Small Wars Journal

Border Violence Spillover: A Growing, but Undefined Problem

Tue, 01/15/2013 - 3:30am

In October 2010, the first Mexican cartel-related beheading occurred in the United States. Martin Alejandro Cota-Monroy was killed because he had stolen a 400-lb load of marijuana and lied to his bosses about it, claiming the US authorities had seized the dope. When they demanded the money he owed them, Cota-Monroy begged for time to repay, offering his house as collateral. When the PEI Estatales and Sinaloa Federation discovered he didn’t have the money and didn’t even own the house, they took their payment in flesh by sending in sleepers to befriend him and sever his head while he was in a drunken stupor. [1] This single act of violence—the first drug-related beheading ever known to have occurred in the United States—would significantly change our assessment of border violence “spillover.” Or would it?

In the days after Cota-Monroy’s beheading, news of the incident could only be found in local media outlets. About three weeks later, only two conservative national outlets were reporting on the killing and using the term “spillover violence” in their stories. Only when the Chandler Police Department’s report was released in early March 2011, making a definitive connection between the murder and a Mexican cartel, did more national news outlets come on board to report the story. Despite the shocking nature of this incident and what seems like a clear-cut example of transnational criminal organization (TCO) violence spilling over our southwest border, very few Americans outside of Arizona have ever heard of this story.

The problem with situations like this one is that there is no standardized definition of border violence spillover anywhere. This means that any government agency or sheriff’s office or police department can create their own definition and say whether or not they believe TCO-related violence is or isn’t spilling over the southwest border. They can also use these self-determined definitions to justify the allocation of (or skimping on) resources.

There have been many attempts to define border violence spillover. This is the currently accepted federal interagency definition used by the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice components since at least 2009:

“As agreed to by the interagency community, spillover violence entails deliberate, planned attacks by the cartels on US assets, including civilian, military, or law enforcement officials, innocent US citizens, or physical institutions such as government buildings, consulates, or businesses. This definition does not include trafficker on trafficker violence, whether perpetrated in Mexico or the US.”[2]

There are several things wrong with this definition, including the fact it sounds more like a definition of a terrorist attack. Most glaring is that it doesn’t take into account trafficker-on-trafficker violence, which is the fundamental nature of TCO-related violence happening in Mexico, as is trafficker-on-law enforcement. Excluding that kind of violence from a definition of spillover is a convenient way to allow agencies to say spillover isn’t happening.      

Just reading the public differences of opinion about spillover violence can be confusing. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said in early 2011, “It is inaccurate to state, as too many have, that the United States side of the border is overrun with violence or out of control.” In June 2011, the US Border Patrol Sector Chief for the Rio Grande Valley said, “We're not seeing cartel-on-cartel violence here in the US that I'm aware of.” After a 2009 cross-border kidnapping and murder that El Paso Mayor John Cook acknowledged was spillover, he said, “This drug war now has lasted for three years, and you have one case of spillover violence that we can clearly identify in a city of 800,000 people,” as a way to indicate the rarity of such incidents. Sheriff Lupe Treviño in Hidalgo County, Texas, told NPR in a June 2011 interview, “We have always had drug violence anywhere in the United States because that is the nature of the business… Now was that spillover back then? You know why it's spillover now? Because that is the flavor of the month.”[3] These conflicting statements are coming from government officials, law enforcement officers, politicians, and even academics. When they can’t agree, it is difficult to pinpoint whom Americans should believe.

There are generally two approaches to proving or disproving the existence of spillover violence—statistics and stories. Statistics are helpful because they are a concrete measure of criminal activity. However, with so many figures to choose from in a subject as broad as violence in four different states and dozens of counties and cities, agencies can pick and choose and manipulate statistics in a variety of ways to support their intended message.

Stories can also be a double-edged sword. They breathe life into faceless statistics, and serve as hard-hitting reality when presented in full-color on television or a news website. Listening to an angry rancher explaining his frustrations about smugglers continuously trespassing on his land, or a hysterical woman holding a crying baby after their home was accidentally burglarized by drug dealers has a much bigger impact than reading numbers on paper. But stories like these can also be misleading; they have a huge emotional effect on viewers and readers, but when amassed into a number of occurrences, it often doesn’t seem as significant. Also, many anecdotes are hard to prove.

