BY KRISTIAN HERNANDEZ
SAN ANTONIO — Industry leaders and government officials came together this week for the 11th annual Border Security Expo where they discussed new priorities and opportunities in border security and immigration enforcement.
This was the second time the three-day expo has been held here, and the second time the Border Patrol Foundation hosts a demo day where everyone gets to test some of the latest equipment and weapons.
“This year’s expo is especially relevant since there is a new administration in place and a new approach to managing our borders,” said Thomas Winkowski, advisory board chairman for the Border Security Expo.
Days after President Donald Trump took office he issued two executive orders targeting border security and illegal immigration. These orders redefined border security and elevated the standards and expectations from those tasked with securing the border, to levels higher than they’ve ever been.
Trump not only wants the Department of Homeland Security to build a border wall but wants to end all illegal immigration, something many here see as a new business opportunity. The expo this year attracted some 200 attendees from 37 states and 14 countries, most with hopes of networking with local, state, federal and international government decision makers.
More than 100 vendors selling anything from armored vehicles to drones, showcased their products at the convention center’s exhibit hall, while panelists discussed biometrics, cyber security and ways to counter transnational organized crime.
Keynote speakers including the Deputy Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Daniel Ragsdale, and the Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol Ronald Vitiello, who spoke about the importance of border experts coming together every year for the expo to share ideas from both the public and private sectors.
“People don’t realize the necessary relationships, the work that we do together,” Vitiello said to a crowd mostly made up of entrepreneurs and law enforcement officials. “The innovation, the technology, the logistics, the information that you help us with, it’s important because your products help us meet the mission.”
McAllen security systems company, Tough Dog LLC, was one of the companies showcasing their products this year. Their current market has been mostly commercial and residential surveillance systems, but they decided to attend the expo because they believe some of their products could also be used to secure the border, according to their sales representative Jorge Rivera Diaz Gonzalez.
“We are not only a surveillance camera provider, but we also provide complete video solutions which could be used to provide analytics and other types of alerts, and sensors that could help agents detect and track anyone trying to cross a perimeter or boundary like the Rio Grande,” Gonzalez said.
Assistant Chief Patrol Agent at the Laredo Border Patrol Sector Gabriel Acosta walked around the expo hall talking to vendors and learning about some of the latest state-of-the-art-technology and products. He said the expo also serves as an opportunity for them to see products that are being used in other sectors or by other departments around the world, and to get ideas on how they can help his agents here.
“When talking to the people that make these products, they get to hear our ideas,” Acosta said. “We tell them why that won’t work for us, or why it will work for us, so they are taking something back, and it’s capitalism right, it’s healthy competition to get the best product.”
Vendors at the expo ranged from small businesses such as Tough Dog, to international security system’s providers such as General Dynamics who also sponsored some events before and after the expo including a golf tournament and a reception at the Alamo for the Border Patrol Foundation on Monday.
In 2013 General Dynamics landed a $115 million dollar contract with the Department of Homeland Security, providing them with Remote Video Surveillance System’s or RVSS. These systems are located on elevated towers and structures and are mounted with infrared sensors, and video surveillance systems that help agents detect, track, and respond to missions along the U.S. border, according to their spokesman Doug Stone.
It took them years of field testing to develop the RVSS systems currently operational in Nogales, Douglas, Naco, Yuma, and Ajo, Arizona, but one of the main visionaries behind the product was Robert Gilbert, senior program director, and former Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief. General Dynamics will be deploying 14 relocatable towers later this year for a pilot in McAllen and Laredo.
“Every border patrol agent starts their career as a trainee border patrol agent even the chief of the entire border patrol so we all went through the same academy we all worked our way up through the ranks,” Gilbert said.
“We’ve all run down into these canyons chasing whatever so we’ve been on the ground thinking I wish I had this or that,” he added. “So seeing what was available at the time and using our imagination thinking if we could, if industry had things like that and I bring that experience to General Dynamics.”
Before the expo was held here it was held in Arizona where Gilbert would often be one of the panelists and speakers, but after he retired five years ago he joined General Dynamics and started working with them.
Gilbert said transferring from civil servant to the private sector is not a common path for many border patrol agents, but the advisory board of the Border Security Expo is made up primarily of former government officials.
The Advisory Board Chairman Thomas Winkowski, is the President of Global Border Solutions LLC, and also the former principle deputy assistant secretary for ICE and the former acting commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Gilbert said he’s been approached in the past by companies that wanted to employ him that were trying to sell products that he did not support, but he said his love for the border patrol is what keeps him honest.
“I am not going to work for a company that is not ethical, I am not going to work for a company that is not trying to deliver a real product to the border patrol,” Gilbert said. “When I work with General Dynamics I still bleed green and that will never change.” w