Twice a week, Terence Garrett drives the same stretch of Texas Highway 48 from his home in Laguna Vista to the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, where he teaches political science. The 35-minute drive gives him a chance to take account of the ebbs and flows of border security, which he ponders while listening to Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and other jazz favorites. Over the past decade, the presence of state law enforcement has grown from a smattering of black-and-white DPS vehicles to a near-ubiquitous army of troopers—part of a Texas-ification of border enforcement that costs taxpayers about $500 million a year.
One day in the fall of 2019, a DPS trooper stopped Garrett. The official reason: he was going 3 miles over the 65-miles-per-hour speed limit, but the trooper, apparently bored and lonely, confided that the infraction was really an excuse for human interaction. “He told me he just wanted somebody to talk to—seriously, this happened,” Garrett said. The trooper mentioned that he was from the Dallas area and inquired about the University of Oklahoma sticker on Garrett’s car. They chatted about Oklahoma’s rivalry with the University of Texas and about the Dallas Cowboys. The conversation was brief and friendly, and the trooper let him off with a warning. For Garrett, the interaction was an amusing confirmation of his view that the DPS deployments amount to an expensive show of force that targets residents of the Rio Grande Valley rather than smugglers and unauthorized immigrants. The latest show of force by the DPS began on March 4, when Governor Greg Abbott announced Operation Lone Star, sending a thousand state troopers to the Texas borderlands to “to deny Mexican Cartels and other smugglers the ability to move drugs and people into Texas.”
Previous border operations include 2014’s Operation Strong Safety, with its nod to the defensive position in football, launched by then-governor Rick Perry in response to unaccompanied minors arriving in the Rio Grande Valley during the Obama administration. Strong Safety, with its influx of state police, evolved into Operation Secure Texas, which ended in 2018 with Donald Trump in the White House. Since 2014, the various border surges have cost Texas taxpayers $3.5 billion. For the current operation, Abbott blamed the Biden administration’s “open border policies” for causing what he called a humanitarian crisis. Garrett said the true motive is simpler than that: “It’s political theater. That’s why we began hearing about a crisis on the border after President Biden’s inauguration when, in fact, there isn’t one.”
Since the fiscal year began in October, the U.S. Border Patrol has caught more than 930,000 immigrants at the southern border, double the number apprehended in all of 2020, though fewer families and children have been crossing the border since April. According to DPS, the epicenter of drug and human smuggling in the Valley is Starr County. On a recent visit to alleged criminal hotspots between Rio Grande City and Roma, I spotted a pair of DPS vehicles in front of a lumberyard, and another one hundred yards down the road in the shade of a mesquite tree. There was also one by a taqueria, another parked by a Catholic church, and still one more across the street in front of a cemetery. A caravan of seven zipped down the highway near Los Villareales, while two more looked on as nearby immigration agents pursued unauthorized immigrants in a thicket of shrubs. When the sun faded in the evening, Texas Highway 83 glowed with their flashing blue and red lights as they pulled over motorists. It seemed just about everyone I met had a DPS story to tell. “The question I get from everyone around town is ‘when do they leave?’” confided a police officer in Starr County, who was not authorized to speak to the media.
Garrett, whose current research focuses on border security, argues that these large-scale law enforcement operations spread fear among locals by flooding their communities with cops. “Harassment is normalized, even though it wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else, but this is the experience here, where we basically have a police state,” Garrett said. For many residents the spectacle has become a familiar inconvenience, something to endure. For others—undocumented immigrants, mixed-status families—it has become a constant source of anxiety. A broken taillight could mean deportation.
The newly elected mayor of La Grulla, a tiny town fifteen miles from Rio Grande City, Patricia Solis, was caught speeding on her way to work. The town’s chief of police, Desi Olivarez, has been stopped at least seven times because of the dark tint on his windows. Neither was ticketed. “You hear the local mechanics or, you know, the farmworkers who have concerns that they’re afraid to go get food because they don’t want to get pulled over and have to risk being deported,” Olivarez told me.
The local police are sometimes asked to help troopers disoriented by the difference in culture and language. “We’ve gotten calls to assist troopers because they’re lost, or they’ve stopped someone who speaks Spanish and they need us to translate,” according to one officer. But for every person who voiced frustrations, another told me they had no problem with the DPS presence. Among them was Alexis Aguilar, a 25-year-old Walmart employee I found eating his lunch in the parking lot. “As long as you have your paperwork in order it’s no big deal,” Aguilar said. Still, Aguilar, who drives a sporty Dodge Challenger, had been pulled over on three occasions because of the dark tint on his windows, he says. “It’s a little overwhelming,” he said, “but we’re used to it.”
