COTULLA, Texas — About 300 yards from the LaSalle County courthouse on Main Street is a fenced-in lot packed with pickup trucks, SUVs and minivans that were mostly stolen in major cities and gutted of their seats by smugglers looking to transport migrants who illegally crossed the border. Some of the vehicles were hastily painted white to blend in with vehicles headed to oil fields.
Although Cotulla is dozens of miles from the border, it is close to a Border Patrol checkpoint that smugglers try to avoid by using back roads, going off-road, crashing through ranch fences and driving dangerously fast before crashing or abruptly stopping, the doors of the vehicle then flying open and people dispersing in all directions.
Some degree of illegal immigration, human smuggling and organized crime has long been part of life in mesquite country, especially along the busy Interstate 35 corridor, but South Texas law enforcement officials say it has increased in recent weeks, and hazardous high-speed chases have become a routine occurrence in rural communities. Tiny law enforcement agencies, such as the one here in LaSalle County, act as a second layer of a border enforcement apparatus that tries to stop smugglers, drugs and undocumented immigrants before they disappear into big cities.
This increase has worried many local residents, and the debate over possible solutions often plays out on the Facebook pages of sheriff’s and police departments, with views falling along already tense political lines. LaSalle County, where more than 87 percent of residents identify as Hispanic, has long been led by Democrats. But in the 2020 election voters backed Donald Trump, making him the first Republican presidential candidate in at least three decades to win the county.
Anyone who has lived in South Texas in the past 30 years can wax poetic about giving water to parched “walkers” or migrants of years ago, usually single men from Mexico looking for work. But the past four years of border policies make this feel different, residents of different political persuasions say. They are afraid that the border-crossers evading capture at the river — often while the Border Patrol is busy processing large numbers of migrant families and unaccompanied children — are ending up in the back of smugglers’ stolen cars and threatening their safety.
But the question of what should be done divides residents, with many conservatives blaming the increase in crime on the Biden administration’s approach at the border and too much compassion for migrants arriving in the United States, while many liberals — including local elected leaders — counter that the rise is the expected result of increased patrolling and attention to the border.
“We’ve had incidents in the last few years, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Sandra Carroll, a longtime Cotulla-area resident who has had to repair costly fencing ripped out by vehicles bailing out into her family’s ranch. “Biden gets in and suddenly the floodgates open. We are scared. This is not the same thing.”
For LaSalle County Judge Joel Rodriguez — a Democrat — and veteran law enforcement officers, the nature and number of pursuits are troubling, but they worry social media and the political climate have dialed up the angst and exaggerated perception.
“Is there a concern? Yes. Has there been an increase? Yes. But this is not different from what has always been the case here in this region,” said LaSalle Deputy Constable Manuel Sauceda, a retired Border Patrol agent who worked in intelligence for nearly 30 years.
“The crisis has been here forever,” said Rodriguez, who declared a local disaster in late April because the smuggling is overwhelming local resources. “It’s a federal issue and it’s not going to change until there is reform in Congress.”
'It's not stopping'
Here’s what a typical day in April was like for county law enforcement: The first call came in at 5:15 a.m. after authorities started following a stolen pickup that suddenly veered off I-35, barreled into a fence, and revved the engine so hard the tires burned a diagonal scar into the shrubby ranchland. A bailout followed, with four or more people running away in various directions.
If the vehicle had continued and not stalled, its trajectory would have ended at a house. Five hours later, another stolen car led law enforcement on a miles-long high-speed chase from the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint north of Laredo to the same ranch near a rural town. Everyone jumped out, scattering into the blackbrush. Another bailout.
Before the sun set, there were reports of at least two more pursuits and bailouts. The night before, despite efforts to block local exits, a car chase went straight through the center of Cotulla. The driver and three undocumented immigrants were arrested. The rest vanished.
“It’s just been one after the other after the other,” LaSalle County Constable Rene Maldonado said after responding to two incidents hours earlier. “It’s not stopping.”
In March alone, Sheriff Anthony Zertuche’s deputies impounded 38 vehicles — most of which were stolen out of Houston, Austin or San Antonio — and turned over at least 138 undocumented immigrants to federal immigration officials.
“It’s been pretty overwhelming,” Zertuche said. His deputies worked five pursuits in six hours one day in mid-March. “But we are doing everything we can. It’s nerve-racking knowing these smugglers will stop at nothing to get away at the cost of migrants’ lives.”
The Facebook page of the sheriff’s office has listed at least 30 encounters with smugglers or scouts since the beginning of the year, publishing photos of migrants with their faces blurred out. Deputies did not provide crime data on recent pursuits.
