BRACKETTVILLE, Texas — The web of state highway troopers that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has woven at the border has ensnared local drivers pulled over by officers searching for smugglers and people who've slipped across the border.
Abbott’s election-year attempt to thwart illegal immigration, called Operation Lone Star, has vexed some residents in small towns and counties where the number of Texas Department of Public Safety troopers has increased along with citations of drivers.
In Kinney County, where Brackettville is the county seat, citations more than quadrupled, from 1,400 in 2019-2020 to more than 6,800 in 2021-2022, more than in any other Texas county. The number of officers working in this county of 3,674 nearly tripled, from 14 to 41, an NBC News analysis of Texas DPS data shows.
As citations climb, residents decry a loss of freedom and civil liberties as they are pulled over for what they and civil rights groups say are questionable reasons and grilled or searched without probable cause. Some say they fear for their safety as high-speed pursuits by troopers have turned deadly.
“I never had this problem before this border situation came into their minds. We were just a regular little sleepy town and all of a sudden now, it’s pursuits everywhere and that’s because there are so many, a flood of law enforcement officers here,” said Richard Gonzalez, 73, a 31-year veteran police officer who worked patrol in California and now lives in Brackettville, a town of 1,642.
Not everyone opposes the troopers' presence. Some credit them with increasing safety and curbing property damage, while others welcome the increase in state dollars for their law enforcement agencies, hotel rooms, food and the added troopers' other needs.
The stops, however, are increasingly seen by some residents as targeted at Latinos or at people who fit a stereotype. Many officers are from other parts of the state with smaller Latino populations, although there are Hispanic troopers in Operation Lone Star.
The troopers’ traffic stops and other aspects of Operation Lone Star prompted pleas from the American Civil Liberties Union and Texas Civil Rights Project for a Department of Justice investigation of a “DPS pattern and practice of civil rights violations.”
The civil liberties groups complained to Attorney General Merrick Garland that Department of Public Safety, or DPS, officers were conducting dubious traffic stops and racially profiling drivers. They said they had linked DPS vehicle pursuits in South Texas to 30 deaths since the start of Abbott’s operation. The Texas Tribune and Pro Publica obtained state records discussing an ongoing Justice Department civil rights investigation of the operation.
The Texas Civil Rights Project did its own data analysis to track warnings and citations and found similar increases.
Gonzalez’s wife, Anita Anaya, 72, said she drives less after she was stopped about three months ago while traveling the half hour from Del Rio, Texas, to Brackettville.
A trooper initially told her she was weaving in her lane, then looked for other reasons for stopping her, she said. He pointed out a problem with her inspection sticker. Although Anaya said she was glad to know about her sticker, “I just don’t like to be stopped. What if I don’t carry my driver’s license and I can’t prove I’m an American citizen?”
State troopers working in Val Verde County, where Del Rio is the county seat, increased from 17 in 2019 to 43 in 2021, according to NBC News' analysis.
David Esparza, 73, a Brackettville native who like Gonzalez and Anaya identifies as Indigenous, said he had a near miss with DPS vehicles that ran a red light at high speed without sirens or flashing lights, as he tried to make a left turn onto Highway 90 in Brackettville.
“We had a green light so I started to go across and all of a sudden my wife says, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ and here come three DPS cars flying. If I hadn’t stopped, they would have T-boned me,” Esparza said. Texas DPS declined NBC News’ request for an interview about the findings of NBC News' analysis and residents' allegations. Abbott’s office referred an interview request to DPS.
Trooper surges in Latino counties
Abbott, who faces Democrat Beto O’Rourke in his re-election bid this year, launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021 by executive order.
He has declared 53 counties as disaster areas because of illegal immigration, and deployed state troopers, sheriff’s officers and National Guard to arrest, detain and prosecute people on criminal trespassing charges, to intercept drug traffickers and smugglers and turn them over to federal immigration officials.
The NBC News analysis found that state trooper deployments surged in Texas’ border counties, with the number of troopers almost doubling from 2019-2020 to 2021. The biggest increases were in border counties where Latinos were the majority; increases in white-majority border counties were much smaller, if they were increased at all.
Twenty-four of the counties under Abbott's June “disaster declaration” are on or near the Mexico border. Of the border counties, 21 have Latino-majority populations.
Among the 53 counties, DPS data show troopers have disproportionately increased their presence in Latino-majority border counties since the pandemic began: More than half of the Latino-majority counties on or near the border saw above-average increases in troopers, while none of the three white-majority counties did.
The white-majority counties on or near the border saw a 60% increase in troopers, from 25 to 40, working there. Among Latino-majority counties on or near the border, that increase was 92%, from 438 troopers working in 2019-2020 to 845 in 2021.
Across all disaster declaration counties, the difference in the trooper presence was even greater.