I spent an afternoon in late May cruising the highway and back roads of Starr County with DPS lieutenant Christopher Olivarez, a Valley-based trooper. Some DPS personnel are patrolling the streets, others are in the air or on the Rio Grande, he explained. Since the beginning of the operation in March, DPS claims to have carried out 41,500 migrant referrals, instances when troopers call Border Patrol after discovering that someone is undocumented. Troopers have also tallied more than 1,700 criminal arrests, and seized $1.2 million in illicit cash, 138 illegal firearms, and more than 600 pounds of cocaine and meth. (Federal agents at the southern border have seized more than 138,000 pounds of cocaine and meth since October, and all but 11,300 pounds were grabbed at legal ports of entry.) DPS didn’t respond to a request for statistics on how many traffic tickets its officers have issued.
But DPS hasn’t always been reliable with its own statistics. In April 2018, the agency came under fire after an analysis of its data by the Austin American-Statesman found it had wildly inflated the value of drugs seized during Operation Strong Safety, from $161 million to more than $1.8 billion. The newspaper’s investigation also found that even as DPS claimed to have seized nearly 150 tons of illicit drugs, its haul was, in fact, less than 10 percent of the total interdiction effort, with other state and federal agencies seizing the vast majority of drugs. Also discovered was the agency’s habit of counting arrests in communities far from the border with Mexico as border arrests, including distant locales in West Texas and the Panhandle.
For his part, Olivarez confided that it still isn’t enough to curb illegal activity. “You only make a small dent,” he said. To emphasize what they are up against, Olivarez shared a few TikTok videos from alleged smugglers. In one of them, a vehicle passes a DPS trooper making a traffic stop, then the camera pans to the back seat, where several young men, presumably unauthorized immigrants, are huddled together. “They’re taunting us,” Olivarez said.
The day I rode along with Olivarez happened to be a quiet afternoon, but a Texas national guardsman we stopped to chat with assured us that the night before “was popping,” with several large groups of immigrants having been apprehended in the area. Those “popping” moments are when DPS is needed the most, according to Victor Escalon, regional director for DPS’s South Texas division. With the volume of border crossings on pace for twenty-year highs, criminals are exploiting the confusion. “Everybody is so busy gathering, collecting, processing, transporting those migrants, it creates gaps to move narcotics, to move criminals, to move money, and to move weapons into Mexico,” Escalon said. “That’s where we come in.”
While state troopers lack the authority to make arrests on immigration concerns, they can, and do, make a multitude of traffic stops for the slightest infractions, which, on occasion, reveal crimes. “Every narcotics case that I’ve had started off with a traffic infraction,” said Rio Grande City police chief Noe Castillo. But the fourteen-year police veteran said the extensive use of traffic stops in pursuit of criminal activity were overzealous. “Imagine if we tried to stop every single vehicle going one mile over,” Castillo said, “you would never finish.” Past DPS operations were roundly criticized for troopers acting as de facto immigration agents, and for causing deadly high-speed pursuits.
Human trafficking and narcotics are a reality for any town on the southern border. At roughly 14,500 people, Rio Grande City is the county’s largest city, and yet during Castillo’s time on the force the city has seen only a few murders. “Honestly, most of it just passes through town,” he said of the people and drugs crossing the border. “This is not a dangerous place to live.”
True as that may be, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said the DPS presence signals otherwise to outsiders. When a data collection company from Tennessee scouted possible office locations in Starr County, the ubiquitous DPS presence was a distraction. “It took me over a week of trying to convince them this is one of the safest places in the country,” Vera said, “and to explain that this is just a political show of the governor.” For one of the state’s most impoverished counties, the thought that state troopers are chasing away jobs rather than criminals is deeply upsetting. “We certainly want to secure the border, but this is overkill,” Vera said. After nearly 21 years in the Valley, much of that time spent analyzing state and federal border security measures from up close, Garrett’s assessment was more blunt. “It is a huge waste of taxpayer money,” he said.
Escalon assured me that DPS troopers are not targeting longtime residents in the country without authorization, and he described relations with other agencies as partnerships. But police officers across Starr County told me, mostly on condition of anonymity, that their relationship with DPS is not an altogether positive one. For one thing, smaller agencies that depend on generating revenue from traffic citations say they have seen a dip in their coffers. Responding to concerns from Valley residents, DPS director Steven McCraw told local media in early March that the mass ticketing of past operations will not be an issue this time around. But even if troopers aren’t giving out as many tickets, they are stopping motorists who might otherwise be ticketed by local police. As Vera sees it, no one is happy about Operation Lone Star, not even the DPS troopers. “It must be tiresome and frustrating to just sit on the side of the road waiting for an eight- or ten-hour shift to be over,” Vera said. “It’s ridiculous, this thing between the governor and our president, and we’re caught in the squeeze.” The Valley may get at least a temporary reprieve—in mid-June, Vera told the Border Report that DPS was redeploying two thirds of the troopers to the Del Rio area.