Brooks County, Texas is mostly a vast semi-desert range-land and sits 65 miles north of the Mexican border. But Chief Deputy Sheriff Benny Martinez says 80-85 percent of his force’s time is spent on problems related to the border, from illegal immigration to drug smuggling.
The hardest work involves recovering the bodies of illegal immigrants who die from exposure in the brutal summer heat, as they hike through the sandy land on routes that circumvent the Border Patrol checkpoint a few miles south of Falfurrias, where the sheriff’s office is headquartered.
But the list also includes pursuit of smuggling vehicles that bust through ranchers’ fences and head cross country in an effort to evade the law. There are frequent reports of robberies at ranch houses, like two weeks ago when a house was trashed by a group that had bacon cooking on the stove when the owner drove up and prompted them to flee.
And then there are the 911 calls, sometimes several in a day, from groups of illegal-immigrant hikers suffering from hypothermia or dehydration and who plead to be rescued. And Martinez also has occasional encounters with the gangs that steal vehicles near their home bases in Houston or San Antonio and then drive to prearranged points north of the Falfurrias checkpoint to meet the hikers.
Like many people in this part of Texas, Martinez talks almost wistfully about the days when a few illegal immigrants would look for help as they headed toward jobs on local ranches or up in San Antonio, 170 miles to the north. While most of the illegal border crossers want only to pass through, a small minority of trouble-makers can cause a lot of problems.
“You probably get more of the core criminals coming through now, and that’s the scary part.” Many of them have previously been deported from the United States, he said. Because they know that if they are arrested again they face the possibility of a jail sentence for the felony of re-entry after deportation, they are particularly determined not to be arrested again.
Martinez describes the recent case that involved an effort to hotwire a tractor, by a group that wanted to ride rather than hike. “They just got into the cab and they destroyed it,” he said. “For no reason. I’m guessing they made an attempt to get it cranked up. And they didn’t, so they just destroyed it.”
Another group had more success with starting a tractor, and proceeded to wreak their cross-country havoc. Said Martinez, “They hotwired the tractor and they just went through…I think it was ten fence lines. They just went right through them. I want to say roughly between ten and fifteen miles they traveled cross-country in this tractor.”
Incidents like that, along with the frequent reports of break-ins, agitate nerves in Brooks County and stir resentment against government officials who declare that the border has been secured. Some ranchers say they never step outside without a firearm. Many wonder who would buy their land if they ever decided to sell.
Martinez provides another measure of the almost casual contempt for law and life that he encounters among the smugglers of drugs and human beings. In mid-June, he said, a “coyote” -- a smuggler of illegal immigrants -- waited until he reached Boston to report to a Guatemalan man that he had left the man’s sister in the Brooks County desert because she couldn’t keep up with the group. The Guatemalan man made an emergency trip to Falfurrias, seeking Martinez’s help.
“We recovered the body,” Martinez said. The woman was 28. Her brother presented no criminal complaint. Martinez offered this explanation: “The coyote knows who they are, and they don’t want no retaliation.”