Speed Reads

'We're essentially mall security'

Texas governor's costly border operation plagued by low morale, fuzzy math, mission confusion, politics

Texas is spending $2 billion a year on Operation Lone Star, launched by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) last March to address a purported emergency on the Texas-Mexico border with 10,000 Texas National Guard troops plus Department of Public Safety officers. 

"Abbott and DPS have repeatedly boasted in news conferences, on social media, and during interviews on Fox News that the border operation has disrupted drug and human smuggling networks," The Texas Tribune reported Monday with ProPublica and The Marshall Project. "But the state's claim of success has been based on shifting metrics that included crimes with no connection to the border, work conducted by troopers stationed in targeted counties prior to the operation, and arrest and drug seizure efforts that do not clearly distinguish DPS's role from that of other agencies."

"The whole reason for all this, you know, playing with statistics, is for optics so that the governor could get reelected," Gary Hale, a former Drug Enforcement Administration intelligence chief now at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, told the Tribune. That's worked for Abbott, "but what's the net gain? I don't think there's any. Zero. We really haven't had any significant impact on migrant smuggling or drug trafficking."

The Tribune and Military Times reported in late February that a leaked survey of some 250 National Guard members deployed in south Texas found widespread disillusionment, confusion about their mission, unhappiness with the involuntary deployment, and a common assumption they were there to help Abbott's re-election campaign. There have been a handful of suicides.

"I hate it here," one respondent said. "Most of us signed up to help Texas in times of need like hurricanes," another Guard member said. "This doesn't feel like we are helping any Texans besides the governor." 

Some of the Operation Lone Star units are posted far from the border, including about 30 Guard members ordered in January to stand idly outside giant private ranches 80 miles north of Mexico, the Tribune reported last week. Two of the most prominent ranches, King Ranch and the GOP-connected Armstrong Ranch, told the Tribune they did not ask for the National Guard sentinels. "We really don't understand why we are there," one Guard member told the Tribune. "We're essentially mall security for ranches that already have paid security details to protect them."

You can read more about Operation Lone Star at The Texas Tribune and watch the Tribune's James Barragán discuss his reporting on Austin's KVUE.