Pubdate: Thu, 29 Apr 2010
Source: Monitor, The (McAllen, TX)
Copyright: 2010 The Monitor
Author: Jeremy Roebuck


McALLEN -- An exhaustive 10-hour day of testimony provided no clear
agreement on whether drug violence had "spilled," "bled" or otherwise
seeped across the Texas-Mexico border.

But as one Pharr resident told a joint panel of state lawmakers
Thursday: No matter what words are used to describe it, the ongoing drug
war in Mexico is having daily impact on those living in the Rio Grande

Patricia Martinez, a licensed drug counselor, beseeched legislators
during a hearing at the McAllen Convention Center to help her efforts
to locate her 20-year-old son, a U.S. citizen who was kidnapped from a
Reynosa restaurant last year.

"You waste a lot of time with definitions," she told the panel. "We
need solutions. I need help."

Martinez was one of more than 30 witnesses to address members of the
Texas House's Public Safety Committee and Border and Intergovernmental
Affairs Committee on Thursday in a discussion that provided a broad
view of the economic, political and security effects of violence south
of the border.

Some tried to open eyes to connections between Mexico's crime
syndicates and gangs operating in Texas cities. Others tried to
downplay talk of threats, pointing to the fact that the state's border
communities are some of the safest in the nation, according to
government crime statistics.

But whether it was the rancher who routinely finds dead immigrants on
his property or the businesswoman who had to downsize her operation
because of a drop in sales to Mexican nationals, each described
grappling with an issue that has yet to be clearly defined.

"For those of us who live here on the border, not a day goes by that
we don't hear the words 'spillover' or now the word 'bleed-over,'"
said Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, chairwoman of the border
committee. "It's hard to know what is true, what is hype and what is
to come."

House Speaker Joe Strauss, R-San Antonio, tasked both committees in
November with evaluating current state efforts to secure the border
region. They are to return to the Legislature in January with
recommendations on how tax dollars could be better spent to meet that

For many of the legislators, fulfilling that mandate started with
quantifying the scope of the problem.

Violence on the Mexican side of the border has peaked during the last
year as President Felipe Calderon has waged all-out war against his
nation's entrenched narcotics trafficking organizations. More than
22,000 have been killed since he took office in late 2006, primarily
in cities across from Texas' largest border communities.

State lawmakers in Texas have allocated $197 million during the last
two legislative sessions to address the problem on this side of the
border, with the bulk of those funds going toward law enforcement
spending on overtime hours.

Col. Steve McCraw, head of the Texas Department of Public Safety,
walked lawmakers through his agency's definition of spillover violence
- -- which includes nearly all crimes connected to the drug trade that
occur on Texas soil -- and its difference from that of the federal
government, which is more oriented toward cartel-planned attacks on
U.S. citizens and institutions.

Despite heavy questioning, however, he provided no statistics to
support his claims that kidnappings and extortion had increased in
Texas communities and seemed reticent to discuss in detail how exactly
the border security money provided to his agency had been spent.

"We cannot allow fuzzy math or fuzzy statistics to take over," said
Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. "We need to know what's going
on. There's got to be a way to measure this."

A coalition of border police chiefs and sheriffs testified that they
were less concerned about direct attacks from Mexican drug cartels
than with the continuous "bleeding of resources" caused by routine
crimes in their communities connected to the local drug trade. They
asked for more resources to fund investigations and patrols in areas
most prone to criminal activity.

Business leaders -- quick to downplay public perception of open warfare
in U.S. border cities -- said misguided conclusions had deterred
corporations from locating here and led to a decline in sales to
Mexican nationals.

"It's affecting everyone," said Eli Lizka, a downtown McAllen clothing
retailer. "If anyone says that it's not, they're not telling the truth."

But it was Martinez -- whose story of her missing son left lawmakers
with their most vivid example of the day -- who captivated the room.

Although she didn't initially report the May 2009 abduction to
authorities, out of fear for her son's safety, she saw Thursday's
hearing as a chance to show that the impact of drug violence extended
beyond those involved in the narcotics business.

Before masked gunmen took Oscar Valera and his father from a downtown
Reynosa restaurant, the 20-year-old was studying mechanical
engineering with a 4.0 grade point average and planning to start a
summer job with the city of McAllen, Martinez said.

Despite an initial ransom demand of $5 million, Martinez hasn't heard
a word from the kidnappers since.

"My son is not a number," she said. "He's a person, and he's still
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake