AUSTIN, Texas – It has been a long time coming but, finally, supporters of southbound checkpoints on the southwest border believe they are gaining real momentum.

On Wednesday, the Texas House tentatively passed House Bill 11, the sweeping border security legislation for the 84th legislative session. A key provision in the bill, which was authored by Speaker Pro Tem Dennis Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton, requires the Department of Public Safety to conduct a feasibility study on how it can best help Customs and Border Protection inspect vehicles crossing into Mexico.

State Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass.
State Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass.

“I am very pleased we included this provision in the bill,” said state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, a Democrat from Eagle Pass. “This will help stop the misery we export to Mexico. The misery is the millions of dollars from drug buys and the arms and ammunition, which are so readily available in Texas, that go south. We are part of the process that sends some of that misery to Mexico and hopefully we can police that.”

When asked by a reporter if HB 11 sends a clear message to Washington, D.C., that Congress should put more resources into southbound inspections, Nevárez said: “It does but it also sends a message to our partners south of the border that we feel your pain and we understand we are part of the problem and we are accomplices in this and this is our way of helping with respect to what is fueling a lot of the violence down there.”

Citing Mexico’s governmental research service CESOP, David Cagne, a reporter with In Sight Crime, reported in January that an estimated 2,000 weapons illegally enter Mexico from the United States every day. Cagne said the report shows that 85 percent of the approximately 15 million weapons that were in circulation in Mexico in 2012 were illegal.

“The report — which is based largely on numerous international studies and reports — highlights the large number of cheap military and assault-style weapons available in the United States, in addition to lax U.S. gun laws, as the main reasons for the high number of arms smuggled into Mexico. Some 40 percent of firearms used by drug traffickers in Mexico come from Texas alone, the report stated,” Cagne reported.

In speeches in McAllen on Tuesday, as part of Caravana 43, the families of disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, called on the U.S. government to stop guns, ammunition and cash from reaching the drug cartels in Mexico. The cartels, they said, corrupt the local police forces.

In testimony provided to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, on Tuesday, McAllen businessman Othal Brand, Jr., urged Congress to put more resources into southbound checkpoints. Asked to respond to claims that the installation of southbound checkpoints would produce great bottlenecks at the Texas-Mexico international bridges and thus impede legitimate trade, Brand said: “Build more lanes. We will not have a thriving economy in South Texas if we do not have border security.”

State Rep. Oscar Longoria said he was proud of the fact that the proposal to include southbound checkpoints in HB 11 originated in South Texas. He gave a shout out to Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra for testifying in favor of the provision.

“I am proud of House Bill 11 because many of the key provisions came from South Texas. The southbound checkpoints provision was developed in the Valley. I am very pleased we are going to do a feasibility study to see if it is possible,” Longoria, D-La Joya, said.

State Rep. Sergio Muñoz also supports southbound checkpoints. He offered an amendment that requires DPS to consult with local law enforcement agencies when they conduct the feasibility study.

“In Pharr, we already have Pharr Police Department that has a presence at the border. They have boots on the ground and resources there to inspect vehicles going south. We do not want to duplicate efforts. We need to partner with those that are already doing this,” said Muñoz, D-Mission.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio said he is hoping the provision to establish southbound checkpoints stays in the Senate’s version of HB 11. The legislation is Senate Bill 3.

“I am one that supports any effort we can all make to ensure we have an opportunity to confiscate cash, arms and ammunition that helps organized crime in Mexico to flourish. It is very important. We are still working on that language. I hope we can keep southbound checkpoints in Senate Bill 3,” said Lucio, D-Brownsville.

Rep. Bonnen said HB 11 would increase penalties for human smuggling, increase the number of DPS officers on the border, establish an intelligence center in Hidalgo County to analyze border crime data, and create a voluntary corps of retired DPS officers to boost the agency’s ranks.

“We just passed a bill that creates the first-in-the-nation consistent plan to help fill the void of failure of federal government in Texas,” Bonnen told reporters after the 131 to 12 vote. “We passed that bill, the Republican caucus, with wonderful support from our Democrat colleagues. What we’ve shown you in Austin, Texas, is that we can tackle the tough issues.”

State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya.
State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya.

Rep. Longoria said that in addition to southbound inspections, the intelligence center provision also originated in South Texas.

“House Bill 11 a great bill. It evolved as the session went on. Chairman Bonnen asked for input from a lot of members of the (Valley) delegation and basically, anything we recommended or suggested, he took to heart. I think the folks back home should be very proud of it. The Valley had a big input on this bill. It is a statewide bill and it is going to affect, directly, the Rio Grande Valley. They should be very proud that the leadership was able to embrace the ideas of all the representatives down there to develop this bill.”

Asked for his comments on HB 11 as a whole, Rep. Nevárez said: “When the bill first rolled out it was unacceptable for a member from any border delegation to vote for it, based on the language. Rep. Bonnen worked with myself, Rep. Lucio, Rep. Muñoz, Rep. Longoria and others to make this bill much better.”

Asked how the bill became better, Nevárez said: “I say much better because it is all relative. We wanted a bill targeting transnational criminal organizations. This is the bill we have. We were able to carve out some appropriations for the locals who are going to lose personnel to the DPS. We have been able to strengthen our ability to fight transnational crime along the border and throughout the state and we kept out the harmful rhetoric and kept from militarizing our border zone. I am proud to have played a small part in changing it to meet the needs that our border communities have.”

Editor’s Note: The main photo with this story shows traffic traveling south into Mexico at Eagle Pass. Photo courtesy of KUT News/Mose Buchele.