As they walk through the front door, visitors to the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office in Sierra Blanca, Texas, get punched by the overpowering odor of marijuana.
During a recent week, the sheriff of this broke and scruffy high-desert town stored about 5,000 pounds of pot, contraband seized at the nearby U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint from the parade of road trippers, occasional celebrities and other outsiders ordered to stop there as they buzz through West Texas.
The inspection station stands on a sun-scorched stretch of Interstate 10, about 85 miles southeast of El Paso below the Quitman Mountains, and it has put Sierra Blanca on the map as the “checkpoint to the stars.” Among those caught have been Willie Nelson, Snoop Lion, Fiona Apple and Armie Hammer of The Lone Ranger.
“We’d live in Mayberry if it wasn’t for that checkpoint,” says Mike Doyal, the county judge and a former chief deputy of the sheriff’s office. “We’d just wait for the town drunk to show up once in a while.”
In recent years, the busy immigration inspection station has put a severe financial strain on the county and, in the process, revealed the tough monetary consequences of America’s massive expansion of border security and the government’s strategy for curbing the nation’s supply of drugs and illegal immigration.
Despite its remoteness, the Border Patrol’s Big Bend sector, where Sierra Blanca sits, has seen small-time drug busts skyrocket in recent years. An influx of agents tripled the local sector’s manpower, making the agency by far the biggest law enforcement presence around.
In 2011, agents in the Big Bend sector caught 2,102 people with drugs, the second-highest number of any sector nationwide and up more than 300 percent from 2009, according to an analysis of government data by The Center for Investigative Reporting. The Big Bend sector managed this with the fewest agents assigned to the southern U.S. border.
The Sierra Blanca station essentially has become an immigration checkpoint in name only, as the bulked-up Border Patrol has ensnared mostly Americans there — thousands of them.
Yet, the U.S. Justice Department generally declines to prosecute these low-level cases and has largely walked away from paying local authorities to pick up the slack.
Hudspeth County, population 3,337, is dependent on the federal dollars it receives to jail and prosecute the steady stream of busted motorists. The travelers and their contraband are turned over to the sheriff in Sierra Blanca, who has assigned two deputies to make daily runs to the checkpoint to pick them up.
But to county officials, it’s a losing proposition. They estimate that for every dollar that comes to the county from handling federal border crimes and seized assets, it costs about $2 to detain, prosecute and process offenders.
Local officials say they don’t want their county, which has 98 miles that front the Mexican border, to be known as a place where crimes go unpunished. But their relationship with the federal government has become too expensive. As a result, the sheriff here recently decided to kick the habit of prosecuting federal drug cases that have drained Hudspeth’s paltry fortunes.
“We’re arresting people for the federal government at my local taxpayers’ cost, and that ain’t right for them to burden this cost,” says Sheriff Arvin West, who oversees about a dozen full-time deputies. “They’re not going to pay. We’re not going to play.”
Hudspeth County isn’t alone. In South Texas, Brooks County a few years ago stopped taking cases from the Falfurrias checkpoint. Neighboring Kleberg County commissioners recently voted to end their agreement to handle cases from the nearby Sarita checkpoint in Kenedy County.
Kleberg County Judge Juan M. Escobar, a former Border Patrol agent who once oversaw the Sarita checkpoint, said the county has lost about $2.1 million to handle federal cases in the last five years. The difficult decision came down to money for Kleberg, where county employees haven’t received a raise in three years.
“Is it fair for us to continue to pay for this issue that the federal government is neglecting?” he asks.
But that still doesn’t sit right with local law enforcement, says John Hubert, the district attorney for Kenedy and Kleberg counties.
“We’re going to give up 300 miles of Texas to anyone who wants to transport less than 200 pounds of marijuana into the United States,” he says.
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security declined interview requests from The Center for Investigative Reporting. In a written statement, Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said that officials have had to make difficult funding decisions because of tight federal budgets. He said local authorities have discretion to spend other federal grant money to support such prosecutions.
“Through increased coordinated investigations, information and technology sharing, and training, we are assisting our law enforcement partners, including the Department of Homeland Security and Mexican counterparts, to eliminate the threat posed by drug cartels and other organized crime efforts along the Southwest border,” Hornbuckle wrote.
