Texas DAs Refuse Border Patrol Cases ; Border District Attorneys Are Refusing Federal Drug-Smuggling Cases, Starting This Month

Article excerpt

For years, Laredo prosecutor Joe Rubio took on Border Patrol drug-smuggling cases as a courtesy to his federal counterparts. But more recently, as the Patrol doubled its staff and generated thousands of additional arrests, his act of benevolence has become a burden.

That's why Mr. Rubio, along with most of the district attorneys on the Texas-Mexico border, refuses to take any more federal cases.

Their quiet rebellion represents a red-flag warning that America's eight-year buildup along the US-Mexico border is showing signs of strain.

While prosecutors shrink from calling it a "boycott," their move is forcing a reexamination of the approach to criminal justice in the area and could impact America's fight against narcotics trafficking. "We want to fight the war on drugs, but we want to be equal partners," says Rubio, district attorney for Webb and Zapata counties, who stopped taking cases after years of asking Congress to reimburse the counties for costs. "We realized we're being taken advantage of here."

In recent years, Congress and the White House have outspent each other doubling the manpower of the US Border Patrol and increasing the staffs at the Drug Enforcement Agency and the US Customs Service as well. Somehow, adding law clerks, judges, and prosecutors to handle the increased caseloads didn't seem as "sexy" as adding another man in uniform. Now the Texas court system, from Brownsville to El Paso and beyond, is bursting at the seams.

"Border areas have not been paid attention to historically, and now these guys are overworked," says Rodolfo de la Garza, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas in Austin. "It's surprising that it has reached this point, but it's in line with the movement of states to pay for the implementation - and failure - of US immigration policy."

The number of federal drug busts and illegal immigration cases springing from the increased Border Patrol presence is staggering. The five US federal districts that stretch from California to the Texas Gulf Coast handle more than 26 percent of all criminal court filings in the United States. Drug prosecutions in these border courts nearly doubled between 1994 and '98, from 2,864 to 5,414 cases, and immigration prosecutions quintupled, from 1,056 to 5,614.

In Texas, border district attorneys say they support the goals of drug and immigration prosecution, but have ceased taking federal cases as of Oct. 1, because of their cost. Only two prosecutors continue to accept federal cases. In return, they receive a portion of a $12 million federal emergency appropriation, passed by Congress this summer. Each of the four border states will divide equally the money, which is intended for court costs and jail construction.

Those who have joined the boycott says Texas's $3 million share of the federal piggybank doesn't come close to meeting the bulk of their costs. Federal drug cases in Webb County alone cost some $1 million a year to handle, says Rubio. With federal money stretched thin, the financial burden shifts to the citizens of South Texas, among the poorest regions in America.

"What started as a courtesy became a practice, and then almost an expectation, and then almost a demand," says Yolanda de Leon, district attorney for Cameron County in Brownsville. …