Penny Starr | Senior Staff Writer | Friday, June 20, 2008
As reported by Cybercast News Service last month, the State Department similarly issued a largely unpublicized travel alert for the Mexican side of the border on April 14, warning would-be tourists that the "equivalent to military small-unit combat" was taking place there and that "dozens" of Americans had been "kidnapped and/or murdered" in Tijuana alone in 2007. (See story)
As Cybercast News Service subsequently reported, State Department records indicate that 128 Americans have been murdered in Mexico over the past three years. (See story) And because the State Department headquarters in Washington does no centralized monitoring of how the Mexican justice system handles those murder cases, it cannot say whether anyone has ever been arrested or convicted for any of them. (See story)
Even before the State Department issued its travel alert for Mexico, however, Interior Secretary Kempthorne had stated -- again, with almost no publicity -- that some of the lands administered by his department on the U.S. side of the Mexican border have become dangerous places where "families can no longer live or recreate without fear of coming across drug smugglers."
"Unfortunately," an Interior Department spokesperson told Cybercast News Service on Thursday, "DOI lands make up approximately 40 percent of the Southwest border, and I think there has been a shift in some of those illegal activities, particularly drug-trafficking crossings, to those lands because they tend to be less populated.
"It's becomes more of a prime location for people to come through," he added, "and the net result has been an increase in violence."
Larry Parkinson, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for law enforcement, told Cybercast News Service Thursday that criminal activity along the U.S.-Mexico border has increased over the past seven years as criminals seek more remote locations to cross into the U.S.
"On the law enforcement side, it's our biggest challenge," Parkinson said.
The Department of Interior's Southwest Borderlands Web page warns visitors about criminals and criminal activities in national parks, wildlife refuges and recreation areas near the Mexican border. Five Indian tribes have land bordering Mexico.
"Once pristine landscapes on the U.S. Southwest border have become dangerous corridors for drug smuggling operations and other illegal activities that threaten Indian communities, public land stewards and recreational visitors," the Web site says.
"Drug smugglers establish observations posts on public lands, and carry assault weapons, encrypted radios, night vision optical equipment and other sophisticated devices," it says. (See Web site)
The Web site also indicates that human and drug traffic has increased over the years.
"Last year, nearly 200,000 illegal entrants into the United States were apprehended on public lands in the Southwest, an 11-fold increase since 2001, as illegal activity shifts from increasingly well-protected urban areas to more rural outposts," the Web site states.
The site reports that in 2007, law enforcement seized nearly 3,000 pounds of cocaine and 740,000 pounds of marijuana.
In February, Secretary Kempthorne announced that his department was seeking an $8 million increase in its budget for law enforcement and "to remediate the environmental impacts of these illegal activities" along the Mexican border.
"Times have changed along our international border with Mexico," Kempthorne said. "Our employees, residents and visitors face daily dangers. In many locations families can no longer live or recreate without fear of coming across drug smugglers. Residents of Indian communities are especially hard hit by rampant illegal activity and unsafe living conditions."
When Kempthorne testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior on April 15, he repeated the point: "There are significant areas along the border that are not safe for American families to visit, to spend an overnight camping opportunity because of the drug smuggling that's taking place by the national drug cartels," Kempthorne told the committee.
Some $2 million of the $8 million Kempthorne is requesting will be used to repair environmental damage done by illegal entrants and drug smugglers.
"The illegal traffic has resulted in significant theft and vandalism and physical damage to public land resources, sensitive fish and wildlife habitat and valuable archeological sites," the website states.
Parkinson said despite the increased violence on public lands, he believes the U.S. is "in the process" of securing the border. He cites, for example, that from Oct. 1, 2007 to May 2008, apprehensions were down 14 percent on the border between Mexico and Arizona.
"Some of the security efforts are beginning to turn the corner," Parkinson said.
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