SOUTH TEXAS -- Ask Kyle McCarty where he worked just a few months ago and he’ll tell you about patrolling the roads around Odessa as a state trooper.
"Yes, sir," says McCarty, an affable young man with a Texas twang just two years into his career with the Department of Public Safety. "Just regular road crew, black and white."
Today, he’s patrolling a place utterly unlike the highways of the Texas Panhandle, piloting an armored gunboat bristling with automatic weapons around the Rio Grande, watching out for drug runners.
Call him one of the new cops on the border beat, zipping around the water in a shallow water boat that looks more like a military vehicle driving the streets of Baghdad. Surrounding him is a crew of fellow troopers who usually wear flak jackets as they man large-caliber machine guns that can fire up to 900 rounds a minute.
"Typically, the boats operating in the Rio Grande River are operating with six M-240, 30-caliber automatic machine guns," explains Lt. Charley Goble, the DPS officer in command of the newly deployed force of gunboats on the Rio Grande.
Texas now has a small navy of gunboats patrolling the Rio Grande and the Intercoastal Waterway. Right now, the DPS has four of the 34-foot shallow water vessels, but the fleet will soon grow to six. Each of the boats, equipped with armor-plating, night vision equipment and a small arsenal of weaponry, costs about $580,000 in state and federal funds.
Troopers patrolling the border say the expense is justified, considering the ruthless nature of their adversaries in the Mexican drug cartels. What they fear, more than anything else, is the prospect of an ambush.
"They’ve got radios, they’ve got their telephones, there’s somebody right here in this abandoned house right here," Goble says, gesturing to people hanging around on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. "There’s somebody there now. They’re watching what we’re doing."
They’re watching, troopers explain, mainly because they’re providing real-time intelligence to smugglers who dump bales of drugs into the river and let the current carry them to the U.S. shoreline. Smugglers typically steal trucks in south Texas, load them up with drugs on the river and drive inland.
If they’re caught close to the border, many of the smugglers make a run back to the river, speeding down the dusty roads and crashing their trucks into the water. Then they climb out of their vehicles and quickly unload their contraband cargo, helped by confederates splashing into the river from the Mexican side. They haul their bales of dope back onto the dry land in Mexico, ready to try again another day.
"They fear Texas law enforcement, but not as much as they fear going back and saying they’ve lost their load," Goble says. "Everything’s at stake. They will go to any extreme to get away from law enforcement and to get the contraband back to the owner."
The desperate flights back to the river happen so often, troopers have nicknamed them "splashdowns." Law enforcement authorities have recorded more than 60 of these escapes in the last three years. Troopers point out rusting hulks of abandoned trucks on the U.S. shore where fleeing smugglers have abandoned their stolen vehicles.
So the cat and mouse game on the border continues. Troopers now watch for smugglers from their heavily armed gunboats. And smugglers position spotters to watch for the gunboats.
"They’re in constant communication," Goble says. "If they see us operating in a particular location on the river, they’ll just push it 10 miles either end of us. They’ve got their techniques down to a science, almost. They can move a load of dope across the river in just a matter of minutes. And they can have it completed prior to us even arriving."