Lawlessness, widespread violence, and constant threats from vicious drug gangs.
That's the frightening portrayal of life in Texas border counties gleaned from the latest report from the Texas Department of Agriculture, further fueling an intensely politicized debate over security along the Texas-Mexico border. Referencing “insurgents” and “narco-terrorists,” the report, drafted by two retired Army generals, insists that living in Texas border counties is “tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”
The report, though called a “military assessment” of the Texas-Mexico border, makes a deeply political splash, coming as the ideological chasm between Democratic and GOP rhetoric over border security continues to widen.
President Obama, in May, traveled to El Paso, seated across the border from Murder City itself, Juarez, declaring that millions spent to ramp up security along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years had made it safer and more secure than ever. He also charged that GOP lawmakers continue to use the specter of border security to stall true reform of the nation's broken immigration system.
Now gracing the national stage, Governor Rick Perry has hit back hard. In one GOP presidential debate last month he bristled that Obama was either ill informed about the situation along the border or an “abject liar.” Most recently, he famously floated the idea of sending American troops into Mexico to help quell the violent drug war raging there.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples is no stranger to political posturing on border security either, and his new report coincides with his own run for lieutenant governor. He commissioned the $80,000, 182-page military assessment this summer soon after launching his own taxpayer funded website ProtectYourTexasBorder.com, which quickly became a digital dump for calls for vigilante justice along the Rio Grande from anonymous commenters advocating everything from land mines to “tiger traps.” Among the more alarming comments: “Killem all!!!! They are destroying or [sic] great country.”
Soon after Staples held a press conference last week announcing the report, Democratic Congressmen Silvestre Reyes of El Paso chided what he called “outrageous claims to promote reactionary measures, such as militarizing the border.” In a lengthy statement slamming the new report, he said, “This is yet another example of how Republicans continue to distort the facts and manipulate crime statistics to mischaracterize the border as out-of-control.”
The report itself relies largely on anecdotal cases gleaned from Staple's controversial website, and the most serious charges of violence and intimidation are anonymous, somewhat sketchy, and offer few details, giving a starkly different account of border life than the one emerging from FBI crime stats – that Texas border hubs like Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso continue to see low homicide figures, even as their populations swell.
Gilbert Salinas, vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council, says the city continues to combat rumors that spillover violence has rendered the region lawless and out-of-control. “We're at the point where people are now willing to associate any crime that happens to what's happening in Mexico,” he said. “It's the easy narrative that comes to mind, it's the easiest and quickest thing to jump to whenever a crime occurs here on the border. … The fact is, we're not a war zone, and if that was the case, people would be moving out of this region left and right,” he said, while citing Brownsville's 25 percent population boom over the past decade.
During the press conference announcing the new report, one of its authors, former Clinton-era “Drug Czar” Barry McCaffrey, claimed hundreds had been murdered on the Texas side of the border, far outpacing the 22 killings over the past year cited by the Department of Public Safety as being cartel related. McCaffrey referenced statements from a Brooks County rancher, who claimed hundreds of bodies had been found in the county in recent years. The Brooks County sheriff's department later told the Austin American-Statesman the bodies were likely those of undocumented immigrants who died in the brush trying to avoid the nearby Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint, not victims of any violent attack.
Staples' new report essentially advocates ramping up militarization of the border, insisting border counties are already part of a war zone, even drumming up counter-insurgency strategies from campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The political and media frenzy over supposed spillover violence has become a nagging concern for Val Verde County, which borders the Rio Grande near the hub of Del Rio, said Sheriff Joe Martinez, even though, as he puts it, “I'm not aware of any of our landowners on this side being threatened.” With greater frequency, Martinez says he fields calls from up north asking whether Val Verde County is still safe for hunting, fishing, and travel. Many, he says, have simply stopped coming.
Referencing Staples' report, Martinez said, “People see this stuff in print, they see it on television. You have other elected officials making comments on what the border is like. … I know it's affected our economy on both sides of the border, even though I know things here are safe.”
Further west in Hudspeth County, Sheriff Arvin West has taken a different approach. About an hour southeast of El Paso, West famously told ranchers at a town-hall meeting in April to arm themselves to prep for spillover violence. “As they say the old story is, it is better to be tried by 12 than carried by six. Damn it, I don't want to see six people carrying you.”
Roughly a month later, Norberto Velez and his son Norangel were shot by a nearby rancher named Joseph Denton when they got lost and made a wrong turn onto his property. Norangel Velez told El Paso's KTSM-TV, “The only reason he shot is because he saw that we're Hispanic. He thought we were immigrants. We're not immigrants. I was born here. I've lived here all my life.”
Sheriff West failed to return several calls for comment.
West has his small rural corner of the frontera, but Staples, with statewide reach, has a much louder bullhorn. Let's hope that in stirring up more fear he doesn't spark more gunplay.