Cover Story

Border bandits

"Border bandits" Continued...

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

In a tiny office that Davila shares with his assistant, photos covering the wood-paneled walls show the results of a two-year effort to crack down on drug smuggling: In one photo, officers stand next to a stash of 2,280 pounds of marijuana. Another picture shows piles of drug money that officers seized with smugglers on the way back to Mexico: The bundles of cash came about $30 short of $900,000.

The department won a federal grant to establish a brush crew in 2009: The two-man team spent the year combing nearby ranches to learn the paths the smugglers most often use and begin tracking routes. The progress of the small force in two years points to hard work and heavy drug traffic.

In a lot behind the office, Davila walks through rows of dozens of impounded cars. Some still bear the marks of smuggling: a small, square hole cut behind the front panel of a black sedan shows a spot where smugglers hid tens of thousands of dollars in cash. Davila opens a nearby trailer, revealing another stash: It's filled with seized marijuana, including a common smuggling device-bundles of marijuana taped together and fastened with homemade straps. Smugglers carry the 90-pound loads on their backs through the brush.

It didn't take long for the deputies to interrupt a major smuggling operation: Authorities say that Jose Maria Carbajal smuggled thousands of pounds of marijuana through local ranches for years. When Brooks County deputies identified the routes and started intercepting substantial loads of the drugs, federal authorities say Carbajal plotted revenge with the notorious Zetas drug cartel in Mexico.

In a 19-page criminal complaint, federal officials say Carbajal told an informant that members of the Zetas cartel traveled to Falfurrias after deputies intercepted 1,100 pounds of the Zetas' marijuana. Carbajal said he showed cartel members where two of the Brooks County deputies lived, and that the cartel planned to kidnap at least one of them. Federal authorities arrested Carbajal during a February raid.

On a recent morning, Mo Saavedra headed out for brush patrol. The two-year veteran was one of the deputies threatened by Carbajal. He says he changed some of his routines for safety, but he kept working just as hard. In an unmarked pickup truck, the deputy lumbers through the brush of a nearby ranch with a semi-automatic rifle next to him in the front seat.

When the federal grant for the brush crew expired, Saavedra began making patrols alone. (His partner patrols during other shifts.) Since the department receives very little outside funding, the deputy depends on instincts and a good memory-the truck doesn't have GPS technology or a digital radio for secure communication. He says he's learned most of the territory by spending hours in the brush: "It's all hands on."

On this morning, Saavedra looks for signs of immigrants hiding in bushes, and slows when he sees a vulture circling. This time it's a dead animal, but the deputy has found dead bodies of immigrants who died in the extreme heat.

That's what bothers Davila most. Back in his office, the investigator has two three-ring binders filled with photos of the 55 bodies the department has found this year. One photo shows a woman with a bloated face, but many are unidentifiable remains like skulls and teeth. One photo shows an intact skeleton lying face-up, still clothed in a blue jacket and brown pants.

If an illegal immigrant grows too sick or weak to stay with the group, the smuggler typically leaves him behind. "They don't care if you're the 28-year-old mother of two," says Davila. "They've got your money, and if you can't keep up you die."

Another binder holds pictures and descriptions of 23 people reported missing this year. If family members in Mexico don't hear from a loved one who attempted to cross the border, sometimes they call the sheriff's office.

They might fax or email a photo and send identifying information. One photo showed a pretty young woman leaning under an arched doorway. Another showed a man holding a young child. The description said he was born in 1973 and offered this tip: "Male was left behind three miles outside of Falfurrias as he was unable to walk."

Dying from the elements isn't the only consequence met by some immigrants: Women and girls face the threat of kidnapping for a thriving underground sex trade in the United States. Others are sometimes raped or murdered. It's a reality that disturbs Davila: "That's no way for anyone to die. I don't care where you're from."

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