After clamping down on land border, Homeland Security takes to the sea

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It’s dusk in the coastal town of Port Aransas. Jason Montgomery, John Wilhem and Grenade Fiedler jump on their boat, put life vests on and make final preparations. Unlike others heading out to the Gulf of Mexico for fishing or fun, this trio is on the clock.

They're the face of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the water.

In the second report of their series on drones, the Fronteras Desk says that after years of increasing the volume of border agents — to the tune of more than 21,000 agents — along both Mexican and Canadian borders, DHS is now increasingly taking to the air and the water to boost national security.

The effort is led by DHS agency Customs and Border Protection, particularly its Office of Air and Marine. It has grown its fleet of unmanned drones to 10 and now has nearly 300 boats patrolling coastlines and waterways. The boat units work in conjunction with the Coast Guard, but its main mission is focused on preventing the smuggling of people and drugs to U.S. shores.

The CBP boat patrols are dubbed "marine interdiction units." In South Texas, the unit is based in Port Aransas, near the coastal city of Corpus Christi.

"A lot of people don't realize there is a border right out there in the gulf, just as there is on land," said Chris Gillespie, who is in charge of the Port Aransas operation.

Agents on the boats, called "interdiction agents," work with their counterparts operating drones up in the air. Drone operators give interdiction agents a huge scope of vision.

Just last year, GIllespie's unit seized $7 million in marijuana and $12 million in cocaine through busts on the water — which range from panga and fishing boats to gargantuan oil tankers.

On a recent mission, agents Mongtomery, Wilhem and Fiedler revved up the 39-foot-long "Midnight Express Interceptor." The boat can zoom to 60 knots and, armed with satellite radar, it's ready to give chase day or night. The crew should know — they’ve done it plenty of times.

As sea smuggling has increased, smugglers have expanded their networks.

"The local fishermen, due to the downturn in the economy, they start searching for other means to increase their income and turn to smuggling," Montgomery said.

Suspicious activity at sea can be hard to detect. Drugs are often stashed in secret compartments underneath boat decks. You need to have a trained navigator’s eye to detect anomalies.

From behind the steering wheel, Wilhelm described what he's looking for that may warrant a boat inspection.

"We see a high-end $250,000 boat and the scheme’s off, or it’s below the water line. That’s not operating properly. There’d be a big tell-tell, OK, what’s up with that, why is that sitting that way?" he said.

Once out of the bay, the crew gets ready to face the fierce wind and choppy waters. It’s best to hang tight when an agents yells, “Coming up,” meaning the boat is about to pick up speed — and turbulence.

During this operation, the agents made a couple of stops. One was to check out markers in the water that seemed out of place. Montgomery said sometimes smugglers use them to stash loads under water, for them or others to come pick up at night. False alarm, no drugs this time.

The markers were probably placed there to indicate the site of a recent boat crash, agent Fiedler said.

Agents actually spend a good chunk of their time creating rapport with locals, looking for tips on smugglers while creating an established cadre of lookouts.

There's only so much agents can do on their own, but if they have additional sets of eyes up and down the coastline to help them out, they can do their job much better, agents said.

Slowing down as the boat pulled into the nearby coastal town of Aransas Pass, known as a shrimping hub, agents docked at Redfish Willie's Waterfront Grill, a new restaurant. The trio strikes up a conversation with the owner and staff.

But as his colleagues chatted away, agent Montgomery had an itch to check out a boat docked at the restaurant he has seen in the area before.

Just when he begins to check it out from the dock, the owner showed up with a friendly smile. He declined to be interviewed but readily allowed Montgomery to get on board for an inspection.

"Yeah, I recognized the boat, I've seen it here a couple of times," the agent told the owner.

"Any time you want to come check out this boat, brother, come check it out," the owner replied.

Montgomery even discovered an interesting hidden compartment -- it had life vests, but it could easily be a great spot for stashing drugs.

Good to know next time he comes across the same type of boat.

The agent had an inkling there would likely be nothing wrong with the boat or its owner, but he wanted to make sure -- he said 99 percent of people he comes across are friendly, law-abiding boaters.

Besides, he said, he just made another friend who might help him out down the line.

"Did I give you a card already? When you're out there and stuff, man, if you see something that doesn't look right … give me a shout, we'll be out there," Montgomery told the boat owner as he headed back up to the restaurant.

After clearly winning over the restaurant staff — agents had to take a rain check on a dinner invitation since they were still on duty — they got back out on the boat to gradually make their way back to headquarters.

It was now nighttime and, as the boat went far from shore, it was pitch black. The sea looked like a giant dark ink stain. The agents have night-vision goggles and they navigate through the on-board satellite radar.

And there's also the drone 20,000 feet up in the air backing them up.

So not much activity this night for the South Texas marine interdiction unit. But it's back out to sea the next day, when they'll do it over all again.

You can go back and read part one of this series here.

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