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La Salle Town Hall meeting set for July 28
La Salle County residents who own property in outlying areas as well as those in towns affected by recent law enforcement action in the interception of smugglers are being encouraged to attend a Town Hall meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 28, to discuss their concerns.
The meeting will be held in the AB Alexander Convention Center beside the IH-35 access road in Cotulla.
Sheriff Anthony Zertuche and Chief Deputy Armando Romo say they expect a number of ranch owners to voice complaints about smugglers trespassing and damaging property.
Discussion will also extend to other criminal activity in outlying areas of the county, the sheriff said, and he hopes to further his agency’s channels of communication with property owners.
“We want to better serve the people,” Zertuche said. “We want to meet them in person and communicate with them, hear from them at first hand and help them understand they are being heard.
“We don’t want these property owners to feel left out,” the sheriff said. “They deserve the same service from law enforcement as everyone else.”
Zertuche and Romo said they know some properties are held by absentee landowners who have hired ranch managers to handle day-to-day operations. In some cases, Zertuche said, ranch owners may not know “until several days later” that criminal damage has occurred on their property.
“This will be an opportunity to collect contact information so that we know whom to call directly,” the sheriff said of the Town Hall meeting. “We want them to know immediately.”
In the first half of this year, La Salle and other border-region counties have experienced a sharp rise in the number of undocumented immigrants being transported into Texas from Mexico, the sheriff said last week, and smugglers carrying human cargo, narcotics and other contraband have tried to evade capture by speeding from officers, crashing through ranch fences, and fleeing on foot into private property.
A map in the sheriff’s office is festooned with red pins marking sites at which law enforcement intercepts have taken place since January exclusively by the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office. Not included are markers for incidents handled by the Highway Patrol and other agencies. The majority of red pins show sites beside or near IH-35 between Encinal and Millett, and FM 133 between Artesia Wells and Catarina. Others show sites along Hwy 44 both east and west of Encinal, Hwy 97 east of Cotulla, and FM 468 to the west.
Intercepts are made daily by sheriff’s deputies, troopers of the Texas Highway Patrol, officers of the Encinal Police Department, La Salle County constables, and agents of the US Border Patrol. The majority of cases have involved cooperative efforts between the agencies and their combined manpower in the pursuit and capture of smugglers, manhunts for undocumented immigrants who flee on foot, and recovery of contraband and stolen vehicles.
In many cases, both Zertuche and Romo said, the pins represent intercept sites at ranch fences where cars and trucks have veered off the pavement and encroached on private property.
“In some of those cases, and we know there are several, smugglers have crashed through fences in their attempts to evade capture,” the sheriff said. “We understand that this is a grave concern for property owners, not just because of the cost of the damage, but also because of the potential threat to our citizens’ safety.
“The cost in damages to private property is a big issue,” the sheriff said. “It’s really putting a hurt on property owners.”
The chief deputy said it is not unusual for “more than four or five” incidents involving the pursuit of smugglers to take place in a single patrol shift.
“The sheriff and I understand how serious an issue this is becoming for the law-abiding residents of South Texas, the property owners who are affected by this crime wave, and the very real possibility that these threats of harm and damage may increase as the situation becomes more desperate,” Romo said. “We know that people need to voice their concerns. We can’t expect them to keep silent about this.”
Administrators and deputies at the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office are quick to acknowledge that the increase in numbers of undocumented immigrants being transported through South Texas by “coyote” smugglers does not represent a single demographic but includes a wide range of people, among them refugees, children, and members of known criminal gangs.
The officers have recognized differences between the people they have intercepted. Some vehicles have been found to contain women and children, others young adult men, in most cases refugees who have traveled to Texas from countries south of Mexico, such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.
Those affiliated with criminal enterprise and taken into custody in La Salle County have included members of drug cartels and Mexican gangs. Distinctive tattoos, clothing suited for concealment in the brush, and the use of heavily padded shoes to avoid leaving footprints in the sandy soil have been noted as identifiers of those who have entered the United States to make contact with other members of the criminal underworld and who have every intention of evading capture at all cost.
“It is safe to say that with the amount of individuals coming through, small numbers are cartel and gang-related,” Zertuche said. “We do come across them, but it’s a select number.”
In some cases, according to the sheriff’s office during interviews in April this year, ranchers have reported witnessing groups of travelers being loaded into sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks to be driven north from remote locations.
“In situations like that, and sometimes it’s happening in plain sight, we are forewarned,” the chief deputy said. “We can anticipate a vehicle traveling towards us from Catarina, for example, and we can plan our interception.
“That doesn’t mean they won’t try to flee,” Romo added. “But we can be better prepared and have the manpower from several agencies ready for them.”
Pursuits on farm-to-market roads, state highways and the interstate can reach speeds in excess of a hundred miles per hour.
The sheriff believes La Salle County has benefited greatly from the recent dispatch by the Highway Patrol of scores of additional troopers to the area.
“It’s been an awesome help, having the additional DPS here,” Zertuche said of the recent Texas governor’s order that reinforcements be sent to the border region. “It has helped deter criminal organizations trying to get through here. The troopers’ presence alone is a deterrent.”
The sheriff acknowledged a strong working relationship between his office, the Highway Patrol and the US Border Patrol, including regular briefings, and said the communication has helped fortify interception of illegal activity.
The red pins on the sheriff’s map only tell a portion of the story. Zertuche and Romo readily admit that South Texas law enforcement agencies deal daily with threats to the safety and wellbeing of the county’s residents and highway travelers.
“In pursuit cases, we are dealing with a serious potential for life-threatening harm to the vehicle occupants and the general public,” Romo said. “These drivers don’t care about anyone else’s safety except their own. And if they’re in a stolen vehicle, they won’t hesitate to crash through fences in an effort to get away.”
The July 28 Town Hall meeting in Cotulla will include information on patrol practices, increased numbers of officers in the region, and measures being taken to minimize threats to public safety. Above all else, though, the sheriff hopes the event will strengthen bonds between his agency and the people he serves.
“We have to give the people a chance to speak,” Zertuche said, “and help them to know us and the work we do.”