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« Northeast Corridor Pastimes | Main | Those Lovable Chavistas! »

Interview With Todd Bensman

On Backbone Radio last week, John Andrews, Matt Dunn, and I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd Bensman of the San Antonion Express-News about his four-part series, "Breaching America," that ran earlier in the year. The series followed an illegal immigrant and asylum-seeker from his homeland across the US-Mexican border, to his release by US authorities to join his family in the States.

His homeland: Iraq.

It turns out that there's a pipeline of illegals from "Countries of Special Interest" - mostly in the Middle East, almost all Muslim - that runs through Latin American into the United States.

The original series can be found here, here, here, and here.

After the interview, Todd graciously agreed to take follow-up questions for this blog by email. It took place in two parts, an initial round of questions and then a follow-up round. Except where noted below, the questions and answers are presented in order below.

1) What led you to do the series?

For the last several years, working as a reporter in Dallas, I'd occasionally heard through my ICE and FBI friends about Arabs being caught crossing the Mexican border. Not until I took a special projects reporting job closer to the border, with The San Antonio Express News, did it become feasible for me to think harder about substantiating these reports. At the same time, national immigration reform had been in the air for a couple of years - and was heating up - but none of the media reporting or political talk ever seemed to consider the primary underlying assumption for reform: is the border indeed vulnerable to terrorist infiltration? I decided the time was ripe for an American news reporter to finally step up and take a serious, considered look at the issue of Arab migrants jumping U.S. borders post-9-11.

2) Describe the role of Russia in this transit process?

Russia seems to figure in only one or two popular routes that move people from the Middle East to South- or Central America, and then over the U.S. border. It's mainly a transit country that U.S.-bound immigrants from places like Syria, a so-called State Sponsor of Terror, use to fly to Cuba and then on to, say, Guatemala. There's a larger unaddressed issue here: Russia is one of many, what I call, "stepping stone" countries because it is generally hostile to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and indifferent enough to American security concerns to not ask many questions about its Iraqi or Syrian friends who are on their way to the Western Hemisphere.

3) Describe the consulates that the central and South American counties keep in Syria and Jordan?

Middle Eastern immigrants bound for the U.S. border wouldn't be able to get within reach without tourist visas issued by Latin American countries like Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Peru and the like. All of the countries I just named, and more, have embassies or consulate offices that issue travel visas to locals in Damascus, Syria; Amman, Jordan; Beirut, Lebanon; and elsewhere. Of course, Latin America has every right to keep diplomatic presences in the Middle East, to serve large populations in their own territories of Middle Eastern settlers who have legitimate reasons to move back and forth. A perceived U.S. national security problem here, however, is that theseconsulate offices routinely hand out visas to Middle Easternerswithout thoroughly checking who they are or their stated travelpurposes, several consuls in Syria and Jordan told me. In addition, at least one convicted Hezbollah terrorist crossed the Mexico/U.S. border in 2001 after bribing Mexican consulate office in Beirut. That means, bribery is likely playing out elsewhere.

4) Would more concerted operations in those countries make a difference?

Probably in some but not in others. Venezuela, for instance, is openly hostile to the U.S. and is establishing many kinds of ties to countries like Iran. The Chavez government is not likely to allow U.S. law enforcement in, while its opening the continent's first airline routes to Iran. The same can be said of Cuba, which happily supplies transit visas to Middle Easterners on their way to Mexico, no questions asked. Corruption and weak central governments elsewhere would make U.S. efforts to interdict this human traffic difficult, in places like Ecuador and Guatemala. Some large smuggling operations have been brought down in Guatemala since 9-11, but they've been quickly replaced.

5) Describe the growing Arab and Muslim populations in those countries, and the role they play in smuggling? While the people you followed were Christian, I seem to remember reading about a growing Muslim population in the tri-border region (Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela) in South America. How could a hostile Venezuelan government, working with Iran, make use of these groups?

Hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners (fleeing various wars and disturbances over the past 70 years) have resettled in places you'd least expect, opening legal and illegal businesses and becoming Latin American citizens. Among these countries are Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala and even Mexico, where hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have settled over the years. An examination of about a dozen U.S. prosecutions of smuggling organizations shows that a number of major ringleaders turned out to be Middle Easterners with dual citizenship in places like Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador. The court cases also show that these ringleaders made much use of local citizenry of Middle East descent to provide safe haven, transportation and staging services for "clients" on their way to the U.S. I found a number of situations where Iraqis found work and smuggling connections in Guatemala, for instance, by making their way to the capitol's Zone One marketplace, where thousands of Arab merchants make their livings. This makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. There's a shared language and a sympathy.

6) It sounds as though increased border security would have the perverse effect of depriving the Mexican government of its incentive to cooperate, but would also reduce the traffic from the Guatemala and other transit states (by raising the price, but drastically reducing the actual number of migrants)?

