EDINBURG, Texas — Flying at an altitude of about 700 feet, the Department of Public Safety helicopter follows the meandering pathway of the Rio Grande as it cuts through rich farmland in South Texas and northern Mexico.
Inside, Lt. Johnny Prince, the Fort Worth-born pilot, and tactical flight officer Mike Avila survey the terrain on both sides of the international waterway for any sign of activity by increasingly brazen drug operatives.
At one point, four males who appear to be teenagers dart into the brush on the Mexican side as the black-and-white DPS chopper approaches.
Aerial surveillance missions such as this one are part of Gov. Rick Perry's multifaceted law enforcement effort, which has operated along Texas' portion of the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border for five years.
Unique to Texas, and put in place because of what Perry said was inadequate enforcement by the federal government, the operation is designed to marshal the forces of dozens of state, federal and local entities in a cooperative "boots-on-the ground" offensive in border counties.
The Republican governor has repeatedly cited the law enforcement effort as a display piece in his presidential campaign, while warning that drug violence from Mexico presents "a clear and present danger" to the United States.
Perry's Republican opponents have hammered the governor for supporting a 2007 Texas law that allows in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, contributing to an erosion of Tea Party support for Perry and a plunge in the polls.
Perry, in turn, has sought to deflect the claims that he is soft on in illegal immigration by citing his expertise in border security and spotlighting the potential threat of spillover violence from the Mexican drug war.
In a speech last week in Indianapolis, Perry said that a recent Iranian-backed terrorist plot intensified the need for tougher controls on the nation's southern border. One of the suspects in the unsuccessful plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States discussed the potential hit with a federal informant he thought to be a member of a Mexican drug cartel, according to U.S. authorities.
"We cannot have national security until we have border security," Perry said. The governor also struck that theme in a speech to conservatives in Washington, D.C., saying that violence in Mexico is "nothing short of war being waged by these narco-terrorists."
Perry's remarks have fanned the public and political debate over just how safe life is on the U. S. side of the border.
The governor's critics accuse the Republican presidential candidate of fear-mongering to score political points and question the value of the law enforcement operation, which has cost more than $400 million since it started in 2006. Even those who live and work along the border differ on the intensity of the threat and whether spillover violence is real or imagined.
Craig Teplicek, a Rio Grande Valley farmer who lives in McAllen, says he's seen enough men walking through his property with guns and backpacks to dispel any doubt.
"You just leave them alone," he said. "I don't want to put my family in jeopardy."
Mike Seifert, a community activist in Brownsville, has a different assessment. "I've lived in the Valley for 24 years, and I've never lived in a safer place," he said. "We hardly lock our door."
A recent report commissioned by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and DPS Director Steve McCraw, both Perry allies, presents an ominous assessment, saying that Mexican cartels seek to establish a one-county-deep zone inside the Texas border to serve as a point to distribute drugs farther north.
The report, prepared by retired Gens. Barry McCaffrey and Robert Scales, also described the Dallas-Fort Worth region and surrounding North Texas counties as a "high-intensity drug trafficking area" used to store and distribute drugs bound for northern markets, as well as to consolidate cash from drug profits to smuggle into Mexico.
McCraw, who was Perry's homeland security chief before becoming DPS director, said that six of the seven Mexican cartels have established command-and-control operations in Texas to coordinate the flow of drugs and cash. Cartels are also recruiting Texas students to support smuggling operations on both sides of the border, he said.
Two Texas teenagers lured to Mexico last month were kidnapped, beaten, ransomed and released in a remote area along the Rio Grande, DPS officials said. Last week, DPS officers apprehended a 12-year-old boy whom they said was driving a stolen pickup containing more than 800 pounds of marijuana.
The DPS oversees the multiagency law enforcement effort, commonly known as Operation Border Star, and McCraw said the program is essential to repel Mexican-based crime networks. "We're not going to turn over part of Texas to the cartels," he told the Star-Telegram. "You can only deal with the cartels through a position of force, because they're animals."
The Obama administration, as well as Texas Democrats in Congress, say that conditions along the border are far more secure than the depiction by Perry and his supporters. In a speech this month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that "security along the U.S. border with Mexico is at an apex, and, indeed, those who live and work along it say it is safe and open for business."
