Why Is Ag. Commissioner Staples Fighting Narco-Terrorism?

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PHOTO BY PATRICK MICHELS
Todd Staples

Texas is an urban state, and commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture has become one of the more obscure statewide offices. Most Texans don’t regularly think about boll weevil eradication or irrigation issues, especially when they’re sitting in traffic on I-10. Ag commissioner just isn’t the political stepping-stone it once was. So what’s an ambitious politician who wants to run for higher office to do?

For Todd Staples, the answer is to run the Department of Agriculture like he’s Chuck Norris.

Staples, a Republican who’s openly running for lieutenant governor in 2014, has made the threat of narco-terrorism on the Mexico border his central issue. If you’re wondering what narco-terrorism has to do with agriculture, well, Staples claims that drug cartels are threatening Texas farmers and, in turn, our food supply.

In late August, the ag commissioner was the keynote speaker at a narco-terrorism conference at Angelo State University, where he plugged the debut of his 16-part video series titled “Texas Traffic—True Stories of Drug and Human Smuggling.” The department is posting these videos on the ag department’s ProtectYourTexasBorder.com site. Each week, the website features a new interview with a border resident or law-enforcement official.

At the narco-terrorism conference, Staples argued that the federal government hasn’t done enough to secure the border. Among his solutions: triple the number of “boots on the ground,” send surplus military equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan to the border, and categorize cartel violence as “terroristic activity by violent transnational organizations.”

“It’s time for the federal government to answer the call of duty and provide sufficient protection for our citizens and resources,” Staples said in written statement to the Observer about why he created the video series and the website. “Bullet holes don’t lie. The ProtectYourTexasBorder website provides firsthand accounts of the dangers along our border. Farmers and ranchers along the Rio Grande are caught in the middle of a conflict that affects every citizen of our nation. A threat to our food supply is a threat to our homeland security. Texas stands ready to fight these terrorists and protect our residents, but we must have increased federal support to secure our borders, defeat our enemies and safeguard our national food supply.”

Lambasting the federal government for not securing the border has become a tried-and-true talking point for any Republican candidate with aspirations for higher office. Last year, Staples commissioned an $80,000 study by two retired U.S. Army generals that called for turning Texas border counties into “sanitary tactical zones” where military operations can push back the narco-terrorists.

Some border residents aren’t pleased with Staples’ zeal to militarize their hometowns. One of his biggest critics, it turns out, is Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, who told The Monitor newspaper in McAllen that his border county last year had its second-lowest crime rate in 15 years. “To say the farmers and ranchers have been victimized personally—other than the trespassing—have been assaulted, threatened?” Treviño said. “I don’t have the statistics to support those allegations.”

“People who run into border-related trouble should report the problem to law enforcement,” Treviño told The Monitor, “instead of telling Staples, who isn’t a law-enforcement official and can’t directly tackle the problem. And that’s why I find [it] so frustrating. And I don’t know, maybe Commissioner Staples is looking to beef up his political résumé. Why else would you do something like that?”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.