Texas launching navy, strengthening border forces

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McALLEN, Texas — There may be no better view of the Texas-Mexico border than from a seat inside the state's newest law enforcement helicopter.

The Rio Grande Valley is the most heavily smuggled area in Texas, said Lt. Johnny Prince, a pilot for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

"Does a person in Dallas really care what's going on on the river?" he asked. "[How about] Atlanta, Georgia? New York? Detroit? All these drugs are moving into those cities."

High-speed pursuits where drug smugglers accelerate into oncoming traffic can sometimes be a daily occurrence in the Rio Grande Valley cities of Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen.

State troopers took News 8 on patrol over the international border as they looked for drug smugglers.

"We're not stopping it, but we're making it a lot more difficult and we're making a lot more seizures," Prince said.

That's causing the cartels to adjust as well.

In one pursuit video captured by the DPS helicopter, a smuggler driving a Dodge pickup truck is seen fleeing a police officer. Smugglers like this now often head immediately back to the border.

In this case, the driver jumped out of the cab as the truck rolled into the Rio Grande. But the video also reveals what the cartel is doing differently.

It now sends boats over to unload tens of thousands of dollars in drugs before police seize them.

"They were losing a lot of money," Prince explained. "So one of the things they decided to do, is try to recover the commodity — their drugs — back to Mexico to smuggle it another day."

The new helicopter is part of a growing presence on the Texas border by the Department of Public Safety, but next month it's about to launch its own fleet of gunboats.

"It sends a message: Don't mess with Texas," said Jose Rodriguez, Texas DPS Regional Commander.

The state is spending almost $3.5 million in tax money for six 34-foot gunboats, each which can operate in as little as two feet of water. The vessels are outfitted with automatic weapons and bulletproof shielding.

The state's first boat is scheduled to be launched next month to operate alongside the Border Patrol.

"One agency cannot do this alone," Rodriguez said.

The gunboats will be looking for suspicious scenes, like another one the DPS helicopter captured in December showing 10 men riding down the river and sitting on bundles of drugs that were no doubt destined for the U.S.

The $4 million chopper didn't cost taxpayers a dime. Troopers said they bought it with seized drug money to add a bird's eye view of the border — courtesy of the cartels.

E-mail jwhitely@wfaa.com