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U.S./Mexico Border

A New Way Forward

CBP-led task force focuses multi-agency assets and intelligence on illegal smuggling organizations
By Jason McCammack, photos by Glenn Fawcett
Members of Joint Task Force-West come together at the headquarters "unity table" at headquarters in San Antonio, Texas.

How our country is protected from international criminals trying to smuggle drugs and humans illegally across the U.S.-Mexico border is under sweeping change as threats against the U.S. constantly evolve.

On Nov. 20, 2014, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson directed the creation of the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign, a unified approach to improve how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) protects the homeland across our borders. The campaign more effectively coordinates the assets and personnel of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the U.S. Coast Guard and other DHS resources. The intent of this campaign is effective enforcement and interdiction across land, sea and air; to degrade transnational criminal organizations; and to do these things while still facilitating the flow of lawful trade and travel across our border.

“Before the creation of DHS many of our components and agencies were siloed in their missions and efforts,” said DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson in an official statement on the creation of the new campaign. “Many worked at cross-odds or redundantly in their homeland security function. Their move under one homeland security umbrella fixed that. Now, they are together. We are taking this even further. Through our Southern Border and Approaches Campaign, our components and agencies will work hand-in-hand so that we are more effective, more efficient and even stronger.”

The new campaign currently integrates seven federal law enforcement agencies’ efforts into one singular, coordinated strategy, Joint Task Force-West, that shares intelligence and pursues interdictions and investigations. The arrangement represents a new era of border security.

DHS established three Joint Task Forces as part of the comprehensive Southern Border and Approaches Campaign Plan. Also part of the plan are JTF-I for investigations and JTF-East for maritime operations. East is responsible for security along the Southeast seaboard and is directed by U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Karl L. Schultz. Investigations supports the work of the other two groups and manages investigations throughout the nation and with foreign law enforcement. It’s led by US. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent-in-Charge Janice Ayala.

Until about 10 years ago, it was realistic that an individual could reasonably expect to be able to illegally cross the border from Mexico without the assistance of an illegal trafficking organization, said CBP Deputy Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. “You could take a bus to the border, independently get the lay of the land and illegally cross. That model is gone. The transnational criminal organizations, which are really drug cartels diversified into alien smuggling and other illicit activities, now control illegal border crossings from the Mexican side. You cannot independently cross.”

Right now, CBP is dealing with a great influx of illegal immigration to the United States, particularly unaccompanied children and families, stemming from the northern triangle in Central America – along with a reduced but significant flow of Mexican nationals, said McAleenan. The illegal border crossing activity is networked and coordinated by well-resourced, sophisticated organizations that are trying to outsmart our increasing security efforts. In the past, CBP has influenced only the border security efforts directly along the border. The Joint Task Force approach gives CBP the ability to work with partners to influence and affect the criminal activity along as much of the continuum as possible – beginning in the source country or zone, along the transit zones, south of the U.S. border, at the immediate border and in the interior of the U.S. where the smuggling organizations reside.

"[Smugglers operate] in the U.S.," said McAleenan. "They don’t just push them across the river and hope they make it. They are pushing people and product to their destination in the U.S. Previously, CBP only had a narrow focus between the ports along the border. Now, with JTF-W influence, CBP can affect the entire smuggling continuum."

Building a great team

Bringing together determined professionals throughout the law enforcement community who understand they’re battling the same threats will greatly increase security along the border, explained Joint Task Force- West Director Robert L. Harris, who directs the multi-agency task force covering California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

"You must have people who can look beyond the color of their uniform," Harris said. "They need to have an open mind about doing what’s best for law enforcement and border security versus doing what’s best for your own individual agency."

Even after agencies were brought together under the DHS umbrella, many still functioned independently, creating redundancy and missions that overlapped.

"In my 31-year career, I can tell you this has never before been accomplished or even attempted," said Harris.

The new campaign requires DHS components to work together to increase efficiency and capability. It also positions JTF-West as a key player in relations with Mexico by contributing to discussions between the two governments to improve security on both sides of the border. Topics have included the secure transit of people and cargo and how to bring border communities into the campaign. The strategy "extends our zone of security outward, ensuring that our physical border is not the first or last line of defense, but one of many," said Harris.

JTF-West elevates border security from a single CBP effort to a unified DHS partnership that targets organizations that pose the greatest threat.

"Our two main objectives are stopping the flow of illegal immigration into the U.S. and integrated counter-network operations," said Harris.

Harris estimates the lawless groups involve hundreds of people inside and outside of the U.S. "We’ve identified what we think are the top transnational criminal organizations across the U.S.-Mexico border who are responsible for most of the alien and narcotics smuggling and southbound bulk cash and weapons smuggling."


Northbound drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal immigration and its associated violence are the primary threats along the border, according to Harris. The reach and influence of Mexican cartels in cities throughout the U.S. are also concerns, Harris told the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Those threats have greatly expanded into Mexico and some of Central America, making the joint force more important than ever. "This is an integrated, counter-network operation targeting the [criminal] networks from the origination point to the final destination," Harris said.

"In South Texas today, 75 percent of the people we detain are from Central America and a lot of them are women and children," said Harris. "You can’t immediately remove them. So our traditional model does not apply to what is going on today. We have to work with the source countries to make sure they don’t get here in the first place."

