Pubdate: Sun, 30 Mar 2014
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2014 The Arizona Republic
Author: Bob Ortega and Bob O'Dell


RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas - The load wasn't hard to spot. Officers could 
see the marijuana bundles peeking out from the back of the SUV. But, 
as they pulled behind it, the driver turned to follow a school bus 
dropping off children.

"They take advantage of the school traffic. ... They know we won't 
initiate a stop when there are students around," said Nat Gonzalez, 
an investigator for a multiagency drug task force in Starr County, Texas.

Stop by stop, on that Monday earlier this month, the officers 
followed, watching the driver make calls on his cellphone, until he 
swerved south toward the Rio Grande.

Before they could catch up, he jumped out, sprinted for the river and 
swam to Mexico, leaving 1,400 pounds of marijuana behind.

The cartel smugglers know a great deal about how law enforcement here 
operates, and they have turned the Rio Grande Valley into one of the 
busiest marijuana corridors in the United States. Texas still trails 
Arizona in the volume of pot being seized by the Border Patrol and 
Customs. But if there's one part of the southwestern border that 
illustrates the challenges of combating marijuana smuggling, it is 
along the winding river here.

Last year, across the Southwest, the Border Patrol, Customs and 
Border Protection and other law-enforcement agencies intercepted more 
than 3.5 million pounds of marijuana - nearly a fifth of an ounce for 
every person in the United States.

But in the Rio Grande Valley, for every load they capture, 10 slip 
through, local officials estimate. Federal law-enforcement officials agreed.

The loads get through because the drug cartels closely monitor the 
Border Patrol and other law-enforcement agencies. The cartels study 
their tactics and strategies, and adapt quickly. They use that 
knowledge and the corrupting influence of money to win the daily 
cat-and-mouse games that define drug smuggling across the Rio Grande.

Encounters between agents and drug smugglers are frequent but rarely 
lethal. When cornered, drug runners are likely to abandon the loads 
of marijuana and escape back across the river.

Nationwide, nearly every drug-smuggling case in which Border Patrol 
agents did report responding with force over a 29-month period 
involved marijuana, The Arizona Republic found. Force can include 
using firearms, physical force, less-lethal weapons and devices to 
stop vehicles, like tire spike strips.

The Republic reviewed more than 12,000 pages of CBP and Border Patrol 
use-of-force incident reports, obtained through the Freedom of 
Information Act. The reports covered 2010 through mid-2012.

That datashows marijuana smugglers run into the Border Patrol not 
just at highway checkpoints, but during frequent, small-scale runs 
crossing the border between ports of entry. By contrast, drugs such 
as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine seem to be caught primarily at 
official ports of entry or at highway checkpoints. Only two 
use-of-force incidents involved the smuggling of hard drugs.

The incident reports show that the Rio Grande Valley, where the river 
meanders so sinuously that it creates coils of U.S. territory nearly 
surrounded by Mexico, offers fertile soil for marijuana smuggling.

Last fiscal year, the Border Patrol said it seized 797,000 pounds in 
the Rio Grande Valley Sector. That trailed only the Tucson Sector's 
1.2 million pounds; seizures in the Rio Grande sector totaled more 
than in the remaining 18 Border Patrol sectors combined. The sector 
covers 320 miles of the Rio Grande westward from the Gulf Coast.

Border Patrol officials in both Texas and Washington, D.C., declined 
to answer specific questions for this story. But Border Patrol Chief 
Michael Fisher told an audience in Phoenix during a border-security 
conference two weeks ago that south Texas has become the most active 
area along the border and is tops in terms of weight of marijuana per seizure.

Border Patrol figures showed a 10 percent drop in marijuana seizures 
by agents in the Rio Grande Valley Sector from a year before, but 
south Texas drug authorities said they aren't seeing any decline.