Mexico makes no bones about wanting a liberal border policy allowing its millions of workers to send home billions a year in remittances. This money quite literally keeps the Mexican economy afloat. But I found in my reporting that the Mexican government has no tolerance for one group of illegal migrant: those from Arab countries. The idea is if one gets through Mexico to bomb an American target, the U.S. will promptly militarize the border for all of the Mexican, remittance-sending laborers. At least according to Mexico's new ambassador. So a top Mexican national security policy tracks quite well with the American one: stop the Arab migration. The Mexican government has been extremely aggressive in doing so. It's locking up Arab migrants in droves, and goes so far as to allow American intelligence and FBI officials inside its detention centers to do interrogations, a program that has remained secret until the Breaching America series. The Mexicans also have aggressively prosecuted smugglers of Middle Easterners, while going easy on other kinds of smugglers.

6) (Follow-up:) I guess what I'm asking here is if you think that increasing border security, say, by building a fence, will remove the Mexican government's incentive for cooperating. After all, if we're stopping the illegals as best as we can at the Rio Grande, that will by definition cut down on the remittances...

That's an interesting supposition. I think a fence would indeed reduce Mexico's incentive to interdict special interest migrants from the Middle East - but only if the fence is pretty effective at slowing and rerouting illegals. And if the fence is effective, the need for Mexican interdiction should diminish also, no? Middle Eastern immigrants are attracted to the U.S. border because it's always been so easy to sneak over.

I'd base my own supposition on what the Mexican reaction to the fence has been all along: stiff, heated, unremitting opposition at every level. Opponents of the fence always give great ode to the idea that the fence wouldn't be very effective keeping determined Mexicanworkers out, so why bother? Yet the Mexican government's persistent opposition to it shows, at least to me, that THEY believe it will be highly effective and constitutes a grave threat to the remittance money flow. You have to give the Mexican government credit for one thing: consistency; it wants those remittances flowing back. If the Mexican government is working so hard at both stopping the fence and capturing Islamic migrants, it's for the same reason, that $25 billion in annual remittances. I'd argue that an EFFECTIVE fence would reduce Mexico's incentive in rough proportion to the special interest migrants' willingness to bother breaching it.

7) Why do you think the rest of the mainstream media has been so reluctant to pick up on the story?

I sort of consider myself mainstream media, but I know what you mean...This lapse by major American news organizations like The New York Times is a very happy mystery to me, especially given all the nonstop political talk about terrorist infiltration over the borders since 9-11. But it's also a lapse for which I'm eternally grateful. I don't like competition for great stories, and I don't do them if someone else already has. So from my perspective, I can only hope they keep that attitude and stay the hell away!

8) What reason does the FBI give for being so poorly staffed for interrogating illegals from States of Interest, and in your opinion, is this valid, or is there an actual reluctance to confront the problem?

I think the FBI's failure to properly staff its border offices - and most especially its Mexico station - for the purpose of conducting threat assessments and interrogations is a product of the absence of media attention. That will change the day someone gets over the border and commits a terrorist act - and FBI supervisors are standing before congressional committees explaining what went wrong in Mexico.

9) In your report, you quote a number of foreign nationals poo-poohing the idea of terrorists transiting the border this way. Yet the Millenium Bomber, the Fort Dix Six, and others have crossed borders, or attempted to, illegally. Clearly other sheiks and hostile clerics have gotten in this way. To what other uses could a hostile terrorist organization put a porous border?

Last year, General Accounting Office investigators went undercover in Mexico. They mail-ordered enough radioactive material for two "dirty bombs," and drove several different loads of it in passenger cars over the U.S. borders to see if they'd get caught. They were stopped, in one case, in Texas but were allowed to pass after presenting a bogus cover story. The GAO report is available on their web site.

Follow-up questions:

New: is there any evidence of coordination between Muslim groups here in the US, like CAIR and the Muslim American Society (which is the group that the > Muslim Brotherhood operates under here), and the Muslim communities in Latin America?

Not that I'm aware of, but I believe U.S. intelligence agencies know a lot more than what's been publicly released. They firmly believe that Hezbollah and other designated terrorist groups have found firm footing throughout South America, particularly in the lawless "Tri-border" region where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet. In December, the U.S. Treasury Department, for instance, released a "fact sheet" naming specific individuals and organizations from the border region who are tied to terrorist organizations and are wanted for material support activities ranging from gun-running to money-laundering. But as far as direct links to U.S.-based organizations, I'm pretty sure any evidence of that remains secret.

New: Are you aware of any intellingence or law enforcement activities directed at those communities, as opposed to the smuggling rings, which are probably dominated by native Guatemalans, Hondurans, etc.

No, I am not, though top American intelligence officials have publicly warned they have seen intelligence about Islamic extremists recruiting poor native Latin American Muslim converts, who would easily pass for an illegal laborer, and because these converts would be "clean" they'd never show on a terror watch list screening if caught on this side.

New: Are there any other countries: Ecudaor, Costa Rica, El Salvador, who are more friendly, whom we could also be using as stoppers? Since the land corridor is usually one country wide, this would seem to be a way of limiting the problem geographically.

Past U.S. prosecutions of human smugglers specializing in Middle Easterners shows that all of these friendly countries have been used as stepping stones for a northward journey. Most of their borders are lawless, vast and unpatrollable. Ecuador, one of the busiest of these stop-over countries, has cooperated with U.S. authorities to penetrate Middle East smuggling rings but the sense I get from some of those who were involved is that these made hardly a dent in the trade. Enforcement activities by us in these countries can't be episodic; there has to be a sustained activity with local authorities who have been vetted for corruption, which is another problem that has to be tackled separately.

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