The View from Laredo

Not enough Border Patrol agents or infrastructure

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 3, 2020
  • Laredo Sector only has 1,800 Border Patrol employees to keep watch on 171 miles of border and an area of more than 101,000 square miles, which is home to the second-busiest cargo port in the nation.
  • There are only 7.1 miles of improved road for agents to access, and one aerostat, along that 171-mile border.
  • The only barrier in the sector consists of ornamental fencing at Laredo College.
  • There is no permanent lighting at the border across the river from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a city of a half-million people that is home to a dangerous drug cartel.
  • Border Patrol agents must regularly attempt to apprehend illegal migrants at stash houses and in vehicles — often at risk to themselves.
  • Unlike most of the sectors along the border, 90 percent of illegal migrants in the Laredo Sector are single adults who do not want to be apprehended — assaulting agents 72 times in the last fiscal year alone.
  • Agents in the sector regularly save the lives of the migrants whom they are attempting to apprehend.

I recently returned from a three-day trip to Laredo. In short: I came away from the dusty border town with the conclusion that there are not enough agents, or infrastructure, in a sector that includes within its jurisdiction the country's second busiest port, and that sits across the Rio Grande from a major city — Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

I flew into San Antonio International Airport, and drove more than 160 miles down Interstate 35 to my destination. I-35, which goes from Laredo to northern Minnesota near the Canadian border, runs parallel (from San Antonio to Laredo) to train tracks owned and operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. Together, I-35 and the rails create a critical route for goods travelling between the United States and Mexico.

How critical? Between the railroad and the land ports at Laredo, that city, in March 2019 beat out the Port of Los Angeles in cargo and container volume among all U.S. airports, seaports, and land border crossings, processing $20 billion in trade that month, amid rising trade tensions with China. Los Angeles rebounded the next month, but Laredo is still the second-busiest U.S. port, through which 2.5 million trucks pass annually. That is a significant distinction for a city with a population of just 261,639.

My first stop in the city was the town square, the San Augustin Plaza. Aside from the four-star La Posada Hotel, the square and its surroundings were run down and vaguely seedy, with the shops that were open (many were out of business) selling cheap Southwestern merchandise and cut-rate clothing. I parked next to the San Augustin Cathedral (undergoing renovations), and before I could exit my Mitsubishi rental with California tags, one of three gentlemen standing around near a street corner offered me drugs. (I declined.)

I then joined the throngs walking to the pedestrian port at the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge just off of Convent Avenue. A few appeared to be students returning across the Rio Grande to Nuevo Laredo, others shoppers returning with full bags or workers to that city of a half-million people.

The river is about 150 feet across where the two cities meet, and I saw fishermen with drag nets on the Mexican side in its waters (they had a rather large largemouth bass that they were proud to show me) across from the riverside Los Tres Laredos Park.

Behind me on the American side was a large mall ("The Outlet Shoppes at Laredo") tempting slightly higher-end buyers with Michael Kors, Vera Bradley, Puma, Under Armour, Steve Madden, and others. Critically, although there were no windows on the river-side of the outlet, there were stairs and escalators into the complex, and anyone who crossed the river, the park, and the parking lot was, effectively, free in the United States, unless they were spied by Border Patrol, followed, and arrested.

Not that there were enough Border Patrol agents to do the job effectively. There are approximately 1,800 Border Patrol employees in the sector, which "encompasses 116 counties and 101,439 square miles of southwest and northeast Texas" — one employee for every 56.35 square miles.

Returning to the town square, I saw a sign in a shop window (in both English and Spanish) advertising a spot for donors to board the shuttle to one of the three plasma centers in Laredo. Those centers appear to be one of the more popular destinations for northbound travelers seeking cash.

The next day, I met with agents and traveled further along the border near the city.

