Documents show how an STC campus became DHS site
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
By Jonathan Salinas
Documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and obtained by Únete 956, offer glimpses into how South Texas College transformed from just a community college to becoming a host for a federal, regional, law enforcement training center.
Consisting of a 40-page, digital file, and spanning four years, Únete asked for Board of Trustee communications regarding the STC’s Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence (RCPSE)—a 59-acre law enforcement training campus in South Pharr, Texas. It opened last year.
STC has come a long way.
Since its founding in 1993, the community college has expanded its campuses, teaching sites, and community, governmental partnerships. STC has five campuses throughout Starr and Hidalgo County. By its own account, enrollment surpassed 32,000 in 2018. The college offers an array of degrees and certificates, including five bachelor’s programs.
As the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) increased foreign investment along the United States, Mexico border throughout the 90s, STC kept pace with multinational capital’s labor demands as instanced by its adding health and technology campuses. A wave of economic migration to the US, which led to increasingly militarized borders, was NAFTA's corollary effect on the US, Mexico border.
While the border industrial complex establishes itself as a key pillar of the 21st century global economy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a well-funded federal agency with various sub agencies, remains a cash cow for contractors who, for example, would like to build border walls or, as it might be, migrant detention centers. DHS, and other federal agencies, as the documents reveal, have become a cash cow for local school districts and community colleges as well.
“A great opportunity”
South Texas College first broke ground on the Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence (RCPSE) in 2017. The regional center—a joint effort between the college, the City of Pharr and the Pharr San Juan Alamo Independent School District (PSJA ISD)—inaugurated an era of collaboration between federal law enforcement and STC. Beginning next year, the RCPSE will offer first aid medical certificates for the DHS-housed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents among other law enforcement training certificates through the college.
In the months leading up to its groundbreaking in 2017, a long-term masterplan for the regional center was generated. US and Rio Grande Valley Congressman (D-TX-28) Henry Cuellar was a significant part of the team.
In a September 2017 letter, South Texas College President Shirley Reed writes to Congressman Cuellar, thanking him for his support with “the implementation of the Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence Master Plan.” Reed offers summaries of federal funding options.
Both Reed and Cuellar were to hold a debriefing in Starr County, Texas, at some point during “SCIFTalks” — quarterly round table discussions on international trade and business on the border. The talks are hosted by the Starr County Industrial Foundation (SCIF) and often include US Border Patrol agents, federal officials, and business leaders. SCIF President, Rose Benavidez, sits on the STC Board of Trustees.
In the letter, Reed briefs Cuellar on a few things. First, the progress of the RCPSE’s Technical Training and Assistance (TTA) Application to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance (USDBJA) had been submitted. USDJBJA was to conduct a peer review site visit in evaluating the masterplan.
Reed opens the summarized considerations of federal funding by referencing a meeting between local consultant, Hollis Rutledge, a delegation from the City of Pharr, and House Homeland Security Chairman, Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX-10). Únete 956 was told by a spokesperson for Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez’s office that the meeting between the Pharr delegation and legislative elements of the US government actually took place with US Congressman John Carter (R-TX-31), who sits on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee with Cuellar.
The meeting pertained to federal funding avenues.
“Judge” Carter—as the Congressman is a former Williamson County district judge—recommended to Rutledge and the Pharr delegation, which consisted of Garza Reyes and Pharr City Commissioner, Eleazar Guajardo, that STC “explore partnership opportunities with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC)” — an inter agency training center for federal law enforcement under the auspices of the DHS.
FLETC would become STC’s avenue for federal law enforcement training funds. PSJA ISD dual enrollment students will be able to participate in the regional center’s law enforcement programs.
The plan developed by local officials called for creating a regional training center for federal law enforcement agencies. This way, new trainees “do not have to leave the Valley,” as officials would go on to repeat in their own way. Agents hired by US Border Patrol, according to Garza Reyes, tend to train at a FLETC facility in Artesia, New Mexico.
A regional training center in the Rio Grande Valley, goes the reasoning, would save on travel costs. RGV sector border patrol agents will soon be trained in their “environmental element,” Garza Reyes said. “Regional dollars,” otherwise spent elsewhere, will, too, stay in the "region."
Reed also expressed this sentiment. According to her September 2017 letter, a partnership with FLETC would:
“deploy local training assets that will enable US Customs and Border Protection officers to have access to training within the region. This will reduce the time officers have to leave the area for specialized training and travel expenses. The unique model will create a cross occupational functional “real life training” environment because of the proximity to the border. Creating an environment that state, local and federal first responder professionals are being trained on a Law Enforcement and Homeland Security Training Site will provide a regional approach to design a “21st Century Integrated Border Training Complex”.
Reed ends by recommending that Cuellar (who in upcoming years would go on to deliver the keynote address at the FLETC college credit agreement ceremony) visit a FLETC facility.
Democratic, Republican officials united in favor of RCPSE
The RCPSE received great support from local officials. Early on, PSJA ISD donated 56 acres. The City of Pharr donated about ten acres of land and one million dollars cash to the regional center. Through the Texas Legislature, Texas State Senator, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, helped secure $1.6 million for the establishment of the RCPSE. In general, the regional center remains popular with local, federal, law enforcement.
Among those who have favored the creation of the RCPSE is the state government of Tamaulipas. Under different administrations, Tamaulipan governors have lobbied various aspects of the US Government to train elite, Tamaulipan State police forces, ostensibly to combat drug cartels. In May 2018, such cross border police training ensued. The Cameron County Sheriff’s Department trained multiple aspects of the Mexican Government’s law enforcement agencies. In an email to US Congressman Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX-15), Reed posits this cross-border police training as exemplary.
