Going it alone
In one of the poorest counties in Texas, at the center of the
U.S. border crisis, one deputy must do the work of many
ENCINO, Tex. — Elias Pompa had a thousand square miles of backcountry to patrol by himself, but now all he could see was the red Texas clay coating his windshield. “Damn dirt,” the sheriff’s deputy said, turning on his wipers, trying to follow the road as dusk closed in on him 11 hours into his shift. The gravel lane turned into two trail ruts, and the trail disappeared in sand and mesquite. He checked his location on a map, but the nearest marked road was three miles away.
ABOVE: Brooks County Sheriff's Deputy Rolando Gutierrez watches for suspicious vehicles last month in Falfurrias, Tex.
He had been dispatched to this part of Brooks County to investigate an open window at an abandoned ranch building — another potential break-in in the nation’s busiest corridor for illegal immigration, where break-ins could mean any number of things. He had driven this way before to investigate robberies where the only item missing was water, stolen by groups of migrant children crossing the desert alone. He had come to confront drug cartel members carrying backpacks loaded with knives and 70 pounds of marijuana. He had come to rescue immigrants dying of dehydration and he had come when it was too late, carrying a state-issued body bag.
Now he quieted the engine and rolled down his window, hoping a sound might guide him. He listened to the wind and the cries of the buzzards and then, off in the distance, the creak of a rusted windmill. He followed the noise over a hill and through the brush until he saw it, a ramshackle, unoccupied house with a bedroom window cracked open on the second floor, and then, from inside that window, a sudden flutter of movement.
“Something’s definitely in there,” Pompa said, reaching for his gun. “Let’s see what it is.”
Here in Brooks County, in the center of an ongoing U.S. border crisis, it is usually Pompa alone who must respond in person when a crisis occurs. President Obama is sending more money, Gov. Rick Perry is sending the National Guard to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Congress is debating, always debating, how best to manage the humanitarian and security implications as a record 6,000 unaccompanied children cross illegally into the United States each month.
But whenever an immigration-related emergency prompts someone here to dial 911, as happens a few dozen times a day, the call rings to a nearly bankrupt sheriff’s office in one of the poorest counties in Texas, where on this day the only available solution to an international crisis was a 37-year-old deputy who earns $11.50 an hour.
“Officer 807, going in,” Pompa said into his radio, and when the dispatcher didn’t respond he repeated himself. “Going off my unit to investigatebu,” he said. “Do you copy?”
Still nothing. The department’s radio communication system had gone down again. There was no cellphone service in this part of the county. Pompa’s nearest backup was at least 10 miles away. He had no body armor, no Taser, no tactical gear, no binoculars or GPS. He holstered his gun and grabbed his department-issued cowboy hat off the dashboard. It was a ridiculous white bucket of a thing with a tacky badge that rubbed his forehead raw, but still he wore it whenever he left the car, for luck and for courage. It closed the distance between the fabled Texas Ranger he imagined himself to be and the deputy he was, a former greeter at a Drury Inn who had never shot anything but a rabid pit bull, and who texted his mother at the end of each shift to let her know he was safe.
He climbed a fence guarding the property and walked quietly up a hill toward the house. A scarecrow stood at the entrance, and he crept past it and continued up the stairs. He reached the bedroom landing, pressed his back to the wall and pulled his gun. It was more than 100 degrees, and sweat ran down his palms to his fingers. A few months ago, he had found 42 people hiding in a room like this, and in the complicated universe of illegal immigration there was never any way to anticipate whether they might be drug traffickers or children or something in between.
Pompa put his left hand on the door and counted down with his fingers. Three, two, one, go. He pushed open the door and heard a noise that sounded like a scream, followed by a rush of cold air. “Hey!” he yelled, and looked up to see a white owl soaring through the door and flying over his head. Pompa hurried into the room, searching in the corners and the closets. Empty.
He walked back outside, leaned against a tree and took a few breaths, trying to slow his heartbeat. Only then did he notice the ground all around him: It was covered with backpacks, empty food cans and discarded clothes — evidence of another worn trail in a county that local officials estimate 600 to 1,000 illegal immigrants cross through every day in the busy summer season. The air smelled like sweat. A water bottle sat nearby, uncapped and half full.
