- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

PENITAS, Texas (AP) — Near the banks of the Rio Grande, U.S. Border Patrol agents monitor a tethered balloon that carries a camera that can zoom in on a license plate miles away.

On a ranch off Penitas’ South Main Street, the 55-foot-long surveillance balloon, called an aerostat, arrived as Army surplus from America’s conflicts in the Middle East. It rises like a blimp from this tiny farm town less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We’re primarily an eye in the sky for everyone,” Assistant Patrol Agent-in-Charge Lee Allbee told the Valley Morning Star (https://bit.ly/1r3oEyj) of Harlingen, referring to the region’s law enforcement agencies. “In the last few years we’ve made great advances in bringing technology to the border.”

Since last November, the Border Patrol has stationed five surveillance sky cameras in the Rio Grande Valley area - one in Penitas, two near Rio Grande City and two near Falfurrias, said agency spokesman Joe Gutierrez Jr.

“It’s definitely been a game changer since it got deployed,” Gutierrez said.

Allbee, who helps oversee the aerostat program, said the agency stationed its latest balloon near Rio Grande City in late July.

“We place them strategically in locations where there’s the most traffic,” Gutierrez said. “Wherever the risk is greater, we focus resources and technology.”

Gutierrez said officials may station more aerostats from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Valley to try to crack down on drug and human smuggling amid an influx of immigrants from Central America.

“It’s too early to tell,” Gutierrez said. “If traffic patterns change, we can bring more in for assistance. Our technology is mobile. We want things we can break down and shift to traffic patterns to make the most impact.”

In Penitas, Police Chief Roel Bermea said the aerostat has helped reduce crime.

“It slowed down the traffic of illegal immigrants. We haven’t seen any significant (drug) seizures since it went up,” Bermea said. “We haven’t had any negative reaction. Residents seem to like that it’s out there.”

Mauro Reyna said the surge of immigrants entering the country illegally has led him to allow the Border Patrol to station the aerostat on his ranch at no cost for a year.

“I wouldn’t like to use the word overrun but there was a significant amount of illegal traffic. I could see 10, 15, 20 people running across at one time,” said Reyna, an attorney who runs his law practice down the road from the aerostat station. “So when (federal officials) approached me, I said it would be good and it’s worked out.”

Now he’s negotiating a lease agreement that would allow the Border Patrol to operate the aerostat from his ranch for five years, said Reyna, who declined to disclose any details.

“All the parties are happy with the results,” Reyna said. “I know my neighbors are very appreciative and feel comfortable.”

On Reyna’s ranch, a second camera tops a 107-foot tower that stands near the aerostat. Nearby, agents can monitor the aerostat’s camera from metal storage sheds that stand at the site, Allbee said.

Officials said agents can also monitor cameras from Border Patrol stations.

The aerostats’ cameras help agents track drug and human smugglers, Gutierrez said.

“They have been extremely successful,” Gutierrez said. “It’s opened our eyes to the amount of traffic. As soon as the aerostat went up, we saw more apprehensions.”

Gutierrez could not immediately provide any figures, but said that one can’t measure success in apprehensions alone.

“It deters traffic coming in,” he said. “(Smugglers) won’t try to cross narcotics and immigrants because of the presence.”

The agency’s aerostats can rise as high as 1,000 to 4,000 feet above the ground, but officials declined to disclose the cameras’ ranges so smugglers would not learn of any limitations.

“We can see out several miles,” Allbee said. “At a certain distance we can see license plates.”

Gutierrez said cameras zoom in on smugglers who drop off “mules” carrying drugs to areas south of the Border Patrol’s Falfurrias checkpoint on U.S. 281.

“With the aerostat, you’re able to identify whether it’s groups of immigrants or (smugglers) carrying narcotics,” Gutierrez said. “We’re able to see mules put narcotics in their backpacks. We’re able to see the routes. We can visibly see the mules circumvent the checkpoint.”

Gutierrez did not respond to later requests for the operating costs of the aerostat program.

Officials declined to disclose the material from which the aerostat’s shell is made from, but Albee noted that they are rugged survivors of war zones.

“These were made for Iraq and Afghanistan,” Allbee said, pointing to patches on the aerostat stationed on Reyna’s ranch. “I can’t tell you the exact number of bullets it would take to bring one down, but one would not affect it.”

Although touted as successful, the program has its critics.

Tom Hargis, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Houston, said the aerial surveillance cameras pose a threat to freedom and privacy.

“For border residents, more mass surveillance gadgets in the sky simply add to the sense of being under siege,” Hargis said.

“The extraordinary authority that government possesses on this border continues to spill over the lives of regular Americans. Instead of a targeted effort to stop crime, what we’ve been seeing is an approach such as dragnet surveillance that turns us all into suspects,” he said.

Border Patrol spokeswoman Shevannah Wray strongly denied that the agency operates its aerostats in manners that violate public privacy.

“The specific purpose is not to infringe on people’s privacy,” Wray said. “We use it to secure the border.”


Information from: Valley Morning Star, https://www.valleystar.com

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