WEBB COUNTY, Texas — Fracking and the drug war are colliding in Texas.
Head north from the border city of Laredo, and the wide freeways dwindle to two-lane roadways flanked by the brush and mesquite trees that fill the vast ranch lands.
Just five years ago, perhaps a dozen vehicles per day would be traveling on the even smaller, private roads that cut directly through the big ranches here, according to the federal Border Patrol. Today, thanks to surging oil and gas production in this Eagle Ford Shale region, they can number in the hundreds.
The fracking boom has also been a lesson in unintended consequences: The web of roads that the energy industry has built or paved on once-desolate ranches has created avenues for smugglers to move drugs they've brought from Mexico around the inland Border Patrol checkpoints.
The heavy truck traffic in this newly industrialized zone provides chances to stash drugs in vehicles disguised as industry trucks and blend in. That has left law enforcement scrambling to adapt to a radically altered landscape that's now buzzing with activity, including by relying on partnerships with the oil and gas industry.
And that's a big reason why the oil and gas drilling boom that's transforming the U.S. into an energy superpower has also, more quietly, reshaped how Customs and Border Protection agents do business in this region of southern Texas.
"It has changed us and what we do," says agent Ricardo Aguirre of the Border Patrol.
In the handful of years since the Eagle Ford Shale took off, traffickers moving dope for the powerful Zetas and Gulf cartels have been using the development as subterfuge to move marijuana and other drugs.
Charles Goslin, a retired CIA officer now with the security services company Butchko, said agents who have already "got their hands full with the border and a handful of checkpoints on key arteries" in the region must now contend with these new opportunities for smugglers. "They are doing the best that they can, but it is a huge area," he said.
A draft 2014 "threat assessment" from a branch of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, a nationwide federal program that aids federal, state, and local agencies, goes like this: "[I]nfrastructure for drug trafficking organizations has ... unintentionally been enhanced."
But the influx of new development cuts both ways in fighting drug trafficking and other illicit activity.
Thousands of workers who have poured into the booming Eagle Ford Shale region are providing new eyes and ears — a "force multiplier," as one official says — for the border cops looking for drug and human smuggling.
Aguirre, a "ranch liaison" officer, is philosophical about the mix of problems and opportunities the drilling boom has created for agents trying to catch some of the drugs and undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico.
"It's sort of the yin to the yang, right?" he says while moving through the 50,000-acre Galvan Ranch, a single plot bigger than Washington, D.C., that's now dotted with energy-development sites.
"We have increased traffic here and there's increased people traversing through here and trying to get through," Aguirre says on a mild Wednesday morning in early May. "But by the same token we also have an increased number of eyes out there to report any illicit activities."
The collaboration with industry has taken several forms. There's an 800 number for oil-field workers to report sketchy behavior to the Border Patrol. Signs on ranches contain GPS data to help witnesses report their position. And authorities hold outreach meetings and presentations for industry on safety in the region.
The Border Patrol even has a catchy name for the work with the oil and gas industry: the "Integrated Frontline Resources Awareness Campaign," or iFRAC, which intentionally sounds like, yes, fracking.
"For us [the Eagle Ford boom] has brought certainly some opportunities for great partnerships," said Matthew Hudak, the division chief of operations for the Border Patrol's Laredo sector. But he's no Pollyanna: "It has also been a challenge in terms of just the overall growth and expansion within these areas."
Law enforcement identified the threat a few years ago and have made some notable busts. On the morning of November 25, 2013, agents found 5,616 pounds of marijuana (valued at nearly $4.5 million) hidden in a truck servicing industry development.
Or early March 2012. That's when agents in neighboring Dimmit County stopped two trucks in a single day carrying a total of 18,665 pounds of marijuana on a ranch road used by energy companies.
Hudak said his agency's collaboration with the industry is directly responsible for the seizure of 9 tons of marijuana in the neighboring Laredo and Del Rio sectors — which are the border units close to drilling action — over the last year and a half or so.
To be sure, that's just a fraction of what agents are seizing overall on and around the border. In fiscal 2013, the Laredo and Del Rio sectors seized nearly 230,000 pounds of marijuana combined.
But law enforcement can only measure what they seize. How much is getting through is harder to figure. Asked whether the Eagle Ford development is enabling an overall increase in what's coming through the region, Hudak says that's "difficult to measure."
The Eagle Ford's newfound cat-and-mouse game between drug smugglers and the Border Patrol is indicative of how thoroughly the oil and gas boom has reordered life in the Eagle Ford region — one of a handful of areas that have sent U.S. oil and natural-gas production surging in recent years.
Development of the U.S. side of the Eagle Ford shale formation, which sweeps 400 miles from the border inland into East Texas, has exploded over the past half decade. Oil production is nearly 1.4 million barrels per day, up from less than 100,000 barrels five years ago, while gas production has surged as well.
According to Texas state regulators, over 13,000 drilling permits were issued between 2010 and March of this year.
The opportunities for using the development as cover have been on the radar screen of law enforcement for a few years. "The FBI is aware of attempts to use oil-field-type cloned vehicles to smuggle illegal drugs and we have worked investigations involving this criminal activity," spokeswoman Michelle Lee said.
Multiple threat assessments from region's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas have been identifying the problem too.
It's even a challenge outside the Eagle Ford region of southern Texas itself. The draft 2014 assessment from the Houston-area HIDTA notes that "because of its close proximity, [drug trafficking organizations] that operate within the Houston HIDTA are exploiting this region to their advantage."
Beyond the new drug smuggling pathways, the Eagle Ford growth also means oilfield workers and undocumented immigrants are crossing paths more often.
"They are going to see them. It is not a question of whether or not they will. It's when, or how many times," says Frederico Martinez, another ranch liaison officer. "One of the big issues we have is how to explain where they are at in reference to where they saw the subjects."
It doesn't quite work, he adds, for oilfield workers to simply note that "they were sitting under a mesquite tree."
When it comes to drugs, not everyone is convinced Eagle Ford offers such a rich opportunity for smugglers.
One industry worker, asked about the idea, said companies know well who is supposed to be at a development site, not to mention the gate guards and other precautions. It's just not that easy to blend in, he argues.
"They would have to be pretty slick," said Edward Miller, a sales representative with Integrated Production Services, which specializes in well completions and other services. "It's not impossible, but they would have to be very sophisticated."
Andres Zamarripa, an officer with the Webb County sheriff's department, believes Border Patrol has done an "outstanding job."
But he also notes what the cartels have going for them: endless budgets, and the labor scramble that means people working in the Eagle Ford who may be susceptible to bribes for looking the other way to allow vehicles into a ranch.
"These smaller oilfield service companies need employees," he said. "They have got to get labor force no matter what. So they are going to hire a guy that's got a bad record."
Still, Zamarripa notes that "Eagle Ford is just one cover" of multiple ways to move dope. "It's just another tool for them to use," Zamarripa said. "Way before Eagle Ford existed, it was coming across by the ton, and it's still coming across by the ton."