“Someone was just here,” he said, and he began counting dozens of footprints scattered in the sand. “Ten, maybe 20 people,” he guessed. The trails ran in every direction, too many to follow, and the only choice that made sense was to walk back to his car.
“Ten-four, all clear,” he said, talking again into the radio, and all that came back was static.
Brooks County Sheriff Rey Rodriguez holds a photo of his office staff. These days, his staff is a lot smaller.
'Do we have anything left?'
Twenty miles away, in a building attached to the jail on the outskirts of tiny Falfurrias, Tex., the Brooks County sheriff’s station was nearly deserted. The 911 dispatcher had taken his lunch break. Sheriff Rey Rodriguez walked past a row of empty desks adorned with the nameplates of employees who had recently been laid off. “Where’s Pompa?” he wondered, because there were two 911 calls on hold and 17 pending investigations from the past week alone.
“How far behind can we get?” he said.
Rodriguez had been elected sheriff five years earlier, inheriting a stable, seven-figure budget in a county of 7,200 people, where most emergencies related to livestock loose on the roads. He had expected to close out his career chasing cattle and writing traffic tickets. “A sunset job,” he called it then, before the local oil wells dried up, the county lost a quarter of its tax base and his budget was cut in half.
Sharp rise in apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley sector: While apprehensions of undocumented immigrants in other Southwest Border Region sectors have declined steadily, the number of apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley sector, which includes the Falfurrias checkpoint, has more than doubled in the past two years. On average, a single Border Patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley sector makes roughly five apprehensions for every three in the Tucson sector.
Meanwhile, record numbers of Central Americans had begun crossing into South Texas, four times as many as in 2009, migrating through the desolate ranchland that was their closest geographical entry point to the United States. Now most emergencies in the daily 911 call log related to immigration problems: “illegal on road,” “illegal lost,” “illegal on private property,” “illegal deceased.” In 2012, the sheriff’s office spent a third of its diminished budget on the recovery and burial of 129 immigrants found dead in the brush.
The first budget cut was to eliminate the tactical unit, three deputies who used night-vision goggles to chase immigrants on the ranchland. Next went the department’s only investigator, followed by four of the eight remaining deputies, followed by the janitorial staff, because whoever was left could empty the trash.
The remaining four deputies agreed to take 3 percent pay cuts, patrol without a partner and work 48-hour weeks. The county eliminated overtime pay and then health benefits, which meant the deputies had become border crossers, too, making regular trips to doctors in Mexico to treat injuries they incurred on the job. The weekly staff meeting had become a gathering of two men, the sheriff and his chief deputy, who on this day sat down to talk about managing another round of budget cuts.
“Do we have anything left?” asked Bennie Martinez, the chief deputy.
“Gas?” the sheriff said. “How about limiting their mileage? Maybe 200 miles a shift?”
“We could,” the chief deputy said. “But why bother having a deputy on duty if he has to park the car instead of patrol?”
“How about sending them home at night?” the sheriff said. “On-call only.”
“In this county? With our problems?” the chief deputy said. “That’d be asking for trouble.”
The two men had traveled to California and Washington in an effort to raise money, applying for grants and meeting with members of Congress to ask for support. The federal government spent more than $18 billon on border security in the past year, including covering some immigration costs for border counties. “We are outmanned and over-run,” the sheriff wrote in one request, only to be told that, because of its location, his county did not qualify for federal aid.
It was a curse of geography: Brooks County is 40 miles inland from the Rio Grande, not officially on the border, and yet one of the busiest Border Patrol checkpoints in the nation sat on a highway at its center. If immigrants wanted to get from the Rio Grande Valley to the interior of the United States, they had to get past the highway checkpoint, which usually meant hiking 10 or 15 miles around it through the vast ranchland of Brooks County, creating a trail of emergencies that county officials had compiled into an annual stats sheet.
More than 150,000 illegal immigrants trafficked through the county. Seven hundred rescued from dehydration and turned over to Border Patrol. Two hundred cars seized in the act of human smuggling. Six school lockdowns as a result of immigration activity.
And one deputy on duty at a time, responsible for policing it all.
