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FEATURE The Border Bust Boom In Del Rio, the biggest employer is the drug war by Nate Blakeslee DEL RIOsk any narcotics agent in Texas about the anatomy of the drug trade and hell tell you to start from the heart, Mexico, and follow the drugs as they flow like blood through the arteries of the state highway system: north up 1-35 to Dallas and Kansas City and Chicago, west along I-10 to Los Angeles, or east to Houston, New Orleans, and the east coast. But reverse your direction and follow instead the anatomy of the drug war, in which the heart is Washington, D.C. and the blood is not dope but federal fundingcold hard cash with no strings attached for interdiction, for education, for cops, cops, and more copsand the flow will lead you back to Texas, back to the Mexican border. One of the biggest veins of all leads straight from D.C. to this once-sleepy border town at the very end of U.S. 277. Welcome to Del Rio, the law enforcement capital of Texas. Coming in from the north, you’ll pass a United States Border Patrol checkpoint about five miles out. It’s a steel prefab building with a couple of vans, a dog, and a camera pointing south. It may or may not be open for business when you drive by: In either case it’s the tip of the iceberg. In 1996, there were about 400 agents based in Del Rio.Today there are almost 900. Continue into town and the familiar green and white sedans become more common. Many are headed to the new patrol station on U.S. 90, built in 1999. But the high command of the drug war here is the justopened 50,000-square-foot sector headquarters, which, when fully completed, will cover twice that area, at a total cost of $18 million. It is the first sector headquarters in the nation built with future expansion in mind.The Border Patrol is just one of six federal law enforcement agencies that operate in this town of 40,000, where roughly one in five adults works for the federal government. Less visible, but unmistakably present, are the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Customs Service, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the U.S. Marshals Service. Add to that theValVerde County Sheriff’s office, the Department of Public Safety, and the Del Rio Police Department, which combine in various permutations with the federal agencies to form two drug task forces, the 63rd Judicial District Narcotics Task Force and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking task force. The business of Del Rio is drug enforcement, and business is good.Yet the ratcheting up of drug enforcement has had unintended consequences, not the least of which is one of the most crowded federal dockets in the country. And Del Rio’s peculiar boom has also meant a state district attorney’s office swamped with the overflow of cases made by federal agents, and a countyone of the poorest in the nationstruggling to deal with the hidden costs of an economy now driven by the U.S. Department of Justice. So much marijuana passes through this rugged, near-desert country that the banks of the river are literally strewn with hidden caches of dope, waiting to be picked up by someone on the Texas side. From the Friday before MLK day to the following Tuesday, agents working the border between Del Rio and Eagle Pass “seized” more than 1,700 pounds of marijuana simply by hacking their way through the backcountry along the river, pulling the 30-pound burlap feed sacks out of the brush and tossing them into their Suburbans. Many more seizures stem from busts of couriers, or “mules,” on the bridge that connects Del Rio to Ciudad Acuiia, or along the backroads of Val County. As the number of agents has increased, so has the number of busts, and the need for more federal prosecutors. About five years ago, Del Rio got a brand new federal courthouse, staffed by a U.S. Attorney, six assistant U.S. Attorneys, and seven Federal Public Defenders. A second federal courthouse is on the drawing board. The problem is, the feds only prosecute the big cases; the small ones they send over to the state district attorney for prosecution in state court. Federal prosecutors also have a tendency to cherry-pick the best cases, for example those involving large asset forfeitures, and leave those with potential problems, like bad searches or suspect evidence, for the state prosecutors to sort out. This common arrangement, for which the DA and the state court receive no compensation, did not present an undue burden on the state system until Congress passed a massive immigration reform law in 1996, which doubled the number of border patrol agents nationwide and produced a drastic increase in the number of federal cases made on the borderand dumped into state court. When that got to be upwards of 50 cases per year in Del Riowhere the DA’s office has just one assistant DA and one investigatorformer Del Rio DA Tom Lee said enough is enough. Three years ago, Lee \(who last November was elected to ful of border prosecutors in protesting the arrangement. Lanky and thin, Lee smiles often for a former prosecutor and speaks frankly for a politician. He talks about drug enforcement with the authority and objectivity of someone whose career as an elected official predates Reagan’s War on Drugs, and who has seen Del Rio grow from a ranching community to what he calls \(\(pound for pound… the most enforced area in There is not any question that pound for pound, we are the most enforced area in the state of Texas. -District Judge Tom Lee 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER