LA GRULLA, Texas–Since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11 2001, the United States has spent over 100 billion dollars on border security technology—cameras, drones, aerostats (“blimps”) airborne patrols, fencing and walls. But in the U.S. Border Patrol’s most active sector in terms of arrests, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, horses and the agents riding them are patrolling terrain that technology alone can’t alone control. As politicians debate an expanded and expensive border wall, this kind of “old school” border security comes at a relatively miniscule cost to taxpayers.
Using horses to secure the border is not new. It began in 1924, the year what became the modern-day Border Patrol was founded. Today what is changing is where the horses now come from and how critical they’ve become in what statistics show is currently the Border Patrol’s most active zone. Supervisory Agent Manuel Torresmutt leads the horse unit.
“Going into such rough terrain in the dark hours, the horse will take care of the rider,” said Supervisory Agent Manuel Torresmutt, leader of the horse unit.
He and a handful of agents were patrolling a sliver of the Rio Grande one hour west of McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico. The horses are mustangs captured on federal lands in the west.
“They were born in the wild. They know the brush,” Torresmutt continued.
The mustangs are then trained by prison inmates. Previously, many of the mounts used across the country were quarter horses seized during anti-narcotics operations. Some quarter horses are still used though far less so. They’re more tempermental, need more nurturing and often must stop. But horses born in the wild can walk for hours without food or water. Their sight and hearing are outstanding. They communicate clearly when something is amiss.
“We can feel their heartbeat in the saddle. Sometimes they get a little edgy,” Torresmutt said. The Trump’s administration’s proposed 2018 budget includes more funding for horse patrols. Torresmutt said he believed the number of arrests made on horseback are a good return on a relatively small investment.
“We’re running about 250 thousand (dollars) a year for this operation. Forty horses. Fleet, trucks, gas equipment, tack. So for the taxpayer, this is a good deal.”
There are currently 654 miles of walls or fencing between the US and Mexico, about a third of the border’s length. The remainder is mountains, ranches, rivers and wilderness, geography that horses traverse with relative ease. Suddenly, a message was sent to the agents on horseback message was from an aerostat operator that people are wandering in the brush nearby. Agents approached a man and a little girl and asked where they’ve come from.
“We came from Honduras. Things aren’t good there,’ the said 27-year-old Luis Brizuela in Spanish. Agent Leo Gonzales told them they would be fed and interviewed and not be separated.
Brizuela told agents he paid the equivalent of 213 dollars to take public transportation from Honduras to the Rio Grande. He said no one helped him to cross. Agents were skeptical of that claim, saying say no one crosses the river here without paying organized crime.
Agent Gonzales said interception are made a lot easier with horses.
“They can hear the horse loping into the area but they’re confused, they don’t know where the sound is coming from. So we’re able to surround the group. That’s why, you know, being on horses and working this terrain is way better than some of the technology that’s out there.”
Though he said technology is also a partner. Footprints, discarded blankets and baseball caps are signposts on a trail that rises sharply from the river. If migrants are not detected here, it’s not far before they reach roads that bring them to places like Rio Grande City or McAllen —- where it’s easy to blend in.
Austin-based consultant César Martínez analyzes the economics of border security and the concerns of the business community in both nations with respect to the border. He opposes an expanded wall.
“Having more human intelligence, having more reconnaissance of the area, all those are better alternatives and I think the Border Patrol is doing something to make a border that’s safer, that’s smarter,” he said.
Some in Washington appear to agree with that assessment. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, the Majority Whip, has said he doesn’t believe the the wall would deter illegal immigration.
“There are certain areas that a wall is very effective. And then there’s some other areas that we can apply other types of assets and get the same results, like the horses,” said Supervisory Agent Torresmutt.