El Paso’s new FBI boss brings ‘holistic’ approach to fight against border drug cartels

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SAC Jeffrey R. Downey praises interagency cooperation, says investigations will encompass drugs, illegal cash, weapons trafficking and other related crimes

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Every kid has a hero, and in Jeffrey R. Downey’s case it was his father.

The Canton, Ohio, youngster grew up admiring his dad, William, an FBI special agent for 30 years. “That’s where I wanted to be someday when I grew up,” the now-adult Downey said.

He got his wish 18 years ago and today he finds himself as the special agent in charge of the federal agency’s El Paso Field Office.

One month into the job, he showers praise on this friendly, low-crime community which nonetheless happens to be in one of the busiest corridors for drugs, migrants, weapons, and illegal cash on the U.S.-Mexico border. Two drug cartels – Juarez and Sinaloa – and four major gangs operate across the border and are involved in the trafficking of dangerous synthetic drugs, murder, kidnapping and migrant smuggling.

“We’ve been very aggressive in investigating narcotics trafficking and the cartels across the border. We do that here at the FBI, but we do that in partnership with our local, state and federal partners,” he said. “That will continue as it has in the past.”

The crime and national security threat posed by the cartels – who smuggle any drug including the potentially deadly fentanyl as well as unvetted foreigners from all over the globe – is such that the only way to combat it is through extreme interagency coordination.

“We’re in constant contact, I would say on a daily basis, with other (Department of Justice) partners, DHS, ATF, Border Patrol, Customs, HSI. We work very closely in this community and we will continue that effort to bring people to justice,” Downey said.

Drugs and migrants flow north. Illegal drug cash and guns go south. The latter has been a thorn on the side of the Mexican government, whose attorneys last month filed a lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers over the gun violence in their country.

“In all the crimes we investigate we don’t just look at the narcotics, we look at the money, we look at the firearms, it’s a holistic approach. That won’t change how we investigate whether it’s illegal drugs, guns off the streets,” Downey said.

Mexican cartels often rely on El Paso gang members and individual “straw purchases” by individuals in need of money, security experts have told Border Report. Various interagency task forces are addressing this problem on the U.S. side, while the Mexican National Guard has started random roadside checks in Juarez.

“What I want to tell the community is the men and women of the FBI here […] are individuals who live in this community who care about keeping not only this community but our nation safe on a day-to-day basis,” Downey said. “I’m also impressed here by the partnerships among law-enforcement at federal, state and local level. I think that cooperation — that you don’t see everywhere — is extremely important to making sure we continue to keep our crime rates low and make sure this continues to be a safe community.”

Hate crimes trending down after 2019, 2020 spike

But there are many aspects to the job other than the fight against organized crime. The FBI also investigates white-collar crime ranging from Medicare and mortgage fraud to hate crimes and corruption in government.

Hate crime rose in the United States to a 12-year high in 2020, fueled by race bias. The FBI earlier this week reported 7,759 such incidents, a 6% increase over 2019.

The FBI defines a hate crime as an offense that is motivated at least in part by a bias against a victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.

Downey said hate crimes are going down in El Paso. This, despite a recent “uptick” in a West Texas district that stretches from San Antonio to here and the much-publicized allegedly racially motivated Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting that claimed 23 lives at an El Paso Walmart.

The alleged shooter is yet to go to trial and the FBI deferred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and to the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office for comment.

“We’ve seen a small uptick in 2019 and 2020 (but) here in El Paso from last year to the current year it’s reduced. We had seven reports of hate crimes last year and this year we have three, which I think it’s a compliment to the community,” Downey said.

The crimes for the most part are gender-based and race-based. Downey said there could be more, but people often don’t report them. On the other hand, what someone may interpret as a racial attack could turn out to be protected free speech.

Looking forward to more community outreach

In any case, the public needs more education on this issue and the FBI is willing to provide it.

“It’s important for us to reach out to talk to the community […] to educate the community about hate crimes and the importance of coming to talk to law enforcement if you think you’re the victim of a hate crime,” he said.

Downey replaces Luis Quesada, the former special agent in charge who started weekly public chats with his experts on community topics such as internet fraud and crimes against children. He says those talks will continue.

“That will be one of my (priorities), to make sure we are continually available to the community and educate them on any crimes that are out there. It’s important for us to spend time […] to understand the community we serve and (their) different views,” he said.

Downey has been with the FBI since 2003 with stints in Detroit, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. He was with the U.S. Secret Service prior to that.

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