"We think we're seeing an increase," said Carlos Garcia, Starr 
County's coordinator for Operation Stonegarden, a Homeland 
Security-funded program that provided $55 million last fiscal year to 
help pay local law-enforcement border-security costs. Garcia said 
seizures and incidents of loads being dumped are rising.

"In 30 seconds, they'll load a thousand pounds into the bed of a 
pickup," he said. "There can be 10 to 15 guys swimming across the 
river with loads on life rafts."

Same spiking story

A clear picture of the quixotic effort to stop marijuana smugglers in 
the Rio Grande Valley emerges in the many use-of-force incidents here 
in which agents used tire-deflation devices to try to apprehend 
smugglers they saw loading vehicles with bundles of marijuana.

Report after report repeats the scenario.

Agents spot smugglers at the Rio Grande loading bundles of marijuana 
into a vehicle, usually an old pickup truck, SUV or van. Border 
Patrol agents give chase and get authorization to "spike" the vehicle 
with a controlled tire-deflation device.

The smugglers bail out, often in a strategic spot, and flee. Agents 
find the vehicle with the load inside. The Border Patrol confiscates 
the vehicle and its load and announces that hundreds of thousands of 
dollars of drugs have been taken off the street.

But a search for the smugglers comes up empty. By the time the agents 
seize the drugs, the smugglers either already have swum back to 
Mexico or are on their way.

Incidents like this occurred nearly 50 times along the Rio Grande in 
south Texas between 2010 and 2012, CBP use-of-force reports show. 
There were fewer than 10 such incidents along the rest of the Southwest border.

In nearly every case, the driver and passengers escaped and the 
Border Patrol agents, following agency policy, stayed with the 
marijuana. Gonzalez, the Starr County task-force investigator, said 
other law-enforcement agencies do the same, to prevent smugglers 
doubling back and taking off in the vehicle again.

On March 6, 2012, Border Patrol agents spotted people loading drugs 
into a Ford F-350 near the river and spiked the tires.

"The vehicle traveled approximately one-half mile and the driver 
ultimately drove through a closed gate and bailed out upon arriving 
at the edge of the Rio Grande River," the report states.

Agents turned 1,807 pounds of marijuana, worth an estimated $1.4 
million, and the vehicle over to the Starr County High Intensity Drug 
Trafficking Area Task Force.

"A thorough search of the immediate area for the subject was to no 
avail," the incident report stated.

Just after midnight on April 27, 2010, Border Patrol agents seized 
1,245 pounds of marijuana in Los Ebanos, Texas, according to another 
incident report. "Agents deployed the controlled tire deflation 
device (ctdd) on a 1999 Chevrolet Silverado after it was observed 
loading bundles of narcotics at the Rio Grande River. Agents 
responded and immediately discovered the smuggler had abandoned the 
load vehicle."

At 6:30 a.m. March 17, 2011, Border Patrol agents near La Casita, 
Texas, saw "multiple suspects loading bundles into a white Ford F-150 
near the river," according to an incident report. Agents deflated two 
tires, and found the vehicle abandoned nearby in the brush with 947 
pounds of marijuana. "A search of the immediate area for additional 
narcotics or the driver was to no avail."

In Arizona, border fences have pushed migrants onto drug-smugglers' 
routes. But along the Rio Grande, the smugglers and migrants often 
take different paths across the river. This area last year passed the 
Tucson Sector as the nation's busiest for migrants, with 154,453 
apprehensions; such work cuts into efforts to intercept drugs.

A river runs through it

At dusk one recent evening, a Border Patrol helicopter circled over a 
spot on the river just below downtown Rio Grande City. Three men in 
dark clothing paddled vigorously across the river in an inflatable 
boat, turning back toward Mexico. The river is narrow enough here, 
perhaps 60 yards across, that it takes scarcely a minute to cross.

A few minutes later, the bobbing flashlight of a Border Patrol agent 
approached across a quarter-mile-wide field. The agent pulled up a 
barbed-wire strand to let the handcuffed migrant he had caught slide 
under to the heavily rutted dirt road where the agent's vehicle was 
parked, lights flashing.

