Drug Cartels Cross Rio Grande To Kidnap U.S. Citizens for Smuggling Runs, Not ‘A Mile’ of Border Secure, Says Texas Sheriff

By Penny Starr | April 11, 2011 | 2:42 PM EDT


Tomas Herrera, sheriff of Maverick County, Texas.


(CNSNews.com) – Maverick County, Texas Sheriff Tomas Herrera said he does not agree with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s assessment that security at the U.S.-Mexico border is “better than it has ever been.”

Herrera, in a telephone interview with CNSNews.com, said that not “a mile” of the 85-mile stretch of border in Maverick County, Texas, which is separated from Mexico by the Rio Grande River, is secure. He said the violence generated by Mexican drug cartels is spilling into the United States as cartel members come into Texas to kidnap teenagers for their smuggling operations.

“They come in and kidnap some of our citizens in this county and take them into Mexico,” Herrera told CNSNews.com. “We’re talking about young kids.”

“These are high school kiddos and junior high kids that are used by the cartels to smuggle drugs into the United States,” said Herrera, who has been in law enforcement for 37 years and has served as sheriff of Maverick County for five.

Herrera, who was honored last week by the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition for his "significant law enforcement leadership in protecting the State of Texas and its citizens,” said he could not provide details about any of the cases, as the investigation into the alleged crimes is ongoing.

But the local newspaper in Eagle Pass, Texas, The News Gram, published a story on March 31 based on a press conference held by the Eagle Pass Police Department and an official from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s regional office.

“It is perhaps one of the dirtiest secrets in Eagle Pass,” the article stated. “Young men and women kidnapped in our area and taken across the border, held for ransom or simply made to disappear. The whispers echo in high school gymnasiums, restaurants and churches and they all tell a sobering story--it happens and it happens often,” the article stated.

Law enforcement officials warned parents to tell their children about the dangers of associating with drug cartel members. In one case, still under investigation, a 17-year-old boy was picked up “and held captive in Mexico while his family collected enough money to pay a ransom,” the article stated.

“Chief of Police Tony Castaneda has made it publicly known that area teenagers are being targeted for initiation by Mexican drug cartels in what is quickly becoming a losing battle in the US /Mexico Drug War,” stated the article. “The Eagle Pass Police Department is currently working on several drug cases involving minors – all recruited by drug cartels and all living in our area. Tuesday’s press conference stands as one of the first times local law enforcement has addressed the subject of kidnappings and it will certainly not be the last.”

Lt. Moses Pena of the Eagle Pass Police Department confirmed to CNSNews.com that there are “active cases” of young U.S. citizens being kidnapped by Mexican drug cartels and taken to Mexico.

“It’s not an isolated thing,” Pena said.

Pena said he could not comment on any specific cases, but he said these kinds of cases are usually handled by local, state, and federal agencies on joint task forces designed to fight these kinds of crimes.

An FBI spokesperson told CNSNews.com that if a U.S. citizen is kidnapped and transported across state lines or foreign borders, it becomes a federal crime under the federal kidnapping statute. Because the FBI does not have jurisdiction in Mexico, some cases have to be handled through legal attaches at U.S. embassies in that country.

Maverick County, Texas

Herrera said that his sheriff’s office only has 5 deputies per shift to patrol a county that is 1,249 square miles.

“And to try to secure 85 miles of river [along the border], you can’t do it,” Herrera said.

Herrera said that kidnappings aren’t the only violence that is spilling over from Mexico. He said ranchers and other residents feel constantly threatened by drug cartel activity in the county.

“The ranchers up here are afraid to be out there by themselves,” Herrera said. “They are all armed.”

“I know ranchers who have sold their property here in Maverick County,” Herrera said, adding that ranches in the county can be 8,000 to 9,000 acres in size.

Herrera said houses have been burglarized and even cattle stolen and transported across the river to Mexico.

Herrera said more manpower – “boots on the ground” – is needed to stem Mexican drug cartel violence, and if Napolitano comes to visit Maverick County he would show her what his department faces on a daily basis.

“We’re the first responders,” Herrera said. “When something happens out there, they don’t call border patrol, they don’t call DEA, they don’t call ICE, they don’t call the FBI, they don’t call the marshals.

“We’re the first ones to respond,” Herrera said. “They call the Maverick County Sheriff’s Office.”

Herrera, who was born in Eagle Pass, said he used to visit Mexico regularly to eat at a favorite restaurant or to visit friends for hunting trips. Now, he says, it’s too dangerous.

“Since 2004, I have not been across that river,” Herrera said.

“When I was chief deputy here in the ‘80s we didn’t have so many problems like it is today,” Herrera said. “It’s getting worse and worse.”