By Aram Roston
Mexican drug cartels are using a brash new paramilitary-style tactic on the Rio Grande River to stop U.S. authorities from seizing smuggled drugs, according to law enforcement officials in Texas. As dramatic police videos show, smugglers about to be caught by police are literally driving pickup trucks loaded with contraband right into the river. Teams of well-trained men in inflatable boats rush across the river from the Mexican side, dive into the murky brown water, and collect the drugs, while authorities on the U.S. side can do nothing but watch.
It's the latest twist in the ever-expanding border war as the powerful cartels are stepping up their violence. This tactic seems to be a way for traffickers to ensure they don't lose any of their drugs, even when American lawmen are hot on their trail.
Police say the traffickers' preferred mode of transport these days as they cross into Hidalgo County, Texas, appears to be big heavy duty Ford or Chevy pickup trucks. The cartel has been stealing them in volume in the United States, police say, rather than buying them. Cartel workers drive the stolen trucks up to the Rio Grande River on the U.S. side, and load them with up to a ton of marijuana or other drugs.
Police video, some of it shot at night with thermal imagery cameras, shows what the drivers now do when they about to be intercepted by police. Instead of ditching their load of drugs, they lead the police on a high-speed chase, and they alert their cartel bosses back across the river on the Mexican side.
As the smugglers head back to the river, a whole force from the Mexican cartel is arrayed there, waiting for them. Then the stolen loaded pickup truck drives right into the river. The police call it "splashdown," said helicopter pilot Lt. Stacy Holland. The traffickers, he points out, "don't mind losing that truck because they've stolen that truck. But they do mind losing the inventory."
The police videos show "recovery teams" piling into three rigid inflatable boats, each with a crew of six or seven traffickers on board. Their timing is perfect, enabling them to reach the stolen truck before it is completely submerged.
In one video, a helicopter pilot radios police on the ground: "Rafts in the water! Rafts in the water! Got three rafts coming your way!"
Once the rafts get close enough to the sunken truck, the men get to work. Some jump in the water and start handing off the bales of drugs. Then they load them on the boat. The pickup truck driver, too, climbs in the boat.
"Suspects are in the water," calls out the pilot to the police officers on the ground. "They are trying to unload the vehicle."
Authorities on the U.S. side can do nothing but watch as the cartel does its work just twenty feet or less from the shore.
Once the drugs are in the boats, the men paddle back. It all happens within just a few minutes.
They remove the boats and the drugs from the river on the Mexican side and load them onto waiting pickup trucks. Two and a half minutes later, the cartel is gone, leaving little behind.
The only real trace is the stolen American pickup truck, ruined and sunk in the water, and an array of more than a dozen police cars on the American side. "We're done here," one law enforcement officer says over the radio: "There's nothing else we can do."
Aram Roston is a freelance investigative journalist.