A dry spillover

Children trundle home in a long yellow school bus under an afternoon sun that roasts a neighborhood subdivision with 90-degree temperatures — unremarkable weather on an unremarkable day in West Texas. The kids banter and laugh, oblivious to the passing houses with rock-garden landscaping and two-car garages. The bus eases around a corner and rolls into terror: Three toughs drag a man heavily bound with duct tape across his yard and stuff him into an idling maroon Ford Expedition. They leap in behind black-tinted windows and speed away. His wife wails. Stunned neighbors, summoned to the house minutes earlier by the sound of gunfire, run to call police. The confounded schoolchildren stare aghast.

Not in San Antonio. Not yet, anyway. This incident occurred last fall in Horizon City, a suburb of El Paso. The mutilated corpse of 30-year-old Sergio Saucedo turned up across the border in Ciudad Juarez several days later, his arms and hands severed and crossed across his chest, pinning a crude cardboard sign that contained an undisclosed threat from drug traffickers. “It’s apparent that the spillover has occurred,” warned El Paso County Sheriff’s spokesman Jesse Tovar in a press conference. It is believed Saucedo was killed in retaliation for the loss of 670 pounds of marijuana seized by Border Patrol agents at the Sierra Blanca checkpoint earlier that year.

But this could happen here, perhaps in your neighborhood — or so we hear repeatedly from our elected officials. In March, Governor Rick Perry ordered the activation of the state’s “spillover violence contingency plan.” (Details of the plan will be kept secret from the public “for operational security purposes,” Perry’s office says.) Weeks later, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw testified to the Texas House Committee on Emergency Preparedness, “Spillover is here. I’ve been working cartels since the 1980s, and there has never been a more significant threat.” In a joint letter to President Barack Obama, U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn demanded greater federal resources because, “The spillover violence in Texas is real and it is escalating.”

If so, San Antonio, at the crossroads of the largest smuggling routes in the U.S., confronts a clear and present danger. In our city, “Mexican drug traffickers conceal their operations among the large Hispanic population, use the extensive highway system to receive and transport illicit drug shipments, and exploit commercial businesses and financial institutions to launder illicit proceeds,” according to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s 2009 Drug Market Analysis report on the South Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “Many Mexican drug-trafficking organizations place cells in San Antonio to facilitate the transportation and distribution of illicit drugs from Mexico, the South Texas border area, and San Antonio to drug markets across the country.”

A tale of dos San Antonios

But numerous officials interviewed by the Current, all of them engaged directly and immediately in the field, bluntly contradict these assessments. Connections between local traffickers and Mexican cartels are only tentative, shifting, and informal, they say. Drugs are more likely to be transshipped at the border than in San Antonio or anywhere beyond the highway checkpoints. Prominent narco-trafficking indicators such as kidnapping, corruption, and large seizures are made remarkable only by their absence.

“The numbers just do not support it,” said Jerry Robinette, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in San Antonio, which oversees the entire South Texas region for the Department of Homeland Security. “I deploy a greater proportion of my resources along the border.”

Robinette and other top law-enforcement professionals working directly with the multi-agency High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, including San Antonio Police Department Sergeants Kenneth Albrecht and Joe Myers, spent more than an hour briefing the Current in a private meeting in March. The unequivocal message from the field challenged the conventional wisdom: San Antonio drug crime remains under control, and Mexican cartels have not spread their endemic violence or criminal organizations to the city in any kind of systematic or pervasive fashion. “My group is one of the main reasons San Antonio is as safe as it is,” says Myers, who heads the SAPD’s counter-narcotics division.

In separate, independent interviews, Special Agent Ralph Diaz, who oversees the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s San Antonio Division, and Special Agent Joseph Arabit, who oversees the Drug Enforcement Agency’s El Paso Division and was previously assigned to San Antonio, concurred: We have not been besieged by an invisible network of competing Mexico-based drug trafficking organizations, stealthily assassinating and kidnapping one another as they shore up an underground narcotics railway through the city.

A false sense of insecurity

Just how safe are we? In 2009, San Antonio recorded 99 homicides, a 14-percent drop from 2008, according to data warehoused by the FBI. The city suffered fewer murders and non-negligent manslaughters on a per-capita basis than did either Houston or Dallas. In fact, the San Antonio homicide rate is remarkably low compared with other cities nationwide. And, with the exception of rape, most felonies, including the crimes of murder, theft, assault, robbery, and vehicle theft, have been declining. So, at least by some prima-facie metrics, San Antonio is, as Myers says, “as safe as it is.”

Clearly, a low homicide rate does not in and of itself belie the notion that spillover violence from Northern Mexico’s narcotics wars streams through San Antonio. In fact, according to the FBI, fewer than 5 percent of homicides committed in the U.S. occur simultaneously with violations of narcotics laws — and only a small percentage of those during narcotics trafficking. The vast majority of killings in this hotheaded country result from quotidian arguments.

But compared with other crimes that can often accompany narcotics trafficking, homicide is the hardest to conceal and often easier to connect to a drug-crime motive. If San Antonio slayings are at all consistent with national trends, it would appear that only four people were murdered in the city in all of 2009 while in violation of narcotics laws. Official figures shed no light on particular circumstances, either, but if national trends still hold true, no more than one of those killings, if any, transpired during a narcotics-trafficking event. Hardly alarming for a city approaching 1.5 million in population.

