Image: Arizona National Guard monitors US - Mexico border
John Moore  /  Getty Images
Army National Guardsmen scan the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday in Nogales, Arizona. The Pentagon recently extended the deployment of some 1,200 guardsmen who were deployed last year to assist with border security on the border until September 30.
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updated 6/26/2011 7:03:30 AM ET 2011-06-26T11:03:30

Perched 20 feet above a South Texas cabbage field in a telephone booth-sized capsule, a National Guardsman passes a moonlit Sunday night with a gun strapped to his hip, peering through heat detector lenses into an adjacent orange grove.

Deployment of 1,200 National Guard soldiers for one year: $110 million.

This same night, farther west on the border, a haunting whistle blasts through the predawn quiet as a mile-long train groans to a heavy stop halfway across a Rio Grande River bridge. In a ritual performed nightly, a Customs and Border Protection agent unlocks a gate, a railroad policeman slides the heavy doors open, and they both wave flashlight beams under, over and in between the loads of cars, electronics and produce, before they pass through an X-ray machine searching for hidden people or drugs.

One rail cargo x-ray screening machine: $1.75 million.

On this night in southern Arizona, a screener examining tractor-trailer loads of charcoal spots something odd and asks for a closer look. Drug sniffing dogs bark. He finds 8,000 pounds of baled marijuana in several trucks.

Customs and Border Protection officer average annual salary: $75,000. Drug-sniffing dog: $4,500.

As Congress debates border funding and as governors demand more assistance, The Associated Press has investigated what taxpayers spend securing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The price tag, until now, has not been public. But AP, using White House budgets, reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional transcripts, tallied it all up: $90 billion in 10 years.

For taxpayers footing this bill, the returns have been mixed: fewer illegal immigrants but little impact on the terrorism issue, and certainly no stoppage of the drug supply.

Story: Mexican ex-presidents open to legalizing drugs

***

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists didn't come from Mexico, but the attacks led politicians to re-examine border security. Ten days later, President George W. Bush announced a new Department of Homeland Security, with tasks including the security of the nation's porous southern border.

Over the next 10 years, annual border spending tripled as the U.S. built an unprecedented network along the 1,900-mile border with Mexico: 165 truck and train X-ray machines; 650 miles of heavy duty fencing and sheer concrete walls; twice as many law enforcement officers along the entire stretch, and a small fleet of Predator drones. Also, remote surveillance cameras, thermal imaging devices and partially buried ground sensors that sound an alarm back at headquarters if someone steps on one in the desert.

"Our obligation to secure our borders involves a responsibility to do so in the most cost effective way possible, and we recognize that there is no 'one size fits all' solution to meet our border security needs," said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler.

Over the years, the goals of the border security measures have shifted.

Early concerns that terrorists could sneak weapons into the U.S. from Mexico were later overshadowed by worries about violent drug cartels slaughtering people across the Rio Grande. As the U.S. economy faltered, preventing illegal immigrants from sneaking north for jobs became the focus.

Story: Mexico president defends drug war tactics

"Border security is no longer just about responding to 9/11. It became very much a part of the immigration debate," said Jena Baker McNeill, homeland security policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, stopping immigrants at the border has become a bargaining tool for the last two administrations with Congress — fences and guards in exchange for reforming immigration laws, she said.

The buildup has dramatically reduced illegal immigration. Ten years ago, border agents caught 1.6 million illegal immigrants in one year. Last year they caught just 463,000. The drop is attributed in part to the U.S. recession which decreased jobs here, but it's also an indication, according to federal officials, that fewer people are attempting to illegally cross the border.

But the spending has not worked to stop the flow of illegal drugs. Last year, border guards seized a record 254,000 pounds of cocaine, 3.6 million pounds of marijuana, and 4,200 pounds of heroin. In response, Mexico's cartel bosses simply sent more: trainloads of marijuana, cocaine stuffed in fenders and dashboards, heroin packed into young men's shoes.

An estimated 660,000 pounds of cocaine, 44,000 pounds of heroin and 220,000 pounds of methamphetamine are on American streets in a given year, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. A fraction of that amount is seized at the border, a small operating cost for Mexico's drug lords, who will reap an estimated $25 billion this year from their U.S. sales.

Last month, a Justice Department study reviewing the total cost of illicit drug use in the U.S., using cost-of-illness studies, federal crime and caseload statistics, and economic models, came up with a figure of $193 billion per year.

"You can't ever seal the border. You can never stop anything 100 percent. As long as there's a market, as long as there's a profit, there will always be someone taking a chance on getting that product through," says Democratic U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, a former Border Patrol director.

Despite the surge of violence just a stone's throw away — the death toll in Mexico's crackdown on cartels is more than 35,000 — the Obama administration reports communities on the U.S. side of the border enjoy relative peace. Nor have terrorists typically crossed the border to enter the U.S., officials note.

