Special Report: Danger, Darkness and Dedication
WESLACO – Brooks County is undergoing a shortage of sheriff’s deputies who patrol the area known for illegal immigration. But a few Rio Grande Valley officers are also offering their help.
The border fence is more than 80 miles away from Brooks County.
People who cross the border illegally can go through Brooks County ranch lands, a Border Patrol checkpoint and a highway rest area. The path they take can be deadly though.
Authorities from Brooks County and the Valley want to stop them before they increase the death rate.
“We recovered quite a few illegals here because there’s water, because there’s restrooms. They’ll cross over from the ranches and come over here,” Donna Independent School District Senior Sgt. Daniel Walden, and part of the Brooks County Sheriff’s Deputy Reserve, said.
Police officers from the Valley patrol certain areas as sheriff’s reserve deputies.
“We paid for the uniform. We need to get them the vests. It costs them to get them bonded in. They have to have their own gun, own equipment,” Walden said.
Walden started the effort in helping Brooks County.
“We have full-time jobs, we come out when we can, of course. You know the more often we come out the better. It gives us more manpower,” he said.
Walden guided 14 other reserve sheriff’s deputies. CHANNEL 5 NEWS went along with him.
“I mainly work administratively, although I do supervise police officers,” he said.
Two others who work at an alternative high school in Donna are reserve deputies in Brooks County.
Donna ISD Drill Instructor Mario Mireles educates students to get them back on track.
“Some of them want to be teachers, principals and they will, they will accomplish it,” he said.
Donna ISD police officer Antonio Rocha protects the campus.
“It’s my responsibility. Basically these students, the safety, everything, the drill instructor, principal,” he said.
The trio puts on the deputy uniform for free. They spend time away from their families and sometimes they're gone close to three days.
“My family understands. My wife understands that this is what I love. She knows, she understands I might go and not come back or not come back in one piece,” Mireles said.
Walden said his computer wallpaper is a picture of his family.
“It does worry me,” Daniel Walden Jr. said. “A lot of people do not like police officers up there and there’s a lot of crime. You never know what might happen.”
The reserves walked us through part of their 12-hour shift.
“Every time I have a chance, every other weekend, just come over here and volunteer myself, my time for Brooks County,” Rocha said.
Their goal is not to control illegal immigration; it’s to stop the death rate.
“We lead the state in body recoveries. Undocumented crossers that quite don’t make it,” Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martinez said.
It’s the highest death rate in the state. Martinez pointed out the office recovered 551 bodies since 2009 and 19 so far this year.
Mobile Users: Click here to see a chart of yearly totals
The sheriff’s deputies are formally known at the Border Brotherhood. They’re making changes and their new name will be Texas Blue Shield.
“It’s to incorporate as a non-profit to help us with the cost to bring in more reserves,” Martinez said.
Mireles, the drill instructor turned Brooks County Reserve Sheriff’s deputy, was recently sworn in. We went out with him on his first night.
We quickly learned an abandoned home is a hot spot for people to hide.
“These guys will close it. When they close it. Once we come back and it’s kind of open we know somebody was in there,” Mireles said.
We made several traffic stops throughout the night. Mireles is getting to know the different types of skills it takes in Brooks County.
“Communication is kind of bad out here. Signal towers are kind of far away so sometimes we can’t hear each other, so we have to call each other through the phone. We had a vehicle, he’s still going pretty fast unfortunately. We won’t be able to catch up to them. The other officer needs our assistance,” Mireles said.
One stop of a Chicano Brotherhood gang member demonstrated the kind of traffic that passes through Brooks County and points to the need for more officers. Martinez said they plan to install repeaters and towers.
“It gives us more leverage on the signal, a stronger signal so we can transmit,” he said.
His department has one deputy on the road per shift. It’s the same number of deputies we reported patrolling in 2014.
Walden said it’s not enough.
“It’s almost a 1,000 square miles, so I mean it’s about the size of Rhode Island. So I mean you don’t take only two deputies and put ‘em in a 1,000 square miles, there’s a lot of areas to drop off,” Walden said.
The sheriff’s office relies on grants to operate and gets help from a neighboring county.
“I guess you can say Starr County pretty much right now. It’s leading assisting us and obtaining the federal funds, okay, versus getting direct funding ourselves,” Martinez said.
We went to Brooks County Auditor August Patroelj to find out what’s being done to help the sheriff’s office.
“They’ve gotten more deputies. They’ve gotten more help in that area, more vehicle improvements. So we actually increased what they did… had because they were in pretty dire straits at one time,” Patroelj said.
Martinez said things are improving.
“There’s eight or nine total but I have one in the courthouse. I have one as a civil processor, so specific on the road itself about five or six,” he said.
The sheriff explained they need about 15 deputies to help cover the entire county. For now, the sheriff is looking to a brotherhood to help shield its county.
“There’s more to law enforcement than just getting paid. You’re here to protect and serve and if there’s a cry for help, you step up to the challenge and you go ahead and do what you got to do,” Rocha said.
Walden said they don’t plan to stop helping Brooks County anytime soon. They hope more officers will get on board. The communication towers are expected to be installed in August.