Following an Open Records Request by the Current for details on “all arrests made by the San Antonio Police Department for possession, delivery, distribution, and possession with intent to deliver or distribute the narcotic drugs cocaine or heroin in the second-degree or above within the past year (Mar 13, 2009-Mar 12, 2010),” the SAPD disclosed that only 47 cocaine arrests in 2009 — 3.9 percent of the specified charges — involved quantities of 400 grams or more. Roughly two-thirds of the 1,212 felony arrests recorded involved between 4 and 200 grams. Nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but nothing that Lindsay Lohan couldn’t handle in a good weekend.

Substantial busts in San Antonio are relatively rare. Last September, for example, made headlines because the SAPD snared two hefty coke loads on the streets. On September 10, 10 kilograms of coke were seized from a car being driven by local traffickers; four more kilos were secured during searches executed following their apprehension. On September 16, during a routine traffic stop, a man and a woman were discovered on IH-35 on their way from Mexico to an unknown destination ferrying 10 kilograms of cocaine.

Two months later, a local man, Sam Marlon Alvarez, was sentenced to a lengthy prison term for heading “a conspiracy that stretched from San Antonio, Texas, to Montgomery, Alabama,” which federal and local authorities monitored for months. The amount involved? Five kilograms of cocaine. In one of the biggest hauls of the past several years, 15 kilograms were stumbled upon in 2008 during another serendipitous transit inspection. “It’s not an everyday deal that we get to seize kilos,” SAPD Lieutenant Adolph Zuniga said at the time.

Indeed. By comparison, more than 17,000 kilos were discovered during entry at the Southwest Border in 2009. Tony Montana wouldn’t even get out of his chair for any shipment under three digits. Bulk shipments are generally classified as multi-hundred kilograms by federal authorities. San Antonio appears to lack that scale of action.

Moreover, corruption cases here do not have the same narcotics stain that highly publicized arrests involving U.S. border-city police officers or custom agents commonly carry. The skill of smugglers in plying public officials, including judges, cops, and customs enforcers, is neither mysterious nor new, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border, and throughout the region the FBI has aimed its cannons at what one might call spillover corruption. Of the 700 FBI agents deployed to ferret out public corruption, approximately 120 are working the southwest region. In fiscal year 2009, they made more than 100 arrests and prosecuted more than 130 state and federal cases.

The FBI’s Diaz calls corruption a top bureau priority, one that the FBI coordinates with federal, state, and local agencies, but when pressed to come up with important cases in San Antonio, he cannot. Likewise, Diaz comes up emptyhanded when asked to detail narcotics-related kidnappings in San Antonio. “The city is well-served by its law enforcement,” is his assessment.

Where there’s no smoke

Whether or not the dearth of narcotics-related murders, kidnapping, and drug seizures may be attributed to police work or not is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg question. Myers’s contention that the SAPD has staved off the invasion through vigorous police work may be true. If so, the repeated demands by our elected officials for additional federal resources would be more than justified.

The DEA’s Arabit says that the government has brought the full force of the law to bear on those who do import cartel vendettas and operations into the U.S. His agency recently coordinated with local authorities a thorough investigation that ultimately resulted in the arrest of several men accused of spiriting Saucedo across the border last year.

“The Horizon City kidnapping incident that occurred in September of 2009 was a high-profile case that received national attention. The excellent work of Sheriff’s Office Crime Against Persons Detectives led to the arrest of three individuals involved in the crime. The latest arrests show our continued willingness to assist federal agencies in any investigation,” said El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles.

“We remain concerned about the possibility of spillover,” Arabit said. “We should always be concerned, we should always be vigilant, we should always be prepared for the possibility of it. All that I am saying is that we have not seen much.”

In fact, there were only four murders in El Paso proper last year — a stunning revelation compared with the ongoing carnage just across the border in Ciudad Juarez. Despite contrary perceptions, El Paso is one of the safest cities of its size in the U.S. Most Texan cities along the border can tout similarly low rates of homicide and other violent crimes.

In light of the scanty evidence, the petitioning of funds by our elected officials should give us pause. At the end of the day, the allocation of resources is not a zero-sum game, meaning fulfilling a mandate to control drug trafficking and seal the border against violence will ultimately subtract from such crucial missions as reducing “traditional” crime and corruption and, notably, battling terrorism. Prudent policy addresses all threats, but it also assigns resources based on credible and substantial intelligence.

“One of the primary challenges in assessing this violence is defining the term ‘spillover,’” noted the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in a February report entitled “Southwest Border Violence.” “While there may be an increase in certain illegal activities that may be tied to drug smuggling and trafficking, these illegal activities are not necessarily directly related to drug trafficking in general or to Mexican drug trafficking organizations in particular.” After parsing the issue through numerous lenses — murders, kidnapping, arrests, prosecutions, and other variables, the team of CRS investigators declared that despite some anecdotal evidence: “At present, there is no comprehensive, publicly available data that can definitively answer the question of whether there has been a significant spillover of drug trafficking-related violence into the United States.” •

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