BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Challenged by Congressman Filemon Vela to explain what the U.S. is doing to help Mexico confront drug cartel violence, a top Obama Administration official predicted that organized criminal activity in Tamaulipas will subside.

Alan Bersin, an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security and the agency’s chief diplomatic officer, said large drug cartels are being broken up thanks to the Mexican government and smaller splinter groups are being formed. This, he said, means the national security threat in Mexico is decreasing but local law enforcement issues are increasing.

Bersin testified before the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee on Tuesday. This panel is part of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

“Congressman, it is not of great solace to anyone when you are in the middle of a storm to say that, well, we will survive this storm. But, we have seen the same pattern of violence in every large, major, city, starting in Tijuana five or six years ago, moving over to Arizona, Sonora, moving over to Juarez, which, we will all recall even three years ago was the most violent city in the western hemisphere and now has seen that violence subsiding, and now we are seeing in Mexico’s northeast this kind of horrible violence that you described and that we need to confront,” Bersin testified.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela

“But, the relationships that we have put us in a better position to help Mexico confront that, since, after all, it is a Mexican responsibility and they will confront as they have confronted violence elsewhere in their country. The point, I think, is that we will see this violence contained. We are beginning to see the reaction of Mexican law enforcement and the Mexican military and SEMAR (Naval Secretariat), to confront this violence and I trust, as has been the case in Juárez and Tijuana, that, in fact, the violence in Matamoros will subside.”

Vela is the senior Democratic member on the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee. He has been pressing the Obama Administration for the past year and a half to do more to help Mexico eliminate drug cartels. He recently put out this statement: “I fully support Mexican government efforts to eliminate the criminal actors who have destabilized our neighboring cities of Matamoros and Reynosa. Bringing peace and security to these towns, to which so many of us are historically connected, is critical to our joint regional desire for economic prosperity on both sides of the border. It is not an easy task, but we cannot relent. I will continue to urge Washington leadership to give full diplomatic support to achieve full success in this vital mission.”

In his remarks at the subcommittee hearing, Vela said that just this past weekend friends and neighbors came to him with stories of gun battles that had occurred just last Friday. He said the gun battles had taken place within five miles of his district office in Brownsville.

“It was about two years ago that Mr. Bersin and I first met in my office and we discussed this issue, and for the last year and a half I repeatedly had discussions and warned Administration officials about the degree of violence in Matamoros, Mexico, which is right at the border of Brownsville,” Vela said.

Vela pointed out that more than 100,000 people have died in Mexico since 2006 as a result of drug cartel violence. He read aloud parts of a State Department travel warning that urged U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Tamaulipas.

The State Department warning, dated May 5, 2015, stated:

“Defer all non-essential travel to the state of Tamaulipas. Throughout the state violent crime, including homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, pose significant safety risks. State and municipal law enforcement capacity is limited to nonexistent in many parts of Tamaulipas. Violent conflicts between rival criminal elements and/or the Mexican military can occur in all parts of the region and at all times of the day. Violent criminal activity occurs more frequently along the northern border.

“While no highway routes through Tamaulipas are considered safe, the highways between Matamoros-Ciudad Victoria, Reynosa-Ciudad Victoria, Ciudad Victoria-Tampico, Monterrey-Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros-Reynosa, and Monterrey-Reynosa, are more prone to criminal activity. Organized criminal groups sometimes target public and private passenger buses traveling through Tamaulipas. These groups sometimes take all passengers hostage and demand ransom payments.

“In Tamaulipas, U.S. government employees are subject to movement restrictions and a curfew between midnight and 6 a.m. Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, and Ciudad Victoria have experienced numerous gun battles and attacks with explosive devices in the past year. The number of reported kidnappings in Tamaulipas is among the highest in Mexico, and the number of U.S. citizens reported to the consulates in Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo as being kidnapped, abducted, or disappearing involuntarily in 2014 has also increased.”

