Thursday, January 12, 2012


World Magazine

Issue: "Border bandits" December 03, 2011

Border bandits

Illegal immigration may be down, but ranchers and farmers in south Texas say the influx continues and it's becoming more violent and criminal
Jamie Dean

FALFURRIAS, Texas—When Linda Vickers leaves home to feed the horses on her Texas ranch each morning, she takes three things: her dog, her cell phone, and her pistol.

For Vickers, these aren't just the trappings of a typical rural rancher: They're a way to guard against the potential danger of illegal aliens and to call U.S. Border Patrol agents if trouble erupts.
Though she hasn't used the gun, the dogs have warned her more than once: A few months ago, Vickers says the dogs "went ballistic" when she walked into the tack room. She discovered two illegal aliens sleeping on the floor.

On another morning, a large man with a pencil-thin mustache followed Vickers from the barn to her home. She called Border Patrol agents, and they apprehended the Brazilian who had split from a group of 40 other illegal aliens. From her back porch, Vickers has watched groups of 10 or more illegal immigrants tromp through her land, and she admits: "It does feel like an invasion."

Vickers' experience isn't unusual among Texas ranchers, but it is notable for at least one reason: She lives nearly 70 miles north of the U.S-Mexico border. The ranch she shares with her husband, Mike Vickers, sits just outside the rural town of Falfurrias in south Texas, and a few miles from the final U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint heading north on Highway 281.

To clear that checkpoint, illegal immigrants have two options: Try to pass through it or try to go around it. Many try to skirt the checkpoint by fanning into the hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding farmland—including the Vickers' ranch. Human smugglers—known as coyotes—often drop illegal immigrants south of the checkpoint. Another coyote meets them in the brush for an often-treacherous journey to a waiting car north of the station.

Remarkably, thousands try to pass through the checkpoint, often hidden in trucks and cargo. By late October, agents at the Falfurrias checkpoint had apprehended 9,106 undocumented aliens since January. A sign outside the five-lane checkpoint offered another disturbing statistic that underscores a disturbing reality about some of the traffic moving through these rural areas: Since January, agents at the Falfurrias station had also seized 291,829 pounds of narcotics.
The U.S. Border Patrol reports a sharp drop in illegal immigration, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano says the border has never been more secure—but local officials and residents in rural Texas tell a different story: Even if some numbers have dropped, illegal immigration remains a consistent problem, and cartel-related drug smuggling poses serious threats.

Indeed, better border security in some areas may be funneling illegal immigrants and drug smugglers to rural lands where the defenses are weaker. A February report from the Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. Border Patrol has achieved operational control of just 44 percent of the southern border. That reality leaves some locals in rural areas fending for themselves and creates national security concerns that extend far beyond border areas.

Examining problems with border security first requires acknowledging progress: The U.S. Border Patrol reported in July that the number of apprehensions of illegal aliens declined by 61 percent over a five-year period. The numbers dropped from 1,189,000 in 2005 to 463,000 in 2010.

The agency acknowledged that a struggling U.S. economy and a weak job market could be factors in the apparent drop in illegal immigration. But agency officials also touted better enforcement efforts, including nearly 700 miles of border fence along the southwestern border. (Many Texans question the effectiveness of the border fence and point to large gaps in many parts of the wall.)

In an El Paso speech in May, President Barack Obama touted the federal government's doubling of Border Patrol agents since 2004, an effort that began under President George W. Bush. Some 20,000 agents now patrol the southwest border. Two months earlier, Napolitano highlighted the low violent crime rates in Texas border towns. She declared: "The border is better now than it has ever been."

Don't tell that to Mike Vickers. On a hot afternoon in late October, the Falfurrias rancher and veterinarian pointed to a fresh set of footprints in the sandy ground on his 1,000-acre ranch. Boot prints followed sneaker prints and revealed last night's chase: Border Patrol agents pursued and apprehended 15 illegal immigrants crossing Vickers' ranch.

The agents had help: Volunteers from Vickers' group—Texas Border Volunteers (TBV)—spotted the illegal aliens during a night watch and called Border Patrol to respond. They gave agents a GPS location for the group and tracked their movements until the agents arrived.

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.

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."

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."

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