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Cartels, Smugglers at Work: A Night on the U.S.-Mexico Border

NBC News spent a night on the U.S.-Mexico border with a sergeant who picks out immigrants who have crossed over illegally from crowds of beachgoers.

NBC News joined the Hidalgo County, Texas, constable's office for a ride-along on the U.S.-Mexico border on Tuesday, July 15 as one of its officers encountered undocumented immigrants.

At the end of an already long day working in court, Hidalgo County constable's office Sgt. Danny Broyles heads out in his Ford pick-up police cruiser to patrol Anzalduas Dam and County Park, which sits on the border with Mexico along the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County, Texas. What used to be done exclusively by the federal government — Border Patrol agents apprehending huge numbers of undocumented immigrants who have crossed into the U.S. — is now such a large task, state and local officials like Broyles are putting in overtime to assist.

It's 6 p.m. and 100 degrees in the county park near the city of McAllen. The park skirts the riverbank, and park visitors can see Mexico. Broyles peers through binoculars as he drives around, trying to pick out immigrants who have crossed over illegally from the crowds of beachgoers who are there to enjoy the water.

“You have people in Mexico who come to the river just to enjoy a hot afternoon. Hell, I’d be doing it too if I lived over there,” he says.

Broyles plays a small role in the effort to stem the flow of immigrants along the border. The problem has ignited a national conversation and calls to the Obama administration to address the border crisis, particularly the number of unaccompanied minors coming in. As he continues his drive through the park, Broyles comes across a familiar sight: a piece of fabric, a towel or a sheet, draped in the park brush.

“That’s probably some marker. Someone was trying to hide something, or conceal themselves,” he says as he tears the blue fabric from the tree.

It doesn’t concern him, but about 10 yards down the road, he finds something else that does. Another tree has been marked, this one with a white soccer jersey with a Ferrari logo on it.

“That’s one of the favorite emblems of the cartels,” he says, pointing to the logo.

He isn’t surprised to see it. “There’s no telling what you got over here.”

Smugglers mark their landing spots by tying up clothing in trees, he says as he shakes the material off the brush. On the glistening water of the Rio Grande, he spots two known human smugglers blazing by on jet skis.

“We know who these guys are by face. They flip us off when they drive by. Universal gesture of ‘How are you doing?’” he jokes.

On weekends, the smugglers will load two or three undocumented immigrants on jet skis, shoot them across the Rio Grande, and drop them off in isolated areas surrounded by vegetation.

“And then they try to blend in with everybody in the park,” Broyles says.

At about 7 p.m., Broyles sees a fellow constable who is questioning two women with children. One woman, who is with a 7-year-old child, says she is on her way to Los Angeles. The other woman, who has a 5-year-old child, says she is going to Houston. The kids appear to be well-dressed and fed; the youngest boy sports a wool hat with a cat on it.

"Como estas? Bien?” Broyles asks the little boy.

His mother tells Broyles in Spanish that she has family in Houston.

The women, who are from El Salvador, won’t say how long they’ve been on the road, but tell Broyles they took a bus through Mexico to the U.S. border, and then were floated across the river on a raft. Their clothes are dry and clean — not unusual, according to Broyles.

“I tried to talk to them, see if they stayed somewhere or they had a stash house or if there was a church organization in Mexico that was helping them. They said no,” he says.

Because they have crossed over illegally, Broyles must call in Border Patrol agents to pick them up. He asks NBC News to stop filming once Border Patrol arrives and loads all four of them into a vehicle, which will take them to a processing station.

For Broyles, who has worked in county law enforcement for 32 years, the interaction is a typical one for the past couple of months: young women with children, often who have sold all their belongings to be able to afford a bus ticket as far north as they can go. Apprehensions have been slowing down a bit lately, he said, perhaps because a cargo train derailed last week, stranding 1,300 migrants, interrupting the cartels' flow of customers who want to be transported to America. But the number of undocumented immigrants who arrive is also cyclical, and will likely pick back up again.

Some undocumented immigrants run when they’re approached by U.S. officials, but many don’t.

“Especially for the women and the children, it’s hard to run. Especially when you get into an isolated area … There’s really no place to run unless you get into the thick brush and that’s going to be a danger zone. I think as a parent they understand that,” Broyles says.

The number of unaccompanied minors crossing over by themselves have dropped too from recent spikes: This zone went from picking up 1,400 to 1,500 male teens a week to 800 or 900, he said.

“It’s a significant drop, but that’s still a significant apprehension,” he said.

He chided the parents who send their teens to make the journey on their own, through dangerous vegetation and triple-digit heat via smugglers who “are just out to make a dollar.”

“What kind of value do you put on human life?” he asked. “Especially with children.”

Night falls, and a couple hours later, in the pitch black on a dirt road that borders a federal wildlife preserve, Broyles spots another group of people who have crossed over. His car headlights shine on the group, comprised of two teenage girls, cousins, ages 14 and 12 from El Salvador, and a young woman from Honduras, with a 2-and-a-half-year-old and 6-year-old.

“Buenos noches,” he says, pulling over.

The cousins, who have a small travel bag, tell him they’re headed to Garland, Texas, to meet relatives. The young mother, who has a backpack, says she is going to Los Angeles. They won’t say how they got to the border.

Broyles takes down their names and offers them a place to sit down. He brings them back to the bed of his truck and waits with them until Border Patrol comes to take them into custody.