Investigations

Despite DPS border surge, drugs still fill Texas streets

Gina Massingill was desperately trying to find her son. She had put out feelers online, contacting all his friends on Facebook. She was home that day, May 5, 2015, along with her daughter and husband. Together, they were searching for Dylan.

Then a police cruiser pulled up to their home.

"You don’t get phone calls for things like that. They just show up," Gina said. "I knew it was the worst day of my life."

Gina learned her 23-year-old "magnetic," "gorgeous" and "open-hearted" son was found dead of a heroin and Xanax overdose in a vacant North Austin field beside a freeway.

Stories of addiction and death, like Dylan’s, have helped fuel the state’s border surge-a high-dollar effort meant, perhaps above all, to staunch the flow of illegal drugs and accompanying crime pouring across the southern border with Mexico.

But accounts from local law enforcement and drug seizure data show, despite heavy spending, drugs that travel from Mexico are still readily available in Central Texas.

Kurt Thomas, a lieutenant in the Austin Police Department’s Organized Crime Unit, says he hasn’t seen much of a change in the availability of illegal drugs.

The border surge is an important effort, and every dose captured has an impact, he said. Nevertheless, APD’s narcotics team is ever busy finding drugs and arresting traffickers.

"It’s making a difference because we have to have an effort in enforcing drug laws," Thomas said, regarding the border surge. But "it hasn’t taken drugs off the streets."

The border surge has sought to disrupt border crimes, including human trafficking, organized crime and money laundering. Most of all, the Texas Department of Public Safety’s efforts have focused on seizing large amounts of drugs, namely methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and heroin, among others

There have been decreases in the amounts of drugs and human smuggling cases at points of entry, as well as a decrease in the overall amount of drugs smuggled into Texas, DPS Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers at a Joint Committee on Border Security hearing last month.

"In the criminal economy, the underground, you should expect that, if we are really having an impact, the price of drugs should be going up, not down," McCraw said.

DPS has not released details it has on the street prices of drugs, so KXAN asked for more specific information. The agency responded with a letter, claiming drug prices have increased since the surge. But its numbers come from just three cases involving informants and undercover officers along the most heavily-patrolled stretch of the border. It contradicts what other law enforcement agencies like APD are seeing on the streets.

DPS declined an interview request. In an email, DPS said the strategic goal of its operation is to increase the level of security, zone by zone, along the border: "It's a strategy of prevention, rather than responding to trans-national crime after it reaches our communities … With a preventive strategy, you can expect to see a number of residual impacts." According to a recent DPS report to lawmakers, those impacts include a "decrease in the overall amount of drugs smuggled into Texas" and an "increase in drug and human smuggling in adjoining areas."

Austin DEA Agent Greg Thrash said the prices for meth have gone down, which indicates an overabundance of the product.

Thomas, with APD, echoed Thrash’s statement. The price of crystal meth has dropped from roughly $1,000 an ounce to $500 in Austin, Thomas said.

"Using simple economics, there’s more available," he said. "There’s more supply available than there is the demand."

In Austin, the average number of daily cases of seizures of marijuana, meth, cocaine and heroin has continued steadily from June 2014 to mid-August 2016, according to APD data.

APD Sgt. Robbie Volk has worked for 15 years in the department’s organized crime and narcotics team. KXAN joined Volk and his team on an August drug bust. The operation netted a variety of illegal drugs: meth, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, Xanax and other prescription pills.

Volk said the seizure was "typical" of what they find on a "routine basis."

And Volk said he hasn’t seen a decrease in the amount of drugs seized in the past several years.

"It’s pretty consistent," he said. "It’s pretty much the same across the board, locally."

Many of the drugs found by the narcotics unit probably originated from outside the country, he added.

The state’s surge at the border has focused mostly on Starr and Hidalgo counties. But Gilbert Gonzalez, executive director of the Texas Narcotic Officers Association, says traffickers ultimately move out and around the troopers, sometimes to more rugged terrain.

"It’s like a balloon," Gonzalez said. "You squeeze a balloon in the middle, what happens? Boop! The sides swell up, right?"

DPS’ disruption has hurt the cartels financially, but the drugs still get through, Gonzalez said.

The drugs ultimately end up in the hands of guys like 27-year-old Austin resident Travis, who is also a recovering meth addict.

Travis says he started smoking marijuana at 15. He later turned to booze and then to harder drugs. By 22, he was a homeless alcoholic.

Drugs have "put me on the streets many times. I’ve been raped…I’ve been 'roofied.’ I’ve been mugged," Travis said.

It was never hard for Travis to find drugs. He used dating apps. Certain symbols and language signified drugs and partying. He could find people who would either sell drugs or exchange them for sex.

Drugs are easy to get, he said, and there hasn’t been a decrease in availability.

"I don't know what numbers they're running or what field work they're doing, but it's never changed for me," Travis said. "I can get it super easy, whenever the hell I want."

As a recovering drug addict, Travis said the border surge is important and it’s good to capture drugs, but more effort should be put toward assisting people with addiction.

Treatment might have helped Gina Massingill’s son, Dylan, who had "no problem getting access to heroin," she said.

Massingill suggested it is perhaps time to look at alternative methods of combating the drug problem, including more treatment for young people.

Massingill also wonders what she could have done herself.

"I wish I would have grabbed him the day he was walking out that door and said, 'No, don’t leave upset,’" she said. "He was upset the day he left, and I didn’t see him again."


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