A week of work was far from average for seven Florence County sheriff’s deputies who spent several days this month guarding the U.S.-Mexico border just a few paces from the most world’s most dangerous city, Juarez, Mexico.
During the first week of November, the men were far removed from their mostly rural patrolling ground and in a place where map borders aren’t based on county lines, but on the territories of drug cartels.
The deputies, members of the sheriff’s office’s Criminal Enforcement Unit, were selected by the U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to be part of the unceasing process of patrolling three entry ports near El Paso, Texas.
Their task was to prevent illegal immigrants and drugs from passing into the United States, Florence County Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Brown said.
It was a huge undertaking and a far cry from working the highways and interstates of South Carolina, Brown said.
Every hour, 24 hours a day, more than 1,200 cars cross the border, Florence County Sheriff’s Lt. Scott Summerford said.
“You’ve heard of a lot of things, but to actually see them,” Summerford said. “People wonder how drugs get into the country. I had no idea what was going on.”
The deputies divided their time among three ports of entry: Ysleta Bridge, Paso Del Norte and the Bridge of the Americas, also known as, BODA.
Working in Texas was an excellent way for deputies to perfect their drug-smuggling detection techniques, Summerford said. The experiences helped deputies build upon what they already know about drug interdiction.
“You learn when something’s not right,” Summerford said. “Like if they’re going from New York to Miami and they have no luggage.”
At the border, every vehicle is stopped and all passengers are identified. Every vehicle is photographed and entered into a database that records how often it enters and exits the United States.
If officers think something is suspicious, they have the right to do an extensive search without a warrant, Brown said.
“More or less you’re looking for that nervous behavior. And you don’t ask — there’s no ‘Ma’am can you step out of the car’— you tell them to get out,” he said.
Despite precautions, illegal immigrants and drugs still make it into the United States.
Criminals are extremely creative and have their ways of smuggling drugs. Drugs hidden in a car engine manifold was the most peculiar hiding place the deputies encountered during their stay near the border, Brown said.
“They took an eight-cylinder engine down to a six-cylinder,” he said.
In one case, border officials discovered someone had altered the gasoline storage tank and made it a dual compartment, one for gas and one for drugs, Brown said.
During the week of operation, Florence County deputies interdicted more than 1,100 pounds of marijuana. About 800 pounds were discovered on a tractor-trailer.
Patrolling is a constant battle because the criminals have surveillance on the border agents, Browb said.
“They have customs agents out there looking at guys looking at you,” he said. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game.”
If drugs aren’t enough to occupy their time, officials have to keep an eye on people who spend their time waiting for the first opportunity to sneak across the Rio Grande on to U.S. soil.
“The Rio Grande is nothing,” Brown said. “We have (Florence) ditches that are bigger. More people die in the irrigation ditches because water is being forced through.”
People risk their lives to come to the United States partially because of poor living conditions and violence in Mexico, he said.
Just across the border from El Paso is Juanrez, which is the battleground for several drug cartels fighting for power, Summerford said.
Gun-toting American officials are careful not to cross the border. The Mexican government has banned anyone from bringing firearms or ammunition into the country, Brown said.
Being caught in Mexico with the contraband means at least 90 days in jail.
“They don’t care if you’re law enforcement,” Brown said.
He recalled many nights when distant gunfire could be heard coming from Juanrez.
“Juanrez is the most dangerous city in the world,” Summerford said. “There were 300 murders a month and 3,800 murders this year alone.”
“The drug cartels, they’ll kill everybody in a club just to hit one person,” Brown said.
Summerford said he spotted military officials near the border in armored vehicles.
“Yeah. If you’re driving an armored vehicle to work, you might have a dangerous job,” Summerford said.
Even with the dangers and the long, difficult hours of work, Brown said he enjoyed his time there.
“Oh yeah. I would go back next month,” he said.