Myths and Realities of U.S.-Mexico Border Spillover Effects

Despite rising violence in Mexico, our border is in many ways safer than ever -- but corruption is on the rise

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A customs officer is handed a passport by a motorist at the San Ysidro border crossing / Reuters

The U.S. debates over Mexico's drug war increasingly focus on spillover violence. Border state governors Rick Perry and Jan Brewer insist that Mexican cartels are hitting their states hard, portraying the border as a lawless "war zone" in which the drug cartels and illegal Mexicans incite "terror and mayhem" on a daily basis. In stark contrast, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Alan Bersin and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano contend that the border has never been safer.

The statistics bear out the latter position. A recent study based on FBI figures shows that violent crime in cities within 50 miles of the border is consistently lower than state and national averages. The robbery rate in the Texas border region, for example, remained at least 30 percent lower than the state average for every year in the past decade. The data also show that the number of kidnapping cases in border areas dropped by more than half since 2009.  This doesn't mean that bad things don't happen - they do. But they happen less frequently along the border, on average, than in other parts of the United States. Despite local politicians' concerns and rhetoric, the border is more secure than in the past, and in fact safer than the rest of the country.

But the downward trend in border violence does not mean that the Mexican drug war hasn't had spillover effects on the United States. Among the most troubling is corruption. Local newspapers recount the stories of public officials engaged in foul play; from the South Texas county Sheriff Conrado Cantú, who took bribes from drug traffickers, to Columbus, New Mexico Mayor Eddie Espinoza, charged with operating a gun smuggling ring in connection with Mexican cartels. Available data also show a rise in corruption within the ranks of the border patrol. Since the reopening of the Homeland Security Bureau's internal affairs unit in 2003 - in and of itself a reflection of the increased risk of corruption within the agency - cases of corruption against law enforcement officials on the border have more than doubled. Tales of CBP agents turning a blind eye to, and sometimes actively aiding drug traffickers smuggling narcotics, arms and migrants across the border abound.

The increase in corruption reflects the lure of drug money and the CBP's institutional weaknesses. Doubling the border patrol's numbers in less than a decade made it more vulnerable to corruption, diluting the once highly disciplined force with less experienced and committed newcomers. The border patrol administers lie detector tests to only 10 percent of applicants, more than half of which fail -- raising serious concerns about the capability, and even intentions, of many of its new hires.

Other spillover effects are positive for the United States - namely increasing economic activity. Seemingly every day new restaurants, stores, and private schools are opening in border towns, serving clients that once traveled further south. Many attribute Texas' strong real estate market to the influx of Mexican citizens eager for greater peace and stability. In the spring of 2008, when foreclosures hit record highs across the United States, real estate agents in El Paso reported steady sales of houses and apartments worth more than $100,000. The President of the Greater El Paso Association of Realtors, Dan Olivas, attributed the stability of the El Paso market to "a substantial number of people from Juarez coming over to buy properties for security reasons, for fear of kidnappings, extortion, and cartel violence." This El Paso trend has continued, and spread more broadly.

Not only do Mexicans buy homes, but many are bringing their businesses north. Immigration consultants say  inquiries from Mexicans for EB-5 investor visas - which cost $500,000, and require that applicants' create at least 10 jobs in the U.S. within two years - have doubled in recent years.  Mexico has quickly risen the ranks to become one of the top recipients of these visas.

Mexico's drug war is indeed affecting the United States - but mostly in ways that politicians overlook, misunderstand, or (more cynically) choose not to recognize. The current policy prescriptions - a higher and longer border wall, more boots on the ground and predator drones overhead - won't slow seeping corruption, nor bolster the beneficial economic ties. Unfortunately, the wrong diagnosis means also the wrong policy prescriptions, hurting both countries in the process.

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