'Spillover' Violence From Mexico: A Trickle Or A Flood? The U.S.-Mexico borderlands are rife with rumors of spillover violence from Mexico's savage drug war — from beheaded oilfield workers to gangs taking over Texas ranches — but authorities disagree on the actual threat.
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'Spillover' Violence From Mexico: Trickle Or Flood?

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'Spillover' Violence From Mexico: Trickle Or Flood?

'Spillover' Violence From Mexico: Trickle Or Flood?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

President Obama's Homeland Security secretary visits Arizona tomorrow. Janet Napolitano used to be governor of Arizona.

MONTAGNE: Now she oversees border security, one of the hottest of all hot- button issues. Texas officials contend that drug violence is spilling across the border into the U.S., a charge Napolitano denies.

JANET NAPOLITANO: It is inaccurate to state, as too many have, that the United States side of the border is overrun with violence or out of control.

MONTAGNE: The administration contends it's increasing security, and also increasing the number of deportations. As on so many issues, there are two completely different versions of reality.

INSKEEP: So in the second of two reports, NPR's John Burnett asks who's right.

JOHN BURNETT: Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that the U.S. Border Patrol has achieved operational control of 44 percent of the southern border. Their mission is hindered by difficult terrain, lack of roads, and a need to prioritize hotspots on the western border. What that means is that, basically, everything downstream of El Paso, Texas, is under less control, which is no surprise to Mike Vickers.

MIKE VICKERS: I'm looking for something dead in here.

BURNETT: Are you looking for a dead person?

VICKERS: Maybe. Watch out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRAPING)

BURNETT: The white-haired rancher in a four-wheeler notices with concern a flock of buzzards perched in an oak tree. He knows what that can mean. Hundreds of illegal immigrants and the occasional drug trafficker cross his ranch every year going north, and some don't make it.

VICKERS: This is a significant trail, here. You can see where they come over the fence.

BURNETT: Vickers sits in the shade with Lavoyger Durham, who manages another ranch nearby.

VICKERS: These people are being left out here to die, and it's a horrible death, getting cramped up, going down, maybe even have wild animals out here finish you off.

LAVOYGER DURHAM: You're lucky if you find them dead before the coyotes, the wild hogs, the caracaras and the buzzards eat them up.

VICKERS: Most of these people are within 15 or 20 minutes of where we're sitting right here. So we're tired of it. We're fed up with it. And for President Obama to go to El Paso and say that the border's secure, I just can't understand that. So we're here to say otherwise.

BURNETT: Freddy Longoria is a ranch foreman on a South Texas ranch. His boss asked us not to name the ranch.

FREDDIE LONGORIA: What I heard is that they had killed a lady on the Old Mines Road, going towards Laredo, over, like, a retaliation. They beheaded her. I mean, they cut her head off.

BURNETT: A gate guard at a ranch on Old Mines Road beheaded for turning in traffickers. An oilfield worker attacked and decapitated by immigrants who wanted his pickup. Mafiosos from the Zetas cartel took over a ranch outside of Laredo. These are just a few of the rumors you hear in the cafes and taquerias of South Texas these days. Law enforcement says every one of them is false. Nevertheless, they have an effect.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUFFALOS GRUNTING)

BURNETT: Freddy Longoria, with the lanky grace of a cowboy, leans against his pickup and watches a herd of bison feeding contentedly.

LONGORIA: You hear a lot of stories out here. Some of those, sometimes they hit too close to home and you get worried. You get a little bit paranoid and start carrying a gun and taking more precautions.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUFFALOS GRUNTING)

BURNETT: Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: El Paso has had incidents. Twice, bullets from shootouts in Juarez flew across the Rio Grande and struck public buildings in El Paso. And there was a notorious kidnapping in 2009, recounts El Paso Mayor John Cook.

JOHN COOK: It was a person who was involved in the drug trade lost his shipment to the Border Patrol, which tells me the Border Patrol is sort of doing their job. And because he lost his shipment, he was kidnapped out of his home, brought over to Juarez, where he was executed.

BURNETT: Do you consider that spillover violence?

COOK: Yeah, I would actually consider that spillover violence. This drug war now has lasted for three years, and you have one case of spillover violence that we can clearly identify in a city of 800,000 people.

BURNETT: One of the bloodiest regions of the Mexican cartel war is the state of Tamaulipas, where massacres, cop killings and beheadings have become common. It sits directly across from the Rio Grande Valley at the tip of Texas, where the chief of the Border Patrol is Rosendo Hinojosa.

ROSENDO HINOJOSA: Are we seeing the level of violence in the immediate border area that we're seeing south of the border? Absolutely not. Our job is to make sure that that type of activity does not come into the United States.

BURNETT: Hinojosa acknowledges the border is growing more dangerous for his nearly 2,500 agents.

HINOJOSA: But are we seeing out of control, are we seeing a shooting every week? Absolutely not.

BURNETT: CRS concluded in these cartel distribution hubs, there's been no statistical increase in violent crime, which is just plain wrong, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The DPS reports that in the first five months of 2011, there were 22 murders, 24 assaults, 15 shootings and five kidnappings in Texas that it considers cartel-related violence. A third of them occurred in Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley.

LUPE TREVINO: My name's Lupe Trevino, and I am the elected sheriff for Hidalgo County, Texas.

BURNETT: Trevino's office is what you'd expect from a South Texas sheriff: deer heads, guns under glass, a rattlesnake in amber. He's worked on the border for 25 years.

TREVINO: The question you should be asking me is this: Is the border under control? No, it's not. Because if it was under control, it would be completely sealed. There would be absolutely no smuggling whatsoever either north or southbound.

BURNETT: OK. The border's not secure. This from a long-time border lawman who's friendly to the Obama administration. He sits on a task force that reports to Secretary Napolitano. But is it the Wild West?

TREVINO: We have always had drug violence anywhere in the United States, because that is the nature of the business. You know why it's spillover now? Because that is the flavor of the month.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Despite those concerns, yesterday, the Texas Parole Board refused to stop the execution of Humberto Leal, which is scheduled to take place tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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