Vela said that in February, the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros reported 227 separate security incidents in the U.S. border region, including of carjacking at a super market frequented by U.S. consulate employees. The 227 incidences represented only a fraction of actual criminal activity due to self-censorship by journalists, Vela said.

“On Feb 2nd and Feb 5th, the U.S. Consulate general in Matamoros warned U.S. citizens of increased violence due to rolling gun battles between Los Ciclones and Los Metros factions. U.S. Consulate staff and their families were advised to restrict travel temporarily due to the violence. That month the U.S. state department warned consulate personnel to stay in-doors, to avoid the daytime convoys of cartel gunmen, some armed with grenade launchers,” Vela said.

“During that same week two of my constituents, both veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, went missing, and we’ve not heard or seen from them since.”

Vela said what he was hoping to get from the hearing is “some sort of assessment of our diplomatic efforts to ensure that the Government of Mexico addresses the situation and also to get an assessment of what can we do from the standpoint of enhancing our capability of ensuring the safety of not just our homeland security employees in Mexico, but our Department of Justice employees and Department of state employees.”

The chair of the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee is U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, who represents a district in Michigan on the northern U.S. border. Miller told Vela: “I am on the northern border but listening to you talk about gun battles and kidnapping and people disappearing, some of our veterans, etc., and criminal activity that is happening there, it is a very sober reminder of the challenges that we face.”

In welcoming him, Miller said Bersin oversees DHS’s international engagement. She said he is the principal advisor to Homeland Security Secretary on all matters pertaining to international affairs and is responsible for leading the department’s strategic planning and policy formulation functions. From 2010 to 2011, Bersin served as acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Bersin started his remarks to the subcommittee by claiming that the relationship between Mexico and the United States at the level of law enforcement as well as at the diplomatic level is at an all-time high. “I can tell you that having lived and worked on the border for 20 years, that the way in which we engage with Mexico today is simply dramatically different from what it was five and certainly ten years ago,” Bersin said.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller

Bersin then spoke about the wave of unaccompanied minors and families that came up through Mexico into the United States last year from Central America. He said there has been a “dramatic decline” in the number of people from Central American trying to cross into the U.S. this year.  He said the reason for this was partly due to activities undertaken by the U.S. in the Central American countries. “But, we should not ignore the extent to which activities by Mexico and Mexican migration authorities and law enforcement in their southern border has really contributed to a decrease in the number of people trying to cross into our country, from Texas to California,” Bersin said.

With regard to the violence in Tamaulipas, Bersin said he has met with Congressman Vela on the issue, both in Brownsville and Matamoros.

“What we are seeing is the latest result of what’s been going on in Mexico since 2006 when the Mexican government and the Mexican people made a decision to take on organized crime and we have seen a hundred thousand or just under a hundred thousand deaths since that time,” Bersin said. “But, in fact, we have seen significant cooperation and a significant growth in Mexican capacity to confront organized crime.”

Bersin then referred to the Mérida initiative that was started by the Bush Administration in 2006 and continued by the Obama Administration. The initiative has brought the U.S. and Mexico together to fight organized crime and associated violence.

Bersin said that back in 2006 many observers – Mexican and U.S. – viewed Mexican as a national security threat. “In fact, if you go back to 2006 you may remember Barry McCaffrey, the former drug czar worrying that Mexico was on the verge of becoming a failed state, which turned out to be wrong and certainly in retrospect is not the case,” Bersin said.

“But, there has been dramatic change in the nature of the organized crime problem in Mexico from that of massive cartels led by a series of kingpin figures like Chapo Guzmán. We have gone from four or five large cartels to a polarization of those organizations and the growth of many smaller organized criminal gangs on a local level. That has been good news from the standpoint of turning the national security problem into a law enforcement problem. Bad side is it has also led to the kind of violence that we have seen in Tamaulipas now and in Reynosa (and) in Coahuila.”

Editor’s Note: The main photo accompanying this story shows Alan Bersin, assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security, when he gave a speech at UT-Brownsville last October. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)