Dawn broke hot, dry, and red over Eagle Pass one morning in June as I drove through the north side of town. Dust devils whirled through empty dirt lots beside a mile-long CSX train parked stubbornly on its tracks, slicing the town in half and blocking Main Street. A rutted-out ravine cut beneath a trestle, and a group of men carrying bag lunches ducked their heads as they walked under the boxcars and on to work.
Down the street, near the front of the train, four boys marched in formation, chanting along to the rhythmic crunch of their boots on the gravel lot of the Maverick County Juvenile Probation Department, a small cinder-block square of a building across the street from the railroad tracks. “Smoking weed and drinking beer!” I heard them shout in unison as I approached, their reedy teenage voices straining above the hum of the locomotive idling a few yards away. “That’s the thing that got me here!”
One of the boys was fifteen, two were sixteen, and a fourth was seventeen. They looked younger, the innocence of inexperience written all over their faces—faces that would not have need of a razor for some time. They wore black T-shirts and khaki pants tucked into fresh-from-Walmart hiking boots.
Marching next to them, barking commands and leading their strides, was Bruce Ballou. A Lubbock native, the 54-year-old was recruited this spring for the newly created position of chief juvenile probation officer for Dimmit, Maverick, and Zavala counties. A veteran Texas juvenile justice worker, Ballou was hired shortly after officials in the Eagle Pass school district were informed by law enforcement agents that they had a drug problem, and he’d agreed to let me come see his total-immersion style of juvenile rehabilitation.
It wasn’t just any drug problem: In the past eighteen months, more than 150 middle- and high-school-age kids have been arrested for cross-border trafficking through the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, a 210-mile zone that encompasses Eagle Pass, Uvalde, Carrizo Springs, and other towns in Texas’s arid southwest. Of those arrests, 104 took place in Eagle Pass, making it the regional center for teen smuggling. The arrests weren’t for mere dime bags or eight-balls, either. Each kid was carrying 50 pounds or more of drugs into the United States. Usually loads consisted of marijuana, but sometimes coke, meth, or ecstasy filled the wheel wells and backpacks of the young narco-traffickers. Just a couple of weeks before my visit, a fifteen-year-old girl from Eagle Pass had been caught trying to bring over 35 pounds of cocaine hidden in a car she’d been told to drive across the border in broad daylight.
It’s a staggering amount of drugs that barely raises the eyebrows of local law officers anymore—or of Ballou, who sees just about every teenager arrested in this part of Texas. As cartel warfare in Mexico has become more volatile and the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled in the past decade, smugglers from Mexico have increasingly turned to minors as a way to avoid suspicion. Already in 2011, 18.9 percent of Texas’s juvenile felony drug and gang arrests have occurred along the border, even though the region is home to just 9.4 percent of the state’s population.
“Kids get fifteen hundred