Border War on Crime Overwhelms Courtrooms
Influx of cases from crackdown on drugs and illegal immigration pushes
legal system to the breaking point. Too few jails and personnel make the threat of violence a constant
A. SERRANO, Times Staff Writer
McALLEN, Texas--Six years ago, Washington poured millions of dollars into
law enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border. The goal was to reduce crime, cut drug trafficking
and stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
But today, while an army of new federal agents has sent arrest rates soaring, the legal system that
must prosecute, judge and sentence those taken into custody is on the verge of collapse.
Once-sleepy court districts from South Texas to Southern California have been transformed into
stark scenes of assembly-line justice, where inmates by the busload are carted into crowded
courtrooms and overwhelmed court officials move them through a system that is stretched as thin as
the fence that divides the two countries.
Though the border campaign was ballyhooed as a major crackdown on crime, the result often falls
far short of effective law enforcement and traditional American standards of justice.
"We've been working with Band-Aids, trying to adjust to this gigantic increase in volume," said
Chief U.S. District Judge Marilyn L. Huff in San Diego. The result is scenes that sometimes resemble
Third World courts, endangering inmates and public safety, she and other judges said.
Evidence of a system in distress is everywhere.
U.S. marshals, responsible for guarding thousands of additional prisoners without added resources,
are dangerously outnumbered. Assigning two marshals to escort as many as 80 prisoners is not
As federal jails grow more crowded, marshals haul prisoners on long trips through rural
communities to jails hundreds of miles from the border. The officers worry that an escape attempt or
riot could await them down the road.
Even inside federal courthouses, security is a constant concern. One prosecutor in Tucson was
ordered to abandon her post when she found herself alone in a courtroom with 45 unmanacled
prisoners and only two unarmed marshals.
Overwhelmed by caseloads that have doubled or even tripled, prosecutors cut deals that allow
criminals to serve shorter sentences, while in many cases knowing little about their crimes or
Judges, knowing detention facilities are bursting, release defendants on personal bail even though
they realize that many will promptly disappear and resume committing crimes.
In San Diego, the only way Judge Huff can handle the tidal wave of cases is to press into service
seven judges who had retired. One is 88, another 85.
Prisoners, uneducated and with little knowledge of English, find themselves in a judicial system that
offers little compassion for the petty criminal or illegal immigrant trying to find work to feed his family.
Young illegal immigrants are put in crowded cells with serious felons, becoming easy prey.
Influx Contributes to Prison Violence
Inadequate control already has contributed to prison violence in California and elsewhere. In
Oklahoma City, federal officials accused the sheriff who runs the jail in which federal prisoners are
held of "numerous and repeated violations of prisoner rights."
"One prisoner sustained a broken jaw, one prisoner sustained a broken ankle, one received a
broken leg, one prisoner suffered a severe beating at the hands of prison guards and one prisoner was
reportedly beaten about the face so severely that practically all the prisoner's teeth were knocked out,"
the complaint said.
Without large-scale changes, officials say, it may be only a matter of time before more serious
Law enforcement "is always supposed to have the upper hand" to prevent violence and abuse, said
Kevin M. Platts, assistant chief deputy marshal in McAllen. But on the border, "you can see by the
numbers that we don't."
Although politically popular anti-crime measures imposed in the nation's capital created these
unintended consequences, the federal government has done little to help the courts struggling against
the deluge of cases.
Efforts to fill judicial vacancies or create more judgeships have been stymied by partisan political
Currently, the border courts have become a dramatic example of what happens when government
sets out to solve a major problem but fixes only the politically easy part of it. Reducing crime is a
win-win proposition for politicians; spending taxpayer money for less glamorous court personnel, staff
and facilities is not.
Few lawmakers have addressed the problem in the region--even though the five Southwest border
districts now handle a quarter of all federal court criminal filings in the nation.
Without question, the federal police presence along the border has risen sharply since 1994. The
number of Immigration and Naturalization Service agents grew by 93%. The Drug Enforcement
Administration expanded its border staff by 155%. The U.S. Border Patrol alone added 5,000
agents, boosting its ranks by 99% over a five-year period.
Arrests have soared 125% in the region as a whole. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts
projects that within two years the border courts will be handling almost a third of all federal criminal
cases filed in the United States.
In the border town of Del Rio, Texas, more people were indicted on federal charges in 1998 than
in Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city.
That part of the six-year crackdown seems to have worked. The problem is what happens after
prisoners are arrested and cases are filed.
"We're getting killed here," says Chief Deputy Marshal James Sullivan in San Diego, where
prosecutor caseloads have tripled since 1994. "Hello. We need some help."
* * *
Fred Tiemann's workweek says a lot about justice on the border.
On a recent Tuesday morning, the assistant federal public defender was on the road. He was
driving his 1987 Dodge Shadow, with its 203,000 miles and conked-out air conditioning, to the Starr
County Jail. He was making a two-hour round trip from McAllen to visit three inmates who, like all of
his clients, already have confessed and will be sentenced later this spring.
