It may seem hard to believe now, but the Rio Grande Valley was once considered a relatively sleepy section of the border, with far fewer undocumented immigrants and narcotics streaming into the country than in hot spots like San Diego or Tucson. Those days are long gone, of course. Illegal immigration has been declining across the southern border of the United States with the exception of one area, the Rio Grande Valley, which has been the busiest sector in the country since it surpassed Tucson in 2013, averaging nearly 200,000 apprehensions a year.

That shift has led to a series of immigration controversies in Texas. Beginning in 2014, law enforcement and aid groups saw a sharp rise in the number of immigrants arriving from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, many of them unaccompanied minors.

The ensuing humanitarian crisis spurred Texas leaders to authorize the Department of Public Safety to “surge” its troopers on the border. In 2015 the Legislature extended the surge by appropriating $800 million for the DPS to spend on border security, and the agency has asked lawmakers for more than $1 billion to continue the effort. Meanwhile, the Valley has seen an increase in human smuggling and other cartel activity. And each summer brings a spike in the number of immigrants who die while being smuggled into the country, especially in Brooks County, where they must walk through dense brush to avoid the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias.

In D.C., the debate over comprehensive immigration reform has stalled, and the Republican presidential nominee’s proposed solution to these complex problems is to “build a wall” along the border. This is the heated environment in which Manuel Padilla now finds himself. Considered one of the Border Patrol’s star commanders, Padilla left Tucson in late 2015 to take over the Rio Grande Valley sector, which covers 19 counties and 17,000 square miles and abuts 320 miles of river and 250 miles of the Gulf of Mexico. Born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1965, Padilla has spent thirty years with the Border Patrol and has gained a reputation for being serious, civic-minded, and successful. Under Padilla’s leadership, the Tucson sector saw huge declines in cartel activity and in the number of immigrants illegally crossing the border, and he believes the agency can achieve similar results in South Texas.

Erica Grieder: In Texas, at least, the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border has attracted more interest than usual in recent years. You were the chief of the Tucson sector before being asked to take on the same role in South Texas last December. Why did U.S. Customs and Border Protection call on you specifically?

Manuel Padilla: The reason I was transferred over here was because we had dealt with a similar situation in Tucson. For years, the heaviest traffic flow was in Tucson. So we had learned a lot, not only from a strategic perspective but also from looking at the drivers of the traffic and implementing strategies. We had gained a lot of experience, and I think that is one of the reasons why they asked me if I wanted to come down here to South Texas. When they offered me the position, I had to think about it, because we had worked so hard in Tucson to get the levels down, and one side of me was saying, “Man, just enjoy the quiet, at least for a little while.”

In 2013, that was the first time we actually saw more immigrants here in South Texas than in Tucson, and we had indicators that traffic was going to start shifting here. If you look at the traffic in South Texas, the demographics are different; you actually have a lot more Central Americans than Mexican nationals arriving here, because of the shorter distance to Central America. But with the Mexican nationals, we also started to see shifts with some of the [smuggling] organizations that were pointing this way. We have the ability to analyze people who have tried crossing in one particular area, and when they get caught and try to return multiple times, you see them pop up in other areas. That was one hard indicator. Our position was that we were going to finish [securing] Tucson and then start preparing for South Texas.

EG: What tactics do you think were successful in Tucson, and can they be applied in South Texas?

MP: We made a huge investment of personnel, technology, and infrastructure, and we worked with our partners not only domestically but internationally. If you look at border security between the ports of entry, it consists of four elements: The first one is detection. The second one is identification and classification. The third one is response. The fourth one is resolution.

Detection is self-explanatory. You have to detect what is coming across. The second one is very important—identifying and classifying. If you are using technology for surveillance, whether it is up in the mountains at Tucson or in this flat brushy area in South Texas, and you see a group of ten, and those ten include tall people and small people, then you can see that it is a family unit and you will respond accordingly. You can send one Border Patrol unit to the family. In a scenario where you have ten people but the first one looks like he has a long arm and eight people have big backpacks and one in the back has a long arm, your response is going to be totally different. That is what [identify/classify] is for: how you are going to formulate your response to that scenario.

The third element is the response that I am talking about. Many times, if we detect people in Tucson, for example, it’s about three days to the time they get off the mountain at a point where you can actually intercept them. People ask, “Oh, why don’t you just go get them?” Well, there are places where you cannot take a mule up, where you can’t take an ATV. There are some very rugged mountains. So the response has to use the terrain to your advantage.

And then the fourth element is the resolution: either the arrest or the turn-back or sometimes a getaway.