In 2014, a surge of people, mostly women and children from Central America, arrived at the U.S. border. By the summer of that year, the influx reached its peak in South Texas, where hundreds arrived each day, overwhelming the resources of the Border Patrol, DHS, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Intelligence is king

Harris indicated that "the Joint Task Force-West effort primarily involves merging intelligence, interdiction and investigations to identify, prioritize, and target the top criminal organizations impacting national security, border security and public safety."

Intelligence is everything to the campaign’s success. "We started to realize that when we brought everyone together," said Manny Martinez, the U.S. Border Patrol acting division chief of law enforcement programs, Laredo Sector. "We’re bringing all of our intelligence to the same table and shining a light on this one organization."

In this case, it’s a real table at JTF-West’s headquarters. The unity table, as it’s called, is where everyone—CBP, ICE, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service—come together to share information, learn more about smuggling operations and set priorities. The meetings are known for rigorous debates, but they also produce progress.

Much of the intelligence is provided by the U.S. Border Patrol and ICE, which gathers information from smugglers and others they arrest attempting to cross the border. "That gets funneled to the JTF-W table, and we start building cases," said Martinez.

"Fugitive Operation Teams throughout the U.S. regularly coordinate with other DHS components," says Scott Mechkowski, ICE assistant field office director, Field Office New York. "Intelligence interviews that we conduct in the interior consistently reveal information related to smuggling routes and staging locations that that we feed back to the agencies focusing on the Southwest border. We try to provide both strategic and tactical intelligence to our partners."

Circulating such data throughout the task force drives the weekly multi-agency briefings. Progress in reducing the flow of narcotics, weapons and currency as well as alien arrests is regularly shared with ICE, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency, FBI and the U.S. Northern Command.

Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. attorneys’ offices, Naval Investigative Command and state and local law enforcement also attend.

CBP also conducts monthly briefings to inform state and local law enforcement about emerging trends and other threats along the border.

"For years, intelligence was a black hole," noted Miguel Contreras, South Texas Laredo area team lead, U.S Border Patrol. "Everyone knew it was there, but nobody was collecting it and drawing a bigger picture."

That’s changed. It’s also changed the scope of law enforcement on the Southwest border.

Border Patrol Agent   Border Patrol Agent   Foot sign

Members of the Laredo Horse Patrol search the Texas brush for any sign of smuggling activity. Photos by Glenn Fawcett

Now, law enforcement teams assigned to sectors within JTF-West’s jurisdiction focus on crime specific to their area and share intelligence. The teams are made up of DHS components and managed by a commander and/or a co-lead.

"Every Border Patrol agent is an intel agent," said Contreras. Border Patrol agents now receive training in gathering intelligence. Agents look for signs in everything from telephone numbers to trash and they’re seeing results. These bits of information, actionable intelligence as they’re called, are pieces of a puzzle that move investigations forward and lead to apprehensions, he said.

Evidence derived from the intelligence is sent to agents in the area to assist them in collecting even more intelligence. DHS law enforcement across the different agencies is focused on spotting and collecting these clues. Substantive and timely information sharing is critical in targeting and arresting smugglers moving drugs and illegal merchandise through the U.S. and Mexico.

Still, "this has been a big paradigm shift," said Contreras.

When the Laredo Sector shared its intelligence experience with Homeland Security Investigations, DEA, FBI and other force partners a big picture of the "biggest, baddest threats impacting us" emerged. The information allowed the agencies to place a priority on who to pursue, Contreras said.

Martinez agrees.

"When you’re labeled as one of our top five priorities, it’s really going to be difficult for you," he predicts. "We’re going to be taking down your drivers, taking down your stash house operators and taking down everyone in your network. Eventually, the guy at the top is going to slip because the guys he’s been working with for years are in jail and they’re going to flip on him."

JTF-West   JTF-West   JTF-West

A CBP officer busts open a tortilla maker to search for smuggled drugs. Photos by Glenn Fawcett


What the JTF-West team is doing, in applying counter-network principle, is disrupting the smuggling organization’s ability to act, said McAleenan. "By seizing their stash house or vehicle that is involved in the scheme or taking away their ability to enter the United States as non-U.S. citizen," said the Deputy Commissioner. "If you don’t have enough information to prosecute or put someone in jail, but you can take away their permission to enter the U.S. – that’s a sanction, a consequence that’s disruptive to that organization. They won’t be able to take money southbound to the criminal organizations and come back and get more."

The new campaign is making headway. A recent investigation that would normally take up to three years resulted in 19 indictments in six months, he said.

"That’s unheard of. It just didn’t happen before. Now we’re working together and showing each other our cards," Martinez explained.

And it isn’t just happening in South Texas. These efforts are ongoing across the entire Southwest border on a daily basis. That shift in culture, more than just the new procedures, is really what makes JTF-West so successful. Having the right people who believe in the campaign and are committed to stopping criminals through a united front is key.

"I’ve asked leadership to bring me your best people," said Harris. "If you have great people they will evolve and improve on the work that we’re doing today and it will look totally different a few months from now."


Last Modified: Nov 24, 2023