U.S. Drug and Immigration Checkpoints Take Toll on Border Towns

As federal aid dries up even as border security expands, localities are struggling to foot the bill, report Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

G.W. Schulz/The Center for Investigative Reporting

SIERRA BLANCA, Texas – As they walk through the front door, visitors to the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office in this broke and scruffy high-desert town get punched by the overpowering odor of marijuana.

During a recent week, the sheriff stored about 5,000 pounds of pot, contraband seized at the nearby U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint from the parade of road trippers, occasional celebrities and other outsiders ordered to stop there as they buzz through West Texas.

The inspection station stands on a sun-scorched stretch of Interstate 10, about 85 miles southeast of El Paso below the Quitman Mountains, and it has put Sierra Blanca on the map as the “checkpoint to the stars.” Among those caught have been Willie Nelson, Snoop Lion, Fiona Apple and Armie Hammer of “The Lone Ranger.”

“We’d live in Mayberry if it wasn’t for that checkpoint,” said Mike Doyal, the county judge and a former chief deputy of the sheriff’s office. “We’d just wait for the town drunk to show up once in a while.”

As Congress debates an immigration law overhaul this summer, busy inspection checkpoints like the one in Sierra Blanca are revealing the tough consequences of America’s expansion of border security. Cuts in federal funding to support law enforcement here and elsewhere portend a quiet but conspicuous shift in the federal government’s approach to curbing the nation’s supply of drugs and illegal immigration.

Border authorities from South Texas to Southern California say they are under financial strain now that the U.S. Justice Department has largely done away with paying state and local prosecutors to take on relatively minor federal drug busts, citing budget constraints.

With illegal immigration plummeting to historic lows in recent years, the Border Patrol has shifted its attention increasingly to drug interdiction and in the process has seized more drugs than ever. Agents also have ensnared thousands of Americans with small amounts of drugs – below drug trafficking thresholds, according to an analysis of data obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Many of those busts come from Border Patrol checkpoints, which accounted for 14 percent of the agency’s total seizure weight – about 313,000 pounds – in 2012. Federal prosecutors can’t handle them all, even if they wanted to.

To be sure, Border Patrol checkpoints have made some big seizures. In 2011, agents at an Imperial County, Calif., checkpoint near the Salton Sea found 14 tons of marijuana hidden among 20 crates in a truck destined for Los Angeles.

As the U.S. Justice Department concentrates on prosecuting cartel kingpins, local prosecutors in Texas and New Mexico now anticipate filing lesser charges and asking for lighter sentences for some offenders caught by federal agents.

Carol Poole, a former Justice Department official who oversaw the management of grants until 2010, said the federal government has left it to local governments to decide on ¬– and pay for – the prosecution of lower-level drug smugglers.

“Everyone is evaluating this war on drugs,” Poole said. “Change is difficult. Sometimes the locals are going to take the brunt of some of that change, but it may help them realign their priorities as well.”

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At the Border Patrol checkpoint 13 miles south of Falfurrias, Texas, a foreboding scorecard greets northbound motorists, warning travelers and smugglers alike. As of early June, the sign says, U.S. agents had seized 127,044 pounds of drugs and apprehended 16,785 immigrants without authorization to enter the country.

What the Department of Homeland Security sign doesn’t reveal is that first-time offenders caught with 200 pounds or less of marijuana had a good chance of driving away with a lightened load, a fingerprint record and a slap on the wrist, law enforcement officials say.

With bigger targets in mind, the U.S. attorney’s office in South Texas hasn’t paid much attention to small-time smugglers caught in this major drug-trafficking corridor through the Rio Grande Valley, local officials said.

And in Brooks County, where the Falfurrias checkpoint sits almost 70 miles north of the border, the local government can no longer afford the costs associated with prosecuting them. Instead, the Border Patrol is “catching, tagging and releasing” them, the local district attorney said.

“It’s not that we’re not willing. We’re just not able,” said Carlos O. Garcia, who took office in January. “We just don’t have the resources.”

Sierra Blanca checkpoint

For its part, Hudspeth County has a history of willingly getting dumped on by others. For a decade starting in 1992, New York City paid the county to accept its treated sewage – about 225 tons a day. The sludge was sent by rail and spread around on a defunct resort ranch near Sierra Blanca.

Despite its remoteness, the Border Patrol’s Big Bend sector, where Sierra Blanca sits, has seen small-time drug busts skyrocket in recent years. An influx of agents tripled the local sector’s manpower, making the agency by far the biggest law enforcement presence around.

