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Human smuggling and high-speed chases | This is one border county sheriff's office's experience

Smaller, local sheriffs offices are often the first to respond when a car smuggling people is trying to get away.

ZAPATA COUNTY, Texas — It’s pitch dark and really quiet in the middle of nowhere Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We are in the middle of nowhere. We are on a highly classified location where we are looking for potential human and narcotics smugglers to pass by,” said Master Sgt. Ruben Martinez with the Zapata County Sheriff’s Office. “The odds of something that is being driven east on this highway is very high or something illegal.”

KENS 5 tagged along with Martinez.

“We do get some sort of human smuggling and narcotics smuggling about once every three, four days,” he said.

The quiet can be deceiving. A lot happens along Zapata County’s 999 miles.

“It's a very high crime area,” Martinez said. 

Zapata County is between Laredo and McAllen, so much of it is along the Texas- Mexico border.

“Human smuggling is a big business for the cartels, for the people that want to make a quick buck,” Martinez said.

Following the deputies on the scheduled follow along, the KENS 5 crew comes upon a comparatively small incident, early on during the overnight patrol. Martinez described to us what we saw.

“It was an American citizen smuggling a subject out of El Salvador,” he said. “They were taking off from Roma, Texas, to Laredo, Texas, to get to their destination. Our highway is a main carrier for human and drug smuggling.”

The man from El Salvador who deputies encountered, was handed off to Border Patrol. That’s what typically happens Zapata County Sheriff Reymundo Del Bosque Jr. told KENS 5, since immigration detention and processing is the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement.

The Sheriff says the Texas Department of Public Safety also often helps his office.

The man the deputies apprehended on this night was wearing a wristband, not uncommon in cases of human trafficking, Martinez said. 

“They get labeled on the Mexican side of certain cartels, label them with certain sayings, certain words, where they identify where they're coming from once they cross the border. That way, whenever they get to their destination on the American side, they basically know how much to charge where they're coming from,” he said.

That’s the only apprehension the KENS 5 crew saw in person during part of the overnight shift.

But it didn’t take long for the Sheriff’s Office to pull up a couple of videos from the most recent chases, where several people could be seen pilling out of a car when pulled over and running in every direction.

“We have to take down the bad guys,” Del Bosque said.

Del Bosque grew up in the area and spent his life in law enforcement. He was just elected sheriff in January.

“It's like almost every day we're in a chase or we're assisting,” he said.

According to the statistics provided by the Zapata County Sheriff’s Office, the department was involved in 19 high-speed chases in all of 2020, and 13 high-speed chases so far in 2021, starting in January. The average speed of those is 90 miles per hour.

Zapata County Sheriff’s office also told KENS 5 it turned over 51 people to U.S. Border Patrol in 2020 and 72 people so far in 2021.

According to the statistics provided by Zapata County Sheriff’s Office, in 2020, it seized $52,773 and 2,496 pounds of marijuana. In 2021, the agency seized $3,764 and 3.671 pounds of marijuana.

“The criminal element is resorting more to human smuggling,” he said, “We do care. It does play a toll on us when we see a vehicle wreck and it has 10 to 15 people in it where we have to pick them up off the ground and try to find their families, call the Mexican consulate. It's just devastating because these people, some of them are good people trying to get the American dream, but not everybody's good. And that's life.”

The quiet of this night was deceiving. Zapata County deputies could be an hour or a day away from another chase. Part of the unpredictable, yet predictable life on the border.

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