Desert Invasion - U.S.

Border area's fear of danger grows

By John MacCormack, San Antonio Express-News

The threat to Johnny Scchuller came Jan. 25, two days after a border incursion - allegedly involving thee Mexican army - put this remote farming town on center stage in the internatiional drug war.

"There were three individuals driving a car with Mexican plates. They pulled up to my residence way out in the country," recalled the Hudspeth County deputy, 61, who stands 6 feet 4 inches and weighs 260 pounds.

"My wife was out walking. The driver called her by name. He told her in broken English to tell me to stay off the river," said Schuller, who regrets he wasn't home at the time.

"I'd have taken appropriate action," he said without elaborating....

What deputies once called "mom-and-pop" dope smuggling that involved small loads and quick surrenders at the flash of blue and red police lights is now a thing of the past.

Instead, they say, they are confronted by powerful cartels, working with the Mexican military, intent on crossing huge loads along one of the most isolated stretches of the Texas border....

"It's to the point where people coming out of Mexico are carrying automatic weapons and standing at the crossings, protecting their loads. Now it's organized crime," said Chief Deputy Mike Doyal.

And with only a dozen deputies working in the 4,571 square miles of the state's third-largest county, which includes nearly 100 miles of riverfront, there is a sense that things are getting out of hand.

On Jan. 23, deputies said, a Mexican army Humvee backed by two dozen armed and uniformed men crossed the Rio Grande in a failed attempt to smuggle three vehicles loaded with marijuana.

Photographs taken by deputies did not capture the Humvee on the U.S. side of the river but clearly show people unloading plastic bales of suspected dope from another vehicle that got stuck in it.

Nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana was recovered from another SUV that blew a tire during the same chase, in which speeds exceeded 100 mph. Wrapped in pink plastic, that dope joined tons of pot seized earlier....

Late last fall, deputies pursuing a dump truck loaded with pot back to the border had to stop and stare in disbelief when a bulldozer appeared from the Mexican side and towed the truck to safety....

"I sleep with a double-barreled shotgun on my bed stand. I'm worried about my family," said County Commissioner Curtis Carr, 58, who lives less than a mile from the river. "I think it's a remote possibility, but there is so much money involved in drugs, anything could happen."...

County Judge Becky Dean Walker said the escalation of drug smuggling and the recent armed confrontations are alarming.

...I do feel like the wives and families of the deputies are in danger because of the threats," she said....

Kelly Lagarreta, 34, the first deputy to arrive on the riverbank Jan. 23 to encounter the Humvee, said both he and his partner have since received threats.

"They told the girlfriend of my partner that we were going to get hit. They said they had photos and addresses," said Lagarreta, a star halfback on the state championship six-man football teams in the late '80s.

"I don't put anything past 'em. I've been here all my life and I've seen people disappear," he said....

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