In a video-interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, immediately after the RCPSE’s 2017 groundbreaking ceremony, Reed says training Mexican law enforcement at the regional center would be “a great opportunity.”
The masterplan, which calls for a $71.28 million dollar budget, is divided into three phases. While STC develops basic fire fighter and peace officer certificates in its early phases, and while the RCPSE’s ultimate goal is to become a regional training facility for the DHS, training Mexican State police could be a bonus.
“There’s just no end to the possibilities,” Reed said of the center.
Indeed, on April 18, 2018, Congressman Vicente Gonzalez wrote in to Reed so as to inquire of the famous center and its relation to Mexican law enforcement. After "praising" Reed, to put it mildly, Gonzalez said he was writing on behalf of concerned constituents. Gonzalez asks Reed for any information and insight on the training of Mexican law enforcement at any STC campuses.
One month later, on May 4, Reed responds to Gonzalez and says that, although it would be a good thing, the college is not training Mexican law enforcement.
"South Texas College is not currently providing training to Mexican law enforcement professionals," Reed said to Gonzalez. However, as a community college located along the Southern Border, we recognize the U.S. and Mexican economies are tightly intertwined because of our geographic proximity and integration institutionalized in the North American Free Trade Agreement. The establishment of the Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence provides the opportunity for the College to play a major role in shaping the opportunity for cross-border training to ensure security in both countries."
In a follow-up email to Gonzalez, dated May 24, Reed shares the Brownsville Herald regarding the Cameron County Sheriff's Department training Mexican law enforcement article mentioned earlier. Reed claims that the cross training had improved bilateral relationships between the US and Mexico.
"The U.S. State Department implemented the Merida Initiative in Fiscal Year 2008, the United States has provided Mexico with training, technical assistance and equipment to expand the professionalism of Mexican law enforcement and improve their capacity to investigate and prosecute cases. The joint efforts have built confidence that has improved bilateral relations," Reed wrote. She ends by offering Gonzalez an open invitation to the regional center.
US-backed military interventions
Critics of the US Government’s foreign police training, however, demonstrate a long history of such operations going horribly wrong. Many foreign graduates from US military, law enforcement facilities, have gone on to commit heinous crimes against humanity, including genocide and murder in places as far apart as Brazil and Guatemala.
Likewise, some Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have been trained in—what Jacobin Magazine calls—“civilian-targeted warfare” at the former School of The Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). To be sure, WHINSEC is housed by the US Department of Defense, whereas FLETC in housed by DHS, which some say should be considered as "defense."
STC, nonetheless, will become an extension of US Government Security training. Gonzalez—who was writing on behalf of worried constituents—responded favorably to Reed’s talking points and thanked her for her continued dedication.
"I appreciate your plan to engage with law enforcement agencies. We are at our best when we come together and work with all to ensure the safety and well-being of people living in communities on the U.S.-Mexico border," Gonzalez wrote.
Just another day on the border
The day was drawing near in 2018. Great support was needed. Reed invited guest speakers for the RCPSE's September grand opening. Her guest list featured Texas Governor Greg Abbott. If there is any consistent characteristic to Governor Abbott's leadership style, then his love of law enforcement would fit the bill.
In point of solidarity, as well as deployment, Governor Abbott is a strong supporter of border patrol agents. Earlier this year, Governor Abbott deployed 1,000 National Guard troops to the Southern border, in addition to the year before. In 2017, Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 4 (SB4), dubbed the “show me your papers” law, which empowered Texas Department of Public Safety troopers (whom Abbott deployed in his ongoing "border surge") to inquire about people’s legal status during routine traffic stops. SB4 continues to damage the lives of many families living on the border.
President Reed could not be without Governor Abbott, saying to him that the RCPSE's grand opening would be scheduled “based on your availability.”
That day turned out to be September 18, 2018. I attended for a different, but related, assignment. Governor Abbot, and other officials like State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio, attended as well. All spoke against the manifold dangers of living on the border, all of which were either left unspecified or vaguely attributed to “drug cartels.”
Apparently, this was just another day on the border.
Other emails sent to STC Board of Trustees member and local attorney, Gary Gurwitz, consist of subscription emails from Congressman Henry Cuellar’s office. The content of Cuellar’s emails encapsulates how rampant the border industrial complex runs along the Southern border, or what Reed called in her September 2017 email, “Rio South Texas” region, a new geographical distinction that Reed and Cuellar invented to include the Rio Grande Valley and the rest of Congressman Cuellar’s district (Zapata, Webb, and Jim Hogg counties).
Congressman Cuellar’s letters, showed, for example, how a volunteer fire department in Lytle, Texas, was awarded a DHS grant by Cuellar, and how a county sheriff's department in La Salle, was likewise awarded DHS money, in this case for their collaborations with border patrol’s Operation Stone Garden. Obviously, in the border industrial complex, money is to be made through various grant programs.
At what cost?
Throughout the summer months of 2019, Cuellar’s campaign sent questionnaires, news bulletins about various border patrol PR programs, like a youth program in Laredo. The rest of the campaign emails consisted of Cuellar’s recent legislative actions. In June 2019, these emails originated with an automated thank you note from Cuellar for Gurwitz’ $1000 campaign contribution. Cuellar finds himself in a primary challenge. Fellow Laredo-native and a former staffer of Cuellar’s, Jessica Cisneros, a 24-year old immigration attorney, stands as the Progressive candidate against the long-time incumbent.
Homeland security's subsuming into education is part of a larger strategy to militarize the Southern US border—a strategy and vision that politicians like Cuellar, Reed, and the ruling class that surrounds them, have been working overtime to implement.