Mexico: Crimes at the Border

Victor Clark Alfaro

Victor Clark Alfaro

Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican congressman from San Diego, helped spearhead legislation to build a secure barrier along the California-Mexico border.

Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican congressman from San Diego, and a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, helped spearhead legislation to build a secure barrier along the California-Mexico border.

He tells FRONTLINE/World correspondent Lowell Bergman that small, completed portions of the fence have already affected the rate of illegal immigrants attempting to cross, reducing arrests by more than 90 percent in some areas.

He also responds to critics who say that the barrier has only made the human smuggling business more lucrative and pervasive. Hunter also helped to shepherd the Secure Fence Act through Congress in 2006, which provided for an additional 700 miles of fence to be built across the border with Mexico.

This interview took place on May 12, 2008, in San Diego. It has been edited for clarity.

Q: Tell us about this fence on the border. Why is it there, and what is it protecting us from?

Hunter: When we built that fence we had an average of 300 drug trucks a month roaring across the border, right across the sagebrush, on that narrow strip of land between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California. The drug guys would load up with cocaine and marijuana. They’d put that pick up or that van into third gear, boom across the sagebrush and try to hit Highway 805 or 5 and get lost in the traffic.

At the same time, you had thousands of people coming across, because the smuggler’s corridor between San Diego and Tijuana was the most prolific smuggler’s strip in America. More people and more narcotics were smuggled across that place every 24 hours than any place else in the country. That’s the backdrop against which I built that border fence.

Q: It’s part of a wall right?

It’s a double fence. When we first wrote the bill that mandated the border fence, it was a triple fence. But the two layers were so successful – that’s two fences with a road in between – that we never had to build the third layer.

When we built that [in 1994], the border was absolutely out of control. You had armed gangs that roamed the border area at night. They would accost illegal aliens coming across – a lot of the people would have their life savings in their pocket. If you were an armed gang there, you could rob 20 or 30 people at a shot, each of them having between a hundred and three hundred bucks in their pocket. You could knock out a lot of money. They also would often abuse the women, rape them. We had an average of about 10 murders a year on the border. It was so bad that we actually put together a plainclothes police team that would dress like illegal aliens. They would go down to the border at night and wait to be attacked by the border gangs. Then they would pull their weapons, and you’d have either a shootout or a series of arrests. That’s how bad the border was – massive drug importation, massive smuggling of people, enormous crime. Nobody wanted to be around there when the sun went down. It was a no man’s land. So what I did was write language into a bill that I knew Bill Clinton had to sign that said the federal government shall build a triple border fence.

Q: For the whole border?

For the number one smugglers’ corridor between San Diego and Tijuana.

Q: In your district?

This was the number one smugglers’ corridor in the country. [But] now the fence works. It works tremendously. Before we fenced this area we apprehended an average of about 209,000 illegal aliens a year. After we finished [the fence] that went down to 9,000 in the fenced area. So you had a reduction of more than 90 percent. In Yuma you had 138,000 [arrests] in one of their sectors. Now that it’s fenced that went down to 3,800, a reduction of more than 95 percent. So the fence works.

The way it works is that when a smuggler goes through the first fence, let’s say he cuts his way through or he climbs over it, he has to cross a high-speed border patrol road that the border patrol can move 50, 60 miles an hour on. Then he’s got to sit down with his welding gear or get his ladders in place and try to get his people over the second fence, which is 15 feet high with a big overhang. It’s very difficult to do, as long as you have a modicum of border patrol agents on that particular area. We found out that it leverages our border patrol agents. We’ve been able to pull border patrol agents off the fenced sector because you don’t need as many when you have the fence barriers. So the fences have worked very well.

There was one part on the border that was not fenced, that first 14 miles, that’s a canyon called Smugglers’ Gulch. Every time we tried to double fence Smugglers’ Gulch the environmental community would try to stop us. They stopped us for 12 years. We finally passed a law that gave the director of Homeland Security the ability to waive all regulations with respect to the environment to build the border fence. They’ve now exercised that waiver, and we’ll start the fencing at Smugglers’ Gulch for the first time about June 15. So very shortly we’re going to start to sew up that last piece of the number one smugglers’ corridor.

Q: The critics of your fence and this crackdown on the border say that what you are really trying to do is stop economics. People will keep trying to get across the border to work as long as they can make a better living here. Do you think that by building this wall you are going to stop this from happening?

