After several hours of surveillance, the pursuit was on. A smuggler loaded down with illegal immigrants in an SUV last month tried to outrun a trail of law enforcement vehicles, with more waiting up ahead on Highway 281 north of Falfurrias.
Finally, yanking his vehicle onto the shoulder, stopping short of a landowner’s fence, the smuggler’s human cargo bailed out, running into the brush, followed closely by sheriff’s deputies from Brooks and Jim Wells County, and U.S. Border Patrol agents.
“We’re doing it with the manpower that we have and that’s where it hurts,” said Capt. Joe Martinez, of the Jim Wells Sheriff’s Office. “We don’t have the manpower.”
According to Susan Durham, executive director of the South Texans’ Property Rights Association, most counties do not get federal funding for more manpower, unlike those that are within 25 miles of the border.
“There’s already funds in place for them,” Durham said. “But that’s not where the border is anymore.”
Durham said landowners often are being overrun by smugglers who crash through fences and gates, going cross-country from ranch to ranch, usually in stolen trucks.
She said just in the past eight months, several ranches in Jim Wells and Brooks counties have seen 24 bailouts.
Each incident has averaged $540 in repairs to fences and gates, Durham said.
“Now if they compensate the people right away, it would be a lot different,” said Raul Garcia, a longtime rancher.
After at least two bailouts on his property, Garcia said he was warned he would be prosecuted if he shot anyone.
Garcia said he’s heard other ranchers are putting spikes facing traffic on their ranch gates.
“They try to ram them, they’ll bust the radiator,” Garcia said.
Durham said her organization helped revise the state’s transportation code to reimburse landowners for the property damage.
She said the money initially would have been excess funds from the sale of abandoned vehicles.
“Excess means what’s left over after paying expenses such as towing and storage,” Durham said.
But Durham said there’s been a snag in the funding for the program that would have used Brooks County as a template for the rest of South Texas.
“Smugglers are gaming the system by using vehicles that are stolen or that have high liens on them,” Durham said.
She said they also use the “innocent friend excuse,” telling authorities they loaned the vehicle to a friend unaware it would be used for smuggling.
As a result, Durham said her organization will go back to the Texas Legislature, and even ask the federal government for help.