HIDALGO COUNTY, Texas (KETK) – It’s an endless battle to stop drug trafficking from Mexico into the United States.
This is a crisis a retired smuggler said is going nowhere.
“It’s just a chain that goes on and on,” said the former smuggler.
East Texan Jeff Kennemer spent the past 25 years fighting to prevent drugs from making their way into the state. This was a mission fueled by a disturbing demand for deadly substances.
“That’s the whole name of the game for the cartels,” said Kennemer.
It starts at the border, stretches across Texas and beyond. Rusk County Sheriff Johnwayne Valdez said he sees this illegal business play out in his part of town.
“You’ll have several months where every single day you’re getting loads of dope off the road or loads of cash going southbound,” he said.
This is all channeled through one of the most porous entryways, the Rio Grande Valley.
Raul Ortiz has called the region home all his life.
“Enough’s, enough and we’re going to stop, detain, arrest and prosecute anyone that comes in,” said Ortiz.
It’s a common sight for Ortiz and his neighbors near his house in Mission.
“Basically, it’s a moneymaker for the cartel. I think there’s more money in human smuggling than there is in drugs,” said Ortiz.
20 minutes down the road from Ortiz, Manuel Casas, a La Joya Police Department Sergeant patrols the streets along the Rio Grande, and his team of 12 officers is stretched thin.
“I have four more out there helping Border Patrol, and they’re working overtime and that can be in a 24 hour cycle,” said Casas.
They are doing what they can to catch smugglers in action. He said around four high-speed chases in one day are a common occurrence. Some of these instances are even direct encounters with the cartel.
“Out of several pursuits, you’ll run into these individuals, and they’ll tell you themselves, by their tattoos. They’ll say what organization they’re from,” said Casas.
Casas said it’s more than just catching the “bad guys.”
“It’s about search and rescue. We have to search and rescue on a daily basis,” he said.
They have to rescue people from the grasp of an inhumane criminal organization.
“The people that they’re bringing across are semi-innocent but not the smugglers. They know exactly what they’re doing,” said Casas.
He added, they are benefiting off of an open border and migrant demand for asylum.
“As long as there are people needed to be taken to other states, not just Texas, there’s always going to be a demand. And, there’s always going to be someone that’s going to take you,” said Casas.
Hundreds of illegal crossings happen in the region. The cartels also give bracelets to migrants to keep track of them.
“If they get caught or are turned into the United States or get thrown back into Mexico for whatever reason, they’re able to keep track of them also,” said Ortiz.
The remnants of smuggling operations are left behind in an abandoned park in La Joya.
“Each individual bracelet has a number,” said Ortiz.
Demand has only grown in the past year. In 2021, across the U.S., 1.7 million migrants were detained.
Some pay smugglers thousands to cross the Rio Grande River.
Border Patrol agent Jesse Moreno said this can be deadly.
“There are unfortunately instances that we’ve come across individuals that have drowned,” he said.
Migrants pay to cross on a raft. They are guided by coyotes, who cross people illegally in search of a new start.
“Yes, a lot of people are in need. They’re in danger. They need a new life, totally understand that, but people need to realize the cartels are exploiting that,” said Kennemer.
It’s a shameless trade based on manipulation, and for one seasoned smuggler, there’s no end in sight.
“It happens everyday, everyday,” the former smuggler said.