EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The threat posed by transnational criminal organizations operating on both sides of the border has John S. Morales and many other federal officials on alert.
But the top two priorities of the FBI El Paso Field Office’s new special agent in charge are much more local: dealing with a rising number of threats of violence in schools and detecting “lone wolf” terrorists – foreign or domestic – before they strike this peaceful community.
“We address all threats but there are two specifically we are focusing on. One of them is school threats,” Morales said on Tuesday. “This year we’ve had a law enforcement response to 16 schools and based on what I’ve learned, we are going to far exceed the threats from last year. (They) not only cause panic in children and the school; they cause mass panic in the community, especially with the history of incidents we’ve had.”
He was referring to the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart that claimed 23 lives and left 22 wounded and still brings back bad memories to a city considered among the safest in the country. The shooter, Patrick Wood Crusius, allegedly was infuriated by the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” became radicalized and came to El Paso to “kill Mexicans.” He’s serving 90 consecutive life-in-prison terms.
Morales attributes the proliferation of threats of violence to schools to new technologies.
“You don’t need to know anything about computers, just being able to go online or social media and learning,” he said. “It’s not a joke. A lot of times when we find out who it is, it’s kids – sometimes teenagers, sometimes elementary-age kids – who are playing online or part of some type of challenge on social media. It’s not funny. It’s dangerous and we’re not taking that as a joke.”
Morales urges parents to talk to their children and monitor usage of the internet because they can be held financially accountable for damages.
Adults also are using cyber technology not just to threaten violence on schools through social media – as was the case with a man arrested recently in Lima, Peru, for causing panic in 150 schools in New York, Pennsylvania, Arizona and other U.S. states – but to conduct other illicit enterprises.
“The other threat that concerns me is the threat of that individual we have not seen and is not on our radar because he’s sitting by himself, self-radicalizing by what’s on social media and (law enforcement) not being able to mitigate that before it happens,” Morales said. “El Paso knows the destruction and havoc they can reap. These folks are lone wolves […] and the only way we can effectively have a chance to mitigate that is with a partnership with the community, educating the community, working with our partners and establishing those ‘trip wires’ allowing (people) to talk freely, without any concern for their own well-being or safety, to federal or local” authorities.
During his first conversation with members of the El Paso news media, the FBI special agent in charge briefly touched on the fentanyl epidemic and concerns over possible terrorist threats due to the ongoing conflict between Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Morales said there have been no specific threats of terrorism on the border due to the war.
And fentanyl, while it continues to be seized in greater amounts by border law enforcement agencies, is mostly passing through El Paso and not being widely distributed in this community.
Morales is a native of New York City who was raised there and in Puerto Rico. He has been with the FBI for 20 years and most recently served as deputy assistant director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate.
He said this is his first assignment as special agent in charge, is looking forward to the challenge and has found El Paso very welcoming.