SIERRA BLANCA, Texas – As they walk through the front door, visitors to the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office in this broke and scruffy high-desert town get punched by the overpowering odor of marijuana.
During a recent week, the sheriff stored about 5,000 pounds of pot, contraband seized at the nearby U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint from the parade of road trippers, occasional celebrities and other outsiders ordered to stop there as they buzz through West Texas.
The inspection station stands on a sun–scorched stretch of Interstate 10, about 85 miles southeast of El Paso below the Quitman Mountains, and it has put Sierra Blanca on the map as the “checkpoint to the stars.” Among those caught have been Willie Nelson, Snoop Lion, Fiona Apple and Armie Hammer of “The Lone Ranger.”
“We’d live in Mayberry if it wasn’t for that checkpoint,” said Mike Doyal, the county judge and a former chief deputy of the sheriff’s office. “We’d just wait for the town drunk to show up once in a while.”
Hudspeth County has a history of willingly getting dumped on by others. For a decade starting in 1992, New York City paid the county to accept its treated sewage – about 225 tons a day. The sludge was sent by rail and spread around on a defunct resort ranch near Sierra Blanca.
In recent years, the busy immigration inspection station has put a severe financial strain on the county and, in the process, revealed the tough monetary consequences of America’s massive expansion of border security and the government’s strategy for curbing the nation’s supply of drugs and illegal immigration.
Despite its remoteness, the Border Patrol’s Big Bend sector, where Sierra Blanca sits, has seen small-time drug busts skyrocket in recent years. An influx of agents tripled the local sector’s manpower, making the agency by far the biggest law enforcement presence around.
The Border Patrol checkpoint rarely catches drug mules making their way from Mexico or border crossers hidden in trunks. Illegal immigration apprehensions in the Big Bend sector historically have been among the lowest along the border.
The Sierra Blanca station essentially has become an immigration checkpoint in name only, as the bulked-up Border Patrol has ensnared mostly Americans there – thousands of them.
Even as the U.S. Border Patrol makes more small-time drug busts, the U.S. Justice Department is generally declining to prosecute these low-level cases. The federal government has largely walked away from paying local authorities to pick up the slack.
Roughly 8 out of 10 people busted in the sector between 2005 and 2011 were Americans caught at a checkpoint, according to data obtained by The Center for Investigative Reporting. A small fraction of those busts are referred to federal agencies for further investigation and possible prosecution. At the Sierra Blanca station, 88 percent of the seizures – mostly marijuana – were traffic stops for amounts below drug trafficking thresholds.
Nationwide, 3 out of 4 people the U.S. Border Patrol catches with drugs are U.S. citizens. Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., estimates that U.S. law enforcement seizes less than 10 percent of drugs that are smuggled into the country.
Hudspeth County, population 3,337, is dependent on the federal dollars it receives to jail and prosecute the steady stream of busted motorists. The travelers and their contraband are turned over to the sheriff in Sierra Blanca, who has assigned two deputies to make daily runs to the checkpoint to pick them up.
But to county officials, it’s a losing proposition. They estimate that for every dollar that comes to the county from handling federal border crimes and seized assets, it costs about $2 to detain, prosecute and process offenders.
That’s left officials here weighing whether they should kick the habit of prosecuting federal drug cases that have drained their paltry fortunes.
“If I had my choice between what it costs us versus what it makes us, I think we’d be better off without (the checkpoint),” said Hudspeth County Commissioner Wayne West, whose brother Arvin is the local sheriff. “It’s not worth the trouble.”
In 2011, agents in the Big Bend sector caught 2,102 people with drugs, the second-highest number of any sector nationwide and up more than 300 percent from 2009, according to a CIR analysis of government data. The Big Bend sector managed this with the fewest agents assigned to the southern U.S. border.
With an estimated 200 agents, Sierra Blanca has the most manpower of the sector’s 10 main stations. The vast majority work at the checkpoint, said Lee Smith, local president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents border agents.
“We’re arresting people that are essentially traveling through the area,” he said. “To the normal line agent, it doesn’t matter to us whether it’s just a small amount of marijuana in the vehicle or 1,000 pounds. If it’s out there, we want to catch it.”
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security declined interview requests. U.S. Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in a written statement that officials have had to make difficult funding decisions because of tight federal budgets.
He said local authorities have discretion to spend other federal grant money to support such prosecutions.
“Through increased coordinated investigations, information and technology sharing, and training, we are assisting our law enforcement partners, including the Department of Homeland Security and Mexican counterparts to eliminate the threat posed by drug cartels and other organized crime efforts along the Southwest border,” Hornbuckle wrote.
