After a pregnant American consulate worker and her husband were murdered in Ciudad Juarez this month, the U.S. senators from Texas wrote President Barack Obama urging him to address the "escalating violence" along the state's southern border.
"The spillover violence in Texas is real and it is escalating," Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn state in a March 17 letter requesting federal attention to the safety of border communities.
Spillover violence on the rise in Texas? Do the senators have that right?
When a reporter asked for evidence of spillover during a telephone press conference Cornyn hosted on the day the senators' letter went to Obama, Cornyn initially seemed to backpedal. "As far as the Texas border is concerned, to my knowledge, we have not had spillover violence, per se ... I should have said the threat of potential spillover violence," he said.
Cornyn continued: "We have had American citizens die in Mexico, and I've been to ... Laredo and visited with families of Americans who have lost loved ones in Nuevo Laredo, some of whom have been kidnapped and others have not been heard from again. And, of course, the latest killings in Juarez raise this specter of security of American citizens who are visiting Mexico."
So which is it: real violence or the threat of it?
Kevin McLaughlin, Cornyn's spokesman, told us later that Cornyn misspoke during his press conference. McLaughlin said: "There are instances of spillover violence occurring in Texas along the border."
McLaughlin sent us nearly 20 news articles and editorials from 1999 into 2010 reporting incidents that could indicate the increasing bloodshed in Mexico is trickling into Texas.
For example, Santiago Salinas, a man connected to a Mexican drug cartel was shot and killed in a Houston hotel in 2006. In 2008, a Mexican citizen and a distant relative of Rep. Silvestre Reyes' wife was kidnapped in Juarez and released after her family, who lives in the United States, paid some $32,000 in ransom.
In September, Sergio Saucedo, who authorities say was connected to a Mexican drug cartel, was kidnapped at gunpoint from his home in Horizon City in El Paso County. His mutilated body was found in Juarez. In May, a member of the Juarez drug cartel was fatally shot outside his home in El Paso.
In January, authorities linked a grenade used in an attack on a bar in Pharr, where three off-duty police officers were, to a drug cartel in Mexico. And in March, two men were kidnapped from the parking lot of a McAllen Wal-Mart and non-fatally shot in connection with a cartel.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an alert warning El Paso law enforcement that the Barrio Azteca gang in El Paso might retaliate after officers arrested 54 members and associates of the gang the week before. The warning was based on "uncorroborated information" that the gang might authorize its members to murder officers in the El Paso area.
Other reminders of violence near the Mexico-Texas border include the sighting of a Mexican military helicopter flying over Zapata County, the Texas Department of Public Safety warning spring-break revelers to avoid Mexican border towns and a recent inflow of Mexicans from El Porvenir seeking political asylum in Fort Hancock after members of a Mexican drug cartel threatened to kill residents and torch their homes. Earlier, in September, the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College closed for several days after stray bullets from a shootout along the Matamoros levee hit a car and building on campus.
Last year, 79 Americans were murdered in Mexico, according to the U.S. State Department. From 2003 to 2008, the annual homicide toll ranged from the low 30s to the high 40s. Murders of people in Juarez increased from 1,609 in 2008 to 2,657 in 2009, according to the Texas Department of Safety. This year, more than 550 people have been killed in Juarez.
Still, it seems the definition of "spillover violence" may depend on where you're viewing it from.
The Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency that provides research analysis to Congress, recently found that no data exists that can definitively answer whether there has been significant spillover violence from Mexico, and anecdotal reports have been mixed.
"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," the service reported Feb. 16.
According to the service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration defines "spillover violence" as "violence targeted primarily at civilians and government entities — excluding trafficker-on-trafficker violence" though other experts and scholars have recognized such in-fighting as central to spillover, according to the report.
Testifying before the U.S. House Appropriations Committee in March 2009, Joseph Arabit, the special agent in charge of the administration's El Paso division, said: "We are all tempted to paint the problem with a very broad brush and react emotionally to violent incidents inside the United States involving Mexican drug traffickers and their victims. But it is crucial, in order to address the problem with the appropriate programs, resources and operations, that we understand the difference between "terrorist" acts — the murder of a U.S. law enforcement agent, or the bombing of a U.S. government building, for example — and actions that are characteristic of violent drug culture, such as the killing of an individual who owes a drug debt to the organization."
The Texas Department of Safety defines spillover violence as "Mexican cartel-related violence that occurs in Texas, including aggravated assault, extortion, kidnapping, torture, rape and murder. The victims of these crimes include illegal immigrants being smuggled into the U.S., Mexican or U.S. citizens working with the cartels or their innocent family members, and those who are not associated in any way with the cartels or transnational gangs."
Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Safety, said there's "no question" spillover violence is growing in Texas.
When we asked McCraw about the federal government's definition of spillover violence, he said: "We don't care how they define it. For obvious reasons, it doesn't matter — it's either a violent act or not a violent act."
"We've got ongoing kidnapping investigations, we've got murder investigations, without question, related to cartel activities," he said.
