New border arrest data show fewer major drug busts

AUSTIN (KXAN) – KXAN first revealed how more than a billion of your tax dollars are being spent in the Texas Department of Public Safety’s “border surge” last November. Our investigation found state troopers dispatched to the border region are mostly arresting drunk drivers and small time drug users who have nothing to do with the drug and human smugglers they were sent to catch. And now, new data show the efforts along the border is yielding even fewer major drug busts.

Texas law enforcement officers tell us they've seen little to no change in the supply of drugs here at home, despite the efforts being poured into the border region. And officials in border counties tell KXAN the result isn’t worth the cost.

Our analysis of DPS arrests in border regions showed that of the more than 32,000 arrests made since June 2014, only six percent of the arrests were for felony drug possession—less than one percent have been for human smuggling. We found troopers are mostly arresting drunk drivers, which make up 29 percent of their arrests while 28 percent of their arrests have been for misdemeanor drug offenses.

DPS would only release data with its own categorizations of arrest offenses as opposed to the actual, statutory offenses related to the arrests. The new, more detailed data show more than half of those "felony drug arrests" by troopers were suspects caught with less than a few grams of drugs like cocaine or meth, not big-time smugglers.

Community activists in the Rio Grande Valley say drug dealers are getting good at avoiding areas with a lot of state troopers, who are tending to smaller crimes to justify their presence.

“The drug dealers are not dumb, alright. So they'll go around and find other areas where there's not so much concentration of DPS in one place. Because that's what they've been doing,” said Martha Sanchez of LUPE, a community union that works with low-income communities.

Since 2008, DPS has received $1.6 billion for its border operations, but the agency still wants more. This week, DPS once again turned to lawmakers to seek another billion dollars to continue the surge and double the number of troopers stationed along the border. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have demanded the federal government pay the bill for Texas' spending on border security.

“We're definitely against increasing funds for the DPS,” said Sanchez. “It's a complete waste of resources.”

The resources are often spent on traffic stops like that of Jose Alanis, who was pulled-over by a trooper because one of his rear brake lights wasn’t working. The trooper arrested Alanis for driving while intoxicated and later found Alanis had a few small baggies of cocaine. DPS reported this arrest and thousands more like it as the arrest of a “high threat criminal.”

In our investigation that aired last November, KXAN reviewed the outcomes of 500 felony drug arrests of offenders DPS labeled “high threat criminals” in Hidalgo and Starr Counties, the two border counties where the most DPS arrests are made. Our review found, of the arrests that have actually resulted in a criminal case being filed, 25 percent of felony drug offenders only got probation—most of them had no prior criminal history. And 33 percent received probation after a short stint in jail, but no prison time. Only 23 percent received prison sentences.

Many state leaders like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick still support the border surge, even after we shared our findings.

"We are reducing all crime,” said Lt. Gov. Patrick. “And as part of that, we are reducing drugs, we are catching smugglers."

The Texas Department of Public Safety sent this statement in response to our findings:

As you know, Texas lawmakers determine which drug categories and amounts are considered felonies. (For example, once you reach even one gram of cocaine, it elevates the charge to a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.)

Simply put, felony drug offenses pose a threat to the public. Cocaine, for example, is a highly addictive drug that poses a threat to the public and can lead to erratic behavior and death. Additionally, the fact that illegal drugs are being bought and sold in Texas is indicative of a larger problem – the lucrative drug trade and its adverse effect on our communities. As you also know, the department has previously stated that Mexican cartels pose the most significant organized crime threat to Texas.

Click here for full statement.

Since our investigation, a lot has changed politically across the nation. Some state lawmakers are hoping the federal government will spend more money along the border as part of President Donald Trump's border security initiative, which might let Texas slow down its own border security operation. But if the federal government is going to put more resources on the border, will it be before state lawmakers are done making budget decisions in a few months?

DPS director Steve McCraw told them this week he recently met with the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary and he expects Border Patrol to add 5,000 agents, but that will take some time. McCraw also told lawmakers that DPS wants to "get out of the border security business," because it's a "strain on the agency" and not their "mission."

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