After narcotics seizures surged 45 percent in 2010, the Laredo Customs District saw a relatively minimal increase in contraband that was intercepted at its ports in 2011.
Although the amount of methamphetamine and heroin seized by agents jumped, marijuana and undeclared cash remained steady while cocaine dipped. Inspectors credit the figures to an increased enforcement effort that has curbed the flow of drugs and other contraband.
But others aren't sure the federal government should applaud so loudly about the Laredo district figures, saying efforts on the whole are still lacking.
The Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and private sector leaders that advocates for more resources at the nation’s land ports, released a scathing report last week that says no matter how much the government spends on border security (about $90 billion over the last 10 years, according to the report), the current "ad hoc" strategy doesn’t hinder cartels from moving their products.
There is a mere 28 percent chance that a smuggler will get caught at the nation’s ports of entry, compared with a 90 percent of being detected between the ports of entry, the report states.
“It’s kind of like a car driving with brand-new wheels on one side and leaving old wheels on the other. They are not balancing out,” Monica Weisberg-Stewart, the chairwoman of the coalition’s Immigration and Border Security Committee, said of recent staffing efforts.
The group notes that although the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents has increased from about 4,000 in 1993 to more than 24,280 in 2012, funding for Customs and Border Protection inspectors at the nation's bridges has increased to only $2.9 billion this year from $1.6 billion in 1993. About 75 percent of that increase was consumed by rising inflation, the report states.
“So what has been done is a vacuum is caused right at the ports of entry,” said Weisberg-Stewart, explaining that cartels are taking advantage of the understaffed ports.
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security said it had increased staffing levels for CBP officers to 20,500. Still the border coalition says the staffing is not enough to man the 42 official border crossings the U.S. shares with Mexico.
“This imbalanced deterrence contributes to America’s vulnerability to the Mexican drug cartels, terrorists and traffic in people and contraband at the designated border crossings,” the report states.
The narcotics data was also analyzed to suggest that an increase — or even a consistent level of narcotics seizures — reflects that vast amounts are getting through the ports.
“Absolutely [more is getting through],” said Phil Jordan, who served as the director of the El Paso Intelligence Center during his role as a special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Dallas division.
“As long as the demand is as high as it is on this side of the border, the dope that’s getting through is obviously fulfilling the demand," he said. "Basically, everything has to do with the demand side of it, and I don’t see the demand subsiding on this side of the border.”
Like Weisberg-Stewart, Jordan said that the funding used for the ill-advised border fence project should have gone toward more resources that actually affect illegal smuggling.
“If you put up the Great Wall of China, that’s not going to stop the smugglers,” he said. “[Reported Sinaloa cartel leader] Chapo Guzman and those cartel members are smart enough. They will go around, through or under it.”
But in Laredo, whose customs district covers the eight ports from Del Rio to Brownsville and is home to the country’s busiest inland port, there is reason for optimism.
After witnessing 154,310 pounds of narcotics seized in 2010, the amounts only increased to 157,120 last year.
And during the first quarter of fiscal 2012, drug and cash seizures have dipped compared with the same time period last year. So far agents there have seized about 32,470 pounds of narcotics, compared with 36,800 in 2011. About $2.1 million in illicit cash was seized, compared with $3.2 million last year.
“We attribute the decreases to a robust, layered enforcement posture at South Texas ports of entry,” Customs and Border Patrol Public Affairs Officer Rick Pauza said in an email.
Pauza has reason to boast, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on national security implications of illicit economies. But she cautioned that simple statistics don’t tell the entire story.
“It’s a tough call, and part of the problem with estimating the effectiveness of interdiction is that we really have very little of a baseline. Everything is based on seizure,” she said. “My hunch would be that there is some great effectiveness to interdiction, but I wouldn’t overstate it.”
Felbab-Brown said that historically, a lot of “auspicious” factors have to come together to dent the flow of narcotics for a substantial amount of time. Harvesting seasons in Mexico also affect marijuana transport and production, as do the cartels’ abilities to gauge which ports to attempt to cross.
“If there is a sense there is a lot of focus at a particular crossing, then people might choose to go through Arizona or something. That’s why estimates of changes in the drug market based in short-term variations is excruciatingly difficult,” she said. “It really only makes sense to look at long-term series and long-term changes.”
Illegal Immigration Numbers Dip
At least one main facet of the border security debate, illegal immigration, appears to have taken a significant hit at least in part because of ramped-up enforcement. Apprehensions of illegal immigrants have fallen significantly, Department of Homeland Security data reflects. An estimated 340,250 illegal immigrants were apprehended across the country in the last fiscal year, compared with 463,380 in fiscal 2010, more than a 26 percent dip.
There were about 327,580 apprehensions in the four southwest border states, including about 119,000 in Texas and 129,000 in Arizona. California and New Mexico saw 72,600 and 6,900 apprehensions, respectively. Government officials say that fewer apprehensions reflect a dip in overall attempts, which means the country’s borders are more secure.