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Texas sheriff puts increase in human-smuggling into perspective

"There could be more done to help our region," said Joe Salazar, who has kept a close eye on his Willacy County community for two decades.

WILLACY COUNTY, Texas — In his 20 years in law enforcement, Willacy County Sheriff Joe Salazar has seen it all. The years give the newly elected sheriff perspective as to what he’s seeing in his county.  

“Raymondville was a huge hub back in the ‘90s,” he told KENS 5.  “And then it kind of fades away, dies down. Right now, we're at a time and (place) where we see a lot more of these issues happening throughout our county.”

The “issues” Salazar is referring to is human smuggling, and the chases that end up involving his deputies. 

“They’re transporting people through our county, trying to get them up to cities north of us. Houston is usually one of the biggest destinations for these folks,” Salazar said.

Willacy County is roughly 25 miles from the U.S.-Mexico Border. Salazar told KENS 5 the county’s “drive-through” status is taxing his resources.

“We're stopping people for some type of an infraction, whether it's speeding, taillight is out,” the sheriff told KENS 5. “These folks that are transporting these people, they just get reckless.”

He said his biggest concern is injuries that could happen as a result.

“The potential for people to lose their lives because of this kind of stuff. The recklessness of not stopping this is crazy,” he said. “We are busy for a county law enforcement agency of our size.  I compare it to a tide that comes in and goes.” 

When the tide is high, the department feels it, since it normally only has three deputies per shift. 

“For one of them to get tied up with a pursuit or a bailout or a report of, you know, 20 to 30 people walking along the ranch lands, it ties up our assets,” Salazar said.

“It keeps us from being out in the communities and working other law enforcement duties that we have,” he added.

This past November was really busy. According to WCSO records, Willacy County deputies were involved in 20 pursuits. In October, the department was involved in just nine. In September, one pursuit took place; in July, a total of four.

Remember, the sheriff said it fluctuates like a tide. 

“There could be more done to help our region,” he told KENS 5. “[It] ultimately boils down to whatever decisions are made in Washington (D.C.), how it drastically affects us.”

Unlike the high tide of the Gulf of Mexico that comes and goes on somewhat of a schedule, the border traffic may not be as predictable. All Sheriff Salazar and his team can do is hang on until something, anything changes.

“It's not necessarily who's in office, but what policies are being made,” he said. “I think that's what impacts us.” 


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