The muddy business of border control.

The U.S. Border Patrol's Bumpy Road

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

Driving south on a rutted dirt road, crossing private property on a lumpy path to the Rio Grande River, Leslie James, a Border Patrol special operations supervisor, is conducting an ad hoc inventory of the local marijuana market, house by house by house.

"There's a store up here on the right-hand side," he says, about three-quarters of the way through his list. "Directly behind it we got twenty-five hundred pounds out of a trailer house back there."

One of nine designated sectors along the southwest border, the Rio Grande Valley sector is the busiest part of the U.S. border. It is 320 miles long and penetrates more than 34,000 square miles into the Texas interior, an area larger than South Carolina. Marijuana travels across the river -- occasionally in bulk -- in the sector's Rio Grande station. Central Americans come across -- occasionally in droves -- in the McAllen station. Organized crime facilitates the transit of each, corrupting both sides of the border.

"In this area, it's the Gulf Cartel," said Jason Owens, the agent in charge of the Rio Grande City station. "Anything that wants to come across the border in this area comes through them."

Policing the border is dangerous work: The reception area of the sector headquarters features photos of agents who "gave their lives" to the cause, including half a dozen since 2011. The practical effect is that one day Border Patrol agents are chasing Mexican drug traffickers and the next they are corralling a Honduran toddler in a fouled diaper.

SLIDESHOW: The Things They Carried Across the Border

At the end of September, I spent consecutive days bouncing around the sector in a Border Patrol Chevy Suburban. My companions were an interesting bunch. Owens is built like a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot, a pair of shrewd eyes atop stacked rectangles of muscle. James is a wily veteran who knows his way around the rutted trails that pass for roads here. Joe Gutierrez has moved from field work to a desk job in public affairs, and Rod Kise is a brand new public-affairs officer. All speak Spanish and are dismissive of agents who speak only enough to pass the required test. Gutierrez is Mexican-American. Kise and James are married to Mexican-Americans. Owens is married to a woman from Honduras.

Owens calls their work a game of "cat and mouse" between traffickers and agents. It's more like guerrilla warfare. The militarization of the U.S. side of the border has not shut down trafficking of drugs and humans. It has professionalized it. The harder it is to cross, the more immigrants must rely on increasingly high-priced coyotes. And just as the agents are paid to watch the traffickers, so too are the traffickers paid to watch the agents. Most of the immigrant advocates I've spoken with agree that almost nothing moves north across the river these days without an assist from, and payoff to, organized crime. (Though "organized" doesn't always mean "cartel.")

The sector is dense with law enforcement. Driving along Route 83, parallel to the river, we passed vehicles belonging to state troopers, game wardens, the state department of public safety, National Guard and the local sheriff. The next day, on a dirt road along the river, we passed a Kevlar-clad horseman from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Why was he there? Who knows? Federal money showers the border; everyone wants a taste.

The border winds for 1,900 miles. Brush adjacent to the river is dense and wild, a natural hiding place. Cultured land, planted with everything from sorghum to sugar cane, can also provide cover. The border wall is not everywhere a total joke. But it's not a great deterrent either. It's mostly a gold-plated hurdle -- in some places impeding those bounding through the brush for as little as a few seconds.

The border is more secure than ever, with surveillance drones, seismic sensors and lookout towers aiding U.S. security. (None of these, of course, deter immigrant children and families who deliberately seek U.S. custody.) Extra billions would no doubt have some incremental effect. But even with an army of law enforcement, the war will not be won. The border patrol has doubled in size in the past decade. If it doubles again over the next decade its job will remain more or less what it is today: triage efforts to counter desperation and greed, and the infinite tactical adaptations they inspire.

Politics -- Ebola! terrorists! -- inclines the genie in Washington to grant the border patrol many wishes. Any future legalization of the undocumented in the U.S. will be accompanied by more enforcement spending on the border, whether it's useful or not. When I asked my companions what would best facilitate their task, the response came quickly: "Paved roads."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net