The Cabinet secretary, a former governor of Arizona, also said her department has committed "unprecedented resources" to border security, including a beefed-up Border Patrol and a record number of deportations of criminal aliens. "So let's take the 'border is out of control' myth out of the equation," she said.
There are more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents, mostly on the southern border, compared with about 12,000 five years ago.
Texas Democrats challenged the findings of the McCaffrey-Scales report at a congressional hearing last week.
Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, a former Border Patrol agent, said he believed that there were "huge holes in some of the conclusions," the Houston Chronicle reported.
Prince and others deployed in the state's border enforcement program say Mexican drug operatives are a pervasive presence on both sides of the Rio Grande and are becoming increasingly aggressive and confrontational.
"From my perspective, it has gotten a lot worse," Prince said.
McCraw says there have been more than 60 incidents in which U.S. lawmen have been fired upon from the other side of the river. Prince says that he has never been on the receiving end of gunfire, but that he's seen drug-trafficking operatives -- officers call them DTOs -- aim their weapons at his copter as it soars overhead. DTOs have also hurled rocks and fired ball bearings from slingshots.
Another favorite trick by DTOs is to hurl hand-size multipronged spikes into the path of pursuing law enforcement officers, disabling the vehicles by rupturing the tires. The tactic has put more than 70 law enforcement vehicles out of commission during car chases, DPS officials say.
DPS aviators have captured scores of pursuits on video. Prince replays several of the episodes in a DPS hangar to show what he says is pretty much a standard pattern. Typically, more than a dozen men float over to the United States in ferries and boats to load marijuana or other drugs into a vehicle -- often a pickup or a sport utility vehicle -- that has been stolen by another operative on the U.S. side.
The vehicle then heads toward a stash house to store the drugs for shipment elsewhere. But if the transport is spotted by U.S. officers, the driver aborts the journey and races back toward the river for a "splashdown," deliberately driving the vehicle into the brownish-green water of the Rio Grande to allow operatives waiting in boats to jump out and seize the drugs to return them to Mexico. The operations often involve up to 30 DTOs.
One of the videos shows men on the U.S. side rushing to retrieve drugs from a partly submerged vehicle as U.S. officers approach. Boats packed with other men are in the water. Another shows the driver of an SUV speeding on the wrong side of a freeway in an attempt to elude pursuers.
Prince was born in Fort Worth and lettered in football and baseball at Western Hills High School, where he graduated in 1971. Now 58, and a 37-year veteran of the DPS, Prince says he never knows what to expect when he takes off in his American Eurocopter AStar 350. "It's hit or miss," he said. One four-month period saw an average of 15 pursuits a week.
Prince and Avila, the flight officer, spent more than an hour aloft on a sunny afternoon last week. There were no pursuits, but the two officers suspected that the fleeing teenagers had been posted at the riverbank as scouts for the cartels. Some men fishing at a remote spot on the river could have been completely innocent. But they also could have been drug scouts posing as fishermen.
"They're well-organized," Prince said. But he added: "So are we."
Prince and Avila are attached to the 28-county McAllen region, which includes eight counties that stretch for 705 miles along the state's 1,254-mile border with Mexico. "We're looking for drugs and people going north and money and guns coming south," said regional commander Joe Rodriguez.
The operation puts a premium on cooperation and intelligence-sharing and encompasses nearly a half-dozen state agencies, at least six federal agencies and more than 30 police departments and sheriff's departments.
The diverse array of enforcement includes Texas Ranger "recon" units, roughly 200 National Guard personnel engaged in counterdrug efforts and aviators in helicopters and airplanes. Federal law enforcement includes the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Joint Operation Intelligence Centers in McAllen, Marfa, Del Rio, Laredo and Victoria are key components, providing data-sharing and intelligence. Despite political friction between Texas and the federal government, McCraw says cooperation in the field is "outstanding" among front-line law enforcement officers.
"The bottom line is that DPS can't do this alone, the feds can't do this alone, the locals can't do this alone," Rodriguez said. "It's a combined effort that has to take place."
To read more, visit www.star-telegram.com