Cover Story

Border bandits

"Border bandits" Continued...

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

The investigator wonders what his small team isn't catching in the brush, and says more resources would help them apprehend more smugglers and protect the surrounding community: "If you just ignore it, it's not going to go away."

While federal authorities insist they aren't ignoring border issues, Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples says they're at a minimum denying the severity of the problem. Staples' department released an independent study in September that included testimony from Texas ranchers afraid of the traffic crossing their property. One rancher said he's watched smugglers carry drugs across his property right in front of him. Another said immigrants have come to his door in the middle of the night asking to borrow his phone and his truck.

From his office in Austin, Staples said that ranchers have pleaded with him to ask for more protection of rural farmland. The commissioner says he's been met by "denial and rebuff" from federal officials. While he applauds the Border Patrol's work, and says he's thankful the president has continued to send more agents, he says the pace needs to accelerate, not slow down. That's especially true, he says, in rural areas with far less protection than border crossings.

He warns that without securing these rural areas, and committing more resources to fighting cartels in Texas, drugs and drug-related violence will continue showing up across the country: "It's not the tooth fairy dropping off these drugs in Los Angeles and New Jersey and Dallas and cities across the country."

If protecting rural areas means preventing illegal immigrants from ever crossing the border, some Texans agree that a border fence alone won't do the job. The federal government has completed about 110 miles of fence in the state. Vickers says he's against the fence, calling it a waste of time and money. Others say some barrier is better than no barrier, but that a wall won't keep out illegal immigrants willing to climb over or dig under.

At the border fence in places like Brownsville, illegal immigrants have another option: Walk right through. The 18-foot-high fence has gaps at points large enough to walk or drive through. Officials say that the gaps allow Border Patrol agents to travel through if needed and may have gates in the future. On a recent sunny afternoon, I walked through one gap in Brownsville that had a Border Patrol truck nearby. The truck was empty.

The landscape in Texas makes building a uniform fence difficult. In towns like Brownsville, the Rio Grande River cuts so close to city limits, federal authorities built the fence nearly a mile north of the border. That means a slew of homeowners and businesses own property north of the border, but south of the border fence. They call it a no man's land and say their property values have plummeted.

Vickers and others call for more boots on the ground to respond to illegal crossings, and more internal enforcement of existing immigration laws to discourage illegal immigration. That adds front-burner urgency to the back-burner issue of immigration reform in Washington, D.C.

For now locals like Vickers and Davila say they'll keep protecting as much of their community as possible. In an early November email, Davila wrote about an Oct. 24 accident in Falfurrias: A red Ford pickup truck full of illegal aliens and 500 pounds of marijuana struck the vehicle of an elderly couple from a nearby town. The immigrants had backpacked the drugs through the brush. "All subjects involved were critical, but survived the accident," wrote Davila. "Five illegals were arrested, and two absconded into the brush."

Deadly business

Comparing two different wars reveals frightening reality next door ...

War-related deaths in Afghanistan in 2010: 10,000

Drug-related deaths in Mexico in 2010: 15,000

Total drug-related deaths in Mexico since 2006: More than 34,000

Source: Estimates from governments of Afghanistan and Mexico

Wide Open Spaces

Texas

Miles of border: 1,254

Miles of fenced border: 110

Southwest

Miles of border: nearly 2,000

Miles of fenced border: 649

Miles currently planned: 652

Total cost of current fence: $2.6 billion

Make-up of entire fence

Miles designed to block pedestrians: 350

Miles designed to block vehicles (pedestrians could easily climb over): 299

Sources: Texas Dept. of Agriculture, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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