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South Texas property owners voice concerns over smuggler traffic, trespassers
In the words of a US congressman’s spokesperson to a crowd of disgruntled ranchers last week, “What you want is solutions.”
Talking about problems and venting frustration at government inaction in the face of a burgeoning crime wave, however, did little to gruntle those most affected.
An assembly of South Texas ranchers and residents met with local officials and regional representatives in Cotulla on Wednesday evening, July 28, to voice their opinions and ask questions related to the government’s position and tactics in response to an unprecedented spike in cases of immigrant smuggling and cross-border crime.
Prefacing the Town Hall meeting in the AB Alexander Convention Center, La Salle County Sheriff Anthony Zertuche asked attendees to provide contact information and to help improve communications between law enforcement and rural property owners, daily witnesses to an increase in cases of smugglers evading capture.
The sheriff acknowledged that pursuits of immigrants by law enforcement officers have often led onto private property after suspects have crashed through fences in their bids to flee with cargoes of undocumented immigrants.
Representing local and regional government on stage at the meeting alongside the sheriff were County Judge Joel Rodriguez, Highway Patrol Sgt. JD Rodriguez, Texas Parks & Wildlife Game Warden Ryan Johnson, District Attorney Audrey Louis, Michael Blair representing Congressman Tony Gonzales, and Eric Cleveland representing Congressman Henry Cuellar. The event included comments from law enforcement and government officials, followed by a question-and-answer session for the audience.
Attendees came away understanding from the government representatives that little may be done for the border region at the federal level while funds are sapped from the US Border Patrol and while those hoping to come to the United States are led to believe that the borders have been opened by the Biden administration.
Judge Rodriguez and Sheriff Zertuche both indicated in their opening remarks that they believe La Salle and other border-region counties have benefited from Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s dispatch of additional troopers from the Department of Public Safety to areas in which human smuggling and a flood of cross-border refugees and asylum seekers have reached levels previously unknown in South Texas.
Both also noted that it is apparent the drug cartels based in Mexico and Central America have played a part in the rise in unlawful border crossing, smuggling and related crime.
Incidents in which law enforcement officers pursue smugglers have risen sharply in number since the beginning of the year, with the sheriff’s office alone recording hundreds of cases. Sheriff Zertuche and Chief Deputy Armando Romo have indicated during interviews this year that it is not unusual for patrol deputies to be engaged in as many as four pursuits each, per duty shift, on an average day. Those numbers, the sheriff said, are in addition to cases handled by the US Border Patrol and the Highway Patrol.
Judge Rodriguez said he believes that the majority of pursuits in which smugglers have attempted to evade capture have involved stolen vehicles. In such cases, he said, it is difficult to find funding or insurance coverage to help reimburse ranchers for damage to their property, notably fence lines that have been demolished when smugglers veer off county roads and state highways with officers in pursuit.
Rodriguez pointed to statistics provided by the state that indicate as many as 32 percent of all the stolen vehicles in Texas are presently being used for criminal enterprise along the US-Mexico border. Those vehicles, he said, are being loaded with undocumented immigrants and driven north, often at reckless speed, endangering other motor vehicle traffic as well as rural residents.
Attendees at the meeting were shown dashboard video camera footage provided by the sheriff’s office, with film clips of vehicles plowing through fences and brush before their occupants attempt fleeing on foot. The majority of the films showed several passengers climbing out of pickup trucks.
The sheriff’s office has confirmed that vehicle occupants who are caught have been identified as undocumented immigrants, and while many are refugees who have paid large sums of money to be smuggled through South Texas, others have been identified as members of criminal organizations.
“The US Border Patrol has been very active in picking up a lot of immigrants,” the county judge said. “For the time being, it’s working.”
Judge Rodriguez added that funding for officers’ overtime pay has come to La Salle through the federal government’s Operation Stonegarden, which supports the salaries of those working additional hours in border-related enforcement. He also said county commissioners have dedicated additional funds to the sheriff’s office and to the county jail to help cover the new demand for manpower.
Sheriff Zertuche said his force has been increased to at least twenty patrol officers over the past year, thanks in large part to commissioners dedicating funds to meet the county’s needs.
“Hopefully, we can stop it,” the county judge said of the surge in illegal immigrants passing through La Salle County, adding that he believes a heavy law enforcement presence may help divert criminal traffic.
