The K-9 unit, trained to detect drugs, is among the most effective tools employed by the Border Patrol. Photo by Efren Salinas.
FALFURRIAS — The Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint, the most effective operation of its kind in the nation, has been so successful at stopping traffickers from moving drugs and immigrants through the area that it has created a new problem: teenagers are doing more of the dirty work and suffering no consequences if they’re caught.
By the end of January, the Falfurrias Checkpoint – famous for seizing 8,800 pounds of drugs from a single vehicle and detaining rapper Lil’ Wayne after marijuana was found on his tour bus – had already seized more than 65,000 pounds of narcotics and detained almost 3,000 undocumented aliens.
The stop employs more than 250 people, second only to the school district in the town of 6,000 people, said Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez.
The checkpoint, which operates year-round 24 hours a day, is equipped with K-9 units, x-ray scanners and highly trained Border Patrol agents. The land around the checkpoint, mostly ranchland, is also heavily patrolled by agents in trucks, on ATVs and even on horseback. To get around Border Patrol at the checkpoint, illegal traffickers are forced to get creative by hiring juveniles from Brooks County and the rest of South Texas to carry drugs or accompany immigrants through the area.
If Border Patrol agents catch the juveniles, they’re not equipped to deal properly with them, Brooks County Sheriff Rey Rodriguez says.
“They don’t have the facilities or the personnel to do it,” he said, “so they just let them go.”
According to Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Chris Arevalo, a recent case involved a minor who was carrying more than $200,000 worth of cocaine while attempting to cross the checkpoint. He was going to be paid $100 for the job.
“It’s frustrating for us,” Arevalo said, “because if we could detain the kids that are caught at the checkpoint, then maybe we could start to fix the problem.”
Back at the checkpoint, Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Stacey Leal explains that when juveniles are caught either transporting drugs or as undocumented immigrants, the agency does everything in its power to reunite them with their parents or guardians.
This is typically a quick process, as “most of our apprehensions have family within commuting distance,” Leal said. On the rare occurrence that reuniting a minor with his or her guardian takes longer, Leal explained that they are taken from the checkpoint to the nearby Border Patrol station and given a warm meal and comfortable place to wait.
“Behind every child is a parent,” Leal said. “You would want your child treated just as well.”
Enlisting minors for drug trafficking is not unique to the border. The technique, in fact, is employed in various forms across the country, whether it be transporting cocaine in South Texas or selling drugs on the corner of a Los Angeles street block.
Vincent Webb, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, said that the true challenge is removing the incentive for youth. “When you try to come up with alternatives that are non-punitive or positive in nature,” he said, “you are up against some stiff competition money-wise.”
In other words, juveniles can make a lot of money in a short amount of time with minimal effort or fear of consequence. As Webb puts it, “Youth being youth, they are not always good at estimating risks.”
Keeping young adults, who in Brooks County have few options outside of working at a grocery store or in the fast food industry, from falling into illegal activity can be done by involving the entire community, Webb said.
In Falfurrias, Mayor Anna Garcia believes the city must do more to create opportunities for its youth. The city’s first elected female mayor, Gracia speaks about her son’s baseball scholarship and the city’s new skate park with alternating enthusiasm.
Garcia says the community has not always cared for its youth as it should. She points to the skate park, a project initially rejected by civic leaders, as a gesture to the young men and women of Falfurrias that their city is invested in them.
Since her election in 2010, Garcia has also put her efforts into helping the school district’s truancy problem by meeting with at-risk youth.
“Give me five kids,” Garcia said. “I want to talk to them because there might be a reason for their behavior.” Garcia said the children respect the position and take her seriously. “I was always drawn to that population of kids that needed that extra pat on the back,” she said.
Webb, the Sam Houston State professor, advocates this approach. “It is not just a youth problem, not just a criminal justice problem, it is not just a law enforcement problem,” he said. “I would underscore that it is a community problem.”