"I drive an hour. I wait an hour. I visit my clients. And I drive back an hour," he said. "And that's
almost a day for me. It chews up the entire day."
Other days, he makes a seven-hour round trip to the Karns County Jail, or travels the nine hours to
San Antonio and back home again.
Since overcrowding has led to housing prisoners in ever-more-distant jails, he spends more time on
the road than with defendants or the 40 case files piled high on his desk.
His clients are typical of the majority being arrested in the current crackdown: poor, uneducated
men who sneak across the border to find jobs or engage in theft, low-level drug trafficking or other
In theory, Tiemann is where American legal protections kick in, where every defendant is
presumed innocent until proven guilty and everyone gets due process and the assistance of a lawyer.
But Tiemann has yet to take a single case to trial in the eight months he has been assigned to the
His clients are so afraid and confused that they confess immediately upon arrest, he says, making it
next to impossible to get their cases thrown out.
Tiemann, in fact, encourages many to plead guilty, and do so early, in exchange for a year or
sometimes more shaved off their sentences. Otherwise, he said, given the shortage of lawyers and
marshals and judges, the system would be deadlocked.
In recent interviews, border inmates seemed more eager to serve out their time quietly than to
contest the charges against them in the swamped courts.
They were well aware of their invisibility in the crowd, oddly resigned to their fate in a U.S. system
that to them is no different from the courts in Mexico and other Latin American countries, where a
man is automatically presumed guilty.
Valentin Martinez was arrested in October for possession with intent to distribute 20 pounds of
marijuana--his second offense. The 27-year-old immediately confessed that the drugs were hidden
inside a car dashboard. He said that he had been promised $600 to make the drug run into the United
States but was never paid.
Now he is one of five men jammed into a cell built for two at the Starr County Jail. He has not seen
his wife or two children, who live in Mexico, since his arrest.
Martin Ramirez, another inmate, said that trying to fight a case is pointless. "They treat you like a
chicken. They pluck you and throw you away."
Troy Britt, an assistant federal public defender in San Diego, said that cases are hurried through the
system so fast that many defendants do not understand why they are sentenced to 30 months when a
cellmate with a similar charge gets just 24 months from a different judge.
"They are sitting in a tank with 40 people waiting to go to court," he said. "They feel the frustration
Beyond niceties of due process, border prisoners are exposed to dangers not normally the lot of
nonviolent federal prisoners.
In his jail visits, public defender Tiemann hears a host of stories--of inmates beaten by other
inmates, inmates terrorized by the Texas Syndicate jailhouse gang, of the need for medical attention
that is not available.
In Southern California, 24 San Diego inmates kept in a privately run jail on the Miramar Naval Air
Station were injured in 1996 when fellow prisoners set mattresses and linens on fire, causing a panic.
Two years later, a riot broke out in two barracks housing 180 illegal immigrants in El Centro. Four
guards were assaulted, and the inmates barricaded themselves overnight until FBI negotiators
persuaded them to give up.
Roberto Martinez, director of the border project for the American Friends Service Committee in
San Diego, said that families worry about the safety of husbands and fathers jailed with violent
"They just lump everybody together and sort it out later," he said.
Jesse Mallinger, a San Diego defense attorney who specializes in border cases, said that many of
his clients end up as far away as the San Bernardino County Jail.
Attorney Laments Fate of His Clients
"These are Mexican guys, poor guys coming over here to make money," Mallinger said. "They're
not real violent guys, in general not like some of the hard-core guys in San Bernardino."
Tiemann, driving back to McAllen from the Starr County Jail, shrugged.
"There's too many people," he said. "You can't sort it all out."
* * *
The gridlock begins each morning.
The federal courthouse in downtown San Diego was built 25 years ago to handle 95 inmates a
day. Now nearly 400 inmates pass through.
In the courthouse basement, the U.S. Marshals Service runs hundreds of inmates in and out of
tunnels that connect to a jail facility. Old storage space in the basement has been cleared to add 10
new 25-person holding tanks, many filled to capacity.
"We cram them in," said Chief Deputy Marshal Sullivan.
Security is provided by just two deputies who escort large groups of inmates and by other deputies
who watch video monitors in a control center. To help the deputies cope, Sullivan brings in jujitsu
trainers to teach them how to defend themselves in case of emergency.
In 1997, he asked his superiors in Washington for 44 deputies to add to his contingent of 53. He
got four. In 1999, he asked again for 44 more deputies. He got one.
That means, he said, that "we sometimes send up to 80 people to court with only two deputies."
"You put a lot more people and cases into the system and you don't have the resources," Sullivan
added. "It's like the snake who tried to swallow the pig."
San Diego is not the only place trying to master this feat.
In South Texas, the number of federal inmates has risen 90%, to roughly 2,350, since the Border
Patrol was expanded. The cost of handling this mass of people has more than tripled.
Platts, the assistant chief deputy marshal in McAllen, supervises marshals all along the Texas
border. He has 98 deputies--the same number as six years ago, when arrests began climbing.
His job today is like that of an air traffic controller. He constantly is mapping new routes to ferry his
inmates, searching for vacant cells in distant jails.
