January-February 2014

Success stories in border prosecution

Rene Peña

District Attorney in Atascosa, Frio, Karnes, La Salle, and Wilson Counties

I am honored to serve as President of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association for 2014. This organization is a credit to its members and is unmatched in meeting the professional needs of Texas prosecutors and their staffs.
    At the forefront of issues faced by Texans is border security and safety. The challenge for Texas prosecutors and law enforcement is how to deal with the evolution of organized criminal activity, namely, the transnational threats that result. Texas shares 1,254 miles of border with the Republic of Mexico. In 2011, Texas dominated all border states with the number of U.S.-Mexico border crossings. Out of the 27 vehicular points of entry into Texas from Mexico, the Port of Laredo was ranked first in the number of crossings, according to the Office of the Governor.
    Additionally, Texas’ population continues to grow rapidly. At the last census, the population stood at 25 million. Texas’ gross domestic product (GDP) exceeded $1 trillion in the last decade. Over the last few years, the impact of the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas play has been significant to border communities and metro areas. It is estimated that in 2011, Eagle Ford revenue was in excess of $25 billion.
    As a result, there has been an increase in organized criminal activity in rural areas, specifically in crimes that can be categorized as white collar in nature, such as money laundering. Today’s climate is ripe for the creation of illegitimate “shell” companies and corporations and the cloning of legitimate business vehicles including first responder and law enforcement vehicles. This is in addition to the use of seemingly legitimate business and recreational travel between Texas and the Republic of Mexico, a model much-used by criminal enterprises.
    Border and rural counties have all experienced expansion in other areas of criminal activity beyond money laundering and drug trafficking, such as kidnapping, extortion, murder for hire, home invasions, aggravated robbery, human and sex trafficking, and weapons trafficking.
    The criminal enterprise model is prefaced on control of trafficking and smuggling routes between Texas and Mexico. The primary motivation is profit. This control is not achieved without these criminal enterprises receiving assistance from prison and street gangs in Texas. The relationship between the gangs and the criminal enterprises is facilitated by cultural and familial ties to Mexico, which bonds these two groups beyond the normal profit-based loyalty. The evolution that has taken place between the cartels and street gangs is, no doubt, a security issue. Should gangs continue to take hold of communities one by one, the result will be an extension of the transnational criminal enterprise into Texas and the United States.
    The use of criminal aliens has facilitated the evolution of the criminal enterprise. (This is not to say that all aliens, legally or illegally here, are criminal actors or that they are primarily from Mexico.)    As of 2012, there are in excess of 140,000 criminal aliens that have been arrested in Texas. The crimes include but are not limited to murder, sexual assault, robbery, human trafficking, sex trafficking, and drug offenses. The criminal alien who is legally within the U.S. who is part of the criminal enterprise uses his dual residence as a means to further money laundering, for example.
    To highlight the profiting one need only take into account that according to the Texas Safety Threat Overview of 2013, Operation Border Star drug seizures from April 2006 through December 2012 totaled $7,677,441,458. That’s more than $7.6 trillion (with a T).
    Gang sophistication is systematic in terms of structure, communication, and operations. Gangs’ objective is to conduct their business and illegal activities without attracting law enforcement attention, and their goal is to avoid detection by utilizing technology and counter-measures against law enforcement. Even so, according to the National Gang Assessment, a majority of the crimes committed in 2011 were gang-related.
    Consequently, the emergence of gang activity in rural communities is of great concern. The lack of law enforcement resources in combatting these gangs in the areas of training, equipment, technology, and personnel is a significant disadvantage.

