The police force of this small Texas town is often first to encounter illegal border activity

PENITAS, Texas – The old adage, “Nothing much happens in small towns,” doesn’t always hold true for Penitas, Texas, which boasts a population of 8,000.

Penitas police Chief Roel Bermea said his small department, with about a dozen officers that covers 438 square miles, is often the first to encounter illegal activity coming across the Rio Grande west of Mission.

Just in terms of undocumented immigrants being held for U.S. Border Patrol, Bermea said, "We went from 84 (in April) to 168 in May."

He said the increase has subsided since then, with 95 in June.

Bermea said he doesn't know if it's a factor, but activity began to increase soon after it was announced the National Guard was returning to the border.

He said there have been more pursuits and bailouts including one last May that also involved a rescue.

Alejandro Morales, assistant police chief, described the body camera footage captured by one of his officers after a bumpy off-road chase.

After bailing out of a vehicle, five men can be seen in a concrete canal with nearly waist-deep water.

Morales said his officer was on one side, waiting for backup to arrive on the other side of the canal.

The others managed to climb out to get away, but one man couldn't get his footing.

Urging him to calm down, the officer first grabs a stick on the ground to reach him.

Later, he used his baton to get the man out, Morales said.

"He didn't have a rope," said Morales.

He said the department is trying to find funding for that type of basic equipment for rescues.

Since the department's federal border security funding was cut by half, the Penitas police chief said he relies on state grants to help cover necessities like overtime for his officers.

Bermea said the recent increase in activity has taken a toll on officers.

He said, “They’re getting tired.”

About the Author:

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.