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Patrolling 'smugglers' alley' by air along the Rio Grande

For helicopter teams, chasing smugglers along the Rio Grande in South Texas is virtually a daily occurrence. Pilots say they've seen the Mexican traffickers pushing larger amounts of illicit drugs into the United States over the last few years. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

EDINBURG, Texas – While flying an afternoon patrol along the twists and turns of the Rio Grande, Lt. Johnny Prince, a veteran pilot for the Texas Department of Public Safety, spotted something suspicious: "Look here, we got a raft, a raft right here." 

Below him, in the middle of the river which separates Mexico from the United States was a group of men frantically paddling back to the southern riverbank, their attempt to reach the American side thwarted by the helicopter patrol.

Prince said he suspected the men were a team of drug cartel scouts who were planning to search the U.S. side of the river to make sure there were no law enforcement officers nearby.  If they determined the area was clear, he explained, they would then signal others to sneak a load of narcotics across the river in a raft.

Mike Avila, the helicopter's tactical flight officer, said that this was happening near an area nicknamed "Smugglers' Alley," because of all the illicit activity here.  Well-worn trails and a narrowing of the river have made this area a favorite for Mexican drug traffickers.

‘That car's loaded to the gills’
Earlier that same day, Prince and Avila found themselves flying inland in hot pursuit of two vehicles –a car and a truck –loaded with Mexican marijuana.  As the vehicles sped through city streets on the American side of the river, Avila trained the helicopter’s high-powered camera on the fleeing smugglers and Prince called out their locations by radio to pursuing troopers on the ground.

Mark Potter / NBC News

Lt. Johnny Prince, the pilot on the right, and Mike Avila, the tactical flight officer on the left, patrol the Rio Grande in a helicopter looking for drug smugglers.

One of the drivers sped along the wrong side of the road, then he raced through an intersection, almost striking two cars with his pickup truck.  "Oh no, oh no," groaned Prince.  Avila described another close call as the driver raced through a school zone before crashing into a building: "He nearly struck two school buses."

In both cases, the drivers – a man and a woman – were apprehended and troopers seized loads of marijuana from both their vehicles. Even from the sky, the pilots could see that one of the cars was carrying a lot of drug bundles.  "That car's loaded to the gills," said Prince. 

Increased aggression along a ‘porous’ border
For the helicopter teams, chasing smugglers along the Rio Grande in South Texas is virtually a daily occurrence. Pilots say they've seen the Mexican traffickers pushing larger amounts of illicit drugs into the United States over the last few years and have watched them become more menacing toward law enforcement officers and U.S. citizens.

"I've been working along the border for 14 years and in those 14 years I've seen the level of aggression increase exponentially.  The sheer volume of narcotics that's being pumped into our border has risen," said Capt. Stacy Holland, of the Texas Department of Public Safety Aircraft Section.

It's not unusual, Holland said, for smugglers to take only a couple of minutes to move more than a ton of marijuana across the river, up the U.S. side of the riverbank and into a vehicle which then heads north. "Our border is very open, our border is very porous," he said.

The pilots said they are convinced traffickers are much more likely now than they were a few years ago to confront U.S. law enforcement officials.  "We have video of them carrying AK-47's and side arms during these operations and they are not afraid to use them," said Holland. 

While flying in his helicopter, Prince has more than once been eye to eye with smugglers on the ground upset with his presence above.  "I've seen guns pointed at me, long guns.  I've seen rocks thrown at us.  One of the things they do is use sling shots with ball bearings in them," he said.  "A ball bearing with a good slingshot can do damage to this helicopter and that's been done."

Another serious concern is for the safety of Texas troopers and U.S. Border Patrol agents who have to tangle with the traffickers on the ground.  A particularly dangerous scenario involves agents coming upon a large group of smugglers loading a car with illegal drugs on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. 

"Usually there's only one or two officers that first arrive at the particular vehicle on the river and they are encountering 15 or 20 cartel members," said Prince.  "On the other side, you will see another 10 to 15 cartel members, and if you see them armed they are going to be trying to cover the guys on the U.S. side."

A highly unusual technique used by Mexican smugglers to elude capture by American authorities involves them driving trucks loaded with drugs into the waters of the Rio Grande.  It happens after Border Patrol agents or Texas troopers spot a drug-laden vehicle on the U.S. side of the river and give chase. 

If the smugglers can't elude their pursuers – either by speeding up or by throwing spikes into the road to flatten the tires of the officers behind they – they will then head back to the same spot along the river where traffickers brought the drugs ashore after floating them across from Mexico.

"If the loads get compromised, they will drive around in the United States, in Texas here, until they get their recovery teams set up on the river, to return the drugs back to Mexico," said Prince. 

The Texas Department of Public Safety has shot numerous helicopter videos of Mexican smugglers paddling over to the American side of the river to await the arrival of the truck racing toward them.  When the truck reaches the riverbank, it keeps going – right into the water. 

Texas Dept. Of Public Safety / Texas Dept. of Public Safety

Photo taken of a "splashdown" taken by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Drug smugglers drove their truck back into the Rio Grande river to escape U.S. law enforcement.

"Bam! All units, we have a splashdown, a splashdown in the river," a pilot on one of the videos can be heard transmitting on the radio. 

Before the truck sinks, the driver climbs out through the window and the recovery teams move quickly to save as much of the drug load as possible, throwing the tightly-wrapped bales into rafts. 

"Ok, we've got rafts in the river, a bunch of people on the U.S. side; that thing is loaded," said a pilot watching from above in one video.  "Suspects are in the water, trying to unload the vehicle," said another pilot hovering over a different scene.

As soon as the rafts are filled with off-loaded drugs, the smugglers paddle back to the Mexican side of the river where they are safe from arrest by American authorities.  Sometimes, the traffickers are so brazen they will make obscene hand gestures toward U.S. agents watching from across the river, or from above in helicopters.

The agents' only recourse at that moment is to notify Mexican authorities and hope they arrive in time to apprehend the smugglers.  Or, they can hope to catch the loads of drugs next time, when inevitably they are floated back across the Rio Grande during another smuggling attempt – sometimes on the very same day the drugs are recovered after a splashdown.

George Grayson, a professor at William and Mary, has written several books about the Mexican drug violence. He says many Americans and Mexicans themselves are ignoring the life-threatening danger of narcotraffic at the border.

No end in sight
The pilots who routinely fly along the Rio Grande said they see nothing that would suggest there is any let up in the amount of smuggling along the river.  In fact, they predict increased violence on U.S. soil.

"You get a lot more home invasions, a lot of crook on crook crimes, a lot of kidnappings, the cartels coming over here maybe trying to collect money and then retreating back over to Mexico," said Holland. 

Texas newspapers have reported recently on cartel shoot-outs in Houston and McAllen, the wounding of a deputy, the arrests of alleged cartel leaders in the Rio Grande Valley and the seizure of cartel property in the U.S.—along with the almost daily news of major drug seizures.

Statements by the Obama Administration and by some local officials that the U.S.-Mexican border is safer than ever are derided by many of the pilots.

"Our citizens in our border towns are caught in the crossfire, and I mean that in the most literal sense sometimes," said Holland.  "It's important that our citizens, not only in the state (of Texas), but in the United States are aware of how porous our border is and what the threats are, and could be."

More coverage from Mark Potter: Along Mexican border, US ranchers say they live in fear

See more of Mark Potter's reporting on NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams Tuesday evening.