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Border Patrol: Behind the Badge - Part 2

Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 11:46 AM CDT
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ODESSA, Texas (KOSA) - A surge in illegal immigration is impacting the operations of the U.S. Border Patrol Air and Marine Operations El Paso Air Branch.

Watch Border Patrol: Behind the Badge - Part 1 here

The Director of the El Paso Air Branch, John Stonehouse, said the Big Bend and El Paso Sectors have never seen the large numbers of encounters with undocumented people they’re seeing this year.

“The smuggling activity, the exploitation of humans right now is extremely high. We have never seen a movement this much of personnel, of people since I’ve been part of the program,” he said.

Stonehouse started working in federal aviation law enforcement in 2002 in Florida. He then worked in sectors in Arizona and has served in El Paso since July of 2019.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics, agents have encountered 34,694 undocumented people in the Big Bend Sector to date in the 2021 fiscal year. The fiscal year will end on September 30, 2021. Meanwhile, agents in the El Paso Sector have encountered 176,102 migrants, according to CBP. Single adults make up most of the encounters in both sectors.

CBS7 team members flew and spoke with one El Paso Air Branch pilot. The pilot has worked with AMO since 2008, and his name is not being released due to privacy concerns. The CBS7 team flew from Alpine to near Presidio.

“You’d probably get real annoyed with me, But I’d just be talking the whole time where people are apprehended. So, it’s anywhere along this entire stretch,” the pilot said.

The pilot pointed out an area during the flight where branch pilots recently found undocumented people.

“We caught some right here the other day in this little pass right there. I think there were 12,” he said.

The aviation expert said the largest group he’s encountered is around 83 people.

“We’re on the board for the record.”

The land turns from a flat desert into mountains near parts of the border. But the pilot and director said the terrain doesn’t deter smugglers.

“We’re dealing with a lot of the cartels working out here. They’re pushing these folks out here in camouflage. They’re not surrendering to the aircraft; they’re not surrendering to the Border Patrol agents. They are fleeing apprehension,” Stonehouse said.

The pilot said criminal organizations sometimes place scouts or lookouts on the mountains. He added that agents and pilots never fully know who is in the groups they encounter.

“We just never know who’s in the group; it’s a mixed bag. And the criminals know that just as well as anybody else. So they might just be people looking for work or MS-13 gang members,” he said.

Nestled in remote land close to the U.S./ Mexico border, the pilot flew over piles of trash left by undocumented people on a ranch owner’s property.

“Look at all that- It’s all trash. There was at least a thousand to 1,500 backpacks. It’s like a little landfill- look at all that garbage,” he said.

According to the pilot, the goal of the undocumented people or smugglers is to get to Highway 90, or Interstate 10.

Drug smuggling also continues to surge in the sector, according to Director Stonehouse.

“They’re not just carrying marijuana. A lot of times, they’re, they carve out the center of the marijuana, and they’re moving fentanyl, methamphetamines, cocaine, they do what we call a mixed load. We’ve seen that trend up about the last year and now has really increased smuggling up from Mexico. It’s really bad. It’s probably the worst thing we’ve seen in the history since I’ve been doing this is fentanyl,” he said.

Onboard several aircraft is Narcan, a medication that blocks the effects of an opioids overdose. This fiscal year, AMO and non-CBP agencies found more than 252 pounds of fentanyl, compared to 202 pounds in 2020, according to the CBP website. The amount of cocaine found has also tripled this year. The latest numbers from CBP show across all operations, AMO found 15,592 pounds of cocaine so far in 2021, compared to 5,104 pounds of cocaine in 2020.

Director Stonehouse said El Paso Air Branch pilots have also found “stash houses” and “loading areas.”

The director said agents have to be careful when encountering people believed to be involved in illegal activity.

“We’re finding long arms with them; AK-47′s seem to be their preferred weapon. It just varies from group to group, but usually, there was a long arm or a shotgun somewhere in that group. Because, not only are they going to encounter the wildlife that we have out here, right, but it’s also other cartels. And a lot of times, cartels get in turf wars, and they could end up in an altercation with another one trying to, trying to, you know, snag their load for profit preaching,” he said.