The criminal organizations smuggling people are highly sophisticated and adapt to changing law enforcement tactics. In LaSalle, deputies know pickups with powerful engines are a favorite for smugglers navigating unmarked caliche roads. Deputies have found night vision technology, GPS trackers and phone chargers presumably left behind by guides.
Sauceda, the deputy constable, spent his border enforcement career in this region and his phone is continually buzzing with calls from residents asking whether they should be worried about the recent influx. The veteran officer tells folks to take more precautions but to not let fear overwhelm.
“The more pursuits, the higher potential for someone getting hurt,” he said. “But there’s more law enforcement out there, and they are handling [it] as best they can.”
Still, his own wife recently sought out a concealed-carry permit.
The vast majority of pursuits are kept outside residential areas as law enforcement officials coordinate to keep the racing vehicles on back roads and out of school zones. On a recent March morning, the local school district locked down a school after one man — an undocumented immigrant — was spotted nearby.
“That wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago,” Sauceda said. Authorities detained the person within minutes and officials wondered whether the alert — later rescinded — was overkill.
'A sign of things to come'
At the border, nearly all single adults without children are turned back to Mexico under a public health order. Some of those turned away try to cross repeatedly and often pay criminal organizations to ferry them deeper into the country instead of just across the border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say the number of people sneaking past them has been increasing. Checkpoints on major highways north of the border regularly detect people and drugs, but smugglers often drop groups of migrants just south of the checkpoint and guide them to waiting vehicles farther north with U.S. citizens or immigrants at the wheel.
The business can be deadly for all involved. On March 22, three people were killed after 18-year-old driver Jonathan Barajas lost control of an SUV during a northbound chase near Cotulla, authorities say. Texas Highway Patrol troopers said they used spikes to deflate the tires but that Barajas drove for another eight miles until he crashed. He is facing charges of smuggling, evading arrest and manslaughter, records show.
Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martinez, a longtime law enforcement official in the region, said there are times when the exploitation is so atrocious that it awakens empathy.
“Most law enforcement are not hard people; we are compassionate, and you feel it,” he said. “I felt it, I’ve smelled it, I’ve touched it. It shouldn’t happen. We need to fix this freaking immigration issue. It doesn’t go away until we can get this thing straightened out.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) directed state law enforcement to shift more of its focus to border security under Operation Lone Star, launched in March. In one month, troopers engaged in more than 100 pursuits in counties on or near the border and referred nearly 24,000 people to the Border Patrol.
Sgt. Erick Estrada, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said there are more troopers working the smuggling routes, resulting in more stops. But it is difficult to draw comparisons to previous years because of the way the agency organizes the data.
“I think like anything else, what concerns people along and near the southern border is if this is a sign of things to come,” said retired Homeland Security Investigations officer Jerry Robinette, working now with the firm Nixon Peabody. “An abundance of smuggling makes it that much harder for law enforcement to figure out who’s coming here to work or to sell drugs or commit crimes. You can argue migrants are just passing through, but when you’re home alone with kids, people think the worst and you just don’t know.”
'There's a hate that grows'
Brandy Sanchez, one of many Cotulla residents incensed by the recent uptick in chases, has been trading messages with ranchers and neighbors for weeks about the escalating fear. It became palpable in mid-March when a speeding car chase endangered residents as it blew through town, and a neighbor’s truck was stolen.
“I’ve never really been scared until now,” said Chaney McCollum, 17, who spoke up in a meeting with about a dozen ranchers, recalling a moment she feared she was being followed and in imminent threat of a carjacking. “I should not have to be put in a situation where I can’t leave my house. Normal people out here don’t lock their barns. Now, we do.”
Reports of property damage, stolen cars, stash houses, break-ins, accidents and armed smugglers have raised the hackles of people frustrated with what they consider a lawless border. In March, police arrested 65 migrants in neighboring Frio County found inside a tractor trailer.
The county judge and sheriff have put out a few statements to try to quell hysteria, advising residents to practice situational awareness and lock everything. But these residents feel that they are not being heard.
“Every day you lose a little more compassion and patience,” said Carroll, the rancher whose fences have been destroyed. “There’s a hate that grows when you are sick of the damage and of the government taking care of [undocumented immigrants] and not their own citizens.”
For these residents of South Texas, border security is practical concern, less about stopping all immigrants and more about knowing and controlling who is getting into the country. News last week that the federal government will house migrant families in a local hotel has aggravated the situation.
“I know some hard-working illegal immigrants who pay taxes and are not criminals. If you can make it so we know who and why people are coming, that’s something,” said Sanchez, whose father has shelled out thousands to repair ranch gates and fences in recent weeks. “There needs to be reform, but this is not it.”