July 15, 2012


 Border violence complicates animal health surveillance

Port-of-entry facilities moved for safety reasons

Posted July 3, 2012
  A USDA veterinarian inspects cattle before they are transported across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Drug cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexican border has been a persistent and serious threat to human safety for years. But it is just as much a hazard to animal health and movement in that area.

In particular, the normal import process for animals entering the U.S. through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona has been impacted by the tumultuous situation.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides services for importation of livestock and equids from Mexico at 10 ports along the U.S.-Mexico border. The ports of entry themselves are located on the U.S. side of the border, but the associated inspection facilities are located on the Mexican side. When all 10 ports of entry along the border are operational, 55 USDA personnel perform animal inspections and import work.

In March of this year, the USDA prohibited its veterinarians from traveling to Palomas, Mexico, from the port of entry in Columbus, N.M., following issuance of a travel security advisory. That decision effectively halted livestock crossings there, because livestock must be inspected by a USDA veterinarian to ensure they are disease-free before they are allowed into the U.S. On May 31, the State Department revised the travel security advisory, allowing inspectors to return to Palomas to inspect cattle.

Then on June 11, the State Department informed the USDA it was not safe to enter Ojinaga, Mexico, where the Presidio, Texas, port’s inspection facilities are located, until an on-site assessment could be conducted. The USDA was preparing a facility as a contingency, should safety concerns prevent inspections there for a prolonged period.

Prior to 2010, all livestock inspection sites were located in Mexico, some adjacent to the border and some up to 20 miles south of the border.

Now, three of the inspection facilities have been moved to temporary locations inside the U.S.—Del Rio, Laredo, and Eagle Pass in Texas—but the remaining seven facilities are still located in Mexico.

“There’s just too big of a risk, because the violence is so random and unpredictable,” said Dr. Grant Wease, field veterinarian for USDA APHIS Veterinary Services in El Paso, about moving the inspection facilities.

Lyndsay Cole, a USDA spokeswoman, noted that the U.S.-based inspection facilities in Texas are temporary solutions to allow trade to resume as quickly as possible, and officials are working to identify permanent solutions. She adds that there’s no intent to move the other port inspection facilities.

Along with the inspection difficulties, the illegal movement of livestock and equids in the vast open spaces of West Texas presents ongoing concerns for animal health. In 2011, approximately 280 head of cattle and 160 equids (primarily horses) were intercepted by USDA officials along the Rio Grande, according to the latest USDA information.

“Certainly, there’s that many or more that go uncaught every year,” said Dr. Dee Ellis, Texas state veterinarian and executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission.

Dr. Wease has heard from border patrol agents and local law enforcement that the drug cartels have taken over stretches of the river on the Mexican side and that former ranch owners in those areas have let their cattle loose and run off their horses, because there’s no safe place for them.

“I know we’ve talked to more than one U.S. and Mexican ranch owner, and when they’ve contacted the Mexican owner (of loose animals), they say, ‘If I had a place to take them to, I would, but I don’t have a place,’” Dr. Wease said. “It’s just a sad reality of the situation across the river.”

To further complicate the situation, because the border violence has so adversely affected the normal import process for livestock entering Texas, smuggling animals into the state has become even more tempting. Two recent cases highlight the problem.

First, on March 30, U.S. Border Patrol agents seized 10 horses and four yearlings as smugglers attempted to enter Texas by walking across the Rio Grande in an area south of El Paso. All 10 horses tested positive for equine piroplasmosis.

Then in early June, the TAHC, USDA, and law enforcement caught more than 96 head of cattle in Texas that are believed to have originated from Mexico. Dr. Ellis said the cattle were grazing on some pastureland, and the owner didn’t want them.

“Mexico’s in severe drought as well right now, and some folks are just looking for a place to feed (their animals). If the (Rio Grande) river is dry, it’s easy to walk back and forth,” Dr. Ellis said.

Dr. Wease said the USDA is always concerned about foreign animal disease—equine piroplasmosis and equine infectious anemia in horses, and tuberculosis and brucellosis in cattle—accidentally or intentionally coming across the river.

“That big concern is ‘what if?’, so that’s why we keep on testing and looking at animals and stay on top of it as best we can. There are pretty big stretches of land, and it’s hard to patrol it all,” he said.

Texas is currently being evaluated by USDA officials for disease transmission risk and economic impact on the animal industry. 

Dr. Ellis said protecting against the introduction of diseased animals is just part of doing business in Texas.

“We don’t want it to be a secret,” Dr. Ellis said, referring to the potential for introduction of foreign animal diseases. “Truth is, border violence is affecting animal health and animal movement and safety just as much as human health. It’s just not getting quite the attention.”