Drug war spillover at border "highly underreported," says GAO

Report to Congress by Government Accountability Office speculates on possibility drug war in Mexico may escalate and cross the Southwest border into U.S.

Heads are rolling and bullets flying in the United States-assisted drug war south of the border, but - so far at least - stateside collateral damage has been minimal, if "highly underreported."

And getting drug war soldiers and victims to talk can be nearly impossible:

FBI officials cautioned that drug cartel related crimes, such as kidnappings and home invasions, are highly underreported and are not captured in national crime statistics.

For example, law enforcement officials with whom we spoke stated that individuals who may have been assaulted or robbed in the course of drug trafficking and other illicit activities are hesitant to report their involvement to the police

Making things worse, local officials are tempted by the big payoffs working with the bad guys can bring and may not be keeping a complete account of the mayhem:

Cartels may target public officials and law enforcement for corruption. Specifically, we were told of cases from local law enforcement in both New Mexico and Arizona in which public officials had been corrupted by a Mexican cartel.

That's the grim bottom line of a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to Congress, entitled "Southwest Border Security," that presents several scary scenarios regarding future incursions.

While [Department of Homeland Security] and [Department of Justice] threat assessments indicate that violent infighting between drug cartels has remained largely in Mexico, DHS assessments also show that aggressive tactics used by traffickers to evade capture demonstrate an increasing threat to U.S. law enforcement.

Officials noted that there is always potential for the high levels of violence in Mexico, such as organized murders and kidnappings for ransom, to spread to their border towns.

Despite the perceived threat, the report goes on to say that valid numbers on stateside drug war crime are virtually impossible to come up with:

Law enforcement agencies have few efforts to track spillover crime. No common federal government definition of such crime exists, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) components, including those with a definition, either do not collect data to track spillover crime, or do not maintain such data that can be readily retrieved and analyzed.

Officials from the San Diego office of the California Highway Patrol stated that in 2012 their field office began tracking how often they respond to calls from CBP’s Office of Field Operations to investigate incidents at the port of entry.

However, the officials noted that the data could not be a measure for spillover crime because the incident may not always result in a crime or an arrest and may not be related to cartel activity or involve Mexican nationals.

The GAO researchers even had a problem coming up with a reasonable definition of what they were studying:

Stakeholders view the term “spillover” differently. Depending on the stakeholder, the term “spillover” might refer only to Mexican drug cartel-related violence or be defined as a broader concept of spillover crime, which includes both violent and nonviolent activities.

Examples of such activities include rape or murder committed in connection with cross- border or drug cartel activity; keeping smuggled aliens in stash houses and ransoming them back to Mexico; smuggling of firearms, drugs, and people; vandalism such as littering on smuggling routes; and destroying private property, such as cutting fences and killing cattle.

Officials from 27 out of 37 state and local law enforcement agencies stated that it would be at least somewhat useful to have a common definition of spillover crime, because it would establish types of activities that constitute spillover crime and allow agencies to track such crime, among other uses.

However, officials from 22 of those 27 agencies also stated that accomplishing such a task might be challenging.

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I'm not sure how you can "under-report" something that is so nebulous that it can't be defined. But I am sure that officials from 37 (!) state and local law enforcement agencies would love to come up with a description that would provide the basis for getting more public money. (In this regard, let's hope the coming "sequester" cuts will reduce the bloated Homeland Security budget.)

Decases ago, there was a supreme court justice who said something to the effect that he didn't have a definition of obscenity, but knew it when he saw it. This is something like that, wherein without a formal definition, when you see or experience spillover crime, you know what it is. It may be nebulous now, but a clear definition could be readily formulated, if someone wanted to do it.

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