side of the Texas/Mexican border? Absolutely. We get calls from people from big cities from like Houston and Dallas. All have the same questions: 'Is it safe? Is it as bad as we hear? Are there kidnappings in the middle of the streets and people just being blown away?' And it's not, it's nothing like that at all."

This story was produced for broadcast by Marisa Peñaloza.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We'll get an update this morning on the effort to control the border with Mexico.

MONTAGNE: President Obama's administration says the nation's southwest border now has more security resources than ever before. There are more agents and barriers, more choppers, drones, sensors and hi-tech cameras.

INSKEEP: Yet state officials in Texas contend that the illegal flow of people and drugs is worse than ever and they say the border is out of control. To back up that kind of rhetoric, Texas Governor Rick Perry has declared his own war on the traffickers.

NPR's John Burnett has the first of two reports on conditions along the border.

JOHN BURNETT: President Obama came to El Paso, Texas in May to praise his homeland security directors for the good job they're doing on the southwest border.

President BARACK OBAMA: Under their leadership we have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible. They wanted more agents at the border. Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): This president either does not know or does not care what is going on on the border of Texas.

BURNETT: Two weeks later, Governor Rick Perry went on Fox News for a special report about the Texas border. The on-screen graphic read: Under Attack.

Gov. PERRY: I don't want the people of the state of Texas to have to be the catalyst that finally gets the administration to understand that there is great terror on our southern border.

BURNETT: So is South Texas being terrorized by Mexican drug gangs, or is Perry trying to score political points against a president he may face in a run for the White House? The governor's scheduler said he was unavailable for comment for this report. What's certain is that Perry has deployed the Texas Department of Public Safety on the border in unprecedented numbers, including an air force of more than 20 helicopters and airplanes. They act as an uninvited but appreciated adjunct to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Captain STACY HOLLAND (Texas Department of Public Safety): My name is Stacy Holland. I'm a captain with the Texas Department of Public Safety Aircraft Section. We're in McAllen, Texas, at the DPS hangar, where we're basing support aircraft for border operations.

BURNETT: Captain Holland is a lean former highway patrolman in an olive-drab flight suit with a .357 pistol strapped to his tactical vest. Before we go aloft, Holland wants to show us some videos of recent pursuits in his office.

Capt. HOLLAND: Now the crooks realize that the gig's up, so here you see them grabbing their narcotics and running. Now, watch them come off this levee wall and look how many there is. Now, they're going for the river. One, two, three, there must be 20 of them.

BURNETT: We watch thermal night images of frustrated drug traffickers high-tailing it back across the river into Mexico.

Capt. HOLLAND: And I have miles and miles and miles of this type of videotape. So to suggest that the southwestern border is secure is absolutely ridiculous.

BURNETT: A half-hour later, we're strapped into a Euro-copter A-star hovering 600 feet over the Rio Grande, which is amazing to see from up here. The river makes up 1,254 miles of the nearly 2,000 mile border. But it's not arrow-straight like the land border. It curls and loops like a serpent offering countless crossings for contrabandistas.

Capt. HOLLAND: Right now we're west of Los Ebanos, about 25 miles west of McAllen, Texas, and Reynosa.

BURNETT: Captain Holland rides co-pilot. A group of illegal immigrants on the Mexican side, about to swim the Rio Grande, spots the chopper; they clamber back into a pickup truck and it speeds away.

Holland says things are getting wilder down there. Twice last month drug traffickers have fired across the river at U.S. law enforcement agents, who shot back. And in the past year and a half, drug-laden trucks trying to evade U.S. agents and recover their loads have splashed down into the river 55 times.

Capt. HOLLAND: We're coming up on this little area right here, it's called Smugglers Alley. There's a border patrolman right there. Guess that's the first agent we've seen in 25 minutes. We're talking no border fence, a very open border. Does it look secure to you?

BURNETT: The wild and woolly Texas border has now made it to reality TV. A Discovery Channel special called "Texas Drug Wars" chronicles the adventures of the DPS border rangers.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Texas Drug Wars")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Only 100 yards from enemy soil, one group of lawmen are protecting a thin line from drugs.

BURNETT: Correction, it's not one group of lawmen. More than 8,000 Border Patrol agents work on the Texas-Mexico border. Yet that's still not enough to seal the border, which is what critics seem to want. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that the Border Patrol has achieved operational control of 44 percent of the southern border, and of that only 15 percent is under full control.

Rosendo Hinojosa is Chief Border Patrol Agent for the Rio Grande Valley, which has the busiest smuggling corridors in Texas.

Mr. ROSENDO HINOJOSA (Border Patrol): I don't know if you could seal anything. You flew over the river, you saw how many times that river turns and winds and everything else. So what's it going to take to seal that border? We're here to provide the best protection that we can to mitigate the threats that are coming to our border. And I think we are doing a very good job of that.

BURNETT: Texas state officials do not agree, and they're pushing back. Even the normally sleepy State Agriculture Department has created a website called Protect Your Texas Border. Ag Commissioner Todd Staples is sounding the alarm.

Mr. TODD STAPLES (Agriculture Commissioner, Texas): Let me be clear: the sovereignty of America is being undermined at this very moment by violent drug cartel members that are invading Texas farms and ranches.

BURNETT: Some lawmen down on the border agree with this description. McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez testified before a congressional hearing in Washington this spring that was looking into border violence.

Police Chief VICTOR RODRIGUEZ (McAllen, Texas): We have incursions every day. We have people that are afraid to go out on their property. That's un-American.

BURNETT: Other city officials on the border bridle at talk that they're being invaded, or as the governor says, they live in terror. El Paso Mayor John Cook stands on the U.S. side of a bridge that connects his city to Mexico's most dangerous city. He wants Governor Perry to get his facts straight.

Mayor JOHN COOK (El Paso, Texas): The governor has twice said that there's been car bombs going off in El Paso, not clarifying that it actually happened in Juarez, Mexico, the state of Chihuahua. That's their country, that's their side of the border. This is my country, this is my side of the border.

BURNETT: What's going on here, Mayor?

Mr. COOK: Couldn't really tell you what their motivation is, unless it's to attack the current administration in Washington to make it look like they're not doing their part to secure the border.

BURNETT: The rhetoric has, to an extent, followed party loyalty - with more Republicans saying the border is not safe, and more Democrats saying it is. Street cops are generally apolitical.

Mr. JOE BAEZA (Laredo Police Department): The Laredo Police Department has known what homeland security was before the term was ever coined post-9/11.

BURNETT: Joe Baeza, longtime investigator with the Laredo Police Department, says the overheated language from border hawks, amplified on the Internet, has gotten tiresome.

Mr. BAEZA: Is it safe to be on the U.S. side of the Texas-Mexican border? Absolutely. We get calls from people from big cities, Houston and Dallas, all have the same questions: You know, is it safe? Is it as bad as we hear? Are there kidnappings in the middle of the streets and people just being blown away? And it's not. It's nothing like that at all.

BURNETT: So who's right? We'll explore the extent of spillover violence on the southwest border tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. John Burnett, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And John's reporting is a reminder that if you want news reporting that goes beyond the coasts and covers this whole country, you listen to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.