Making widgets, not war
Busy Texas border areas hit by exaggerations, not explosives
by Nelson Balido
October 20, 2011
Let's play a quick game of fill-in the blank: "Living and conducting business in __________ is tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock."
c) The Gaza Strip
d) None of the above
The correct answer is d, none of the above. Or at least it is if you were watching last Friday's hearing in the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, where the subcommittee learned that, according to a recently released report, it's living in a Texas border county that is like living in a war zone.
This violent characterization may come as a surprise to those of you who live in the vast area stretching from El Paso to Brownsville. I know it did to me, as it's rare that a week goes by where I'm not visiting with key private and public sector officials along our nation's border with Mexico, where $1 billion in trade is done every day.
Friday's testimony in the House was provided by retired General Barry McCaffrey, an esteemed military mind and the former director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy; and retired Major General Dr. Robert Scales, the president of the consulting firm Colgen, LP.
Both are respected experts in their fields and they're each often called upon by lawmakers in both parties for their keen insight into the challenges facing our nation. But in this case, their pitched rhetoric and "war zone" imagery proved to be an unnecessary distraction, earning derision from border region lawmakers.
Their report, "Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment," a 59-page work, was commissioned by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Steve McGraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
These types of comments have serious ramifications. As border Rep. Henry Cuellar said in a recent email to constituents, "Business on the border is booming. False, baseless attacks like this harm our public image and weaken our economy by spreading misinformation that might discourage companies from doing business along the border."
Make no mistake, the drug cartel violence occurring in Mexico is – and rightfully should be – a major concern for border state law enforcement. Preventing spillover violence has become a top priority for law enforcement agencies that are hyperaware that they could find themselves outgunned by an opposition for whom resources aren't a problem.
But consider this item from the report: "Fear and anxiety levels among Texas farmers and ranchers have grown enormously during the past two years. Farmers, ranchers and other citizens in border communities are caught in the crossfire of escalating cross-border violence resulting in large part from conflicts between cartels, paramilitary enforcement groups and transnational gangs struggling for control of key drug and illegal alien smuggling routes into the U.S. from El Paso to Brownsville."
Even if we concede that the authors' use of the word "crossfire" was only meant in the figurative sense, it's still a turn of phrase the raises eyebrows for people who live and work in the border region. Yes, border life has changed since the cartel wars have flared up. For example, there are very little discretionary or leisure border crossings at many ports of entry all along the border. The trips across the border for dinner or to visit with friends have largely ceased.
Yet U.S. border communities are not centers of violence. In fact, they're far from it. San Diego, one of America's 10-largest cities, which abuts part of the Mexican border with Tijuana, had, with 29 murders last year, less than 1 murder for every 50,000 of its people. Calexico, Calif. had no murders. Nogales, Ariz.: No murders.
And what about the supposed Texas war zones of cities like El Paso and Laredo? Out of 350 cities, Laredo's crime rate comes in at no. 144. El Paso has the 275th highest crime rate. Those are the types of numbers that make fellow Texas cities like San Antonio and Houston envious.
In an email to constituents, El Paso area Rep. Silvestre Reyes wrote, "the report aimed to paint the border as dangerous and out of control, when, in fact, cities such as El Paso, McAllen, and Brownsville are safer than most cities in U.S.
Yes, border communities on the U.S. side of the border are navigating a new public safety paradigm, which has our leaders assessing whether we're doing all we can to ensure our security. But let's keep our characterizations of what's going on in the border region constrained to reality. Otherwise, our credibility suffers and with it the border's standing as an attractive place to live and do business.
Nelson Balido is the president of the Border Trade Alliance.