According to testimony given before United States Congress, the Border Patrol says that just fifteen percent of the U.S.-Mexico border is under tight control. The bulked-up security measures along the southwest border have resulted in record drug seizures, but, as the testimony makes clear, there are still many possible points of entry for smugglers trafficking people, narcotics or guns.

The data suggests that, despite the heated political rhetoric aimed at “securing” the border, effectively policing less than half of the area is near impossible. 

Of the 1,951 miles that make up the U.S.-Mexico border, 873 miles are considered to be somewhat controlled by the Border Patrol. Within this area, 129 miles (or 15 percent) is considered “controlled,” meaning there is a high chance of detecting and stopping illegal activity at the actual border. The other 744 miles (or 85 percent) are considered “managed,” meaning that detection and interdiction is harder, occurring over 100 miles into U.S. territory.

The other 1,127 miles of the border is considered “monitored” (there is ability to detect, but little to respond) or “low level monitored,” according to testimony made avaliable to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on February 15.

Most of the territory considered “low level monitored” falls along an approximate 510-mile range in east Texas, in the Marfa sector of the Border Patrol. This is a particularly remote area of rough, dry terrain and may thus represent an attractive point of entry for smugglers. Another ten miles in the Rio Grande Valley is also barely monitored by authorities, the report notes.

Notably, of the nine Border Patrol sectors along the southwest frontier, only one, Yuma, reported having near total “operational control” along its 126-mile border with Mexico. But this definition of “control” does not account for all forms of illicit activity, as agents do not have the ability to detect smuggling through tunnels or by air.

Groups like the Sinaloa Cartel have been known to use intricate tunnels to smuggle marijuana and cocaine into the United States. Such underground passageways have been found connecting Tijuana to San Diego. 

Security reinforcements to the U.S.-Mexico border have included boosting the number of patrol officers, currently numbering 20,000, and building a 700-mile fence which at times cuts through border towns. Electronic sensors, cameras and drone aircraft are expected to monitor the remaining territory, part of a $3 billion emergency act approved by the Senate in July 2007. The Department of Homeland Security has requested $57 billion for its 2012 budget.

These increased measures have produced results, including what was apparently a record year in drug seizures along the border. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol seized 87 percent more cocaine and 108 percent more heroin during the 2010 fiscal year, as compared to 2009. This includes a total of 115 tons of cocaine seized in 2010, as opposed to 61 tons in 2009. Most of the seized drugs entering the U.S. were trafficked by land.

But what the GAO testimony highlights is that for the foreseeable future, securing the entire 2,000 mile-border has as much to do with the reality of the rough terrain and the avaliable technological resources as it does with political rhetoric. In the meantime, increased activity by the Border Patrol will likely push human smugglers, or ‘coyotes,’ to attempt to traffic people through ever more remote areas, such as the Marfa and Rio Grande sectors, increasing the chance of migrants getting lost or dying during the journey. And as it becomes harder to traffic drugs into the U.S. through the traditional routes, groups like the Juarez Cartel will turn to cultivating the domestic drug market in cities like the embattled Ciudad Juarez.

InSight has made a map below depicting the nine Border Patrol sectors: San Diego, El Centro, Yuma, Tucson, El Paso, Marfa, Del Rio, Laredo and Rio Grande Valley. The map is an approximation and is not meant to represent the entire U.S. territory under jurisdiction of these sectors, but rather is meant to illustrate the areas that fall under general control of these Border Patrol units. In yellow is the sector reported as in total operational control of all its border miles. In red are the general areas reported as the most poorly monitored.

View U.S.-Mexico Border Security in a larger map

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