FNS: Border security outsourcing under fire

Frontera NorteSur

A Texas state senator is calling for an investigation of border security contracts granted to a private, Virginia-based firm. In a letter earlier this month, state Sen. Jose Rodriguez requested that the Texas State Comptroller probe a series of no-bid contracts awarded by the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Perry to Abrams Learning and Information Systems (ALIS) since 2006.

Valued at nearly $20 million, the state contracts were issued to ALIS for activities ranging from strategic planning to media messaging. Founded in 2004, ALIS is headed by retired U.S. Army Gen. John Abrams.

In an updated statement sent via e-mail last week, Rodriguez questioned why required competitive bidding procedures were bypassed when a state audit showed that on “at least on three occasions” the Texas Department of Public Safety (TDPS) was unable to document emergency exceptions to contracting rules.

“Further, the existence of these contracts raises the serious public policy consideration of whether the state of Texas should have outsourced the bulk of border security operations to a private company with negligible experience in international border operations,” Rodriguez wrote.

The Texas-ALIS relationship evolved as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, campaigning for re-election in 2006, warned of growing security threats along Texas’ border with Mexico and urged decisive actions.

Yet according to the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, the TDPS itself became hesitant about expanding border security outsourcing, and sought additional state funding in 2008 to hire 19 new public employees as replacements for private contractors. In justifying its request, TDPS maintained that it was more economical to employ state workers than private contractors.  Nonetheless, ALIS continued receiving new contracts.

ALIS has a federal contract salary schedule that lists hourly pay for its employees from $39.54 to $233.52, the Austin newspaper reported.

Despite some early friction between the Beltway contractors and local law enforcement when the former came to the Lone Star State, ALIS’ guiding hand moved forward. TDPS spokesman Tom Vinger defended the private contractors’ central role, saying “the strength of the ALIS contract” allowed his agency access to ex-military personnel with special, needed skills in “defending and securing terrain.”

But Democratic state Sen. Rodriguez criticized the circumstances under which the ALIS contracts were approved, insisting that the portrayal of an insecure border by a Republican state administration was “overblown.” He also questioned whether a self-serving business/publicity arrangement was thriving at public expense.

The El Paso politician continued: “Equally troubling, the most recent emergency contract calls for (ALIS) to ‘develop a border security/media public information outreach strategy’ and create “Border Security Public Outreach Themes.’ Asking a private vendor with interest in state contracts to develop the messaging on border security that politically supports the contracts-especially when that messaging misrepresents the level of violence on this side of the border-seems like a clear conflict of interest.”

For the past decade, border security has been a contentious issue in Texas. In a 2010 letter to the Obama administration, Gov. Perry demanded a better security presence and bigger crackdown on the border.

“Welcome to the Lone Star State,” the letter began. “The purpose of this letter is to reiterate the dire threat amassing on our southern border in the form of international drug cartels and transnational gangs, and to again request sufficient federal resources to combat the increasing violence….absent stronger federal action, it’s only a matter of time before that violence affects more innocent Americans…”

Last year, two other Texas state border security contractors, retired Generals Robert Scales and Barry McCaffrey, who also served as drug war czar under President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2001, produced an $80,000 report that likewise pounded on the dangerous border theme. Scales and McCaffrey even characterized Texas border counties as a “war zone.”

In making his case for more National Guard troops, Perry cited the explosion of car bombs in northern Mexico, the tossing of a grenade into a Texas bar, stray bullets hitting buildings in El Paso and Brownsville, a kidnapping surge in the border city of McAllen and the May 2009 slaying of alleged drug cartel operative and reputed ICE informant Jose Daniel Gonzalez Galeana in El Paso.

A U.S. soldier stationed in El Paso was charged with being the trigger man in the murder, but Perry did not mention that fact in his letter to Obama.

Most recently, a stray bullet said to be from a shoot-out in Ciudad Juarez struck and wounded El Paso resident Maria Romero while she was shopping in the city’s downtown with her baby grandson last month. Ironically, Romero moved to El Paso from Ciudad Juarez five years ago.

Critics of the dangerous border view maintain that crime is actually low on the U.S. side of the line, and are apt to concur with El Paso Mayor John Cook who insists that the border city is a very safe one in spite of isolated incidents like the Romero shooting.  For the second year in a row, CQ Press named El Paso the safest U.S. city with a population greater than 500,000, based on crime rates.

Indeed, evidence exists that a fair share of the publicized violence in otherwise peaceful El Paso during the past few years can be traced to U.S. soldiers stationed at Ft. Bliss as opposed to cartel gunslingers. In addition to the Gonzalez killing, soldiers have been accused of involvement in other murders, bar brawls, domestic violence and assorted crimes.  A local newspaper, El Diario de El Paso reported that 19 soldiers were linked to violent incidents in El Paso in 2011 and the first weeks of 2012.

Another source of crime and violence in El Paso can be traced to home-grown or Los Angeles-spun gangs rather than squads of professional hit men sneaking across an unprotected border.

Despite ongoing controversies and debates over the origin and nature of threats to public safety in the Texas border region, the Perry administration has spent hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars on a variety of border security initiatives since 2005, even as the Texas state government put other public expenditures under the budget axe including the more than $4 billion slashed from public schools in 2011; thousands of teachers and school support staff have lost their jobs.

In an overview of the multi-layered Texas state border security program, investigative journalist Tom Barry reported how the Perry administration funneled federal money-including $39.5 million in Obama stimulus funding-to pay for checkpoints, anti-immigrant operations, drug task forces and other expenses.

Besides El Paso’s Rodriguez, other Texas politicians have criticized aspects of the state border security operation. Barry quoted U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, as calling the Border Star program a “boondoggle” that had failed to yield any significant arrests.

A slew of arrests did make headlines in Texas in recent days, but it was federal agents who spearheaded an operation that actually unfolded in the state capital of Austin, not on the border hours away.  In a federal case unsealed on March 22, 11 people were accused of cocaine distribution, transferring firearms connected to drug trafficking and money laundering.

The defendants include Hussein Ali Yassine, also known as Mike Yassine. The 40-year- Austin resident is the owner and president of Yassine Enterprises, a well-known entertainment company that runs at least nine nightclubs in Texas’ hippest party town.

Although the case against Yassine and the other defendants was the result of a multi-year investigation, the dragnet was hatched only days after the conclusion of the wildly popular South by Southwest music and cultural festival that attracted upwards of 200,000 people.

Now shut down by the federal government pending investigation, Yassine’s establishments were promoted as among the performance venues for South by Southwest. Yassine’s clubs also reportedly have hosted parties sponsored by ABC, MTV, VH1, Playboy and Marriott hotels, among others.

Additional sources: Austin American-Statesman, March 15 and 22, 2012. Articles by Jeremy Schwartz and Gary Dinges.  Juarez-El Paso Now, March 2012. El Diario de El Paso, February 21 and March 19, 2012. Articles by Alberto Ponce de Leon and Luis Chaparro. Kvia.com (El Paso),  February 22, 2012. Article by Gaby Loria. NPR.org, December 22, 2011. Story by Claudio Sanchez. Alternet, September 27, 2011. Article by Tom Barry.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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