Last night, just north of Nogales, Ariz., Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry was shot and killed after coming in contact with several suspicious men near Rio Rico, Ariz. Four suspects have been taken into custody while another is still at large, according to the Customs and Border Patrol.
Back in September I had the chance to spend a day with Border Patrol agents around Nogales, doing a story both on what they contend with on a daily basis, as well as how they use sensing technologies to help them do their jobs.
The area around Nogales is part of the Tucson Sector, which is the most active alone the entire border. Covering only 262 mi. of border, the sector still managed to account for 1 million lb. of marijuana seized in Fiscal 2010, and 203,000 illegal border crossers detained. Tucson also has the distinction of being the test bed for the Homeland Security Department’s huge and controversial SBInet program, part of its larger Secure Border Initiative. SBI was initiated in 2005 to add fencing, paved and graded roads and install SBInet technologies such as radar, sensors, cameras and other communications gear along the border.
Five years on, and $800 million later, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a freeze on the program pending a top-to-bottom review. At the time, nine towers in the Tucson Sector had been completed, and by late October six more were conducting limited operations in the Ajo Sector. Still, the agents on the ground loved the gear, which gives them real-time access to radar and camera feeds, and increases both their safety, as well as their response time.
I wrote the whole thing up here.
But the bigger issue for the border, and for the region south of the border, are the organized, deadly and very wealthy criminal gangs that hold sway throughout portions of northern Mexico, and in places like Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia. I explored this problem in the December issue of DTI.
In Mexico alone, over 30,000 Mexicans have been killed since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels after his election in 2006. Calderon sent 50,000 troops into the streets to try and take back some of the ungoverned spaces carved out by outfits like the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juarez Cartel and others who reap the benefits of an estimated $19-29-billion in yearly drug and smuggling profits. The results, however, have been anything but conclusive.
Calderon’s policies didn’t create the violence; rather they helped inflame an already volatile situation brought about by myriad social and political changes that feed the growth and bloodlust of the cartels.
Major political changes came about in Mexico with the breakup of the single-party rule enjoyed by Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran the country for 70 years, and the Federal Security Directorate (FSD), which oversaw domestic security matters from the 1940s to the mid-1980s. After the corrupt FSD was broken up in the 1980s and the PRI lost the presidency in the 1990s, the cartels stepped up competition for the lucrative drug smuggling routes that serve as pipelines for illegal substances to be shipped across the U.S. border.
It’s not a problem that can be solved quickly, cleanly, or without a lot of money and effort spent by both the Mexican and U.S. governments. It is, after all, the insatiable thirst for drugs north of the border that allows these drug cartels to flourish. Tragically, the murder of agent Terry last night probably won’t spur an honest and open discussion of the issues involved. Rather, it will most likely result in a political sideshow that will call for redoubling efforts to seal off and militarize the border—things we’ve tried before, and have been shown to be ineffective if not coupled with social, and political, action.