In an oft-cited speech at the University of Texas-El Paso in January 2011, DHS Secretary Napolitano announced that FBI crime statistics showed violent crime rates in southwest border counties were down 30 percent over the previous two decades, and were “among the lowest in the nation.”[4] In May 2012, CBP Laredo Field Office Director Gene Garza testified before Congress that areas on the US side of the southwest US-Mexican border are “some of the safest communities in America.”[5] Napolitano and Garza aren’t the only two government officials who have publicly cited the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) statistics to support their assessments, and understandably so. The FBI was charged with managing this crime statistic aggregation database in 1930 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and contains data provided by almost 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the country.

There are thousands of ways to pull data from the UCR database because it classifies the information by city or county or region, by population, by type of crime, etc. Because of this, it’s relatively easy to pull statistics in a way that supports almost anyone’s theory about the rise or decline of criminal activity in certain areas. However, for the purpose of this debate, three particular data pulls are very helpful: violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) in US border cities with a population above 100,000 people, violent crime in border counties, and property crime (burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson) in border counties. When statistics are analyzed for all three data sets between 2007 and 2011, they show an average decline in all three cases. In those five years, violent crime in larger border cities declined by 14 percent, in border counties it declined by 15 percent, and property crimes declined by 11 percent.[6]

There’s little doubt that UCR statistics support the statements being made by Secretary Napolitano and several law enforcement officers and public officials who live and work along our southwest border. But do these statistics paint a full and accurate picture?

One thing that isn’t publicly mentioned about UCR data is that the information is voluntarily provided by those 17,000 agencies. There is no federal mandate to provide crime data to the FBI or any other federal agency for inclusion in the UCR or any other database, and there are agencies that choose not to do so. The database can also only include crimes that have been reported and documented. It’s difficult for anyone to speculate how many crimes that might qualify as border violence spillover have been committed and just never reported. Because the victims of these crimes are often illegal immigrants and other criminals—two groups that have a strong disincentive to call the police—it’s hard to say what the real crime picture along the border might look like. The fact that kidnapping and trespassing aren’t included in the database is also problematic, since those are crimes very commonly associated with drug trafficking and human smuggling activity in the southwest border states.

In late September 2011, Jorge Zavala and an unidentified 22 year-old man were patrons at the Tex-Mex Lounge strip club in Edinburg, Texas. So were several other men who were keeping an eye on Zavala and his friend. Around 2am, the two of them started to head home in Zavala’s SUV. Heading west on an expressway, they suddenly started to take fire from a Chevrolet Tahoe that had pulled up alongside them. The gunfire caused Zavala to lose control of his SUV and crash. He died at the scene from multiple gunshot wounds, and his companion was taken to a local hospital for serious injuries. The shooters were never caught, but there were several indicators pointing to a likely motive. Zavala had been a close associate of Gulf Cartel plaza boss Gregorio “El Goyo” or “El Metro 2” Sauceda Gamboa, who was arrested by Mexican Federal Police in April 2009. This association linked him to “los Metros,” a faction within a divided Gulf cartel that was in the midst of battle with the “Rojos” faction. Sources familiar with Zavala believed the hit was directly tied to the feud between the two camps.[7]

This incident was duly captured as a homicide statistic and properly logged in a police report. But the real impact came more from the news story—a visual of the highway at night, a shootout in the midst of a high-speed chase, and just the shock of such an incident occurring in a public space in a Texas town where anyone could have been driving or hit by a stray bullet.

In another example of anecdotal evidence of spillover violence, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples debuted a 16-video series in August 2012 consisting of interviews with Texas ranchers, residents, and law enforcement officials. Each video addresses the incursions and threats—real or perceived—posed by illegal immigrants and armed drug traffickers trespassing on ranchlands and causing damage all along the way. In the first video, Othal Brand from the Hidaldo County Water Improvement District 3 recounts an incident in July 2011 when two of his employees working on a pump station were nearly shot by men firing at them from across the Rio Grande in Mexico.[8]

The main impact of the videos, however, isn’t necessarily the information being relayed by the interviewees. There is no doubt the ranchers are angry and the officials are frustrated. But the videos lend a key visual aspect to their claims, showing the exact places on the ranches and along the border where these trespassing and shooting incidents occurred. To someone living in Rhode Island or Nebraska who has previously never really cared or understood the significance of these kinds of events, it conveys more to be able to visualize just how close to the border these things are happening, and how emotional and incredibly upset their fellow citizens have become over this situation.

