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'Don't mess with Texas,' proclaims new Rio Grande gunboat fleet

The Texas Highway Patrol, which works alongside the U.S. Border Patrol to stop illegal drug smuggling from Mexico, is getting new means to chase down the black hats: six 34-foot gunboats, outfitted with automatic weapons and bulletproof shielding, according to a report by KHOU television in Houston.

The vessels, which are similar to U.S. Navy gunboats used in rivers during the Vietnam War and are capable of operating in as little as 2 feet of water, are scheduled to launch in March.

Officials quoted in the story said that drug cartels increasingly were using the river to smuggle drugs into the United States, or fleeing safely back to Mexico if detected.

The new vessels, emblazoned with "Texas Highway Patrol" logos, are part of a growing presence on the border by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which also has a $4 million reconnaissance helicopter which was purchased with seized drug money, according to KHOU.

"It sends a message," Jose Rodriguez, Texas DPS Regional Commander told the station. "Don't mess with Texas."

The boats -- costing about $3.5 million -- were funded with a combination of Texas legislative money and federal grants, according to DPS spokesman Tom Vinger. They will operate on the Rio Grande and lakes that feed it as well as on the Intercoastal Waterway, a narrow channel between the coast of Texas and South Padre Island.

He said they were in part a response to the "splashdown" strategy that drug traffickers have used in recent years to avoid arrest and confiscation of the drugs. When pursued, some smugglers drive into the river where they are met by boats that take the people and cargo back to the Mexico side of the border river.

A video, shot from a helicopter shows a "splashdown" escape, in which suspected drug traffickers being pursued by authorities drive their truck into the Rio Grande river, where it forms the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. They are then picked up with their cargo and ferried back to Mexico in rafts.

"Just like any patrol unit, the (gunboat) patrols give higher visibility to deter and, if necessary, to interdict," said Vinger.

The nonprofit Texas Border Coalition said resources to stop drug smuggling and other illicit activities -- including smuggling of illegal immigrants -- would be more effectively utilized by investing in legal border crossings.

The border checkpoints are "woefully lacking" in technology and personnel, said Julie Hillrichs, spokeswoman for the organization, which studies a range of issues that affect border communities. The result is not only continued smuggling, but hours-long wait times for legitimate commerce, she said.

In a recent report, the coalition said an estimated 90 percent of the cocaine, marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and MDMA smuggled across the border comes through checkpoints alongside legal commerce.

"We're not suggesting that these vessels would not be needed," said Hillrichs. "We’re just saying that we have identified what we believe to be a weaker link. Drug cartels don’t send drugs through the river; they smuggle it through the border crossings," she said.

The federal government has spent more than $90 billion over the last decade to secure the U.S.-Mexico border — a significant portion of which has funded use of the U.S. military, including the National Guard, to bolster U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection forces, the coalition said.

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