"These were sleepy towns once," Platts said. "Then came the 1990s and I'm going up 30 new
prisoners a month. And 30 more new prisoners the next month. And 30 more the next month. And 30
and 30 and 30."
Platts has turned to local sheriffs and today is using no fewer than 21 county jails to house federal
Every day means waking prisoners long before dawn and getting them onto buses so they can
make the early court docket calls. Each evening, it is the trip back to jail.
Platts also hires off-duty local police officers and gives them minimal federal training to serve as
deputies. The officers often come to work already tired from their eight- or 10-hour shifts on city
No wonder his greatest concern remains security.
"One day there's going to be a serious breach," he said. "Think about my staff and fatigue and
complacency. It's frustrating. I'm slowly cannibalizing my office."
U.S. Atty. Jose de Jesus Rivera of Arizona worries about safety as well. He once received a
frantic telephone call from one of his assistant prosecutors in Tucson. She had just encountered 45
inmates, none of them handcuffed or shackled, crammed into a single courtroom.
"That's just too risky . . . ," he said. "We've created our own monster down here."
Marshals Chief Cites Problem as Priority
John W. Marshall became the national director of the U.S. Marshals Service in November. He
said that the border problem is a priority.
His new budget proposal calls for 283 new deputies, 100 of whom would go to the border. But he
is not optimistic he will get them.
"I think they're listening," he said of Washington. "But I think it's difficult a lot of times" to get their
In San Diego, U.S. Atty. Gregory A. Vega, whose caseload has tripled since 1994, leans for help
on federal immigration lawyers and attorneys from the Navy. And he goes begging for tax lawyers to
take cases as well.
"We are in a state of emergency," Vega proclaimed.
Forwarding some cases to the state courts eases some of the burden on Vega and his federal
prosecutors. But it also often results in light sentences for serious criminals.
This year, with a federal budget surplus, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is one of several
border-state senators pushing a measure to reimburse state and local courts for some of the costs of
curbing illegal immigration.
The proposal has yet to get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Under the 30-foot ceilings of their art deco courtrooms, federal judges in El Paso--like their
counterparts in the other four U.S. district courts along the border--sit at the top of the pyramid.
But in a sense they are prisoners too.
Before his bench one recent afternoon, federal Magistrate Richard Mesa peered at 10 prisoners
with bowed heads awaiting judgment. All had been deported before; all had sneaked back into this
It was up to Mesa to punish them--but how? "It makes it hard to sentence people to jail,
particularly when there are so many of them, when you see them every day," said Mesa, himself the
son of an illegal immigrant who keeps his father's naturalization certificate in his desk drawer as a
reminder of his origin. "It doesn't mean I don't do it. But it's hard. I just approach it all with the attitude
that there is no answer."
His answer this day--as on many days--is to free all 10 on unsecured bonds. He knows that
few--only 14% on average--will return for sentencing.
"What else am I to do?"
At what point, he wondered, "do I draw the line when the government is spending $1 million a
month" to jail new prisoners? "That's what I call a difficult choice."
Judicial Vacancies Go Unfilled for Years
All the judges along the border are overwhelmed, but they are a long way from Washington, from
which any relief must come.
Vacancies that occur when a federal judge retires can go unfilled for years--two years on average.
Recently, Judge Richard A. Paez was confirmed for a federal appeals court seat in California after a
1,506-day wait--more than four years.
The creation of judgeships can take even longer.
While nine federal judgeships were created in 1999, not a single one had been approved in the
previous eight years. And of those nine positions, only three were in a border state--Arizona.
The federal judgeship act, still languishing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would create 16 new
judgeships along the border.
The key fault lies in the political system.
The Republican Senate has resisted giving a Democratic White House the political advantage of
appointing new judges or hiring marshals and prosecutors, on the border or anywhere else.
And, some charge, the Clinton administration has exacerbated the problem by failing to nominate
moderate judicial candidates who would be more acceptable to conservative senators.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), during a recent partisan exchange about judicial
vacancies, acknowledged that there is a large backlog of nominees. But, he said, "I am not one who
gets all weepy-eyed about having more federal judges of any kind anywhere."
Meanwhile, the border judges keep the inmate crowds moving, dispensing justice as they can.
Some conduct mass arraignments and sentencings. Almost any judge will interrupt any proceeding
to take a guilty plea.
Judges like Barry Ted Moskowitz of San Diego continue court proceedings late into the evening,
while court officers try to stay alert. They have nicknamed him "Midnight Moskowitz."
In South Texas, U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela has been known to take 50 or 60 guilty pleas in
a single day to avoid trials.
George Kazen, Laredo's chief judge, speaks for almost everyone when he says that each morning
now, as he and his staff come to work, "we wait for the tidal wave to hit us."
* * *
Washington began adding thousands of new law enforcement agents along the Southwest border
six years ago. Since then arrests for drugs and illegal immigration have shot up 125%. But Washington
has done little to add new judges, lawyers and deputy marshals in the border districts to meet this huge
* * *
Source: Federal court and law enforcement records *
Times staff writer Esther Schrader contributed to this story.