About Us

Make a Donation
Fully-Local • Non-Partisan • Public-Service Journalism

Public Safety Commission hears grim news about gangs, drugs

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 by Michael Kanin

According to the testimony of federal, state, and local officials, the City of Austin has more than 2,000 gang members and is being used as a command and control center for drug organizations. On top of that, Travis County has been designated as a High Intensity Drug Area (HIDA) by the office of National Drug Control Policy.


The Public Safety Commission heard this and other bits of news in a packed City Hall hearing room on Monday afternoon. Though no one seemed able to offer commissioners a straight prediction about what Austin’s criminal future might look like, there was plenty of concern about what present conditions might spell.


“There is no argument that the (Mexican cartel) violence is spreading into (Texas),” said Tom Ruocco, the Texas Department of Public Safety’s chief of criminal law enforcement. 


Still, officials did have glowing comments about the cooperative nature of Austin’s response to the perceived threat.


Ruocco was part of what Public Safety Commission chair Dr. Michael Lauderdale called “an expert panel.” That group also included Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Gregory Thrash, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Royce Curtin, and Austin Police Department (APD) Chief of Staff David Carter.


Thrash, a 23-year DEA vet, offered a presentation that focused on the leading Mexican drug cartels, the violence that follows them, and the implications all of that might have for Austin. He told commissioners that officials “see major amounts of drugs coming into the Austin area…staged here, and then moved on.”


He added that the drug trafficking corridors that start in Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, and Eagle Pass all move along I-35 and feature a stop in the Austin area. This activity, according to Thrash, is on the increase.


Thrash also says that recent DEA interdictions have significantly disrupted, but not halted, some drug activity in the Capital region. “We have teamed up with all of our partners here,” he said.


“Primarily there is a strong push with the Austin police department and the DEA locally to work together concertedly to attack these things to be proactive and get out there and do something about this thing before it gets out of hand here.”


Indeed, Carter said that inter-agency cooperation is a highlight of regional drug enforcement efforts. “I think there’s never been a time when we’ve actually collaborated and worked better with our state, federal, and local area partners,” he said.


Officials were hesitant to make a solid predication about what the future of drug-related crime in Austin might look like. When pressed on the issue by Lauderdale and commission Vice Chair Michael Levy, Thrash offered only the inevitable advance of technology. 


“One of the things that we observed…was the rapid pace of technology,” he said. “Technology has changed so fast. Ten, 12 years ago DEA recognized that, put certain things into place, and, we are not ahead of the curve but we’re at least in the ballgame right now.”


Not satisfied, Levy pressed further. Thrash said that he couldn’t answer the question based on the “rapid fluidity” of the situation.


“Where do I see us going? What do I expect in the future?” Thrash asked. “(The) continued increased use of technology for illicit gain.  Therefore, we must be on top of the curve with respect to technology. That’s going to be the best answer I can give you.”


When asked by Commissioner Sam Holt what came with being called a HIDA, officials had similar specificity troubles. Though the city has been marked with that designation, the extra funding that comes with that label has yet to be received. When it is, Thrash says that it will be used to “facilitate the task force environment” that the DEA relies on to further its objectives.


“It is a model that has been proven to work,” he says. “It’s an objective component that brings the agencies together.”


Carter told In Fact Daily that officials needed to remain vigilant. “Clearly there are problems and concerns because (the gang) population…become(s) ripe for further development, or they can be exploited by other organized criminal groups especially trans-national gangs that are actually the ones that are currently fighting it out just across the border in Mexico,” he said.


“So when you see that loose affiliation of street level gangs and it starts involving itself in narcotics activity, starts involving itself in…assaults, robberies, thefts, small drug offenses, that’s a real concern for us.”


Though he wouldn’t directly attribute the negative activity to growth, Carter did observe that Austin is changing. “It’s an evolving city,” he said. “We strongly believe (it) is a safe city but the issue is that it’s important for the police department (and) all the law enforcement in this area to get on top of this so we don’t become worse off.”

Join Your Friends and Neighbors

We're a nonprofit news organization, and we put our service to you above all else. That will never change. But public-service journalism requires community support from readers like you. Will you join your friends and neighbors to support our work and mission?

Back to Top