Guardsmen to Game Wardens, Texas Mobilizes to Patrol Border


Along the Rio Grande here, the suspected smugglers trying to slip into the United States have certainly noticed their adversaries on the water: burly commandos in black-and-white boats mounted with .30-caliber machine guns and bulletproof shields. The patches on the officers’ camouflage fatigues identify them not as federal Border Patrol agents but as another breed of law enforcement entirely.

Texas game wardens.

A team of them — whose routine duties include investigating fishing tournament cheaters and making arrests for B.U.I., or boating under the influence — patrol the Rio Grande, pulling smuggling suspects from the river and dodging rocks thrown from the Mexican side. Members of the Texas Rangers have also traded in their familiar white cowboy hats for camouflage, so they can blend into the brush on covert nighttime operations. On the border, Texas uses helicopters with infrared radar. It monitors motion-detecting cameras it installed on private ranches. And rather than rely on federal high-altitude surveillance airplanes, Texas bought one of its own, for $7.4 million.

Gov. Rick Perry’s recent announcement that he was deploying 1,000 National Guard troops to the border has generated widespread attention. But it was only the latest step in a broader, decade-long strategy by Mr. Perry and other Republican leaders to patch together Texas’ own version of the Border Patrol on its 1,200-mile border with Mexico.

Mr. Perry and state officials defend the show of force as a costly but necessary effort to stop the smuggling of people and drugs into Texas and to prevent what they call “criminal aliens” from filling up Texas jails unrelated to their immigration status. But their operations have scores of detractors, including some officials in border communities, who say Mr. Perry and his supporters have no business using taxpayer dollars to put state officers and National Guard soldiers on the front lines of a border the federal government is responsible for safeguarding.

“It’s not something the federal government has asked him to do,” said Veronica Escobar, El Paso’s county judge. “It is such a waste of taxpayer resources, especially when so many fundamental needs are underfunded by the very state leadership that proposes and promotes this waste.”

Texas has spent $500 million on border security since 2005. No other state that shares a border with Mexico — California, Arizona or New Mexico — has made a comparable investment of money and personnel. And no other state has a Border Security Operations Center, which Texas opened in Austin to analyze, map and share border-related intelligence with local, state and federal agencies.

In 2010, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico ordered a few dozen troops to his state’s border after the killing of an Arizona rancher, but he sees no comparison with what Mr. Perry has done in Texas.

“It was limited and it was temporary,” Mr. Richardson, a Democrat, said of his own 2010 deployment. “I think border states have to be careful that they don’t over-militarize the border. This is primarily a federal responsibility. I worked with Governor Perry on border issues. I just think he’s gone a bit too far.”

The $500 million Texas has spent on border-security comes with a caveat. Last month, Mr. Perry told a congressional committee that Texas should be reimbursed by the federal government for the half a billion dollars it has spent securing the border dating from the presidency of Mr. Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

“There can be no national security without border security,” said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry. “And while Texas taxpayers should not have to bear the burden of fulfilling the federal government’s responsibility to secure the border, we cannot wait for action while our border remains porous and communities are at risk.”

Sometimes the use of personnel is jarring. The game wardens have seen high-risk action on their patrols on the border. In recent days, one was struck in the head by a rock and another was assaulted as he fought with a smuggler resisting arrest. One June morning in 2011 near Mission, drug smugglers trying to protect a raft loaded with marijuana threw rocks and fired up to six gunshots at officers. The game wardens, Texas Rangers and Border Patrol agents answered with a barrage of gunfire, discharging 300 rounds.

Their response was defended by Texas officials, who said officers fired in self-defense. Game wardens — who carry guns and badges as fully commissioned state peace officers — have no authority to enforce federal immigration laws on the border. They instead make arrests for state crimes, like human trafficking.

“Our guys have the exact same authority as a state trooper,” said Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which oversees game wardens.

The Texas authorities work closely with the Border Patrol, coordinating joint operations and sharing information. In January 2007, when Mr. Perry ordered 600 National Guard troops to the border — his first state-initiated border deployment — some of the soldiers were paired with Border Patrol agents and local police officers.

