News Center 23 is at the southernmost point of the Rio Grande River with border patrol agents only a stone’s throw away from the banks of Mexico.
Reporter Derick Garcia is with Border Patrol agent Paul Smith and river boat patrol. Smith has been in law enforcement for decades and with the border patrol for 18 years.
His skills for spotting people and brush clearings are critical to putting a dent in drug and human smuggling.
Within minutes of navigating the winding river at 25 miles per hour, Smith spots the quick reflection of black trash bags and a clearing through the dense vegetation, a tale-tell sign of illegal crossing.
Derick Garcia asked, “Does that take a lot of training to spot something this small through this much brush at that speed?
Agent Smith: “It takes a little bit of training. You just got to get to know your area; what’s there and what’s not there. If you see something that you know it wasn’t there before, it’ll catch your eye and you come back and you do a double take and you check for sure.”
People crossing Illegally will put clothes, food, cell phones and documents into the trash bag to keep them dry and once they clear the river they’ll change and make their way to a nearby highway for someone to pick them up or contact Border Patrol and surrender.
For the 6 years Smith has been navigating the Rio Grande River, clearings are an everyday part of border operations and come with an inherent danger.
“You really can’t see what’s on the other side” said Smith “there could be people looking at us on the other side right now.”
The people Smith is referencing are on the Mexican side and have been known to attack agents as a distraction for smugglers downriver or upriver to move narcotics. Smith has been attacked with rocks… and has yet to be shot at, a scenario agents along the river in the Rio Grande Valley sector have experienced before.
According to Customs and Border Protection statistics, assaults against personnel is up 120% from 2016 totaling 529 reported attacks.
One attack happened in March as NBC News crews were reporting nighttime operations when shots rang out, piercing a boat in the water.
Should that day come, an agent is attacked they cannot cross into Mexico and engage, “if we see the threat that is firing or engaging on us then we can engage on that.” Said Smith “With Mexico being a totally different country, they have their own laws that we can’t enter Mexico but if we’re engaged and were fired upon, we can engage anything that we can visually see to engage and defend ourselves.”
When a clearing is found on either side agents will tag the location in a GPS and head upriver to find where they crossed from. Agents will typically head upriver because illegal immigrants will float down river and make their way to a safe clearing.
Connecting the dots of where people are crossing is critical in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.
This helps field agents narrow search efforts to find narcotic smugglers before they can be picked up and make their way further inland.
The Rio Grande Sector stretches from Brownsville to Rio Grande City nearly 100 highway miles, but more than 300 river miles.
With unseen dangers lurking behind every branch of brush, “What’s a good day for an agent on the river?” asked Garcia.
“A good day is when we don’t encounter anything… and we go home at the end of the day.” Said Smith.
The good days could be limited, as only time will tell if the 120% increase in assaults will decrease.