Still, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, warns against complacency.

"There is a disagreement about the definition of spillover violence and the extent of such violence, but there should be no disagreement about the threat we face and what will happen if this Administration continues to downplay the threat," he said. "So what should we do? For starters we should get out of our foxholes and lean forward against this growing threat. If we don't, the cartels will eventually attempt to take over our cities."

If Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano could talk to Mexico's drug cartel bosses, here's what she says she would tell them: "Don't even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response."

And if she could talk to would-be illegal immigrants, she'd say this: "There are more Border Patrol agents on that border than ever before. There are more customs officials. There is more technology. Do not throw in your lot with the cartels or the criminal organizations because the likelihood of getting caught, and the consequences of doing so are higher than ever before."

For 2012, the Obama administration's record high budget for border security proposes an additional $242 million to pay for high tech watch towers and movable screeners along the border, $229 million to raise border agents' pay, and $184 million to identify and deport criminal aliens in state prisons and local jails. That's on top of about $14 billion to support the ongoing infrastructure.

Over the years, budget allocations tell a story of a shifting border policy.

In 2002, as post-9/11 security checks created 4 hour waits on the border, the Bush Administration sought $380 million to construct a state-of-the-art entry and exit visa system.

In 2006, the federal government ended an immigration "catch and release" policy in which local police had been releasing illegal immigrants if they hadn't committed a local crime. Now they would be turned over to feds and face immigration charges. That year taxpayers spent $327 million for 4,000 new beds to hold the suspected illegal immigrants until they could be legally processed.

This January, the Obama administration dumped SBInet, an attempt to install a high-tech "virtual" border fence project that cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion but did little to improve security.

"From the start, SBInet's one-size-fits-all approach was unrealistic," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "The department's decision to use technology based on the particular security needs of each segment of the border is a far wiser approach, and I hope it will be more cost effective."

***

Are border priorities now matched by spending? The answer depends on whom you ask.

"At some point we got the misconception that border security means securing the border," said Andrew Selee, director of the Washington-based Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan think tank. "It's actually about something much more comprehensive, from reducing drug use to reforming immigration laws, all the while facilitating legitimate trade. The spending needs to match the goals."

Customs and Border Patrol's main job is to protect the U.S. from terrorism. But it's the U.S-Canada frontier — which taxpayers spent $2.9 billion securing last year — that is "the more significant threat" when it comes to terrorism, CBP head Alan Bersin told senators at a recent hearing.

Bersin said this is because the Canadian government won't use the FBI's no-fly terrorist watchlist. (Canada has its own.) "We are, more than we would like, confronted with the fact where a No-Fly has entered Canada and then is arrested coming across one of our bridges into the United States," Bersin said.

Just over 6,000 people were arrested — for all reasons, not just for being on the no-fly lists — at the U.S.-Canada border last year, compared to 445,000 arrests at the Mexican border.

In Texas, El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar calls the $2.6 billion, 650-mile border fence that winds through the south side of her city, "a rusting monument that makes my community look like a junk-yard." Even worse, the rows of 18-foot welded steel bars along the Rio Grande River don't do anything to address El Paso's costs from Mexico's drug wars, she says.

"Border residents have seen their communities used as a convenient backdrop to heated debates and political posturing about immigration and drug policies," she says.

For example, since 2008, when violence exploded across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, hundreds of near-dead victims have been rushed across the border to public emergency rooms where taxpayers have spent $4.9 million in trauma care for those victims to date. And local sheriffs are overwhelmed with policing transnational gangs. Jails, she said, are overcrowded. Prosecutors juggle cases that should be handled by feds.

"Where has some of the federal funding gone, if not to my trauma facility or increasing my law enforcement capacity?" Escobar asks, then answers her own question. " It's gone to a wall."

Nelson H. Balido, president of the Border Trade Alliance, questions whether federal border funding has shortchanged security at ports of entry, in favor of security between them.

"If there aren't enough inspectors to open up all the lanes at a land border port during a period of peak traffic, then shipments can get stuck waiting in sometimes miles-long backups, stalling just-in-time manufacturing operations and increasing costs," he said.

Nor does random vehicle inspection make sense, he said, comparing it to "a search for a needle in a haystack, often resulting in increased delays and congestion to residents and the trade."

Gil Kerlikowske, the outgoing director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, said he doesn't think the country can completely stop drugs from crossing its borders and advocates a holistic approach that includes border security as well as prevention and treatment programs to lessen drug demand.

"I don't think we have a real choice but to make sure that we're putting the appropriate amount of money and technology into the border," Kerlikowske said. "But I also think when it comes to the drug issue that we need to be really focused on not just thinking about it from an enforcement end only."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Mayor: People have changed way they live in Juarez

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