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Lawmakers Blast Failure of Planned 'Virtual Fence' Along US-Mexico Border

US Border Patrol vehicle along the US-Mexico border (undated photo)
US Border Patrol vehicle along the US-Mexico border (undated photo)
Robert Raffaele

Lawmakers in Washington say U.S. and Mexican authorities need much more help to battle violent drug traffickers. At a hearing this week, several members of a Senate committee blasted plans for a so-called "virtual fence" as a waste of taxpayer dollars. And two lawmakers are calling for the deployment of  National Guard troops along one of the most troubled sections of the U.S. southern border.  

The recent killing of three people with ties to the U.S. consulate in Juarez, Mexico, and the shooting death of a popular rancher on his property in Arizona, are increasing the anger over drug-related violence on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. The Mexican government says more than 22,000 people have been killed in Mexico since a U.S.-backed crackdown on cartels began three years ago.

Larry Dever is the sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona, and is leading the investigation into the killing of rancher Rob Krentz.  He says authorities suspect people working for drug cartels.

"The bad guys keep coming," said Larry Dever. "And no matter whether the apprehension rates rise or fall, the numbers of criminal aliens rise.  That sir, gentlemen, is the threat to homeland security in our country."

The increased violence is spilling over into many U.S. border towns, including Nogales, Arizona.

"Gentlemen, Nogales needs your help," said Octavio Garcia-Von Borstel.

Mayor Octavio Garcia-Von Borstel told U.S. lawmakers that three ports of entry in his city must process more than 15 million people a year, and inspect some three million incoming cars. But he says federal inspections of all southbound vehicles are impeding the rightful free movement of tens of thousands.

"The unanticipated consequence is that people are now crossing less frequently and have to wait one to two hours coming in and out of our ports of entry," he said.

A source of anger for many lawmakers at the hearing was a U.S. government contract for a so-called "virtual fence" monitoring system along the nearly 3200-kilometer U.S.-Mexico border.
The program, called SBInet has cost more than $700 million so far, but has only been tested over a 37-kilometer section.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has halted worked on the project.  Senator Joe Lieberman is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee:

"By any measure, SBInet has been a failure," said Joe Lieberman. "A classic example of a program that was grossly oversold and has been badly under-delivered."

Senator Roland Burris also blasted the program, and the U.S. government's contract with Boeing for the work, during this exchange with Customs and Border Protection Agency commissioner Alan Bersin.

"Taxpayers do not have unlimited pockets for Boeing, or for any other company," said Roland Burris.

Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona announced a plan to step up border security, including a request for 3,000 National Guard troops along the Arizona-Mexico border.  

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