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Border Patrol in Brooks County (AP/Photo by Tina Rossell)

'Out of control'

Crime | Iranian assassination plot linked to increased Mexican drug cartel activity north of the border

BROOKS COUNTY, Texas-Less than 70 miles north of the Mexican border, a startling headline blared from local newspapers here in the tiny town of Falfurrias, Texas, on Wednesday: "Terror plot suspect has local link."

The suspect is Mansour Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen who also holds an Iranian passport. The plot is the foiled Iranian plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to United States in a crowded Washington, D.C., restaurant. The local connection: Federal authorities say that Arbabsiar-who once lived in nearby Corpus Christi-tried to hire a purported member of a Mexican drug cartel to execute the ambassador with a bomb attack in his favorite D.C. dining spot.

It is the connection to Mexican cartels that's gripping locals here in Texas. Arbabsiar's plot unwound after his Houston-based cartel contact turned out to be a paid informant for the federal government. But the thwarted conspiracy underscored a disturbing reality: Mexican cartels are well-organized on both sides of the border, and border security involves far more than stopping migrant workers looking for labor. It involves stopping organized crime already making inroads north of the border.

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Mike Vickers knows all about inroads. The Falfurrias veterinarian and local cattle rancher is also head of Texas Border Volunteers, a local group that uses volunteers to monitor illegal immigrants trespassing through hundreds of thousands of acres of private ranches in two counties. When the volunteers spot illegal immigrants during their night watches, they contact Border Patrol to move in and apprehend the suspects.

During a dusk patrol of his ranch on Wednesday, Vickers pointed to the signs of a Tuesday night bust: Boot prints following sneaker prints showed the Border Patrol's pursuit of illegal immigrants on Vickers' ranch. Volunteers had spotted the trespassers and radioed nearby authorities, and Border Patrol agents caught 19 illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico.

Vickers said traffic across his property has remained steady, though it sometimes ebbs and flows. But he reported a troubling new trend: "The disposition of the traffic has changed. They're more violent and more criminal, and they're coming from all over the world."

Local statistics support his fears: Authorities here in Brooks County have apprehended 8,074 illegal immigrants at the nearby border checkpoint and seized some 251,000 pounds of narcotics since January. Local authorities have also found at least 50 bodies on nearby ranches, and while some have died of exposure, others may have been murdered. Many suspect that the Los Zetas cartel runs many of the smuggling operations-both drugs and humans-from Mexico.

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Public Safety reports that over the last 18 months, at least six Mexican cartels have established command and control operations in Texas, and that Texas prison gangs feed cartel activity. The department reported an increase of cartel-related seizures beyond border checkpoints and across at least 10 corridors in Texas.

At a New York news conference on Tuesday, federal officials said they arrested Arbabsiar in September. A second charged suspect, Gholam Shakuri, a member of Iran's notorious Quds Force, remains at large in Iran. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declined to say whether top Iranian leaders blessed the plot, but he noted that the Quds Force is the country's primary apparatus for supporting terrorism around the world: "The United States is committed to holding Iran responsible for its actions."

Back in Falfurrias, Vickers said federal authorities should also hold Mexican crime rings responsible for dangerous actions on U.S. soil. He said it is a vital part of border security that gets less attention, but may have far-reaching consequences: "Something's got to be done. It's out of control."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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