“Usually, the traffic moves elsewhere,” the county judge said. “It’s organized crime that we are dealing with.”
Rep. Gonzales’ spokesman at the Town Hall meeting told attendees that he believes intransigence by the Biden administration between the 2020 presidential campaign and governance may be to blame for the crisis of illegal immigration and the lack of adequate forces to handle a surge of refugees crossing into Texas and other border states.
“The problem is awful,” Blair said on behalf of the congressman whose district includes the northern half of La Salle County. “It’s not getting better. You are having to live with it every single day, and Washington has let you down.
“The problem lies in the rhetoric of this administration,” Blair said, “which is ‘open borders.’ Everyone has an idea for solving border issues, but when an administration comes in and says everything that the last administration did was bad, that’s a problem right there.”
Blair said he believes that one of the principal issues debilitating border law enforcement during 2021 has been the reduction of the US Border Patrol’s budget by a billion dollars.
“The problem is a federal government that is not sympathetic to your problems,” the congressman’s spokesperson said. “I’m sorry; I wish it was going to get better. It’s not.”
Blair added that Rep. Gonzales has favored tripling the amount of funds made available to local and regional law enforcement through Operation Stonegarden to help maintain adequate law enforcement coverage in border regions but that the federal government has voted instead to keep funding at the same level as in the past.
“People who do not live here or work here do not feel they need to be responsive to your border issues,” Blair said.
Game Warden Johnson said he has worked closely with the sheriff’s office to maintain strong communication with property owners, especially resident ranchers, both in routine law enforcement and in issues related to trespassing by undocumented immigrants.
Judge Rodriguez said a further hindrance to officers responding to the increase in border-related crime has been the lack of adequate communication signal in the southern half of La Salle County, as there is no transmission tower in Encinal. Funding for communications technology, he said, is derived from a surcharge on the 911 emergency call service but is based on population in any given area. Encinal’s low population in a high-intensity area for border-related crime means that additional Highway Patrol troopers in the area find their communication signal weak or intermittent, the judge said.
“At one point, we had a hundred and twenty-four troopers staying here,” Rodriguez said. “Think of them all calling the dispatch office. Communication is very important for their safety. We have had to move as fast as we can to handle the traffic.”
Adding a transmission tower, the judge said, will cost La Salle County two million dollars.
Local property owner Chris Meyer said he believes the additional law enforcement presence has begun serving as a crime deterrent.
“With the DPS out here, the riff-raff running down our road has really slowed down,” Meyer said. “But it’s a thankless job. I wouldn’t want to be a cop right now.”
Meyer said he believes many South Texas residents are concerned about the possibility of a new surge in the coronavirus pandemic resulting directly from the influx of unvaccinated immigrants.
“We have thousands coming across the border, hundreds have COVID-19 and we are housing them in our area,” Meyer said. “What is the government going to do to stop that?”
Meyer said the cost of repairing fences after they have been damaged by smugglers has risen steadily in the past year, with a roll of fence wire going from $300 to $500.
“Let’s try to do something that helps the individual rancher,” Meyer said. “It’s expensive when we have to replace fencing.”
“You raise excellent concerns,” Blair told Meyer. “I’m aware of at least three [immigrant detention] facilities where minors have an infection rate of fifteen to twenty percent. I think you are very smart to be concerned about that. We need to talk about specific things that we can do to help the people living along the border.”
Recognition of drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations, the congressman’s spokesperson said, will enable the federal government to bring a heavier penalty to bear on those connected with the organized criminal enterprises.
“Cartels spread the word that now is the time to come,” he added. “The cartels are using these minors to tie up the border patrol agents, and then they sneak the really bad guys and the drugs through. These thugs will use our own laws against us.”
Town Hall attendees learned that as many as four hours of paperwork are required of law enforcement officers in each case of undocumented immigrants captured. That delay, both government representatives and officers said, hinders agents’ swift return to the field.
Property owners were encouraged to file complaints in the event of damage and to obtain police reports, as the federal government has a policy of hastily deporting immigrants who have earned criminal records.
“Running through our fences is not a new issue,” local rancher Mike Whitwell said. “Incidents [of damage in pursuits] caused by local or state officers can be reimbursed through the county. Can landowners get information on how to be reimbursed?”
