They are game wardens on the Mexican border at Falcon Lake, and when they go after poachers, they’re concerned about a lot more than illegal nets.
By Dick J. Reavis
Photography By Earl Nottingham
About 5 o’clock on a Monday afternoon in April, a half-dozen vintage, tri-hull Monarchs with 200 horsepower motors — sturdy work boats — begin their descents into the waters of Falcon Lake, which straddles the Mexican border between Laredo and McAllen. Their operators, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens, intend to reach their “sets,” or surveillance stations, without being spotted by lookouts on the Mexican bank, some 2 miles away. As the boats move out of their launch coves, they keep to the American shoreline, seeking concealment between the tops of trees and shrubs — huisache, retama and mesquite — whose trunks are submerged beneath the surface. The lake’s level has been rising with each passing storm. Some of the trees are freshly in bloom.
The game wardens keep their motors at low speeds, careful not to create white water, which is visible from afar. Within 30 minutes, all of them have reached their destinations. Rather than dropping anchor, the crews tie on to still-leafy branches.
From posts atop bluffs on the north bank, two wardens, spotters, scan the water and shorelines. One of them has the assistance of a Border Patrol agent and his “Snoopy truck,” as the men call it, a vehicle loaded with high-tech surveillance devices. When the sun goes down, the lawmen’s radios begin to crackle with tantalizing coded messages.
“Hotel 9 on the Mike side, running white water,” one of the transmissions says, citing the location of a suspect boat.
The dozen men upon the water are mostly game wardens, some accompanied by men from the Border Patrol’s Special Response — or SWAT — Team, because the effort that’s underway, called Operation Pescador, or Fisherman, is not simply a game-law affair.
Carp and Cocaine
During the past 6 years, wardens at Falcon Lake — officially known as International Falcon Reservoir — have confiscated more than 150 boats and their motors, arrested more than 250 suspects and destroyed a quarter-million feet of gill net.
But in doing so, they’ve had to confront a duty that most of them didn’t anticipate back when they were studying biology or wildlife management: They’ve become drug law enforcers, soldier-sailors in a war that has no rules of engagement and knows no end.
Eliseo Padilla of Zapata, 56, is the mentor of the group. Retired in 2002 after nearly 30 years on Falcon Lake, over time he became so legendary that Mexican commercial fishermen in the area refer to all game wardens by his name: “Los Padillas,” they call them.
Padilla still comes around to aid his successors, and to size up their challenge, which he describes with unblinking candor: “The commercial fishermen and the drug-runners are one and the same,” he declares. “The purpose of the fishermen today is just to provide a legality, a legal covering.”
Drug seizures on fishing boats back up his assessment. During the past 6 years, game wardens at Falcon Lake have confiscated more than 25 tons of marijuana and 200 kilos of cocaine.
The behavior of the fishermen that the game wardens have taken into custody on purely game-law charges seems to support the charge as well. Fishermen, even commercial fishermen, lead economically precarious lives in Mexico, yet the men don’t complain about the punishments they face.
Netting is a Class C misdemeanor, penalized with fines of $250 to $500. Mexicans accused of netting usually plead guilty, then sit out their fines in the Zapata county jail, discharging their penalties at a rate of $50 a day; most are free within a week.
Jail time is less a hazard than the loss of their rigs, worth $2,000 to $5,000, when the costs of boats, motors and nets are summed. But even a loss of that magnitude rarely inspires a cross word.
Photos of netters in custody show them joking and gesturing, carrying on as if at a backyard fiesta.
“You’ll arrest two of them, and they’ll tell you, ‘Hey, you’d better go catch so-and-so and so-and-so.’ And they’ll tell you where they are, too. When you catch the others, those in the first group cheer. It’s like they don’t want to go to jail alone,” says Marshall Davidson, 24, a Zapata-based warden.
The conclusion that game wardens draw is that most of the fishermen are front men, straw men, maybe even decoys: Somebody else, probably a smuggler, is covering their losses.
