Special Report: Price of Patrol
WESLACO – Traumatic injury claims involving U.S. Border Patrol agents are on an upward trend nationally and in the Rio Grande Valley sector.
Agents in the RGV sector are on patrol in the most dangerous part of the border. As part of CHANNEL 5 NEWS’ coverage on daily assaults, we wanted to show you the bigger picture.
After examining claims for compensation with the U.S. Department of Labor, we found agents in the Valley are hurt and sick more often than any other in the country.
Agents file a CA-1 when they receive a traumatic injury and a CA-2 for an occupational disease.
We requested data from each of those claims submitted for the last three years from agents across the U.S.
After scouring through thousands of cells of data, the results are clear.
In the shallow, churning waters, flanked by high bluffs covered with dense vegetation, the landscape creates opportunity.
Jaime Mata, a supervisor of the Riverine Unit of the East Corridor, spoke of the people they encounter on the Mexican side while on patrol.
"They'll use slingshots; they'll use rifles. And us, as we're passing by, they can easily, easily reach us, and we don't really have much of an area to hide,” he explains.
Agents guard the 70-mile stretch of river near Brownsville.
"So, us, here – Riverine Patrol – we're the first line of defense. We're the ones who spot the trends. We spot where they're crossing and we're the first line of deterrence," Mata described.
Mata says guns on board, radios in hand and even the cables in front of the boat have a purpose.
"These cables have been set up because we have had cases where they string up cables across the river from the south side all the way to the north side. Their intention is to hurt us as we pass by,” he tells us. “They intend for the cable to be low enough to where it can hit us as we're passing by on plane."
But training and special equipment don't spare agents from injury.
We reached out to several agents injured on the job. No one agreed to talk to us.
Mata says he knows what they go through. He says one of his agents was injured a few months ago when a bullet grazed the back of his neck.
"We had vessels going in through this section," he said. "And we had – the first vessel spotted a person on the south side with a rifle and they called it out. Since we were in motion, the second vessel had no other option but to keep going as fast as they could. And the person on the south side went ahead and took shots at the vessel. They hit one of our agents behind the head, and they also hit the vessel a couple of times."
He says operations like these are carried out across the U.S. Out of all 20 sectors, the Rio Grande Valley is the most active.
In the last three fiscal years, Valley agents were responsible for almost half of all apprehensions, even though they had fewer agents than the Tucson sector.
Historically, the sector with the most agents, Tucson, claimed the most injuries.
But that changed last year.
Rio Grande Valley agents submitted 759 claims in 2017 – that's one out of every five claims that year. (See interactive Index A below)
Overall, in 2015 to 2017, one out of every five traumatic injury claims were from Valley agents.
It gets worse when we compare states.
Texas proved the most injury-prone state with one out of every two claims coming from zip codes in the state – that's half of all claims.
These findings don't come as a surprise to Chris Cabrera, Border Patrol agent and spokesperson for the National Border Patrol Council.
"We do see a lot of people, and we do see a lot of people trying to get away," he explains. "That leads to – sometimes they end up in fights, sometimes they fall chasing somebody."
Cabrera says he’s intimately aware of the sources of these claims.
He says muscle and ligament injuries are the most common nature of injury. Other claims include puncture wounds, burns, nervous system injuries, and mental, emotional, and nervous conditions.
Most causes for these injuries in the Valley are unknown. Many happen as a result of falling into things like holes or off of structures.
Some are due to violence, enemy action and even accidental shootings.
The other form the Valley has a strong grip on is the CA-2. These are filed for occupational disease. (See interactive Index B below)
“A flu, strep throat, scabies, lice, chicken pox – you name it. It comes through here. Through the Rio Grande Valley,” Cabrera explains, “and our agents are the ones processing them, taking them into custody and dealing with them. So with that, you're going to have the exposure and ultimately the injury or illness."
Agents in the Valley filed one out of every four claims from 2015 to 2017. Most of those are for a problem many agents face sooner or later, according to Cabrera.
"We wear hearing protection when we go to the firing range, but you're still going to get some type of residual loss if you work on an ATV or boat. There are loud engines right behind you,” he says. “Unfortunately, it's just part of the job that most of our agents by the time they retire have some sort of hearing loss."
Claims were also filed for contracting an infectious or parasitic disease, testing positive for TB and even tumors, cancer and related conditions.
The sources vary from explosions to animal or insects, or weather exposure.
For Mata and his agents day turns to night, but operations continue.
Equipped with night vision, navigation, surveillance and a coordinated team, we pressed forward.
"We don't know who's on the other side of the bend. But, we all took that oath, and we're all going to go across that bend and see what's on the other side,” says Mata. “Now, if there's a threat, and that threat is toward our nation, that's something that we all took an oath to defend. We're all going to go ahead and engage that threat.”
Border Patrol Agent Fausto Vasquez tells us he noticed more rocks hurled their way recently. He has a theory about that.
"Now that we have the shallow-draft boats that we can reach those areas, I guess the smugglers are not used to seeing us there and they're getting more and more desperate as far as getting their drugs and aliens across,” he says.
We didn't see any rocks thrown their way during our time on the river.
Just as we were about to leave, agents got a call about a group of about 20 people.
Beams of light were pointed into the thickets of brush as the group moved southeast. The boats kept up. It turned into a waiting game – agents not knowing what to expect next.