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Broken Border, Part Six: The Gaps

For many who call the border home, all the guns, all the money, all the technology, and all the police badges have done little to address the problems that make their lives insecure.

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Over the last decade, state and federal officials have drenched the border in cash, spending billions of dollars to increase security and curtail the tide of drugs into the U.S., and flooded the region with guns, technology and equipment. “Our philosophy is based on putting boots on the ground, and equipping those vigilant personnel with the technology, training and funding they need, to help stem the flow of contraband across our border,” Gov. Rick Perry said in a September speech in Houston announcing his latest plan to send Texas Rangers and National Guard troops to the border.

Perry says state efforts have made the border more secure, helped drive down illegal immigration and cut crime. Where Washington has failed at securing the border, he says, Texas has stepped in. "By combining technology with the efforts of Texans concerned about border security, we have had a deterrent effect on criminal activities. This effort has also given Texans a greater sense of ownership of the border security challenge," Perry said in Houston, praising the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition and their work maintaining the border camera program. And until Washington solves the problems, Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said, Texas will continue trying to fill the security gaps. "Gov. Perry believes we must remain vigilant in protecting our state and nation from those who aim to do us harm by taking aggressive action and using state resources to continue securing an international border that has for far too long been neglected by the federal government," she said.

But for many who call the border home, the problems that make their existence precarious continue. Narcotics still flow freely, yet drug treatment is scarce. Drug violence tears apart families, yet victims caught in the crossfire face bureaucratic barriers to care. Crime rates remain unchanged, and border communities watch their southern neighbors die daily in a war fueled by an insatiable U.S. drug appetite.

To be sure, illegal border crossings are down: Apprehensions declined some 39 percent from 2005 to 2008, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. But it's unclear how much of that drop is because of efforts like Perry’s multi-million-dollar border camera program — and how much can be attributed to the simple fact there are fewer jobs to make the harrowing journey north worth the risk for Mexican workers. “The economy, or lack thereof, has probably created some deterrent for people coming from various countries around the world,” said Doug Mosier, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman based in El Paso.

As Perry chastises the federal government (and by association his GOP primary nemesis, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison) for lackluster policy  prescriptions, Texas spends and spends on border security — more than $200 million since 2005. Perry has poured millions into border counties with miniscule populations, few deputies and hardly any crime to begin with. He’s even given money to counties where high-ranking officers have been indicted for helping narcos the dollars are supposed to target.

Perry and other lawmakers boast of steep crime reductions the efforts have produced — as much as 65 percent Perry has said time and again. The sheriffs who have been the beneficiaries of Perry’s largesse are happy to echo those claims. Yet the real crime numbers — Uniform Crime Reports from the Texas Department of Public Safety — show that border residents were no safer in 2008 than they were before the state began directing money to state-led border security efforts. Meanwhile, their neighbors south of the border continue slaughtering one another in a vicious war over who gets to use which routes to fill Americans’ incessant demand for illegal narcotics. “If we weren’t sticking this stuff up our noses, people wouldn’t be transporting it up to us,” said Jane Maxwell, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Excellence in Drug Epidemiology.

For the 25 percent of border residents who live in poverty in communities inundated with drugs, little is being done to make their daily lives safer or healthier.

When Justin, a 16-year-old recovering heroin addict in Laredo, goes home from one of the precious few drug treatment centers on the border after just a handful of weeks, he will return to the same drug-infested poor neighborhood where his troubles began. Heroin will still be plentiful and cheap despite the untold billions spent on border security and the war on drugs.

At the same time, amped-up federal border security efforts have made it tougher on child victims of the drug trade who wind up in state custody and need access to specialized doctors and mental health professionals that lie beyond a second, artificial border created by Border Patrol checkpoints. “The main problem along the border when you compare it to other areas of the state and of the country is just the poverty and lack of resources,” said Luis Flores, executive director of Serving Children and Adolescents in Need (SCAN) Inc., in Laredo.

Flores has lived on the border much of his life, working the past 20 years with drug addicted youth and their families. The focus on boots, guns and walling out the bad guys, he said, has diverted attention from the daily struggles of people who live there. “At what point are we going to say we have enough machine guns?” he asked. “If you have a happy community where you take care of your citizens, then you have a stronger border.”

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