Also, those living in white-majority counties covered by the disaster declaration benefited from fewer warnings and citations than their Latino-majority counterparts. Citations increased in 12 of the disaster-declaration counties: all on or near the border, and all Latino-majority.
This comes despite a similar share of disaster-declaration counties — slightly more than half — reporting increases in citations and warnings staying about even between Latino- and white-majority counties.
A new wrinkle to neighborhood watching
Moises “Moses” Lozano, 62, of Brackettville, sits at a wrought-iron patio table at Darla's Kitchen to keep an eye on the DPS and on-loan Galveston County constables as they travel U.S. Highway 90, the town's main street.
A veteran and retired fire captain, Lozano recently purchased a body camera. He also has a small handheld video camera and dash cam.
Lozano said he has been stopped while driving his unwashed, worn 2004 Chevy pickup but never when behind the wheel of his 2018 gleaming, white Chevy suburban. He said he’s observed that older model, dirtier cars and pickups are stopped more often than “the nice ones the ranchers have. They never bother them.” Stops also are more frequent on back roads, he said.
DPS troopers most recently stopped him on July 7 while he was driving his neighbor, who has some dementia, around town in the pickup. He recorded the encounter.
The trooper, who was with a trainee, told Lozano his license plate number was registered to a Lincoln model car, video shows. Lozano told the trooper he could verify the plate on his truck with his registration, which he handed to the trooper. But the officer never opened it.
Later in the hourlong stop, it became clear the trooper had substituted a G for a 6 while checking Lozano's plate number.
“People make mistakes,” the trooper says in Lozano's video. Lozano maintained the trooper did so intentionally to stop him and could have cleared things up sooner by reading his registration.
“Things are changed in a way [so that] you can’t go out and enjoy yourself," Lozano told NBC News. “It’s like a communist country. You get stopped and it’s, ‘What are you doing out here? Where are you going?’”
A Brackettville retiree who did not want her name used because she did not feel safe sharing her views said DPS has stopped her and her husband eight times, making her anxious when she sees DPS vehicles and exceedingly cautious while driving.
“I am very aware that because my husband and I are white and in our 60s, we don’t fit the profile of people likely to be involved in smuggling. I feel like probably what we experience is worse for other residents here,” she said.
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However, Juan Enrique Hernández, 52, of Del Rio, said he’s had no problem with DPS. He was stopped for a problem with his light and was given a warning. He said he prefers the DPS rather than the military in the area.
Fernando, who only wanted to be identified by his first name because “it’s a very, very small town,” said he was pulled over a few weeks ago over a nonworking brake light. He was made to get out of his truck and to sit in a DPS vehicle. The trooper wrote him a $180 ticket for not wearing a seat belt. Fernando said he’d unbuckled after he was pulled over.
He said he sees the “damage” migrants do on ranches where he works, so he supports the mission of controlling illegal immigration, he said. But he also said Hispanics seem to be targeted in vehicle stops.
At a Texas Senate committee hearing on Aug. 10 in nearby Eagle Pass, about 46 miles south of Brackettville, several ranchers and local officials who were called on to testify said they were grateful for the DPS presence, and some asked for more permanent forces.
Ruben Garibay, who runs an organic farm in neighboring Maverick County, testified that the greater DPS presence and fencing erected by Abbott has slowed the flow of people traversing his farm.
Others testified they had found bodies of people who crossed the border on their land. Others attested to hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to fences that require hours of time to fix; of thefts and break-ins at hunting cabins and their houses, with some incursions happening while they and their families were home.
In Maverick County, where Eagle Pass is the county seat, the number of troopers rose from 37 to 44, and citations increased from 4,480 to 5,794.
The ranchers did not discuss being questioned at traffic stops, but one rancher said with a DPS trooper outside his ranch gate, migrants are no longer unloaded there.
“Please continue to support Operation Lone Star,” Garibay said.
Weigh the consequences
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said while such problems can't be dismissed, policymakers need to weigh the consequences and consider alternative policies, such as asylum and refugee reform.
“I would weigh violations of civil rights, including of Latino U.S. citizens as more of a danger long-term than whatever damage to property is really documented,” Saenz said. “It’s a question of whether you value the constitutional rights and freedom of a racially defined portion of your population enough to avoid it.”
Esparza never filed a complaint about his near collision with the speeding DPS cars. “Who are you going to complain to?” he asked
He had another encounter with troopers. Stopped at the Burger and Shake restaurant in town while on his way home, Esparza said the officer told him his license plate light was out. After checking Esparza’s license, the officer returned to the car and told Esparza his lights were working. Esparza said the officer told him during the stop “this must be getting tiresome.”
Esparza said he responded, “It’s getting aggravating is what it is.”