I was told that Nuevo Laredo is within the "territory" of the Cártel del Noreste (CDN), the "Northeast cartel", the rebranded offshoot version of the notorious Zetas. No migrant along this part of the border is able to move north without the permission of CDN, which maintains control of the travel routes. In fact, I was told, a bus driver who had been transporting migrants without permission had "disappeared". The smugglers themselves are not part of the CDN, but they answer to the cartel, or face similar repercussions. They likely all pay CDN for the privilege of conducting their illicit traffic.

As a result, unlike most of the Border Patrol sectors along the Southwest border, where the majority of the migrants apprehended in FY 2019 were family units ("FMUs", adults traveling with children) or unaccompanied alien children (UACs) — almost 56 percent and 9 percent of total Border Patrol apprehensions last fiscal year, respectively — 90 percent of the 38,378 individuals apprehended in Laredo Sector in FY 2019 were single adults.

And, unlike the majority of migrants along that border who turned themselves in to the Border Patrol as soon as they could after entering illegally last year, most of the migrants in the Laredo sector actively attempt to avoid apprehension. How actively? There were 72 assaults on Border Patrol agents in the sector in FY 2019.

A lack of manpower and infrastructure along the border, as well as the layout of Laredo itself, makes the apprehension of those migrants by Border Patrol in the sector extremely difficult.

What barrier that there is in the sector consists of ornamental fencing erected along the boundaries of the downtown campus of Laredo College, which occupies the grounds of the former Fort McIntosh. That fencing, which was erected to keep border crossers from traversing the campus, stands approximately 12 feet high, and in places you can see where the top of the fence was bent by illicit crossers who climbed over the "barrier".

In addition, there is only one aerostat (in the south, near Falcon Lake) and just 7.1 miles of improved road along the 171 miles of border in the sector. Getting down to the river by vehicle generally requires a high-clearance truck, and the trip goes through deep ruts and washed-out trails — where there are any trails at all.

That said, I was told that Laredo Sector is in line to receive increased fencing and other infrastructure — assuming that Congress appropriates the money.

Carrizo cane and salt cedar, as well as native trees and bushes, provide ample space for smugglers and migrants to hide along the riverbank from agents and passing patrols. Border Patrol attempts to clear these invasive species where it can, but with an ample water supply, it is a constant, usually losing, battle.

In fact, as a result of all of these factors, I was told that Border Patrol in Laredo only had situational awareness of approximately 30 percent of the border.

Not even including the mall, the square, and its environs, the close proximity of neighborhoods in the city of Laredo to the river provides plenty of opportunities for aliens who have crossed illegally to blend into the community, making apprehension even more difficult. Some of those neighborhoods, particularly near the downtown itself, are little more than tumble-down shacks, and the streets are narrow, making high-speed vehicular pursuit impossible. Those houses sit within feet of the dense brush that edges the banks of the river.

Higher-end houses in less crowded areas are more spread apart, and sit a bit farther from the river, but these neighborhoods still offer opportunities for migrants and smugglers to enter and transit. The 51-acre Slaughter Park, which was built by the city, has five baseball diamonds and three soccer fields. It sits between the banks of the river and a major residential neighborhood. Once across the fields, any illegal entrant (smuggler or migrant) is in the United States and on his or her way.

There is also a major gulch at Zacata Creek, next to a water treatment plant immediately to the east of downtown, that provides cover to entrants, as well.

There were no permanent lights along the river that I saw, although most illegal migrants cross by swimming, inner tube, or raft at night. Small, mobile, diesel-powered lights are stationed at key crossing points near the port, but there were no permanent "stadium lights" of the sort that one sees elsewhere alone the border.

Of course, there are spotters, who monitor the movement of the Border Patrol along the river, and stash houses (where smugglers hold migrants) on both sides, for movement north. Sometimes those stash houses are little more than shacks themselves, while others, I was told, are more tony abodes.

