Panic at the border

I don’t know what they put in the water over at BoingBoing today but they seem to be in full panic mode.

Here’s this article which tries to convince us that Mexican cartels are about to launch an armed invasion of America and crush our puny nation (ok, I exaggerate but not by much).  The article tries to make the case that events in Mexico should be considered an insurgency which is moving North.  I think that may be overstating the political intent of the cartels a bit.  I was particularly drawn to a link to this article which quotes a local sheriff as saying:

“We are outgunned, we are out manned and we don’t have the resources here locally to fight this,” said Babeu, referring to heavily-armed cartel movements three counties deep in Arizona.

The author then goes on to provide her analysis of the situation:

I’ve written at length about the debate over border violence “spillover” – the confusion over what it really entails, and whether or not it’s actually happening. The naysayers point to crime statistics, which in several major border cities show that the incidence of major crimes has gone down. El Paso is even considered the 2nd or 3rd safest city in the whole country. However, I don’t believe you can use crime statistics alone to determine whether or not border violence spillover is occurring; there is just way too much anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

I’m seeing red right now.  Let me explain why.

This author claims to be an intelligence analyst with eight years experience.  And so, this consultant and lecturer on intelligence issues, what methodology does she use to come to her conclusions?

Certainly not ‘facts’ like crime statistics.  Oh no.  Those pesky things might not prove what you want them to.  No need to identify other metrics either since they might end up biting you if they don’t go the way you want.  Better to do a Chertoff and just reference you ‘gut instinct’.  It’ll say whatever you want it to and will never be wrong.

So, let’s dig a bit deeper.  Sylvia is proud of the fact that she’s appeared (twice!) on the Bill Handel show.  Who’s Bill Handel?  He’s the sort of well balanced radio personality who:

…commented on a show about health care that the U.S. government should “euthanize old people” “sell Glendale to get rid of the Armenians.” and “get rid of the Irish and the Italians too”

Hmmm…yeah, just the sort of place for a well reasoned and thoughtful discourse, I’m sure.

This is what happens when you tailor your analysis to fit what your audience wants to hear.

Look, I’m not saying there isn’t a problem with crime and violence spilling over the border.  Maybe there is.  I’d just like to have some way of identifying it that doesn’t involve a Magic 8-ball.  If crime statistics aren’t any good (and I’d like a hypothesis as to how these cartels are able to engage in a major insurgency and conspire to make it look like crime is going down), than what data should we use?  I’d like some way to make sure this isn’t yet another attempt by a law enforcement agency to tap into the federal grant gravy train.

I also don’t mind someone having an opinion, even one opposed to mine (although why someone would do that is beyond me).  But to claim to be an intelligence analyst and then declare that your analysis won’t be bound by data is simply outrageous.  You, Ms. Longmire, are doing a disservice to the profession.

UPDATE:  After Ms. Longmire’s comments allow me to withdraw my final sentence and recommend checking out the comments in which (specifically her final comment) she gets to a point where I can generally agree.  I still think she was a bit too dismissive of data in her original post and have a few minor quibbles but I’m sure that’s more a difference based on style than substance.

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3 responses to “Panic at the border

  1. Wow, that’s pretty harsh :). But hey, you’re entitled to your opinion. I’m happy to elaborate on mine.

    As an analyst, I’m saying that statistics ALONE don’t tell the whole story. Statistics are notoriously unreliable because they can be interpreted in so many different ways, and they also don’t provide as many details as we’d often like. For example, the majority of drug-related crimes (like criminal-on-criminal assaults and homicides, kidnappings, etc.) are never reported to authorities, so they’re not counted in statistics. Also, the stats alone don’t say what proportion of the crimes committed in a given year were perpetrated by people in the drug trade. That proportion could well go up quite a bit while the overall crime rate goes down, and that’s just as disturbing as an increasing overall crime rate. The sad part is that there is no standard metric, no standardized definition of spillover. It’s impossible to come to any sort of across-the-board agreement as to whether or not it’s happening. Just one more challenge related to border security on the growing pile.

    As for ignoring facts, I’m actually doing just the opposite. The anecdotal evidence of violent incidents along the border are not fiction. It’s a fact that drug-related crimes are occurring on US soil. It’s a fact that several hundred drug-related kidnappings occur along the border and in several states well north of the border every year. It’s a fact that marijuana grows and meth labd controlled by Mexican cartels can be found in several states not even close to the SW border. It’s a fact that people are held hostage and tortured by DTO members in safe houses as far away from the border as Alabama and Georgia.

    I’m not saying it’s time to panic, and I’m not saying we’re being overrun in apocalyptic fashion. I just think it’s a mistake to base national policy and border security funding SOLELY on crime statistics without taking into account other kinds of evidence. And yes, I think it’s a mistake to limit any kind of analysis to one source of information – that’s standard rule #1 in my business. And I actually have 13 years of experience; 8 with the Air Force, 4 with the State of California, and 1 as a writer and consultant. I’m pretty confident I know what I’m doing by now :).

    • While, as you point out, there are significant problems with crime data, the fact remains that the plural of anecdote is not data. If someone is going to assert that crime data doesn’t only fail to accurately record the level of criminal activity (which it probably doesn’t) but also the general trend of criminal activity (showing a reduction when you’re asserting there’s actually an increase) it seems to me that it’s incumbent upon the party making that assertion to 1) put forth a hypothesis as to why the discrepancy exists and (ideally) 2) an alternate method for capturing the correct data.

      I agree there is no standard metric and probably won’t be one measure to capture an accurate picture of criminality. It’ll probably require multiple variables. But just falling back on gut instinct isn’t a suitable replacement. After all, using your method couldn’t someone else site another set of ‘facts’ to demonstrate that crime statistics overstate the problem? Where does that end?

      • A couple of points.

        First, I didn’t say or imply that there’s an increase of criminal activity. I said that we don’t know what PROPORTION of crimes are being committed by those involved in the drug trade, and that the proportion/percentage MAY be going up. It may also be going down. We have no way of knowing.

        Second, we know that many drug-related crimes are never reported to authorities because they’re either criminal-on-criminal, or the victims are illegal aliens who don’t want to be deported. That’s the reason for the discrepancy between reported statistics and actual criminal activity; no hypothesis needed. And there is no alternate method for capturing 100% accurate data in this regard.

        Third, I don’t remember mentioning anything about gut instinct. At the risk of repeating myself, I said that you have to take both statistics AND anecdotal evidence – actual, recorded cases investigated by law enforcement agencies and verified/corroborated information provided by confidential sources/informants – into considering when trying to paint an overall picture of border security. That’s not gut instinct. Gut instinct is that funny feeling that something is off, but you don’t have anything solid to show for it. I would venture to say that there are plenty of tangible, solid indications/incidents that fall outside basic statistics to demonstrate that – while overall crime rates in some border cities are indeed declining – there are violent drug-related crimes occurring in those same cities and in other cities/towns along the border more than they were five years ago.

        As for your “where does it end?” question, right now that’s one of my biggest frustrations, and I think that’s shared by a lot of people examining the border situation. One week you’ll have a mayor or sheriff on TV saying there’s nothing going on in their border town and that all the news stories are exaggerated and overblown. The next week you’ll have sheriffs like Babeu or Gov Rick Perry on TV saying their county or state is under assault and they need 3,000 troops to help. There will be no end to the back and forth until someone (preferably at the federal level) can come up with a way to accurately and effectively assess every aspect of violent activity (or lack thereof) going on on our side of the border. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic.

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