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Cartels, Drugs and Money

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Mexico’s drug war is enriching Texas border communities in more ways than one. Not only have wealthy Mexican business owners invested in the region, local law enforcement is benefiting from millions in assets seized from drug traffickers.

Texas has some of the country’s broadest asset-forfeiture rules. The law allows personal assets to be seized by officers during the investigation of possible felonies and misdemeanors. Funds from seized assets are distributed by federal agencies to local law enforcement agencies after joint investigations.

Increasingly, such money is being used to build surveillance networks and militarize the border, which is already bristling with predator drones, armored gun boats, the National Guard and a border fence. Civil liberties advocates like the ACLU want to ensure that privacy laws and First Amendment rights in border communities keep pace with security measures. “With drones and other surveillance technology, our concern is always, what kind of data are they collecting, how is it kept, and what other entities are they sharing it with?” says ACLU of Texas policy strategist Matt Simpson. “Communities need to have a say in how their communities are being policed.”

In September, the Mission Police Department installed a surveillance network of 32 cameras in Mission for an estimated $395,000, according to McAllen newspaper The Monitor. The network is already equipped with automated license plate readers, which can scan and process thousands of license plates per hour. Civil libertarians are concerned that there are virtually no rules or guidelines about how the data can be used and shared.

The department could afford the state-of-the-art technology because it received $1.18 million this year from the seized assets of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, former boss of the Gulf Cartel, who is serving a life sentence in the United States.

More money is on the way. Four decades into America’s war on drugs, asset forfeiture funds at the state and federal level are ballooning. In 2011, the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund was $1.8 billion, more than three times the $500 million balance in 2003.

Defense contractors are following the money. It’s estimated that the state and local law enforcement market for homeland security expenditures will reach $19.2 billion by 2014, up from approximately $15.8 billion in 2009, according to a recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Now, even the border’s smallest police departments have SWAT units, armored carriers and other military-grade equipment. In August, the Laredo Morning Times reported that the Webb County Sheriff’s office is considering buying a drone helicopter for surveillance. No doubt Webb County can afford it. In September, Sheriff Martin Cuellar received a check for more than $800,000 from the federal government for his department’s role in busting a drug smuggling ring.