Deputy Elias Pompa chases down horses that broke free from a local ranch last month. Pompa is one of only a handful of sheriff's deputies in budget-strapped Brooks County.
Moving in darkness
Pompa awoke for his 12-hour shift at 5 a.m. and put on the hand-me-down uniform he’d inherited from the officer he replaced, a size-44 waist that his mother had taken in to a 38. He checked his e-mail to see whether there were offers on the coin collection or the scrap metal he was selling online to help supplement his salary. Then he grabbed an energy drink and drove away from the ranch house he rented for $250 a month.
“This is 807, heading out,” he said into the radio.
Brooks County Deputy Rolando Gutierrez detains two migrants, at top -- a Mexican, center, and a Honduran -- while patrolling last month in Falfurrias. The two had given up on their quest to make it to Houston and were simply waiting at a roadside shelter hoping to be picked up by authorities. Gutierrez snaps their mug shots before they are delivered to Border Patrol.
The pre-dawn hours were always his favorite, when the heat finally yielded to a breeze off the Corpus Christi Bay and the only light came from the hazy glow of the Milky Way. In daytime, Brooks County was a forbidding place: tangled mesquite, sand pits, rattlesnakes and thick cacti, with vultures circling lake beds parched by the heat. But darkness softened the landscape and obscured it in mystery, and mystery was why Pompa had taken a pay cut six months earlier to transfer here from the city police force in nearby Falfurrias. Anything could be out in the brush at night. If only he could find it. There were coyotes, wild boars, javelinas, mountain lions and people, too, all of them nocturnal, moving in darkness to avoid being seen.
He encountered most immigrants on ranches or dirt roads, moving in groups of 10 or 15, dressed in dark clothes and with their water bottles painted black. A few months earlier, he had been patrolling one of those roads when he felt a thud against his front bumper that shook the car. In the rearview mirror, he saw a lifeless black shape lying in the road. He had killed somebody. He was sure of it. “Hurry, I need EMTs,” he had called into the radio, and then he ran back to administer CPR to what he discovered was a tire.
He had driven cautiously at night ever since, 30 mph with the windows down, scanning the brush and enjoying the silence until the sun rose over the live oaks and the day began.
“Two illegals, males, in bad condition on the shoulder of Highway 285,” the county’s 911 dispatcher said, just after sunrise, but by the time Pompa arrived with two gallons of water, the men were gone.
By noon, Pompa had driven 300 miles. By 2 p.m., it was 400, and his eyes grew heavy and the roads blended together as the heat index rose to 110. “It’s like hell out there,” he said, surveying a place where for most of its history nobody wanted to live. Spaniards had explored Brooks County and left. American Indians had camped and then moved farther south, where the soil was better for farming. The place had always belonged mostly to transients — vaqueros grazing their livestock and Indian traders heading to Mexico — and it still looked as it always had, open and undiscovered. Except the land had been divided and sold to families from Houston and Dallas, who used the property for hunting. They had built fences to keep livestock in and people out, and now those fences had been worn down from repeated abuse by the latest generation of passers-through.
Tracking cameras had recorded as many as 150 people each night coming through a single property, and ranchers had been forced to devise their own solutions to compensate for having only one sheriff’s deputy on duty. One bought an AR15 after a series of break-ins, another electrified his fence and trained attack dogs, and another installed 30 water fountains with directions in Spanish and Mandarin.
The Poco Grande Ranch had hired its own security firm, and now one of the private guards was leaving a message on Pompa’s cellphone 11 hours and 427 miles into his shift.
“Got one,” the guard’s message said. “Can you hurry?”
'Why do you do this?'
Pompa sped toward the ranch, wondering what would be waiting for him. Was the immigrant armed? Dehydrated? Dying? He thought about the people whose bodies he’d recovered on ranches in the past six months, some a scattering of bones and sneakers, and others dead for only hours, just beginning to bloat in the heat. The smell of the first body had haunted him for days, until he threw away his undershirt, scrubbed his work boots in mouthwash and inhaled enough Vicks VapoRub to make his nostrils burn. But then came his fifth body, and his 10th, and his 19th, and eventually he stopped noticing the odor, and that bothered him even more.