The federal government’s attitude doesn’t sit well with law-and-order officials in Hudspeth County who say they are caught in a bind. They don’t want their county, with 98 miles fronting the Mexico border, to be known as a place where crimes go unpunished. But their relationship with the federal government is becoming too expensive to last much longer, they say.
“We’re arresting people for the federal government at my local taxpayers’ cost, and that ain’t right for them to burden this cost,” said Sheriff Arvin West, who oversees about a dozen full-time deputies. “They’re not going to pay. We’re not going to play.”
One constant in Sierra Blanca is the whirring of cars on the interstate, an unrelenting reminder of what started the town’s slow decay more than a half-century ago. Another is the checkpoint, which stands roughly 15 miles from Mexico and has been in operation since the early 1970s.
Around 4 p.m. on a recent cloudless weekday, two dozen tractor-trailers idled, waiting to pass through the Sierra Blanca checkpoint. Lines of orange cones diverted passenger cars off the interstate past cameras, license-plate readers and other surveillance equipment. A leashed dog flitted from pickup to semi to tour bus, sometimes pulling its handler as it charged ahead.
Along with the national hiring surge that began in 2006, the Border Patrol has nearly doubled the number of drug-detecting dogs at its network of 33 permanent checkpoints that stretch from Southern California to southern Texas.
At Sierra Blanca, the canines regularly sniff the 15,000 to 20,000 trucks, cars and motorcycles that pass through on a typical weekday.
In the past few years, Sierra Blanca’s commercial district has suffered. Two older motels, the grocery store, the hardware store and the gun shop have closed. What remains are a few gas stations and auto shops, three restaurants, a motel and an assortment of abandoned buildings fighting gravity and eventual collapse. Many residents drive nearly two hours to buy groceries in El Paso.
Retired farmer Tom Neely, 85, who was born and raised in Hudspeth County and works part time as the court interpreter, said it’s rare that he and his wife buy anything in Sierra Blanca.
“The businesses here just faded away,” he said. “The interstates came through and some towns just completely disappeared.”
The Border Patrol, residents contend, shoulders some of the blame for Sierra Blanca’s recent failures by keeping its distance even as it relies on the town to process its drug busts. Many of the agents who work at the checkpoint commute from outside the county.
“Not only do they not participate with us, they’re alienating it,” Wayne West said. “They’re alienating the growth of this community, and they’re not doing anything on their part to add to help us flourish.”
Struggling with funding
Like other border counties, Hudspeth County for years has ridden the highs and lows of U.S. Justice Department dollars paid to take its undesired cases.
Since 2002, the Justice Department has reimbursed the four states bordering Mexico roughly $300 million to handle cases that originate from federal law enforcement, with the biggest share going to California, through a program called the Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative.
The program started after frustrated district attorneys, led by Hudspeth’s top prosecutor, Jaime Esparza, complained to Congress that the Justice Department pushed more cases on them than they could afford.
More than a decade later, prosecutors are fed up with the Justice Department, which diluted the program and then slashed reimbursement payments, said Esparza, whose district includes neighboring El Paso and Culberson counties.
The four border states will receive less than $5 million in 2013 as reimbursement for handling the federal cases – down from $31 million in 2010. And the department didn’t request such funding from Congress for 2014.
“They can’t expect local counties along the southern border to carry their water for them,” Esparza said. “They’re going to have to fight this fight on their own.”
Local officials have threatened to stop taking federal cases in the past, and for about a month in 2012, they actually did. But this time might be different.
Last month, Hudspeth County and other border counties received more bad news from the Justice Department. The federal government would reimburse local authorities only for prosecution of cases, but not the detention costs. That was a deal breaker for county officials – the biggest chunk of Hudspeth County’s budget goes to the jail.
“It’s devastating for us,” said County Auditor Yolanda Esparza, who is not related to prosecutor Jaime Esparza.
It might not be that easy for Hudspeth County to walk away, however. With more square miles – about 4,500 – than residents, the county doesn’t generate enough tax dollars to keep all of its government buildings lit or even pay some employees without the fines and court fees the checkpoint brings.
Officials also would have a lot less to do without those cases. Over eight days in May, the sheriff’s office received 53 calls from the checkpoint, more than half of the total requests for service. And that was considered slow for checkpoint calls.
One man from Austin arrested with a small amount marijuana and a psychedelic known as DMT was returning with two friends from a weekend in Las Vegas. Another was a trucker caught with a few joints; it was his second bust at the checkpoint. Another was a Houston man who’d stashed marijuana-laced cookies and brownies in his car’s fender.