But Texas operates independently from federal officials, too, often spotting and responding to suspicious activity before the Border Patrol. Border Patrol officials did not respond to requests for comment about Texas’ border operations. But there have been signs that federal officials in Washington disagree with some of Mr. Perry’s proposals and rhetoric. Mr. Perry’s repeated requests in 2009 for federal officials to put 1,000 National Guard troops on the border to help curb what he called drug-related “spillover violence” were never approved.

Nearly every aspect of Texas’s border security has been a point of contention. Richard H. Garcia, the mayor of Edinburg, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, questioned the need for the National Guard, saying crime decreased in his city 12 percent last year.

In a 2012 interview with The New York Times, David V. Aguilar, then the acting commissioner of United States Customs and Border Protection, said the description of South Texas as a community overrun with cartel-related crime and violence, as Texas officials often depict it, was inaccurate.

But officials with the state’s top law enforcement agency, the Department of Public Safety, which coordinates border operations, say dozens of killings, assaults, shootings and kidnappings in Texas have been directly related to Mexican drug cartels. A 2011 report by two retired Army generals — an assessment that cost Texas $80,000 — found that Texans were being threatened by a “narco-terrorist military-style campaign being waged against them” by the cartels.

Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said, “The border is not secure, and there is ample evidence of hundreds of thousands of illegal entries, multiton quantities of drugs, stolen vehicles, fugitives and contraband of every type that make their way across the Texas-Mexico border every single day, week, month and year.” Asked if there were injuries or fatalities on either side of the 300-round barrage in 2011, he added, “The cartels did not provide a casualty report to law enforcement.”

Mr. Perry’s border operations have a military-style tone in their tactics and equipment, with football-themed names like Operation Linebacker and Operation Strong Safety. Texas has paid millions of dollars to a private military contractor founded by retired Army General John N. Abrams to help develop its border-security strategies. Before his 2007 National Guard deployment, known as Operation Wrangler, Mr. Perry said the troops would be forming “12 armed security platoons.”

The governor and Texas officials have said the new deployment of troops has little to do with the influx of young Central American immigrants flooding the border and will instead mirror the numerous other border missions that have focused on fighting drug-related crime and smuggling. And Mr. Perry, who is considering running for president again in 2016, has denied his decision to put troops on the border was motivated by his political ambitions.

“I’m the governor of the state of Texas,” Mr. Perry said on CNN on Sunday. “My citizens’ safety is what is foremost here.”

Texas spares no expense. The Pilatus surveillance airplane Texas bought in 2012 came loaded with high-dollar extras, including a $1 million thermal imaging system and $58,000 night-vision goggles. Six shallow-water patrol boats used by state troopers and game wardens cost $3.4 million. The National Guard deployment will cost Texas $60 million if it lasts five months.

In a fiscally conservative state, whose leaders espouse a low-tax, low-spend mantra, the half a billion dollars spent on border security has become an exception to the rule.

“We worry about every dollar that’s spent,” said state Representative Dennis Bonnen, the Republican chairman of a House committee studying the fiscal impact of Texas border operations. “It’s a very bittersweet situation. It’s a clear federal responsibility, but they choose to not do the job, so we have no choice but to fill the holes.”

Mr. Perry and other state officials said the effort had made Texans safer and has led to tens of thousands of arrests and millions of pounds of drugs seized. The use of state police helicopters and the surveillance airplane on the border alone were responsible for more than 13,000 arrests, $87 million worth of drug seizures and the rescue of 137 people, state officials said.

But high-profile controversies have at times overshadowed any success. In 2012, a state officer in a helicopter, trying to shoot the tires of a pickup truck suspected of carrying drugs near the border, killed two unarmed illegal immigrants hiding in the vehicle.

Before installing low-cost motion-detecting cameras, Texas spent millions of dollars on a more advanced video-camera system that allowed people to watch the live footage on the Internet and report suspicious activity. Known as Texas Border Watch, it resulted in few apprehensions. The Texas Tribune found in 2010 that the program led to a total of 26 arrests, which worked out to about $153,800 per arrest.