What happens when our government takes down its interior checkpoints north of the border in New Mexico? Well, the cartels, with the drug and human smuggling, are “kicking our butts,” according to one local official.
In an interview with CR, Couy Griffin, the chairman of the Otero County, New Mexico, county commission, explained how our government has exposed his county, and by extension, the rest of the nation, to unprecedented criminal activity from the Mexican cartels. In his view, by taking down the two secondary Border Patrol checkpoints in his county in order to focus on more processing of illegal immigrants, the federal government is missing the point.
“The cartel is winning and winning big; they are kicking our butts,” complained the commissioner of this sparsely populated but large county bordering Texas, near El Paso. “We get so tied up and focused on the asylum seekers or the illegal immigrant aspect of what's going on at our southern border, but the reality of it is that it's nothing but a mere smoke screen for the cartel. They're using these large groups of migrants as nothing more than a smoke screen to smuggle their drugs across the southern border. Meanwhile, as soon as those agents are exhausted, those critical spots, they're sending boatloads of drugs across the border in unsecured areas. The shutting down of the checkpoints on the major drug smuggling corridors is a recipe for disaster. Now they have a green light to shuttle drugs through our counties and through our rural areas, with no security in place.”
Otero County, while itself not on the international border, has two highways originating from the two main border towns where the illegal immigrants are coming in and the cartels are operating – U.S. Highway 70 and U.S. Highway 54. For years, there has been a checkpoint on each highway on the way to Alamogordo, the foremost town in this county. Griffin noted that while the cartels used to relegate their activity to remote parts of the southeast corner of the county, “Now, with our checkpoints being shut down, there's no need to take it out to the middle of nowhere when they can just run it right up to main road.”
Otero County Sheriff David Black told me that his tiny three-man narcotics team and other deputies now have to deal with the cartels all on their own without any help from Border Patrol: “We have rerouted all of our overtime money to interdictions on the highway.” Black noted that his informants tell him the large stash houses in El Paso and even in source cities in Mexico like Juarez are now empty because the cartels “are taking advantage of the unprecedented open borders because nothing is stopping them.”
Obviously, his three-man narcotics team catches only a small amount of the drugs, but what they’ve seen demonstrates the relationship between the surge in the border migration distracting agents, the taking down of checkpoints, and the increased drug traffic.
“In February, before the closing of the checkpoints, we seized $3,500 worth of drugs, including meth, heroin, and marijuana. In March we seized $23,000, and in April we seized $61,790. For our county, that’s a lot.”
In total, there are six checkpoints in the El Paso Border Patrol sector: one in El Paso County, Texas, two in Otero County, N.M., and three in Doña Ana County, N.M. Customs and Border Protection has confirmed with CR that all six remain shut down. Thus, there is not a single checkpoint operating in New Mexico. While the politics of Doña Ana County and the central state government in the urban areas of Albuquerque and Santa Fe have rolled out the welcome mat to illegal immigration and cartel activity, officials in the more conservative and rural counties, such as Otero and its neighboring county to the north, Lincoln, resent the secondary effects and fear that more is coming.
“I’ve never seen all these checkpoints closed in my life, and I’ve been in Lincoln and Otero Counties for 30 years,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Robert Shepperd in an interview with CR. “I have friends who are out on ranches who now have to lock their doors and do things they shouldn’t have to do. It’s eerie watching these checkpoints look like ghost towns.”
Sheriff Black in Otero believes that in the greater El Paso area, the cartel operatives are picking up those who sneak in while Border Patrol is tied down. “I guarantee you they are picking them up in truckloads and driving them north with nothing stopping them in our county.” Black feels a responsibility not only for his county but as a gatekeeper for the entire country. But he has only the resources of a 65,000-person county to deal with the largest transnational criminal organizations at a volatile international border.