The "Border Pirates" Case Barges into Texas Politics

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Helen H. Richardson / Denver Post / Polaris

A memorial service for David Hartley in McAllen, Texas

The alleged murder of a Colorado man by "pirates" on a popular recreational lake on the Texas-Mexico border has thrust the issue of border security onto center stage in the Texas gubernatorial race. Both Republican incumbent Rick Perry and his Democratic opponent, Bill White, agree that the border is broken, and Texas voters have put the issue at the top of their concerns. But the incident has given Perry a bully pulpit for an issue well suited to his muscular rhetorical style.

Coincidentally, the news comes as Perry is flooding the airwaves with an ad showcasing his bravado and anti-Washington rhetoric. Dressed in jeans, boots and a brown barn coat, Perry is shown striding the bluffs along the Rio Grande, accompanied by border-area law officials. "Securing the border is Washington's responsibility, but it's Texas' problem," Perry says. The ad then features footage of Perry greeting President Obama on the tarmac at the Austin airport in August as Perry says in a voiceover, "I recently confronted Barack Obama with detailed steps to reduce drug-cartel violence along the border."

Perry and a parade of Texas politicians from both parties are pointing to the reported Sept. 30 shooting of David Hartley, 30, on Falcon Lake as evidence of escalating border violence. Hartley and his wife Tiffany, 29, were planning to return to their native Colorado this month after living in the South Texas area for three years while he worked for a Canadian oil company. They were taking a jet ski tour in Mexican waters around the submerged village of Guerrero, the church steeple of which stands above the water. Tiffany told Texas law officials that her husband was shot and killed by armed men in three fishing boats. David's family members criticized Mexican officials for failing to respond quickly in the search for his body, and have pleaded with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to press Mexico for help.

Perry addressed the issue on Wednesday. "How many more Americans have to die?" he asked the Associated Press, adding that he was calling on Mexico's President, Felipe Calderón, to meet with Obama. "Frankly, these two Presidents need to get together with their Secretaries of State and say, 'What are we going to do about this?' " Perry said, adding that he wanted an answer from Mexico City within 48 hours.

The Mexican Foreign Relations Ministry responded, saying Mexican officials had been in touch with their U.S. counterparts "from the first moment" and were coordinating their search efforts and stepping up "their actions with the support of specialized personnel, boats and helicopters." Local officials in the border state of Tamaulipas, an area plagued by corruption and political assassinations, initially cast doubt on Tiffany's story, and a local prosecutor said on Wednesday that Tiffany had yet to file a formal complaint with his office. (Tiffany has given a statement to Mexican consular officials in McAllen, Texas.) But on the U.S. side, Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez said a witness saw Tiffany being chased back into U.S. waters by three boats. The lake is a notorious drug-smuggling transit point, and there have been at least five attempted robberies of recreational fishing boats by armed men this year, according to Texas law enforcement.

The latest incident has played into Perry's drumbeat message that the federal government has not done enough to secure the border. On Tuesday, he made another in a series of calls to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, asking for an additional 1,000 National Guard troops for the border. As for Perry's Democratic opponent, White concurs that the border is broken. The difference between the two men is more in style than substance, as the soft-spoken White has pledged to fund 1,000 local law enforcement and 250 state troopers for the border effort.

For residents of South Texas, news of violence in the Mexican border region has become routine. A three-way war has been raging just south of the river among the Gulf Cartel; Los Zetas, an organized criminal enterprise made up of former Mexican-army special forces; and the Mexican military. But as TIME reported in July, border violence overall on the U.S. side is down. However, understanding the border-security big picture is a little like looking at a pointillist painting, as Robert Chesney, a national-security law expert at the University of Texas in Austin explains. There are so many points of reference, so many signals read and processed by a wide variety of people — including local sheriffs, urban police, immigration and border-patrol officials, bureaucrats and politicians — that spotting significant shifts is difficult.

Security experts look for any indication that the cartels are attempting to make a strategic move into the U.S., Chesney says, and, as horrible as the reported murder of David Hartley is, it does not appear to be a systemic projection of power by the cartels. The attack, as relayed by Tiffany, took place in Mexican waters and seems to echo previous robberies by armed men earlier this year, men who may be cartel operatives or simply thugs emulating the Zetas. In one of the previous attacks, the men were reported to have Zeta-inspired tattoos.

"This was like a tourist taking a wrong turn in Matamoros or Ciudad Juárez and coming across a drug deal," Chesney says, adding that the bucolic setting and labeling of the attackers as pirates have added to the drama. From a border-security perspective, Chesney says, he is more concerned with an incident on the same day that did not make national headlines: the discovery of the bodies of two cartel members in a bullet-riddled truck on a Brownsville, Texas, street. "Warfare that spills over to the U.S. is by definition significant," Chesney says.

Texas shares a 1,200-mile border with Mexico, and the two have a symbiotic relationship symbolized by cultural and economic ties. Border cities like Brownsville and Matamoros are essentially one urban area, separated only by the meandering Rio Grande. The Brownsville bodies were discovered two days after a grenade was launched at the town hall in Matamoros, just 10 blocks from the border, wounding two passersby, likely part of the same ongoing cartel war that prompted the assassinations on the American side of the urban zone. "It was only a matter of time before [spillover violence] trickled down to our community," Judge Carlos Cascos, head of the county government in the Brownsville area, told KRGV-TV.

But while the reported Falcon Lake incident may not mark a strategic change in cartel activity, it is significant in this political season, and not just in Texas. It has put a face on the border-security issue, that of an athletic, vibrant 30-year-old man with a passion for the outdoors who was a member of the Motorcycle Ministry Riders, a Christian missionary group. David Hartley was preparing to rejoin his family in Colorado, where border security is also an issue in the race for governor. Constitutional Party candidate Tom Tancredo has boosted his standing in the three-way race with an ad featuring Marat Kudlis, who is pointedly described as a legal immigrant: his 3-year-old was killed when a car driven by an illegal immigrant crashed into the Kudlis family's automobile outside an ice cream shop. David's family plans to hold a rally on Friday at the Mexican consulate in Denver that will likely bring more attention to the issue.