An EPIC Fail In the Border War

Despite the federal government's politically correct definition of "cross border violence," my experience and intelligence sources tell me that "cross border violence" by these cartels and gangs has been going on inside this country for decades. In Los Angeles, Mexican nationals commit as many murders as all the street gangs do each year; and 95 percent of outstanding warrants are for Mexican nationals.

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Photo: Richard Valdemar.Photo: Richard Valdemar.The El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) utilizes the best human and technological electronic intelligence gathering systems to direct law enforcement's efforts against threats to our southern border. Located near the border between Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, the center is a combined jurisdictional agency that coordinates our border war against human and drug traffickers as well as possible terrorist activity.

EPIC, a state-of-the-art command center started by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in 1974, looks more like one of NASA's space-launch centers than any law enforcement command post.

The center was originally staffed by members of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Custom Service and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Agencies with staff at EPIC now include the DEA; Department of Homeland Security (DHS); U.S. Customs and Border Protection; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the U.S. Coast Guard; Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE); U.S. Secret Service; U.S. Marshals Service; National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC); Internal Revenue Service (IRS); U.S. Department of the Interior; National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; U.S. Department of Defense (DoD); Joint Task Force North; Joint Interagency Task Force South; the Texas Department of Public Safety; Texas' Air National Guard; and the El Paso County Sheriff's Department.

I toured this facility in 2010 as a member of the Border Sheriff's Posse, a group that supports the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition and other law enforcement agencies along the border.

On our tour, we were given the government's canned reassurances about the effectiveness of EPIC at monitoring and directing the interdiction of criminal activity by organized drug trafficking cartels and the less-organized American and Mexican criminal gangs operating along the border.

After the truly impressive tour, the group was given the opportunity to ask questions. At the time, a debate swirled in media outlets about whether violence was crossing the border or confined to areas south of the border. Our EPIC tour guide assured us that any cross-border violence was rare and isolated.

Question after question from our group cited incident after violent incident. Our tour guide, an EPIC administrator, diffused the questions by narrowly defining the government's definition of "cross border violence." Because we were guests the federal government's "house" — a showpiece of technical wizardry — I tried to hold my tongue and not contradict the EPIC administrator.

The tour guide told the group they were able to track cartel members from as far away as Los Angeles and monitor their activity as they crossed the border. As a retired Los Angeles sheriff's deputy who worked intelligence, and was familiar with these criminal groups, I couldn't hold my tongue any longer. I had to say something.

I pointed out that these groups often carried high-quality counterfeit identification and vehicles sporting phony plates or registration to fictitious parties. This made identification and intelligence-monitoring difficult or impossible. The EPIC guide agreed and suggested that the government's solution was biometric identification systems. He was talking about U.S. identification, as well as utilizing fingerprints, retinal scans, DNA or embedded electronic chips.

Despite the federal government's politically correct definition of "cross border violence," my experience and intelligence sources tell me that "cross border violence" by these cartels and gangs has been going on inside this country for decades. Starting in the 1980s, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has had a dedicated "Mexican national" kidnapping unit active in Los Angeles. There's a statistic that usually goes unpublicized regarding the murder rate in Los Angeles — Mexican nationals kill as many as all the street gangs do each year, and 95 percent of outstanding warrants are for Mexican nationals.

Other respected sources have questioned the effectiveness of EPIC.

In his SpyTalk blog in the Washington Post on June 15, 2010, Jeff Stein called EPIC a "complete bust" and cited a highly critical 86-page report by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General. Author Glenn E. Fine, chief of the OIG, reported that the DEA couldn't produce complete statistical records for drug seizures because the National Drug Seizure reporting system is incomplete. EPIC had also failed to sustain staffing in some key interdiction programs including the Fraudulent Document Unit, as well as the Air Watch and Maritime Intelligence units.

EPIC member agencies have failed to share intelligence or contribute resources to sustain the center's mission — another classic blunder that's all too common among the federal law enforcement agencies. EPIC received poor grades from Chief Inspector General Fine for the lack of coordination with other federal agencies and state intelligence organizations across the country. According to the report, EPIC did not maintain up-to-date contacts for key law enforcement intelligence and Fusion centers. EPIC didn't know if it had EPIC users in each center.

In an Aug. 3 blog by the highly respected "Judicial Watch," the government seems to now be backing up my observations and those of the Justice Department's inspector general.

The Judicial Watch report cites the confusing contrary reporting histories of various government agencies. While Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claims that the Mexican border region is "secure as it has ever been," the U.S. State Department concluded that the U.S.-Mexico border area is experiencing a "dramatic increase in violence" and that the "security situation along the Texas border has changed markedly from a year ago."

The report blames the violence on the sophisticated and heavily armed drug cartels competing with each other for trafficking routes into the U.S. The State Department's Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) referred to the violence as "narco-terrorism" and "continued concerns regarding safety along the Mexican border have prompted the U.S. mission in Mexico to impose certain restrictions on the U.S. government employees" traveling in the area.

The Judicial Watch blog points out that "as a result, the violence is increasingly flowing north, even as the top homeland security official denies it. Just last summer a myriad of bullets fired into El Paso, striking City Hall and a public university building." This happened in the same week that the border posse toured EPIC.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott found it necessary to send President Obama a letter saying his state is under constant assault from illegal activity threatening a porous border.

The best human and electronic intelligence gathered in the most technologically advanced state-of-the-art intelligence center that utilizes millions of taxpayer funds to monitor the border is useless as long as our government prioritizes political correctness over real border security.

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