At the Sierra Blanca checkpoint, which stands roughly 15 miles from Mexico and has been in operation since the early 1970s, drug-detecting dogs regularly sniff the 15,000 to 20,000 trucks, cars and motorcycles that pass through on a typical weekday.
Along with a national hiring surge that began in 2006, the Border Patrol has nearly doubled the number of canines at its network of 33 permanent checkpoints that stretch from Southern California to Southern Texas.
Line agents don’t care if they’re busting people for small amounts of marijuana or 1,000-pound smuggling loads, says Lee Smith, local president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents border agents.
“If it’s out there, we want to catch it,” he says.
Struggling With Funding
Like other border counties, Hudspeth County for years has ridden the highs and lows of Justice dollars paid to take its undesired cases.
Since 2002, the Justice Department has reimbursed the four states bordering Mexico roughly $300 million to handle cases that originate from federal law enforcement through a program called the Southwest Border Prosecution Initiative.
The program started after frustrated district attorneys, led by Hudspeth’s top prosecutor, Jaime Esparza, complained to Congress that the Justice Department pushed more cases on them than they could afford.
More than a decade later, prosecutors are fed up with the department, which diluted the program and then slashed reimbursement payments, says Esparza, whose district includes neighboring El Paso and Culberson counties.
The four border states will receive less than $5 million in 2013 as reimbursement for handling the federal cases — down from $31 million in 2010. And the department didn’t request such funding from Congress for 2014.
“They can’t expect local counties along the southern border to carry their water for them,” Esparza says. “They’re going to have to fight this fight on their own.”
In May, Hudspeth County and other border counties learned the Justice Department would reimburse local authorities only for prosecution of cases, but not the detention costs. That was a deal breaker for county officials — the biggest chunk of Hudspeth County’s budget goes to the jail.
“It’s devastating for us,” says county auditor Yolanda Esparza, who is not related to prosecutor Jaime Esparza.
It might end up being too hard for Hudspeth County to walk away, however. With more square miles — about 4,500 — than residents, the county doesn’t generate enough tax dollars to keep all of its government buildings lit or even pay some employees without the fines and court fees the checkpoint brings.
Treasa Brown, the deputy county clerk, has advice for travelers: Leave your drugs at home. Buy more when you get there. But if you can’t do without, come on through.
“We’re broke,” she said. “We need your money, and when you come to court, bring lots of it, and I’ll take every penny you have.”
Charles Vital Jr., 35, of Hayward, Calif., learned that when he traveled with his girlfriend toward Louisiana before Thanksgiving 2011. Vital reviewed and rated their experience of getting busted on Yelp, a website usually known for customer reviews of restaurants and other businesses.
“Our California plates got us pulled over at the border. It also [could have] been the fact that the drug dog started whimpering when he got next to our car,” wrote Vital, who gave the checkpoint two stars.
A cottage industry of defense attorneys has built up around the checkpoint, one of two in Hudspeth County, to handle the spike in out-of-state offenders. Most are charged with a misdemeanor and sent on their way to avoid overwhelming the county with a backlog of cases.
But fines and fees from those cases still aren’t enough to cover the county’s costs. Rarely has the federal government fully reimbursed its court or detention expenses. When the county complained that the funds weren’t enough or timely, officials say the Justice Department’s inspector general responded with an audit.
The watchdog office, which declined a request for comment, found in a 2010 report that the county wasn’t totally fault-free. Hudspeth County received too much money — about $480,000 — because of improper claims for reimbursement between 2002 and the first half of 2008, out of nearly $6.2 million it received over those years.
County officials say the Office of Justice Programs changed its reimbursement guidelines, which weren’t clear in the first place. The county reached a settlement in which the amount owed was reduced, some money was credited and the county paid back a small figure.
West, the sheriff, says the time has come for the country to make up its mind on marijuana policy.
“For 40-something years, we have lost our butts on this,” he says, referring to the war on drugs. “Quit playing these damn political games – either legalize marijuana or do something about it.”
Agustin Armendariz, Michael Corey and Tia Ghose contributed to this report. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.