When I first got here, I thought, “Man, this is flat ground. This is going to be easy. You can walk around.” Boy, was I wrong. The brush makes it extremely difficult for, one, the detection, and second, the response. If I’m a smuggler, I can hide all day long in that brush and wait for the opportune moment. They use that concealment to their advantage, of course.

If you look at the RGV right now, we do not have the situational awareness of knowing what is happening across the board because of the lack of technology. So, logically, you would say, “Hey, the technology that worked in Tucson? Just bring it over here, and it’s going to do wonders.” But not so much, because in Tucson, you have very high mountains and rolling hills. You can place your tech at high points and it gives you a good view. The fixed towers that we used are kind of horizontal-looking. If you used them here, you would miss everything that is concealed in the brush. We do have five aerostats here that are reused [Department of Defense] equipment that gives you a very top-down look. That’s been a huge capability.

EG: As far as a comparison between the Tucson sector and this sector, it’s not as densely populated as the RGV sector, right? More rural ranchland and private property?

MP: You’re absolutely right. If you look at the Tucson sector, it’s 262 miles of border with very sparse population except for Nogales, which has a population of about 20,000 on the U.S. side and about 230,000 on the south side. In the rural areas, with detection and response, you have a lot of time between the two. You use different equipment and different tactics based on those differences in terrain.

So when you get to discussing if a wall is needed—a wall is useful in urban areas, because if someone crosses in those areas, it is easy to assimilate into the local population. You are talking about seconds or minutes before they get into the population. If you look at the RGV, I see a whole bunch of Nogaleses lined up throughout the entire border, and the response time is very compressed here in comparison to Tucson. That makes it even more challenging, because you have to be right where the traffic is crossing, and you have to have the detection capability to know what is crossing.

EG: As far as personnel, do you feel like you’ve got the officers you need?

MP: I cannot tell you. We’ve found about a hundred stash houses so far this year, but I cannot tell you where those people came in. So I’ve got to get a baseline detection capability to determine how many people I need to respond with. If I had a good, solid situational awareness of the river, and then we see, as an example, ten people coming in and we can only respond to five, then I can tell you, “Hey, I need more people, because I just do not have the people to respond to what’s coming.” We need to account for what is happening before I can say, “We need so many more people to respond.”

It has been a systematic approach for us, and it has taken a long time. The U.S. Border Patrol has been around since 1924, and 1994 was the first time we had a strategic document for the agency. And that doc talks about technology and personnel. It doesn’t even talk about infrastructure or roads or anything.

So the concept is simple: I have to put technology up to see what is happening, and then I’ll have people respond to what is happening, as simple as that. We started that strategy in El Paso in 1994. The priorities then were El Paso and San Diego—San Diego was just crazy, so much volume there. By the time we really made a difference in San Diego, I think we were talking about 2000, 2001. It takes a lot of years. Just hiring people takes a lot of years. In 1994 we had about 4,300 agents nationwide; we’ve grown to 21,370. It requires a lot of time and effort to be hiring and purchasing and deploying the technology. But now, I’d imagine that in California, you don’t have a lot of people talking about the border being out of control there. There’s still traffic crossing, because you have what I call the baseline draw: you have a need for drugs, a need for either family reunification or labor, so you have that cross-border dynamic. But it’s in a managed state. It’s not “Wow, this is totally out of control.”

Then you look at Arizona. In 2015 we ended up with 63,000-plus apprehensions. That is down from 616,000 apprehensions [in 2000]. So you don’t have a lot of people still talking about “Oh, the border is out of control.” Is there traffic? Absolutely. You still have some problems but not at the same magnitude.

EG: The progress that’s been made in the Tucson sector—a 90 percent drop in apprehensions—is so dramatic. Can those results be sustainable, and can they happen in South Texas too?

MP: Absolutely. I can tell you right now that I feel very confident that the traffic cannot, en masse, move to San Diego, because there has been a total transformation on that border. If you look at Tucson—the investment that we have made in personnel, technology, and infrastructure—I feel very confident that the traffic cannot move en masse over there either. And West Texas, New Mexico, the same thing. It’s sustainable. I think once we start really focusing on this area here, or continue moving forward in this area, my prediction is that you are going to see traffic get to a manageable state throughout the southwest border.

Rio Grande Valley sector chief Manuel Padilla
Padilla at the Edinburg office’s horse stables; agents still frequently use horses to patrol areas with rough terrain.Photograph by Josh Huskin

EG: Does the public perception of conditions on the border actually correlate to what’s happening on the ground? Or is the perception driven by national cable news shows and political rhetoric and that kind of thing?

