Agents wait, sometimes for hours, in the median of Interstate 10 in white minivans with a broad green stripe. U.S. Border Patrol — the men in green.
They know what they’re looking for and what to do when they see it. They’re thoroughly trained observers. And while they wait, they are constantly fed intelligence, on the phone, working from information they have received or are receiving.
They are trained for more than a year in specific skills — tracking, highway interdiction. Agents along the Mississippi Coast, who work out of the Gulfport Station, have an average of 12 years’ experience and have spent time on the border with Mexico, where the action centers around illegal crossings.
In Mississippi, it’s more about who or what is passing through.
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Interstate 10 is a major corridor for drug trafficking and hauling people who crossed the border illegally; both are at the heart of the mission. The Border Patrol is part of a three-pronged color-coded approach to border safety under U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is under the Department of Homeland Security. Agents with air and marine patrol are in brown, field operation and ports in blue.
The Border Patrol also has a terrorism component. Agents were on high alert after the Orlando shootings. But in the anti-terrorism role, they are stealth. In Gulfport, an agent said, “If we’re in the public venue, you won’t see us.”
Agents do most of their talking in court papers and in the courtroom as they testify in human trafficking, illegal immigration and narcotics arrests. Otherwise, the conversation is a general explanation of how things work. Steven Adkison, patrol agent in charge of the Gulfport Station, talked with the Sun Herald recently.
We do see more methamphetamine coming across the Southwest border. It's cheaper and easier to make over there.”
Steven Adkison, patrol agent in charge of the Gulfport Station
South Mississippi drivers see Border Patrol vehicles most often along I-10, the corridor that picks up traffic from Texas and funnels it to routes that end up in Central Florida or Atlanta.
“This area is not a major drug hub,” Adkison, 41, said. “Here it’s about moving through — narcotics and illegals (immigrants).
“Anything coming into the country from the West goes through this region to get to the East Coast. It’s a matter of how they do it,” he said, whether it’s by plane, train, automobile or boat, and what the route they choose.
The routes are like a web coming out of Texas, going north to Arkansas on I-30, across on I-40 or east along I-10 and I-20 and northeast on I-59. The Gulfport Station comes under the New Orleans sector. It is responsible for all of Mississippi, but the entire United States is its area of operation.
Heavy on intelligence, tracking
Working with or helping other agencies is important, Adkison said. “Our bread and butter is intelligence.”
The Gulfport Station has its own intelligence-gathering line to connect with other counties and nearby states. The information coming in might warn agents of a possible hidden compartment in a certain type of vehicle or alert them to a vehicle coming through, based on information gathered in Arizona or Texas.
Rather than spectacular chases, in Mississippi finding and stopping illegal immigrants is more like a strategic game of chess. But there are major drug busts and always the threat of danger for agents.
The Border Patrol works with agencies that range from county deputies to federal investigators. Agents are assigned to task force operations, like the Jackson County Metro Interdiction Team, that target certain crimes.
300Border Patrol agents were flown in and deputized as U.S. Marshals to help get James Meredith into Ole Miss. The vehicle they brought him in was burned to the ground.
Two recent high-profile cases show it’s not just the interstate that comes into play.
▪ Border Patrol agents followed a known smuggler into Waveland, where he stopped at an Exxon station on Mississippi 603 and U.S. 90 in November. The man had been deported in 1999 and was hauling immigrants illegally. According to an agent’s written statement in federal court, the Border Patrol learned the smuggler would be driving through Louisiana to Mississippi, and two agents followed him from I-12 to I- 10 and south into Hancock County. Two vans were involved, and people traveling in them said they paid $150 to $200 for a trip from Texas to Orlando. This year, the driver was fined $5,000, sentenced to 27 months in prison and faces deportation.
▪ Customs and Border Patrol agents have intercepted packages containing millions of dollars in fake checks and money orders, and this year a Hancock County woman and three California residents admitted they helped run a Nigerian scam that bilked South Mississippi residents and others. The scams sought workers via mass emails; paid workers with bogus checks; and used stolen identities and fake credit cards to buy and re-ship expensive items, including jewelry, purses, computers and cellphones.
Border Patrol agents keep watch over barrier islands along with Office of Air and Marine agents
Adkison said the bulk of human trafficking and drug cases is organized crime outside the U.S. running product or people through the area. Say a man in Guatemala wants to work in Atlanta, he said. He contacts what they call a coyote or a transnational criminal organization and pays to get to Mexico and the U.S. border. He pays a fee to cross and ends up in a stash house or loading place, and then pays for transportation to Atlanta.
However, because the man is dealing with organized crime, Adkison said, he is vulnerable to being held for ransom, becoming a victim of human trafficking or being forced to work as an indentured servant at a restaurant, chicken plant, electric facility or on road work.
Staff writer Robin Fitzgerald contributed to this story.
Statistics from past year
New Orleans Sector
Accompanied juveniles: 19
Unaccompanied juveniles: 26
Marijuana (pounds): 57
Cocaine (pounds): 3
Nationwide Border Patrol
Accompanied juveniles: 22,132
Unaccompanied juveniles: 40,035
Marijuana (pounds): 1.54 million
Cocaine (pounds): 11,220
Money seized: $4.74 million
Source: Customs and Border Protection