The agent, who was reluctant to talk and asked not to be identified, 
said migrants tend to cross the river in or near town, and the drug 
smugglers out of town.

"This is what it's like all the time, any hour," he said, nodding to 
his flashing lights and the helicopter, still overhead.

Gonzalez, the Starr County HIDTA task force investigator, said, "At 
night, downtown, every night you can hear the helicopters. It's 
normal. It's like hearing the train."

He is a tall, sturdy man with a patch of white in his jet-black hair, 
in his sixth year as an officer. He was assigned to the task force by 
the county district attorney a year ago and seems to relish the 
challenge the smugglers pose.

Behind his office sits a huge impound lot, ringed by tall fences 
topped with barbed wire, where some 200 vehicles seized in several 
months of drug raids await auction. A shiny Chevrolet Camaro that 
looked fresh off the dealer's lot faced a bulldozer and a backhoe. He 
showed trucks with fake signs for Texas businesses. There were boats, 
trailers, and - this being south Texas - row upon row of pickups and SUVs.

Gonzalez squatted next to one SUV to point out how the frame and 
springs have been welded "so it doesn't ride low when it's fully 
loaded." The rear seat had been removed to add space for drugs. Black 
paint coated the inside windows; from outside, they merely looked tinted.

"They'll use anything, good cars, ugly cars, anything to get it 
through," Gonzalez said.

After a short drive, he parked near the Rio Grande and led the way 
down a steep dirt trail to a spot on the bank. The deflated husk of a 
raft, slashed by agents, was nearby.

Heavy brush grows down to the bank on both sides of the winding 
river, offering endless hiding places for smugglers to wait until the 
coast is clear, or, on the U.S. side, to stash a load for later 
pickup. There are scores of small roads on the U.S. side that give 
access within minutes from the river to U.S. 83, a major east-west corridor.

"We've seen guys, in Starr County, sitting in trees on the Mexican 
side, watching the fields on this side with big binoculars," Gonzalez 
said. "They have great communication.

"Every day there's something going on," he said, "and if we don't 
catch it, they're banking it."

Then, too, sometimes those banking it are officers bought and paid 
for by the cartels.

In August 2009, former Starr County Sheriff Reymundo Guerra was 
sentenced to 64 months in prison after being convicted of conspiracy 
for accepting bribes to help smugglers evade the law. Last year, in 
neighboring Hidalgo County, nine members of a narcotics team of 
sheriff's deputies and Mission, Texas, police officers were convicted 
on charges related to accepting bribes to guard marijuana and cocaine 
shipments. Friday, Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino resigned. He 
didn't say why, but amid the scandal he's also fighting a lawsuit 
alleging that he accepted $10,000 in illegal cash donations from a drug dealer.

During 2011 and 2012, Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector 
General investigated at least 19 Border Patrol agents or CBP officers 
in the Rio Grande Valley Sector over allegations of drug smuggling, 
according to records obtained by The Republic. The outcomes of those 
investigations couldn't be determined.

"There's so much money," Gonzalez said with a shrug. "You really need 
an active, dedicated officer for this kind of job."

Typically, loads are taken to stash houses, to be repacked for 
shipment farther north. Underground bunkers are common, too.

 From the street, the lot in this middle-class neighborhood in Rio 
Grande City, north of U.S. 83, looked like any other. But toward the 
back of the lot, Gonzalez pulled up a steel trap door. A wooden 
ladder led to an underground bunker with concrete pillars and a 
reinforced concrete ceiling, big enough to hold more than 5 tons of 
marijuana, hidden under more than a foot of soil covered with small 
bushes and a mesquite sapling.

In the bunker, sliced fragments of ropes littered the floor; they had 
held 800 pounds of marijuana bundles.

