On a sizzling August afternoon, a Chevy sedan had just crashed into a sign post across the street from a junior high school in La Joya, Texas. Cop cars surrounded the scene. A handcuffed teenager ducked into the back of a squad car as plain clothes officers heaved bundles of marijuana into the back of a pick-up truck.
Clearly, working in law enforcement along the south Texas border is anything but boring.
Sgt. Bryan Wit explains it was a routine traffic stop that turned into a drug bust. "The vehicle evaded and the driver started throwing bundles out the window," he says.
Witt is a member of the state's highway patrol, called the Texas Department of Public Safety. He's here as part of Governor Rick Perry's Operation Strong Safety, which has posted state troopers about every three miles along the highway here. "One of the reasons DPS is down here [is] to help arrest these criminals hauling dope into the United States," Witt says. "Also smuggling humans in."
The South Texas border is currently the busiest corridor for illegal crossings into the US. More than half of all immigrant arrests happen here — an average of 400 per day — and the area has experienced a wave of more than 63,000 Central American children trying to cross since October.
All of this has overwhelmed federal and local law enforcement. "We are low on resources," Witt says. "We do need support."
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
That support is coming: 1,000 members of the National Guard are now deploying to work alongside local, state and federal agencies. Their mission is to deter crime through surveillance, though they can't arrest anyone.
But their deployment will cost the state $17 million a month. Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia says not only is that too expensive — it's simply the wrong response.
"When you militarize this area, you are sending out a certain perception that this is a high crime area, when in fact it's not," Judge Garcia says. His seat is in the city of McAllen, a border town whose violent crime rate is lower than the national average.
But Sam Miranda, who heads the FBI office in McAllen, says statistics don't tell the whole story, particularly when it comes to drug cartel activity. He argues that if "you see a lot of violent crime — or a lack thereof — doesn't mean that the cartels are not integrated into your community."
Miranda points out that in 2011 an alleged cartel boss was stopped by police on his way to the Texas coast where he owned luxury property. "That's like an iceberg," Miranda says. "Most of the ice is underneath the water."
Recently, investigators from Hidalgo County found a stash house filled with assault rifles, marijuana bundles and a grenade. There were guns on the kitchen table and next to a baby cradle.
JD Solis quoted the suspect they arrested: "He said, 'If you think I'm the only one that's like this down here, you are crazy. There's more houses down here. More than what I have today.'"
Investigators know this is nothing new. But is that kind of firepower reason to bring in soldiers? Graciano Gamino, who heads the state's narcotics unit, said this problem is best confronted by local law enforcement, not the National Guard. "Those resources and that money can come our way. To buy equipment, training, have more personnel on the streets."
At the drug bust across from the junior high in La Joya, Yvette Treviño, who lives nearby, looked on as cop cars left the scene. "I appreciate them being here," she said. "All this drugs and these gangs — we are dealing with this every single day. You feel protected when you have the state troopers here."