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FALFURRIAS, Texas – A foreboding scorecard greets northbound motorists at the Border Patrol checkpoint here, warning travelers and smugglers alike.
As of June, the sign proclaimed, U.S. agents had seized 127,044 pounds of drugs and apprehended 16,785 immigrants without authorization to enter the country.
What the Department of Homeland Security sign doesn’t reveal is that first-time offenders caught with 200 pounds or less of marijuana had a good chance of driving away with a lightened load, a fingerprint record and a slap on the wrist, law enforcement officials say.
With bigger targets in mind, the U.S. attorney’s office in southern Texas hasn’t paid much attention to small-time smugglers caught in this major drug-trafficking and now busiest migrant-crossing corridor through the Rio Grande Valley, local officials said.
And in Brooks County, where the checkpoint sits almost 70 miles north of the border, the local government can no longer afford the costs associated with prosecuting them. Instead, the Border Patrol is “catching, tagging and releasing” them, the local district attorney said.
“It’s not that we’re not willing. We’re just not able,” said Carlos O. Garcia, who took office in January. “We just don’t have the resources.”
Border authorities from South Texas to Southern California face a similar dilemma now that the U.S. Justice Department has largely done away with paying state and local prosecutors to take on relatively minor federal drug busts, citing budget constraints.
The funding cuts portend a quiet but conspicuous shift in the nation’s approach to its battle against drugs.
With illegal immigration plummeting to historic lows in recent years, the Border Patrol has shifted its attention increasingly to drug interdiction and in the process has seized more drugs than ever. Agents also have ensnared thousands of Americans with small amounts of drugs – below drug trafficking thresholds, according to an analysis of data obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Many of those busts come from Border Patrol checkpoints, which accounted for 14 percent of the agency’s total seizure weight – about 313,000 pounds – in 2012. Federal prosecutors can’t handle them all, even if they wanted to.
To be sure, Border Patrol checkpoints have made some big seizures. In 2011, agents at an Imperial County, Calif., checkpoint near the Salton Sea found 14 tons of marijuana hidden among 20 crates in a truck destined for Los Angeles.
As the U.S. Justice Department concentrates on prosecuting cartel kingpins, local prosecutors in Texas and New Mexico now anticipate filing lesser charges and asking for lighter sentences for some offenders caught by federal agents.
Carol Poole, a former Justice Department official who oversaw the management of grants until 2010, said the federal government has left it to local governments to decide on – and fund – the prosecution of lower-level drug smugglers.
“Everyone is evaluating this war on drugs,” Poole said. “Change is difficult. Sometimes the locals are going to take the brunt of some of that change, but it may help them realign their priorities as well.”
The dwindling money comes from the troubled Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative, which has been all but eliminated under the Obama administration. Congress created the program to pay for local prosecution expenses and the costs associated with detaining involved suspects. Since 2002, it’s reimbursed roughly $300 million to authorities in the four states that border Mexico.
Although the Justice Department didn’t request any funds for this year or next, Congress set aside $4.6 million to finance the program in 2013, down from $31 million in 2010.
Last month, border counties received more bad news from the Justice Department: The federal government would reimburse local authorities only for prosecution costs, but not for detention.
Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in a statement that the administration had requested more than $1.7 billion for fiscal year 2014 to battle Mexican organized crime and pay for law enforcement efforts along the border.
“Due to the current funding constraints, the department has had to make difficult choices regarding funding for other programs, like the Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative, which has to be assessed in accordance with the department’s overall southwest border law enforcement priorities,” he wrote.
The reimbursement program began after protests from prosecutors along the border, led by Jaime Esparza in El Paso, who had refused to accept federal cases the Justice Department sent his way without ample financial support.
“Some of the poorest counties in the country are shouldering the federal government’s efforts against drug trafficking,” Esparza said. “If they don’t want to pay us, we’re not going to do that work. And it’s getting to that point now.”
But the border prosecution initiative has had its problems. When the Obama administration took office, Justice Department officials found a poorly run program that lacked hard evidence that it worked as an enforcement tool, Poole said.
In one audit after another, the Justice Department’s inspector general found local prosecutors and sheriffs had maintained poor records, which often resulted in the counties receiving millions of dollars for ineligible claims. Some counties owed the federal government, including Brooks County, which decided to stop taking cases.
Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general who oversaw the Justice Department’s grant funding during President Barack Obama’s first term, said she had serious concerns about the program when she came aboard, spurred by the inspector general’s reports. She thought the money would be better spent elsewhere.
“I tried to get it out of the budget for several years and not in the president’s budget for the last two cycles,” she said. “Congress put it back in.”
Border officials like Donald Reay, a former federal agent and current executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, said local and federal law enforcement need each other’s support, be it manpower or money. He pointed to Yuma, Ariz., as a prime example of where that partnership works.
The Border Patrol sector there has busted more people with drugs than any other sector in the country. The numbers spiked after the local sheriff, Border Patrol sector chief and county attorney agreed to designate agents as peace officers at the local checkpoints, allowing dog handlers to write citations that Yuma County would process.
“What’s right is right, what’s wrong is wrong,” said former Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden. “Everybody’s butt fit in my jail cells.”
Since then, Arizona voters passed a medical marijuana law that went into effect in 2011. Deputized Border Patrol agents there now must recognize states that permit small amounts of marijuana and issue cannabis cards, said Jon Smith, the Yuma County attorney. But those agents still confiscate the marijuana under federal law and can write tickets if the amount exceeds Arizona’s legal limit, said Capt. Eben Bratcher of the Yuma County Sheriff's Office.
Even then, not every county has the option Yuma does. In Texas, for instance, state law doesn’t allow Border Patrol agents to be designated as peace officers. Officials elsewhere worry that by not prosecuting cases, their counties will become smuggling havens and attract more crime. Garcia, the Brooks County prosecutor, said he sees evidence that suggests an increase in gang-related crime is linked to the border, including a recent homicide.
John Hubert, the district attorney for neighboring counties including Kenedy, which has the Border Patrol’s Sarita checkpoint about 20 miles east of Falfurrias as the crow flies, said he argues with his county commissioners about accepting checkpoint cases. He said he can’t live with what he sees as the alternative – surrendering to criminals.
“Prosecution is not supposed to be a money-making business, but our poor counties can’t subsidize the federal government. We are prosecuting out of desperation,” Hubert said. “But it’s killing us. It’s slowly bleeding us dry.”
The fight over money undoubtedly has a ripple effect throughout the drug smuggling business, observers said. When U.S. attorneys set weight thresholds for drug prosecution, traffickers immediately start smuggling smaller loads, said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego and an expert on drug trafficking.
“If the federal government is not going to really address the demand side, which they are not doing adequately, and only occasionally going after big producers,” he said, “the border is just a cat-and-mouse game that goes on infinitely.”