We have stopped it from happening in the places where we built the double border fence.

The thing that the critics don’t understand or don’t want to understand is that we have 250,000 criminal aliens in federal, state, and local penitentiaries and jails right now. Those people didn’t come across for jobs. They came across to hurt people. Some of them murdered people. Some of them battered people. Some of them committed crimes against property. When we built the double border fence in San Diego the crime rate by FBI statistics dropped 56.3 percent.

Q: Where did the crime rate fall?

San Diego County.

Q: But didn’t that happen in the State of California as a whole?

That also was largely attributable to the border fence because you had a massive migration every night of criminals coming across with people [looking for] work and people moving narcotics across.

Q: A Tijuana man who is involved in human smuggling told us, “As long as there is a need, you’ll never stop people getting across to the United States. You’ll just never stop it, doesn’t matter how big the wall is. If you build a really tall wall, we’ll just dig a hole. It doesn’t matter how tall the wall is, you’re never going to stop people from getting across.”

Let’s take what really happened. In the sector of the border where I built the double fence, we went down from 202,000 arrests, to 9,000. That’s a decrease of more than 90 percent.

Q: A decrease of apprehensions.            

The definition of law enforcement is to make crime inconvenient. We’re never going to cut the crime of smuggling people to zero. But you can make it very inconvenient for them through a number of law enforcement practices. We are successful. We are making it harder for people to come across illegally. The idea that somehow we should make it easier for them to come across by having an open border, and thereby make the rates for crossing reduced, is nonsensical.

Q: Another issue that came up when we talked with smugglers was the lack of consequences they face when they are apprehended trying to drive people across the border. If you drive a van with less than 12 people, for instance, you are not charged with a crime. You are just released and deported. So from the smuggler’s point of view, there is no downside to just keep pounding away at the border.

We should have higher standards. We should have high penalties for the people who smuggle [immigrants], because those are the people making the money.

Q: But we are told that as of now the federal courts don’t have the capacity to do that. If you did apprehend all of these drivers and charge them, it would overwhelm an already overwhelmed judicial system here in San Diego.

In a way, you just made the case for the double border fence. By building the border fence and stopping this wave of people coming in, you’re going to pull down the population of people coming in illegally. And you’re going to pull down the number of federal cases that you have to administer. That’s the whole point.

Q: According to people we spoke with – smugglers, migrants and those who study migrant issues – there seems to be a big unintended consequence of this crack down. They all say that it has actually helped the human smuggling business prosper because it is now impossible to get across the border on your own, so you are forced to turn to one of these bigger criminal organizations.

They are wrong. Those folks never saw those videos before we built the double border fence of what we call the “banzai attacks.” That was where a thousand illegal aliens and some drug smugglers would line up at the same time on the border at San Ysidro. One of the smugglers would give a signal and a thousand people would come across at one time. You would have 25 to 30 border patrol agents there, and they’d catch 25 to 30 people and the other 970 of them would be racing up the freeway, jumping into cars, some of them getting run over. We had a number of fatalities on the highways at those times. When we built the double fence, we did away with that. All that was before the border fence. It was a multibillion-dollar business long before anybody tried to stop it. The idea that we should make it easy for them to get across and then somehow we take the money out of the smuggling is senseless.

Q: We interviewed Professor Wayne Cornelius here at [University of California, San Diego]. He is considered an expert on immigration and has recently done a study on Mexican immigration into the U. S. since 9/11. When I asked him about fortifying the border – basically, putting up a fence – he said what we’ve done with all this spending is turn what used to be a modestly profitable industry into an extremely lucrative industry, making professional smugglers a necessity for a relatively safe and successful crossing.

That’s been the argument against aggressive law enforcement forever. If you get tough, if you get after the druggies, the price of drugs will go up. If you get after the criminals who are soliciting these criminal acts for X dollars, they’ll raise the price. When you put pressure on them, they will respond. But the idea that we’re afraid to put pressure on them, on the basis that we think they’re going to respond in another way, is not acceptable. You have to have a real border. And none of these academics has been able to come up with a way in which we control our border in a secure way. Let’s say that you totally handled the problem with people who want to work. Let’s say we waved a magic wand and did away with that. How do the academics handle the fact you have a 2,000 mile exposed border, which is pointed to by every blue ribbon panel on security as a potential exposure to terrorism?