MP: I think it’s both. The people who live right on the border have traffic coming through their land; they have property damage. That is a perception that is based on reality, because they are living it; if you live on the border, you actually see what is happening. But what the media portrays the border to be isn’t always accurate. One example that I use is Chimney Park. Yeah, the Valley is the busiest sector in the nation right now, but there is a [RV] park over here [by the Rio Grande]. In the winter, you have Midwesterners, people who come down from up north who live right on the banks of the river. And then, for fun, they go to this place next door and jump on a boat and ride the river up and down. So if you ask them how dangerous the border is, I think they have a perception that it is not dangerous at all. They will probably tell you—because I have asked them—that it is dangerous to the people who are involved in the wrong business. But to them, they feel safe right on the banks of the Rio Grande.

EG: The debate over immigration is so polarized. How do you handle critics who say the Border Patrol is not being aggressive enough, not doing enough to secure the border, and others who say the opposite?

MP: For me, disagreement doesn’t mean disrespect. We are going to have opposing views. It would be boring to have no disagreement at all. I believe that maturity is a big part of leadership. If the Border Patrol union is bringing up issues, or somebody who doesn’t agree with our mission is bringing up issues, it’s easier to dismiss what they are saying instead of sitting down and listening to what they are saying and finding areas of common ground.

One of our biggest advocates for saving lives in Arizona was Juanita Molina, who works for a nongovernmental organization [Humane Borders]. It started with hostile meetings, but when we sat down to talk about the issues, we realized we had an opportunity to save lives when we brought our different efforts together. I’m never going to make Juanita Molina an advocate for our mission of border security, and she is never going to make me tear down that wall. We used to joke about that. But within those differences, there was a huge opportunity to save lives. She has been a big advocate for the missing migrant initiative and life-saving efforts where we can come together even when we have differences. Actually, she said she would come out and visit us here.

In 2015 there were protests in Arizona over a particular checkpoint. So I met with them right there at the protest. They don’t expect to have somebody meet with them when they have opposing views. We were discussing the checkpoint operations and how we carry out the mission. And I think the media at that time asked me, “What do you think of this protest?” and I said “Hey, this is America, and the freedom of speech is a great thing we have. As long as they don’t impede operations, that is their right to do what they are doing.”

Anyway, the whole point is that we have to listen to organizations that don’t necessarily agree with us as well as the ones that agree with us, because we serve the American taxpayers, so we have to be open to other views.

EG: We are getting ready for the next legislative session, and, of course, border security will be a big topic. The continuation of the border surge by DPS was a big priority for a lot of people in the state. Would it be helpful for DPS to put more resources on the border, or have they allocated enough thus far in this surge?

MP: I don’t want to speak too much for DPS, but their role, as I understand it, is to support us and the border security mission. We have joint planning, we have joint assessments of the border security situation, and we just joined resources to enhance one or more of those elements of the border security mission.

EG: How do you measure success on the border?

MP: I have my own metrics here for the sector. My vision for this area is to make it undesirable for criminal organizations to operate in—make it so difficult for them that they have to go elsewhere. That is the same vision that I started with in Tucson, so I know it is doable. And then the strategy: you’ve got the boat patrol, you’ve got the horse patrol, you’ve got the vehicle patrol. Then behind that you have task forces that are focused, for example, on stash-house operations; you have the missing migrant initiative. Whenever we see an opportunity to keep moving the needle toward making criminal organizations get away from here, that is what we throw at it.

EG: I’m intrigued by your comment that the greater security of the Tucson sector has caused the smuggling organizations to shift their activities to the Rio Grande Valley sector and how that relates to the spike in migration from Central America. Are those two trends—the eastward shift in smuggling and the rise in migration from Central America—related? Are the Mexican cartels encouraging Central American migration or helping to coordinate it?

MP: If you look at the demographics that we are seeing right now on the southwest border, we are actually seeing a 53 percent to 47 percent breakdown, with more Central Americans than Mexican nationals. Back in 1997, 98 percent of our traffic was Mexican nationals, so there’s been a huge change in demographics. Why? There are many factors. If you look at the family unit in Mexico twenty years ago, it was very common to have ten to twelve kids. If you look at that family unit now, you are talking about a very Americanized version. It is two or three kids. So that changed. And then you look at the economic progress in Mexico: their economy is not doing that bad and hasn’t been doing badly for a while. Now, you look at Central America, where you have a drought. You have, of course, violence and extreme poverty. Those are push factors that will cause that immigration. These things start changing slowly—they don’t happen from one week to the next—but they all factor into the evolving situation we are facing.

EG: Is the human smuggling itself a growing profit center for the cartels?

MP: Yes, absolutely. As it becomes more difficult to cross, then the smuggling organizations up their prices, of course, because it’s more difficult. Right now, our information is that $4,000 or $5,000 per person is not uncommon, and that is including family units or unaccompanied children. So if you are talking about $4,000 or $5,000 per person—and last fiscal year, 2014, we had 256,000 apprehensions here in this sector alone—you can put a profit number to that.

EG: Even once they cross the border, immigrants can be in a vulnerable position, and reports suggest that many of them, especially women and children, are being abused. Is that mostly opportunistic on the part of the smugglers, or is it a sign of further extortion?

MP: That is opportunistic on their part. They rely on the people who are here illegally not to say anything for fear of deportation. So sexual assault is common. Smugglers will put them in a stash house, and if you want to eat at the stash house, it is going to cost so much to eat. At one of the more recent stash houses we found, smugglers were having the people that they were smuggling clean the houses or do labor. So, yeah, they prey on the fact that these people are not likely to report abuse or be heard.

EG: There are also a number of migrants who die in the attempt, or after reaching the United States—several hundred each year, although it’s hard to keep track exactly.

MP: The majority of deaths are heat-related. What you actually see is, when somebody is getting to a point where they can’t continue, instead of calling for a rescue, what the smugglers will do is literally just tell them, “Hey, we are going to leave him behind, because I cannot risk the profit that I got here.” There was a father-and-son team recently that was crossing illegally. The son is seventeen or nineteen, and the father starts falling behind, and the smuggler is like, “Hey, leave him behind. They will find him.” Well, the son can’t leave his father. So they stay there together. We manage to rescue the father, but he was already brain-dead, so he is placed on life support, and eventually he ends up dying. The son talked about the whole interaction with the smugglers, and then he talked about how the ants were getting to the father—just atrocious, terrible situations. But it just shows the callousness of those smugglers. There’s really not even a little bit of compassion.

EG: For the smugglers, what is the most undesirable thing: Not being able to make a profit or being arrested or prosecuted in the U.S.?

MP: A couple of different things. What is the consequence? One can be prosecution. The other one is not having the opportunity to smuggle. So, for example, if I am an alien smuggler and I get to a house that I want to rent as a stash house and the neighbor calls the Border Patrol every time I try to use that house, how am I going to use it? So that is not a prosecution per se, but that’s community engagement looking out for that criminal activity—community policing, if you will.

EG: Do you get a lot of tips like that?

MP: We actually do. Of course, I want to get a lot more, where people are being vigilant against criminal activity.

EG: Would they be at risk of retribution from the cartels if they called in a tip like that? Would they fear that?

MP: I would imagine some do and some don’t. But one of the things that I am very confident in is that sense of shared consciousness: when you have smugglers who are sexually assaulting twelve-, thirteen-year-old girls, who are robbing vulnerable people—in everybody’s eyes, this population is vulnerable. I think we have way more good people that are willing to take action instead of just staying quiet. One thing that we are trying to get better at is highlighting these atrocities that are committed, so people do have knowledge of what is happening and are more inclined to get engaged.

EG: Is there any alternative right now to hiring a smuggler?

MP: Right now, there is nobody that can move without organized crime being involved. There is no way. Absolutely no way.

The only way that you would do that is if you are middle-class and you have a visa to come and visit and then you overstay. Or you’re a traveler that goes into Mexico to purchase something. But you are talking about a population that many times doesn’t have TV or radio. They barely have the basic necessities to survive. They are really just dependent on some organized criminal organization that has gotten paid by somebody, likely in the United States—family members paying $4,000 to get their kid or family across. And if you go to Guatemala and you go to El Salvador, there are actually radio ads or newspaper ads saying, “Hey, we are Catholic and we have great family values. We will safely transport you to the U.S. Call us.”

I am going to tell you that maybe there are some in the criminal world with some sort of ethics, because not every little girl that we catch is raped or sexually assaulted. But to me, the number of reports that we get are just not something we can turn a blind eye to.

EG: I remember your saying that if you had been born on the other side of Nogales, they would be catching you trying to cross.

MP: Absolutely. I would think that if I were in the situation where I’m looking for the American dream or looking for a better life—people do what they have to. And I think those things kind of make sense for crossing the border. When I was in Guatemala, I told people, “Hey, look for the legal means of coming across.” I know they are not easy, but that is our first message.

And, second, if you decide to make that journey, just don’t put your lives in the hands of those smugglers. Don’t be so trusting. I can take you back to 1987, when I first joined the Border Patrol. One of my first exposures was eighteen dead in Sierra Blanca, locked in a boxcar. Brand-new agent, so I am thinking, like, “Why would anyone allow someone to lock them in without any control?” But then, I didn’t understand the level of desperation that they are in, so I can’t even judge.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.