Cover Story

Border bandits

"Border bandits" Continued...

Issue: "Border bandits," Dec. 3, 2011

For Vickers, it was a familiar scene. The native Texan has lived in Falfurrias for 37 years and started TBV five years ago to respond to increasing immigrant traffic across the ranches in the area. (The cattle ranches are vast: Vickers' neighbor owns 100,000 acres.) Aside from the trespassing, Vickers says he's suffered costly property damage from immigrants cutting fences and breaking wells.

The rancher runs two-week operations about once a month, and volunteers from all over the country come to patrol for illegal crossings across two counties. On a recent night, volunteers gathered under a shelter on Vickers' ranch ahead of a night patrol. Night vision equipment and binoculars covered folding tables where three men sat, decked in camouflage. Deer trophies hung on an outside wall near a sign with John Wayne's picture and a quote: "Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway."

These guys don't look scared. Rich David-a paramedic from Wisconsin-comes twice a year sporting a handlebar mustache and bringing Wisconsin cheese and beer. He volunteers for two-week stints during his vacation time and says he's provoked to help private landowners protect their property: "Everybody's got to do something." In the last three years, Vickers says the group has reported more than 1,400 illegal immigrants to authorities.

On a pre-dusk patrol the same evening, Vickers pointed to signs of some of those illegal immigrants under a sparse bush: Empty food and drink cans littered the patch of land where a group of illegal aliens had stopped to camp and snack on Vienna Sausages, canned fruit, and five-hour energy drinks.

Sadly, the journey usually takes far longer than five hours, and some immigrants don't make it: Vickers has found dead bodies of immigrants who likely succumbed to soaring temperatures and dehydration. The local sheriff's department has recovered 55 bodies on ranches around the area since January.

Those who do make it follow paths that coyotes and immigrants have created during years of illegal crossings on the ranches. Vickers and his volunteers have given the paths names like "Smuggler's Row" and "Thorny Pipeline." They call another path "Bulls-Eye Crawl" after an elusive immigrant smuggler who wore cowboy boots emblazoned with a bulls-eye. (After years of trying, volunteers helped agents catch the coyote.)

Another path-"The Welcome Center"-got its name after a volunteer patrolman encountered a smuggler and 33 Chinese immigrants passing through the area. Vickers says that's not unusual: Though most of the immigrants are Mexicans, he says he's encountered Sudanese, Somalis, and Indians on his land. Authorities refer to these immigrants as OTMs, an acronym for "Other than Mexicans."

The U.S. Border Patrol reports that 87 percent of apprehended illegal immigrants come from Mexico. Another 11 percent come from South America. While a small percentage are from other countries, it's enough to alarm security hawks. The Border Patrol reported that OTMs apprehended in 2010 included illegal immigrants from four countries on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba (712), Iran (14), Syria (5), and Sudan (5). Illegal immigrants came from other countries associated with terrorism, including Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Meanwhile, reports of Mexican cartel activity abound: The Texas Department of Public Safety reports that six Mexican drug cartels have set up operational command centers in cities across the state.

On the same October day that agents caught 15 immigrants on Vickers' ranch, federal authorities revealed a thwarted Iraqi plot with a disturbing twist: The plan to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States in a crowded D.C. restaurant hinged on an Iraqi national seeking help from a Mexican cartel based in Houston.

That didn't surprise Vickers. "The disposition of the traffic has changed," he says. "They're more violent and they're more combative. ... And there seems to be more and more coming from all over the world."

Danny Davila has similar worries. The lone investigator for the Brooks County Sheriff's Department in Falfurrias works with just six deputies covering 950 square miles of territory. Though much of that territory is sparsely populated, the small force is facing big challenges: Davila estimates that immigrant-related issues absorb about 65 percent of the force's time.

Sometimes that means apprehending illegal immigrants coming to the United States to join families or look for work. Other times it means intercepting drug smugglers carting loads of narcotics from Mexico. Sometimes, it's both: Davila says cartels often run both human and drug smuggling operations. A smuggler might surprise an illegal immigrant who's paying for passage to the United States by requiring that he carry a load of drugs.

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