RIO GRANDE CITY – When Nellie Mares and her husband moved here 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 said. “Sometimes, it’s not.”
Sitting on the couch with her son, Nickolas, 45, in the living room of their small, cinderblock home, Nellie recalled a night in April 2015 when the phone rang. A trooper had pulled Nickolas over on a stretch of road just north of the river separating their town from Mexico. Nickolas’ pickup truck had no front license plate.
“He couldn’t talk,” Nellie said of her son, who is unable to speak clearly because of a stroke he suffered a few years ago. “They called me to jail, and they were going to lock him up. I said, ‘Why are you going to lock him up?’”
In the dashcam video taken from the patrol car, the trooper 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.”
Nickolas was one 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. The department 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 – the 31,786 violations from late June 2014 through September 2016. The results shows just 6 percent of the offenses were for felony drug possession — the criminals troopers were largely sent to stop. The other HTC priority is supposed to be human smugglers, but they made up just 1 percent of offenses.
In fact, troopers most often arrested people for driving drunk, a crime that accounted for 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.”
“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?”
“As a state, we haven’t accomplished anything. And that’s very concerning, particularly when we’re spending so much of the taxpayer dollars on this operation.”
—Rep. Ryan Guillen
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.”
A joint committee on border security has held a handful of interim hearings ahead of the next legislative session, set to begin in January. The panel is tasked with oversight and execution of state resources along the border.
During the committee's latest hearing, DPS Director Steve McCraw said the panel's responsibility was 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 Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Waco, and Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, both of whom also declined to speak to KXAN.
In a statement to The Texas Tribune, Birdwell said:
"I have great confidence in the work being done by the DPS with the assets legislatively assigned to them by Texas taxpayers ... 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."
Added Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, who also sits on the committee: “I think arrests are important, but the question we have to put in perspective is the overall strategy."
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick clearly agrees, having made border security one of his top priorities in his first term — not to mention the time he spent in the Texas Senate before assuming the state’s second-highest role.
"The purpose of the budget on the border was to reduce all crime,” Patrick told KXAN.
When asked about the stated objective of deterring 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. The number of felony drug violations reported by troopers on the border has actually gone up by six percent in the past two years.
And a 2015 DPS report states that the department's efforts to that point deterred "cartel smuggling... but it does not secure the border." Further, “patrol operations are inefficient in the detection and interdiction of all smuggling events.”
DPS told KXAN the report identified "vulnerabilities and inefficiencies" from its original strategy, and that 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 officials, 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."
There are certainly questions about whether troopers are targeting the right people. 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.
Read more about Texas border policy here: