One early morning in mid-January of 2013, Jesús Juárez opened the front door of his Brownsville, Texas home and saw a package. It had the typical FedEx markings on it, and despite the fact that his daughter’s boyfriend didn’t see it on his way out the night before, Jesús brought the package inside and opened it. Fortunately, only one of the four pipe bombs inside the package detonated, but just that single device blew out the front door and windows and severely burned him, his wife and their young daughter.

An investigation by the Brownsville Police Department began immediately, and was soon joined by the FBI. Local authorities told the media that the perpetrators knew what they were doing because the pipe bombs required a certain level of technical sophistication to create. However, they could only speculate on who might be interested in deliberately sending such a violent message to a quiet home in a nice south Texas neighborhood.

Heads can literally roll in the streets of El Paso or Nogales, and DHS or the local sheriff’s department can just say it’s business as usual for drug traffickers and chalk it up as a typical homicide.

- Sylvia Longmire

This incident in Brownsville never made it into the national news, but local reporters in the busy drug smuggling corridors of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) of south Texas continued to follow developments. Mexican cartels and their minions have a large presence in this area, and the bombing reeked of a retaliation hit of some kind. However, cartel members (or gang members they hire) in the U.S. tend to shoot their targets; no cartel-related bombing of any kind had ever occurred on U.S. soil, and some private intelligence firms and drug war observers were quick to dismiss the Brownsville case as a prank gone wrong or something involving local criminals.

Then in late April 2013, federal authorities unsealed the case and named Jesús Juárez in a multi-count indictment for marijuana trafficking, along with several other individuals who had been arrested by the DEA. Jesús and company were accused of smuggling at least 1,000 pounds of marijuana through the RGV between September and December 2012, and the DEA is looking to recoup half a million dollars in drug profits from the group. Jesús received the pipe bomb just a few weeks after his reported smuggling stint.

There are still no suspects in custody, which poses several problems — first and foremost the fact that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and local law enforcement authorities can deny this was a bona fide case of border violence spillover. 

While cartel-on-cartel violence is the hallmark of drug-related violence in Mexico —along with violence directed at the Mexican police and army— DHS doesn’t take this type of violence into account when trying to assess the existence of such spillover. DHS officials have even stated in Congressional testimony that the agency doesn’t keep track of crime statistics involving cartel-on-cartel attacks in the U.S.

Some U.S. law enforcement agencies are finally starting to acknowledge that these incidents are happening in their territory. In late October 2012, a Hidalgo County (also in south Texas) Sheriff’s deputy was shot three times by a gang member on the Gulf cartel payroll. Sheriff Lupe Treviño has traditionally been very hesitant to say spillover is a problem, but he had no qualms about telling the media after the shooting that this was the first authentic case of border violence spillover in his county.

These two examples beg the question: how bad do things need to get along our southwest border before DHS —or any other agency, for that matter— will acknowledge that spillover violence is happening? 

The general message being sent is that no one seems to care as long as it’s just criminals getting killed or kidnapped in south Texas or Arizona. But in these cases, an innocent five year-old was burned to within inches of her life, and an American police officer —one of many involved in recent confrontations with cartel members and their associates— could have died. There’s no proof the bomb was sent by a drug trafficking organization, but all the existing evidence is definitely pointing in that direction.

There is no standardized definition of spillover violence, and this is part of the problem. Heads can literally roll in the streets of El Paso or Nogales, and DHS or the local sheriff’s department can just say it’s business as usual for drug traffickers and chalk it up as a typical homicide. 

Sadly, this mentality prevents the development of any sort of strategy to prevent more incidents like the Brownsville bombing from happening again. No U.S. agency should be waiting for Ciudad Juárez-style shootouts to happen in Tucson or narcoblockades to be set up in Laredo before stepping up and finally acknowledging the fundamental nature of cartel violence in Mexico has effective spilled over into the United States.

Sylvia Longmire is a former senior border security analyst for the State of California. She is currently a consultant, columnist for Homeland Security Today magazine, and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars (available in Spanish as El Cartel).

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