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Debate rages over Mexico 'spillover violence' in U.S.

In the middle of a presidential election year, there's a big debate between Democrats and Republicans, and law enforcement and ranchers, over how much violence from the Mexican drug war has spilled over into the United States, making it hard to get straight answers. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

By Mark Potter, NBC News correspondent

TUCSON -- On an isolated ranch 10 miles from the Mexican border in southern Arizona, Tangye Beckham worries about what the night will bring.  That's usually when her family's 100-acre ranch begins to crawl with drug and immigrant traffickers from Mexico heading north into the United States. 

"They're belligerent, they carry weapons," she said. "It's a nightly problem with them being on the property. They've already tried to break in." 

Recently, as she was closing one of her gates in the pre-dawn hours, Beckham found herself surrounded by a group of illegal immigrants and feared being attacked.  By running to her car, she said, she was able to get away, badly shaken. 


Two mountain ranges away, ranchers Christin Peterson and Sonny McCuistion have the same problem with armed Mexican smugglers crossing their properties. "It's upsetting and there's a lot of them. It hasn't decreased; there's a lot of traffic," said Peterson.

McCuistion, 87, said while out on his horse tending cattle he's seen groups of traffickers, some dressed in camouflage. One time he made a dramatic discovery.  "I rode just a little ways and I said, 'What's that outta the bush?'  And there was about 1,000 pounds of marijuana under those bushes."

Steve McCraw, the Texas Director of Public Safety, says that there is a significant criminal threat from Mexico drug cartels that are smuggling drugs throughout his state and the nation.

All three ranchers scoffed at claims from Washington that crime along the U.S. side of the Mexican border has dropped dramatically and that the area is safer than ever. "They don't know what they're talking about," McCuistion replied.

Beckham, a flight paramedic and firefighter, urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to pay a visit to her ranch. 

"I'll show her it's not a secure border," Beckham said.  "I'll have her talk to my kids.  And they can tell her how afraid they are, that they don't wanna go out after dark."

Southwest border among ‘safest areas in the United States,’ Napolitano says

Texas Department of Public Safety

Officers surround a truck loaded with marijuana in South Texas during a drug bust on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Along the Mexican border, an easy way to get into a fierce debate is to ask a simple question:  "How much violence and crime linked to Mexican drug traffickers has spilled over into the United States?" 

As it turns out, the answer varies wildly and depends on who you talk to, especially in a presidential election year when border security and immigration are sensitive topics. The argument is further complicated by the failure of federal and state law enforcement officials to even agree over how to define spillover violence and other related crimes.

"The danger in not having an accurate accounting of spillover violence is that we fail to see that our cities, American cities, are permeated by Mexican drug cartels who are heavily armed, who are criminals involved in multiple different enterprises," said Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has studied the drug cartels extensively.

The Obama administration, joined by some local officials and sheriffs, claim that because of a sizeable increase in the federal law enforcement presence along the border, crime there has dropped dramatically and the border is safer than it's ever been. 

“Everything that we are seeing along our nation’s Southwest border point to a much safer border today than it has been over the last 20 years,” said David Aguilar, acting commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “It is not a war zone; it is not a border completely out of control.”

David Aguilar, Acting Commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says the American side of U.S. Mexico border is safest in years.

Federal officials cite the FBI Uniform Crime Report, which includes data on murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, when claiming that border-area crime has actually dropped by more than in other cities far from the border.

"This [Obama] administration has deployed unprecedented resources to the Southwest border," said Napolitano during a news conference last month in McAllen, Texas.  "The violent crime in these areas has gone down significantly.  These are among the safest areas in the United States."

The Homeland Security Secretary said the horrific violence from the Mexican drug war, in which it's estimated that as many as 50,000 people have been killed, is a serious security concern for U.S. authorities.  But she insisted that very little of it has spilled over into the United States. 

"That kind of violence we have not seen," Napolitano said.  "While we may not be able to prevent every murder from occurring, I think we can be ahead of, and will be ahead of, any kind of systemic violence." 

Larry W. Smith / EPA, file

A U.S. Border Patrol agent inspects bundles of marijuana recovered after searching the brush along the Rio Grand river, near McAllen, Texas on Feb. 8, 2012. Smugglers brought the drugs across the river in rafts. The nearly two thousand mile United States-Mexico border is the most frequently crossed international border in the world.

