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Drones can't replace locals' eyes, ears, says sheriff in Big Bend area drug war

By buseman, Jul 21, 2010 | |
  1. buseman
    LA LINDA BRIDGE, Texas – Sheriff Ronny Dodson stares at the barren mountain range across the border in Mexico, a deeply isolated region where trails once traveled by small-time smugglers are now controlled by drug gangs that operate with military precision.

    He says he keeps pictures showing men in army-style fatigues brazenly making their way across the mountains to Texas, apparently to check on drug-trafficking routes before slipping back into Mexico.

    Dodson's informants have told him about makeshift checkpoints set up just across the border from Texas, manned by criminals who will shake down locals and anyone else who passes along the isolated roads.

    In these tense times along the U.S.-Mexico border, Dodson oversees the biggest Texas county – Brewster – a hotspot for drug smuggling, U.S. law enforcement officials say.

    Here, in the midst of the striking beauty of the Big Bend country in West Texas, far from the heated debates about drones, guardsmen and infrared cameras dominating Washington, Dodson makes a point often overlooked: People who know the terrain and are skilled at gathering old-fashioned human intelligence are still a key part of the law-enforcement equation.

    Drug route
    This is still a country for old men, says Dodson, subtly taking issue with the book and Hollywood movie No Country for Old Men, whose story line suggests that such old-school law enforcement is no match for the ruthlessness and firepower of modern drug-trafficking organizations.

    We need well-trained lawmen from both sides of the border, people with a stake in the future of both communities, says Dodson, adding that more resources, training and attention are needed at the local level.

    With the violence-plagued Mexican states of Tamaulipas to the southeast and Chihuahua to the west, criminals are increasingly pushing illegal drugs through his county, law enforcement officials say.

    The federal government has earmarked at least $500 million for border security, and President Barack Obama has ordered 1,200 National Guard troops. The number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to more than 20,000 since 2003; the agency's budget, $1 billion in 2000, may increase to $3.58 billion in 2011.

    And more recently, the Federal Aviation Administration announced the expanded use of drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – along the Texas-Mexico border. The remotely piloted aircraft are equipped to fly for up to 20 hours and provide intelligence to customs and border protection officials on the ground.

    Dodson has never been a fan of Big Brother, and he says the public debate over border security often shows little knowledge of the complex reality on the ground.

    He concedes that more technology and increased manpower on the part of the federal government help but insists that more soldiers are not the only answer.

    Other officials share Dodson's regard for the role of local law enforcement in securing the border.

    I agree with the sheriff that a significant part of the strategy of protecting the United States depends on boots on the ground, said spokesman Bill Brooks of the Border Patrol's Marfa sector.

    Border Patrol agents are well-trained and well-led, and they live in the community as well. With technology and information that we have available to us, in conjunction with our collaboration with local law enforcement, we do a good job of protecting the border.

    The locals are our front line of defense, said another U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    I do know that the best intelligence comes from humans and not always from technology, and in that respect, unfortunately, local authorities don't get the kind of credit they deserve.

    Brewster County, with its 6,193 square miles, is patrolled by Dodson and eight deputies. On any given day, Dodson, 48, travels an average of 300 miles.

    On this day, his trip includes driving from his office in Alpine to the Lajitas area along the Rio Grande.

    He drives through brush and ravines, following the newest trail that smugglers have carved away from the prying eyes of the Border Patrol. Today, the agents are nowhere in sight.

    These guys are constantly changing strategy, always one step ahead of you, Dodson says of the smugglers.

    Touching base
    Much of his day involves touching base with locals. Dodson, a 28-year law enforcement veteran whose family goes back five generations in the area, seems to be on a first-name basis with everyone.

    He especially values the guys who deliver the flowers to all the weddings and all the funerals, he says. They know everything.

    In Terlingua, he bites into a burger alongside a convenience store owner. They talk about the weather and any unusual sightings in the area.

    At a store near La Linda, he munches on junk food and makes small talk with two women. Finally, he talks to an informant about a proposal to create a binational park, which could bring in new tourism dollars – and trouble, he says.

    In each encounter, he praises a newly hired deputy and ends with a request: You let me know if you hear anything, OK?

    Later he explains: Take care of your locals, and your locals will take care of you. They'll never tell you everything, so you have to dedicate time, lots of it.

    Dotson drives up a hill and parks his pickup, purchased with the help of confiscated drug money. He takes out his binoculars, wanting to get a closer look at a trail of dust off on the Mexican side. He follows it until the dust disappears.

    There still has to be a place in this country for some old men, he says. Without that old experience, it's lost, because there's no book it's written in. Nobody writes it down.

    July 19, 2010


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