McALLEN -- President Obama says the border has never been more protected.The size of the border patrol has doubled in recent years. An estimated 8,000 agents patrol the southern border and there is more technology, cameras, and fencing, even drones.
But Texas governor Rick Perry warns its not enough. In the face of mounting drug violence in Mexico four years ago, the state mobilized its own force to help patrol the border, including hundreds of Texas Rangers, troopers and pilots.
Captain Stacy Holland, who supervises the air team, says the Texas Department of Public Safety has assigned 15 helicopers to areas from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley “because the state of Texas shares 1,254 miles of border with Mexico we because of self-serving interests are thrust right into the middle of the fight.”
According to DPS, an area along the Rio Grande Valley is the busiest smuggling corridor in Texas. Captain Holland showed us the area during a recent flight.
"Right here we’ve actually timed (some smugglers)," said Holland. "They can get a 2,000 pound load across in less than two minutes from Mexico onto a highway of the U.S."
Drug runners race back to the river just as quickly to evade law enforcement. They return to Mexico rather than risk losing a load of drugs.
“In these pursuits the driver has been trained," said Holland. "This is not his first rodeo. He knows this area like the back of his hand.”
DPS cameras mounted on the helicopters have captured video of the high speed chases. On the ground, Holland played highlights for us. In one scene, a truck races through heavy brush and dirt roads that lead to the banks of the Rio Grande.
“Bam! All units, we have splashdown,” blares a voice on the DPS radio recorded on the the video at the same time a pickup truck filled with drugs goes over the edge and into the river.
In the last 18 months, DPS has captured more than 55 “splashdowns.”
On the video, boats full of men rush to the truck to recover the drugs. They toss the packages of marijuana into boats before the truck sinks.
“You’re not talking about one or two guys from Mexico. You’re talking 15 or 20,” said Trooper Johnny Hernandez.
In order to get the drugs back to Mexico, smugglers have their own tactics to avoid getting caught.
Hernandez tossed a handful of caltrops on the ground. “They’ll throw them out and try to spike our car," he said.
Two high speed chases ended with traffickers in Mexico and Texas DPS troopers exchanging gun fire from opposite sides of the Rio Grande.
The area is a smuggling hotspot. But is the threat of spillover violence from Mexico real or rhetoric?
“The whole thing seems to me like a lot of politicians talking,” said border resident Bill Risenhoover, 78.”The border patrol here they’ve got it pretty well squared.”
He and his wife Shirley,58, live in an RV Park right on the banks of the Rio Grande. They told us they feel safe even though smugglers operate in the area. But news of the bloody drug war just across the river has scared some of the retired residents.
“Some of the people are leaving the park because of it,” said Shirley Risenhoover. “Their children tell them to get out of here. You know what? My kids never listened to me very much when they were growing up and I’ll be darned if I’m going to listen to them now.”
The Risenhoovers plan to stay put with their little Yorkshire terrier Heidi. They feel so safe their 8-year-old grandson Noah spent the summer with them. Cities on the U.S. side of the border have some of the lowest violent crime rates in the country.
Even so, the Risenhoovers neighbor welcomes the extra DPS patrols.
“They don’t hurt. We pay the taxes,” said Charles Lathrop, a local pastor.
Behind him, a river boat from Mexico floated down the Rio Grande. The song “I had the time of my life” blared from speakers. Smiling passengers sipped drinks and enjoyed the sunset in an area that is also popular with drug smugglers.
Summer may be winding down but as the presidential campaign heats up, the border is once again a hot button issue.