Sheriff to Congress: Border worse, ‘bad people continue to come in’

| 5/3/2011

Sheriff’s offices along the U.S.-Mexico border say efforts to prosecute cartel workers in the mounting Mexican drug war are hamstrung by a lack of resources on both sides of the border.

In Arizona, the threshold for prosecuting drug mules has been as high as 500 pounds, one American county sheriff told a congressional subcommittee held in DC on Tuesday.

“Violence has spilled over the border – and it will continue to be a part of our landscape until we control the border,” Cochise (AZ) County Sheriff Larry Dever told the U.S. House Security Committee’s Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee.

The committee was examining Border Security and Enforcement, including the “Department of Homeland Security’s cooperation with state and local law enforcement stakeholders.”

Dever said smugglers weren’t prosecuted for years in Arizona if they were found with less than 500 pounds of marijuana, and cocaine and methamphetamine thresholds also were high.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello confirmed that drug thresholds are set locally, and are determined partially by the resources that area prosecutors have to file charges.

“There is only so much time on the docket – so much room,” Dever said. “But when you establish those thresholds, the bad guys figure them out real quick.”

Dever added that cartels influence has boosted both the number and intensity of threats to U.S. local law enforcement officers.

“Smugglers used to jump and run,” said Dever, who wore a white cowboy hat. “Now they fight. Everybody we run into is armed.”

Gomecindo Lopez, commander with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office special operations bureau, said human and drug smuggling and illegal immigrants combine to overwhelm local law enforcement agencies.

The situation is worsened because Mexico lacks the infrastructure “to properly arrest and prosecute criminal offenders,” Lopez said, leaving U.S. counterparts to do the heavy lifting.

As a result, local law enforcement on the U.S. side have been taxed heavily, and American residents are paying a steep price with longer response times to 911 calls and a decreased presence, he said.

“Our officers, for example, should not be pulled out of our neighborhoods to handle the responsibilities of the federal government,” Lopez said.

Dever said the federal government has implemented several organizations and re-organizations over the years, and has added law enforcement officers to combat the complex and multi-layered problems of cartels, human smuggling and illegal immigration.

“Adding ingredients to a recipe doesn’t help if the recipe isn’t right,” Dever said.

Securing U.S. borders has been a primary concern since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and increased security for truckers at ports and border crossings.