U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Texas Department of Public Safety seize 57 bundles of marijuana weighing more than 1,200 pound at the Texas border along the Rio Grande last June. (Eric Gay/AP)

A little before dawn on a sticky summer night in June, one of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Ranger Reconnaissance Teams was running a clandestine operation along the Rio Grande when its surveillance squad came across a Dodge Durango pickup truck loaded with bales of Mexican marijuana.

Bad idea, messing with Texas.

The lawmen chased the truck along the river, with a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter swooping overhead and Texas game wardens roaring down the Rio Grande in boats, state authorities said. In minutes, the traffickers had ditched the truck in the muddy water and were rafting the dope back to Mexico.

Then the shooting started.

Alone among his Republican rivals running for president, the Texas governor has a small army at his disposal. Over the past three years, he has deployed it along his southern flank in a secretive, military-style campaign that his supporters deem absolutely necessary and successful and that his critics call an overzealous, expensive and mostly ineffective political stunt.

A hawk when it comes to Mexican cartels, Perry said in New Hampshire this month that as president he would consider sending U.S. troops into Mexico to combat drug violence there and stop it from spilling into the United States.

The June incident along the Rio Grande was typical of Perry’s border security campaign: a lot of swagger, with mixed results. The initial news release said the Texas Rangers team came “under heavy fire” by members of the Gulf cartel, though officials later said it was “four to six shots.”

The Texas Rangers and their multi-agency task force, which included U.S. Border Patrol agents, returned fire — big time — lighting up the Mexican riverbank with 300 rounds.

“You shoot a police officer, you’re going to get shot back at,” said Steven McCraw, Perry’s homeland security chief and director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The only reason details of the operation became public — they are usually kept under wraps — was because of the shots fired. The dawn chase along the river resulted in no arrests, no prosecutions and no drugs seized on the U.S. side. Texas officials say three traffickers may have been wounded, but nobody is really sure, because all of them escaped.

Focus on security

Warning that spillover violence by ruthless Mexican drug smuggling gangs threatens Texas — a claim that some leaders along the border say is sensational hogwash — Perry has made border security a centerpiece of his three terms in office, far more than other Southwest governors.

Although Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) pushed ahead with a law that requires police officers, “when practicable,” to detain people they reasonably suspect are in the country without authorization and to verify their status with federal officials, Perry has focused more on drug trafficking, stolen vehicles and criminal gangs than on chasing illegal immigrants.

Since 2008, with the support of the Republican-dominated Texas legislature and more than $400 million in taxpayer funds, Perry has pressed forward on his own version of a surge — called Operation Border Star — paying millions for equipment, weapons and the overtime salaries for sheriff’s deputies and local police to mount operations aimed at drug seizures and gang members.

Perry has diverted state helicopters, with night-vision capabilities and forward-looking radar, to the border. The state is shopping for “a high-altitude surveillance aircraft with advanced optics,” McCraw said.

Campaigning in New Hampshire in August, Perry called for Predator drones to fly along the U.S.-Mexico border, even though U.S. Customs and Border Protection has had unmanned aircraft flying the border since 2006.

Perry established multi-agency contingency plans along the border that would pull together local, state and federal forces in the event that cartel gunmen swarm across international bridges. This year, the plans have been activated “several times,” according to a Perry aide who declined to be more specific. The governor has 250 Texas National Guard troops working the border in Operation Phalanx. He wanted 1,000.

“What we are seeing south of our border is nothing short of a war being waged by these narco-terrorists. They represent a clear and a present danger,” Perry told the audience at the Values Voters Summit this month.

Perry’s Department of Public Safety opened five Joint Operations and Intelligence Centers along the border. But Texas journalists have been frustrated in their attempts to assess the operations undertaken by the famed Texas Rangers, who have produced no arrest or seizure statistics that would show whether the operations are effective.

Many conservatives have called for the federal government to complete the fence along the 1,254-mile Texas-Mexico border. But Perry has said that he favors more technology, such as cameras and drones, and more “boots on the ground.”

Perry said last year that his “border security efforts have led to a 60 percent decrease in border crime,” a claim he has repeated on the campaign trail.

Skeptics wonder whether the governor’s border operation is, as they say in the Lone Star State, all hat and no cattle.