More resources are being diverted to the area, according to Director Stonehouse. The law enforcement expert said 85 percent of the branch’s flight hours go directly to border enforcement. And the unit puts in around eight flight hours per day. He also said about 200 more flight hours have been added.

“Congress did agree to provide us with 16 of these A-Stars, which we appreciate very much. We have about 105 of them throughout the entire nation for Air- Marine,” he said.

Pilots locate and track migrant groups in the air then U.S. Border Patrol agents will make apprehensions on the ground. The aircraft also have food and water on board to give to migrants. Director Stonehouse said pilots can also fly an agent to a group, and they often aid other agencies. Agents also operate unmanned aircraft.

The increase in illegal immigration is also affecting the number of rescue calls AMO pilots receive from migrants. Across all AMO operations, 339 rescues have been made in 2021, compared to 184 in 2020, according to CBP statistics.

“Anytime we log the rescue, and we save a human life, that is the most significant thing I feel we can do every day,” the director said.

During the media flight with CBS7, the pilot flew over the rocky sides of a mountain that featured a sheer dropoff in many directions. The pilot relayed the story of one rescue.

“Copy, the most epic rescue that some of our guys had done over this area. The guy was left behind by his group. He had a broken leg and didn’t have any food or water. He climbed up that cliff we just flew over, about a thousand feet, because he knew he had cell phone coverage on this rim if he could get over and pick up the antennas. He makes a call with the remaining battery on his cell phone. And once the phone died, he took it apart and made a signal mirror out of it. When the helicopter came, he was able to signal it and rescue him. He was in really rough shape, but he made it,” he said.

Director Stonehouse said the man had been without water for four days and without food for five days. He said a crewman carried the undocumented person to the aircraft, and he was taken to a regional hospital.

The branch’s fleet of aircraft are not equipped as Medevac. Director Stonehouse said pilots can land and assess the person, or an Emergency Medical Technicians can be flown in to help. But in rare circumstances, where people require immediate medical help, the pilot will move the person from one point to another.

“We can move them from one point to another point to get them to advanced life support and ultimately save their life, which we’ve had several times this year,” Stonehouse said.

The director said that oftentimes a smuggler will leave the group when they feel threatened.

“The primary person will depart and leave the group. Or if they see some obstacles or they feel they’re threatened, they will just leave the group behind, which is a struggle for the group. Because these people do not know where they’re at, they don’t know what’s going on. Usually, the smugglers get paid upfront. So they’ve already got their money. So, you know, that’s the human factor of this right, they’re all human beings,” he said.

The law enforcement officials told CBS7, although West Texans may not recognize the impact border crossings have on their communities, its effect is felt in every town.

“We understand that what happens on the border does eventually affect the interior of the United States. It does. It’s not just isolated at the border. Our small towns have had a lot of unique challenges over the last year,” he said.

The director said the air branch and CBP agency as a whole have encountered significant challenges in recent times, and he is proud of their work.

“We’ve had the large caravans. COVID has been the challenge that threw us last year. The Delta variant, of course, is coming this year. And then with a large influx of non- U.S. citizens coming across the borders at various locations across the southwest region. It is one heck of a challenge, and I’m very proud of the men and women that work under my command that we’re taking that challenge head-on,” the director said.

The El Paso Air Branch works with federal, state, local, and tribal partners. Agency leaders also regularly talk with law enforcement in Mexico, Stonehouse said.

“We can’t do what we do without their assistance. Both countries are intertwined; both countries will forever be intertwined, especially when there’s an international border the way it is. And it is a major advantage for us to work, both parties together, to achieve the common goal. And we do it very well here in the Big Bend Sector; I’ll speak for that. And we also do it very well in the El Paso Sector. The two chiefs that work those areas have routine conversations with their GLM counterparts, and that really works good for us down here,” he said.

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