Texas has spent $120 million on extra border security in the past eight months—but the surge has made no dent in the drug trade.
Illegal substances are just as abundant, and even slightly cheaper, than they were before the state deployed hundreds of troops to the border communities, officials told VICE News.
"There is no new trend in trafficking here," Austin-based DEA agent Greg Thrash told VICE News, speaking about the consistent drug influx from Mexico, and noted that a notable increase of meth oil had been flooding Texas. "The prices are fairly consistent, although there's been a decrease in the price of meth and heroin... It indicates there's an increase in supply, similar to gas."
Texas started Operation Strong Safety in June to combat what former Governor Rick Perry called a "crisis" of drug and human smuggling. The state has deployed troops from the Texas Army National Guard and Department of Public Safety to help "prevent Mexican cartels, their operatives, transnational gangs, criminal aliens, potential terrorists and drugs" from entering the US, DPS said in a fact sheet shared with VICE News.
But Thrash said the state-funded forces were concentrated in areas where fewer drugs passed through—and regardless of where they were placed, the additional agents would not stem the tide of trafficking.
The troops have been deployed between the official US entrances as a "stop gap measure" in more remote areas, Thrash said—but most drugs are actually smuggled right past Border Patrol's eyes, across the checkpoints in passenger cars or trucks.
Because the substances are so well concealed, and Border Patrol must screen so many vehicles each day, many shipments pass undetected.
"I don't care if you stuck the entire National Guard down there, you're not going to get it all," he said of the drugs. "You'd back up traffic all the way to Mexico City."
Former Border Patrol agent Victor Manjarrez, meanwhile, told VICE News the effort was a "disappointing" waste of money.
"Any time you have an application of additional resources, be it at a state or federal or local level, you'd want those resources to complement each other, and this operation hasn't been the case," Manjarrez, associate director of the DHS-funded National Center for Border Security and Immigration at the University of El Paso, told VICE News.
Manjarrez faulted the state's failure to consult Border Patrol to find out how the troops could work strategically with the national agency.
"The state just said, "This is what we're going to do,'" Manjarrez said of the border surge. "This was not effective. You have to think about what metrics you're using, and how you've defined border security. You can't simply say, 'We're securing the border.' What does that mean?"
Manjarrez noted that the operation began after news broke about the influx of unaccompanied migrant children last summer into Texas. The children were fleeing violence in Central America and seeking refugee status in the US. Officials used the crisis as a justification for more border security, he explained.
But that influx of minors did not mean more drugs were entering the country, both Manjarrez and immigration scholar Mark Noferi told VICE News.
"There is no evidence of a connection between unaccompanied children and drug cartels," Noferi, a fellow at the American Immigration Council, a non-partisan organization based in Washington, DC, told VICE News.
"The assumption was that since there are families and kids crossing, that means the border is not secure and that more drugs must be coming," Noferi said. "The policy seems to rest on an assumption that the border is not secure, when by most metrics [it's] as secure as it's ever been."
Even Texas' Department of Public Safety has called for a shift in the border policy, a DPS report leaked to the Houston Chronicle revealed last month. DPS claimed that its saturation of the border had deprived the agency of staff to patrol other parts of Texas, and had racked up more than $100 million in costs to the state.
"The Department of Public Safety is understaffed throughout the state, and a sustained deployment of personnel to the border region reduces the patrol and investigative capacity in other areas of the state also impacted by transnational crime," the report, prepared for Governor Greg Abbott and legislators, reads.
DPS also stated that consistent long-term security would be more effective than short-term surges such as Operation Strong Safety.
A DPS spokesman declined to comment about the report, but he told VICE News the agency had aided in seizing drugs since Operation Strong Safety began. He noted that more than 364,000 pounds of drugs have been seized in the area since OSS began in June.
"The bottom line is that if drugs are being smuggled across the border undetected or without being interdicted, the border is not secure. Therefore, anytime law enforcement makes a drug seizure, we consider it a significant gain in the fight against ruthless criminal organizations who smuggle drugs into our communities and commit crimes in their pursuit to make money," the spokesman, Tom Vinger, told VICE News.
"When looking at the state's border security efforts, it would be impossible to argue that they are not having an impact or producing results," he said.
But Matt Simpson, a senior policy strategist for the Texas ACLU, told VICE News that the DPS report "makes it obvious there needs to be a restructuring" of the state border effort. He, along with his colleague Astrid Dominguez in the Rio Grande Valley, said that residents had felt intimidated by the surge of troops, since the agents had pulled over people while driving. Undocumented residents, added Dominguez, who had broken no other laws got so nervous at one point they "stopped taking their kids to school."
Meanwhile, the Texas Senate has proposed a budget of up to $815 million in border security funding this year. Governor Abbott and House Speaker Joe Straus (a lead sponsor of Operation Strong Safety) did not respond to VICE News' calls and emails requesting comment, nor did Senator Craig Estes, who has decried the national government's inadequate border resources.
But Abbott said in a recent television interview with CBS that the federal government had not done its job securing the border and that he wanted to station 500 additional DPS troops, Texas Rangers, and technology to the region. And Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said at a news conference last month that he wanted to ensure the current troops remain in place through May, at the earliest.
Meanwhile Manjarrez warned that the increased funds would not ensure positive results.
"As someone who worked in border security almost half my life, and as a Texas taxpayer, I wish they'd reconsider," Manjarrez said of the investment. "It doesn't seem the cost-benefit makes sense."
A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection did not respond to VICE News' requests for comment on the operation.