HOUSTON - Brooks County 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. Sheriff's officials said 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.
Davila showed Local 2 the piles of debris littering many of the county's ranches. These spots have become outposts for smugglers and illegal immigrants who hide and wait for transport farther north.
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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