The Border Patrol checkpoint rarely catches drug mules making their way from Mexico or border crossers hidden in trunks. Illegal immigration apprehensions in the Big Bend sector historically have been among the lowest along the border.

The Sierra Blanca station essentially has become an immigration checkpoint in name only, as the bulked-up Border Patrol has ensnared mostly Americans there – thousands of them.

Even as the U.S. Border Patrol makes more small-time drug busts, the U.S. Justice Department is generally declining to prosecute these low-level cases. The federal government has largely walked away from paying local authorities to pick up the slack.

Roughly 8 out of 10 people busted in the sector between 2005 and 2011 were Americans caught at a checkpoint, according to data obtained by CIR. A small fraction of those busts are referred to federal agencies for further investigation and possible prosecution.

In Sierra Blanca, 88 percent of the seizures – mostly marijuana – were traffic stops for amounts below drug trafficking thresholds.

Hudspeth County, population 3,337, is dependent on the federal dollars it receives to jail and prosecute the steady stream of busted motorists. The travelers and their contraband are turned over to the sheriff in Sierra Blanca, who has assigned two deputies to make daily runs to the checkpoint to pick them up.

But to county officials, it’s a losing proposition. They estimate that for every dollar that comes to the county from handling federal border crimes and seized assets, it costs about $2 to detain, prosecute and process offenders.

That’s left officials weighing whether they should kick the habit of prosecuting federal drug cases that have drained their paltry fortunes.

“If I had my choice between what it costs us versus what it makes us, I think we’d be better off without (the checkpoint),” said Hudspeth County Commissioner Wayne West, whose brother Arvin is the local sheriff. “It’s not worth the trouble.”

In 2011, agents in the Big Bend sector caught 2,102 people with drugs, the second-highest number of any sector nationwide and up more than 300 percent from 2009, according to a CIR analysis of government data. The Big Bend sector managed this with the fewest agents assigned to the southern U.S. border.

With an estimated 200 agents, Sierra Blanca has the most manpower of the sector’s 10 main stations. The vast majority work at the checkpoint, said Lee Smith, local president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents border agents.

“We’re arresting people that are essentially traveling through the area,” he said. “To the normal line agent, it doesn’t matter to us whether it’s just a small amount of marijuana in the vehicle or 1,000 pounds. If it’s out there, we want to catch it.”

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security declined interview requests. U.S. Justice Department spokesman WynHornbuckle said in a written statement that officials have had to make difficult funding decisions because of tight federal budgets.

He said local authorities have discretion to spend other federal grant money to support such prosecutions.

“Through increased coordinated investigations, information and technology sharing, and training, we are assisting our law enforcement partners, including the Department of Homeland Security and Mexican counterparts to eliminate the threat posed by drug cartels and other organized crime efforts along the Southwest border,” Hornbuckle wrote.

The federal government’s attitude doesn’t sit well with law-and-order officials in Hudspeth County, who say they are caught in a bind. They don’t want their county, with 98 miles fronting the Mexico border, to be known as a place where some crimes go unpunished. But their relationship with the federal government is becoming too expensive to last much longer, they say.

“We’re arresting people for the federal government at my local taxpayers’ cost, and that ain’t right for them to burden this cost,” said Sheriff Arvin West, who oversees about a dozen full-time deputies. “They’re not going to pay. We’re not going to play.”

One constant in Sierra Blanca is the whirring of cars on the interstate, an unrelenting reminder of what started the town’s slow decay more than a half-century ago. Another is the checkpoint, which stands roughly 15 miles from Mexico and has been in operation since the early 1970s.

Around 4 p.m. on a recent cloudless weekday, two dozen tractor-trailers idled, waiting to pass through the Sierra Blanca checkpoint. Lines of orange cones diverted passenger cars off the interstate past cameras, license-plate readers and other surveillance equipment. A leashed dog flitted from pickup to semi to tour bus, sometimes pulling its handler as it charged ahead.

Along with the national hiring surge that began in 2006, the Border Patrol has nearly doubled the number of drug-detecting dogs at its network of 34 permanent checkpoints that stretch from Southern California to southern Texas.

At Sierra Blanca, the canines regularly sniff the 15,000 to 20,000 trucks, cars and motorcycles that pass through on a typical weekday.

In the past few years, Sierra Blanca’s commercial district has suffered. Two older motels, the grocery store, the hardware store and the gun shop have closed. What remains are a few gas stations and auto shops, three restaurants, a motel and an assortment of abandoned buildings fighting gravity and eventual collapse. Many residents drive nearly two hours to buy groceries in El Paso.

