Posted: Nov 14, 2012 8:55 PM
Updated: Nov 15, 2012 11:42 AM
BROOKS COUNTY - The sun struggles to shine through the fog during a recent morning as deputies converge on a ranch west of Falfurrias.
The Brooks County Sheriff's deputies board their all-terrain vehicles as they prepare to head beyond the brush. They invited CHANNEL 5 NEWS to get a closer look at smuggling routes in the dense South Texas brush.
More than 100 illegal immigrants have died on Brooks County ranches this year, officials said. Here, ranchers fight for their land and deputies fight for control.
"We're able to get to places a lot quicker," Deputy Danny Avila said of his ATV.
This day, Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinez leads the search.
"They're charging ... $4,000 to $5,000 ... maybe more per head," Martinez said.
Human smuggling yields large profits.
"Just one load they get through, you're looking at maybe $500,000, easy," Martinez said.
Smugglers risk life and limb just to get around the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 281.
Martinez said the smugglers are getting bolder. He has seen more immigrants carrying drugs in backpacks.
"They'll carry up to 500 pounds ... it all depends on how many of those walking are willing to carry," Martinez said.
"There's lots of cases where they say, ‘hey, you carry this ... you carry 50 pounds ... you don't have to pay to get across,'" Avila said.
"You don't have much money, now you have to backpack 20 to 30 pounds of dope," Avila said.
Martinez said the smugglers have ties to Mexican drug cartels.
A distance from ranch roads, Martinez points out places where immigrants and smugglers hide.
"That's a camp," he said of a cluster of trees and underbrush.
"They have such good cover out here ... you know they can actually just lower themselves down," Martinez said.
He said the dense South Texas brush provides perfect hiding places.
Martinez pointed out a couple of backpacks. Upon closer inspection, a CHANNEL 5 NEWS crew noticed water bottles were covered in paint.
"That's just because of the reflection," Martinez said.
He said immigrants often fill their water jugs with water from cattle troughs.
"This group got through. They changed and got through, and got moved on," he said of the people who left the backpacks behind.
"They're on their way to Houston," Martinez said.
Two other deputies on ATVs searched the southern area of the ranch.
"Hopefully the guys that went down south will be able to pick up some tracks for us," Martinez said.
The deputies were looking for other groups of immigrants.
"They'll let us know which direction they'll be walking," Martinez said.
Martinez decided to check another hiding spot.
He pointed out the trash immigrants leave behind.
"There's some stuff over there I need to go look at. Let's go see if we can find something," Martinez said.
Deputies searched areas of the ranch looking for clues.
"They're just kind of like campsites," Martinez said.
Martinez packed up the backpacks in case they contained any evidence.
"Maybe we'll find something here before it's all over," he said.
A few minutes later, Martinez uncovered another hiding spot.
The hiding spot looked more like a campsite. The place was littered with trash, water bottles, backpacks and jackets.
Martinez seemed stunned.
"I've seen cans, but look at this. ... Look at this! All through underneath the tree line," he said.
The hiding spot was a few yards from Highway 281.
"They wait for that honk ... wait for that vehicle color and just go after it," Martinez said.
The call Martinez was expecting came soon. The other deputies had spotted tracks.
The CHANNEL 5 NEWS crew jumped into Avila's truck.
"We also have 4x4s ... they're the back-up to the ATVs. (If the) ATVs get into trouble, or if the group runs on them, that's when the trucks come in," Avila said.
Avila was in a rush to stop the group before they reached the highway. He got there minutes too late.
"You can tell where the tracks came in right here. They've been tracking this group for probably 3 to 3.5 miles. ... All the footprints ... they came up through here and cross the fence," Avila said.
It was a frustrating moment for Avila.
"You can even see the tire tracks ... where whatever vehicle picked them up drove right up next to the fence line. I can guarantee you it didn't take more than 10 seconds to load the group, and they're gone," he said.
The group escaped, but Avila knows another one is on the way.
Avila said it's very important to be out in the brush on their four-wheelers.
"This year we were able to obtain these four-wheelers that we're using now. A lot of people think we're just out here (going after) illegal aliens. We have a lot of backpackers. ... They're trafficking narcotics," Avila said.
Martinez said local law enforcement is outnumbered.
"We can't cover too much," Martinez said.
He said Border Patrol agents are just as busy.
Martinez said there is a need for more manpower.