Sen. Bingaman (D-NM) established the task force in 2003 to address security and other needs along the border by bringing together U.S. Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, local law enforcement, government officials and members of the public. Wednesday's meeting was the last held by his staff and beginning next year, Sen. Tom Udall's (D-NM) office will take the reins to continue the task force's mission.
Wednesday's meeting, held at the Deming Train Depot, packed a plethora of information into a block short of two hours. First on tap for the group was a review of apprehension and seizure statistics by Border Patrol in the El Paso Sector, which comprises Southern New Mexico and the area around El Paso.
An official from the Deming Border Patrol station said that in the second half of 2012, compared to the same period in 2011, there was a 28 percent increase in the apprehension of illegal immigrants in the area. He said 253 more people were arrested from June to Dec. in 2012 than in 2011.
Christopher Mangusing, Lordsburg patrol agent in charge, said his station has seen a 100 percent increase in apprehension of illegal immigrants and an 80 percent increase in narcotics seizures.
"The El Paso Sector is assisting Tucson Sector about 22 miles into Arizona," he added.
The statistics for Operation Border Jaguar, which includes two forward operating bases in New Mexico's bootheel region, show apprehensions are down 70 percent with seizures down about 34 percent. A third FOB near Antelope Wells, marred by issues with installing utilities, is expected to begin operation by early next year, he said.
Local resident Joel Chinkes questioned what is behind the fallen figures, asking if it is a result of agents working harder or other factors. Jake Rollow, of Sen. Bingaman's office, replied that statistics reflect more agents out on patrol and changes in Mexico's economy.
He pointed out that since the BSTF had been established, about 100 miles of fence has been constructed along the border, the number of agents in the area has doubled and apprehensions are down, overall, about 90 percent since 2006.
Rollow also announced that "hopefully" Verizon Wireless would begin upgrades of a cellular phone tower located near mile marker five on Highway 9. The upgrade will allow residents in the area to have more cell phone coverage. A longtime complaint by those living in rural areas south of town, particularly farmers and ranchers, was how hard it could be to contact law enforcement in the event of an emergency or if illegal activity was spotted.
Officials had previously issued radios to some local residents, but the problem continued while the task force worked to find a better solution.
The meeting also covered travel into Mexico by American citizens and travel into America by Mexican citizens. The federal officials on hand argued that the Mexican cartel threat has diminished enough in Northern New Mexico to make travel safe again. They said violence has shifted to other areas of Mexico like Monterey.
For travel into America, Luna County manager Kelly Kuenstler asked if Border Patrol agents will be prepared for an extension of the border commercial zone from 25 miles to 55 miles, if it is approved by the Department of Homeland Security. She said the county plans to begin a marketing campaign targeting residents of Northern New Mexico to encourage shopping locally once the provision to allow travelers with the appropriate Visa to travel further into the country is approved.
A Border Patrol representative said agents will be given the proper training and will be ready for the new rule, if if is approved. Rollow said Sen. Bingaman has been communicating with DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to "expedite" approving the expansion.
Matt Robinson can be reached at email@example.com