Last Saturday’s Texas Border Tragedy reveals the flaws in U.S. border sensor technology

The FBI are currently investigating the mysterious death of Rogelio “Roger” Martinez, a Border Agent who was patrolling west Texas last Saturday. Martinez was found dead at the Big Bend sector, approximately 12 miles east of Van Horn. His partner, whose identity has not been disclosed, was found in critical condition and has since been hospitalized. The two had been responding to a border sensor near the Interstate 10 that had been triggered, indicating possible human activity in the area.

During a briefing last Tuesday, Emmerson Buie Jr., FBI Special Agent in Charge, said, “There are a number of possible scenarios, but right now we are going to pursue it as an assault on a federal agent.” Both Martinez and his partner were found at the bottom of a 9-foot-deep culvert, a tunnel structure used for water drainage. Union spokesperson and veteran agent Chris Cabrera noted that Martinez’s partner had difficulty remembering the details of the incident. Possible explanations vary from an attack by illegal migrants to an accident where the Border Patrol agents fell into the culvert. Cabrera, however, cast doubt on the possibility that it was an accident. “There’s no way he fell,” Cabrera said. “Border Patrol agents are like mountain goats. They don’t fall. Especially two at the same spot.”

The Big Bend sector which runs along the American-Mexican border is not a “migrant hot spot”, given its mountainous terrain and 510-mile-stretch of the Rio Grande. The area has, however, seen an upsurge in drug smuggling in recent years. After Martinez’s death, President Trump tweeted, “Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt. We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!”

While Trump’s “Wall” is not necessarily the answer, what is clear is that the United States needs better border sensor and surveillance technology along its borders. The approximately 12,800 sensors along the southern border are outdated and ill-maintained. Some have stopped functioning due to natural circumstances like rainfall or insects chewing on the sensors’ wires. Those that do work are still flawed, particularly as sensors cannot accurately distinguish between the movements of humans, vehicles, and animals. Because of this, border agents often cannot determine whether the alarm is detecting a real threat or a false positive until they arrive on the scene itself. In 2005, a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General review reported that 34 percent of alerts were false alarms. Illegal immigrants accounted for only 4 percent. Significantly, the causes of 62 percent of alarms were unknown, meaning that border agents are unprepared when they arrive on-scene.

The ageing border infrastructure can lead to fatal results. In 2012, Nicholas Ivie, a Border Patrol Agent, was killed in friendly fire when he was investigating an alarm from a border sensor in Arizona. Ivie and another agent had responded to the alert separately. Due to miscommunication and a lack of surveillance infrastructure, the two agents mistook the other as a hostile visitor and engaged in open fire. Ivie was killed as a result.

New surveillance technology, evidently, is needed to provide border agents with more information when they respond to alerts. One potential project was the SBInet, a system consisting of heat and motion detectors, a newly redesigned radar, and cameras. Though well-intentioned, this project faced a number of technical challenges, ranging from transmission problems triggered by bad weather to increasing maintenance costs. Christopher Wilson, border-security expert and deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, argued, “One of the lessons of SBInet was you’re better off going small than big, and you’re better off going off-the-shelf than innovative.” However, the current status quo is still inadequate.

Another potential project is the Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) system currently deployed in parts of Arizona. The project was developed by Elbit Systems, a company responsible for the surveillance system along the Israeli-Palestinian border. Ideally, the project would use border sensor technology with greater accuracy and detectors that could distinguish between human, animal, and mechanical activity. According to Border Agent Jose Verdugo based in Nogales, Arizona, the IFT system is like “turning on a light switch” because it allows agents to see previously unknown areas along the border.

Are you developing more efficient and ethical surveillance techniques that could solve the problems of border control? You could be eligible for the R&D Tax Credit and receive up to 14% of your expenses. To find out more, please contact a Swanson Reed R&D Specialist today or check out our free online eligibility test.

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