August 23, 2008

Border Star: Organizing against organized crime

August 23, 2008 - 12:00 a.m.

A constant flow of money, guns and illegal immigrants spill across the Texas border.

A clampdown of major state thoroughfares – U.S. highways 77 and 59, for example – increasingly push smugglers to ranch land and county roads.

In response last year, Texas created Operation Border Star – an intense multi-agency effort that attacks crime in targeted regions affected by the dangerous spillovers.

Sheriff’s coalitions work with the U.S. Border Patrol and border-area police departments – and receive state funding to do so.

Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O’Connor is a key player in this alliance.

He was the driving force in forming the Coastal Corridor security sector, one of five state sectors that receives special attention and Border Star funding.

O’Connor also played a major role in creating a Joint Operations Intelligence Center in Victoria, said Steve McGraw, director of Texas Homeland Security.

Critics say the operation is failing. Instead of curbing illegal flows, critics say joint efforts simply push the crimes into even more dangerous areas – and force immigrants and smugglers to take desperate measures.

They say joining sheriffs with border agents increases the fears of immigrants, who won’t report crime if it’s likely they’ll be deported.

Everyone agrees these crimes, and the state’s vast, porous border, need more federal attention. As McGraw noted, the state’s border is only as safe as its weakest link.

Texas’ border covers about 65 percent of the country’s land union with Mexico. The state is a transshipment center for organized crime. Steep profits attract organized gangs.

“You’re seeing a militarization of the mafia,” McCraw said. “In a post-Sept 11 environment, we’ve got an obligation to secure our borders from all threats.”

Before Operation Border Star, the governor provided resources to local law enforcement through Operation Linebacker – a 2005 initiative that paid the way for increased patrols in high-threat areas.

Still, though, coyotes earned as much as $2,500 for smuggling a Mexican, and up to $55,000 for smuggling an immigrant from overseas, into the U.S.

“Their motive is money,” McCraw said. “We want to make it unprofitable for them to operate. We can say it’s not fair, it’s a federal responsibility. We can throw rocks or in this instance the governor can say, ‘We’re going to do something about it.’ ”

In 2007, and at Gov. Rick Perry’s prompting, the Texas legislature became the first to allocate funding for border security, authorizing $110 million to the fight.

“By joining together with our local, state and federal partners, we will support the men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol, and protect our communities by dominating the border,” Perry said in 2007.

Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for the governor, said no one incident sparked the state funding. Rather, ongoing problems demanded money, she said.

“You can’t have Homeland Security without border security,” Castle said. “We’re not going to wait for the federal government to do what they should have been doing since the beginning.”

Perry appointed O’Connor to the Texas Border Security Council, which oversees border security and allocates funds to Operation Border Star.

Council members refuse to disclose each sector’s funding for fear such numbers would tip crime rings as to which regions to avoid – or which to exploit.

Funding is divvied every six months.

Clara Ramos, founder of Mexican Americans Joined in Community Affairs in Victoria, said state leaders are throwing money in the wrong directions.

“That’s our tax money going toward fighting something that is federal,” Ramos said. “We’ve got a lot of problems within our own city.”

Money isn’t the only painful costs, she said. Often, law enforcement pursuits end with dead illegal immigrants. Since O’Connor took office, she counts five such deaths.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, said more focus should be placed on employers.

If illegal immigrants cannot access jobs and services, they won’t risk their lives to come illegally, he said.

Ramos added that if Texas can be on the front line in border security, the state should lead in arranging work visas. In the form of a visa fee, Texas could charge immigrants the money they pay to smugglers.

“They come whichever way they can,” Ramos said. “You can’t control that. Look how long they’ve tried to stop illegal immigration, and it has never succeeded.”

Elizabeth Garcia is a member of the Coalition of Amigos in Solidarity and Action, a group in The Valley that opposes a border wall.

Violence among smugglers is on the rise, and the victims fear turning to U.S. sheriffs, she said. Undocumented workers now know sheriffs have close ties to border agents, a group that can deport immigrants.

And for unified crackdowns on the highways?

“What do you think immigrants will do? Try to go through the less-patrolled, more dangerous areas,” Garcia said.

Most Border Star supporters say efforts are working.

Law enforcement along the traditional trafficking routes report fewer attempts to cross in their areas.

“It’s gone tremendously down ever since Border Star,” Kleberg County Sheriff Ed Mata Sr. said. Instead of traveling on U.S. Highway 77 through urban areas, the traffickers use county roads.

Goliad County Sheriff Robert DeLaGarza agreed. His office records fewer bailouts and pursuits, he said.

Because traffickers see highway patrols, they’re trying northern routes through DeWitt and Karnes counties, he said.

Goliad has the lowest crime rate in the Golden Crescent, according to the Department of Public Safety Uniform Crime Reporting data.

More funding from Operation Border Star increases this success, DeLaGarza added.

It appears these crimes were just pushed elsewhere. DeWitt County Sheriff Jode Zavesky said his deputies see a carload of illegals every other day.

DeWitt County witnessed a spike in activity after sheriffs launched Border Patrol last year.

Still, Zavesky said teaming with Border Star is a must. If not, “smugglers will know they can come through here and have free reign,” he said.

Lavaca County, a new smuggling route north of Victoria, is active, too. Sheriff Micah Harmon said they frequently cross traffickers.

McGraw, the state’s Homeland Security director, said as efforts have increased arrests have dipped.

From 2005 to 2006, this former longtime FBI agent said 66 percent fewer illegal immigrants were arrested in Texas as compared to historical numbers.

Fewer illegals, then, are crossing the Texas border and into traditional areas, he said. Traffickers look for more cost-efficient ways into the country, which is most likely why 200 Border Patrol agents were reassigned to Arizona, he said.

“It’s working,” McCraw said.

O’Connor agreed.

“We’re fooling ourselves if we think we should only concern ourselves on crime in our county. The crime is mobile,” he said. “I do see a reduction in the corridor, but it’s not to the point we know the reason why. Because we’re putting on more pressure? Have we just diminished the flow into Texas?”

While the sheriff learns those answers, he said one thing is certain.

“The only way we’re going to shut it down is to be united in our efforts and aggressive in our nature. If we’re not aggressive – and we think it’s overwhelming now – it’ll definitely be overwhelming in years to come.”

Operation Border Star evolution:

2005: Governor’s office provides $9.8 million to 16 sheriffs’ departments on the border in Operation Linebacker.

February 2006: Operation Rio Grande teams local, state and federal law enforcement to conduct massive surge of operations along border.

January 2007: Operation Wrangler conducts surges statewide in known drug and crime corridors, using 6,000 local, state and federal personnel, 35 maritime patrollers, 45 helicopters and 33 fixed-wing aircraft.

September 2007: Operation Border Star receives $110 million from the Texas legislature and continues surge operations along the border and in high-threat areas. Resources include: DPS troopers, Texas Rangers, Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Wardens, Texas Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Border Patrol and local police and sheriffs’ departments

Source: Office of the GovernorBorder security statistics

since 2005: 65% decrease in index crime in unincorporated areas of the border.

45% decrease in illegal immigrant apprehension.

Since March 2006, 68 1illegal immigrants apprehended from countries with known ties to terrorism.

Source: Office of the Governor

Drugs and money seized

since March 2006:1,515,313 pounds of marijuana

1,478 pounds of methamphetamines

29,320 pounds of cocaine

176 pounds of heroin

$50,678,237 in currency

Source: Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, Texas

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