Smuggler-Chasing Texas Sheriffs Want Money, Not Guardsmen

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Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents take undocumented immigrants into custody near Falfurrias, Texas, on July 22, 2014.

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Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents take undocumented immigrants into custody near Falfurrias, Texas, on July 22, 2014. Close

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents take undocumented immigrants into custody near Falfurrias, Texas, on July 22, 2014.

Photographer: Esme E. Deprez/Bloomberg

A sign just south of the immigration checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas, warns would-be smugglers of undocumented immigrants. Close

A sign just south of the immigration checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas, warns would-be smugglers of undocumented immigrants.

Photographer: Esme E. Deprez/Bloomberg

Federal and local agents survey a car, in which they discovered an estimated 275 pounds of marijuana in the trunk and backseat. Close

Federal and local agents survey a car, in which they discovered an estimated 275 pounds of marijuana in the trunk and backseat.

Photographer: Esme E. Deprez/Bloomberg

Daniel Walden, a volunteer deputy sheriff in Brooks County, takes a photo of fresh graffiti in an abandoned building used by smugglers as a stash house to stow their human cargo. Close

Daniel Walden, a volunteer deputy sheriff in Brooks County, takes a photo of fresh graffiti in an abandoned building... Read More

Texas sheriffs are fuming over Governor Rick Perry’s failure to consult them before dispatching 1,000 National Guardsmen to bolster the border with Mexico.

Local officers say they’ve confronted the daily fallout from a porous border and broken immigration system for decades, while the Guard troops will lack authority to make arrests and are unfamiliar with the terrain. They say even a fraction of the millions of dollars Perry is spending would be better used to supplement the coffers of places like Brooks County, an area so starved of money that it relies on unpaid volunteers to maintain order in a territory the size of Rhode Island.

It isn’t easy. Last weekend, Brooks Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Ennis found himself in a 100 mile-per-hour chase at 4:45 a.m. tailing a tan pickup suspected of just having just dropped off a load of undocumented immigrants. The truck raced down a desolate road before slamming into a wire fence.

“Sheriff’s Department!” Ennis screamed as he jumped out of his Chevy Defender and ran toward the immobilized vehicle, drawing his .40 caliber Glock pistol as the driver took off on foot into the darkness. “Stop!”

Perry’s July 21 surge announcement has been widely viewed as an attempt to augment his profile as he rides out his third and final term and contemplates another run for the White House. His state has been in the spotlight in recent months as a record wave of unaccompanied children, mostly Central American, crosses the border for relief from violence and poverty.

Working ‘Seamlessly’

The debate over how to stop an influx of undocumented children and adults has divided the governor’s fellow Republicans. They’re balancing attempts to look tough on immigration without alienating Latinos, whose support they need at the ballot box.

National Guardsmen, set to arrive this month, will work “seamlessly and side by side” with civilian law enforcement to combat activity by drug cartels and human traffickers, Perry said. It’s part of a years-long effort that’s needed due to the federal government’s failure to seal the border, he said.

Details on what the Guard will actually do remain elusive. At a hearing last week in Austin, state lawmakers received vague responses about the mission’s goal and duration when pressing Major General John F. Nichols of the Texas National Guard. The Texas Military Forces, which oversee the Guard, declined to provide more details, citing security concerns. News reports have pegged the operation’s cost at $12 million to $17 million per month.

Band-Aid Approach

“That’s money really thrown away,” said Sheriff Omar Lucio, a Democrat who oversees Cameron County, which borders Mexico on the Gulf Coast. “Why would you spend millions on something like that that’s not going to work?”

County officers call the surge a temporary Band-Aid that will provide only short-term relief, if any. At the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas meeting in late July in San Antonio, the top cops of the state’s 254 counties voted unanimously on a resolution calling on leaders in Austin and Washington to include them in border-control planning and operations.

“This idea of using the National Guard was never discussed with our sheriffs,” said Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, based in El Paso. “We just think we can do it more efficiently and less costly and with less disruption to the community. Let us be part of the planning. We know the area better than you.”

