Six years after a Government Accountability Office review found poor coordination between federal land managers and Border Patrol officials tasked with combating illegal border crossings in the Southwest, a new analysis finds not enough has changed.
At stake is the safety of National Park Service staff and visitors to places such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Coronado National Monument, and even Saguaro and Big Bend national parks, as well as the diverse natural resources in those units of the National Park System.
"There has been little interagency coordination to share intelligence assessments of border security threats to federal lands and develop budget requests, strategies, and joint operations to address these threats," stated the report, which was issued last month. "Interagency efforts to implement provisions of existing agreements in these areas could better leverage law enforcement partner resources and knowledge for more effective border security operations on federal lands."
Border safety long has been an issue in the Southwest, where drug runners and illegal immigrants hoping for a better life swarm across the more than 800 miles that make up the U.S.-Mexican border. When the GAO in 2004 examined the operations between the Department of Homeland Security, Interior Department, and Agriculture Department, it concluded that the agencies "were not sharing information about local security threats, plans for infrastructure and technology enhancements, or staff deployment."
While progress has been made, the GAO noted, problems still remain.
"Cross-border illegal activity remains a significant threat on southwest and northern federal borderlands, according to Border Patrol assessments and data from 2009," the latest GAO report pointed out. "Specifically, Border Patrol threat assessments showed that tribal lands, a national forest, wildlife refuges, a conservation area, and national parks in the Tucson sector continue to be high-risk areas for cross-border threats related to marijuana smuggling and illegal migration, and Border Patrol data show that the number of apprehensions of illegal entrants has not kept pace with the number of estimated illegal entries."
Significantly, while the report says that in 2009 the Border Patrol arrested more than 91,000 illegal aliens on federal lands in the Southwest, "the Border Patrol estimated close to three times as many more illegal entries on federal lands." Most of this traffic crosses U.S. Forest Service lands or the Tohono O’odham Nation, the report said.
Although the Border Patrol has reported that environmental regulations were not impeding their work, as some in Congress have maintained, there are substantial "logistical and operational challenges" that must be overcome to improve border control, the GAO pointed out.
Among those challenges are a lack of resources, the sheer distance between Border Patrol offices and border areas, such as Organ Pipe Cactus, where problems frequently arise, and gaps in patrol areas, the GAO report notes.
At Organ Pipe, Superintendent Lee Baiza said in an interview Friday that "there are peaks and valleys that I’ve seen with the illegal traffic. Some of it is tied to seasonal efforts, and by that I mean there’s a certain part of the year when they’re coming across with more marijuana than others because that’s a peak period for the crop. It’s also tied into other efforts on the border on the U.S. side. If there are specific operations from the Border Patrol immediately on the border here for us, then obviously that also changes what occurs here at Organ Pipe."
Organ Pipe, where 28-year-old National Park Service Ranger Kris Eggle was killed in August 2002 while helping Border Patrol agents pursue two men wanted in connection with a drug-related murder in Mexico, is in a particularly strategic area for drug smugglers and illegal aliens. Just south of the monument's boundary lies Sonyota, Mexico, which Superintendent Baiza said "has evolved, especially over the last couple of years, to be more of a stage and support of illegal traffic."
Too, the monument is bisected by Arizona 85, which provides access to the United States for drug runners and human smugglers from Mexico; a dirt road in Mexico parallels part of the monument's boundary going east from the U.S. port of entry at Lukeville, Ariz., and; Mexico's Highway 2 parallels the boundary going west from that point, noted the superintendent.
“When you have the access through Organ Pipe, to Organ Pipe, that these arteries provide, both laterally and perpendicularly, it really challenges us from the sense that it’s easier for them to gain access through Organ Pipe using these conduits," Superintendent Baiza said.
In their meetings with Interior Department officials in the region, the GAO analysts reported that those officials "said that they would like additional guidance to determine when risks related to cross-border illegal activity warrant closure or restricted access to federal borderlands."
How serious are the problems? At Organ Pipe Cactus, the parking lot near the visitor center is often used by drug smugglers, according to the GAO.
"Because of safety concerns, federal land law enforcement officials spent much of their time providing armed escorts for agency personnel, such as park researchers and scientists, conducting work in certain areas of the park," added the report.
Superintendent Baiza acknowledged the use of Organ Pipe's parking lot by drug smugglers, and said he just didn't have the staff to patrol it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"That’s the least of my worries right now. I have a housing area. I have 12 families living here in the park. We have employees that work here, we have visitors at the campground that entrust their safety to us," he said. "There are all these other challenges...”
The GAO report also pointed out that the Interior Department's "Southwest Border Coordinator said that the lack of DOI guidance has resulted in different practices to close or restrict access across federal borderlands, despite similar border security threats to public safety."
The Chief Ranger for the Coronado National Memorial said that he had safety concerns regarding border-related hazards. However, the Park Superintendent said she has not exercised her authority to close areas of the park because the National Park Service at the local, regional and national level has not fully analyzed the level of cross-border illegal traffic within the memorial or the severity of the threat to visitors and employees. In the meantime, the Chief Ranger posted signs to warn the public about illegal cross-border activity that are used throughout the National Park Service lands along the Mexico border.
Many of the continuing problems stem from agencies not communicating on a regular basis, the GAO report concludes.
"DHS, DOI, and USDA did not coordinate to ensure that federal land law enforcement officials had access to daily situation reports on threats to federal lands and compatible secure radio communications to coordinate daily operations in the Tucson sector, according to Border Patrol and federal land law enforcement officials in locations we visited," the report states.
While a 2006 memorandum of understanding between DOI, USDA, and Homeland Security directed those agencies to create a system for sharing threat information, that was not accomplished, according to the GAO.
"In addition, a 2008 MOU designated a common encryption key to enable secure radio communications for Border Patrol and federal land law enforcement officials operating on federal borderlands," the report continues. "However, officials in the Tucson sector did not consistently consult with federal land agencies to ensure continued sharing of secure radio communications on daily operations. The lack of continuous interagency consultation to implement these agreements has raised concerns that law enforcement officials do not have a common awareness of immediate threats on the federal borderlands they patrol and lack the ability to communicate when attempting to provide a coordinated law enforcement response."
The GAO report goes on to point out the lack of overall coordination between the agencies and said, essentially, that the Border Patrol dropped the ball in this area.
"Border Patrol Tucson sector officials said that they were no longer providing federal land law enforcement officials with daily situation reports on border security threats because this information-sharing responsibility was transferred to the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT)," the GAO report noted. "This multiagency forum has recently been initiated in Arizona to integrate intelligence and operations among homeland security partners. However, the Border Patrol Tucson sector and the ACTT did not coordinate to ensure that federal land law enforcement officials would continue to receive threat information similar to that provided in the daily situation reports to ensure that partners had a common awareness of the types and locations of illegal activities observed on federal borderlands."
National Park Service officials in the agency's Intermountain Region office, in which parks in Arizona and New Mexico fall, did not immediately respond when asked to comment on the report's findings.
In Washington, Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said in a short statement that, "(T)he report points out many of the positive steps that have been taken to increase collaboration with DHS and the US Forest Service and we look forward to continuing to work with those agencies as we address the challenges along the southwest border. We will also diligently work to implement the GAO's recommendations for how we can further strengthen our programs and collaborations."
To solve the problems it found and improve border security, the GAO report made seven recommendations ranging from better guidance to federal land managers concerning whether public access to borderlands should be restricted and better inter-agency coordination and communication of threat assessments to compatibility of radio communications and more resources in terms of personnel, technology, and infrastructure.