Texas official: Mexican border ports understaffed and in disrepair

Crumbling U.S. ports of entry along the Southwest border and inadequate staffing are leading to success for smugglers using major crossings instead of desolate deserts to move contraband, a South Texas mayor told House panel on Tuesday.

"The criminal cartels are exploiting our weaknesses," McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez said in testimony before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border and maritime security.

More than 6,000 inspection personnel and $5 billion is needed to modernize and fully staff U.S. land ports of entry on the borders with Mexico and Canada, according to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office.

But U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the General Services Administration, which operate the ports, have received only $720 million in stimulus funds in 2009 to upgrade deteriorating infrastructure.

The average land port complex is 42 years old, and most were designed before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said Thomas Winkowski, CBP assistant commissioner.

Winkowski told the homeland security panel that the land ports are "in need of modernization and expansion so that they can continue to support mission-critical operations."

A bipartisan group of Southwest border state senators that included Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., seeking a hearing on infrastructure needs on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The lack of adequate personnel and infrastructure impedes flow of legitimate commerce, the senators said.

A similar letter was written to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, by Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., and signed by Southwest border Democrats, seeking funds for infrastructure in San Diego, Nogales, Arizona, El Paso, Laredo and other Texas land ports.

In the House hearing, Republicans and Democrats were critical of how CBP has used and distributed personnel and assets along the two borders.

Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., subcommittee chairwoman, questioned why CBP had only one K-9 unit stationed on the northern border.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said CBP needs to send more personnel to the land ports of entry, and work with state and local law enforcement to create southbound checks near the border to confiscate guns and money going to the cartels.

Border Patrol agents have doubled since 2004, to a total of 20,700 agents today, Winkowski said.

In South Texas, Mayor Cortez said Border Patrol intercepts roughly 70 percent of criminal smugglers operating in rural areas between the land ports of entry.

By contrast, the lack of staffing and the design of the ports allows criminals to slip through at the bridges and land ports, Cortez said.

"We catch less than 30 percent. That is an imbalance Congress must help to correct," Cortez said.

http://blogs.chron.com/txpotomac/2011/0 ... order.html