Human Trafficking

Nowhere is the failure to address local needs more acute, sheriffs say, than in Brooks County, an almost 1,000-square-mile (2,590 square-kilometer) expanse of mesquite trees and heavy brush that’s a regional funnel for the trafficking of humans, drugs and weapons.

Smugglers ply backroads to avoid an immigration checkpoint in the county’s only city, Falfurrias, where a sign says agents have caught more than 32,000 undocumented migrants and seized 80,000 pounds of illicit drugs -- this year alone. Migrants trek north though vast ranches, often dying from starvation, dehydration or rattlesnake bites.

Because Brooks is separated from Mexico by Hidalgo County, it’s ineligible for direct border funding. Chief Deputy Sheriff Benny Martinez helps oversee a budget of $615,000. His force has dropped to four staff deputies from 10 as employees left for better pay and benefits elsewhere. The deputies earn less than $25,000 a year with no health or life insurance.

Volunteer Network

That’s left volunteers such as Ennis, a mustachioed 32-year-old father of three, to augment the force. Ennis works full-time for the Pharr Fire Department, about 75 miles south, and treks to Brooks to volunteer three times a month.

It’s not about vigilante justice, unlike some other groups who have taken border security into their own hands, Ennis said. Every person rescued is one fewer body recovered later, and most aren’t criminals.

“They’re just human beings trying to better their lives,” he said.

Daniel Walden, interim chief of the Donna Independent School District Police Department, 80 miles south, founded the volunteer network -- called the Border Brotherhood -- in June. It’s since grown to 17 from three. At least 20 more men want to join, Walden said, but he doesn’t have the $350 apiece needed to outfit them with a bulletproof vest, badge, shirt and certification. The county is too poor to provide night-vision goggles or a reliable communication system, leaving no way to request backup in rural dead zones.

Soccer Cleats

Border Brotherhood deputies work like any other. They know the favorite drop-off and pick-up spots of smugglers and the locations of the stash houses where they store human cargo. They can tell that a car’s sunken rear wheel wells indicate a heavy load of bodies. And they’ve learned that smugglers and migrants have taken to wearing soccer cleats to ease escapes in the sandy desert.

Sheriffs can’t enforce federal immigration law -- meaning they can’t pull over someone on suspicion alone. But they can nab people for breaking the law, so traffic infractions like speeding or rolling through a stop sign are powerful weapons.

Sometimes the cargo is drugs, as it was on a recent Friday night, when the pursuit of a cherry-red Pontiac Grand Am led to the discovery of about 275 pounds (125 kilograms) of marijuana in its trunk and back seat. The stash was wrapped in light-brown tape and twine and outfitted with straps fashioned from seat belts for carrying like a backpack. The driver, who said he was a 17-year-old Mexican, was arrested; the others escaped into the brush.

Futile Chase

More often the cargo is people, as was the case in the high-speed chase involving Deputy Sheriff Ennis last weekend.

The relative quiet of his overnight shift broke before 5 a.m., with a colleague’s request to look out for a truck that had made a suspicious U-turn just before reaching the Falfurrias immigration checkpoint. Within minutes, it whizzed by, and Ennis gunned his vehicle to catch up.

He had the dispatcher verify the license plate and learned that the registration had expired -- just what he needed to flip his lights and blare his siren. The driver ignored both and accelerated before slowing to turn into a picnic area, snake between an 18-wheeler and a cement table and plow into a fence.

A few too many steps behind, without backup and potentially outnumbered, Ennis could do little more than watch a silhouette disappear into the night. The truck, he would find, contained only the driver’s seat. The others had been removed to cram in more people.

Ennis radioed to dispatch as he panted in the heat, his face slick with sweat: “Lost the male suspect, dark colored clothing, heading east into the brush.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Esme E. Deprez in Falfurrias, Texas, at edeprez@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net Mark Schoifet

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