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On the Border, Selling the High Price of Security

It's not a sales pitch heard too often in the Rio Grande Valley, but farmers and ranchers here have a new, tax-deductible option for improving their businesses — and the company offering it promises to take a bullet for its client.

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It's not a sales pitch heard too often in the Rio Grande Valley. Farmers and ranchers here — used to haggling over the price of feed, irrigation rights and labor costs — have a new, tax-deductible option for improving their businesses.

And the company offering it promises to take a bullet for its client.

International Security Agency, a private security firm with offices in Colorado and Houston, announced last week in McAllen that it has received the required licenses from the Texas Department of Public Safety to operate locally. Its mission is to stop cartel-style violence in the United States before it starts. The sales pitch combines patriotism, politics and security and fits well with the mythic ethos of the west: If the government cannot protect its citizens, it’s up to the individual.

“I love my country,” says ISA President Jerry Brumley. “If I were king or emperor of America, I would do exactly what Ronald Reagan did. [Reagan said], ‘You know what? You hurt an American citizen — I don’t care where you are — and I am coming after you.’ And we’re in America.”

Last week’s presentation to McAllen-area businesses, farmers and ranches included snippets of newsreels highlighting the violence on the border: images of the aftermath of a car bomb in Ciudad Juárez, DPS night-vision video of smugglers abandoning their loads in the Rio Grande, car chases that leave a vehicle submerged in the river — even a clip of an animated Glenn Beck comparing narcos to terrorists and screaming that the government refuses to do anything about it.  

The company’s informational slide show explains to any potential client it is hiring more than just a rent-a-cop security guard. Instead, it demonstrates what a military-style “cadre” is, complete with a photograph of a camouflaged soldier raising a weapon and taking aim. But Brumley says his outfit doesn’t abide by any traditional rules in which one must be fired upon first to engage.

“Our practice is if someone raises a weapon to me and I feel threatened, with my life or the life of my client, I am taking action,” Brumley said. “I am not going to lose an American because my rules of engagement say ‘Well you know, they have to shoot at you [first].’”

When asked if Gov. Rick Perry believes such a private security force is needed on the border, or if he has concerns that such a company might act outside the scope of the law, a spokeswoman instead criticized the federal government.

“Let’s be clear here: It is the federal government’s responsibility to protect Americans by securing the international border between the U.S. and Mexico,” said Katherine Cesinger, Perry’s deputy press secretary. “Since the federal government is not fulfilling that responsibility, it is unfortunate but not surprising that citizens living along the U.S.-Mexico border feel so unsafe on their own property that they could be looking to hire personal security.” Cesinger added that Perry created Ranger Recon Teams in 2009 to address the increased burglaries of rural homes by identifying high-intensity smuggling routes in remote areas along the border.

Brumley’s agency, which has existed since 1977, boasts access to about 350 guards, whose resumes include service in local, state and federal law enforcement and the armed forces — even snipers and members of the Special Forces. Brumley says the agency has operated in 33 countries worldwide, including several in Latin America. Pressed on whether it has worked in Mexico, Brumley would only say “many of his officers have been in Mexico.”

The company is labeled by the Texas DPS as an “Investigation Company, ” which the state occupation code says is authorized to collect information on “crime or wrongs done or threatened against a state or the United States” and to “engage in the business of protecting, or accepts employment to protect, an individual from bodily harm through the use of a personal protection officer.” It’s also classified as a “Guard Company” whose purpose is to prevent entry, larceny, vandalism, abuse, fire, or trespass on private property and to protect an individual from bodily harm including through the use of a personal protection officer.”

The firm’s goal is not to fight cartels or smugglers or end the war on drugs, Brumley says. He sees these illegal groups as any other business, with a clientele in America more than willing to fuel their enterprises.

‘You have to respect them because they are running their businesses,” he says.

ISA’s pitch has raised the interest of at least one border lawmaker, who says he plans to look into what companies like ISA are offering.

“That ought to be the responsibility of the state, not private contractors,” says state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. “Look at the mess we have in Iraq with Blackwater. I do not support private security firms coming in and doing law enforcement work when we have our own DPS people, our own Texas Rangers, which respond directly to us, the Texas Legislature.”

Brumley disputes the comparisons to Blackwater Worldwide, the former name of the controversial private security firm hired by the U.S. Department of State for services in the Middle East, including Iraq, and Asia. Firms like those, he says, hire former soldiers and intelligence officers immediately after they enter the private sector. Instead the average age of ISA employees is 33, which, he says, means a more mature agent and not a gung-ho vigilante.

An applicant to ISA must be former military with at least four years of service and an honorable discharge, a federal law or civilian law enforcement officer with at least two years of service, a security officer with six years of experience or a personal protection agents with more than three years of experience.

Its standards, Brumley says, are part of the reason why the agency gained such high-profile clients as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and the Democratic National Convention shortly after being granted approval to operate in the U.S. in 2007. The company has never been charged with a crime or lost a client, he adds.

Despite the everyman pitch aimed at selling the idea that all citizens or legal residents are entitled to be free of fear in this country, Brumley’s services may be out of reach for the average border farmer or rancher. Services range from hundreds to thousands of dollars per agent, depending on the service and amount of time required. Patrolling a modest piece of unoccupied land near the border — a couple hundred acres, for example — would cost about $200 per agent per day. But Brumley says he prefers a minimum of two agents per team and rotating shifts to cover 24 hours. About $2,500 per agent per day would buy more comprehensive services, from surveillance and personal protection to armored vehicle escorts with armed agents.

A property owner who attended the McAllen event and asked not to be named out of concern for his safety said the prices would be too much for people like himself. He says he owns only a half-acre lot about 15 miles from the border, where he has witnessed drug and human smuggling.

“With my situation I would not be able to afford this type of protection,” he says. “I would love to be able to but I think this is geared toward the larger scale — someone who has more asset liability that needs to be protected.”

Brumley says the price reflects the quality of service. People always have the option of hiring a minimum wage security guard for about $13 an hour, if that’s all they need.

“We provide a higher quality of service,” he says. “Our guys will step between you and a bad guy. A steep price? It’s not going to be cheap. But if you get it back at the end of your taxes [as a business expense], is it that expensive?”

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