San Antonio Express News December 30, 2012 by John MacCormack FALFURRIAS — Back in October, as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney jousted about immigration issues in the second televised debate, the president made a remarkable assertion about control of the southern border.
“The flow of undocumented workers across the border is actually lower than it's been in 40 years,” he said.
And indeed, after a decade of increased enforcement that included construction of hundreds of miles of steel border wall and a doubling in size of the U.S. Border Patrol, the results are undeniable.
The 327,577 people caught by the Border Patrol on the southern border in fiscal year 2011 were the fewest since 1970. And it was about one-third of the apprehensions made in 2005.
But don't try telling folks in Brooks County that things are under control.
Here, apprehensions of immigrants crossing illegally, rescues of people lost in the brush and wild car chases all have increased markedly in the past couple of years.
A far more tragic indicator: the death toll of those trying to sneak around the Border Patrol checkpoint south of town on U.S. 281 has risen dramatically.
By late December, the remains of 127 people had been found in the brushy ranchland around the checkpoint, nearly double last year's total and the highest anyone can remember. In 2010, 20 bodies were found.
“When you have 127 people die in your county in one year, it's too much. One body would be too much,” said County Judge Raul Ramirez, who recently ran out of space for “John Doe” burials at the county's Sacred Heart Cemetery and is looking for a new place to bury the unidentified dead.
At Sacred Heart, their simple graves are marked with bright plastic flowers and small signs that tell what little is known, such as “skeletal remains” or “skull case” or “unknown female,” and the ranch where they were found.
Those that later are identified by DNA tests or other information are exhumed and sent back to their families, most often in Mexico or Central America.
The judge said the annual costs to his poor, rural county of dealing with illegal immigration and the unknown dead, including mortician fees and autopsies, run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
With an annual budget of about $6 million and just six full-time patrol deputies, Brooks County is ill-equipped for the task. And because it's not a border county, it receives very little state and federal aid.
“It all comes through Falfurrias. It's the No. 1 checkpoint in terms of seizures and illegal drugs,” the judge said, adding later, “I ask myself, why us?”
A busy December
Already this year, one Brooks County rancher has found the remains of 16 people on his property, which straddles U.S. 281 near the checkpoint, far more than ever before.
“It's just been horrible. And there would have been a lot more deaths if the county didn't have a locator for 911 calls. Everyone has a cellphone,” said Presnall Cage, 67, whose 43,000-acre ranch is regularly traversed by large groups.
“They are coming across as bad as they ever have,” he added. “People say it's slowed down, but it doesn't seem that way to me.”
The deaths have risen markedly despite efforts by both the Border Patrol and local deputies to prevent them.
The measures include hundreds of GPS markers spread around the brush that can help pinpoint 911 calls, flashing beacons that have water and panic buttons, and special Border Patrol units trained to save stranded travelers.
Although several hundred agents are stationed in Falfurrias, the vastness of the terrain and the heavy pressure from smugglers sometimes has them overmatched. All told, more than 2,600 agents work in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, trailing only El Paso and Tucson.
“What you're seeing now is the busiest this checkpoint has been since I came to this sector in 1995,” said Enrique Mendiola, a Border Patrol spokesman, who said that this year, the traditional winter lull never happened.
According to a large sign at the checkpoint, 36,075 pounds of drugs have been seized and 3,781 undocumented people have been apprehended here since Oct. 1.
While the Border Patrol does not release statistics for individual checkpoints, the December apprehensions of illegal immigrants here were more than double those of last December, according to unofficial sources.
The latest official statistics for the Rio Grande Valley Sector, which includes Falfurrias, show apprehensions surged by more than 60 percent from 2011 to 2012 for comparable 10-month periods, according to Mendiola.
No one has a good explanation for why Brooks County is such a hot spot, and nothing as dramatic is happening around other South Texas checkpoints in Kenedy, Jim Hogg and Webb Counties.
“If we knew why, we'd go after it,” said Mendiola, who thinks that the construction of the steel border fence in the eastern half of the Rio Grande Valley has pushed most illegal activity westward toward U.S. 281.
“You used to have one organization running drugs, another running people. That was all we knew,” he said. “Now we have transnational criminal organizations and it's a multi-commodity business.”
