The US has unveiled an unlikely weapon in its battle against drug gangs and illegal immigrants at the Texas-Mexico border — pubgoers in Australia.
The drinkers are the most far-flung of a sizeable army of high-tech foot soldiers recruited to assist the border protection effort.
Anyone with an Internet connection can now help to patrol the 2,018km frontier through a network of Webcams set up to allow the public to monitor suspicious activity. Once logged in, the volunteers spend hours studying the landscape and are encouraged to e-mail authorities when they see anyone on foot, in vehicles or aboard boats heading toward US territory from Mexico.
So far, more than 100,000 Web users have signed up online to become virtual border patrol deputies, said Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs’ Coalition, which represents 20 counties where illegal crossings and drugs and weapons smuggling are rife.
“We had folks send an e-mail saying, in good Australian fashion, ‘Hey mate, we’ve been watching your border for you from the pub in Australia,’” he said.
Since the first 15 of a planned network of 200 cameras went live in November, officials claim that e-mailed tips have led to the seizure of more than 907kg of marijuana and 30 incidents in which “significant numbers” of would-be illegal immigrants were spotted and turned back. Some tips came from Europe, Asia and beyond, but most online watchers are based in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, three of the four US states that share a border with Mexico.
The cameras, which are positioned on private land at locations along the border favored by illegal immigrants and drug traffickers, were paid for by a US$2 million state grant, which includes money for the accompanying Web site operated as a private-public partnership by social networking company BlueServo.
Opponents have dismissed the project as “the perfect Google border” and say the cameras do little to deter criminal activity.
“Border security deserves trained professionals, not pubgoers in Perth,” said Eliot Shapleigh, a state senator from El Paso, Texas, who claims that the program has resulted in only a handful of arrests. “It’s wholly ineffective for the governor’s stated goal of security, it panders to extremists for political purposes and it’s not an effective use of US$2 million for just three apprehensions.”
Shapleigh said he and fellow Democratic party members plan to oppose the renewal of funding for the cameras later this year.
But Bob Parker, a retired US coastguard captain who spends up to eight hours a day at his computer looking into Mexico, says it is important to keep eyes on the border.
“It’s wild country out there with all the drugs violence,” he said. “It’s just a question of time before that comes here.”
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