The Texas department said it doesn't yet have statistical breakdowns of spillover violence, though McCraw listed 12 incidents since 2008 that the department considers related to Mexican cartels and transnational gangs.
— In February, an illegal immigrant connected to a cartel was found murdered near Mission, at 10 Mile Line and Western Road. The same month, a Mexican Mafia member tried to run over a trooper in Laredo .
— In August, border patrol agents near Laredo were pinned down by gunfire across the border, and a U.S. Border Patrol agent was run over by an ATV during a smuggling attempt.
— In October 2008, a Donna man was kidnapped and taken to Reynosa, Mexico, where he was killed. Two months earlier, a Weslaco convenience store owner and drug dealer was kidnapped for ransom and taken to Reynosa and then shot, dismembered and burned.
Also, the DPS said Adan Mondragon, who Austin police fatally shot after he fired an assault rifle in November 2008, was linked to a Mexican drug-trafficking organization.
Still, other published news reports and our interviews with law enforcement officers suggest that officials closest to the border see little evidence of spillover violence.
Deputy Sheriff Jesse Tovar of El Paso County told us spillover violence "remains to be seen." Tovar said he considered Saucedo's kidnapping and the El Paso homicide last year two "direct spillover" incidents, but he called that kind of violence "nothing new."
"Statistically speaking, the streets are pretty safe," he said, but "there's a war zone going on across the river."
With that in mind, Tovar said the sheriff's office has operation plans in place "in case something happens," but declined to elaborate for security reasons.
For Terrell County Sheriff William McDonald, so far the only spillover from Mexico has been smugglers, who have been breaking into homes in his jurisdiction more frequently since violence escalated in Juarez. (Terrell County is east of Brewster County, home to Big Bend National Park.) Cliff Harris, sheriff for Pecos County, whose southern border lies about 20 miles north of the border, said that there's a threat of spillover violence but that "so far we haven't seen anything."
This month, The Texas Tribune reported that neither Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino or Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas were aware of any spillover violence.
Monica Weifberg-Stewart, a retailer from McAllen and chair of border security and immigration for the Texas Border Coalition, which advocates for security on the Texas-Mexico border, said: "(Do) we have the shootings, the kidnappings, all that violence, similar attacks of war? Absolutely not... Now, are there bad people everywhere that want to do bad things? Absolutely. We have that all across the United States."
She said, "I go to work every day, I feel no different than I did before escalation of violence happened on the Mexican side. So if that's the definition of spillover violence, there is no spillover here."
Vince Perez, Rep. Reyes' press secretary, said Texas hasn't experienced violence like Mexico, noting that even though Juarez is just across the Rio Grande, El Paso is still the second-safest city in the country, after Honolulu.
"We're trying to be very careful in terms of what we characterize as spillover violence," he said.
But Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition, said concerns about spillover are widespread. Reay said: "It does affect the community. The threat is there, continually, day by day, up and down the border." But Reay — who represents 20 sheriffs who belong the coalition, which lobbies for border security funding — said acts of violence north of the border remain "mostly isolated incidents," though "the threat is constant."
The University Medical Center in El Paso, for example, often treats victims of shootings in Mexico in the U.S., Reay said. And the threat of cartel members showing up at the hospital to kill the wounded has caused law enforcement to beef up security.
However, Margaret Althoff-Olivas, director of public affairs for the University Medical Center of El Paso, said there is "no sense of encroaching violence" at the hospital and that law enforcement hasn't taken extra security measures there since June 2008. On three occasions, beginning in January 2008 when a wounded law enforcement official from Chihuahua State was treated at the hospital, authorities temporarily restricted hospital entrances and required all visitors to enter through metal detectors.
Others likewise say they're not aware of spillover violence.
Arturo Saruhkan, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, told the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio-Express News: "The term 'spillover' would, at least in my eyes, seem to be a bit of a false dilemma. You speak of ‘spillover' as if you had the pristine waters of Alaska contaminated by the spill of the Exxon Valdez. That is, there was nothing there before the Exxon Valdez created the accident ... To assume that in Texas there are no distribution networks, drug traffickers don't have safe houses, they don't have banks, they don't launder money, is disingenuous or naive at the least.
"So, 'spillover'? They're already there."
Sarukhan added that more violence in Texas was possible "if the drug trafficking syndicates decide to use San Antonio as their hub and local law enforcement step up their efforts to shut them down."
Where does all this leave us with the senators' claim of escalating spillover violence?
No one denies the omnipresent threat of spillover violence along the border. Yet officials including law officers closest to the border say there is no surge spilling over. Using its own measure about a year ago, the U.S. DEA similarly said there was no spillover violence.
Then again, the Texas DPS says spillover violence, especially related to cartels and gangs, is a statewide problem on the rise.
Mindful there's not yet an independent gauge of spillover violence, the authoritative CRS threw up its hands at this issue.
For now, we're going with the officials who live closest to the border. There have been violent acts. They are sporadic. They aren't yet measurably increasing.
We rate the senators' statement to Obama as Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.