Chief Sheriff's Deputy Benny Martinez sees other factors.
“In my opinion, it has to do with the enforcement in Arizona. They're shifting back to Texas,” he said of the human smugglers.
“We're already had 250 to 300 rescues this year, either from cellphone calls or people we find in the brush. It's way more than in the past,” he said.
In southern Arizona, another recent hot spot for illegal immigration, immigrant deaths peaked in 2010 at 252, forcing the medical examiner to hold bodies awaiting autopsies in refrigerated trucks. This year, the total likely will be below 160.
In Brooks County, encounters between smugglers and the law are becoming more frequent and more dangerous.
“They're getting aggressive, in the way they are driving and the methods they use to get away. And once they are apprehended, they fight back,” sheriff's Investigator Danny Davila said.
“We had one last week,” he continued. “We tried to pull him over, but he went through a ranch, fence line after fence line, until he came to another paved road, and then he was gone.”
“We couldn't stay with him because it was starting to get dark and we had lost sight of him,” he added. “It was not safe.”
Most of the illegal immigrant traffic seems to be headed for Houston, and Davila thinks that large criminal organizations in Mexico working with associates in that city have chosen U.S. 281 as their smuggling corridor.
“This is the path of least resistance. We're knocking down maybe 10 percent of what's going through the county. The volume has gotten phenomenal,” he said.
Much of the illegal traffic that goes northward through Brooks County follows backcountry roads into Duval County. There, similar chases occur daily, and often with the same result, an SUV crashing through fence lines into the brush.
“They never pull over. We get three to four bailouts on a good day. And for every bailout, maybe five others get through,” said Jose Martinez, chief deputy in Duval County.
“We've already confiscated 325 cars this year from bailouts. We caught people in about fifty of those vehicles, but we hardly ever catch the driver,” he added.
The consequences for the human cargo often are deadly.
In April, nine people died near Palmview in the Valley when Border Patrol agents attempted to stop a minivan soon after it left a stash house. Eighteen illegal immigrants were in the van, driven by a 15-year-old, when it rolled over.
In May, a high-speed early-morning chase in Kleberg County that went through fenced ranchland ended with a man having his leg severed. The man, who never was identified, died of blood loss at the scene.
In October, two Guatemalans were killed after a DPS sharpshooter in a helicopter fired on a fleeing pickup that was carrying illegal immigrants near La Joya. The much criticized shooting still is being reviewed.
During an eight-hour stretch one day earlier this month, in which reporters accompanied Border Patrol agents and Brooks County sheriff's deputies on calls around the county, the action was heavy.
The day included a 300-pound marijuana bust and two arrests following a short car chase.
There were a total of three high-speed car chases. One involved a pickup carrying eight people that careened through a hotel parking lot before being abandoned. Finally, there was the discovery of a large group of men, women and children wandering aimlessly in the brush miles off U.S. 281.
After being loaded into a white van, half the group of hungry, dirty people was taken to Border Patrol headquarters in Falfurrias to be processed. Most were Central Americans, who now make up a large percentage of those caught.
Among them were eight women and three children younger than age 12, including a Honduran girl, 11, who was traveling alone.
Humberto Martinez Vasquez Guzman, 18, from Guatemala, had come with his young wife, Silva Elena, in hopes of reaching relatives in Kentucky. He said they each had paid $6,500 to smugglers for the trip, only to be abandoned in South Texas, far short of their destination.
“We crossed the river at McAllen on Saturday, and on Monday night they brought us up here. They dropped us by the highway and left. We were walking three days in the brush without food,” he said on a recent day, the picture of complete defeat.
Martinez said an earthquake that destroyed much of the housing in his hometown, Aldea San Marcos, near the Mexican border, had pushed him to attempt the perilous journey that had just ended so badly.
“I've got to ask for help to avoid being returned. God knows I'm not lying,” he said.
But, Mendiola said, there was little likelihood of any of them staying in the United States. And despite his many years of dealing with similar unhappy endings, the veteran Border Patrol agent was moved to comment about the unaccompanied young girl.
“It's a sad thing to have an 11-year-old here like this,” he said of a slim child in a black T-shirt.
“At her age,” he added, “I wouldn't even let my kid go three blocks, and these people are coming through three countries.”