“And a lot of people ask us, ‘Don’t you think that’s a little bit of overkill?’ And our answer is ‘Yes, it is, by design.’ The more threatening we can be to the cartel, the less chance of them engaging us,” said DPS Lt. Charlie Goble.
Goble and Capt. James Dunks, game warden with Texas Parks and Wildlife, toured the Rio Grande with Associated Press reporter Christopher Sherman last week as state leaders push for more border security on the Texas-Mexico border because of an influx of people, mostly from Central America coming into the country illegally.
The intimidating firepower isn’t stopping smugglers from getting into skirmishes with officers, but it does serve as a deterrence, Dunks said, noting two instances of assault against officers last week.
In one case, people on the Mexican side of the river started throwing rocks at a patrol boat. One rock hit a game warden in the face, taking him out of commission for the most of the night. In a second incident, a raft was being pushed across the river and officers attempted to apprehend the coyote involved. It ended up in a hand-to-hand fight between a cartel member and a game warden, Dunks said.
“I have noticed a change that they are more willing to go hands on with us. In fact, it’s about 100 percent now that they will engage you,” Dunks said. “They will not cooperate.”
Both Dunks and Goble emphasized the state agencies do not enforce federal immigration laws. Dunks said DPS’ primary function is criminal interdiction. Meanwhile, Texas Parks and Wildlife aims to ensure water safety, and 15 people floating on a three-person raft are a hazard, Dunks said, adding the raft could capsize and someone could drown.
Goble said officers come across families and civilians crossing the river on a daily basis, and they do what they can to help them, offering them water, as they’re often dehydrated. They’ll then take them into custody and turn them over to Border Patrol.
If officers do come across an area where they suspect people in the country illegally are hiding, they call for Border Patrol and secure the area.
Dunks, who has been working on the river 18 years, said going after criminal activity on the border is a cat-and-mouse game. Once authorities find a method that works, criminals find a way around it.
Still, he said, he’d consider fishing on the banks of the river as a citizen. The only assaults he’s aware of along the river are against officers. The criminals don’t want to be seen, Dunks said, and law enforcement can get to the river quickly.
DPS’s 34-foot gunboats can’t operate below the Anzalduas dam, and the agency just received a shallower gunboat to carry a three-man crew. A second boat is on the way. The larger boats patrol the 50-mile stretch between the Anzalduas dam and Los Ebanos ferry port of entry.
Texas Parks and Wildlife has adopted all U.S. Coast Guard laws and has a fleet of 535 boats of all shapes and sizes. Dunks said the agency obtained gunboats after officers were caught in a gunbattle three years ago.
“We aren’t making these arrests daily, but we are seeing a tremendous amount of criminal activity going on with the Jet Skis transporting people back and forth across as well as with the transnational gang activity that’s here for reasons other than immigration,” Goble said. “They’re here to exploit Texas. They’re here to exploit our citizens, to kidnap, murder, rape. That’s their goal.”
Deterring the crime isn’t easy as smugglers use scouts and have a head start when they see a DPS or Parks and Wildlife boat round a bend.
During the tour, officers watched as an inflatable raft lands on the Mexican side of the river. When they’d passed through the area earlier, two men with a fishing net were standing there. All officers could do was peer through the brush on the U.S. side for any signs of a load of drugs or weapons
“Just as we came around the corner awhile ago they spotted us,” Goble said. “They can very rapidly get personnel and/or product back to their bank, back to safety. So yes, they exploit these straightaways quite a bit for that reason. They can see us.”
At the end of the day, Goble said, DPS wants to ensure all of its officers get home safely.
“We know the enemy, the cartel, on the other side they have cover, they have concealment, they have the element of surprise,” Goble said. “And we knew all of this. But what we enjoy is superior training, superior tactics, speed and overwhelming firepower. So when they engage us we can literally go this way or that way. We can’t run, so we’ve got to stay and fight basically.”