Controversial grants fund local officers pursuing illegal immigrants, smugglers
LINN, Texas – Bleary-eyed Aaron Luis Moreno squints at a steel pretzel 120 feet long which once served as the Capadonna Ranch's cattle fence.
Patrolling alone in the vast stretches of ranchland north of the Rio Grande River on behalf of Precinct 4 of the Hidalgo County Constable, Sgt. Moreno is accustomed to going without sleep.
But he's not accustomed to lacking enough poles to fix a busted fence, something motorists want him to do before cows lumber onto the highway.
It's the second time in as many nights he's been called out. Both times human smugglers “went dark” with their headlights, desperate to shake Border Patrol agents and Texas troopers in hot pursuit. They then speared their vehicles through fences until trees and high grass snagged them to a stop.
It's a common tactic of “coyotes” smuggling undocumented aliens through Hidalgo County. They know that cops can't catch everyone.
“The coyotes tell them to wear dark clothing. If they have to bail out, they're told to hug a tree and stay hidden,” said Moreno, 48, known to ranchers as the “cop to the cowboys.”
The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the duty to enforce immigration laws. But local police like Moreno end up doing a lot of it, too.
In 2013 and 2014, in a zone running 1,933 miles from south Texas to San Diego, municipal, county and state law enforcers were instrumental in the conviction of one out of every four coyotes prosecuted, a Tribune-Review investigations reporter found.
Hidalgo County is the coyote capital of America. Over the past two years, federal prosecutors have convicted 506 human smugglers nabbed within its 1,600 square miles — tops for any county nationwide, with Moreno's tiny team of deputies the busiest here, a Trib investigations reporter found.
To help ensure ongoing cooperation, this year the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will dole out $55 million in “Operation Stonegarden” grants to police departments along the border with Mexico.
It's been a controversial program.
Critics contend that lax federal oversight enables local law agencies – some corrupted by drug and human smuggling cartels – to misuse federal funds, lard their payrolls and splurge on glitzy equipment without doing much to prove they cut trafficking.
But Moreno and the 15 other officers of Precinct 4 say they're proud of what they've accomplished.
In Hidalgo County in 2013 and 2014, the four precincts led by four elected constables tallied 59 coyote convictions.
Precinct 4 led the pack with 34 convictions, plus 611 undocumented aliens detained and deported.
Except for the much larger statewide contingent of highway patrolmen at the Texas Department of Public Safety, Precinct 4's anti-trafficking arrests led all non-federal law enforcement nationwide.
To put Precinct 4's work into perspective, it helped put more coyotes behind bars than all the state, county, tribal and municipal police agencies in California and New Mexico combined.
The deputy constables, except supervisor Moreno, mostly serve court papers and oversee evictions. Homeland Security agents will summon them to tail a speeding smuggler or to do a “knock and talk” at a suspected stash house loaded with illegal immigrants. Sometimes Precinct 4 joins raids on smuggling operations, always led by the feds, after weeks of surveillance.
But most of the coyote arrests stem from Moreno and deputy constables who work overtime through Stonegarden grants.
Precinct 4's Stonegarden slice: $128,956 in 2014, about $50,000 less than the cost to field one Border Patrol agent annually, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“We could ask for $200,000, but would we use it?” asked Precinct 4 Constable Atanacio “J.R.” Gaitan, 50, of Edinburg. “We only have so many people who can work so much overtime.”
How the game works
To reach Houston, a hub for shipping illegal immigrants nationwide, undocumented immigrants first ford the Rio Grande River in rural stretches of Starr and Hidalgo counties in south Texas.
They then must evade a gauntlet of federal, state and local law enforcement to reach McAllen, Brownsville or other cities in the toe of Texas, holding up in stash houses until drivers can speed them north to largely unpopulated ranchlands like Linn.
Guides then herd the undocumented aliens for days through thick vegetation in an effort to skirt roving Border Patrol agents operating out of a large station near Falfurrias, about 45 miles north of here.
A top job for American coyotes is ferrying food out to the illegal immigrants hiding from police, often in orchards or pastures. So state and federal officials ordered Precinct 4's deputies to prowl for stash house operators and suspicious drivers.
“They told me to go where no one is patrolling for smugglers,” said Moreno, rattling off a list of north country roads, many little more than dirt tracks.
Precinct 4's efforts have gone largely unnoticed in Hidalgo County, where trust in law enforcement has reached an all-time low.
Since 2011, 13 members of the Sheriff's Office have been convicted on public corruption charges, including the previous sheriff, Guadalupe Trevino. Cops in the cities of Sullivan, McAllen, Pharr and Mission also landed in prison because of ties to Mexican drug cartels and their American affiliates — the very people they received federal funds to stop.
With 433 full-time deputies, the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office is 24 times larger than Precinct 4's staff. Yet that office accounted for only half as many coyote convictions over the past two years while overseeing $3.1 million in Stonegarden funds for itself and 16 other local agencies, according to Homeland Security and federal court records.
County officials did not return messages seeking comment.
A U.S. Navy veteran who once managed a maquiladora, a U.S.-owned factory in the free-trade zone near the Mexican city of Reynosa, Moreno began his law enforcement career as a county emergency dispatcher. He pinned on a sheriff's deputy badge in 1999, then kept the rank of sergeant when he became a constable supervisor.
At Moreno's Edinburg Precinct headquarters, Chief Deputy Horaldo Sanchez, 46, ground his fingers into his brow while planning an interdiction patrol with Moreno.
The county's dirt and gravel roads murder tires. While 40 percent of Stonegarden funds help maintain the deputies' cruisers, the feds don't reimburse for spare radials. He cautioned a deputy over the phone to “try not to drive too much.”
Rattling in the back of Moreno's truck are T-bars used to fix smuggler-shredded fences, bottles of Pedialite supplement and cans of Spam, which he uses to save immigrant stragglers abandoned in the brush by their coyote guides.
Rancher Jim McAllen donated the patching gear — Hidalgo County's largest city is named after his family — and Moreno took the food from stash houses and squatters' camps abandoned by illegal immigrants.
Precinct 4's only financial solace came from the 57 vehicles parked in the county lot – impounded from smugglers and slated for auction to benefit the department. Sometimes the highest bid arrives from the same criminal organization that once owned it, Moreno said.
Precinct 4 uses the proceeds for training, bullet-proof vests and stun guns, which the county does not issue because of budgetary restrictions.
The department's bottom line has been boosted by a piggybacking on the federal Equitable Sharing program for civil forfeitures.
It allows municipal forces to pocket up to 80 percent of the sales of property used during the commission of a crime, usually vehicles like the ones coyotes plow into fences.
But about a quarter of that income stream is drying up at municipal agencies along the border. In January, the Department of Justice barred police forces nationwide from using the program to sell “adopted” property — cars and other assets seized during busts when federal agents were not present.
That pleased civil libertarians, who believe the federal auction program incentivized local cops to pull over motorists for minor infractions, turning traffic stops into treasure hunts for cash and cars, without much federal oversight.
Moreno told a Trib investigations reporter that most coyotes in Hidalgo County easily passed the probable-cause threshold for stops: They rarely can produce proper licenses, plates or proof of insurance, and they tend to speed down back roads.
But sometimes a cop catches and releases a suspected coyote, even if he's convinced the driver is feeding a stash house full of undocumented immigrants nearby.
“You stop someone and he's got two containers of water and 10 rotisserie chickens,” Moreno said. “I once had a guy with 200 tacos. Well, I can't arrest a man for driving around with 200 tacos.”