Category Archives: County – TX

South Texas: Brooks County Battling Border Crime

Brooks County, Texas is a less than five-hour drive from Houston, but the rural community of just over 7,200 people is facing an overwhelming amount of crime.

High-speed chases, smugglers and a rising body count has become a fact of life in a county made up largely of ranchers and farmers.

“We have a lot to contend with,” said Brooks County Chief Deputy Urbino Martinez. “It takes a toll.”

Houston’s connection to this rise in crime can be clearly seen in the 250 cars kept in the sheriff’s office’s impound lot.

“There’s criminal acts involving every vehicle that’s here,” said Martinez.

Martinez said 95 percent of the cars the county has seized this year as part of human, drug and weapons smuggling were originally stolen out of the Houston area.

“The connection between us and Houston, it’s almost like you would have to say ‘neighboring,’” said Martinez.

In addition to Martinez and Sheriff Rey Rodriguez, Brooks County has only four full-time patrol deputies and one investigator to cover 944 square miles of highway, back roads and ranch land.

Martinez said deputies have to work 12-hour shifts to keep up with all the crime running through the county.

“Whether it’s human smuggling, drug smuggling, or both at the same time, it’s phenomenal,” said sheriff’s investigator Daniel Davila. “They are coming in droves.”

Brooks County averages two high-speed chases every day involving either drugs or human smuggling.

This year, the county is also contending with 60 missing person cases and 116 bodies of illegal immigrants found murdered or dead from exposure.

Sheriff’s office records show the number of bodies found in Brooks County in 2012 has more than doubled from 2011.

“The waste of human life, it makes no sense how people are dying out here,” said Davila. “I can only imagine the bodies that are out there that we have yet to discover.”

In addition to tying up scant law enforcement resources, the rising number of bodies found in the county is also a financial burden to taxpayers.

Sheriff’s officials said it costs the county between $1,200 and $1,500 per body.

That cost includes investigation, sending each body to another county for autopsy and, in some cases, burying the individuals in the county’s cemetery.

“We got maybe 40 unnamed graves out there,” said Martinez.

Brooks County is about 75 miles north of the border, but crime is funneling into the area because of geography.

Davila explained many smugglers make it across the border with people or drugs and then fan out into dense ranch lands to avoid border patrol checkpoints along the highway.

The Sheriff’s office contends with so much crime on a daily basis it has had to supplement its annual budget with money from seized assets.

Records show the sheriff’s office’s actual budget for 2011-2012 was $620,186.90.

Records also show the office had to spend an additional $387,834 from asset seizure funds just to maintain daily operational costs.

“We’re not going to stop just because we don’t have the resources,” said Davila. “The pay is lousy, and it may sound corny, but this is my home. This is where I like to be, this is where I want to be, this is where I want to try to make things a little bit better.”

While it still receives some federal funding through partnerships with surrounding counties, the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office recently lost its state Border Star funding for the quarter.

Martinez explained that with only a staff of three administrators, who also handle calls for help and take missing persons reports, the office couldn’t keep up with all the paperwork required to secure the grant.

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Zetas gang threatens Mexico’s shale gas near border

September 26, 2012 at 12:25 am
by FuelFix.com

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — The brutal Zetas gang poses one of the most daunting challenges to the development of Mexico’s abundant shale gas reserves near the Texas border.

The gas fields extend from the booming Eagle Ford play of South Texas deep into the ranch and coal country stretching inland from this violent border city. This is Zetas country, among the most fearsome of Mexico’s criminal badlands.

U.S. and Mexican energy companies long have been besieged by the gangsters here – their workers assaulted, extorted or murdered – despite a heavy military and federal police presence. Now, with feuding Zetas factions bloodying one another and fending off outside rivals, what has been a bad situation threatens to get much worse.

Northern Mexico’s gas production has suffered for years as gangland threats or attacks have kept workers from servicing the wellheads, pipelines and drilling rigs in the Burgos Basin, the territory between the Rio Grande and the city of Monterrey, which now provides up to 20 percent of Mexico’s natural gas.

Petroleos Mexicanos has problems with security … principally in Burgos,” Guillermo Dominguez, a senior member of the National Hydrocarbons Commission, told the Mexico City newspaper Reforma.

And now the surging Zetas bloodletting pits the gang’s top bosses – Heriberto Lazcano and Miguel Angel Treviño – against Ivan Velazquez, a former underling known as “El Taliban.” From his base in the western state of Zaca­tecas, Velazquez reportedly has allied with the remnants of other gangs to launch a challenge for control of Coahuila state, which holds most of the shale gas reserves.

Challenge to control

Banners recently hung by both Zetas factions have accused one another of treason and other transgressions that will be avenged with death. Fighting has rattled Nuevo Laredo, the Zetas stronghold that also is the busiest land port for U.S.-Mexico trade, killing scores this month alone.

Still more banners appeared in Nuevo Laredo Tuesday, reputedly written by beleaguered civilians, promising all the gangster factions further bloody vengeance.

“Zetas are pretty much in control, but they have been challenged,” said a U.S. official in Mexico who monitors the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You have all these groups fighting one another, shifting alliances and internal fights … It’s a wilderness of mirrors.”

The Zetas’ spats with rivals already have turned Coahuila’s other large cities – Torreon in the west, Monclova in the center and Saltillo in the east – into fierce gangland battlegrounds. State officials are blaming the Sept. 17 escape of 131 prisoners from a Piedras Negras prison on the Zetas seeking to replenish their ranks for new battles.

The insecurity in Mexico’s gas fields contrasts sharply with the drilling and production frenzy seizing the ranchlands just north of the border. Oil field pickups and semi-trailer fuel tankers choke Highway 83, the once-desolate ranch-country highway that cuts northwest from Laredo though the lower reaches of the Eagle Ford.

Some 6,000 drilling permits have been issued for Eagle Ford shale in Texas, and 550 wells are producing there. By comparison, Pemex so far has drilled five exploratory shale gas wells, but hopes to drill 170 more in the next four years. The company plans to spend $200 million on exploration in the short term.

Those first exploratory wells have been drilled to the west of Nuevo Laredo and below the border at Piedras Negras, ranch and coal country that remains relatively violence free for now. But that tranquility may owe more to the now-threatened dominance of the Zetas bosses than to rule of law.

“They are in control,” said a U.S. official. “They are pretty much just doing their thing.”

Workers disappearing

At least eight Pemex and contract employees vanished in May 2010 near a gas facility near Falcon Lake, territory under the Zetas’ firm control. Last March, two men working for a Mexican company doing contract work for Houston-based Halliburton disappeared outside Piedras Negras.

Halliburton spokeswoman Tara Mullee-Agard said employees get regular security briefings, but the company declined to comment on the contractors’ disappearance.

“Many companies that were active in the areas have stopped until Pemex or the government can provide security,” said an employee of one Reynosa-based company. “In places where there have been incidents we don’t operate anymore. When darkness falls, we stop wherever we are.

dudley.althaus@chron.com

Corpus Christi, TX: Cheniere files permits to build terminal, export LNG

By Mike D. Smith
Posted September 4, 2012 at 11:02 p.m.

CORPUS CHRISTI — Cheniere Energy has filed for permits from the federal government to build its proposed liquefied natural gas terminal in San Patricio County.

The company’s subsidiary, Corpus Christi Liquefaction, applied this past week with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to build and operate the terminal along the La Quinta Channel near the Sherwin Alumina plant.

Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is gas that is supercooled to liquid form for shipping. Cheniere then would export the product overseas.

The terminal — worth in excess of $10 billion — would feature storage tanks, docks and three liquefaction trains, or chilling facilities, each capable of processing millions of tons of natural gas.

Cheniere proposes processing about 1.8 billion cubic feet per day of LNG at the facility, drawn from sources including the gas-rich Eagle Ford Shale formation about 65 miles northwest of Corpus Christi.

The project includes a 23-mile pipeline that will tie in with the regional pipeline network.

Cheniere has more than 660 acres along the San Patricio County shoreline available for development, including a 52-acre piece under lease from the Port of Corpus Christi.

“After an eight month pre-filing process with the FERC, we have determined that our site at Corpus Christi meets all of the requirements of an attractive liquefaction project,” Charif Souki, chairman and CEO of Cheniere, said in a statement.

Cheniere once considered an LNG import facility at the same location. The import project received full approval from the federal government before plans were shelved because of market shifts.

That prior approval may help Cheniere with certain parts of its new export project during the approval process, company spokesman Andrew Ware said.

Company officials anticipate the terminal is on target to begin operation in late 2017.

Cheniere also applied for permission from the U.S. Department of Energy to export as much as 15 million tons per year of LNG from the site.

If approved, the department’s set of permits would allow Cheniere to export to all countries the U.S. has free trade agreements with and those it doesn’t, the company announced.

Due to an oversupply of natural gas in the U.S., low prices have made gas extraction less profitable.

Producers are flaring gas rather than selling it, which makes a case for exporting LNG to other countries, Ware said.

A condition of the Energy Department’s permission is that the company must prove there is an alternative public need for the gas the terminal will process, Ware said.

Cheniere also has applied for corresponding permits through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and air permits from the Environmental Protection Agency. The entire permitting process for the site is being marshaled by federal energy regulators, Ware said.

The company expects to have its regulatory approvals and financing commitments secure by early 2014, with construction beginning about that time.

Commercial agreements could be done by the third quarter of 2013.

© 2012 Corpus Christi Caller Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Falfurrias, Texas: Smugglers taking toll on South Texas

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FALFURRIAS, Texas – After several hours of surveillance, the pursuit was on. A smuggler loaded down with illegal immigrants in an SUV last month tried to outrun a trail of law enforcement vehicles, with more waiting up ahead on Highway 281 north of Falfurrias.

Finally, yanking his vehicle onto the shoulder, stopping short of a landowner’s fence, the smuggler’s human cargo bailed out, running into the brush, followed closely by sheriff’s deputies from Brooks and Jim Wells County, and U.S. Border Patrol agents.

“We’re doing it with the manpower that we have and that’s where it hurts,” said Capt. Joe Martinez, of the Jim Wells Sheriff’s Office. “We don’t have the manpower.”

According to Susan Durham, executive director of the South Texans’ Property Rights Association, most counties do not get federal funding for more manpower, unlike those that are within 25 miles of the border.

“There’s already funds in place for them,” Durham said. “But that’s not where the border is anymore.”

Durham said landowners often are being overrun by smugglers who crash through fences and gates, going cross-country from ranch to ranch, usually in stolen trucks.

She said just in the past eight months, several ranches in Jim Wells and Brooks counties have seen 24 bailouts.

Each incident has averaged $540 in repairs to fences and gates, Durham said.

“Now if they compensate the people right away, it would be a lot different,” said Raul Garcia, a longtime rancher.

After at least two bailouts on his property, Garcia said he was warned he would be prosecuted if he shot anyone.

Garcia said he’s heard other ranchers are putting spikes facing traffic on their ranch gates.

“They try to ram them, they’ll bust the radiator,” Garcia said.

Durham said her organization helped revise the state’s transportation code to reimburse landowners for the property damage.

She said the money initially would have been excess funds from the sale of abandoned vehicles.

“Excess means what’s left over after paying expenses such as towing and storage,” Durham said.

But Durham said there’s been a snag in the funding for the program that would have used Brooks County as a template for the rest of South Texas.

“Smugglers are gaming the system by using vehicles that are stolen or that have high liens on them,” Durham said.

She said they also use the “innocent friend excuse,” telling authorities they loaned the vehicle to a friend unaware it would be used for smuggling.

As a result, Durham said her organization will go back to the Texas Legislature, and even ask the federal government for help.

Source

South Texas prosecutor Armando Villalobos indicted for bribery, plans run for Congress

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May 7, 2012
By Mark Lisheron

Police Monday arrested Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos and his former law partner following their indictment as part of an investigation into bribery that felled former District Judge Abel Limas.

Villalobos, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in the newly created 34th District, and Eddie Lucio were charged in connection with a federal investigation into Limas’ accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes for favorable judicial rulings, Associated Press is reporting.

According to the story, officials for the US. Attorney’s office in Houston declined to discuss precisely the charges against Villalobos and Lucio. Villalobos had earlier in the day acknowledged to reporters he was being investigated by federal authorities, but declined to discuss the charges against him.

Villallobos told reporters he had no intention of stepping away from his job as district attorney, nor would he suspend his congressional campaign.

Limas, who served as a district judge from 2001 to 2008, pleaded guilty more than a year ago to racketeering charges involving five others, a wide-range of illegal judicial fixes and payoffs of at least $340,000.

As part of his plea, Limas agreed to a forfeiture of more than $250,000. His sentencing, postponed several times, has been pushed back to August.

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