by Ildefonso Ortiz
A dark-colored SUV led authorities on a mad dash through rural roads.
The vehicle had been spotted by the U.S. Border Patrol as it neared the edge of the Rio Grande and was spotted moments later as it made its way away from the river. When authorities had drawn near, the driver had changed his course and driven back toward the Rio Grande.
Rather than stop at the river’s edge, the driver gunned the engine and plunged the SUV into the water, where several men in rafts waited to unload the bundles of drugs and take them back to Mexico — so they could take another crack at bringing the load into the United States.
“‘Splashdown’ is a term used by law enforcement to describe a vehicle that is launched into the Rio Grande,” Border Patrol spokesman Dan Milian said. “It’s a sporadic trend that we have seen form transnational criminal organizations. The tactic is used primarily when they are being pursued by law enforcement, and they drive into the water to avoid apprehension.”
Various local police departments say it’s a new twist on an old practice that has little effect on the way local police respond to them. Authorities will try to stop the vehicle regardless of its direction. The practice is sporadic and hasn’t taken place recently in Mission, but authorities will address it accordingly, said Jody Tittle, Mission police spokesman.
The tactic requires a considerable amount of coordination. The driver must be in constant communication with his associates in Mexico, who notify him where to go into the water so they can have their recovery team ready, Milian said.
Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley Sector reported about 20 splashdowns from Oct. 1 through July 21. In that same time frame the previous year, authorities responded to 28 splashdowns.
The tactic of splashdowns differs greatly from the long-standing practice of having the driver of the vehicle bail out and run toward Mexico, leaving the drugs behind, Milian said.
“Now it’s a lot more expensive for these transnational criminal organizations to move their drugs, and they are taking a big hit not only with us but also with our allies in the Mexican government who have had a lot of success,” Milian said. “The new orders for smugglers are to not give up their load.”
From January to March, the Mexican Army reported seizing close to 50 tons of marijuana in the northern region of Mexico. Recently, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office announced the destruction of close to 30 tons of marijuana that had been seized in 44 different operations in Matamoros, Reynosa and Ciudad Miguel Aleman, which sits across the river from Roma.
Similarly, from January to April, U.S. authorities from various agencies have seized more than 125 tons of marijuana. The drugs were turned over to the McAllen office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The amount of seizures in the Valley is up and is expected to surpass the 375,000 pounds that was seized last year.
The ongoing hostilities between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas have caused both organizations to shift their trade routes, keeping their drugs in areas that are controlled by each organization, according to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials. The area from Miguel Aleman to Matamoros is dominated by the Gulf Cartel, while Laredo to Piedras Negras is considered to be Zeta territory, according to a Tamaulipas law enforcement official.
The shift in trade routes and the long-standing war between the two rival organizations not only has led to organizations seeking to steal drug loads from each other, but has also made them easier to catch by the Mexican army, navy and federal police, the official said.
“The war and the heavier push by authorities have caused organized crime to have a diminished supply of drugs,” the official said. “The Zetas are affected, but they are also involved in extortion, kidnapping, theft and other activities that supplement their funds, while the Gulf Cartel relies primarily on smuggling drugs and thus feels the pinch a little more.”
The factors in Mexico as well as a reinforced border in the post-9/11 era have driven up the amount of drugs seized and thus have forced drug smugglers to become more protective of their loads.
“They are being ordered not to give up their load,” Milian said. “That is why they are using these very aggressive and reckless tactics. They are following orders, but they are facing serious harm, if not death.”
In late April, a 25-year-old Mexican national died during a chase with Hidalgo police after he tried to make his way into the Rio Grande with 600 pounds of marijuana in a stolen, black Chevrolet Suburban.
As the SUV passed through a gap in the border fence, it was clipped on the driver’s side by the barrier. The driver, who either had been ejected from the vehicle or had tried to bail from it, reportedly was crushed between the two.
“We’ve had cases where the smugglers are seriously hurt because they launch their vehicles from cliffs 5 to 25 feet deep,” Milian said.
In an effort to combat the reckless strategy, the Border Patrol has relied on eyes in the sky, provided by the helicopter patrols from U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Rescue and from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
On the ground, the Border Patrol has used boulders to block the path to popular splashdown launch points, like at Anzalduas Park. While the boulders have proved effective, it’s impractical to use them up and down the river, Miliam said.
Agents in the RGV Sector have also tried to block access points by trying their hand at welding: building gates out of plates and scrap metal.
Because of the constant presence of Border Patrol agents, smugglers typically resort to aggression, throwing rocks and other projectiles — even pointing weapons at agents or helicopters.
While attacks with rocks are common, though, shots are rarely fired, according to various incident reports.
“Our agents are trained to respond to any type of situation and take every measure to ensure the safety of the public,” Milian said.
One of the most recent cases of smugglers firing at agents occurred June 9 near Abram. After a splashdown, a group of smugglers fired four to six shots at Texas authorities who were assisting the Border Patrol.
The incident was widely publicized at the time because DPS initially sent out a news release claiming Texas Rangers had come under heavy gunfire at the hands of drug cartels. Mexican authorities were quick to dispute that version of events, however, and during a news conference the next day, DPS director Steve McCraw said the alleged smugglers had fired only four to six shots.
“Ultimately, we want to prevent splashdowns and pursuits from happening,” Milian said. “We are always encouraging the public to report any suspicious activity. If they see groups moving bundles or other behavior that raises concerns to call us, we can respond quickly and prevent a pursuit from even starting.”
Additional link: Some $2.3 million in drugs seized at Pharr bridge
Photos: The Monitor, courtesy of Department of Homeland Security