According to the fact-checking “Truth-O-Meter” column in the Austin American-Statesman, “Perry’s claim that his border security efforts have led to a 60 percent drop in crime doesn’t hold water. The calculation he touts doesn’t consider crimes committed in cities and towns where most border residents live. It also compared two calendar quarters rather than weighing years’ worth of data.”

Meanwhile, a signature Perry program to employ technology along the border has fallen short. Running for reelection in 2006, Perry promised to line the border with hundreds of remotely operated cameras that would stream live video via the Internet and let “virtual deputies” anywhere in the world click onto the site and report suspicious activities.

Perry awarded $4 million in federal grant money (the Texas legislature declined to fund it) to the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, which mounted 25 cameras.

A flood of viewers went on the Web site, but according to a progress report obtained in 2010 under the state’s open-records law by the Texas Tribune, the program did not come close to Perry’s goal of more than 1,200 apprehensions, producing only 26 arrests — at a cost of $153,800 each.

Calls to Donald Reay, executive director of the sheriffs coalition, were not returned. A note posted on the Web site last week said that “the program is in transition.”

When U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a fellow Texas Republican, was running against Perry in the primary for the governor’s office in 2010, her campaign called his camera program “a boondoggle.”

“What we end up with are very few arrests and mostly apprehensions of illegal immigrants,” said Jose Rodriguez, a Democratic state senator from El Paso. “That’s all for show. No terrorists or cartel criminals.”

Cost vs. risk

In a report to be released next month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas examined the far greater amount of money spent on Operation Border Star, which provides millions of dollars in overtime pay for local law enforcement, to pursue drug seizures and gang arrests.

“We’re not getting our money’s worth — if you’re spending this much money, you want to see more bang for the buck,” said Krystal Gomez, author of the ACLU study.

As an example, Gomez highlighted the $890,000 paid by Operation Border Star to four county sheriffs in 2010 that led to four gang arrests, six drug seizures, 20 drug arrests and no cash seizures — but 8,770 traffic stops.

But many border sheriffs applaud the effort, saying they need the state money to support their efforts, especially in wide-open, rugged border counties.

McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which includes the Texas Rangers, is Perry’s point man for the border. A retired FBI agent who led the investigation into the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing, McCraw grew up in El Paso and remembers driving across the bridge to Ciudad Juarez, now one of the most deadly cities in the world, on high school dates.

Sitting in his office, in a pair of black hand-tooled cowboy boots with the Texas Highway Patrol emblem stitched on the uppers, McCraw said he has no doubt that Mexican drug cartels pose a serious threat to Texas.

“Their level of depravity and brutality is unbelievable,” he said. “Our concern is that this is happening on our doorstep.”

McCraw said that Mexican cartels have recruited Texas high school students to mule loads of drugs; that U.S. agents along the Texas border have been shot at more than 50 times; and that Texas gangs, such as Barrio Azteca and Tango Blast, are now foot soldiers for militarized Mexican cartels.

In August, McCraw wrote a letter to Texas state Sen. Tommy Williams, head of the Senate’s homeland security committee, detailing the state’s ongoing efforts to stem Mexican organized-crime activity. McCraw said $3.6 billion worth of marijuana and $2 billion worth of cocaine had been seized in a coordinated effort in 53 counties participating in Operation Border Star since 2006.

But McCraw staffers could not provide a breakdown of how much Texas authorities seized vs. how much was confiscated by federal agents and local officers in pursuit of normal duties.

Secure border or ‘war zone’?

As the state’s governor campaigns for the White House, the rhetoric about the extent of the problem on the Texas border is hot — and getting hotter — with Perry allies calling the Texas side of the border a killing field and Democrats, and even some Republican mayors and business leaders, saying the border is safer than ever, despite the soaring violence in Mexico.

Last month, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a Perry ally, issued a report by two retired generals that concluded, “Living and conducting business in a Texas border county is tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”

Retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who served as President Bill Clinton’s national drug control policy director and who co-authored the Texas report, applauded the Perry effort.

“If there’s shooting to be done, the Texas Rangers do it,” McCaffrey said. “Texas has taken the lead, and the feds have fallen in behind them. It’s shameful. We have a problem, a government in denial.”

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat who was a Border Patrol agent for 26 years, said that “the federal government had done its job” and that the border is secure.

“The thing that drives Perry and his people nuts are the facts, and the facts are that five of the 10 safest cities in America are on the border,” he said. “There is virtually no spillover violence on the border.”