You’ve no doubt seen the report, from the always-superb Judicial Watch, that there’s an Islamic State, or ISIS, camp in Mexico near El Paso, Texas. The report follows up on information Judicial Watch obtained in August 2014 (which LU reported on here).
The camp has been widely reported as being “8 miles” from the border. It’s more like 8 miles from the center of El Paso. What may not be clear from the verbal report is that the Mexican zone where the Islamic State camp has been reported – a suburb, or colonia, of Ciudad Juarez named Anapra – is actually right on the U.S. border. The closest houses on the Mexican side are only a few dozen yards from the border, across a back road that runs right along the border line.
The whole of Anapra doesn’t extend more than 2 miles from the border. (See Map 1.) And the fence at the border is a flimsy affair, as you can see in the images below. This fence is America’s defense against incursion from the ISIS camp.
Understanding the deeper story in this case requires reorienting our mental geography, because the closest point of vulnerability to the camp isn’t El Paso. It’s New Mexico. That clearly doesn’t mean that Texas isn’t in this fight. But it does mean that the extra effort Texas has been making to strengthen border security against cartel criminals isn’t going to help with this problem.
The maps tell this story, so let’s get them going. First, the location of Anapra.
Map 2 shows the entire Texas border, all 1250 miles of it, with the areas of critical interest identified in this post marked. In the far west, you can see El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, the urban enclave of which Anapra is a suburb. Much further east is the area of “Operation Strong Safety,” to which Texas deployed the beefed up Department of Public Safety contingent and the National Guard in 2014.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott decided in February to renew Strong Safety indefinitely. But the area of operations will still be in the east. Reportedly, Texas authorities want to shift some manpower to the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo area, which has seen an increase in activity by cartel thugs and gangs – in particular the vicious MS-13 gang.
In fact, as the Houston Chronicle pointed out, MS-13 has been one of the highest-profile public-safety concerns on which Strong Safety has focused. And MS-13 has historically been an East Texas problem, centered largely on the I-35 corridor. This report from a few years ago on an MS-13 criminal arrested in El Paso noted how rare it has been for MS-13 to operate that far west.
The local gangs and cartel leadership active in the El Paso area make it difficult for MS-13 to muscle in. And the Judicial Watch report about ISIS, citing Mexican federal officials, indicates that it’s the local criminal organizations in the Ciudad Juarez area – especially the Juárez Cartel – that are helping Islamic State jihadis cross the U.S. border into New Mexico.
Map 2 also shows other areas where jihadis are reportedly crossing the border. In the east, near the Gulf of Mexico, you can see the area where local ranchers and members of Oath Keepers, in 2014, observed groups of Middle Eastern men creeping through the countryside on the paths used by illegals.
Further west, you’ll see the remote area between Fort Hancock and the old ghost town of Acala, where the latest Judicial Watch report indicates coyotes working for the Juárez Cartel assist Islamic State jihadis to cross the border.
But those stretches of border haven’t seen the most traffic by MS-13, and other Central American gangs trying to get their hooks into East Texas. So Texas won’t be able to put the kind of manpower on them that could help close those avenues off.
The New Mexico vulnerability problem
New Mexico presents its own set of problems. It’s no accident that the El Paso-centered narco-terrorist ring that led to a police chase through Chicago last year involved terrorist skullduggery in the poky little town of Anthony, New Mexico. Southern New Mexico has been relatively quiet, as far as cartel and gang activity go, and has gotten fewer border-security resources than the higher-traffic areas of Texas, Arizona, and California. That’s a boon for jihadis looking for unwatched places to cross.
The relative paucity of local law enforcement and border-security forces made it easier for jihadi logistics man Emad Karakrah to hide out in Anthony – and for two of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists, Jaber A. Elbaneh and Al Qaeda’s Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah (aka “Javier Robles”), to meet with him in Anthony in 2010/11 and in March of 2014. (See here as well.)
(Side note: Karakrah pled out in January after his misadventure in Chicago last August, and is now out on probation. Feel free to express annoyance.)
Map 3 shows the location of Anthony, in relation to Anapra and El Paso. Anthony has another virtue for crowd-averse jihadis, one it shares with Anapra. Both are located adjacent to large federally designated “wilderness” areas, which means that the Border Patrol’s ability to perform motorized and other technology-assisted surveillance is very limited. It can’t construct surveillance posts in wilderness areas either – not without going through an extensive request process that in practice rarely results in the actual construction of a surveillance post.
The Judicial Watch report from this week mentioned one of the wilderness areas the Islamic State jihadis are exploiting: the Potrillo Mountains, northwest of Anapra. ISIS infiltrators are using the harsh, volcanic terrain of the Potrillo Mountains to place spotters.
A look at Maps 4 and 5 shows that the mountains flanking the path of illegal entry through southern New Mexico are basically all designated wilderness area. Having this much wilderness area so close to the border is also unusual, as the map of the Western states demonstrates. A very unusual amount of the New Mexico border with Mexico is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and an unusually large subset of that territory is designated wilderness, meaning access is very limited for motorized vehicles.
The dance of land management
This has been an ongoing concern. Quite a bit was made of President Obama’s designation in May 2014 of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, which encompasses the two mountain areas most directly affecting Anapra and Anthony. That designation is an important concern, but it’s more like the top layer of concern than the whole issue.