“Most of these vehicles are stolen,” the county judge said again. “There can always be a claim against the vehicle. Proceeds from the sale of a vehicle could be used to reimburse ranchers.”
The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office hosts public auctions at least twice a year, selling abandoned or seized cars, trucks and vans after the vehicles’ titles have been released by owners or lien holders. Proceeds from those auctions are used to pay wrecker or towing fees and are then directed to the sheriff’s budget for purchase of law enforcement equipment.
“If it is legal for us to repair fences by appropriation of funds, then I’m not against it,” the county judge said. “We know the damage is done. If we let them go through, it goes further and hurts other people.
“We need to lock down the border until we get past this pandemic,” Judge Rodriguez said, shifting attention to the risks of coronavirus contagion through the movement of immigrants in South Texas. “Our country is made of immigrants, but there is a process. It’s heartbreaking what this disease does. Canada locked up its borders, and so did European countries. Yes, it’s hard, but our civil liberties are being challenged. It’s affecting all of us.”
The 81st Judicial District attorney said she expects to continue prosecuting those who are charged with human smuggling, which is punishable as a third-degree felony.
“It used to be that we didn’t have to enforce it,” DA Louis said of the once-rare smuggling charge. “That’s increasingly no longer the case.
“For a successful prosecution, we have to be able to prove that money was exchanged [for the transport of human cargo]. That’s easier said than done, but we are going to prosecute them to the maximum extent of the law.”
The district attorney said local residents should consider their part of the prosecution to include reporting for jury duty when summoned, as required by law. Failure by the local population to observe jury summons, she said, puts additional burdens on the state in its pursuit of justice.
A third-degree felony for smuggling people is enhanced to a first degree if persons are killed, DA Louis said, a crime that can be punishable by life imprisonment.
“The sheriff’s office is getting inundated with them,” she added. “The problem is that cartels are hiring kids under the age of seventeen. We can prosecute 17-year-olds as adults. They recruit these young, naive kids for a thousand dollars. The kids can log into an app for it.
“When they get pulled over, they’re calling their handlers,” the district attorney said of minors behind the wheel of vehicles being used to transport undocumented immigrants, “and they are being told ‘You will not stop.’”
Louis also said her research has found that Mexican drug cartels are buying ranches across South Texas, particularly in the border regions, to facilitate their traffic in narcotics and other criminal enterprise, which includes human smuggling.
“They have no laws that they’re going to go by,” the district attorney said. “It’s a scary place to be.
“Trespass into Texas is now a crime,” Louis said of a recent directive by Gov. Abbott. “It’s a way to work around the lack of a crime for entering Texas or New Mexico. But they’re getting released right out the door. They’re not going back to Mexico.”
DA Louis also addressed the rapid crowding of the La Salle County Jail, since the increased number of officers in the region has resulted in a spike in numbers of arrests on a variety of charges. While some arrests are of smugglers, many include persons wanted on drug possession charges, warrants from other jurisdictions, firearms offenses, domestic violence, and sex crimes. When the county jail is full, arrestees may be turned away if they are local residents.
“The sheriff has forty-eight beds in his county jail,” the district attorney said. “Do you want that bed going to an illegal immigrant with no criminal record, or to someone who is charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child? That’s what the sheriff has to deal with.”
In order for someone to be charged with a state jail felony for damaging fences by plowing through them in an attempt to evade capture, the damage must exceed $2,500 in value, Louis said.
“The ones being housed here are the smugglers,” County Judge Rodriguez said. “In La Salle County, we are not violating anyone’s rights. I don’t know what’s happening in other counties, but here we are not. They are entitled to privileges.”
“We need something done, like yesterday,” local property owner Kevin Coleman said at the meeting. “What assets can we have sent down here when we can’t handle it anymore?”
“The DPS has contracted with local hotels for the next two and a half years,” DA Louis said.
“For Operation Lone Star, we have assets from all over the state,” DPS Sgt. Rodriguez said. “We keep track of everything. It’s all reported up. Data and statistics show us where most resources are needed.
“The cartels are really smart,” the Highway Patrol sergeant said. “They try each day to catch up with us. Our office works with the sheriff’s office all the time. The numbers obviously are going to change, but we will still have Highway Patrol troopers here all the time. Locally, we have about a dozen who are stationed here. We are looking to fill more positions, but these are local troopers that are here full-time, no matter what.”
