By Tom Benning

In Texas' growing effort to secure its border with Mexico, state officials have said the gold standard of success would be to know exactly how many people are crossing into the U.S. illegally and to intercept all of them.

But data captured by the Department of Public Safety's 1,200-plus border cameras -- which DPS director Steve McCraw has touted as a way to "grade our homework" -- suggests progress toward that goal has been hard to come by.

That's despite the state's decision last year to bolster the federal border presence by sending state troopers, the Texas National Guard and others to the Rio Grande Valley.

From 2012 to late June 2014, the cameras -- all along the border -- tallied that 48 percent of smuggling events detected by the technology resulted in an apprehension. But in the 14 months since the state's border surge began, the interdiction rate has been around 40 percent.

Experts cautioned that the data, which doesn't account for all border activity, has limitations. But they said the trend was nonetheless curious. And the statistics could raise the stakes for the state's "grade" on how well it uses the $800 million lawmakers set aside over the next two years for border security.

"It's definitely counterintuitive," said Marc Rosenblum, who tracks border issues at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. "It's certainly fair to look at this data and say, 'They raise more questions.'"

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said it would be "flawed" to draw conclusions about the border surge from the overall camera data. He said it's like comparing apples to oranges because those figures include areas beyond the surge's focus in the Rio Grande Valley.

Within the surge area, DPS says, monthly averages show the camera-related interdiction rate dropped from 50 percent to 46 percent after the surge. But that would also mean the rate has dropped more substantially elsewhere on the border.

Vinger added that the data doesn't include incidents in which law enforcement forced people back into Mexico -- a stat the cameras just started tracking. He said complete surveillance, which isn't yet possible because of the sheer vastness of the border region, would be needed to "accurately assess the true level of security."

"Detection of drug and human smuggling events highlight both the fact that the border is not secure, and the need for border security efforts," Vinger said.

The state's border surge has been contentious from its start. Launched by former Gov. Rick Perry to combat an increase in illegal crossings, the effort has cost more than $120 million.

DPS officials have touted the surge as a success, pointing to statistics on apprehensions and drug seizures, which some critics say reflect federal, not state, efforts.

GOP state leaders have been eager to provide resources, including the additional $800 million in the current two-year budget. Gov. Greg Abbott has called it the "toughest border security plan of any state in the history of our nation."

Many Democrats remain skeptical about what the surge has accomplished. As the debate goes on, the cameras have emerged as a significant part of the overall security push.

"The ... cameras are an unquestionable success, in terms of how [the U.S.] Border Patrol is using it," McCraw said in August.

Failed efforts

The camera program, known as Operation Drawbridge, was born out of failed attempts to provide electronic surveillance at the border. Those efforts included the Texas Border Watch Program, which spent millions of dollars on a paltry number of arrests.

The latest iteration began in 2012. There are now more than 1,200 cameras -- which, if stationed evenly across the Texas-Mexico line, would be about one per mile. And lawmakers in December approved funding for 4,000 more.

The program -- which has cost $4.4 million, including operations and maintenance -- has grown in part because of its simplicity.

The cameras are relatively low-tech, with DPS describing them as modified "wildlife cameras with motion detection and low light capability." And they are fairly cheap -- $300 each.

An undated DPS presentation touts that the system can result in law enforcement, typically U.S. Border Patrol, being dispatched in about a minute.

McCraw has made clear that law enforcement is "going after every smuggling event that's detected," adding that "that's why cameras are so important." He's mentioned other possible ways, such as aviation, to increase the interdiction rate.

And he's pointed directly at the cameras' usefulness as a measuring stick along the border.

"You can grade our homework, and from that, you can grade our interdiction rate," he said in February. "We've got photographic evidence to say right now, there are 53 detections of smuggling events. What happened? Was it interdicted?"

Since the start of 2012, Operation Drawbridge cameras have helped detect 143,952 smuggling events, leading to 64,812 apprehensions and the seizure of 272,427 pounds of drugs. That includes the efforts of DPS, U.S. Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies.

But it's unclear why the border surge's boost in manpower would coincide with the cameras showing an overall slide in the interdiction rate. Adding to the confusion: The amount of drugs seized per camera detection increased during that time.

"The numbers don't add up," said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat who's been critical of the border surge. "For months now, DPS has failed to provide a complete picture outlining exactly what the surge has accomplished."

Additional camerasv Vinger, the DPS spokesman, said that "focusing purely on ratios is missing the bigger picture of how Operation Drawbridge has dramatically increased our overall detection and enforcement capabilities."

He noted that DPS is bringing additional cameras online. That, experts like Rosenblum say, could help account for a data shift. But DPS would not release information on how the camera program grew over time, citing security concerns.

The agency also pointed to a recent change in the collection of camera data that allows tracking of when people return to Mexico due to law enforcement. Taking that into account, DPS said, there was a 62 percent interdiction rate in September in the border surge's zone.

"It should also be noted that the increase in personnel in the area of operation means that some smuggling events are interdicted and/or apprehended prior to being identified by Drawbridge cameras," Vinger said.v U.S. Border Patrol officials declined to comment on the shift, saying that because DPS runs the cameras, "we could not speak to the specifics of their program."

Experts pointed to DPS' "turn back" stats as information that could help refine the data going forward. But David Aguilar, former head of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, echoed others in stressing how hard it is to measure success with just one metric.

"The cameras are important, but they are one piece of data," said Aguilar, now a principal at Washington-based Global Security & Innovative Strategies.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra offered a couple of theories for what the camera data might be showing. His county is at the heart of the state's surge operations, and his deputies confront the border's nuances on a daily basis.

He noted that there "have been some problems with coordination" between DPS and U.S. Border Patrol, though he added that work is being done to improve that. And Guerra, a fan of the camera program overall, also pointed to the nature of a surge operation.

He likened the situation to squeezing a balloon -- pressure in one area forces an expansion elsewhere. He said the surge is forcing illegal crossings to happen farther west from the operation's home, perhaps making it more difficult to respond to detections.

"It's a constant battle," Guerra said.

(c)2015 The Dallas Morning News