Retired farmer Tom Neely, 85, who was born and raised in Hudspeth County and works part time as the court interpreter, said it’s rare that he and his wife buy anything in Sierra Blanca.

“The businesses here just faded away,” he said. “The interstates came through and some towns just completely disappeared.”

Varying levels of collaboration

Border officials like Donald Reay, a former federal agent and current executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, said local and federal law enforcement need each other’s support, be it manpower or money. He pointed to Yuma, Ariz., as a prime example of where that partnership works.

The Border Patrol sector there has busted more people with drugs than any other sector in the country. The numbers started to climb in 2008 after the local sheriff, Border Patrol sector chief and county attorney agreed to designate agents as peace officers at the local checkpoints, allowing dog handlers to write citations that Yuma County would process.

“What’s right is right, what’s wrong is wrong,” said former Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden. “Everybody’s butt fit in my jail cells.”

Since then, Arizona voters passed a medical marijuana law that went into effect in 2011. Deputized Border Patrol agents there now must recognize states that permit small amounts of marijuana and issue cannabis cards, said Jon Smith, the Yuma County attorney. But those agents still confiscate the marijuana under federal law and can write tickets if the amount exceeds Arizona’s legal limit, said Capt. Eben Bratcher of the Yuma County Sheriff's Office.

Even then, not every county has the option Yuma does. In Texas, for instance, state law doesn’t allow Border Patrol agents to be designated as peace officers. Officials elsewhere worry that by not prosecuting cases, their counties will become smuggling havens and attract more crime. Garcia, the Brooks County prosecutor, said he sees evidence that suggests an increase in gang-related crime is linked to the border, including a recent homicide.

When U.S. attorneys set weight thresholds for drug prosecution, traffickers immediately start smuggling smaller loads, said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego and an expert on drug trafficking.

“If the federal government is not going to address the demand side, which they are not doing at all, and only occasionally going after big producers,” he said, “the border is just a cat-and-mouse game that goes on infinitely.”

John Hubert, the district attorney for several Texas counties including Kenedy, which has the Border Patrol’s Sarita checkpoint about 20 miles east of Falfurrias, said he argues with his county commissioners about accepting checkpoint cases. He said he can’t live with what he sees as the alternative – surrendering to criminals.

“Prosecution is not supposed to be a money-making business, but our poor counties can’t subsidize the federal government. We are prosecuting out of desperation,” Hubert said. “But it’s killing us. It’s slowly bleeding us dry.”

Struggling with funding

Like other border counties, Hudspeth County for years has ridden the highs and lows of U.S. Justice Department dollars paid to take its undesired cases.

Since 2002, the Justice Department has reimbursed the four states bordering Mexico roughly $300 million to handle cases that originate from federal law enforcement, with the biggest share going to California, through a program called the Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative.

The program started after frustrated district attorneys, led by Hudspeth’s top prosecutor, Jaime Esparza, complained to Congress that the Justice Department pushed more cases on them than they could afford.

More than a decade later, prosecutors are fed up with the Justice Department, which diluted the program and then slashed reimbursement payments, said Esparza, whose district includes neighboring El Paso and Culberson counties.

The four border states will receive less than $5 million in 2013 as reimbursement for handling the federal cases – down from $31 million in 2010. And the department didn’t request such funding from Congress for 2014.

“They can’t expect local counties along the southern border to carry their water for them,” Esparza said. “They’re going to have to fight this fight on their own.”

Local officials have threatened to stop taking federal cases in the past, and for about a month in 2012, they actually did. But this time might be different.

Last month, Hudspeth County and other border counties received more bad news from the Justice Department. The federal government would reimburse local authorities only for prosecution costs, but not for detention. That was a deal breaker for county officials – the biggest chunk of Hudspeth County’s budget goes to the jail.

“It’s devastating for us,” said County Auditor Yolanda Esparza, who is not related to prosecutor Jaime Esparza.

It might not be that easy for Hudspeth County to walk away, however. With more square miles – about 4,500 – than residents, the county doesn’t generate enough tax dollars to keep all of its government buildings lit or even pay some employees without the fines and court fees the checkpoint brings.

Officials also would have a lot less to do without those cases. Over eight days in May, the sheriff’s office received 53 calls from the checkpoint, more than half of the total requests for service. And that was considered slow for checkpoint calls.

One man from Austin arrested with a small amount of marijuana and a psychedelic known as DMT was returning with two friends from a weekend in Las Vegas. Another was a trucker caught with a few joints; it was his second bust at the checkpoint. Another was a Houston man who’d stashed his marijuana-laced cookies and brownies in his car’s fender.

