Fifteen miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, a sleepy Texas county with more square miles than people is home to a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. But while the checkpoint is intended to snag immigration violations, most of its work is busting out-of-state low-level drug offenders, according to an in-depth report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
About 8 out of 10 people busted in the region between 2005 and 2011 were Americans, CIR reports. And most were busted for small-time marijuana offenses, although federal officials often decline to prosecute them. Among those caught have been Willie Nelson, Snoop Lion, Fiona Apple and Armie Hammer of “The Lone Ranger.”
As with all border checkpoints, local officials receive federal funds to operate the checkpoint and enforce local laws. But the county says the funds are not even enough to cover their expenses, meaning the local enforcement tactic is a losing proposition. But with border patrol as one of the main economic drivers left in the county, officials keep making any money they can off local enforcement, mostly off out-of-state drug offenders. According to the report:
Treasa Brown, the deputy county clerk, has advice for travelers: Leave your drugs at home. Buy more when you get there. But if you can’t do without, come on through.
“We’re broke,” she said. “We need your money, and when you come to court, bring lots of it, and I’ll take every penny you have.”
A cottage industry of defense attorneys has built up around the checkpoint, one of two in Hudspeth County, to handle the spike in out-of-state offenders. Most are charged with a misdemeanor and sent on their way to avoid overwhelming the county with a backlog of cases.
“It’s justice for sale, but it’s a necessity because of the county it’s happening in. What alternative is there? The county can’t afford to not take the cases,” said Louis Lopez, one of several West Texas lawyers who advertise themselves as checkpoint attorneys. “You close that checkpoint and that’s it. It’s all over. The town is done.”
These drug busts are one of the many squandered costs of the War on Drugs, shielded from public view under the guise of “border control” expenses. Even a sheriff in the county lamented that the country needs to make up its mind on drug policy, saying, “For 40-something years, we have lost our butts on this (war on drugs). Quit playing these damn political games – either legalize marijuana or do something about it.”