RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas (KXAN) — When Nellie Mares and her husband moved to Rio Grande City 40 years ago, it was a place rooted in religion and filled with possibility for their children. Today, it is overrun with bail bondsmen, attorneys and an army of state troopers watching residents very closely.
“Well, sometimes it’s good,” Nellie pondered. “Sometimes, it’s not.”
Sitting on the couch with her son, Nickolas, 45, in the living room of their small, cinder block home, Nellie recalled a night in April 2015 when the phone on rang.
“All my kids are good,” she said. “They’ve never been in jail.”
A trooper had pulled Nickolas over on a stretch of road just north of the river separating their town from Mexico. Nickolas’ pickup truck did not have a front license plate.
“He couldn’t talk,” Nellie explained. “They called me to jail, and they were going to lock him up. I said, ‘Why are you going to lock him up?’”
Nickolas was unable to clearly speak during the traffic stop, due to a stroke he suffered a few years before. As his mother described the ordeal, he leaned against her, nodding his head to verify the story.
“I’m the only one who understands him,” she said. “He was scared. He was crying.”
In the dashcam video from the patrol car, the trooper seemed suspicious, leaning into the truck. He asked Nickolas to step out of his truck and stand by the patrol car. He then searched the truck and discovered a small clear bag in the center console. The trooper returned to his vehicle and called another trooper.
“Hey, bro, I’ve got a dumb question for you man,” the first trooper said. “I’ve never gotten cocaine before but I think I have a little bag here… (It is) wrapped real tight with white powder inside of it. I don’t know how to test it.”
Inside was less than a third of a gram of cocaine – enough for a felony drug charge.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Nellie recalls about the moment she learned the trooper had arrested her son. “Now I was the scared one.”
Funding the surge
Nickolas was added to a list of more than 3,781 arrestees along the border classified as “high-threat criminals,” or HTC, by the Texas Department of Public Safety since late June 2014. DPS has defined an HTC as an individual “whose criminal activity poses a serious public safety or homeland security threat.”
The HTC list is part of lawmaker discussions on DPS funding, which is used in part to deploy troopers to the 63-county area closest to the border. In the last legislative session, DPS reported to lawmakers that the objective of its border efforts was "to decrease cartel drug and human smuggling by increasing patrol presence.”
In the past decade, state lawmakers have given DPS $1.6 billion for a string of border operations.
Agency leaders are now asking the legislature to approve an additional billion dollars for the upcoming biennium. If lawmakers approve that funding request, the number of troopers stationed in those counties will double to 500 in the coming months.
In Starr and Hidalgo Counties – where DPS border operations peak – troopers are parked every few miles along Highway 83, which stretches just blocks from the border line. Their deployment is largely aimed at stopping drug smugglers from Mexico.
Analyzing the arrests
KXAN reviewed all trooper arrests along the border – 31,786 violations from late June 2014 through September 2016. The results shows just six percent of the offenses were for felony drug possession – the "drug smugglers" stated in the state's objective. The other priority in that objective is supposed to be human smugglers, but they made up just one percent of offenses.
In fact, troopers most often arrest people for driving drunk, a crime making up 29 percent of all offenses. Misdemeanor drug arrests – those for very small amounts of drugs – made up 28 percent.
DPS declined an interview with KXAN for this story. But in an emailed statement, it said: "Troopers have an obligation to uphold ALL laws, we are confident that when state leaders and the legislature directed us to implement the ongoing border operation, they did not intend for Troopers to ignore other violations of law.”
“We will continue to capture and report the activity and impacts of Operation Secure Texas to the Texas Legislature and Texas Leadership as directed, and ultimately, the operation’s success and need for continued or additional resources for border security will be determined by our state leaders – not the department.” – Texas Department of Public Safety. You can read the full statement here.
“The biggest thing that has been achieved has been stopping DWIs, which is a good thing,” said Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, whose district spans several border counties. “But it’s not border security, and at what cost did we achieve that?”
Guillen has openly criticized the state’s current spending tactics on the border. He suggested DPS will face a greater challenge when asking lawmakers for more money in the future.
“As a state, we haven’t accomplished anything,” said Guillen. “And that’s very concerning, particularly when we’re spending so much of the taxpayer dollars on this operation.”
You can find a breakdown of Operation Secure Texas here.
While lawmakers debate the possible funding and the impact of troopers stationed along the border, DPS might not be painting a complete picture of its effectiveness. An HTC arrest’s result is not laid out in detail for the legislature. Or lawmakers are simply not pressing for more specific information, which could reveal questionable outcomes for people considered “high threat.”
Take Nickolas Mares. Before that April night last year, he had a clean record – one of the reasons he was able to plead down to a misdemeanor, though his arrest remains among DPS’ HTC tally.
A joint committee on border security has held a handful of interim hearings ahead of the next legislative session which begins in January. The panel is tasked with oversight and execution of state resources along the border.
As DPS Director Steve McCraw described the committee’s responsibility in its last hearing: “to assess the return on… the (legislature’s) investment.” The DPS statement to KXAN further states: “Ultimately, the operation's success and need for continued or additional resources for border security will be determined by our state leaders not the department."
The border security committee is co-chaired by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Waco, both of whom also declined to speak with KXAN.
Birdwell did provide a statement though to the Texas Tribune, KXAN’s media partner, related to this investigation: “I welcome any opportunity to scrutinize the work being done by the DPS at the border to ensure they are meeting the legislative mandate of keeping citizens safe by interdicting and deterring criminal activity. The legislature has and will continue to provide close oversight of this effort with a holistic view of the mission at hand—not individually selected facts."
Another member of the committee told KXAN the importance of the border operation goes beyond arrests and the data surrounding them.
“I think arrests are important, but the question we have to put in perspective is the overall strategy,” said Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman. “It's the presence (of those troopers) to keep unlawful activity coming through.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick clearly agrees, making border security one of his top priorities in his first term – not to mention the time he spent in the Texas Senate directly before assuming the state’s second highest role. He told KXAN that "the purpose of the budget on the border was to reduce all crime."
When asked about the stated objective to deter drug and human smuggling, Patrick added, “DPS said, 'If you give us the dollars, we can reduce that crime dramatically in that area. We now have proof that crime is some of the lowest it's ever been."
That is not what KXAN found in an analysis of DPS numbers, regarding drug smugglers. The amount of felony drug violations reported by troopers on the border has actually gone up by six percent in the past two years.
And the 2015 DPS report states that the effort up to that point, "deters cartel smuggling... but it does not secure the border." Further, “patrol operations are inefficient in the detection and interdiction of all smuggling events.”
It went on to reveal, the Mexican drug cartels are aware of those points and have hundreds of scouts to help avoid detection by law enforcement. DPS told KXAN the report identified "vulnerabilities and inefficiencies" from its original strategy, and - in order to evolve into a preventive approach - the "department was provided more troopers and other resources to implement the updated operational strategy.
Patrick said he supports spending even more money on more troopers, doing “whatever it takes to make our border safe.”
"I've talked to police chiefs," he said. “I've talked to mayors. I've talked to local officials. They all say, 'Keep the money coming. Crime is down.'"
However, some local law enforcement, like Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra, have mixed feelings.
"DPS has been doing a fantastic job in holding the line on illegal drugs,” said Guerra. “But I'm also a taxpayer, and I know I can do it a lot cheaper."
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