On January 30, 2020, Border Patrol agents and Webb County constables raided one such stash house in El Cenizo, Texas, a small town along the river almost due south of Laredo, arresting 11 Guatemalan nationals. On January 27, 2020, Border Patrol, along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, the Webb County constables, and the Webb County Attorney's Office disrupted another stash house in Laredo, arresting 31 nationals of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. On January 23, 2020, Border Patrol agents arrested 12 nationals of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico in a stash house on Malinche Avenue in Laredo. That is just in one week.

Illegal drugs pass through the 30 miles of border that are the responsibility of the Laredo North Station, as well as elsewhere along the border and through the ports of entry for the four vehicular international bridges and one international rail bridge in the city. On January 3, 2020, alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the Lincoln-Juarez Bridge in the city seized 65 pounds of "alleged" cocaine with a street value of $505,240 in two separate incidents. These were not isolated events.

On December 11, 2019, CBP officers at the Juarez-Lincoln Bridge stopped a 2003 Ford Escape and found 22 pounds of alleged methamphetamine, with an estimated street value of $453,265.

On November 15, 2019, Fox San Antonio reported:

[O]fficers at the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge found 133 pounds of alleged methamphetamine inside 24 packages hidden in a 2012 GMC Sierra pickup that was being driven by a 66-year-old man from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

Then on Monday, November 18, agents confiscated a total of 54 pounds of drugs, alleged cocaine (30.60 pounds) and methamphetamine (23.90 pounds). The 45 packages of narcotics were hidden inside a 2002 Ford Crown Victoria, which was driven by a 34-year-old male Mexican national and resident of Dallas, Texas.

The narcotics would have had a combined estimated street value of $2,440,912. [Emphasis added.]

On November 30, 2019, CBP officers seized "214 packages containing a total of 5,150 pounds of alleged marijuana" at the World Trade Bridge. That same day, at the Juarez-Lincoln Bridge, CBP officers discovered "20 packages containing a total of 91 pounds of alleged crystal methamphetamine". Those drugs had "a combined estimated street value of $2,306,981". [Emphasis added.]

On January 15, 2020, Border Patrol agents from the Freer Station in the sector apprehended 61 migrants from Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, as well as 19 bundles of marijuana that weighed just more than 327 pounds (approximate street value, $261,732) in a tractor-trailer just off U.S. 59.

The day before, agents in Laredo found 33 migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and China in a tractor-trailer about a mile from the border. No drugs that time, but on January 12, 2020, they found several bundles containing just more than 745 pounds of marijuana that smugglers had been trying to load into a vehicle near the river, with an approximate street value of $596,480. The vehicle was apprehended, and the driver arrested.

I could go on, but you get the point.

The trucks loaded with migrants, however, bring up two more issues.

First, the agents in Laredo sector regularly have to perform numerous rescues of aliens smuggled in such vehicles. I was told stories of aliens who were found with bloodied hands as they tried to claw at the roofs of trailers they were trapped in by smugglers, seeking fresh air. I have previously written about a similar tragedy, an incident in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio in July 2017:

On [July 23, 2017] it was revealed that nine aliens died, and several more were in "dire condition", after they were discovered in the back of a "sweltering tractor-trailer" in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio, Texas. Seventeen of the 39 aliens rescued were reported to be in "critical condition".

At one point, it was reported, "more than 100 people" may have been packed into the truck, which was believed to have picked up its passengers on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico. According to the Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Tom Homan, "[f]our of the survivors appeared to be between 10 and 17 years old."

I continued:

This is not the first such tragedy, or even the first in Texas. Early in the morning of May 14, 2003, a "milk trailer, piled with bodies" was discovered near Victoria, Texas, abandoned at a truck stop. Press reports stated that 19 died and 55 aliens were rescued in that incident; a five-year-old child was the first to succumb, and the driver eventually received a 34-year sentence for his role in that crime.

With that in mind, consider this incident, as reported by CBP on December 17, 2019:

Laredo Sector Border Patrol agents encountered a large human smuggling attempt this week.

