Federal Prosecutors Passing the Buck on US-Mexico Border Drug Busts
It’s another hot day on the U.S.-Mexico border, and Border Patrol agents are hard at work trying to identify and intercept smugglers trying to bring illegal drugs into the United States. Depending on the location, agents can bring in as little as a few ounces of heroin in a backpack or over a ton of marijuana packed into a large SUV. If agents are lucky, they arrest the smugglers actually hauling the drugs. But what happens to these traffickers after they’re caught? Shockingly, sometimes nothing.
U.S. law enforcement agencies have no way of knowing what percentage of illegal drugs coming into the country across the southwest border they’re actually catching. Estimates range from 1 percent at the low end to 10 percent at the high end. While those figures are abysmally low, the volume of drugs successfully interdicted — and the number of individuals arrested in connection with those loads — is high enough to overwhelm the federal court system. Each district has a quota for prosecution, meaning they won’t pursue prosecution of a drug-trafficking case if the amount of drugs involved falls below a certain amount.
It’s All about Money
This may come as a shock to many Americans who believe all drug cases are taken to court. The truth is that the backlog that would result from doing this would completely overwhelm the federal system. What ends up happening is that U.S.-Mexico border drug seizure cases are offered by federal authorities to state and local jurisdictions with the option to prosecute at that level. Unfortunately, this presents the same court-flooding problem in border cities and counties, combined with a lack of funding to support additional judges and prosecutors.
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, Hudspeth County (Texas), population 3,337, is dependent on the federal dollars it receives to jail and prosecute the steady stream of mostly U.S.-citizen motorists busted with small amounts of illegal drugs. The travelers and their contraband are turned over to the sheriff in Sierra Blanca; most are charged with a misdemeanor and sent on their way to avoid overwhelming the county with a backlog of cases. County officials there estimate that for every dollar that comes to Hudspeth from handling federal border crimes and seized assets, it costs about $2 million to detain, prosecute and process offenders. The four border states received less than $5 million in 2013 as reimbursement for handling the federal cases – down from $31 million in 2010. And the U.S. Department of Justice didn’t request such funding from Congress in 2014.
This passing of the prosecutorial buck isn’t limited to just illegal drugs. In late April 2016, Wellton Station (Arizona) Border Patrol agents arrested 58 undocumented immigrants; 21 of them were smuggling more than 800 pounds of marijuana in backpacks. The Yuma County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) told KYME 11 News that those 21 undocumented immigrants were booked into the Yuma county detention center after the United States Attorney’s Office of Arizona refused to prosecute them. YCSO spokesman Alfonso Zavala said, “The average is they are in our facility for 100 days, costing 78 dollars per day.” He added that the combined total of all 21 immigrants was costing Yuma taxpayers more than $600,000.
Getting Away with Smuggling Drugs at US-Mexico Border
Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot said in a statement, “When the United States Attorney’s Office of Arizona continuously refuses to prosecute illegal immigrants smuggling drugs into our state, it places a significant burden on local governments to pick up the cost of prosecuting and incarcerating these criminals.” Zavala said FBI leadership in Washington, DC is making the attorney’s office refuse to prosecute. “We’ve sent numerous letters to Washington asking for clarification on why this isn’t good, so it’s not something locally. This is something that is occurring in Washington and is streamlining down that we have no control over.”
Despite the financial strain it places on border counties to prosecute hand-me-down drug and immigration cases from federal authorities, they continue to press on — mostly because they want drugs and traffickers out of their jurisdictions. Local authorities don’t want to send a message to criminals that they can get away with smuggling drugs if the quantities they are trafficking are small enough. However, funding cuts and prosecution quotas that vary from county to county could mean that some drug cases may end up going unprosecuted all together, simply because there was no room on the docket or no money for the court — an unacceptable situation from any angle.
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