The apparent alliance between the fishermen and drug-runners has, during the past 10 years, redefined the job that Falcon-area game wardens do. It has turned every attempt to halt and inspect a boat into a possible shooting scene, every chase into an armed pursuit. The wardens, already trained as lawmen, have had to master military techniques as well.
Despite the blazing skies of the border country, the Falcon Lake wardens now wear bulletproof vests: “Better hot than shot,” they say. After sundown, they peer through night-vision goggles that they’ve borrowed from their better-equipped federal colleagues. While on duty at Falcon, every warden carries a .40-caliber Glock, and on every boat there’s a game-warden-issue Mini-14, a rifle that’s not necessarily a match for the modern weapons that drug lords love. And in this wireless age, it’s anybody’s guess which side, outlaw or law enforcement, calls on the greater arsenal of cell phones.
When the game wardens at Falcon surprise a Mexican netting crew, they don’t know whether they’ll find carp or cocaine, pocket knives or pistols.
Sometimes they find all of those things.
And sometimes, they find only boats and nets, or maybe those things and a blanket or two.
Barbecue and Binoculars
Operation Pescador, staged in late April, began with a Monday meeting at a ranch near the lake. Just after noon, 13 game wardens in khaki uniforms, two plainclothes customs agents and three border patrol agents in camouflage fatigues, got together in a garage on the privately-owned spread. They were a burr-headed and electric lot, with wires and microphones hanging from their epaulets. With saddles, tires, chain saws and welding tanks as witnesses, they mapped, for one last time, a plan of action.
They deliberated in metal folding chairs around a long table laden with barbecue. Some of them had come in the night before and taken bunks in an adjoining room whose sole virtue was air-conditioning. During the morning hours of a workday that would last past midnight, the early arrivals had prepared grub for them all. Bacon-wrapped jalapenos stuffed with cheese were the trademark delicacy of the operation, whose pre- and post-action meetings, during the course of four days, resembled campfires at a late-season deer camp more than meetings of any board.
As the men reviewed their written orders, nervous or distracted, they toyed with knives, flashlights, binoculars, the tools of their trade, and opened, closed and stirred the ice chests that would supply them with sandwiches and soft drinks during the long nights ahead.
Several men grumbled that on cloudy, moonless nights, like the one awaiting them, their borrowed night-vision goggles would be needed more than ever, but would be of very little use, because where there’s no light, the goggles don’t help much. On the water, when one can’t see much, they said, one hears things that only long experience can make sense of: the rhythm of oil pumps, the rumble of unlighted vehicles, and the wafting snatches of laughter and conversation.
Most of the men at the barbecue table had met before the operation began, but only a few were neighbors. Three wardens are assigned to Zapata County, where most of Falcon Lake lies. Supervisory and line personnel alike had been drawn from further reaches. Captain Chris Huff, 58, a short, graying Laredo native who learned his military skills in Vietnam, commanded the mission. He came from Hebbronville, 130 miles away in Jim Hogg County, which has no lakes for wardens to supervise. Others came from McMullen, Webb and Atascosa counties, pulled away from their usual warm-weather chores.
Most of the men had taken part in a four-day hunt for Falcon netters two weeks before, an operation whose success — six suspects, five boats and some 10,000 feet of net — gave them hope on that Monday. Some of them had also helped seize a couple of tons of marijuana in an operation the year before.
Their mood was optimistic, though it would turn doubtful before Operation Pescador was done.
The men said no departure prayers as they left the meeting, perhaps because they’ve grown accustomed to uncertainty and peril. But Huff’s parting words to the group were chilling: “Don’t be shooting at anybody unless they be shooting at us.”
An International Border
Policing Falcon Lake, for either gill nets or dope, is, for diplomatic and logistical reasons, not a simple affair. Not only is the Lake expansive — 120 square miles in size — and rising, but it also straddles an international boundary. Mexican laws and Mexican authorities govern the south side of the lake, Texas laws and American authorities, the opposite half.
