Marijuana along the Rio Grande


The Arizona Republic printed a terrific story last Sunday on the on-going war on marijuana smuggling being waged along the Rio Grande River in Texas.

Headlined “River of drugs runs through Rio Grande Valley,” the piece by reporters Bob Ortega and Rob O’Dell is a solid a piece of investigative journalism that paints a picture of an increasingly futile and ludicrous exercise in latter day prohibition that’s in the final stages of decay.

Consider the vignette with which the piece opens.

Earlier this month, officers in Rio Grande City, the county seat of Starr County, Texas, spotted a suspicious SUV. Their suspicions were aroused by the fact that bundles of pot were visible in the back of it. So they fell in behind it — which prompted the driver to fall in behind a school bus dropping off children.

Stop by stop, the officers followed, watching the driver make calls on his cellphone. Then he swerved south toward the river, and before they could catch up, he jumped out, sprinted for the water and swam to Mexico, leaving 1,400 pounds of pot behind.

It turns out the incident represents standard operating procedure for both the smugglers and the law.

“They take advantage of the school traffic,” said Nat Gonzalez, an investigator for a multiagency drug task force in Starr County, Texas. “They know we won’t initiate a stop when there are students around.”

“Encounters between agents and drug smugglers are frequent but rarely lethal,” Ortega and O’Dell found. “When cornered, drug runners are likely to abandon the loads of marijuana and escape back across the river.”

And the narcs seem cool with that. 

Last year, Ortega and O’Dell reported, the Border Patrol and assorted other law enforcement agencies intercepted more than 3.5 million pounds (1,750 tons) of marijuana across the southwest. But for every load they seized, 10 got through — which implies that more than 17,000 tons a year of weed is making it across the Mexican border.

In late 2003, federal study on mari juana availability in the U.S. (which, astonishingly, seems to be the last time a federal agency, the Library of Congress in this case, produced a more or less comprehensive report on the subject) estimated that in 2001 a mere 8,250 tons of pot reached the U.S. from Mexico and Colombia. In other words, the amount of marijuana entering the U.S. across the southern border since 2001 has more than doubled, despite billions of dollars spent on border security.

Back to the Arizona Republic’s story. The story focused on the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the border, one of 20 administrative sectors along the southern border. The sector extends from the mouth of the river 320 miles to the west. Last year the Border Patrol seized 797,000 pounds of pot in the sector, the second largest amount seized in one of the sectors. (The Tucson Sector’s 1.2 million pounds was numero uno.)

The river forms numerous ox-bows in the area (meaning many bits of U.S. territory are nearly surrounded by Mexico and vice-versa), and its banks are heavily vegetated (meaning its easy for smugglers to hide and to cache pot for later pick-up).

“In 30 seconds, they’ll load a thousand pounds into the bed of a pickup,” said Carlos Garcia, the Starr County coordinator of a Homeland Securityfunded anti-smuggling program. “There can be 10 to 15 guys swimming across the river with loads on life rafts.”

The pot gets through, Ortega and O’Dell write, “because the drug cartels closely monitor the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies. The cartels study their tactics and strategies and adapt quickly. They use that knowledge and the corrupting influence of money to win the daily cat-and-mouse games that define drug smuggling across the Rio Grande.”

Among the corrupted are the former sheriff of Starr County, who in 2009 was sentenced to 64 month in prison for taking bribes from smugglers, as are nine members of an anti-narcotics team in nearby Hidalgo county.

The reporters call the effort to stop the smuggling as “quixotic.”

“Report after report repeats the scenario,” they say.

“Agents spot smugglers at the Rio Grande loading bundles of marijuana into a vehicle, usually an old pickup truck, SUV or van. Border Patrol agents give chase and get authorization to ‘spike’ the vehicle with a controlled tire-deflation device.

“The smugglers bail out, often in a strategic spot, and flee… By the time the agents seize the drugs, the smugglers either already have swum back to Mexico or are on their way…the Border Patrol agents, following agency policy, stay with the marijuana … to prevent smugglers doubling back and taking off in the vehicle again.”

What are we to make of all this?

The most striking aspect of the picture Ortega and O’Dell paint is that the smugglers are not so much fighting with the Border Patrol and the Customs and Border Protection service as they are humoring them — and the feds, perhaps out of despair, cynicism or sheer exhaustion, seem to be playing along.

The smugglers will spirit a shipment across the river and lead the agents on a merry chase that ends with the agents seizing half a ton of pot, while five more tons are slipped across elsewhere, which reach consumers. Hardly anyone is arrested, and at the end of the day everyone involved is happy.

As the 19th century robber baron Jim Fisk once remarked in a different context, “nothing is lost save honor.” Except for the fact that 50,000 or 60,000 Mexicans have died in drug war related violence, it would be kind of funny.