Kinney County Sheriff struggles to keep up with human smuggling increase

In many of these cases, the arresting deputies are recognizing the alleged smugglers they’re coming into contact with.

Just over 120 miles to the West of San Antonio in Kinney County, they feel the effects of human smuggling. Sheriff Brad Coe has never seen anything like it.

Kinney County – Just over 120 miles to the West of San Antonio in Kinney County, they feel the effects of human smuggling.

Sheriff Brad Coe has never seen anything like it.

Sitting inside Sheriff Coe’s office, he showed KSAT12 reporter Leigh Waldman a dash camera video from a recent human smuggling interaction.

“Here they go. Out of the truck. Out of the front seat, on the back seat of the bed. She’s got him. They’re still coming out of the truck,” Sheriff Coe said, describing the video being played.

It’s scenes like that that are becoming all too common in Kinney County.

“Somewhere between 5:30 and now we’ve had three or four smuggling cases, plus a pursuit and we’re just getting in,” Sheriff Coe said.

He has led the department of six full-time deputies for six years. Before that, he was with Border Patrol for over three decades.

“If we were catching one or two smuggling, human smuggling loads a month, we were, we thought we were doing good. Now we’re up to catching 50 or 60 smugglers a month,” he said.

In July, that number peaked at 75.

“But if we’re catching 75 a month, how many are getting through? Because they just keep coming,” Sheriff Coe said.

They’re noticing that in many of these cases, the arresting deputies are recognizing the alleged smugglers they’re coming into contact with.

“We’ll catch them Monday. And because of the overcrowding of the jails, we don’t have a place to put them. We have to let them walk and we’ll catch them while we try to do the same thing,” Coe said.

At the heart of Kinney County is Brackettville, a two-stoplight town. Coe’s mission is to keep as much of the smuggling outside of town as possible.

“The last one we had that came to town, I did everything I could, hit that car, to stop him from being in town,” he said.

Sheriff Coe drove around our crew. He showed us where the schools were and mentioned the boulders set on the perimeter are a new addition because of the increased smuggling and pursuits in the area.

“In the event of a bailout, they’re there to try to keep the vehicles from going into the school,” Coe said.

Driving with Sheriff Coe, KSAT 12′s crew saw a woman being arrested for human smuggling. This was at 9:08 a.m. By 2:08 p.m., KSAT 12′s crew saw her walking along the highway.

The circumstances of her release haven’t been made clear but Sheriff Coe explained female smugglers present a whole new set of problems for the county.

“Very few places that will accept females. Well, we got that worked out with contract with a couple of counties around us to handle females. Now we’re seeing pregnant females because pregnant females, nobody takes pregnant females,” Coe said.

There’s a darker side, the heat proving to be fatal, and the number of calls for bodies found on ranch land is skyrocketing.

“Last year was 17. So far this year, we’re up to nine. Year’s not over yet,” he said.

For the last 18 months, KCSO has been working with Operation Lonestar and Operation Stone Garden. They help the department with funding and equipment, but with the current increase in smuggling, it’s not a pace they can keep up with.

“We just got to see how long, how long we can sustain it, but we can’t sustain it forever,” Coe said.

Sheriff Coe explained they’ll get their next round of funding from Operation Lonestar in mid-October.

He said traditionally they see an increase in smuggling around election time, but he’s never seen anything like this.

“I’ve noticed that always during election time, there’s always been an uptick in smuggling and illegal entry. That’s because there’s always that talk -- ‘Well, if, if we’re here before a certain date, we might get amnesty,’” Sheriff Coe said. “But they keep coming and coming and coming. Usually, there’s a slow-down period during the summer because it’s so hot. It’s never slowed down.”

Looking at the increase from a monetary standpoint, Coe said they don’t have the finances to keep smugglers in jail.

“Since Operation Lone Star started, we’ve prosecuted over 4,000 people, that’s counting the criminal trespass here and smugglers,” Coe said. “At one point, I think we had close to 900 in jail for criminal trespass. So I don’t know what that cost is, but we can’t, we can’t sustain that. And, but it’s cheaper than allowing them all to come in and collect what they’re not supposed to be doing, the free to the public housing, the welfare, the Medicaid, etc., etc.. So we just got to see how long, how long we can sustain it, but we can sustain it forever.”

He said he’s looking at things from a humanitarian standpoint as well. He said it’s not fair to the people who are being smuggled.

“When they can’t pay it back, what happens? It gets extended and then it gets extended again. Plus interest, plus this, that and other. It basically, it’s indentured slavery,” Coe said.

Also on KSAT:

One business owner in Kinney County tells KSAT's Leigh Waldman that the human smuggling rise in the area has changed their whole way of life in Brackettville..

About the Authors:

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

Gavin Nesbitt is a photojournalist and video editor who joined KSAT in September 2021. He has traveled across the great state of Texas to film, conduct interviews and edit many major news stories, including the White Settlement church shooting, Hurricane Hanna, 2020 presidential campaigns, Texas border coverage and the Spurs.