The California border was out of control. It was a place where criminality was rampant, and where many, many murders took place until we built the double border fence. I don’t know where these guys were when all this stuff was taking place.

Q: Professor Cornelius has done a study that involves interviewing 3,000 migrants on both sides of the border. Not only did they all hire these organizations to help them either get through the port of entry or get around your wall, but his statistics show that 97 percent of the people who try to get across the border eventually make it.

But remember, I’ve only built 14 miles of border fence here in San Diego.

Q: But a fifth of those people came right through the port of entry – they didn’t even bother to go around your fence.

You know what that says? That says we haven't built the border fence yet. I built the 14 miles of border fence, and we stopped the banzai attacks and put the 300 drug-truck drive-throughs a month out of business. We stopped the murders on the border.

But we still have obviously this huge border between us and Brownsville, Texas ­– 2,000 miles of border. We have to build the rest of the [barrier]. [As to] the idea that if people continue to try they can get across the border? Absolutely. That’s why you need to build the border fence, and you need to have more than simply the San Diego piece.

Q: In the best of all possible worlds, you would build a wall all the way across the border? All 2,000 miles?

No, you’ve got some places where you have cliffs, where you have rugged terrain –features that would make it extremely expensive, but also extremely difficult to traverse a border whether you have a fence or not. The first 854 miles [of the fence would be] what I call the smugglers’ routes that are most accessible to the smugglers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Q: When we were talking with smugglers in Mexico, they told us the jackpot for them is to corrupt a U.S. border official. And people with the FBI and the Border Corruption Task Force said that since the fence has gone up and it’s more difficult to cross, there is more pressure than ever from the smuggling organizations to illicit the help of a corrupt border official.

In other words, the fence is working?

Q: Additionally, there’s an increase in the number of law enforcement officials on this side of the border since 9/11. So the pool of individuals who are susceptible to corruption has grown. If a smuggler has a corrupt border patrol agent working for them, they have access to this country, guaranteed. So the task force is finding more and more cases of inspectors who have been corrupted.

The centerpiece of any effective law enforcement agency is the honest cop, the honest border patrolmen, the honest customs guy. If a person is dishonest, that hurts the system badly, and there is no formula that you can put in place that will somehow turn a person who wants to take money to commit a crime, into an honest person. It's a matter of ethics.

Q: Internal Affairs and a number of other agencies say that they don’t really know how much corruption there is on the U.S. side of the border. The FBI is telling us that they have a huge backlog of cases because of the increased use of the port of the entry as a place smuggling groups to bring people across.

“I don’t care how well the fence works in forcing people to the gates” – that’s what you basically said. I mean, part of Professor Cornelius’ line is, “It doesn’t work,” and now you’re giving me a theme that maybe it works too well – we’re forcing people to try to go through the ports of entry.

I totally reject the idea that somehow the border fence has made government agents corrupt. A fence doesn’t change the character of border agents. If a person is a good honest person, he’s going to be a good honest person, no matter how much pressure is put on him by the cartels.           

Q: Nobody is saying that the border fence has made government agents corrupt. What they are saying is the price of moving people across the border has gone up, and therefore there is more money available to tempt U.S. officials.

Well, then you’re saying it's making more people corrupt. That’s what you just told me. Right?

Q: I’m telling you what the FBI and the Border Corruption Task Force told us.

Well, I haven’t seen that statement by them, that they think the border fence is making people corrupt.

Q: Their statement says that the fence has put more pressure on the port of entry and made more money available to corrupt the people who work there.

Pressure is different than corrupting influence. I think if a person has corrupt tendencies, he’s going to have those corrupt tendencies for a small amount of money or a large amount of money.

I think that’s a stretch to say that somehow something new has invaded America’s law enforcement agencies. I think that most of our law enforcement agents have great integrity. If you have a higher incident of cases – and we’d have to look at the statistics – probably a lot of that comes from a higher volume.

Q: In one particular case, we are talking about a former marine, who for 16 years was a model border inspector and a trainer of his colleagues.

Sure, sure. You got tragic cases. And any time you have a lot of money available and that kind of opportunity you’re going to have some people who go in the wrong direction. That’s a sad fact. On the other hand, the question is, What are you trying to tell us as a result of that? That we should have an open border and then we wouldn’t have corruption? Or we should have a semi-closed border? Or we should have people holding hands at the border?

