Since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the United States has spent more than $100 billion on border security technology – cameras, drones, aerostats (often called blimps), airborne patrols, fencing and walls. But in the U.S. Border Patrol’s most active sector for arrests, the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, horses and the agents who ride them are patrolling terrain that technology alone can’t control. As politicians debate an expanded and expensive border wall, this kind of “old school” border security comes at a relatively minuscule cost to taxpayers.
Using horses to secure the border is not new. It began in 1924, the year the agency that became the modern-day Border Patrol was founded. What is different today is where the horses come from and how critical they’ve become in the Border Patrol’s most active zone.
“Going into such rough terrain in the dark hours, the horse will take care of the rider,” says 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 says.
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 in use, though far less than was once the case. They’re more temperamental, need more nurturing and must stop more often. 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 says.
The Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget includes more funding for horse patrols. Torresmutt said he believes the number of arrests made on horseback are a good return on a relatively small investment.
“We’re running about $250,000 a year for this operation,” he says. “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 U.S. and Mexico, about a third of the border’s length. The remainder of the border is made up of mountains, ranches, rivers and wilderness – geography that horses traverse with relative ease.
As they patrolled through the night, the agents on horseback received a message from an aerostat operator telling them that people were wandering in the brush nearby. When the agents arrived, they approached a man and a little girl, and asked where they had come from.
“We came from Honduras. Things aren’t good there,” says 27-year-old Luis Brizuela in Spanish.
Agent Leo Gonzales told the two they would be fed and interviewed, and that they ywould not be separated.
Brizuela told agents he paid the equivalent of $213 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 that no one crosses the river here without paying members of organized crime.
Agent Gonzales says intercepting border-crossers is made a lot easier with horses.
“They can hear the horse loping into the area but they’re confused,” Gonzales says. “They don’t know where the sound is coming from. So we’re able to surround the group. That’s why.. being on horses and working this terrain is way better than some of the technology that’s out there.”
Though he says technology is also a partner, footprints, discarded blankets and baseball caps are signposts on the trail that rises sharply from the river. If migrants are not detected here, they soon reach roads that bring them to communities like Rio Grande City or McAllen, where it’s easy for them to blend in.
Austin-based consultant César Martínez analyzes the economics of border security and the concerns of the business community in both Mexico and the U.S., 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 says.
Some in Washington appear to agree with that assessment. Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s 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,” says Supervisory Agent Torresmutt.