Texas Patrols the Mexican Border -- Virtually

The Texas government is installing hundreds of cameras along the Mexican border and enlisting Americans who use the Internet to monitor illegal activity.

Within 30 days, the Texas Department of Homeland Security will enable citizens and law enforcement officials to watch alleged crimes through the Internet as they occur, using surveillance cameras along the 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Texas officials expect the cameras to capture images of drug trafficking, trespassing, theft, rape and kidnapping, all common to border areas.

The state will post the live video to a Web site so that federal and local agencies can dispatch personnel to the scene immediately. Private citizens viewing the site can report the crime using a toll-free number.

A Multi-Layered Approach

Last Thursday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that the new surveillance program is just one part of a layered approach to securing the Texas border.

"By leveraging advanced video technology and the power of the World Wide Web, and with an increased financial commitment from the state of Texas, we can make our border stronger and our nation safer," Perry says.

Perry has dedicated $5 million in funds from the governor's budget to finance the plan.

The Texas-Mexico border is extensive, so the cameras will not be omnipresent. The Texas Department of Homeland Security is working with private landowners to identify strategic locations where the most illegal activity occurs. Installation will proceed on a voluntary basis only, and Perry's office anticipates border residents will have no problem consenting to a live government camera operating on their land.

"There has been interest, and we think once this gets up and running there will be more interest. [Illegal activity] is a real and constant danger to people who live right along the border," says Kathy Walt, a spokeswoman for Perry's office.

For security reasons, the governor's office will not identify the border areas that will receive the cameras. Citizens will be able to monitor a stretch of land but cannot identify a camera's exact geographic location. Law enforcement will know which cameras they're watching, but the average citizen monitoring streaming video on the Internet from home will use a random number assigned to the camera to report activity to authorities through an 800 number. Users will be able to switch cameras on the Web site and watch at night using the camera's night vision capability.

Perry, who is attempting to bring other technology to the Texas border, such as instant fingerprinting analysis, says the surveillance plan is a sophisticated spin on a rather common idea.

"I look at this as no different than the neighborhood watches that we have had in our communities for years and years," he says.

The state expects to measure the success of the cameras against crime rates.

"Just having this program in place will be a deterrent in itself. Activity won't occur in those spots," Walt says.

Needed: More Troops

Chris Simcox, founder and president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group of private citizens working to monitor the borders in southern and northern border states, believes more personnel are needed before the surveillance cameras and other technology can be effective.

"It's almost like you can watch the invasion live on your home computer, but there will be no one there to stop it," Simcox says.

Simcox says he introduced the idea of live surveillance cameras to Perry and his staff a year ago. He applauds Perry for funding the cameras and dedicating $120 million for more personnel and support on the border but is skeptical about the plan. Simcox believes the governor's plan will only be successful when more National Guard troops are deployed and allowed to do more than just fill support roles.

"It's just like setting up a speeding camera," Simcox says. "You can watch the car speed, you can watch the people come across the border, and people are going to get very disillusioned if they start making calls and there's no reaction, no one to respond to the calls for help, to respond to the incursions that take place."

Simcox is mildly optimistic about President Bush's plan to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the border. He says 30,000 to 40,000 more troops are needed and cites his home state of Arizona, where 50 National Guard troops arrived on Monday, as an example.

Border patrol hot lines, billboards and ads are prevalent in Arizona, Simcox says, but people can't send tips to a live person, only to an answering machine. He hopes things will be different with the new Web site and toll-free number in Texas but questions whether law enforcement will respond to the reports quickly enough to stop potential crimes or immigrants determined to cross the border.

Sense of Control

Michael Vickers, a south Texas veterinarian and private rancher, agrees that more troops are needed. Vickers, however, who lives on a thousand acre ranch 180 miles south of San Antonio, is convinced the cameras will succeed because they'll give his neighbors a sense of control.

"Psychologically, it's a home run," Vickers says. "The simple reason is that the public will be able to actively participate in watching this border."

Vickers, who is also the state director for the Minuteman Civil Defense for Texas, says he has received 800 e-mails since Perry's announcement from citizens -- mostly retirees -- who are eager to take matters into their own hands.

"Everyone I know that has ranch land along the border, absolutely everyone, is in favor of putting those cameras on their property," he says.

Several months ago, border patrol installed surveillance cameras at a Brooks County rest area, a hot spot for trafficking near Vickers' home. Technical malfunctions have prevented the two cameras from operating for much of that time. But according to Vickers, other cameras posted in smaller towns along the border are responsible for a dramatic cut in illegal activity.

He's is willing to take a chance on cameras along the border.

Illegal activity has struck too close to home for Vickers. His ranch has been a crime scene twice -- and each time he has found a dead Mexican woman in his yard. His neighbors have found five dead bodies on their property in the last five months.

Vickers says he'll ask his local border patrol station chief for a camera this week in hopes of bringing a measure of safety to his family -- and perhaps saving him the four hours a day he uses to leave his house and patrol the border.