Unintended Consequences: Fracking and the Flow of Drugs

The South Texas oil and gas boom has provided new opportunities for smugglers — but also new ways to stop them.

Bundle of drugs
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
May 14, 2014, 1 a.m.

WEBB COUNTY, Texas — Frack­ing and the drug war are col­lid­ing in Texas.

Head north from the bor­der city of Laredo, and the wide free­ways dwindle to two-lane road­ways flanked by the brush and mes­quite trees that fill the vast ranch lands.

Just five years ago, per­haps a dozen vehicles per day would be trav­el­ing on the even smal­ler, private roads that cut dir­ectly through the big ranches here, ac­cord­ing to the fed­er­al Bor­der Patrol. Today, thanks to sur­ging oil and gas pro­duc­tion in this Eagle Ford Shale re­gion, they can num­ber in the hun­dreds.

The frack­ing boom has also been a les­son in un­in­ten­ded con­sequences: The web of roads that the en­ergy in­dustry has built or paved on once-des­ol­ate ranches has cre­ated av­en­ues for smug­glers to move drugs they’ve brought from Mex­ico around the in­land Bor­der Patrol check­points.

The heavy truck traffic in this newly in­dus­tri­al­ized zone provides chances to stash drugs in vehicles dis­guised as in­dustry trucks and blend in. That has left law en­force­ment scram­bling to ad­apt to a rad­ic­ally altered land­scape that’s now buzz­ing with activ­ity, in­clud­ing by re­ly­ing on part­ner­ships with the oil and gas in­dustry.

And that’s a big reas­on why the oil and gas drilling boom that’s trans­form­ing the U.S. in­to an en­ergy su­per­power has also, more quietly, re­shaped how Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion agents do busi­ness in this re­gion of south­ern Texas.

“It has changed us and what we do,” says agent Ri­cardo Aguirre of the Bor­der Patrol.

In the hand­ful of years since the Eagle Ford Shale took off, traf­fick­ers mov­ing dope for the power­ful Zetas and Gulf car­tels have been us­ing the de­vel­op­ment as sub­ter­fuge to move marijuana and oth­er drugs.

Charles Gos­lin, a re­tired CIA of­ficer now with the se­cur­ity ser­vices com­pany Butch­ko, said agents who have already “got their hands full with the bor­der and a hand­ful of check­points on key ar­ter­ies” in the re­gion must now con­tend with these new op­por­tun­it­ies for smug­glers. “They are do­ing the best that they can, but it is a huge area,” he said.

A draft 2014 “threat as­sess­ment” from a branch of the High In­tens­ity Drug Traf­fick­ing Areas, a na­tion­wide fed­er­al pro­gram that aids fed­er­al, state, and loc­al agen­cies, goes like this: “[I]nfra­struc­ture for drug traf­fick­ing or­gan­iz­a­tions has … un­in­ten­tion­ally been en­hanced.”

But the in­flux of new de­vel­op­ment cuts both ways in fight­ing drug traf­fick­ing and oth­er il­li­cit activ­ity.

Thou­sands of work­ers who have poured in­to the boom­ing Eagle Ford Shale re­gion are provid­ing new eyes and ears — a “force mul­ti­pli­er,” as one of­fi­cial says — for the bor­der cops look­ing for drug and hu­man smug­gling.

Aguirre, a “ranch li­ais­on” of­ficer, is philo­soph­ic­al about the mix of prob­lems and op­por­tun­it­ies the drilling boom has cre­ated for agents try­ing to catch some of the drugs and un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants com­ing from Mex­ico.

“It’s sort of the yin to the yang, right?” he says while mov­ing through the 50,000-acre Gal­van Ranch, a single plot big­ger than Wash­ing­ton, D.C., that’s now dot­ted with en­ergy-de­vel­op­ment sites.

“We have in­creased traffic here and there’s in­creased people tra­vers­ing through here and try­ing to get through,” Aguirre says on a mild Wed­nes­day morn­ing in early May. “But by the same token we also have an in­creased num­ber of eyes out there to re­port any il­li­cit activ­it­ies.”

The col­lab­or­a­tion with in­dustry has taken sev­er­al forms. There’s an 800 num­ber for oil-field work­ers to re­port sketchy be­ha­vi­or to the Bor­der Patrol. Signs on ranches con­tain GPS data to help wit­nesses re­port their po­s­i­tion. And au­thor­it­ies hold out­reach meet­ings and present­a­tions for in­dustry on safety in the re­gion.

The Bor­der Patrol even has a catchy name for the work with the oil and gas in­dustry: the “In­teg­rated Front­line Re­sources Aware­ness Cam­paign,” or iFRAC, which in­ten­tion­ally sounds like, yes, frack­ing.

“For us [the Eagle Ford boom] has brought cer­tainly some op­por­tun­it­ies for great part­ner­ships,” said Mat­thew Hudak, the di­vi­sion chief of op­er­a­tions for the Bor­der Patrol’s Laredo sec­tor. But he’s no Pol­ly­anna: “It has also been a chal­lenge in terms of just the over­all growth and ex­pan­sion with­in these areas.”

