Justice League

Program allows citizens to become "virtual deputies" patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border

The next time you find yourself with nothing to do, why not go online and help fight border crime? The Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition, in collaboration with BlueServo, has deployed Virtual BorderWatch, a real-time surveillance program that allows the public to keep an eye on the U.S.-Mexico border from their home computers.

Private Eyes

Virtual BorderWatch is a free service that is accessed by creating an account at www.blueservo.net. Users with high-speed Internet can log in and monitor up to 15 day/night surveillance cameras, strategically placed in high-threat and inaccessible areas along the 1,250-mile border. The cameras provide real-time streaming video whereby citizens can monitor and anonymously report suspicious activity to law enforcement agents via e-mail. Each camera's view includes a caption that describes the area under surveillance. For example, camera 1 watches an area known for illegal drug activity and instructs, "If you see people crossing the water in this area, please report activity." Camera 2's caption reads, "During the day, if you see four or five young men in a boat, report this activity. At night, if you see vehicle, boat and/or people movement, report this activity." Under the video, there are buttons for viewers to make a comment, ask a question and report suspicious activity.

Citizens also can connect their own Web cameras to create local Virtual Neighborhood Watches to protect their own homes and neighborhoods. The site has received 20 million hits and boasts more than 43,000 registered users since it launched on Nov. 20, 2008.

Law and Order

The initiative is designed to counter illegal immigration, drug and human smuggling, and border violence. The numbers and locations of these cameras are confi- dential, but most are discreetly mounted on structures on private properties. The number of cameras employed and their locations are routinely assessed and constantly changed based on threat.

The program is managed by the Texas Border Sheriff 's Coalition, an association of 20 sheriffs from various border counties, who are responsible for responding to reports, conducting all investigations and taking appropriate actions.

"This initiative advances the concept of a neighborhood watch by leveraging the latest surveillance technology to create a 'virtual' neighborhood watch program," said Arvin West, Hudspeth County sheriff and first vice president of the TBSC. "By putting more eyes on the Texas-Mexico border, law enforcement can better protect our state from powerful and ruthless Mexican crime cartels and violent transnational gangs."

Gov. Perry has provided $2 million in Criminal Justice grant funds for this initiative.

"Leveraging advanced technology is a key part of our state-led approach to making our border stronger and our nation safer, and I am pleased with and will continue to support the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition commitment to seeing this virtual border watch concept fully realized," Perry said in a press release. "Under this innovative program and the watchful eye of law enforcement and citizens, those criminals, predators and terrorists looking to exploit our border with Mexico or do harm in our communities will lose their greatest strategic asset: the cloak of secrecy."

National Security Threat

With the drug-war situation in Mexico deteriorating, the use of this technology is even more crucial as drug-related violence crosses from Juárez, Mexico, into border cities such as El Paso, Texas.

In a report released on Dec. 28, 2008, Gen. Barry McCaffrey warned that refugees fleeing Mexico could negatively impact these border cities. "Mexico is on the edge of abyss," he said. "It could become a narco-state in the coming decade," which would result in a "surge of millions of refugees crossing the U.S. border to escape the domestic misery of violence, failed economic policy, poverty, hunger, joblessness, and the mindless cruelty and injustice of a criminal state."

The Good, The Bad and The Plucky

Critics say the program is ineffective as it has resulted in only four arrests so far. Some say the program promotes vigilantism, believing the job of border security should be handled solely by trained professionals.

To date, there have been no reports of vigilante groups using the Web site to take matters into their own hands, and the four arrests involved the trafficking of 2,000 pounds of marijuana.

Proponents of the program say the cameras help deter crime as thousands of Virtual Texas Deputies™ from anywhere in the world can be watching the border at any given time.

The ultimate goal of the program is to cover every stretch of the border that isn't protected by a fence.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Security Today.

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