The problem is that the two sides meet under water, and there can’t be a white line running down the middle of a lakebed. Instead, the boundary is suggested by a series of small towers, planted about a mile apart along the center point of the Rio Grande’s channel. Lawmen reckon the boundary by eyeball, lining up the boats they see with an imaginary line between the markers. When they can see the markers, that is.
“They used to be lighted by batteries, but commercial fishermen need batteries, too,” quips Huff.
At night, the towers are sometimes dark profiles against a lighter sky, and sometimes it takes minutes to spot them.
Game wardens at Falcon are not authorized to pursue suspects across the line. If a chase starts on the north side of the boundary, they can’t tail their subjects into Mexico, nor make an arrest on the Mexican bank. This forces them to lie in wait until boats cross into American waters, and usually, until they halt in a Texas-side cove. When — and if — that happens, the flotilla gathers at the mouth of the cove, its boats ready to foil any exit by shining spotlights into the suspects’ eyes.
But even when they have their suspects bottled up, the chances of apprehending them are 50/50 at best. Treetops, brush and miles of mesquite-studded ranchland aid getaways.
The wardens praise their sturdy Monarchs, but the boats that the commercial fishermen use, made by Argos, a Mexican manufacturer, are nearly as narrow as a canoe.
“They can slither into those treetops and in the darkness, it gets hard to find them,” complains Martin Oviedo, 32, one of the Zapata-based wardens.
Texas law allows TPWD agents to confiscate boats used in illegal fishing operations, and seizures are common. But once suspects realize that they’re surrounded, they usually beach, abandon their craft, and take off in a run.
“Once they hit that brush, they’re gone,” says Huff, who has worked the lake for 29 years.
An Aquatic Stakeout
On that April Monday, shortly before sundown, a call comes over the wardens’ radio network. The spotters see a watercraft and a warden from his post on the lake notes that, “It sounds like a dude boat to me.” A “dude boat,” in the argot of the wardens, is a sport-fishing craft, and at Falcon, pleasure craft appear mainly on weekends. The lake is notorious for a dearth of game fish, which some anglers blame on the netters. Other messages say that four people are aboard, too many for an ordinary netting expedition.
The suspicion of the wardens is aroused by the dude boat. During the past few years, smugglers have begun using speedy bass boats for what lawmen call “heat runs”— reconnaissance missions. When they spot what they take to be a heat run, the wardens usually keep to their stations, hoping that their presence won’t be detected.
The dude boat that the flotilla puts under watch goes upriver and then beaches at a spot more than a half-mile from the nearest warden. Three of its occupants disappear into the brush onshore. Then its pilot turns and speeds back into Mexico. No one drops a net, nobody is seen unloading bundles, no vehicle is standing in wait. The flotilla’s boats keep near the banks.
“Maybe he was just dropping off some guys who work on a ranch,” somebody comments by radio.
Entering the United States across Falcon Lake is not legal, even for citizens, but on the border, informal crossings are an old and enduring custom. The men of Operation Pescador don’t want to tip their hands for the sake of an offense that, in the region’s courts, might not appear offensive in the least.
The sky turns black and the wind gains speed, creating waves almost like those of the Gulf. The wardens say that Mexican commercial fishermen do go netting in choppy water, even on moonless nights, but none are seen or heard.
The chief tools of “the commercials,” as the wardens call them, are indiscriminate gill and hoop nets — both illegal in Texas. Their catch consists mostly of rough fish, carp and tilapia, whose retail market is limited on the northern bank. But those species are stewed and fried in Mexico, and even if they weren’t, fishermen might still venture onto the lake because some are either lookouts or decoys for drug smugglers, or smugglers themselves.
Hours pass. Nobody is seen, nothing is heard. Midnight comes, and still the radio remains silent. About 1 a.m., Huff calls the effort to a close. The wardens, still keeping their motors at low speeds, slip back into their coves and their pickups. Using only dim running lights, they lumber back to the bunkhouse in which most will pass the rest of the night.
