Angelina County Constable for Precinct 1, Tom Selman, shared an update on two current operations to deter criminal activity at the Mexico border during the Angelina County Chamber of Commerce First Friday Luncheon held April 1 at Crown Colony Country Club.
“I’m here today to tell you what my experience was in going to the border, and what I took away,” said Selman. “Its an interest and concern to a lot of people. There is a lot of money being spent down there and a lot of assets devoted to border area. This was a chance for me to see firsthand what was happening in our border area.”
Texas shares roughly 1,200 miles of border with Mexico along both land and river. “It’s a porous border with a multi-billion dollar criminal syndicate,” said Selman. “They have taken over and their presence is well known. They use the money and power and influence they have to exercise control over the region. The cartels are recognized by the state to be the most organized criminal threat that we have because of the presence of these gangs and the business they conduct has a big affect on us right here at home.”
The cartels have added a smaller yet more lucrative product to their trafficking: meth. “With large commercial labs, the production makes the locally sourced illegal substance look like crumbs,” said Selman. In addition, the cartels are not only smuggling drugs like marijuana and methamphetamine, but they are active in other criminal activities as well.
“They not only smuggle drugs but people as well,” said Selman. “Mexicans, and other undocumented nationalities threaten the security of U.S. by trafficking narcotics. Using I-69, the business operation of cartels come through Lufkin and move through here to Chicago and transship across country.”
With kidnappings for ransom, hostile land takeovers, corruption and human trafficking on the rise, the Department of Public Safety launched Operation Strong Safety. The goal of the operation is to stem the rising tide of illegal immigration, unaccompanied minors and drugs.
“We finally reached a tipping point with the unaccompanied minors,” said Selman. “They come in from Honduras, Guatemala and other areas to cross the border to get into Texas with the perception of pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
Studies show that in 2014, there were over 25,000 minors that crossed over. “DPS stepped up, the Governor, Lt. Governor, and the Speaker of the House, they called in DPS. They are professional, take care of business, they know what to do, and they were authorized to increase manpower to stem the flow.
In 2013, Operation Strong Safety was created to send assets to the border to increase patrol, stop immigration, and catch criminals and drugs. The task is shared by the DPS with game wardens, customs and homeland security, and military assets from the National Guard.
“We have got a lot of people coming in and they are not all looking for work,” said Selman. “Some want disrupt the way of life we enjoy in this country.”
Special interest aliens use the porous border to get into country present a concern because they cannot be repatriated to their country easily. The operation has indicated that Chinese, Somalians, and others that represent a terrorist element are using the Mexican border with Texas to gain access to the States.
The operation assigned troopers on a rotating schedule for border patrols. The Texas Rangers Recon unit, a special unit of the Texas Rangers, are used to watch for human activity and smuggling along the river and land border. The DPS tactical Marine unit uses six gun boats to patrol the deep water of Rio Grande, each equipped with 4 .30 caliber machine guns, ballistics panel, electronics like infrared and night vision to detect border crossings.
“On the Mexican side, cartels have all these people hired as scouts, watching and monitoring all the DPS and they are told to call in when they see DPS fire up those boats,” said Selman. “There were not a whole lot of marine assets prior to this. The cartels were taking marijuana and floating it across. In certain sections of the river, the cartel could paddle across in 30 seconds.”
Adding air assets like high altitude fixed wing aircraft and blimps equipped with $1-2.5 million cameras and the marine units has slowed down the cartel’s business and it’s shipment by water.
In conjunction with Operation Strong Safety, DPS supplemented the effort with Operation Drawbridge, which placed a network of hidden game cameras that provide a continuous feed to the command center, now located in Westlaco, as well as to pilots and analysts. The effort also allowed for the placement of seismic centers that provide a feed of ground based activity. When hits are detected, patrols are sent to scout the area, often aided by the aircraft.
Since August 2015, set up approximately 2000 cameras that have led to the seizure of 140 tons of drugs, just under 150,000 incursions detected and 67,396 apprehensions. There has also been a decrease in high speed chases, and a leading member of the Zeta cartel has been caught.
“To supplement this, an $800 million budget has been approved to authorize Operation Secure Texas,” said Selman. The operation provides that 250 more troopers are authorized, more money for Operation Drawbridge, pilot-less aircraft, and boats to work in shallow water on river.”
“There’s a lot of criminal activity going on at the border. I’ve seen it first hand because it affects us up here,” said Selman. “We have this marijuana and we have the meth that’s coming into our community and most all of it now, is coming from Mexico. Small volume operations that you hear about are a drop in the bucket now. They don’t even show up on the radar screen. It’s these large, commercial operations that drive our criminal activity here at home.”
“You’ve seen by the graphs and information that it has made a difference,” Selman said. “We all need to support what our DPS and law enforcement are doing. At the command center, everybody has a seat at the table. They’ve got the FBI, the DPS analysts, people that are good with info tech, highway patrol, live feed from helicopter or plane. I was very pleased to see what is going on. It was a thrill and an honor to go.”