He turned into the ranch and saw the security guard at the entrance sitting with a young man, his eyes sunken, his skin dry, his shirt caked in sweat and mud, but alive.
“Are you sick?” Pompa asked the man, speaking Spanish, leaving his engine running as he stepped out of the car.
“No,” the man said, and he looked away from Pompa and down at the dirt. “Well, maybe. I don’t know. No,” he said in Spanish.
“What’s your name?”
“Benito García,” the man said, standing up, expecting to be frisked.
“Nice to meet you,” Pompa said, reaching out to shake his hand.
He gave García a bottle of water and a bag of chips and led him into the back seat of his car. “I have to take you to Border Patrol, okay?” Pompa said, turning up the air conditioning, and García just nodded. He was about to turn 35, and he said he had been in the brush for three days with nothing but a gallon of water and two cans of food. It had been more than a week since he left Mexico, crossing into the United States to join family members in Milwaukee, he said, and now he described what that week had been like: a flooded raft that barely made it across the Rio Grande, two days in a stash house with 70 other immigrants near McAllen and finally a trek through Brooks County with a group of 12 that included two women, a child and a guide who had gotten them lost and turned a 10-mile journey into 30. He had cactus needles in his jeans and bee stings on his chest and shoulders, and his feet were rubbed raw from hiking in the sand. His pace had slowed on the third day, and the group had continued on while he slept. By now they had probably made it to the pickup point on the highway, where a van was supposed to take him to Houston and then on to Wisconsin, where a brother and a job were waiting.
“Where are we?” he asked Pompa now. “Are we close to Houston?”
“No,” Pompa said. “Probably 200 miles.”
“What day is it?” García asked.
“Monday,” Pompa said, looking in the rearview mirror and fixing his eyes on García. “Your lucky day. Do you know how many people die out there?”
“Lucky,” García said, thinking about the $3,800 he had saved up to pay smugglers just so some teenage coyote could walk him in circles through the desert. “That’s not what I’d say about it.”
Members of the Border Patrol detain several migrants on a Brooks County ranch.
Pompa drove into the Border Patrol station, a new facility built on three acres, with its own car wash and dozens of new trucks equipped with four-wheel drive and infrared. The Border Patrol had a helicopter, a blimp, a canine team and more than 300 agents in Brooks County, many of them just out of school and earning triple Pompa’s salary. As a policy, they did not deal with dead bodies or answer 911 calls. Their focus was mostly detention and processing — human cargo, some agents called it — and one of those agents greeted Pompa in the lot.
“Thanks for the delivery,” the agent said, putting on a pair of blue plastic gloves, taking García out of the car to frisk him.
García lifted his arms without protest, exhausted and resigned, looking back toward Pompa. “Where are you from?” he asked Pompa.
“Texas,” Pompa said. “But my mother was from Mexico.”
“Mexico. So why do you do this?”
It was a version of the question Pompa sometimes asked himself, when his shift ended and he couldn’t sleep, until he turned on the police scanner by his bed and listened to the radio traffic to quiet his mind. Was he saving more lives than he was hindering? The politicians who visited Brooks County were always so sure about what to do with illegal immigrants, as though they were some monolithic species — good or bad, dangerous or deserving — but how could anyone have one opinion about an issue so immense?
He felt heartbroken for the two 15-year-old Guatemalans he had caught a few weeks earlier, buying lunch for them at Whataburger on the way to Border Patrol, even if it cost him $12.50 and a reprimand from a supervisor. He felt disgust for the drug cartels, which had memorized his shifts and sent a letter to the sheriff’s office threatening the beheading of two deputies if they continued to interfere with human trafficking.
Pompa performed his work best, he thought, in the rare moments when he could put those issues aside and manage to feel nothing at all. He had taken a sworn oath to protect Brooks County from lawbreakers, and on this day García was one of them.
“It’s my job,” he told García, as the Border Patrol agent led him into the station.
In its best moments, his job was exactly that simple. There were no pressures of a national immigration debate, no politics, no doubt or ambiguity. There was only an immigrant breaking the law and a lawman giving pursuit.
