Spillover Violence From Mexico's Drug Cartels: How Real Is It?
May 27, 2011

The Drug War At Home

This is one installment in a 13-part series of multimedia stories by Fronteras: The Changing America Desk that investigates our role in the illegal narcotics trade.

With every report of drug-related violence in Northern Mexico, comes the fear that the shootouts, the assassinations, and kidnappings will spillover into the United States.

But when does a crime along the border become an example of spillover violence? And when is it just a crime?

It’s all a matter of local interpretation and, sometimes, political manipulation.

Even some media hysteria.

“Let me tell you about the kidnapping epidemic that is happening in our own backyard. Phoenix, Arizona, is America’s kidnapping capital. It is the second worst city after Mexico City, in the world!” declared Fox News host Glenn Beck two years ago. He was referring to a rash of kidnappings that were widely used as proof that cartel violence was moving north.

But it turns out the crime data in Phoenix was much more complicated. In fact, law enforcement there is now being criticized for misreporting kidnapping cases. And all up and down the border there’s an ongoing debate: Is there spillover? How much? And should we admit it’s happening?

West of Phoenix, law enforcement officers throughout San Diego County said the violence is real.

The city of Chula Vista – located only 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border – is a recipient of federal grant money from “Operation Stonegarden”. It pays for equipment or overtime pay for officers fighting crime related to the ongoing drug war in Mexico.

Back in 2005 and 2007, the city witnessed the most infamous example of spillover in San Diego County: A string of seven homicides, along with kidnappings and extortion cases. They were traced back to “Los Palillos”, a gang formerly associated with a Tijuana drug cartel.

Chula Vista Police Chief David Bejarano credits the federal money with keeping the much feared spillover violence at bay.

“If there was no federal funding; if we weren’t coordinating and collaborating, sharing intelligence information between federal, state, and local agencies along the border,” Bejarano said. “Then there would probably be an increased opportunity for spillover crime to occur more often and probably on a larger scale.”

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Chula Vista Police Chief David Bejarano.

San Diego County has made this case so effectively that in 2010, it was awarded the biggest federal grant yet, $14 million, to be shared between 12 state and local law enforcement agencies.

In Texas, however, especially in the little border towns, spillover looks different. El Cenizo, Texas, on the banks of the Rio Grande, is a very popular crossing spot for illegal activity coming over from Mexico.

Drug smuggling and human smuggling is very common here. It all looks quiet during the day. But people here said that at night things change drastically.

Maria Gonzalez can see the Rio Grande from her kitchen window. She said a few months ago a shootout between drug traffickers and U.S. Border Patrol agents had bullets whizzing by her rickety wooden home. She ducked to the floor, pulling her 8-year-old daughter with her.

Some public officials in this region liken the border to a war zone and are fighting — just like San Diego and Phoenix — for more federal and state money to beef up their defenses. But others downplay the violence, knowing their city’s reputation is on the line.

Laredo is about 12 miles north of Maria Gonzalez’s home. Mayor Raul Salinas said border shootouts are the exception, not the rule. He maintained that violence from Mexico’s Drug War is not spilling across the border.

“We have not seen any indication of that,” Salinas said. “We’re not seeing shootings or bombings, you know, how it’s occurring in some border towns in Mexico.”

The problem with spillover is that it’s all in the eyes of the beholder.

Photo by Hernan Rozemberg.
Mayor Raul Salinas, of Laredo, Texas, works in his office.

David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, explained it’s a category of crime that’s hard to track and for which there is often no reliable data.

“The U.S. government doesn’t have a legal category for spillover violence,” Shirk said. “If a drug trafficker walks across the border and shoots an innocent U.S. citizen, that’s not a special category of crime that is tracked by the FBI and denoted as spillover violence, so it’s highly interpretive.”

Whether it’s spillover violence or not, the reality is that violent crime – especially in most Southwestern border counties – has gone down in the last year by as much as 30 percent in some places.