Sheriff Zertuche said his agency conducts what he describes as proactive patrols, “actively looking for criminal activity, rather than responding to calls.”
“We are not just waiting for something to happen,” the sheriff said. “Deputies are becoming more familiar with all the county roads, recognizing which vehicles belong out there and which don’t.”
Rep. Gonzales’ spokesman reiterated that he believes the Biden administration can be faulted for having promoted an ‘open border’ policy when campaigning for the presidency last year.
“A campaign becomes policy,” Blair said. “We had a president running on an ‘open borders’ rhetoric. That word has spread all through Central and South America. This administration is failing. They’re not even engaged in what’s happening here. People who don’t live here don’t have your perspective.
“Congressman Gonzales has brought members of Congress to the border to see the problems at first hand,” Blair said. “When you see it, you can’t deny it.”
Blair added that he hopes local residents will contact his office at (210) 842-0142 to share their stories and their concerns over the issue.
“If you have a story to tell, I’d love to find a way to work with you,” the congressman’s spokesman said.
Laredo-based US Rep. Cuellar’s district includes the southern half of La Salle County, and the congressman sits on the government’s Appropriations Committee. His spokesperson agreed that obtaining accurate information on infection rates and other statistics related to the border “has been very difficult.”
“Congressman Cuellar brought a White House delegation here to illustrate the conditions,” spokesman Cleveland said. “It’s frustrating that Congress isn’t going along with it. I share your frustration.”
“It’s very hard to gauge whether we are making a difference,” the sheriff said. We are effective in one area, and they use a different area.
“We are trying to deter them from coming into this county,” Zertuche said. “These guys are well organized. They change their tactics all the time. We have to come in here and not give up.”
Meeting attendees learned that federal statistics have indicated as many as 170,000 immigrants per month have been identified crossing in the Del Rio Sector of the border, west of the Laredo Sector. The number, however, represents only those who have been taken into custody, according to Blair, who said he believes the ratio of those evading the law and those captured may be four to one.
“Let’s finish building that wall,” ranch and business owner Jerry House said at the meeting. “Donald Trump started it; let’s finish it. Does Governor Abbott have the funds to build it? I’m willing to donate a million dollars if I have to.”
Ranch manager and local resident Jacob Hearn said his family’s property straddles IH-35 and has frequently been used by smugglers trying to escape from law enforcement.
“On any given day, we are going to see or hear something,” Hearn said. “The other day, we had someone go right through, and we didn’t know about it.”
Hearn asked that the sheriff’s office provide contact information for improved two-way communication, so that he may learn when fences have been downed and he may notify officers when he or others on the property detect criminal activity.
“I ask that you notify us of anything out of the ordinary, help us get to you, to cover you, and help you stay safe,” the sheriff said. “I know the law allows you to protect yourself and your property, but I want you to be careful. These people are bold in their criminal activity. You can provide lights and dogs, but there’s no guarantee it’ll work.”
The sheriff wrapped up his Town Hall meeting with a reminder to area property owners that his officers are attuned to the crisis of smuggling trespass, damage and threats to residents’ safety that the immigrant surge has created, and again asked county residents to help him maintain communications with those affected.
“After today’s meeting, we are updating a lot of our contact information,” Zertuche said. “We will have a way to reach out to you, to keep you better informed.
“Give the dispatch office directions to access points,” the sheriff told property owners whose homes are situated far from the paved road. “Guide them to the ranch. All our patrol units have GPS, and it also comes down to old-school mapping.”
“We have talked about problems, but what you want is solutions,” Blair told the assembly, adding that he believes the government’s first step in combating the crimewave is to return funding and support to the US Border Patrol.
“Things are dire,” DA Louis said at the close of the meeting. “There’s more criminal activity in La Salle County than ever, but there is also more law enforcement than ever before. We have to use the law enforcement that we are being given to deter the criminal element.
“If it makes them move to another county, I’m not saying that’s great either,” the district attorney said. “It’s like the game of Whack-a-Mole. You push the cartel down here, it pops up somewhere else.”
The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office can be reached at (830) 879-3044, emergency dispatchers at 879-3041, for contact updates and to report criminal activity. In the event of an emergency, however, all county residents should call 911.