A response
The Legislature and Governor Perry recognized the security concerns to our state. Hence, in 2009 the Border Prosecution Unit (BPU) was created. BPU consists of 48 counties along the Texas-Mexico border and includes 17 prosecution offices from El Paso to Brownsville united under a cooperative working agreement.
    In each prosecution office, state funding provides an assistant district attorney who handles the specialized caseload of border crimes. Border crimes are defined as any crime that undermines public safety or security because of proximity to the border, such as, without being limited to, crimes involving:
•    drugs/trafficking
•    human trafficking or other exploitation
•    financial crimes and money laundering
•    criminal enterprise
•    kidnapping
•    extortion
•    murder
•    Mexican nationals or undocumented aliens
•    transnational elements
•    public corruption
    BPU has formed a strategic partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The model promotes an efficient collaboration with DPS and federal and local partners. The emphasis is detecting the local threats to a particular region, county, or community and engaging the appropriate resources to dismantle and disrupt the criminal enterprise.
Success stories
BPU has many success stories since its creation. In Laredo, over several years, federal law enforcement had been conducting a major investigation regarding Mexican Mafia members dealing large quantities of drugs. A Laredo DPS-CID agent uncovered a major target that the federal agents were unaware of. This brought BPU and DPS into coordination with the now-extended investigation. As a result of this collaboration with the Webb County (and Region 2) BPU counsel, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, DPS, and federal agencies, 34 members of the Mexican Mafia were indicted. This investigation remains ongoing, with nationwide focus.
    In my own 81st Judicial District, methamphetamine sales and use was epidemic in Wilson County. For years, certain individuals were highly suspected by local law enforcement as being major distributors of methamphetamine in the area; however, local law enforcement lacked the resources both in manpower and equipment to put a significant dent in their illegal activities. Two agents from DPS-CID decided these suspects were viable targets and dedicated months of work to dismantling the major suppliers of methamphetamine in Wilson County. By working closely with the District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Homeland Security, local law enforcement, and the SAPD-HIDTA group, DPS-CID executed multiple search warrants on the same morning, and three people were arrested at the respective scenes, including the two targets of the investigation. Methamphetamine arrests substantially decreased after the arrests, and word on the street was that users were leaving town because of the scarcity of local product.
    The 38th Judicial District (Medina, Real, and Uvalde Counties) has also had several great successes. There, DPS-CID agents, working closely with the DA’s office, seized over $500,000 from a woman who admitted the money was from drug-trafficking profits and was being transported from Dallas back to Eagle Pass. The BPU Unit also convicted a former Uvalde County jailer for possession of a controlled substance, along with his passenger, when they were stopped by the Uvalde Police Department and attempted to discard the drugs from the vehicle. The defendant was sentenced to six years in prison. 
    Earlier this year, the same BPU Unit worked with DPS in a seizure of over $500,000 when a vehicle with two women and several children was stopped for a traffic violation. The seizure led to the indictment of one of them, a resident of Eagle Pass, after she admitted to a DPS-CID agent that the money was payment for the sale of narcotics.
    The 38th Judicial District BPU Unit has also conducted two fugitive and gang member round-ups over the past couple of years. The first operation in Uvalde County netted 22 arrests and 34 closed cases against gang members. The second round-up, also in Uvalde County, resulted in the arrest of six state felony offenders and five federal probation warrants. The Medina County round-up resulted in 15 arrests of gang members from the Mexican Mafia, Tango Orejons, and Latin Kings.    
    In Laredo, a DPS-CID agent became involved with a major, multi-year investigation of drug trafficking by La Familia Michoacan, which extended into Los Angeles, Seattle, Arizona, and Minnesota. The investigation resulted in 21 federal and one state indictment of La Familia members. All but three pled guilty. BPU efforts included coordination with law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney, as well as development of confidential informants.

Those who are involved in criminal enterprise are limited only by their imaginations. They have the will, the power, almost unlimited resources, and the violent tendencies to bring about any effect that they wish. They adhere to no law and to no sense of humanity or decency. This is what the men and women in law enforcement face each and every day. We must bring them to justice and do so with limited resources.
    By creating new models and adapting to the local threat through cooperation, collaboration, and communication among prosecutors, local law enforcement, federal partners and the Texas Department of Public Safety, we can have a greater effect on dismantling these organizations. In essence, we must mount both a strong offensive and defensive effort in the pursuit of justice.