HIDTA task force investigators had hoped for a bigger stash, but, "it 
was the first load. We went in too early," said Pedro Estrada, 
commander of the task force. The group includes officers and agents 
from the county, Rio Grande City, Immigrations and Customs 
Enforcement and the Border Patrol.

Last year, the Starr County HIDTA task force seized more than 235,000 
pounds of marijuana, running loads every week to the local incinerator.

Despite the high volume of pot, though, there is little violence 
between the smugglers and the Border Patrol and other law-enforcement 
agencies north of the river.

Use of force

The Republic's investigation found that relatively few use-of-force 
cases involved drug smuggling, compared with human smuggling or 
illegal crossings. Seven of the 45 killings by CBP and Border Patrol 
agents since 2005 examined by The Republic involved drug smuggling - 
and marijuana was the only drug mentioned in those reports.

Out of nearly 1,600 CBP use-of-force reports nationwide from 2010 to 
mid-2012 The Republic analyzed, fewer than 125 reports specifically 
mention marijuana smuggling. But many other use-of-force cases had 
too little information to determine whether they were related to drug 
smuggling or undocumented migrants.

CBP officials hadn't responded by deadline to an August 2013 
public-records request for more recent data.

One use-of-force incident involved a small amount of cocaine for 
personal use. Another involved a person shocked with a stun gun by a 
CBP officer during an escape attempt, after being taken into custody 
for trying to smuggle heroin through a port of entry. All the other 
smuggling reports that specifically mention drugs involved marijuana.

Dennis Kenney, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice 
at City University of New York, said there's a good reason marijuana 
is the main drug in use-of-force reports - more marijuana is smuggled 
and it is bulkier and harder to conceal than heroin or cocaine.

"If there's more of it and it's more likely to be found, you're 
likely to have a disproportionate amount of the cases involving 
marijuana," Kenney said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and CBP officials declined 
interview requests regarding the effectiveness of their efforts to 
interdict marijuana. However, the DEA's Drug Threat Assessment for 
last year noted that marijuana is increasingly available across the 
U.S. and is more potent. Independent studies suggest it's also less 
expensive than five or 10 years ago.

"Looking at the data, I think you'd be hard-pressed to point to 
anything that shows the drug-control policy has been effective, or 
that enforcement is doing what it's supposed to do," said Jeffrey 
Miron, an economist at Harvard University who has studied the market 
for marijuana.

Miron said he estimates the size of the current market in the U.S. to 
be about $20 billion a year. But he said he expects growing domestic 
production to lead to a decline in smuggling from Mexico, especially 
as marijuana use becomes legalized in more states.

It has been well-known for decades that law enforcement is not very 
successful in apprehending drugs, Kenney said. Cartels see the 
intercepted loads as the cost of doing business, he said, adding 
that, to them, law enforcement is "an inconvenience rather than a 
real hindrance."

It's all business

In the Rio Grande Valley, the flow of marijuana continues.

"That place is non-stop; it's absolutely crazy," said Sylvia 
Longmire, an intelligence analyst and author of a forthcoming book, 
"Border Insecurity," for which she researched the area. "There's just 
so much dope going across the Rio Grande Valley, it's overwhelming."

However, drug smugglers seem to avoid engaging violently with Border 
Patrol. One recent day, Gonzalez and other officers caught a drug 
load. The driver bailed out. Gonzalez chased him to the river. On the 
other side, the youth taunted him.

"He was shouting in Spanish, 'I'm 14, and I f--ked you! I'm pure Gulf 
Cartel!' And then an older voice from the bushes said, 'Tell that kid 
to shut ... up.' "

"The older guy was like, 'Don't make it personal; it's business,' " 
Gonzalez said.

And in the Rio Grande Valley, business is good.

Starr County HIDTA task force Cmdr.Estrada put it bluntly, "We know 
for every thousand pounds we see, there's another 10,000 pounds crossing."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom