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Strategic Drug Threat Developments

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HIDTA Overview

The South Texas HIDTA region is one of the most strategically important drug smuggling corridors in use by drug traffickers. It shares a longer portion of the international border with Mexico--625 miles--than does any other Southwest Border HIDTA region. It encompasses 14 counties--13 located adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border--in South Texas. Much of the South Texas HIDTA region is sparsely populated; the largest populations are concentrated in San Antonio (Bexar County), Del Rio/Eagle Pass (Val Verde and Maverick Counties, respectively), Laredo (Webb County), and McAllen/Brownsville (Hidalgo and Cameron Counties, respectively). (See Table 1.) Despite the limited population in this area, the South Texas HIDTA region influences national-level drug trafficking and drug availability more than any other area along the U.S.-Mexico border. Brownsville, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo, McAllen, and San Antonio are the major transportation and distribution centers in the South Texas HIDTA region; smaller border communities such as Rio Grande City and Roma also are significant transshipment zones and distribution centers for illicit drug shipments destined for drug markets in every region of the country.

Table 1. South Texas HIDTA County Populations and Population Density Estimates, 2006

County Population Population Density*
Bexar 1,555,592 1,248
Cameron 387,717 428
Dimmit 10,385 8
Hidalgo 700,634 446
Jim Hogg 5,027 4
Kinney 3,342 2
La Salle 5,969 4
Maverick 52,298 41
Starr 61,780 51
Val Verde 48,145 15
Webb 231,470 69
Willacy 20,645 35
Zapata 13,615 14
Zavala 12,036 9

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
* Population density estimates are represented as persons per square mile.

The combination of vast stretches of remote, sparsely populated land and extensive cross-border economic activity at designated ports of entry (POEs) creates an environment conducive to large-scale drug smuggling. Few physical barriers exist between POEs to impede drug traffickers, particularly Mexican DTOs, from smuggling illicit drug shipments into the United States from Mexico. Along many areas of the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas, the Rio Grande River can be easily breached by smugglers on foot or in vehicles, enabling Mexican DTOs to smuggle multikilogram quantities of illicit drugs, primarily marijuana and cocaine, into the United States. In addition, drug traffickers can easily conceal drug shipments among the high volume of legitimate cross-border traffic at the region's POEs, creating significant challenges for area law enforcement officers. The thousands of private vehicles, commercial tractor-trailers, and pedestrians that cross the U.S.-Mexico border daily provide ideal cover for drug smuggling operations.

The South Texas HIDTA region is vulnerable to both overland and maritime drug smuggling activity. Overland transportation, including the use of private and commercial vehicles, is the primary drug smuggling and transportation method used by traffickers operating in the South Texas HIDTA region; however, maritime smuggling operations are also quite common. Mexican drug traffickers often launch maritime smuggling operations from Tamaulipas, Mexico, using fishing vessels, shrimp boats, and shark boats (lanchas) to transport illicit drug shipments to locations along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), Padre Island National Seashore (PINS), and South Padre Island (SPI). Upon arriving in these areas, Mexican traffickers typically transfer drug shipments to waiting vehicles or bury them in sand dunes for retrieval at a later time. Additionally, law enforcement officers in these areas commonly discover bundles of marijuana and cocaine that have washed ashore from maritime smuggling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Traffickers also exploit Lake Amistad and the Lake Amistad National Recreation Area, which straddle the U.S.-Mexico border in Val Verde County, for maritime drug smuggling; traffickers using pleasure craft reportedly deliver drug shipments to boat ramps on the Texas side of the lake.

The South Texas HIDTA region's location along the U.S.-Mexico border also renders it vulnerable to homeland security issues, some of which support drug trafficking operations. Drug traffickers and other criminal groups engage in activities such as firearms trafficking and alien smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas. Firearms trafficking is a significant threat to the South Texas HIDTA region; many of the firearms used by DTOs in neighboring Mexican states either are obtained in South Texas HIDTA counties or transit the area en route to Mexico. Traffickers use these firearms to protect their smuggling operations from rival smuggling organizations and law enforcement personnel. Alien smuggling is a rising concern to law enforcement officials in the South Texas HIDTA region. In addition to smuggling migrant workers, alien smuggling organizations smuggle criminal aliens and gang members into the United States. These individuals typically have extensive criminal records and pose a threat not only to the South Texas HIDTA region, but also to communities throughout the United States. Alien smuggling organizations reportedly also smuggle aliens from countries other than Mexico, including special interest countries.1

End Note

1. Special interest countries are those designated by the intelligence community as countries that could export individuals who could bring harm to the United States through terrorism.

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