Minor Emergency

In the past eighteen months, more than one hundred middle- and high-school-age kids have been arrested for smuggling drugs across the border from Piedras Negras. The numbers may be on the rise—unless one juvenile probation officer has his way.

August 2011By Comments

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: Marching at dawn is part of Bruce Ballou’s new rehabilitation program.

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 as coal seams in northern Maverick County. Across town, brand-new homes are sprouting like identical mushrooms, and 2011 Dodge Chargers and Ford Mustangs clog the streets.

Still, Maverick County is one of the poorest in the nation, and nearly a third of Eagle 
Pass’s residents live below the poverty line. It’s this reality that provides a backdrop for teenage drug smuggling: A lack of opportunities, combined with the ease with which adolescents move between family and friends across the bridge, makes trafficking too tempting to pass up. “When I was a kid, I used to go to Piedras every day and buy tomatoes for our meals,” Eagle Pass police chief Tony Castañeda told me at his headquarters, just down the block from the bridge. “Now you get drugs. You get a lot of things. You get yourself killed pretty easily too.”

Castañeda has a round, tan face and a gray-streaked mustache that frames a mischievous grin. But as we talked, his smile faded. Recently, he told me, after a teen got busted with a four-hundred-pound load of marijuana, the cartel he was working for kidnapped and beat him. They then called his mother and threatened to kill him—and hide the body—if she didn’t come up with reimbursement for the lost dope within 24 hours. She’d had to take out a bank loan and beg money from relatives and friends to raise the funds. “When the kid came back, he got indicted and arrested,” said Castañeda. “He spilled the beans. He’s no longer in this community, and he’s scared to death they’re going to find him and kill him.”

Though teenage drug mules aren’t entirely new, Castañeda said, he has noticed an uptick in the past few years. High school students began making national headlines for smuggling in Del Rio and El Paso in 2009; that same year, Border Patrol agents in the Del Rio sector considered the problem urgent enough to launch a campaign called Operation: Detour, which employed a pair of scare-’em-straight films to detail the pitfalls of narco-trafficking. The movies were the brainchild of an agent whose daughter was friends with a teen who got roped into smuggling, and the images—of maggot-riddled corpses, of teens being shot in the head or burned alive by vengeful cartel button men—have been shown to thousands of students along the border.

School and police officials say the films make an impact on students—and on the press, which has covered the campaign frequently. But the fact that Operation: Detour is shown regularly in Eagle Pass and kids still 
get involved with the drug trade indicates there may be forces at work greater than cinematic scare tactics. Eduardo Treviño, an assistant superintendent with the Eagle Pass Independent School District, suspects it’s about family ties and the lure of fast cash.

“All of a sudden, we learned that our students were being recruited and being caught with three hundred, four hundred pounds of drugs,” he told me in his office, recalling the day in March he first heard from law enforcement agents. “It was startling.” It was now summer break, and he seemed genuinely befuddled by the rise in teen smuggling. His district includes nineteen schools, ten of which are rated “exemplary” by the Texas Education Agency. What was shocking, Treviño told me, was that the students arrested were hardly the street-hardened type. They were good kids with no history of troublemaking. Some were athletes, popular students, or the children of well-liked families in town.

Even stranger, many came from middle-class homes, suggesting that the thrill of drug money is irresistible no matter one’s standard of living. “These were affluent kids,” Treviño said. “It’s not like they needed the money.” Treviño also sees deeper influences. “There are families in Eagle Pass where the daddy and brothers and sisters are transporting and selling drugs,” he said. “That’s what makes it so tough. If the kid doesn’t want to get involved, he’s not going to fit in with his own family.”

By the time Hector turned seventeen, he’d already moved two hundred pounds of marijuana over the border. It started when a friend, an adult, asked him if he wanted to make some money. He’d get $2,000 for thirty minutes’ work. Compared with his other prospects—working at Pizza Hut or pumping gas—hauling drugs seemed like the smart move. “Of course I wanted the money,” he told me.

Soon his friend had introduced him to somebody in Mexico, who Hector says hid one hundred pounds of marijuana in a car. All Hector had to do was drive it over the border. He told me it was easy, if nerve-racking. But being handed a fat roll of bills after dropping the vehicle off at a house in Eagle Pass calmed him enough to do it again.

Hector is a U.S. citizen by birth, of Mexican descent, a student in the Eagle Pass ISD, and legally a minor. He agreed to speak with me on the condition that I not use his real name or identifying characteristics. Not that describing Hector would set him apart: He looks like most other American teenagers, fresh-faced and well fed, wearing slightly baggy jeans. Like many of his peers, he likes to smoke weed, have a few drinks with friends, and listen to music. “We like to party,” he told me.

But discussing smuggling made Hector nervous. As we talked, he tapped his boot on the floor, his right leg pumping up and down furiously. The friend who got him started, I asked, was he a school friend or a family friend? Hector chewed his lip. He did not want to talk anymore.

“The traffickers have a system,” Ballou told me later, when I met up with him again. “There are certain kids who recruit mules and others who set up the actual drug exchange.” Based on his three months as probation officer, Ballou has found that kids on the border get involved in trafficking because they’re undersupervised and have poor decision-making skills, made worse by casual drug use. “Seventy to eighty percent of the kids we see are making all their decisions from the business end of a big, fat joint,” he said. When he first took the job, he told me, kids on probation weren’t being drug tested, and the juvenile recidivism rate was 37 percent after one year and 60 percent after three years.

As we talked, he mused out loud about the future of his young charges. He’d already met the fifteen-year-old girl arrested for transporting cocaine, he said. “She’s not a bad kid. She just got caught up in a process. She’s introverted, shy.” He leaned back in his chair and scanned his office, empty except for a sepia-toned photo of his mother. Juvenile jail, he said, would just turn that fifteen-year-old into a real criminal, or more likely, a victim. What was required instead was a thoughtful, comprehensive approach—which is why he had just proposed creating an in-county residential facility where teens could get clean in a structured (read: boot camp) environment.

Before pitching the idea to town officials, Ballou had started a pilot program to show that rehabilitation was actually possible. Hence the dawn marches. Ballou was also taking the kids on outings to Christian rock concerts and teaching them woodworking. The martial aspect of his program seemed less about showing the teens who’s boss than it was about teamwork and discipline. “If we’re going to treat our kids, we need to treat them where they live, here in Eagle Pass, because we need to work with their families,” he said, echoing Treviño. “It’s socially accepted in some of these families to transport dope.”

I watched Ballou make the case for his 
program one morning before a meeting of local school, law enforcement, and social services officials. Barking orders, he marched a group of kids through the empty elementary school, to show that with a little time and patience—a mere five hours with this bunch—positive changes could occur and that a residential facility might just turn the teens around completely. “These kids need structure,” he told the officials. “We need to say what we mean, mean what we say, and not be mean when we say it.”

The officials were impressed. Some offered to donate a building, mattresses, and staff 
so that the program might be licensed and under way by September 1. For their part, the kids performed well, marching, turning, and stopping more or less on command while keeping the giggles to a minimum.

Before the meeting, as Ballou prepared his would-be cadets for their presentation, he tried to make them feel as if they were part of something important. “What we’re going to do in there is probably going to impact Maverick County for the next ten, fifteen, twenty years,” he told the boys as they stood at ease. “We’re developing an amazing thing in Eagle Pass. Don’t forget.”

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