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Special Report: Night PatrolPosted: Updated: Feb 04, 2016 01:26 AM
BROWNSVILLE - Gaps in border security are present in the Rio Grande Valley, especially at night when fewer protectors are on the clock.
Four international bridges connect Cameron County to Mexico. Thousands of people cross the concrete overpasses each day.
The bridges act as a portal of trade with the south. They stand as a barrier for crime heading north. As the sun sets and night falls over Brownsville, the bridges change the way they operate.
“All the bridges are exposed in Brownsville, because we have no K-9 coverage,” said a retired Customs and Border Protection officer who asked to remain anonymous.
The retired CBP officer said he wants to protect the officers who confided in him.
"It's been approximately one year now since the Port of Brownsville did away with the midnight K-9s,” he said. "In my entire time in the service, this is the first time ever."
The 20-year veteran CBP officer said not using the highly trained senses of K-9 units overnight make the country vulnerable.
"It makes no sense not to have one of your best deterrents out there," he said.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS checked each of the four bridges over the course of three weeks. Only two bridges stay open after midnight.
The Gateway and B&M bridges operate 24 hours a day. We saw one K-9 team twice at the Gateway International Bridge. None were spotted after 11 p.m. The drivers who passed through those bridges said they didn’t see them either.
The retired CBP officer said this lapse in coverage leaves a gap in service and security.
"Let’s just be blunt, they're holes,” he said. “No two ways about it. We're not doing anything to deter or much less apprehend the potential trafficker or terrorist."
The K-9s are trained to find drugs, money, ammunition, weapons and people who may try to smuggle across the border.
“It’s like you’re going to work as a police officer and you’re not taking your gun,” said Marty Vielma, a private trainer with the RGV K-9 Training Center.
Vielma said a dog’s nose works differently than a human’s. In a chicken soup, a human can only smell one thing. “A dog, in that case, can smell the celery, the chicken, the potatoes, the spices,” he said.
The dog trainer said dogs smell each ingredient separately. That makes them near perfect to counteract a smuggler’s attempt to hide contraband.
“They try to mask those odors with grease, with coffee, with mustard, with anything that they can imagine, thinking that's going to deter the dog from smelling the trained odor,” Vielma said. “It doesn't work."
CHANNEL 5 NEWS learned the CBP port director for Brownsville is in charge of schedules. The director, Petra Horne, would not directly tell us whether or not K-9s work during the midnight shift.
“I am very confident that I have assessed our port of entry and… deploying to ensure that we have the right coverage wherever we need it,” Horne said.
The bridges have scanning machines and detection technology worth millions of dollars.
"Narcotic traffickers, they don't fear technology,” the retired CBP officer said. “They fear the dog."
The retired officer said technology is secondary to the senses of a highly trained K-9.
"I've actually seen, firsthand, where the dog is able to detect narcotics within the parameter of an engine,” he said. “Technology will tell you that there's nothing there."
The retired CBP officer said the cartels know how to use the gap in security. "They already know that the best time to come in is at night,” he said.
The former officer said people in the Valley are in danger because K-9s are not being used during the midnight shift. Port Director Petra Horne said she disagrees. She said agents use several tools to ward off smugglers.
"We take a risk-based approach,” Horne said. “We have multi-layered enforcement."
By the light of day, Tejano music fills the air in Brownsville. Two 24-hour bridges operate at the front gates of downtown. Hundreds of people flood the streets, blending two countries at the border.
By nightfall, Brownsville roads are quieter and darker. Under fluorescent lights, the lack of K-9s is easy to see. The security gap may not be as visible but, according to the officers CHANNEL 5 NEWS spoke with, it’s just as real.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS asked CBP for the amount of drugs, money, weapons and ammunition seized by K-9 units during the days we observed the bridges. Months later, we are still waiting for a response.