Saturday, July 21, 2012

After test, feds fortify border fence with gates

The Monitor
July 21, 2012
by Dave Hendricks

HIDALGO — The rust-red border fence that snakes through Hidalgo County includes more than a dozen small gaps wide enough for a truck to drive through.

And, sure enough, smugglers have driven right through them — north carrying drugs and illegal immigrants, and south running from the law.

The gaps are beginning to close as the federal government installs imposing metal gates that open only for Border Patrol agents, farmers and other people with legitimate business along the Rio Grande. In the project’s first phase, the government plans to install 44 gates across Hidalgo and Cameron counties.

At first, Border Patrol tested farm and vehicle gates across the Rio Grande Valley. While Border Patrol has been tight-lipped about the test gates, calling the project “operational and law enforcement sensitive,” some details have trickled out.

At least one test gate appears to have been installed just west of International Boulevard near the Hidalgo County Water Improvement District 3 pump station in Hidalgo. The nearby border fence, just yards from International Boulevard, includes two small gaps that briefly had different gates.

“I guess they were trying to find out which one was most reliable, which one worked best,” said district President and General Manager Othal E. Brand Jr. “They did that for four or five months.”

One gate mechanism appeared to be hydraulic. Another used a gear-and-chain system. The test appears to have finished and both gates now appear identical.

Asked about the test at District 3, Border Patrol requested questions in writing. Border Patrol confirmed testing “vehicle and farm gates at selected existing fence gaps in Cameron and Hidalgo counties” but wouldn’t provide locations.

“Specific details regarding the gates design and mechanisms are law enforcement sensitive,” according to information provided by Supervisory Agent Dan Milian, a Border Patrol spokesman.

After installing the first 44 gates, 32 in Cameron County and 12 in Hidalgo County, the government may build up to 34 more, according to Border Patrol. As of Jan. 12, the project had cost “approximately $10 million.”

Farmers and others with business along the Rio Grande use keypads to open the gates. If the power goes out, a backup system powers the gate’s lock but the gate must be opened manually.

“If (the) power outage lasts longer than 12 hours, gates will automatically unlock and will remain unlocked until power is restored,” according to information provided by Border Patrol. The gates are designed so that an adult can manually open an unlocked gate.

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