Sunday, June 10, 2012

Action At Our Southern Border...An unlucky day for the drug mules

New frontier for DPS is stopping smuggling
By Jason Buch  ~

HIDALGO COUNTY — It was an unlucky day for the drug mules scrambling to reach a stash house near Mission.
Their black Ford F-250 pickup, its bed and cab loaded with 1,200 pounds of pot, was spotted by law enforcement officers on a recent afternoon, and within minutes a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter swooped overhead.
The driver turned his truck around and headed for the river.
The chopper shadowed the pickup as it sped over unpaved roads, weaving through the network of irrigation channels and farmland gently sloping toward the Rio Grande. Below the Anzalduas International Bridge, the truck hit the water.
The driver and his passenger swam across to the Mexican side of the river, while Border Patrol agents swarmed the truck and confiscated the load.
“I think he took a wrong turn there, because normally there would have been two or three rafts and about three or four people to take (the drugs) across,” said Capt. Stacy Holland, one of two helicopter pilots flying patrols out of Edinburg on the day of the chase.
The smugglers escaped in a so-called “splashdown,” the term used when traffickers on the run from U.S. officers high-tail it back to the river. Such escape attempts have become more frequent, DPS said, since the department bolstered its presence on the border with more troopers, technology, equipment and weapons.
The Legislature has provided more than $600 million for border security since 2007, with most of the money given to DPS to target drug and human smugglers. The border operation today represents a small army, with specialized Ranger Reconnaissance Teams, new intelligence centers, patrol boats, helicopters and surveillance cameras watching for traffickers.
Even a high-altitude spy plane soon will be deployed.
It's a departure from DPS' traditional roles as highway patrolmen and a support service to local law enforcement agencies.
The new strategy is based on “the idea of unifying the efforts and recognizing that there's insufficient resources for Border Patrol to secure the border,” said DPS Director Steve McCraw. “How do we work together to amplify border security?”
Border security was a keystone of Gov. Rick Perry's 2010 re-election campaign and his aborted bid for the GOP presidential nomination, and the issue has received bipartisan support in the Legislature.
But civil-rights advocates and others question the need for DPS' involvement in border security when the Border Patrol is at an all-time high in personnel and funding. Meanwhile, they say, there is no indication that beefing up border security has hurt Mexico's drug cartels.
“That money could perhaps be used for other purposes, as we already have Texas Parks and Wildlife” patrolling the river in boats, said Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez. “Ranger Recon Teams? I don't really know what they've done as we're not privy to that information. DPS is doing the best job they can, but I do, however, feel that their way of working is totally different from local law enforcement.”

Swift response

Cable viewers are now privy to the militarylike missions. Last year, Discovery Channel aired “Texas Drug Wars,” a one-hour special that followed troopers, Rangers and pilots as they chase border smugglers.
In one segment, a trafficker fleeing in a pickup started throwing caltrops — nails welded together to puncture tires. A DPS chopper raced in with a marksman, hanging from its open door, who shot out the truck's tires.
But the dangerous maneuver was unsuccessful, and the smuggler managed to splash down near the ferry crossing at Los Ebanos.
“There's been an increasingly confrontational nature in the criminals and the cartel operatives we're dealing with right now,” McCraw said. “Some of these pursuits, they don't care, they're desperate.”
But while DPS and some border residents said traffickers are becoming more brazen, the department couldn't provide statistics to show an increase in confrontations between smugglers and troopers. But the department did provide data showing that troopers in Hidalgo County are involved in far more pursuits than any other county in the state, and that of the top 10 counties for DPS chases, five are on the border and three of the top four are in the Rio Grande Valley.
It's still a far cry from the actual war zone across the river in Mexico. Cities along the Rio Grande are among the safest in Texas, but that's not much consolation for those who live in remote, highly trafficked areas on the border, particularly in a 20-mile stretch from Los Ebanos downstream to Mission.

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