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 to two thousand bucks to drive a car for ten minutes,” Ballou told me. “They walk away once the dope is delivered and get a big ol’ wad of cash. It’s exciting, and it pays off. Unless you get caught.”
When they do get caught, teenagers have typically been sent to notorious “youth prisons” run by the Texas Youth Commission—that is, if prosecutors even bring a case. Overwhelmed with adult smugglers, the federal government has been slow to take legal action against juvenile offenders, and as a result, their cases have usually been passed on to local district attorneys, whose towns must bear the cost of prosecution and housing. As of late June, this burden on local communities is only set to increase: The Legislature just shuttered the TYC and its punitive approach to child felons, replacing it with the new Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which will be charged with rehabilitating youngsters through community-based supervision rather than lockups.
In Eagle Pass, that means these kids will all end up on Ballou’s doorstep. Back in the gravel lot, he halted his marching troop with a practiced bark—Ballou is an Army veteran—and the boys stood at attention. He paused to look them over, squinting. Three of the four were there for bringing hundreds of pounds of marijuana across the border.
“Remember,” he said to them. “Keep your chest out and your chin up. Be prideful of who you are. Here’s the thing: At this hour of the morning, where are all your friends at? They’re still in bed, right? So you’re already one step ahead of them.”
Across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, just a few miles to the west, sits Piedras Negras, a bustling city that is sometimes called la puerta de Mexico and is known as the birthplace of the nacho. Despite ongoing drug violence—in early June, the police there uncovered a burial site with bone fragments from as many as 38 bodies—the steady stream of cars and pedestrians back and forth on the Eagle Pass–Piedras Negras International Bridge is proof of a stubborn, abiding connection between the two towns.
In January 2008, Eagle Pass became the target of the U.S. government’s first lawsuit against landowners who held out against the border fence; the city lost, and its residents still bemoan the fourteen feet of black steel, which cuts off the municipal golf course, as ugly and unnecessary. But the increase in border security has an upside: The population of Eagle Pass has exploded—some 48,000 people now live in the immediate area—thanks in no small part to the influx of law enforcement agents. People have also been drawn by the Eagle Ford Shale, one of the richest oil and gas plays in the nation, as well