Building trust on the border: FBI director works with community to stem crime, cyber threats

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Keeping drug cartels, foreign election-meddlers at bay is priority for El Paso Field Office

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Good cops know that winning over a community’s trust can help them solve or even prevent crimes.

That’s why Luis M. Quesada has made public outreach a priority as the FBI Field Office in El Paso tackles drug cartels, gangs, internet fraud, sexual predators and the threat of foreign meddling in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

“Communication is critical for the success of our mission. We don’t work in a vacuum; we need the community. I have a very aggressive social media and outreach program to build that trust between (the Bureau) and the community,” he said.

That includes making some of his field agents available every week to share insights with the public about crime trends and prevention. Cybercrimes have become a concern as people spend more time connected to the internet as they’re forced to stay home by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The strategy appears to have paid dividends during Quesada’s first year as Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in El Paso. The Bureau has had a hand in recent meth busts, the breaking up of a human trafficking ring and the jailing of men trying to have sex with children.

“Some of the most impactful cases we have been able to disrupt have been resolved as the community reaches back and points us to subjects posing these threats,” he said. “We cannot work without the community. My position, the position of my staff is to build the strongest trustworthy relationship with the people right here in El Paso.”

Safeguarding the Nov. 3 presidential election

Now, less than 60 days to go before Nov. 3, the FBI is launching a public awareness campaign about election security and cyber threats from abroad.

“We are providing information and guidance to the public so everyone can make informed decisions about what they read and share on social media,” Quesada said. “It may seem trivial but making sure you only share confirmed information will go a long way towards protecting our democracy.”

Law-enforcement agencies are particularly vigilant of possible cyberattacks – hacking or leaking of sensitive information – against political campaigns and government infrastructure. They also have an eye out against disinformation campaigns, foreign funding and lobbying by foreign agents.

The FBI is posting information and tips for the community on its web page. The advice includes knowing who’s contacting you on social media, learning to spot “deep fakes” (computer-generated messages) and invitations fostering bias and division.

“We all have a role to play to protect the sanctity of our elections,” Quesada said.

The border, a corridor for meth and fentanyl

To outsiders, the border may conjure up images of violence, drugs and other forms of mayhem.

Quesada, who started his FBI career in 1995 in Miami, found a peaceful, welcoming community with some of the lowest violent and non-violent crime rates in America. “I found fantastic people in the office, a fantastic community and law-enforcement partners. I’ve been treated like a real El Pasoan and I’m proud to be part of the division,” he said.

The Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart — which involved a resident of North Texas driving to the border to kill 23 people and leave 23 others wounded — has been the lone spike in a mild crime pattern in this city dating back to the mid-1990s. (The FBI is leading the federal investigation of accused shooter Patrick Crusius, but Quesada wouldn’t disclose any details.)

However, he knows the tip of a very sharp sword lies just across the Rio Grande and is constantly taking stabs at U.S. ports of entry and unguarded border areas.

Methamphetamine production and trafficking are at an all-time high in Mexico and the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed down drug cartels trying to bring their product into the United States.

“The threat of meth and other synthetic drugs like fentanyl is increasing not only in El Paso but in the rest of the nation. We have seen an increase in the importation and transportation of these drugs coming south of the border,” Quesada said.

He spoke of a 50-pound seizure of methamphetamines destined for a major city in the interior of the United States and of coming across doses of meth laced with fentanyl.

“People are thinking they’re taking one thing while many of these pills may be laced with fentanyl and the results can be catastrophic and deadly,” Quesada said.

The drugs are shipped by major criminal organizations operating in Mexico, such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), the Sinaloa cartel, La Linea and the multiple and very violent gangs that work for them.

In El Paso and other U.S. cities, some of those gangs — the Aztecas were mentioned — are always trying to establish relationships with smaller groups, what FBI officials call “hybrid gangs.”

“The border is always a corridor for importation because it’s financially lucrative to produce these synthetic drugs and push them (into the U.S.) It’s a profit-supply equation,” Quesada said.

El Paso, the shield facing the tip of the sword

Quesada said he’s aware of the bloody toll the drug trade takes across the border in Juarez, Mexico, which has recorded around 1,300 murders so far this year.

“It’s very unfortunate for the citizens of Juarez. I empathize with them living in those conditions. However, we have little control over that on this side of the border,” the FBI leader said. “However, I do not expect, and we do not have any intelligence that leads us to believe that (the violence) will cross over to our side of the border.”

Quesada said the strong law-enforcement presence in El Paso – which includes thousands of federal agents in addition to a 1,300-officer local police force — is a strong deterrent to the cartels as is the deep intelligence-gathering that’s always taking place. “And, really, there’s the community of El Paso, which will not stand for that,” he said.

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