During a speech last year in El Paso, President Obama noted the U.S. Border Patrol now has a record 22,000 agents along the Southwest border. "We have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible," he told a cheering crowd.  "We have more boots on the ground on the Southwest border than at any time in our history."

Obama even joked during his speech about Republican critics who call for even tougher security measures along the border.  "Maybe they'll need a moat, maybe they want alligators in the moat.  They'll never be satisfied.  And I understand that, that's politics."

Opposing view: border ‘more dangerous than it’s ever been’

In Cochise County, Ariz., which shares an 84-mile-long border with Mexico, Sheriff Larry Dever was among many border officials who did not laugh at President Obama's joke about moats and alligators.  "I can't tell you how angry it made not only me, but my constituents, to make a mockery of one of the most serious situations we face in our entire lifetime," he said. "I'd say the border is more dangerous than it's ever been."

Dever has lost four friends -- three police officers and a rancher -- to cartel violence, and insists Mexican traffickers crossing into his county are well-armed and much more aggressive now than they were just a few years ago. "We're getting overrun from the south, because the federal government isn't doing its job," he said.

The long-time sheriff argued that the FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics cited by the White House fail to include many of the crimes committed by traffickers, including kidnapping, extortion, public corruption, drug and human smuggling, and trespassing. "I invite them to come down here, come live with us and go camp out at some rancher's house and see what happens at night," he said.   When asked if anyone from Washington had ever agreed to do that, Dever said,   "Heck no, they come for photo ops.”.

Cherry-picking border statistics?

At the Austin headquarters for the Texas Department of Public Safety, director Steve McCraw, a former FBI supervisor and counter-terrorism specialist, studied a chart on the wall filled with red and green dots indicating where drug and money seizures have been made around the state.

"The border's not secure, clearly.  I think by any indication it's not secure," he said.  "We've identified 25 murders that are cartel-related, we've identified 124 kidnappings and extortions that are cartel-related.  We know of 61 instances in which cartel members shot at police officers while they're on the river trying to interdict trucks."

McCraw agreed with Dever that federal officials often use incomplete statistics to defend their arguments about border safety.  "You can't cherry pick your statistics," he said.  "We've got a duty to be very accurate about what's going on now and how we see the current threat."

According to Congressional testimony in 2009 and 2011, the current federal interagency definition of Mexican spillover violence is:  "…deliberate, planned attacks by the cartels on U.S. assets, including civilian, military, or law enforcement officials or physical institutions such as government buildings, consulates or businesses. This definition does not include trafficker on trafficker violence, whether perpetrated in Mexico or the U.S."

Many state officials say trafficker on trafficker violence should not be excluded, because cartel shootouts seen in Texas, Arizona and other states can put civilians in danger and in fear for their lives.  "That's ludicrous," said McCraw.  "Any time there's a murder, an assassination, or the death squads of ‘sicarios’ come over here and try to do a takeover like that, there's always consequences in that neighborhood." 

McCraw, Dever and other regional officials argue that all crimes linked to Mexican traffickers should be gathered to assess the true scope of border threats so that law enforcement needs can more accurately be determined. 

With presidential elections scheduled this year in both the United States and Mexico, the successes and failures of border security efforts have also come under intense scrutiny by the political campaigns.

"I think political assessments of the border have been very slanted, whether it be Democratic or Republican -- Democrats claiming everything is peaceful and quiet, no problem, Republicans arguing that the situation on the border is out of control with spillover violence," said Campbell of the University of Texas at El Paso.

Professor Howard Campbell of the University of Texas at El Paso says the claim that the U.S. Mexico border is safer than ever may be exaggerated.

Campbell said even though there have been relatively few homicides in the United States committed by Mexican traffickers, there is definitely a lot of other crime.

"There has been a spillover of crime and drug trafficking culture and a greater amount of violent encounters between Mexican drug traffickers and U.S. Border Patrol agents and other agents of the U.S. government," he said.  "I think claiming the border is safer than ever is absurd."

As for the failure between federal and state officials to agree on how to define the problem, Campbell says it is important to understand the issues in a "scientific, clear way," and to make effective policies based on that.  He also suggested that collecting crime statistics is not the only way to gather this important information.

"I think it would be better to talk to people who actually live on that border that experience this on a day to day basis," he said.