Gas drilling a boom for drug traffickers, too

By Dane Schiller
Houston Chronicle staff writer

Energy companies boring into the depths of South Texas in the multibillion-dollar hunt for natural gas and oil are opening a growing fissure in U.S.-Mexico border security as they build hundreds of miles of private back roads and an uncharted pipeline to America for drug traffickers.

Hefty roads running through once-remote ranchlands now enable loaded-down tractor-trailers and pickups to avoid Border Patrol highway checkpoints that have long been the last line of defense for stopping all traffic headed farther into the United States.

Traffickers are seeking to use the southwest-most stretches of the massive Eagle Ford shale formation, which stretches from Mexico all the way to East Texas, to their advantage by trying to corrupt truck drivers, contractors and gate personnel. Authorities also speculate that they are trying to make “cloned” copies of legitimate trucks and use contractor-like vehicles to avoid standing out among fleets of oil-field service vehicles working for energy companies. In some cases, vehicles have been stolen and believed to have been used by smugglers.

“They are using those roads to transport drugs, guns, ammo, you name it,” said Albert DeLeon, chief deputy of the Dimmit County sheriff’s office.

White House warned

The South Texas High Intensity Drug Traffic Area, a coalition of state and federal law enforcement agencies, sent a threat assessment to the Office of National Drug Control Policy at the White House in June warning that the shale boom is enabling traffickers to bypass so-called choke points, where the Border Patrol has traditionally been able to stop and question all traffic on highways leading from the border region.

“Our biggest concern is how law enforcement is going to attack the threat. We cannot move Border Patrol checkpoints into those positions,” said Tony Garcia, director for the South Texas HIDTA. “It is pretty much up to your imagination what they could be moving through there. … It is a bit of a dicey situation for us to deal with. We are putting our heads together.”

For energy companies, the roads are critical to moving heavy drilling and related equipment in and out of the ranchlands where the work is done.

“Once they get past the checkpoints, they are pretty much free,” said Javier Pena, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Houston division, which includes San Antonio and reaches to the Mexican border.

“It is very much on our radar,” Pena said of smugglers. “We have been gearing up for it.”

He declined to discuss the use of sensors, cameras or other tactics to monitor possible narcotics routes. Authorities also suspect that gate guards, drivers or other workers might succumb to bribes.

“There will be employees who think they can make a quick thousand or 15 or 20 thousand (dollars),” Pena said. “Once money is involved, someone will always go for it.”

Drugs intercepted

On a weekday morning in early March, 18,665 pounds of marijuana were caught being smuggled aboard two trucks, one a flatbed, the other a tanker truck driving through the Briscoe Ranch on a road that circumvents a Border Patrol checkpoint.

They were on a private road leased to energy companies and carrying what looked like supplies typically used in oil field operations but were instead loaded with marijuana. The two trucks yielded the most pot ever caught in one day by the Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector.

One of the truck drivers, who was not an employee of the energy industry, later admitted to agents that he was to be paid $7,500 to deliver the load, according to an affidavit at the federal courthouse in Del Rio.

Other big South Texas catches came in July last year when Border Patrol agents stopped a bogus oil field truck carrying 1,373 pounds of marijuana, and in June when they found 3,529 pounds of the drug stashed in a truck driven by an energy company worker.

Robert Fuentes, agent in charge of the Border Patrol station in Carrizo Springs, said agents are working to educate energy companies and employees on possible encounters with drug traffickers or undocumented immigrants.

“They are our eyes and ears out there,” he said. “They are in the middle of no place.”

Deb Hastings, executive vice president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, serves on a council that advises Texas’ governor on ways to coordinate the needs of the private sector with those of security.

“Safety and security are top priorities for oil and gas operators in Texas,” Hastings said in a prepared statement.

But the explosion of activity also has brought new economic prosperity.

“It has been incredible, hundreds of jobs have been created,” said Webb County Judge Danny Valdez, whose county spans 3,360 square miles and borders three Mexican states. “As a county, we depend on these revenues, we welcome it.”

At the same time, he conceded that law enforcement in his county is already stretched.

“Webb County is a vast land,” he said. “We need to find a way to work together.”

dane.schiller@chron.com; http://twitter.com/Daneschiller