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In Texas, Complaints Of Too Many Troopers With Too Little To Do


The southwest U.S. border was already one of the most heavily policed boundaries in the world. Today, it's even more so. Texas created its own border police force last year to supplement the U.S. Border Patrol, which Texas politicians say isn't doing enough. But some residents say the additional troopers have turned the Rio Grande Valley into a police state. NPR's John Burnett has the second of two reports from the border.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Starr County, Texas, is a smuggler's paradise. Trails wind from the river's edge through mesquite thickets and straight into the historic border towns of Roma and Rio Grande City, where it's easy to blend in. It's logical that when the Texas Department of Public Safety, or DPS, launched Operation Strong Safety 14 months ago to crack down on border crime, ground zero was Starr County. Locals say the troopers in their black-and-white cruisers can usually be found parked all along the east-west artery of Highway 83.

DINA GARCIA-PENA: It almost feels like an invasion.

BURNETT: Dina Garcia-Pena is a local reporter who works for a news website called Enlace.

GARCIA-PENA: I've been pulled over for windows being too dark in a vehicle that came out of a dealership. My husband has been pulled over for three miles over the speed limit, reckless driving because we swerved not to hit something that was on the road. For the majority of our population, it is a harassment.

BURNETT: Her perception is reality. According to the El Paso Times, traffic tickets issued by state troopers in Starr County leaped to 233 percent between 2012 and 2014. The state representative for Starr County, Ryan Guillen, has complained to DPS commanders.

RYAN GUILLEN: I'm not saying no border security. I'm not saying no law enforcement. Safety is very important, but not at the cost of our freedom and liberty and not at levels that are unfair. I believe that we need a strategy that puts law enforcement on the border.

BURNETT: But the troopers are not, as a rule, on the river border. The Border Patrol has statutory authority to enter and patrol private land within 25 miles of the international boundary. The highway patrol is doing what they do, which is to patrol the highway. State troopers are stopping vehicles to see if they're carrying marijuana, cocaine or unauthorized immigrants and to see if the car is stolen. Asked to respond to complaints about the frequent pullovers, a DPS spokesman said traffic stops take place if a traffic violation is observed. If there's an upside to the saturation patrols, first, the police say fewer drunk drivers and dope smugglers are on the highway. And second, the troopers have been a windfall for local businesses.

JOEL VILLARREAL: We have more officers staying at the hotels and, of course, spending money here. That does contribute to the economy.

BURNETT: That's Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal. His city has seen hotel occupancy tax revenues jump nearly 50 percent in the past two years, no small thing in a county with one of the lowest household incomes in Texas.

At the Rancho Cafe in Roma, owner Rosalina Munoz likes having all the polite officers in their tan uniforms at her tables, ordering her savory cabrito, roast goat, with handmade tortillas.

ROSALINA MUNOZ: We don't have no mining or no oil wells. We got nothing, none of that, you know, here. But we got them, and they bring us business.

BURNETT: Her son, Clyde Guerra, manages the Denny's in Rio Grande City and serves on the local school board. He says the hungry troopers have boosted his margins 30 to 40 percent. But the high-intensity policing wears on him, too. His pickup truck was recently pulled over because a trooper said his license plate light was out.

CLYDE GUERRA: Sometimes you get upset. I do (laughter) because I got stopped one night - eight cars surrounded my truck, OK? So sometimes I feel they overreact.

BURNETT: A few business owners complained the troopers have scared away their customers.

LUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "People don't want to leave their house and buy beer because the troopers are watching everybody too much," says Luis, an employee at a drive-through beer barn in Roma. "They don't want to come back and buy another six-pack or a michelada. People are afraid."

LUIS: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: For better or for worse, the troopers are not going away anytime soon. In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a sweeping $800 million border security package that includes the hiring of as many as 250 troopers to be permanently stationed in the Rio Grande Valley. John Burnett, NPR News, Rio Grande City, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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