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Spillover Politics

Leaders from one end of the Texas-Mexico border to the other want Gov. Rick Perry to tone down the scary rhetoric and get real about solving problems in their hometowns. And, by the way, they would like to be consulted about security plans that affect their communities. "We know what's going on on the border," says Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas. "Our needs were not taken into consideration."

A screengrab from Perry's "Border" spot.

Leaders from one end of the Texas-Mexico border to the other said Friday they want Gov. Rick Perry to tone down the scary rhetoric and get real about solving problems in their hometowns. And, by the way, they would also like to be consulted about security plans that affect the communities where they live.

“We live on the border. We work on the border. We raise our families right here,” says Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas, a retired FBI agent. “We know what’s going on on the border. There’s a plan, and our needs were not taken into consideration.”

Perry announced Tuesday that he was activating the first phase of the Texas “spillover violence contingency plan" and said he would increase law enforcement presence on the border, put SWAT and Recon Ranger teams on standby and deploy two helicopters. His spokeswoman, Katherine Cesinger, said Friday that the plan was developed in 2009 with input from local and federal law enforcement on the border. “The safety of Texas citizens is the governor’s greatest concern, and regardless of when, where or in what form any threat may pose to Texans, Gov. Perry will always proactively and aggressively address anything that would do them harm,” she said.

The activation announcement came days after three people with ties to the U.S. Consulate in Juárez were shot and killed in that crime-plagued city, including an American citizen who was four months pregnant and her husband, an El Paso jail guard. Perry also called on the federal government to deploy unmanned aerial drones and National Guard troops to the border and repeatedly attacked Washington, as he as in the past, for not doing enough to secure it. Federal officials said Friday that they were considering the governor’s request for additional aerial surveillance.

Border mayors, sheriffs and other elected officials say Perry did not consult with them before announcing he was activating the first phase of the spillover plan. They’re concerned not only that he didn’t seek their input but also that his strong words about the threats and violence from Mexico paint the entire border as a danger zone where bullets zing incessantly across the Rio Grande. The situation is bad in Juárez, they agreed, but in other communities, life goes on fairly normally. “We don’t have that here, so don’t say, ‘Throughout the border, this is going on.' It’s not going on,” says Del Rio Mayor Efrain Valdez, chairman of the Texas Border Coalition. And for all the talk about beefing up border security, most of the border officials says they haven’t seen the increased law enforcement and helicopters that Perry promised. “We have seen here no evidence of any on-the-ground resources from Gov. Perry,” says state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. “We have seen TV clips.” Border officials say what the region really needs is long-term help, like money to hire more local officers, improved port infrastructure and investments that will help bring economic and social stability to both sides of the Texas-Mexico border.

The Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and business leaders, sent Perry a letter Wednesday urging him to contact them before he activates security initiatives. Valdez says only one city, El Paso, had been alerted before Perry launched the spillover plan. “We are learning about your plans from the media, along with everyone else,” Valdez wrote. “This makes it impossible for us to coordinate with your office to create the most effective strategy to keep our border communities safe.” 

Before the announcement of the spillover plan, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office had “very preliminary” information that Perry would be sending some additional resources its way, says Chief Deputy Sylvia Aguilar, though she didn’t have first-hand knowledge of what state help has been sent since Tuesday. She hesitates to characterize events in El Paso as spillover of violence from Mexico, but she says there has been a kidnapping and some threats. “That’s what we’re having to deal with: the fear, and this feeling of 'what’s going to happen next?'”

Although the deaths in Juárez hit close to home — especially for the sheriff’s department, which lost one of its jailers in the weekend killings — Aguilar says the violence across the river has been raging for years. It sparked national news and political attention this weekend, but it has long been a sad daily reality for El Pasoans. “It’s pretty much life and business as usual here,” she says. “I mean, we are aware of the danger in Juárez. We know it’s treacherous to go over there. But at the end of the day, we come home and pray for the best.”

Border leaders don’t necessarily object to Perry’s spillover plan, but some say they are concerned that the language he uses creates an inaccurate picture of the security situation. Valdez says there has been no spillover violence in Del Rio, just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño says his community, adjacent to the frequent gun battles in Reynosa, has not seen spillover violence either. “What concerns me is it’s instilling the fear of crime in our local constituency when it really is not occurring,” he says. “Is there potential for spillover? Oh, absolutely there is, but we’ve held the line.” Like Valdez, Treviño says Perry didn’t alert him before the spillover plan was activated. Like Shapleigh, he says he hasn’t seen any signs since the announcement that security has been boosted. “Phase one is not any different than what we have been doing this last 45 to 60 days,” he says.

Laredo Mayor Salinas says his city needs emergency security grants and money for about 30 more police officers. He doesn’t see any spillover violence from Nuevo Laredo, but he says he needs resources to prepare for that if it happens. “I would like to see the governor come to the border, meet with all the border mayors and have real input and real action,” Salinas says.

Congressmen from the border likewise say Perry had not contacted them about his border spillover plan. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, says he and other Texas border lawmakers talked Friday with Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw about their concerns. “We were all on the phone, and we said, ‘Hey, we want to talk to you about your secret plan. What is it?’” Cuellar says. "He went ahead and gave us some information, and he says it's law-enforcement sensitive." The lawmakers also asked McCraw to coordinate with them in the future on major state border security moves, especially since Cuellar chairs the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security and U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, chairs the House Intelligence Committee. “We just want to be on the same page as the governor,” Cuellar says.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler says federal officials were not made aware of the Texas spillover plan either, but he says Customs and Border Protection will work with state law enforcement to coordinate security efforts. Also, on Friday, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said she would consider Perry’s request for a Predator drone based in Texas.

DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange says not all the security initiatives may be publicly visible, but she says patrols on the ground and in the air have increased. And she says DPS special teams are on standby to react to any spillover incidents.

Perry spokeswoman Cesinger says the spillover plan is being implemented with state and local resources. She challenged the notion that spillover is not a serious concern in border communities. “I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that violence hasn’t been escalating in northern Mexico,” she says, adding another swipe at Washington: “With inadequate resources to secure the Texas-Mexico border, the threat of spillover violence is all too real.”

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