AN official report from the United States Border Patrol in south Texas claims that narcotics trafficking in the area is ``out of control'' and has become an ``epidemic'' that threatens the rest of the country. The report, compiled earlier this year by the McAllen sector of the Border Patrol, concludes that more manpower, increased funding for special equipment, and automatic handguns are needed along the border to counteract growing drug violence.
``The hazardous conditions that presently exist in McAllen sector as a result of the drug-trafficking situation demand immediate attention,'' the report warns.
The McAllen sector is spread over 16,000 square miles in south Texas and includes 280 miles of the Mexican border and 300 miles of coastline. Along with California, south Texas is the hottest area of the Mexican border for drug smuggling and illegal immigration.
``Drug dealers have been arrested carrying UZI and MAC-10 automatic pistols, night-vision scopes, flak jackets, and a host of more conventional weapons,'' the McAllen report states. ``Their electronic equipment is often superior to ours. Their funds and manpower are unlimited, and in the words of one officer, `They have access to the best money can buy.' They don't have to get three bids and take the low one.''
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which oversees the Border Patrol, has begun responding to such cries for help by requesting support from the Department of Defense. Along some parts of the border, 50 US marines now are supplementing Border Patrol strength.
In the field, patrol officers say manpower needs to be bolstered from California to Texas as the drug war intensifies.
Two years ago, the McAllen sector had warned that ``narcotics traffic was increasing, narcotics seizures were at an all time high, armed encounters were rapidly rising, [and] south Texas money laundering was extensive.''
The latest report states: ``The situation has now worsened and for all practical purposes it is out of control unless immediate corrective action is taken to stop this narcotics epidemic.''
In just the McAllen sector, the patrol reports that its agents ``were involved in at least 15 life-threatening, drug-related situations'' in the past two years. ``Border Patrol agents were shot at and had to return fire on numerous occasions. Drug smugglers are becoming increasingly more desperate in their attempts to protect their illegal contraband,'' the report says.
Money laundering - by which ill-gotten drug money is put into legitimate businesses - is also a growing problem in south Texas. The report notes:
``While south Texas struggles with the highest unemployment rates in the US, local banks are reporting tremendous increases in deposits that reveal incredible profits by drug traffickers....
``Banks in San Antonio, Texas, recently reported increases of 60 percent in million-dollar deposits. This was the largest increase among the nation's four biggest drug-trafficking areas....
``McAllen, Texas, with annual per-capita income of $5,833 and 26 percent unemployment, revealed that local banks were reporting staggering increases in deposits in the millions. Bank officials frequently opened their doors at odd hours to accommodate certain high-volume depositors. Internal Revenue Service agents conducting money-laundering investigations were actually lectured by bank officials that investigations were bad for business.''
Not only banks benefit from drug money.
``A sales manager for [an auto] dealer in McAllen said many of his sales were for cash. `This is an amazing place,' the manager stated. `They'll come in with paper sacks filled with money, almost always in $20 bills, and buy a car. I don't condone drug-smuggling, but I tell you, I love these guys.... The hardest part is counting out $40,000 in 20s.'''
One hot area for drugs is Rio Grande City, Texas, according to the report.
``With an annual per-capita income of less than $3,500, and [high unemployment, Rio Grande] continually reports high increases in bank deposits. [The city] has the highest percentage [in the area] of brand new Lincoln Continentals, customized Chevrolet `Choo-Choo' pickup trucks, and expensive sports cars. Extravagant homes surround the small community of less than 15,000, and if the truth were known, Rio Grande City would probably rank as one of the richest cities in the country.''
Not only are drug smugglers rich, they also win a significant amount of sympathy in some communities. As the report says:
``In some areas, their notoriety is such that they are highly respected. [They are] looked up to and protected by members of the community. Information on their activities does not come [easily] to law officers due to respect, or fear. In some cases, Mexican `corridos' [ballads] are written about them, depicting them as legends.''
Drug smugglers are involved in a wide variety of crimes in the Rio Grande Valley, according to the report. These include murder, loan-sharking, gambling, racketeering, burglary, bribery, prostitution, extortion, hijacking.
Drug money is being invested in restaurants, construction, banks, nightclubs, ranches, auto dealerships, fast food outlets, real estate, and trucking, the report says.
A number of south Texas families have worked the drug trade for years. More recently, these home-grown organizations have formed loose partnerships with Colombian, Jamaican, Cuban, and other drug trafficking groups, the report concludes.
One in a series of articles about US border problems.