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
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
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
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. …