Then there was James Fulwiler. Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a pot plant and lettering that read, “Don’t Panic, It’s Organic,” the Oregon man said he was stopped at the checkpoint with about a half-pound of medical marijuana in his car trunk. The sheriff's office said it was about an ounce.

“The dog barked at my trunk, and they shook us down,” Fulwiler said outside the sheriff’s office.

The Border Patrol held Fulwiler in a cell at the checkpoint for six hours. The sheriff’s office gave him a $537 ticket for possession of drug paraphernalia – the bag that held what he called his “medicine.” And he was on his way.

On a recent morning, Mike Doyal, the county judge, presided over a docket call that had 51 cases, 40 of which came from the checkpoint. Many of the out-of-town culprits post bail and then mail in their pleas and payments later. Often, they’re from states that have permissive medical marijuana laws that don’t fly in zero-tolerance Texas.

Charles Vital Jr., 35, of Hayward, Calif., learned that when he traveled with his girlfriend toward Louisiana before Thanksgiving 2011. Vital reviewed and rated their experience of getting busted on Yelp, a website usually known for customer reviews of restaurants and other businesses.

“Our california plate got us pulled over at the border. it also coulda been the fact that the drug dog started whimpering when he got next to our car,” wrote Vital, who gave the checkpoint two stars.

Treasa Brown, the deputy county clerk, has advice for travelers: Leave your drugs at home. Buy more when you get there. But if you can’t do without, come on through.

“We’re broke,” she said. “We need your money, and when you come to court, bring lots of it, and I’ll take every penny you have.”

A cottage industry of defense attorneys has built up around the checkpoint, one of two in Hudspeth County, to handle the spike in out-of-state offenders. Most are charged with a misdemeanor and sent on their way to avoid overwhelming the county with a backlog of cases.

“It’s justice for sale, but it’s a necessity because of the county it’s happening in. What alternative is there? The county can’t afford to not take the cases,” said Louis Lopez, one of several West Texas lawyers who advertise themselves as checkpoint attorneys. “You close that checkpoint and that’s it. It’s all over. The town is done.”

But fines and fees from those cases still aren’t enough to cover the county’s costs. Rarely has the federal government fully reimbursed its court or detention expenses. When the county complained that the funds weren’t enough or timely, officials say the Justice Department’s inspector general responded with an audit.

The watchdog office, which declined a request for comment, found in a 2010 report that the county wasn’t totally fault-free. Hudspeth County received too much money – about $480,000 – because of improper claims for reimbursement between 2002 and the first half of 2008, out of nearly $6.2 million it received over those years.

Finger pointing ensued. County officials said the Office of Justice Programs changed its reimbursement guidelines, which weren’t clear in the first place. The county reached a settlement in which the amount owed was reduced, some money was credited and the county paid back a small figure.

Seeking smugglers

Few paved roads wend around the mountains, mesas and meager rangeland of prickly pear, mesquite and scrub brush that make up Hudspeth County.

While surrounded by wide-open country, Hudspeth County is a small place. People know each other’s business, or as one resident put it: “We’re not sleeping with each other’s wives, but we all know the color of their underwear.”

The lack of infrastructure and unforgiving terrain make smuggling – and patrolling for smugglers – difficult here. Border Patrol agents say that best way to watch the line is by air, but even that asset is wanting here.

The Border Patrol’s strategy has shifted over the years. The agency has stepped back from tracking migrants and traffickers along the river or on ranches and now relies on a deterrent stance that has given checkpoints an even greater tactical value.

Ben Canaba, a retired Operation Desert Storm veteran who was cleaning up his family’s soon-to-open restaurant, said Border Patrol agents mostly “hang out up at the freeway” and end up missing smugglers who’ve already crossed into the United States.

“They’re not spending too much time down on the front line,” he said.

The Border Patrol contends that the checkpoint is designed in part to send drug smugglers in other directions, so they’ll be more easily detected as they scurry around the inspection station. Only the most naive small-time smugglers or drug-toting decoys would try to drive through the checkpoint anyway, agents argue.

But Sheriff Arvin West is frustrated with that strategy. He said the time has come for Hudspeth County to decide whether it will continue to accept federal drug cases, and for the country to make up its mind on marijuana policy.

“For 40-something years, we have lost our butts on this (war on drugs),” he said. “Quit playing these damn political games – either legalize marijuana or do something about it.”

Agustin Armendariz, Michael Corey and Tia Ghose contributed to this report from the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the country’s largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit. The reporters can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].