The Department of Homeland Security’s new attempt to build a mobile, virtual “fence” along the southern border is starting to show some of the same troubling characteristics of their last try. You know, the one that was canceled earlier this year after wasting a billion dollars.
According to a federal audit released last Friday, no one knows how much DHS’ new $1.5 billion fence plan, termed the Arizona Border Surveillance and Technology Plan, will eventually cost or whether it will even work at all. The report, produced by the Government Accountability Office, says DHS’ Customs and Border Protection, the agency tasked with implementing the plan, “has not yet demonstrated the effectiveness and suitability of its new approach for deploying surveillance technology in Arizona.”
Meanwhile, opposite the U.S. border, the Mexican government is grappling with a drug war that’s killed an estimated 40,000 people.
Propelled in part by fear of spillover violence, the Arizona plan aimed at creating an integrated network of drones, video surveillance towers and truck-mounted radars to cover the Arizona border and snoop on everyone from migrants to drug smugglers. It was a seemingly more modest and mobile approach than the wildly impractical former DHS strategy — dubbed SBInet — which planned to blanket the entire U.S. border with Mexico using fixed sensors.
However, according to the report, the Border Patrol never accounted for things not going absolutely, perfectly to plan. They built in no financial slack for delays in scheduling, for the technology being misplaced or for simply breaking down in the Arizona desert. Neither has the Border Patrol established metrics to determine whether building a virtual fence will lead to increased interdictions of clandestine border crossings.
This is while Congress is piling on new drones to an understaffed and underfunded border force.
“Our findings are particularly relevant considering similar deficiencies in SBInet systems,” the report says. A lack of “quantifiable or qualitative” benefits in claims was substituted by SBInet boosters with unverifiable filler, including how the asbence of such a system could “increase the risks of terrorist threats and other illegal activities.”
In fairness, the 53 miles of the Arizona border now covered by SBInet equipment likely did increase interdictions of undocumented immigrants and smugglers — the GAO certainly believes so. But it’s important to note this 53 miles of ’security’ came with a price tag of $1 billion. That leaves another 334 miles uncovered; the costs for that fence could be astronomical. If the GAO is raising concerns the Arizona initiative is moving the same direction, then that’s a very bad sign.
Meanwhile, violence on the Mexican side of the border is getting worse — and showing signs of spilling over into the U.S.
“[Transnational criminal organizations] are getting squeezed tighter and tighter by authorities on both sides of the border,” explains Sylvia Longmire, analyst and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars. “However, they still need to keep the drug profits coming in. That means taking on more risk, i.e. engaging with U.S. law enforcement and engaging in violent behavior in public on U.S. soil.”
And she has a point. At least 65 percent of Mexican territory is now considered “unsafe” by foreign governments. In eastern Tamaulipas, fighting between the Gulf Cartel (CDG) and their former enforcer wing the Zetas has enroached into Monterrey, Mexico’s wealthiest city and the country’s second largest.
Closer to the U.S. — no, in the U.S. — on Tuesday, Border Patrol agents confronted a group of smugglers near the town of La Rosita, Texas. The smugglers reportedly fled back into Mexico where they were confronted by the military. A firefight ensued, and during the confrontation, one smuggler crossed back into Texas where he was discovered by the Border Patrol with three gunshot wounds.
More worrying, is the recent shooting of a Hidalgo County sheriff during a confrontation with CDG kidnappers. Also dangerous is the presence of CDG lieutenants in South Texas apparently taking shelter from an internal dispute which began with the September killing of Reynosa CDG plaza boss Samuel “Metro 3″ Flores.
Since then, internecine fighting within the cartel has reportedly killed off a number of its top leaders and stressed the organization’s finances. Arrests have been reported in Texas of three lieutenants and one killing of a CDG member on a McAllen, Texas highway by rival gunmen. And in a possible reaction to the cartel’s financial losses, a man was kidnapped Nov. 1 by a crew of CDG soldiers in Edinburg, Texas for apparently stealing 1,500 pounds of drugs. The Monitor reported the man was discovered by U.S. authorities at a border crossing when they questioned a teenage suspect driving a car with the kidnapped man banging from inside the trunk.
But this only attests to the point so far. Clearly, there’s reasonable cause for some concern about Mexico’s drug violence popping up in U.S. cities. But then the question becomes: what is DHS’ plan in response? If anything is clear, which is often not or even typically the case in matters involving the drug war, it’s that high-tech boondoggles are probably not the answer.