A commercial tractor trailer approached the commercial vehicle inspection lanes of a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint yesterday. Agents soon discovered more than 70 people inside the trailer. The group consisted of both male and female subjects. All were found to be illegally present in the United States, from the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. The subjects were outfitted with marked shirts that appear to assist the trafficking organization in classifying/identifying the individuals within the group, a similar methodology used to classify cargo and commodities. [Emphasis added.]

Or worse, this rescue:

U.S. Border Patrol agents prevented a human smuggling attempt and rescued several illegal aliens locked in a cold trailer at the Interstate 35 (I-35) Border Patrol checkpoint north of Laredo, Texas.

The incident occurred at approximately 12:30 a.m. on December 11, [2019] when a black tractor-trailer hauling a white trailer approached the primary inspection lane of the checkpoint. During immigration inspection of the driver, agents received consent from the driver for a non-intrusive scan of the vehicle.

The scan revealed several individuals hidden in the trailer. Agents opened the sealed trailer and discovered 27 individuals concealed inside with no means to escape. The cold trailer had an interior temperature of 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The individuals, 22 males and 5 females, were in the country illegally. They were from the countries of Guatemala, Ecuador, and Mexico. [Emphasis added.]

Or this, where Border Patrol agents risked their own safety to save a group of children:

U.S. Border Patrol agents intercepted a human smuggling attempt and rescued several illegal aliens found in a locked trailer northwest of Laredo, Texas.

The incident occurred during the late evening hours of November 20, [2019] when agents working the primary inspection lanes of the U.S. Highway 83 Border Patrol checkpoint encountered a blue tractor-trailer hauling a white trailer. After brief questioning, the tractor-trailer was referred for secondary inspection. The driver proceeded toward the secondary inspection area but failed to stop, fleeing the checkpoint and driving approximately 100 yards until coming to a halt.

Agents immediately gave chase and discovered that the driver had abandoned the tractor and absconded. Agents proceeded to break the seal that kept the trailer doors shut and found 17 individuals trapped inside without any means of escape. The individuals, which included nine juveniles, were from the countries of Mexico and Guatemala, all illegally present in the United States and were found to be in good health. [Emphasis added.]

These are not isolated incidents. Again, I could go on, but they simply reinforce statements that I have made before: "CBP Rescues Aliens from Smugglers", and "Smugglers Are Bad People".

Foiling such smuggling attempts are not the only way in which Border Patrol agents in Laredo rescue illegal entrants. On November 20, 2019, Laredo agents saved a Mexican national from drowning in Chacon Creek, near the Rio Grande. On July 24, 2019:

Border Patrol Agents assigned to the Field Intelligence Team (FIT), the Laredo South Station, CBP Air and Marine Operations (AMO), and the Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR) unit rescued a lost illegal alien southeast of Laredo, Texas.

On July 18, agents responded to a 911 call from a lost individual in distress. In a collaborative effort, BORSTAR, LRS FIT and AMO responded to assist in locating the individual. A Border Patrol Emergency Medical Technician immediately administered intravenous fluids due to the individual's dehydration symptoms. Further evaluation determined the subject needed additional medical attention and was transported to Laredo Medical Center.

I was told about similar such instances, in which Border Patrol, at risk to themselves, acted to save migrants who had placed themselves in peril.

One final point, that is likely of interest to my colleague Todd Bensman, who writes extensively about "extra-continental" migrants — migrants at the Southwest border who have travelled to the Americas seeking illegal entry. I was told that Laredo sector, in a fairly isolated section of the border, leads the nation in apprehensions of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, as well as in the number of Mandarin-speaking migrants, logically from the People's Republic of China. Those migrants had a well-thought-out plan that brought them thousands of miles to bypass the legal immigration system and enter the United States illegally. Just not well-thought-out enough.

While in Laredo, I went to the so-called "tent court" there, where migrants subject to the Migrant Protection Protocols — "MPP" or colloquially known as "Remain in Mexico" — have their cases heard. I will dispel some misinformation about those courts in my next post.