U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said Tuesday that the border is safer and more secure, and he credited a 1 1/2 -year-old initiative for recent progress in Arizona.
The Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats has helped drive down illegal entries and pressure cross-border smuggling organizations operating in the Sonora-Arizona corridor, said Bersin at a news conference Tuesday at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
The alliance, launched in September 2009, consists of 60 federal, state, local and tribal law agencies in Arizona working to disrupt criminal organizations, he said.
Statistics show "these efforts are making a difference in the lives of the people of Arizona," said Bersin, commissioner of a branch of Homeland Security responsible for security at and between the ports of entry. "We have more work to do, but there's been significant progress made to date."
In making his case, he pointed to a six-year decrease in apprehensions of illegal border crossers and an increase in drug, cash and weapons seizures along the U.S.-Mexico border and steady or declining violent crime rates in U.S. border communities.
But critics say Bersin's repeated claims that the border is more secure are inaccurate, and that he is only trying to score political points. The Dec. 14 fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near Nogales and the March 2010 fatal shooting of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz on his ranch northeast of Douglas illustrate the danger. Both cases remain unsolved.
The fact that Arizona still accounts for about half of all apprehensions and marijuana seizures made along the U.S.-Mexico border shows the state remains the epicenter for cross-border criminal activity, said Patrick Bray, spokesman for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association.
"Our folks continue to live with fear and anxiety and anger over this issue," Bray said. "The federal government has failed all of them."
Since its September 2009 launch, Bersin said the alliance has:
• Made 270,000 apprehensions of illegal border crossers between the ports of entry.
• Turned away 14,000 people at the ports of entry who were determined to be ineligible.
• Seized 1.6 million pounds of marijuana.
• Seized 3,800 pounds of cocaine.
• Seized 1,000 pounds of methamphetamine.
• Seized $13 million in illegal cash going south into Mexico.
"This is what the (alliance) is intended to accomplish ,and it's a record of which we can be proud," Bersin said.
In Operation Vekol Valley in Pinal County, which began in March 2010, the alliance captured more than 500 illegal immigrants, seized 46 stolen vehicles and found three stash houses, said Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Randy Hill.
In the six-day Operation Silver Bell in the Silver Bell Mountains west of Tucson in July 2010, the alliance apprehended 146 illegal immigrants, arrested seven U.S. citizens and seized seven stolen vehicles, Hill said.
Leaders chose not to make an official announcement until now about the alliance because law enforcement leaders preferred to wait and let the results speak for themselves, Bersin said.
What makes this initiative distinct from past programs that may seem similar is that there is closer collaboration between federal and local law enforcement agencies and more cooperation with Mexican authorities, said Matthew Allen, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations in Arizona.
ICE has more agents in Mexico than any other country in the world, and there are Mexican law enforcement officials embedded in some ICE offices in the United States, Allen said.
"Our efforts extend deep into Mexico, and they involve partnerships with law enforcement organizations that we have not necessarily worked with in the past," Allen said.
Robin Hoover, the founder of Tucson-based Humane Borders who has been following border issues closely for more than a decade, said Bersin is correct that the border is more secure today.
Hoover said he thinks such a heavy federal law enforcement presence in the alliance could in a way be detrimental in Southern Arizona.
"The federal people can come over here and mess up the local law enforcement significantly to the point that everything gets treated as a major federal offense," Hoover said.
The initiative's advisory board, which consists of all law enforcement or local government officials, should include some residents from border communities so they can provide feedback about the effects of the law enforcement activity, he said.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com