Law en­force­ment iden­ti­fied the threat a few years ago and have made some not­able busts. On the morn­ing of Novem­ber 25, 2013, agents found 5,616 pounds of marijuana (val­ued at nearly $4.5 mil­lion) hid­den in a truck ser­vi­cing in­dustry de­vel­op­ment.

Or early March 2012. That’s when agents in neigh­bor­ing Dim­mit County stopped two trucks in a single day car­ry­ing a total of 18,665 pounds of marijuana on a ranch road used by en­ergy com­pan­ies.

Hudak said his agency’s col­lab­or­a­tion with the in­dustry is dir­ectly re­spons­ible for the seizure of 9 tons of marijuana in the neigh­bor­ing Laredo and Del Rio sec­tors — which are the bor­der units close to drilling ac­tion — over the last year and a half or so.

To be sure, that’s just a frac­tion of what agents are seiz­ing over­all on and around the bor­der. In fisc­al 2013, the Laredo and Del Rio sec­tors seized nearly 230,000 pounds of marijuana com­bined.

But law en­force­ment can only meas­ure what they seize. How much is get­ting through is harder to fig­ure. Asked wheth­er the Eagle Ford de­vel­op­ment is en­abling an over­all in­crease in what’s com­ing through the re­gion, Hudak says that’s “dif­fi­cult to meas­ure.”

The Eagle Ford’s new­found cat-and-mouse game between drug smug­glers and the Bor­der Patrol is in­dic­at­ive of how thor­oughly the oil and gas boom has re­ordered life in the Eagle Ford re­gion — one of a hand­ful of areas that have sent U.S. oil and nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion sur­ging in re­cent years.

De­vel­op­ment of the U.S. side of the Eagle Ford shale form­a­tion, which sweeps 400 miles from the bor­der in­land in­to East Texas, has ex­ploded over the past half dec­ade. Oil pro­duc­tion is nearly 1.4 mil­lion bar­rels per day, up from less than 100,000 bar­rels five years ago, while gas pro­duc­tion has surged as well.

Ac­cord­ing to Texas state reg­u­lat­ors, over 13,000 drilling per­mits were is­sued between 2010 and March of this year.

The op­por­tun­it­ies for us­ing the de­vel­op­ment as cov­er have been on the radar screen of law en­force­ment for a few years. “The FBI is aware of at­tempts to use oil-field-type cloned vehicles to smuggle il­leg­al drugs and we have worked in­vest­ig­a­tions in­volving this crim­in­al activ­ity,” spokes­wo­man Michelle Lee said.

Mul­tiple threat as­sess­ments from re­gion’s High In­tens­ity Drug Traf­fick­ing Areas have been identi­fy­ing the prob­lem too.

It’s even a chal­lenge out­side the Eagle Ford re­gion of south­ern Texas it­self. The draft 2014 as­sess­ment from the Hou­s­ton-area HIDTA notes that “be­cause of its close prox­im­ity, [drug traf­fick­ing or­gan­iz­a­tions] that op­er­ate with­in the Hou­s­ton HIDTA are ex­ploit­ing this re­gion to their ad­vant­age.”

Bey­ond the new drug smug­gling path­ways, the Eagle Ford growth also means oil­field work­ers and un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants are cross­ing paths more of­ten.

“They are go­ing to see them. It is not a ques­tion of wheth­er or not they will. It’s when, or how many times,” says Fre­derico Mar­tinez, an­oth­er ranch li­ais­on of­ficer. “One of the big is­sues we have is how to ex­plain where they are at in ref­er­ence to where they saw the sub­jects.”

It doesn’t quite work, he adds, for oil­field work­ers to simply note that “they were sit­ting un­der a mes­quite tree.”

When it comes to drugs, not every­one is con­vinced Eagle Ford of­fers such a rich op­por­tun­ity for smug­glers.

One in­dustry work­er, asked about the idea, said com­pan­ies know well who is sup­posed to be at a de­vel­op­ment site, not to men­tion the gate guards and oth­er pre­cau­tions. It’s just not that easy to blend in, he ar­gues.

“They would have to be pretty slick,” said Ed­ward Miller, a sales rep­res­ent­at­ive with In­teg­rated Pro­duc­tion Ser­vices, which spe­cial­izes in well com­ple­tions and oth­er ser­vices. “It’s not im­possible, but they would have to be very soph­ist­ic­ated.”

An­dres Zamar­ri­pa, an of­ficer with the Webb County sher­iff’s de­part­ment, be­lieves Bor­der Patrol has done an “out­stand­ing job.”

But he also notes what the car­tels have go­ing for them: end­less budgets, and the labor scramble that means people work­ing in the Eagle Ford who may be sus­cept­ible to bribes for look­ing the oth­er way to al­low vehicles in­to a ranch.

“These smal­ler oil­field ser­vice com­pan­ies need em­ploy­ees,” he said. “They have got to get labor force no mat­ter what. So they are go­ing to hire a guy that’s got a bad re­cord.”

Still, Zamar­ri­pa notes that “Eagle Ford is just one cov­er” of mul­tiple ways to move dope. “It’s just an­oth­er tool for them to use,” Zamar­ri­pa said. “Way be­fore Eagle Ford ex­is­ted, it was com­ing across by the ton, and it’s still com­ing across by the ton.”

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