A number of law enforcement officials on the southwest border, along with two members of Congress, have asked the Department of Defense to send surplus military equipment from the war in Iraq to the southern border in an effort to bolster security in the region.
Congressmen Ted Poe (R-Humble) and Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), both from Texas, along with sheriffs from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona sent a letter last month to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asking for a more militarized approach to securing the U.S.-Mexico border from drug cartel violence.
“These criminals show no hesitation in using violence to intimidate law enforcement in Mexico and what was once a regionally isolated criminal justice matter has grown into a significant national security concern for the U.S. and Mexico,” the letter stated.
“With the drawdown of U.S. troops and equipment in Iraq, and our role in Afghanistan winding down, it is to be expected that in the next few years there will be a significant amount of surplus equipment that will become available that could be extremely beneficial for border security operations,” the letter added.
The request comes as many border towns and communities worry about spillover violence from cartels operating in Mexican cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo. Despite the Obama Administration’s report last year that stated that the U.S.-Mexico border region has never been more secure and there are no reports of a large-scale incursion by the cartels, rumors along the border are spreading of cartel violence in the lower 48.
In February, a woman pushing a stroller in El Paso, Texas was struck by an assault rifle bullet that came from across the border in Ciudad Juárez. Authorities on the U.S. side later determined that the bullet was fired across the border during a gunfight between carjackers and Juárez police.
“There is no way you can prevent an incident like this from happening,” said El Paso Mayor John Cook. “This is just another difficulty for the city of El Paso and for the border region when we’re trying to highlight the fact that the border violence is on a decline.”
Experts argue that although there is spillover violence from Mexico, it is not a major issue. The cartels have operations in the U.S., but have remained more passive than in Mexico in regards to violence.
"I would argue that there has been very little spillover from Mexico to the U.S.," said Howard Campbell, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. "There has been a spillover of the cartels and their culture. Their way of life, their business practices."
Homicides in border cities have been on a decline, which the Mexican government credits to the headway it has made in combating the troops. In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared an offensive on the drug cartels. Since then, the government has killed or apprehended many suspected cartel members, but over 47,000 people have been killed in the ensuing violence.
While border deaths may be down, some credit that to cartels moving into other cities and to two cartels grabbing up most of the territory.
The drug war has basically come down to fights between the Sinaloa and Los Zetas, the two most powerful and bloody cartels in the country.
Despite Mexico's reassurance that they are winning the war against the cartels and that there is no real rise in violence along the border, communities along it are still concerned about spillover, especially in states that have seen budget shortfalls.
“Texas is not capable of properly funding law enforcement along its border with Mexico,” wrote Elyssa Pachico of the Latin American security website InSightCrime.org. She added that a town in east Texas had to lay off its entire police force last year due to budget tightening.
“One of the main thrusts to Poe and Cuellar's argument seems to be that recycling equipment from Iraq makes sense during lean economic times,” she added. “Reusing the military equipment is thrifty, but it may not be effective in terms of actually delivering results.”
According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the total cost of putting drones in the air amounts to $3,234 per hour, which contributed to only a small fraction of the total number of arrests of drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants last year.
Campbell argues that the border region is relatively secure from violence, thus negating the need for a stepped up military presence.
"I consider this worrisome," he said, regarding the proposal."It's not just the equipment, but the idea that we need to militarize the border, which has been relatively safe."
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.