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$1 Billion Later, Feds Give Up on High-Tech Border Fence

22 Oct

It sounded good: build a high-tech array of cameras, sensors, and other gear to monitor the Mexico-US border. Boeing, the contractor the federal government hired to build the ‘virtual fence’, promised it would be a cheaper and more efficient way to catch smugglers and illegal immigrants than flooding the zone with Border Patrol agents. But three years later, the government is conceding what critics predicted all along: the thing doesn’t work. They’re defunding the project. As the LA Times reports, “the result, after an investment of more than $1 billion, may be a system with only 53 miles of unreliable coverage along the nearly 2,000-mile border.”

When the border project was just getting going,  I wrote this piece in Mother Jones headlined: “A proposed $2 billion high-tech fence on the U.S.-Mexico border is likely to be virtually useless.” Maybe the Department of Homeland Security oughtta subscribe.

Mexico’s Drug War Hits New Depths

17 May

This is crazy stuff even by the standards of Mexico’s out-of-control drug violence. In recent weeks, brawling drug gangs have taken over entire parts of Monterrey, the country’s wealthiest city,  previously a haven of calm. As the LA Times reports,

“drug gangs repeatedly blocked off city streets, snarling traffic and preventing police and soldiers from patrolling. Regular gun battles in and around Monterrey…  claimed 164 lives this year as of May 7, almost the same number as in the two previous years combined. The dead included two popular engineering students caught, apparently, in crossfire at the gates of their prestigious university.

On April 21, 50 gunmen overran the downtown Holiday Inn, a high-end hotel popular with business travelers, forced the receptionist to ID guests and yanked four men and a woman from their fifth-floor rooms.”

It’s bad enough when you have drug gangs shooting each other by the dozens in border towns and drug-growing areas. But when they can shut down traffic in the middle of a major city, or take over an entire upscale hotel long enough to find a few people they’re looking for, you’ve really lost control. This isn’t over-the-top crime, it’s a breakdown in state authority on the level of a full-fledged insurgency.

What’s interesting about Mexico, though, is that the government isn’t fighting a group dedicated to seizing state power or at least keeping the state out of its own fiefdom, as in Afghanistan or Congo. The drug gangs aren’t interested in taking over the government; they just want to be left alone to keep doing business. I’m not sure if that makes them a more or less difficult problem.

McCain: “Build Pointless Border Fence!”

11 May

I don’t really expect John McCain to show the slightest shred of integrity in these desperate, perhaps final days of his career, but I was at least hoping for common sense. Nope. ABC News reports that McCain’s newest television ad “blames illegal immigrants for ‘home invasions [and] murders’ and calls for the completion of the ‘danged fence’ along the U.S.-Mexico border, reversing years of criticizing such a barrier.”

What’s infuriating isn’t just that the senator has reversed his once-sensible position on immigration in favor of the crudest kind of Mexi-baiting. It’s that this stupid fence doesn’t and won’t work. I pointed that out in Mother Jones when they started building it, and the guy who heads the program for the Department of Homeland Security recently confirmed it to the LA Times:

“The supposedly state-of-the-art system combining sensor towers, communication relay systems and unattended ground sensors has been bogged down with radar clutter, blurred imagery on computer screens and satellite time lapses that often permit drug smugglers and undocumented workers to slip past U.S. law enforcement agents, government officials candidly admit. “It was a great idea, but it didn’t work,” said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the electronic fence program at the Homeland Security Department.”

Mr. Borkowski, could you please have your people call Sen. McCain’s people?

Welcome to Undercovered!

9 May

And this is what I look like.

Hello, and thanks for stopping by. Yes, I’m taking a bold leap into the last decade by finally launching a blog. I believe that makes me the last journalist on Earth to have done so, a distinction I will try to be worthy of. The idea is to provide a place for people to find, discuss and share news about important or at least interesting issues from around the world that are generally overlooked and undercovered by the big-time media. In particular, we’re talking crime and justice in their many forms, international news and how technology is changing everything.Please check it out, and by all means, chime in!

Me? I’m an award-winning magazine writer based in Los Angeles, and have spent nearly 20 years writing about such stuff. I’ve ridden along with emergency first responders in the days after Haiti’s earthquake, exposed conditions in California’s harshest prisons, spent quality time with a Las Vegas billionaire building inflatable hotels in outer space and hunted down other stories from around the world for publications including The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Wired, The Village Voice, The New Republic, The Nation, Mother Jones and Rolling Stone. You can find out more  here.