Spillover violence is one of the tricksters in Mexico’s organized-crime emergency. How much is the violence in Mexico spilling into the United States?
The answer is complicated by a long tradition of peering south at Mexico’s struggles, and seeing demons.
As the map above shows, some border areas in the United States are, without doubt, suffering direct echo effects from the Mexican crisis, with known gunmen and drug bosses coming north across the border, igniting fatal bursts of crime.
But alarms over spillover violence hide two key truths: a) similar kinds of violence have ALWAYS spilled across the border, without the world coming to an end; and b) the real need for vigilance now, in case of any future increase, doesn’t mean that a wave of U.S.-side chaos coming from Mexico is a presentday reality (if it ever develops at all).
The spillover violence alarms–so confusing to news consumers–show hallmark symptoms of what sociology calls a moral panic. This is an exaggerated call to arms against an evil which, at some level, may be quite real, but its reality is cheapened by the exaggerations. It is inflated into a massive, demonic threat to society. Thus, alarmists can posture as heroic warriors saving civilization–for whatever political, economic or mysterious emotional gains they might get, while squandering (somebody else’s) blood and treasure on a witch hunt.
The emotional force behind spillover alarms can be seen in examples, which suggest a hunger for dark times that give heroic opportunity:
1) The Laredo, Texas, ranch taken over by Mexican Zetas became an indignant cause celebre as far away as California–though it never existed. The story was a baseless rumor. Enthusiasts kept insisting that documentation proved the Laredo invasion, never looking closely enough to see that nothing was there.
2) The three Texas pipeline workers kidnapped and butchered by Mexican invaders–they never existed either, except in mysteriously delighted rumors.
3) The Arizona shooting of heroic Deputy Louis Puroll on April 30, 2010, by a horde of drug-smuggling gunmen in the desert. Nope, never existed either. Well, in Puroll’s case there really was a gunshot wound, and a mammoth crowd of lawmen searching for the attackers–who had somehow vanished. It took a half year, while much of Arizona and activists nationwide reveled in the illusion, to drive home the evidence that the small flesh wound on Puroll’s backside had been self-inflicted, as he faked an ambush and excitedly called for backup. Such, apparently, was the hunger to be the lonely hero on the battlements. Eventually, the dramatist was unmasked and fired from his local deputy’s job, with the emotional questions unanswered.
The rumors of the Texas Zeta ranch and the murdered pipeline workers reached only the level of abstract excitement, but in Puroll’s case there was action (at a charged moment when economically depressed Arizona was excitedly passing SB-1070, its extreme new immigration law).
For U.S. policy makers and law enforcement officers dealing with the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, the forces of moral panic and politicized alarm are particularly dicey–because they complicate the real need to calibrate readiness for border crises. Passing the symbolic 50,000-deaths milestone this year, Mexico’s organized-crime violence is certainly real. And there is nothing to say it couldn’t leap to a new level of spillover.
But to point out this nuanced urgency is to invite the exaggerations. In the Brownsville, Texas, map above, spillover violence came in the form of targeted hits by and against figures linked to organized crime, either in the gang war between the Zetas Group and the Gulf Cartel or within the Gulf Cartel, as it broke down into factions called the R’s and the M’s. These South Texas killings were not terrorist strikes against civilians, as are now sometimes happening inside Mexico itself.
And yet the history whispers: Inside Mexico, the violence has snowballed from a past level of controlled hits within organized crime, to finally bring such warfare that civilians have lost their refuge. Could this, too, move north?
For law enforcement to deny the question would be negligence. And yet to ask it is poisonous–because of the mysterious hunger that gives too loud a reply.
“We haven’t seen what I would define as spillover violence.”
—U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Dec. 12, 2009
“The data on spillover crimes and violence is deceiving and underreported. Our state and local law enforcement on the front lines need help. Their firsthand accounts tell the real story of how we are outmanned, overpowered, and in danger of losing control of our own communities to narco-terrorists.”–Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, in hearing May 31, 2011
“We have not seen a significant spike in crime on the U.S. side of the Southwest border.”–Amy Pope, Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Department of Justice, in hearing May 11, 2011
“Our Secretary of Homeland Security said, ‘The border is better now than it ever has been.’ Many officials who are directly in the line of fire…disagree with the Secretary. Of course there is violence along the border—spillover of criminal organizations and spillover crime and intimidation.”–Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, in hearing May 31, 2011
“Mr. Speaker… Mexican criminals think they can come over here and do as they please and nobody’s going to really do anything about it. And they’re right…Americans [are] being killed all the time in America by illegals from Mexico.”–Congressman Ted Poe, R-Texas, June 14, 2010
“My city is a border city…a better, safer and less crime-ridden city. I would say that such is the case for all of Texas’ border cities.”–Police Chief Victor Rodriguez, McAllen, Texas
“A recent USA Today analysis of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California found that crime within 100 miles of the border is below both the national average and the average for each of those states—and has been declining for years. Several other independent researchers have come to the same conclusion.”—New York Times, Nov. 1, 2011
“In what officials caution is now a dangerous and even deadly crime wave, Phoenix, Arizona, has become the kidnapping capital of America, with more incidents than any other city in the world outside of Mexico City, and over 370 cases last year alone. But local authorities say Washington, DC is too obsessed with al Qaeda terrorists to care about what is happening in their own backyard right now.”—ABC Nightline, Feb. 11, 2009. (However, in 2011 it was acknowledged, rather explosively, that the Phoenix Police Department statistics used to develop the Kidnapping Capital image had been manipulated–or faked–to seek federal grant money, while the problem of immigrant drop-house kidnappings, though tragically real, was far smaller than the image had made it seem).
“Living and conducting business in a Texas border county is tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”—report Oct. 2011, “Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment,” commissioned by Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples
“The people that go about their business and lead a regular life really have nothing to fear from this. If you are not involved in illegal trade or organized crime, this won’t affect you.”–Police Chief Carlos Garcia of Brownsville, Texas, on 2011 killings in Brownsville by Mexican organized crime groups (without explaining that this argument was also common in Mexico three years ago, but is now largely abandoned there).
“The violence in Mexico from the drug cartels continues to spill over the border and deep into the heart of Arizona. The drug and human smugglers continue to control this area of America…”–Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Arizona, June 14, 2010, as he continued saying that his deputy, Louis Puroll, had bravely fought off desert traffickers, though later, as evidence mounted that the ambush had been faked, Babeu said quietly that Puroll was inclined to tell tales, and the deputy was let go.
“The perception is the border is dangerous. The reality is that it is not.”–Mayor John Cook of El Paso, Texas
“It’s a war on the border…To suggest the southwest border is secure is ridiculous.”–Capt. Stacy Holland, Texas Department of Public Safety, on Fox News, Nov. 18, 2010
“I think the border-influenced violence is getting worse… But is it a spillover of Mexican cartel members? No, I don’t buy that.”—Police Chief Roberto Villasenor, Tucson, Arizona
“The sky is not falling…What’s happened now is we’ve got rhetoric that’s driving the policy.”—Police Chief Victor Rodriguez, McAllen, Texas
“As far as the Texas border is concerned, to my knowledge, we have not had spillover violence, per se.”—Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, March 17, 2010
“The spillover violence in Texas is real and it is escalating.”—Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, March 17, 2010
“Currently, U.S. federal officials deny that the recent increase in drug trafficking-related violence in Mexico has resulted in a spillover into the United States, but they acknowledge that the prospect is a serious concern.”—Congressional Research Service, Feb. 16, 2010