The US Border Patrol’s new strategy employs a radical change of thinking, measuring success in terms of the agency’s ability to prioritize and react to the most serious security risks, instead of stressing territorial control. But there are other ways they can think outside the box.

While the Border Patrol’s previous strategy focused on achieving “operational control” of the border regions, the new 2012-2016 Strategic Plan (pdf) emphasizes risk assessment. Instead of deploying manpower and technology en masse along US borders, including the 3,169 kilometer frontier with Mexico, the new plan focuses on gathering and acting on the intelligence most relevant to US security interests.

This type of targeted enforcement will be especially welcome if deployed effectively against the US and Mexico-based criminal organizations that smuggle humans, guns, and drugs between the two countries. And there are three particular recommendations worth keeping in mind.

1. Immigration control is not the same as border security.

US agencies have traditionally measured success in achieving border control by tallying the number of migrants detained while crossing. But this measure is mostly ineffective. Regardless of whether the number of border crossers goes up or down, targeting migrants is not the same as going after the organized criminal groups that now control much of the migration at the southern border. Partly because US efforts have made it so much more difficult to cross, criminal gangs like the Zetas have replaced the small-time coyotes, and make huge profits off of the migrants’ movements. Rounding up border crossers, many of whom represent a low risk to US security interests, and sending them back to Mexico arguably perpetuates this cycle, to the benefit of criminal groups.

The amount of resources allocated since 2004 to controlling the entry of unauthorized migrants came at the expense of really hitting the cartels where it hurts. And as the Border Patrol’s ranks and budget swelled, with many agents deployed to patrol huge swathes of arid and near-impassable terrain, customs inspection at the legal points of entry suffered. It is through these legal points of entry that much of the cartels’ profitable contraband — methaphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and weapons — passes through. Neverthless, since 2004 US has dedicated much of its resources to protecting the isolated countryside in between rather than at these points of entry, in the name of immigration control.

Thus, the Border Patrol’s new “risk-based” approach would compliment greatly from a strategy that allows for smarter border inspections, which could target the finances of the cartels more effectively than chasing down migrants in the Arizona desert. However —

2. Not all border inspections are created equal.

It is unrealistic to stop the majority of contraband from crossing the border. The sheer amount of legal commerce passing through border inspections makes this clear. Even if the US increases staff at the Office of Field Inspections, responsible for screenings at official points of entry, and implements technology like scanners, this increased pressure would likely only encourage cartels to evolve their smuggling techniques and traffic even smaller and well-hidden loads.

This is where the new “risk-based,” intelligence-oriented approach makes the most sense. Instead of emphasizing the inspection of the majority of vehicles that cross the border, US and Mexico agents need to improve their intelligence collection and sharing capabilities so that they can identify the most important threats before they even arrive at the frontier. That being said —

3. Border security doesn’t always happen at the border.

Fighting the illicit traffic of goods is only one way to impact the operations of Mexican criminal groups. The cartels are primarily driven by economics — on the US side, targeting their finances and money laundering capabilities is one of the most direct ways to cripple the organization. This could mean sterner reprimands against US branches of banks like Wachovia and HSBC, who do little to monitor suspicious cash flows. It also means pushing through more reforms in the wire transfer industry, so that it is harder to complete anonymous transfers.

Truly adapting this new “risk-based” approach means breaking away from the traditional definitions of border control. A more realistic strategy won’t necessarily involve deploying more manpower, spending more money, and continuing to count the number of migrants detained or contraband seized. It means deploying the resources available in a more rational way, and in a way that would more effectively target organized crime.

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