The president can’t actually designate a “wilderness area” on his own; it takes Congress to do that. The wilderness areas of the Organ Mountains and Potrillo Mountains have been designated since 1992.
The president’s national monument declaration last year had more meaning for the exploitation of natural resources. It also covered more area than the original wilderness areas. But, again, the president can’t prohibit motorized vehicle traffic, outside of the original wilderness areas, on his own say-so.
That said, the local sheriff (of Dona Ana County) and the Association of Former Border Patrol Officers registered objections to Obama’s national monument designation at the time, because they were concerned about law enforcement losing reasonable access to the lands in question. (See NAFBPO video below for background on similar problems in Arizona.)
For one thing, the national monument designation in New Mexico closely followed the territorial perimeters proposed by a 2013 Senate bill, S. 1805, introduced by Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich – and the Senate bill did want to expand the original wilderness areas significantly. (The bill was still waiting for committee action when the 113th Congress ended.)
But another concern is that, although there’s supposed to be a quick, responsive way for the Border Patrol and federal land managers to work with each other, in practice, the Border Patrol doesn’t find it so quick and responsive.
In the mid-2000s, complaints about lack of access to federal lands resulted in the federal agencies signing MOUs with each other to govern things like how the Border Patrol (and other agencies, such as DEA) would gain access for motorized vehicles to wilderness areas. One of those MOUs – which is referenced in Obama’s national monument designation of May 2014 – is here. In the interest of keeping this focused, I won’t quote from it. But it doesn’t take more than one read-through to recognize that it’s full of the kind of bureaucratese that inevitably signals “delay.”
A GAO study briefed to Congress in 2011 confirmed that delayed access for law enforcement is routinely a problem with these interagency MOUs.
But here’s where things get a bit circular and self-reinforcing. Advocates for the wilderness designations and access limitations focus on the point that the delays found by the GAO study were mainly a problem for the lower-traffic border areas. Thus, the limited access wasn’t having a serious impact on border security, because it wasn’t resulting in increased problems in higher-traffic areas, where most of the illegals are.
An official of a Washington, D.C. think-tank, the Migration Policy Institute, is a case in point. In July 2014, he testified when Congress was holding hearings on the specific question of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, and whether its designation would create problems for border enforcement.
[O]ne point I want to emphasize in my testimony is that southern New Mexico is not characterized by particularly acute border threats. The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region falls in the middle of the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which is generally seen as a Border Patrol (USBP) success story. …
The El Paso Sector remains both heavily fortified and relatively safe, even as apprehensions have increased significantly in other Texas sectors in the past few years. …
Focusing on the Organ Mountains area in particular, the scale of illegal activity is also held in check, to a degree by the region’s remoteness and by its tough desert terrain. Thus, there is nothing about this section of the border that makes it stand out as particularly vulnerable to border threats.
The speaker, Marc R. Rosenblum, went on to make this very typical point:
My second point is that the existing MOUs between DHS, DOI and USDA appear to be a successful model for managing diverse policy goals on federal border lands. …
[From the GAO study cited above]
GAO found, in some cases, that when the Border Patrol faces delays in adding infrastructure, such as fencing and other tactical infrastructure, the agency [i.e., USBP] can mitigate wait times by assigning USBP resources to work directly with partner agencies to expedite environmental reviews. USBP did not always dedicate the resources to do so because many of the stations experiencing delays were in remote border regions where CBP did not perceive pressing border security threats.
In other words, the MOUs do result in delays for Border Patrol needs, but it doesn’t matter, because it happens mostly in remote, lower-traffic areas.
But why is southern New Mexico so attractive to Islamic State? Because it’s a remote, lower-traffic area.
It’s almost comical to see how skewed the Google search results are for information about Border Patrol access to the wilderness areas of southern New Mexico. If you took the results at face value, you’d assume that no one legitimately disagrees on whether it’s a security problem or not. Website after website has experts and advocates retailing the same narrative: there are MOUs in place, and although they sometimes produce delays, it’s not really a problem, because the delays aren’t concentrated in the higher-traffic border areas. (See here and here, for example, or do your own search.)
The problem with delayed access to federal protected lands
Well, Houston, I think we’ve found a problem. The ease with which jihadis have been moving around southern New Mexico is one key indicator, along with the concern expressed last year by the Dona Ana County Sheriff and the retired Border Patrol officers.
We can also extract deductively from an April 2015 complaint by the Pew Trusts – an advocacy institution very active in placing lands under conservation – about a pair of bills recently introduced in Congress to ensure law enforcement has access to our border lands:
H.R. 399 and S. 208 would give unprecedented power to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to disregard bedrock conservation and environmental laws on lands managed by the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture within 100 miles of the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. …
The bills would allow for the construction of roads, barriers, and communications and surveillance structures, and the deployment of infrastructure such as forward operating bases to support tactical operations in our nation’s national parks, national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas.
So, to be clear: roads, barriers, communications and surveillance structures, and forward operating bases are not things CBP can currently construct if it needs them – in the Potrillo Mountains, the Organ Mountains, or anywhere else that’s on a “protected lands” list. CBP can go through the “mother-may-I” MOU process, but if it encounters delays, DHS will probably conclude that that’s OK, because after all, it’s just the low-traffic area of southern New Mexico.
Where the Islamic State jihadis hang out.