Then there was James Fulwiler. Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a pot plant and lettering that read, “Don’t Panic, It’s Organic,” the Oregon man said he was stopped at the checkpoint with about a half-pound of medical marijuana in his car trunk. The sheriff's office said it was only about an ounce.
“The dog barked at my trunk, and they shook us down,” Fulwiler said outside the sheriff’s office.
The Border Patrol held Fulwiler in a cell at the checkpoint for six hours. The sheriff’s office gave him a $537 ticket for possession of drug paraphernalia – the bag that held what he called his “medicine.” And he was on his way.
On a recent morning, Doyal, the county judge, presided over a docket call that had 51 cases, 40 of which came from the checkpoint. Many of the out-of-town culprits post bail and then mail in their pleas and payments later. Often, they’re from states that have permissive medical marijuana laws that don’t fly in zero-tolerance Texas.
Charles Vital Jr., 35, of Hayward, Calif., learned that when he traveled with his girlfriend toward Louisiana before Thanksgiving 2011. Vital reviewed and rated their experience of getting busted on Yelp, a website usually known for customer reviews of restaurants and other businesses.
“Our california plate got us pulled over at the border. it also coulda been the fact that the drug dog started whimpering when he got next to our car,” wrote Vital, who gave the checkpoint two stars.
Treasa Brown, the deputy county clerk, has advice for travelers: Leave your drugs at home. Buy more when you get there. But if you can’t do without, come on through.
“We’re broke,” she said. “We need your money, and when you come to court, bring lots of it, and I’ll take every penny you have.”
A cottage industry of defense attorneys has built up around the checkpoint, one of two in Hudspeth County, to handle the spike in out-of-state offenders. Most are charged with a misdemeanor and sent on their way to avoid overwhelming the county with a backlog of cases.
“It’s justice for sale, but it’s a necessity because of the county it’s happening in. What alternative is there? The county can’t afford to not take the cases,” said Louis Lopez, one of several West Texas lawyers who advertise themselves as checkpoint attorneys. “You close that checkpoint and that’s it. It’s all over. The town is done.”
But fines and fees from those cases still aren’t enough to cover the county’s costs. Rarely has the federal government fully reimbursed its court or detention expenses. When the county complained that the funds weren’t enough or timely, officials say the Justice Department’s inspector general responded with an audit.
The watchdog office, which declined a request for comment, found in a 2010 report that the county wasn’t totally fault-free. Hudspeth County received too much money – about $480,000 – because of improper claims for reimbursement between 2002 and the first half of 2008, out of nearly $6.2 million it received over those years.
Finger pointing ensued. County officials said the Office of Justice Programs changed its reimbursement guidelines, which weren’t clear in the first place. The county reached a settlement in which the amount owed was reduced, some money was credited and the county paid back a small figure.
Few paved roads wend around the mountains, mesas and meager rangeland of prickly pear, mesquite and scrub brush that make up Hudspeth County.
While surrounded by wide-open country, Hudspeth County is a small place. People know each other’s business, or as one resident put it: “We’re not sleeping with each other’s wives, but we all know the color of their underwear.”
The lack of infrastructure and unforgiving terrain make smuggling – and patrolling for smugglers – difficult here. Border Patrol agents say that best way to watch the line is by air, but even that asset is wanting here.
The Border Patrol’s strategy has shifted over the years. The agency has stepped back from tracking migrants and traffickers along the river or on ranches and now relies on a deterrent stance that has given checkpoints an even greater tactical value.
Ben Canaba, a retired Operation Desert Storm veteran who was cleaning up his family’s soon-to-open restaurant, said Border Patrol agents mostly “hang out up at the freeway” and end up missing smugglers who’ve already crossed into the United States.
“They’re not spending too much time down on the front line,” he said.
The Border Patrol contends that the checkpoint is designed in part to send drug smugglers in other directions, so they’ll be more easily detected as they scurry around the inspection station. Only the most naive small-time smugglers or drug-toting decoys would try to drive through the checkpoint anyway, agents argue.
But Sheriff Arvin West is frustrated with that strategy. He said the time has come for Hudspeth County to decide whether it will continue to accept federal drug cases, and for the country to make up its mind on marijuana policy.
“For 40-something years, we have lost our butts on this (war on drugs),” he said. “Quit playing these damn political games – either legalize marijuana or do something about it.”
Agustin Armendariz, Michael Corey and Tia Ghose contributed to this report. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.