U.S. Border Patrol agents watch colleagues motor past while patroling in the Rio Grande River.
Gov. Rick Perry has told just about anyone who will listen about his plan to dispatch elite teams of Texas Rangers to the border to do what he says the federal government won't -- keep Texans safe from encroaching Mexican drug violence.
Just don't ask him for specifics.
While the Ranger Recon initiative has served as a strong rhetorical counterpoint when Perry slams the federal government, details about what the taxpayer-funded teams actually accomplish remain a secret.
State officials insist they do not tally arrests or drug and property seizures under the program, which they say doesn't have its own budget after more than a year in operation. They say the Ranger Recon teams are paid out of the state's larger border security initiative, but decline to put a dollar figure on the program's costs. Nor will they say how many of the state's 144 Rangers, the top criminal investigators in Texas, participate or where the teams have been active.
The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program, said in response to an Associated Press public records request that the Rangers do no investigative work as part of the teams, but have engaged in about 10 "missions."
Reports on the missions, however, are kept under wraps to preserve "operational security," said public safety director Steve McCraw. He also said the program doesn't want to brag.
"Have there been arrests made? Yes," McCraw said. "Have there been drug seizures? Yes. Have there been vehicle seizures? Yes."
But asked for data on just those points, McCraw said, "That's not how we measure them." The department has asked the state Attorney General's office for permission to reject a subsequent AP request for the mission reports.
Asked whether taxpayers might feel unsettled about secret operations by a state law enforcement agency, McCraw replied: "The only ones who should feel unsettled are the (Mexican drug) cartels."
Perry would prefer not to commit state resources to border security, said spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger.
"We wish the feds would do their job and secure the border," she said.
The governor hammered the White House this month for not sending enough National Guard troops and Border Patrol agents to Texas. When President Barack Obama signed $600 million in funding for more agents, unmanned drones and customs officers this month, Perry said, "It's a good step in the right direction. Is it enough? I don't think so."
Perry announced the Ranger Recon program in the midst of his re-election primary campaign last September, two months after the program launched. The legislature had allocated about $230 million for border security during its last two sessions, he said.
"Landowners all along our border are finding their farms and ranches overrun by smuggling operations, often by armed individuals with no respect for property, the law or human life," Perry said during a speech in Houston. "By introducing Ranger Recon teams that can stay on the move, we can stay one jump ahead of the cartels and beat them at their own game."
Perry has since mentioned the Ranger Recon program in speeches to big city police chiefs, first responders, Latino peace officers groups and statements addressing border security.
Since its inception, "approximately 10 (Ranger Recon Team) missions, including training exercises and real-life undertakings, have been conducted as part of Operation Border Star," DPS wrote in response to the AP's public records request.
Pressed for an example of a Ranger Recon success, McCraw grabbed the most recent mission report and read that in one day, a team arrested 22 people and seized 1,739 pounds of marijuana. He offered no other details.
A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Ranger Recon activities, agreed to describe one incident along the Rio Grande in June. A Ranger Recon Team staked out a section of Starr County riverbank with Border Patrol. Scouts came first, followed by two rafts carrying marijuana. Men loaded the drugs into a vehicle, but the driver turned back as authorities converged.
The smugglers threw mud, a gas can and finally a Molotov cocktail that bounced off a Ranger's leg without exploding, the official said. They escaped back to Mexico.
Capt. Hank Whitman, deputy assistant director of the Rangers, would only confirm the incident occurred. He said the Ranger teams have yet to use deadly force on a mission.
The lack of transparency has left the program vulnerable to criticism that it's a political ploy.
"The Ranger Recon Team is consistent with the Rick Perry record of grandstanding, not measurable success," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, an El Paso Democrat and member of the Texas Senate's homeland security committee. The state's failure to provide statistics on the Ranger teams' activities "is one more attempt to hide what's going on," he said.
Shapleigh and Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chairwoman of the Texas Border Coalition's immigration and border security committee, compared the Ranger program to Perry's state-funded network of border cameras that civilians can monitor online.
Perry had given $5 million in federal grants to a border sheriffs organization to set up the cameras. Only a fraction of those planned were installed and the program failed to meet its original goals.
When you say, "show me what the programs have done, you can't find it," Weisberg-Stewart said. "We need to know tax dollars are being spent in the proper manner."
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino, a Democrat who works on the border, said that after a year "I can honestly say I don't know what (the Ranger teams) worked on."
"We have yet to be invited on an operation or to hear that they've been successful in interdicting immigrant or drug loads," Trevino said.
But Terrell County Sheriff Clint McDonald, a Democrat who has endorsed Perry for re-election, said he's a believer. McDonald polices some of the state's most rugged terrain in a border county with nearly double the number of square miles -- 2,300 -- to people -- 1,200. Ranger Recon teams trained there and public safety officials educated him about their work, he said.
"I had my doubts at first, but I think it's going to be a great operation," he said.
Asked if he could describe the Rangers' impact, McDonald said, "not in terms of numbers you can put on a piece of paper."
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