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How Can You Measure the Success of National Guard Troops on the Border?
Members of the Texas National Guard

The eyes of the nation are focused on the Texas-Mexico border, due to the humanitarian crisis involving undocumented and unaccompanied minors. This week, Gov. Rick Perry announced the deployment of 1,000 Texas National Guard Troops to the border.

Politically speaking, Gov. Perry’s message is that the Federal Government is failing in its duties. But in a story set to be published in Sunday’s Austin American-Statesman, investigative reporters Jeremy Schwartz and Eric Dexheimer pose a question: just what constitutes “mission accomplished?” 

"There’s no doubt that the numbers have spiked recently in the Rio Grande Valley, in terms of children coming over," Dexehiemer says. "The larger question is how much criminal activity is accompanying that surge of children."

“Criminality has always been one of the drivers of whether or not to send more troops,” Schwartz adds.

In recent history, the actual numbers concerning crime rates at the border have been hard to pin down. “It’s a fluid number, an imprecise number,” Dexhiemer says. After reviewing reports from recent surges – specifically 2008's Operation Border Star and the 2013 conclusion of Operation Strong Safety – Schwartz and Dexehiemer found that the government’s own numbers don't suggest a large spike in criminality since 2006 – the year most commonly cited as the start of the Mexican drug cartel crisis.

"The problem with the currently available numbers, as state leaders are quick to point out, is that they don’t capture things like kidnaping, like extortion, like drug seizures which are illustrative of cartel presence," Dexhiemer explains. "Until we get to that point, we’re all a little bit in the dark in terms of what that objective reality is on the border.”

The confusion around the situation on the border makes it even harder to pin down objectives for the troops being sent there.

“At the same time they ordered DPS down to the border, they ordered them to come up with metrics to measure the successes of the operation. It’s not a situation where you come up with benchmarks beforehand and see if you can meet those. You are coming up with metrics at the same time you are fighting crime,” Schwartz says.

Past reports have varied on what numbers spell success for an operation. The most recent discrepancy came in the report for Operation Strong Safety, where low numbers of drug seizures was viewed as a good thing – because the low numbers were interpreted to mean that the cartel had moved or withdrawn shipments. But in earlier operations, high drug seizure numbers were touted as stopping the cartels in their tracks.

Ultimately, Schwartz and Dexehiemer say border operations should have clear definitions in advance of the mission. “They’re ordering them to do metrics now; they have not come up with, an accepted way to measure the successes, even after half a dozen surges and 700 million dollars in state funds,” Schwartz says. “Ultimately we’re just asking the question any taxpayer would want to ask, and that’s what the accountability is. It’s not that much different from any of the foreign wars we’ve fought, where you have some definition of what victory looks like.” 

David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
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