There a few downsides to the use of anecdotal evidence of spillover violence. The first is that news outlets are in full control over how a story is portrayed. The vast majority of incidents that could be classified as spillover never make it out of local media outlets. When an incident does make it into the national news cycle, it can sometimes be made out to sound like armies of drug traffickers are barreling across millions of acres of US territory on a daily basis.

Another downside is the “telephone effect.” Many of the stories told by ranchers and residents aren’t of events they’ve actually witnessed or of crimes that have been committed against them. In July 2011, a Texas rancher told NPR, “What I heard is that they had killed a lady on the Old Mines Road, going towards Laredo, over like, a retaliation. They beheaded her, I mean, they cut her head off.” No such incident has been publicly recorded. Other stories deemed false by local law enforcement include one of an American oilfield worker attacked and decapitated by immigrants who wanted his pickup, and another of a ranch outside of Laredo, Texas taken over by members of Los Zetas.[9] Even though many of these stories aren’t true, they continue to circulate and augment the sense of tension and fear in some border communities.

While no universally accepted definition for border violence spillover exists, logic dictates that it would entail the same kind of TCO-related violence happening in Mexico happening on US soil. This inherently means the definition would have to include violent incidents between TCO members, gang members working on behalf of TCOs, traffickers and US law enforcement officers, and TCO associates and immigrants. Such a definition would succinctly encapsulate the fundamental nature of TCO-related violence, and therefore what spillover of that exact kind of violence would look like if and when it happened on US soil.

Unfortunately, the people who comprise the two sides of the definition debate aren’t really trying to come together in a meaningful way to come up with such a definition. Secretary Napolitano and various high-ranking DHS officials make occasional visits to the southwest border, the sheriffs and ranchers in the region have their own associations, and other law enforcement agencies have task forces and working groups. But there has yet to be a national-level summit or conference where representatives from all of these stakeholder groups—federal officials, mayors, state and local law enforcement officers, ranchers, concerned citizens, etc.—are all in the same place at the same time to hash out their different perspectives. No one can even begin to approach the challenge of defining spillover violence without hearing, and sufficiently acknowledging, all the different fears and successes and points of view that so many different border security players can bring to the table in such a forum. Once this is accomplished, maybe our officials and officers can start working together, instead of against each other in the media spotlight, to acknowledge that the truth about spillover lies somewhere in the middle of “it’s a war zone” and “to my knowledge, it’s not happening.”

Elected officials and anyone in this process with a public voice also need to take more responsibility for the messages they send to border residents and the American people. The border is huge, and it is ignorant and irresponsible to try to categorize the security situation along the border as one homogenous problem. There’s nothing wrong with saying El Paso and San Diego are very safe cities to live in and visit; they are. But there also needs to be nothing wrong with acknowledging south Texas and parts of Arizona are hot spots for smuggling and violent cartel activity that needs to be dealt with because that activity could pose a danger to innocent Americans.

All of this, of course, is all predicated on the notion that these stakeholders can all play off the same sheet of music when it comes to defining and identifying border violence spillover. They have to learn how to do this, or there is no way that DHS or any of these agencies can move forward in an attempt to work together to prevent more TCO-related violence from happening on US soil.

