- By Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
In the fall of 2009, then-Gov. Rick Perry announced the formation of Ranger Reconnaissance Teams, elite units of the Texas Rangers that he said would help the state “fill in the gap left by the federal government” in securing the Texas-Mexico border.
But the units also might have pushed the boundaries of international law, according to internal Texas Department of Public Safety documents obtained by the American-Statesman.
A November 2010 report, written by a key DPS contractor that helped design the agency’s border security program, states that Texas authorities engaged in aerial surveillance of drug cartel targets south of the border, activities that the contractor described as “spying on Mexico.”
“During this operation, the RC-26 high altitude surveillance aircraft is being used to monitor suspected Zeta points of interest and pass this information on to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),” the document reads. “Using this information, ICE can work in conjunction with Mexican Military forces to target los Zetas both north and south of the border to disrupt cartel trafficking operations.”
The section is preceded by an italicized warning: “Need to be careful here as we are admitting to spying on Mexico.”
The document was produced by former DPS contractor Abrams Learning and Information Systems, a Virginia-based private defense firm run by former Army Gen. John Abrams that has been praised by state leaders for bringing a military sensibility to border security efforts.
Contacted for comment, DPS officials distanced themselves from the ALIS materials.
“This document was developed by an outside vendor, and it is imperative to make clear that the department unequivocally rejects the reference to ‘spying,’ ” spokesman Tom Vinger said in an email. “This characterization does not reflect the department’s position nor was this ever used as a talking point.”
DPS said it did not have “information to speak directly” to the mission described in the documents, leaving a number of unanswered questions about the surveillance.
It’s unclear how far into Mexico the surveillance occurred, whether Texas entered Mexican airspace or merely turned powerful cameras to the south, whether Mexican counterparts granted permission for the surveillance or whether the state had a formal intelligence sharing agreement with federal authorities for the missions. It’s also unclear whether the surveillance effort continued beyond 2010.
The Texas National Guard, which regularly operated RC-26 flights in support of state and federal counterdrug missions, said it had no information about the specific mission cited by ALIS, and a spokeswoman for Perry directed questions to DPS.
Speaking generally, both the Guard and DPS said their aerial operations steer clear of Mexican airspace, and DPS said its surveillance doesn’t go beyond the “immediate inland area” of Mexico.
At worst, security experts and former diplomatic officials said, the surveillance described in the document could violate agreements with Mexico and endanger other federal investigations; at best, they said, the document reflects poor judgment among the state’s border security contractors.
“It sounds like they were trying to do work that is a responsibility of the U.S. federal government,” said Phil Jordan, the former director of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Intelligence Center, who said that surveillance of Mexico must be sanctioned “at the highest levels” of U.S. government.
While it might be unusual for an individual state to conduct its own international surveillance, University of Texas national security expert Robert Chesney said Texas probably is on firm legal ground in this case.
“The federal government normally has responsibility for conducting surveillance abroad,” he said, “but that does not mean states have no role, particularly where they are acting in cooperation with federal authorities.”
DPS officials said the agency “typically conducts border security operations in coordination/conjunction with our law enforcement partners at the local, state and federal level.”
Operation Border Star, funded with $110 million in state money, was an early forerunner of the Texas “surge” model of dispatching extra law enforcement to the border to disrupt cartel activities for defined time periods. Texas lawmakers are considering providing DPS with hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding, including money for another surveillance plane, to make such operations permanent over the next two years.
U.S. surveillance of Mexico — with Mexican authorization — has grown more common as drug violence has raged there over the past decade, at least among federal law enforcement agencies such as the CIA and Department of Homeland Security. In 2013, The New York Times said that Mexico was “requesting more flights than the United States could deliver” and that U.S. spy drones hovered over the 2010 gun battle that ended in the death of the leader of the drug cartel La Familia.
Neither U.S. nor Mexican foreign affairs officials would say whether such an invitation was offered during Operation Border Star, but in November 2010, the same month the document was produced, a spokeswoman with ICE’s sister agency, Customs and Border Protection, told the San Antonio Express News, “We have not received any direct requests by the government of Mexico to keep an eye on their territory,” when asked if border spy drones were turning their cameras on Mexico.
“At the very least, it’s something in bad taste, a lack of respect,” Arturo Zarate, an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, said of the ALIS document. “Imagine the outcry if it was the other way around.”
Between 2006 and 2010, ALIS received about $20 million in no-bid contracts to design foundational elements of the state’s border security apparatus. Much of the firm’s focus was on strengthening the state’s intelligence capacity on the border through joint operations intelligence centers where local, state and federal officials analyze border crime patterns and trends.
Their contracts came under scrutiny from the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office and several border lawmakers who have complained that state officials ceded border security planning authority to a private group largely outside the public eye. An investigation into the contracts ended in 2013 after Perry vetoed funding for the Public Integrity Unit, according to its director.
A 2010 contract called on ALIS to provide public information materials that DPS could use in its dealings with the media and lawmakers on border security issues. The materials involve “themes and messages” aimed at building support for the state’s border activities, including the Ranger Reconnaissance Teams.
DPS officials ultimately rejected the public information materials created by ALIS, deleting them from the contract.
But the agency has since increased its aerial surveillance efforts. Two years after Abrams referenced Texas spying, in 2012, the agency bought a Pilatus high-altitude surveillance plane, and it is seeking an additional $10 million to purchase more aircraft, including another Pilatus, according to the agency’s budget request.
DPS officials said they don’t use their powerful surveillance equipment to look into the Mexican interior.
“In all instances, DPS conducts ground, aerial and marine patrols lawfully in U.S. territory only. We do not have jurisdiction nor are we authorized to patrol outside of U.S. territory. While our field of view may include the Rio Grande River; the river banks in Mexico; or the immediate inland area in Mexico — within visible range from the ground, air or river platform from which our officers are patrolling in Texas — operations are not conducted outside of U.S. territory,” the agency said.
Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the revelation could “potentially ruffle feathers” if Mexican authorities weren’t aware of the surveillance.
“I think some of the shifts in rhetoric coming out of Texas, and perhaps actions, are worrisome for Mexico,” she said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the years of Abrams’ border security contracts with the state.