It happened every day and now it happened again, when he was parked on the highway median early one morning, looking for suspicious cars on a stretch of road where hundreds of immigrants each day were dropped off for their hike around the checkpoint. Transporting illegal immigrants was a federal crime, but no federal officer in Brooks County caught more cars than Pompa. He built go-karts and racecars in his spare time, and even at 80 mph he could tell when a vehicle was overloaded with people, illegally modified or suspiciously tinted. “Chicken Hawk,” some of the Border Patrol agents called him, admiringly, because maybe Pompa was a little heavy in the waist, with an injured leg and a relaxed sense of humor, but his police work was as sharp as anyone’s when it came to the ears and eyes.
What he saw this time was a car heading north toward him on the freeway, still half a mile away. Suddenly the car made a U-turn through a rest area and returned onto the freeway heading south.
“Strange,” Pompa said, running through the possibilities in his head. The car was a Mazda compact, impractical for transporting a big load of illegals, but he had found 10 people in cars like that before. Its back bumper looked heavy and the windows were dark. Plus, why would anyone turn around like that in the middle of the freeway, unless they had spotted his police car and chosen to avoid him?
Pompa accelerated onto the freeway, turned on his lights and raced to catch up with the Mazda. “I have a 1080, possible pursuit,” he radioed. He pushed his car to 75, 85, 90, until finally the Mazda came into view a few hundred yards in front of him. It sped away and Pompa pressed his accelerator to the floor. The Mazda swung around a truck and Pompa followed.
He had been in more than 50 chases in the past six months, and at first his hands had gotten sticky against the wheel and dispatchers had teased him for sounding nervous and shrill on the radio, like a balloon leaking air. But he’d had enough practice now to calm himself and think tactically about scenarios, none of which were good. His aging car was incapable of going beyond 97 mph, and six drivers had simply outrun him in chases. He had no available backup, and no time to call for it anyway. If he pursued the Mazda too hard, he could cause its driver to crash and kill whoever was inside, maybe a load of Central American children. If he fell back too far, the car would be gone, along with the weapons or drugs that could be inside.
“Come on, come on, come on,” he said, staring at the Mazda, urging it to the side of the road, and a few seconds later the car swerved toward the brush on the right side of the highway. The driver jammed on the brakes. A back door flew open as the car continued to move and seven people piled out: four men, two women and a child, with little water and no supplies. They tumbled onto the shoulder of the road, raced into the brush and climbed over a barbed-wire fence onto a desolate ranch. Then the Mazda tore back onto the highway.
“Damn it,” Pompa said, because now as the only deputy on duty in Brooks County he had to make a choice: Head off, alone and on foot, after seven people in the brush? Or chase after the car and whatever was still inside? He pressed down on the gas.
The Mazda raced to 90 mph and then, less than a minute later, swung wildly again to the side of the road and stopped. The driver opened his door and started to run, leaving the car running, too.
“Damn it,” Pompa said again, because now came another choice: Deal with a running car obstructing the right lane of a major freeway? Or chase this man wearing a baseball cap and jeans, probably an experienced coyote who was younger, faster and better at navigating the brush?
Pompa thought about the calf muscle he had torn in a chase a few months earlier, and how he had no health insurance to cover that injury, and how he had been unable to take sick time to heal because there was no one to fill in for him. “Should I go after him?” he said, but instead he watched for a few seconds as the man climbed over a 10-foot fence and disappeared into tall grass.
Pompa left his police lights flashing and went to search the car, which was empty except for a water bottle and a rental car contract from McAllen. He called a friend who worked for a tow truck company and asked him to impound the car. “I got another one for you,” Pompa told him, before recounting the chase.
“Great police work,” the friend said.
“I guess,” Pompa said, but now seven more people were in the brush, including a child who might make it to where he was going or maybe die trying. The smuggling guide was probably on his way back to Mexico to pick up his next load. There was a car on the side of the road that by law would be returned to the rental company, which would rent it out again. “It’s like catching air,” Pompa said.
He took out his phone and snapped a picture of the car for his records. “I need to remember it,” he said, because it probably would be loaded up again soon and driving back through Brooks County, where it would be his job alone to find it.
Pompa walks through the sheriff's office's impound lot. Many of the vehicles were impounded after the drivers abandoned them during car chases.