Center for Strategic Communication

Oil and gas drilling near the border has led to a surge in truck traffic and new roads. Photo: TxDOT

Ignore its proximity to the border, and the Texas fracking boom is like many others around America. Trucks hauling construction supplies barrel down country highways. Boom towns, sprawling networks of new private roads and hundreds of drilling sites have popped up. But the boom for Texas tea — oil and gas, that is — has inadvertently torn a giant hole in the Border Patrol’s defenses.

According to a report from the Houston Chronicle, drug traffickers are using the state’s Eagle Ford Shale to move drugs. Cartels have stolen trucks belonging to energy companies, and have bribed truck drivers and contractors who have flooded the area for work. The cartels may also be cloning vehicles to resemble company trucks. This is while new roads sprouting along the oil and gas fields have inadvertently opened new routes around the Border Patrol’s highway checkpoints.

“[Traffickers] are using those roads to transport drugs, guns, ammo, you name it,” Albert DeLeon, chief deputy for the Dimmit County sheriff’s office, told Chronicle reporter Dane Schiller.

The highway checkpoints are supposed to be the Border Patrol’s “last line of defense” against smuggling. Located on highways a few miles inland, the checkpoints are staffed by agents who can stop and search motorists, deploy drug-sniffing dogs, or use x-ray machines to scan trucks for contraband. The checkpoints are also different from border crossings, which is where you show your passport before traveling between the United States and Mexico. If you drive from San Diego to Los Angeles — or Laredo to San Antonio — you will likely be forced to stop at one of these checkpoints. Around Eagle Ford, that defense now has a big gap.

One reason: size. The Eagle Ford Shale’s drilling area, or “play” area, is a 50-mile-wide and 400-mile-long belt of buried energy that stretches from the border city of Laredo deep into Texas. Most of the area was (and still largely is) remote ranching territory until huge reserves of natural gas and upwards of three billion barrels of oil were discovered in 2008. Then came a boom in construction: roads, workers’ houses and new services for a historically impoverished area. “Perhaps the largest discovery of new oil reserves in the United States since Prudhoe Bay, Alaska,” (.pdf) the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas called it. Fracking, of course, is the practice of shooting high-pressure fluid deep underground to break up rock containing oil and natural gas deposits. It’s old technology, but new discoveries of accessible fields made fracking viable.

Illustration: Railroad Commission of Texas

The shale’s roads are also a convenient way to avoid Interstate 35, the highway that carries most traffic from Laredo — the U.S.’ largest inland port — into the U.S. interior, or at least slip past I-35′s Border Patrol checkpoint.

Once traffickers bypass the checkpoint, “they are pretty much free,” the Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief Houston officer, Javier Peña, told the Chronicle and Express-News. “It is very much on our radar,” he said. In June, the South Texas High Intensity Drug Traffic Area — a partnership between federal and local police agencies — warned the Obama administration about the shale’s vulnerability to trafficking, the report notes.

There’s also some examples. First, the cartels have cloned Texas government vehicles, like this truck with Texas Department of Transportation markings. In March, police intercepted more than 18,000 pounds of marijuana in two trucks “on a private road leased to energy companies and carrying what looked like supplies used in oil field operations,” Schiller writes.

In June, the Border Patrol busted an energy company worker hauling nearly two tons of pot, Schiller added. And one year ago, the Border Patrol stopped a “bogus oil field truck” hauling marijuana.

But here’s the rub: Drug smuggling is basically an economic activity. It’s criminal, and Mexico’s cartels are killing each other for access to the U.S. market, but it stands to reason that as more legitimate economic activity increases along the border, so will the opportunities to smuggle drugs. Peña tells the Chronicle that “once money is involved, someone will always go for it.” For the thousands of new workers operating in Eagle Ford, it’s a chance to make a few thousand extra bucks. Someone is bound to take it.