WASHINGTON, D.C. – Once pristine landscapes on the U.S. Southwest border have become dangerous corridors for drug smuggling operations and other illegal activities that threaten Indian communities, public land stewards and recreational visitors as well as cause significant environmental damage.
To combat this problem, the Department of the Interior’s 2009 budget proposes an $8 million increase in the fiscal year 2009 budget for the Department of the Interior to strengthen law enforcement in the area, improve radio communications and remediate the environmental impacts of these illegal activities.
“Times have changed along our international border with Mexico,” Secretary Kempthorne said in announcing the initiative today. “Our employees, residents and visitors face daily dangers. In many locations families can no longer live or recreate without fear of coming across drug smugglers. Residents of Indian communities are especially hard hit by rampant illegal activity and unsafe living conditions.”
Interior-managed national parks, wildlife refuges, recreational areas and Indian lands account for more than 40 percent of the lands along the Southwestern border. Illegal cross-border activities have subjected these areas to significant theft, vandalism and damage to public land resources, sensitive fish and wildlife habitats and valuable archaeological sites.
Last year, nearly 200,000 illegal entrants into the United States were apprehended on public lands in the Southwest, an 11-fold increase since 2001, as illegal activity shifts from increasingly well-protected urban areas to more rural outposts. In addition, drug cartels run violent smuggling operations across the border, as evidenced by the seizure of nearly 3,000 pounds of cocaine and 740,000 pounds of marijuana in 2007.
Drug smugglers establish observation posts on public lands, and carry assault weapons, encrypted radios, night vision optical equipment and other sophisticated devices. National Park Service Ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed by a drug runner several years ago. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers, their families and other public land stewards have been threatened by cartel smugglers over drug seizures.
‘We have had to close portions of our land along the border to visitors, and in some cases, even to employees, to ensure their safety,” Kempthorne said.
The first component of the initiative would deploy additional law enforcement personnel to areas with the highest safety risks. These law officers would patrol areas used by employees, deter illegal activity, and educate on border security safety.
“Combined with increased funding in 2008, we will place additional officers along the border,” Secretary Kempthorne said. “We will improve radio interoperability. And we will remediate environmental impacts of illegal border activities.”
This initiative includes $2.0 million to remediate environmental damage caused by illegal entrants into the United States. The illegal traffic has resulted in significant theft and vandalism, and physical damage to public land resources, sensitive fish and wildlife habitats, and valuable archaeological sites.
Working with the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, Interior would like to enhance information sharing to focus law enforcement resources on highly impacted areas. This information would be especially important to increase prosecutions on drug-smuggling and cross-border interdiction.