Tuesday the team returns to the lake, for a similarly uneventful experience, concluded at 3 a.m. On Wednesday it’s the same, and Huff, sensing disappointment in his ranks, ends the operation at 11 p.m. Before turning in, the men compare speculations. Most believe that Operation Pescador has been detected. The ranch that is their staging ground has civilian guards at its gates, and oil company trucks work the area every day until sundown. Somebody has a cell phone and a brother-in-law among the fishermen, somehow there has been a tip-off, they believe.
Even Captain Huff has lost his confidence.
“It’s like a cat and mouse game,” he muses. “Our surveillance gets better, and then their intelligence gets better. Right now, I think that their intelligence must be better than it was.”
But he doesn’t lose his determination. Skeptical, sleepy, a little unkempt and by now, tired of bunkhouse life and longing for home, on Thursday the men of Operation Pescador return to their coves to repeat their daylight-sneak routine. Then they wait, as they have waited for three nights.
On Monday and Tuesday, as they passed the hours, the wardens chatted quietly about mutual friends, family members and food. By Wednesday, some were talking shop, trading agency gossip, even discussing the apparent and looming futility of their mission. On Thursday, there wasn’t much talk. Everybody was simply pooped.
Bored, that is, between about 10 p.m. and midnight.
Early in the evening, the wardens on the south end of the night’s operation, whose area spanned 6 miles of water, spied a boat with four occupants. It passed a marker and then suddenly turned in the opposite direction and came to a stop, apparently in response to another boat, near another marker, whose two crewmen were waving oars — a signal of some kind. The occupants of the two boats chatted for a few minutes, then drifted southward as night fell. A few minutes later, both of them, Huff believed, “boogied to the Mexican side,” though he admits that in the darkness, one of the boats may have slipped unseen to the American shore.
Not long afterwards, game wardens Bubba Shelton, 47, and David Murray, 40, both of Tilden, found a net strung beneath the waters. They tied up nearby, keeping their eyes peeled. Nobody came to tend it. The wardens didn’t know whether its owners were hidden in the cove or on the Mexican side of the lake. They waited.
But nothing happened. For hours.
Then Zapata’s Oviedo, on duty as a spotter atop the dam, which lies at the south or downriver end of the lake, saw a boat slide past.
“It was idling as quiet as could be, about midnight,” he recalls.
He informed the others by radio, but the boat slipped between treetops near the shore and was lost from sight.
The flotilla began closing in. Shelton and Murray cruised along the shore of their cove, looking for the netters for nearly an hour. They didn’t see any boat or anybody.
About 1 a.m., Captain Huff, who had been spotting, came to the cove on foot. He probed the shoreline for what seemed to be an eternity, and finally stumbled onto a boat — freshly abandoned.
Nothing had been heard or seen in the other cove some two hours later when Huff set off to find the boat that Oviedo had glimpsed before it vanished into the night. But before he reached it, warden Davidson came upon the craft in his Monarch. Its occupants had taken to the brush, too.
The interlopers had made their getaways, but they’d left behind a 16-foot and an 18-foot craft, along with nets, motors and gasoline rigs.
The crew of one of the boats had also run off without their sleeping gear — a couple of cotton blankets. Apparently, they too, had planned on waiting until near-sunup. What’s not known is whether they were waiting on fish to fill their net, or for smugglers to make contact.
When the second boat was recovered, Huff called it a day, ending the search that had brought his flotilla to Falcon.
Operation Pescador had not been a striking success, but it hadn’t failed: Stakeout jobs often end with such mixed results, any lawman knows. The wardens and their federal colleagues had prevented the netters from profiting for a night — and most likely, had nicked their dope-dealing backers for thousands of dollars in replacement costs.
They had done something else as well, and the blankets showed it. Though it wasn’t important in the greater scheme of things, because of their own exhaustion, it loomed large in the game wardens’ minds: By staying on the water until the wee hours, they had deprived their elusive prey of some badly needed sleep.