What I know is: The fence works. If you have a good law enforcement operation and you go at them, and you become aggressive with them, and you start to suppress crime, you’re going have very creative people trying to come up with other ways to continue criminal operations. The more inconvenient you make it for them, the more they’re going to try an avenue that works. But that’s a problem we have to deal with.

Q: The inspector general of the [Department of Homeland Security] told us that another thing he really worries about with the expansion of the border patrol is the mass hiring of people and a lowering of standards. They have found real problems – people who were convicted felons who were allowed in the border patrol. There is concern within the Department of Homeland Security about the quality of people who are being hired and their ability to be policed.

I categorically reject the idea that somehow we’re taking the dregs of society into the border patrol. I don’t think the statistics say that. Now, if you can show me a list of felons who are being brought into the border patrol, I think you need to take a look at that. But I think most of the young people I’ve seen coming are pretty darn good people. Maybe they don’t have the highest grade point average. I didn’t either. You meet some darn good people out there in the field, undertaking their job, which is a very difficult an inconvenient job.

Q: What we are told by the FBI and others is that there appears to be less of a stigma among our border officials to let immigrants through the border, than say, drugs. The perception is that the immigrants are just trying to get jobs and they are not a danger to the United States. That’s an explanation they’ve gotten from the people who they’ve arrested.

But you were talking about people who presumably have taken money to move people or drugs across the border? I’ve never seen that – I’ve never seen an agent who argued it was OK for him to take money to allow people to be smuggled instead of drugs.

Q: Another thing Professor Cornelius has found is that because of the rising cost and difficulty of getting across the border, once people get here they are much less likely to ever go back. So the result is that traffic across the border has become a one-way flow. He says that we are creating a permanent population of illegal aliens.

Are we presupposing that you’re never going to be able to deport people who have come across illegally? I disagree with that.

Q: So you see this leading to mass deportations?

We deport people by the thousands every month. Deportation is not the worst thing in the world. If people come in illegally, they have to go home.

It looks like there are two themes coming from academia. One theme is the fence doesn’t work. The other is it works too well, and it's doing a couple things. It's making people afraid to try to go through the fence several times, so if they get over here one time, they stay. The other is, academia thinks [the fence is] corrupting our officials. It’s working so well it's putting increased pressure on the ports of entry, and thereby officials are being corrupted. I think what academia has to do is decide which theme they’re going to use – either the fence is working, or it's not working. But they’ve come up with both theories.

Q: Aside from the public safety reasons that you gave – the violence on the border, the people rushing across – is there a national security reason for this fence?

Oh, sure, there’s a national security reason. It’s logical that the same smugglers who will take $10,000 to smuggle cocaine or $10,000 to smuggle a group of illegal aliens would at some point take $10,000 from somebody to move explosives into the U.S. I don’t think they would have a problem with that.

Look at the people who we caught last year: 58,000 people coming across from Mexico who were not citizens of Mexico. We caught 800 people plus coming from Communist China, and how they got to Mexico, Lord knows. We caught a few people from Iran and North Korea. So it’s clear now that everybody in the world with a television set understands that if you want to get into the United States illegally, it’s very difficult to come through the airports because they’re pretty well closed up. The way you get here illegally now is to get to Mexico. Anybody with dollars can get to Mexico, and then you get across the land border between Mexico and the United States. So there’s a national security reason to have a border fence and to have an enforceable border.

Has there ever been anyone apprehended on the southwest border coming across from Mexico into the United States who was in any way linked to al Qaeda?

No. And until 9/11, there hadn't been anybody who ever drove a plane into the World Trade Center.

Q: You know what the smugglers said to us about that? They said one of the reasons they agreed to talk to us in the first place is that they were furious at the idea that they would bring terrorists into the United States. They said that would be very dumb because it would be terrible for their business if that person got caught.

The idea that these people are good people who are not going to allow terrorists to come into the United States – that’s really far fetched.

Listen, we live in a world where you just told me that people get corrupted. People who are Boy Scouts get corrupted and do terrible things because of money. The idea that these smugglers won’t take millions of dollars or wouldn’t at some point take millions of dollars to move explosives into the United States? Of course they would. They will poison our children with cocaine, for money. Why wouldn’t they move explosives across?