[1] All the details of Martin Alejandro Cota-Monroy’s murder and subsequent investigation were gleaned from the 170-page Chandler Police Department Incident Report (no. 10-11-1857), dated October 10, 2010, accessed December 20, 2012,

[2] Kevin L. Perkins and Anthony P. Placido, U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Washington, DC, May 5, 2010, accessed December 21, 2012,

[3] John Burnett, “’Spillover’ Violence From Mexico: Trickle Or Flood?”, July 6, 2011, accessed December 21, 2012,

[4] Brian Bennett, “Napolitano urges officials to stop exaggerating border crime,” East Valley Tribune, January 31, 2011, accessed December 22, 2012,

[5] Brian Koenig, “CBP Director: US-Mexican Border Areas Are Among the Safest in US,” The New American, May 3, 2012, accessed December 22, 2012,

[6] All statistics were pulled from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports database at

[7]Sources: Fatal gunshots on McAllen expressway point to Gulf Cartel,”, September 27, 2011, accessed January 8, 2013,

[8] Dave Hendricks, “Shots fired from Mexico at water district employees near Hidalgo, official says,” The Monitor, July 14, 2011, accessed January 8, 2013,

[9] John Burnett, “'Spillover' Violence From Mexico: Trickle Or Flood?”, July 6, 2011, accessed January 8, 2013,


About the Author(s)

Sylvia Longmire is a former Air Force officer and Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where she specialized in counterintelligence, counterespionage, and force protection analysis. After being medically retired in 2005, Ms. Longmire worked for four years as a Senior Intelligence Analyst for the California State Terrorism Threat Assessment Center, providing daily situational awareness to senior state government officials on southwest border violence and significant events related to the drug war in Mexico.  She received her Master’s degree from the University of South Florida in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, with a focus on the Cuban and Guatemalan revolutions. She is an award-winning correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine, and collaborates regularly with the producers of National Geographic Channel’s “Border Wars” series. Ms. Longmire is regularly interviewed by national, international, and local media outlets, including Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, BBC News, CBC, and Al Jazeera-English for her knowledge and expertise on border violence issues. Her first book, Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars, was published in September 2011, and she has written for numerous peer-reviewed journals and online publications. Ms. Longmire is currently a consultant and freelance writer, and serves as an expert witness in US asylum cases involving Mexican nationals. 



Sat, 02/02/2013 - 9:11am

When is the US. Government going to tell the truth? Mexico is a failed (or close enough) state. Mexico is not a problem, it's a war zone. We go all the way to Afghanistan to fight an enemy. It needed and needs to be done. But I would argue that the drugs and violence comming out of Mexico has done more damage to the US than the Taliban in the last 5 years. Why are troops not deployed along the border?


Tue, 01/29/2013 - 10:11pm

This was a good article about a real problem; the definition of just what constitutes cross-border violence. As was pointed-out, the Federal definition is quite useless. If trafficker-on-trafficker violence is not part of the definition, what is the point?

Another problem, as pointed-out, is the official documentation of cross-border violence. In the UCR there are no categories that a law enforcement agency could use when it believes that DTOs were involved in crimes. All crimes are lumped together and no distinctions are made between “normal” crime and those committed by organized criminals such as DTOs. The Congressional Research Service pointed this out in a study it did on cross-border violence (

“Official documentation” does not always tell the truth and seems to be built on hype. The Texas Agriculture Commission created a website that was intended to deal and show first-hand how cross-over violence is affecting the agricultural industry of south Texas ( If you view the site for yourself, there isn’t really a whole lot; especially personal stories. The news about violence is news out of Mexico and most has nothing to do with actual violence along the Texas-Mexico border proper.

I was writing a research paper some months ago and I went to the websites of some of the sheriff’s departments along the Mexican border, especially those counties that had very vocal sheriffs; e.g. Cochise County, AZ and Pinal County, AZ, as well as their local newspapers, to see just how much border violence those counties were experiencing. As vocal as the two mentioned sheriffs were, they had very little to no reports of cross-border violence. This is not to say that there is not a problem with human and drug trafficking in those counties, but the way they described cross-border violence made it seem like they were in the thick of violence all the time. Paul Babeu of Pinal County jumped on a story about a burned-out car found in the desert of his county and he immediately linked it to cross-border violence. It turned-out to be a murder-suicide of a family. His statement, though, hit all the newspapers across the country. Along with that all the conservative blogs perpetuated the myth. (Larry Dever of Cochise County died in a single car accident while driving DUI and Paul Babeu has his own personal problems.)

All of the misinformation that these officials propagate does not help in identifying the true problem of cross-border violence, if it really exists. As Sylvia pointed-out, there needs to be a uniform definition of cross-border violence and better statistics need to be develop to determine the full extent and extant of the problem.