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Operation Crackdown Hits Laredo

For the first time on the border, the National Guard is teaming up with the Border Patrol in Laredo to help rid the city of dwellings that were once havens for drugs and smuggling.

EL PASO — In an unusual partnership, the South Texas city of Laredo is teaming with the U.S. Border Patrol and the Texas National Guard to help rid itself of abandoned structures that have been labeled eyesores and havens for criminal activity.

The guard’s project, known as Operation Crackdown, is well-known across the state, having demolished 1,350 structures by the end of 2013, many of which had been identified as stash houses for drug runners or migrant smugglers.

But in Laredo, for the first time, the Border Patrol has joined the guard’s effort. Laredo officials announced this month that they were working with the Border Patrol to submit a list of abandoned buildings — including houses, sheds and commercial properties — for possible demolition.

The Border Patrol officials said the project was a way to help control crime along the border.

“We can join forces so we can do something about these substandard properties that we come across during our regular patrols,” Greg Salinas, a Border Patrol agent and agency spokesman, said, adding that the buildings were used as stash houses for illegal immigrants or narcotics. “They will just use it as a temporary holding place where they can come across, hide and leave, or jump into a vehicle.”

The Border Patrol and the Laredo Police Department have already identified about 77 structures in the city; 28 of those have been given final approval after meeting certain requirements, and demolition will begin in May.

City officials said that the project did not involve law enforcement inquiries or Border Patrol apprehension operations.

“This is just to knock down these homes,” a city spokeswoman, Xochitl Mora Garcia, said.

If property owners do not consent, many of the buildings could be condemned because of their condition, which would require property owners to fight condemnations in court, or have the buildings brought up to code. Mora Garcia said both options would cost the city and the owner.

“The city will continue to follow up and fight them for not meeting compliance for whatever violations that they have,” she said. “The city does have a mechanism to do a forced condemnation. That’s a different process where we’d have to go through the courts and there are other costs involved to the city.”

In speaking of the effort, the city, citing a National Guard presentation, said 83 percent of abandoned dwellings showed signs that drug abuse, prostitution or other criminal activity had taken place.

“Crime rates are twice as high on blocks with abandoned or open buildings than on controlled buildings blocks,” the city said in a statement when the program was announced.

Mora Garcia said property owners who chose to participate would not pay for the demolition, and they would not be held liable for whatever illegal activity has occurred on the abandoned properties either.

“It’s not so much homeowners; it’s the drug activity,” she said.

Salinas said the National Guard pays for the bulk of the project, including equipment and personnel costs. The National Guard could not provide a per-unit price for demolition, but said a two-week mission costs about $30,000.

The city pays for the debris removal, asbestos testing and abatement, landfill use and permit costs, while the Border Patrol incurs no cost.

The city must also clear the demolitions with the Texas Historical Commission, and the National Guard needs to obtain additional permission and documents.

Though the Laredo initiative is the first such partnership with the Border Patrol, Operation Crackdown has visited the Texas-Mexico border before.

In December, guard members demolished what the Harlingen police said was a stash house less than a mile from a school. That was part of an operation that targeted about 30 structures in Harlingen. It came after trips to the city in 2011 and 2012 in which 55 dwellings were torn down, according to the Texas National Guard website.

The National Guard tries to complete four Operation Crackdown missions every fiscal year.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/03/31/operation-crackdown-hits-laredo/.

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