INVESTIGATION: The New Cartel Corridor

The Williamson County Sheriff's office interdiction team is hard at work busting drug runners along Central Texas' stretch of I-35.

"We've had a banner year in the last 12 months, actually probably in the past two years," said Captain Mike Gleason. "Our loads have consisted of 20 plus gallons of meth oil, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of marijuana," he says of the drugs they've seized, that also includes "12-20 pounds of methamphetamine, it's a lot."

I-35 has also been called the "Cartel Corridor." It runs from near the Southern tip of Texas to Canada's border. In Texas, it's one of many State Highways The Department of Public Safety is responsible for patrolling, highways that some say have become dangerous.

"I am not insinuating, I know that it's a fact in Central Texas that people are dying because our Troopers are no longer here locally," said Bill Gravell. He is Williamson County's Precinct 3 Justice of The Peace. He is one of 4 J.P.'s in the county who certify deaths, including those at vehicle crash scenes.

As our FOX 7 investigation revealed, according to three different internal DPS highway reports, there's been a dramatic rise in crash fatalities on State Highways over the past two years. In Central Texas, they're up 71%. But, records show speeding tickets in the area are down, by 50%. The internal crash reports also show the border region is one of the only areas in Texas where crashes are down, 33.8% in 2 years. 

"When the troopers are not on the road, people don't obey the laws, when they're not obeying the laws, people die," Gravell says. 

And he adds, "They have made a decision at the Capitol to shift all of our assets to South Texas, and here in Central Texas in the past year, it's cost us an additional 85 lives on the highway."

But, state highways aren't the only Texas roads the DPS has been tasked to protect. During our 3-month long FOX 7 uncovered a contract between TXDot and the DPS. It required troopers to patrol the 49 miles of SH130 that runs through Central Texas. In late July. FOX 7 got a copy of the contract from TXDot through an open records request. It began in 2006, and it paid the DPS $6.7 million dollars over 5 years to employ 13 full-time troopers, 11 hired to cover the 49 mile Central Texas stretch of SH130. 

"It wasn't unusual at all to have 8-10 troopers here in our community everyday patrolling our streets and today a great day is if we can have 2 or 3," says Gravell. 

The contract expired in 2011. FOX 7 asked TXDot why it wasn't renewed. Agency spokesperson Nick Wade told FOX  on the record that TXDot was looking to cut costs and had proposed a lower amount but the DPS didn't accept the new offer.

But in a written statement emailed later in the day on August 7th, TXDot backtracked saying quote "TXDot chose not to extend the contract in an effort to reduce costs and save taxpayer dollars." We asked about the discrepancy, Wade said the agency never made an offer, they only proposed the scope of work. When the DPS told them how much it would cost, TXDot chose not to renew. FOX 7 immediately filed an open records request for those proposals but we have yet to receive them.

"Consequently SH130 & 45 doesn't have a unit working them specifically," says Judy Hobbs. She's served Williamson County as a Justice of the Peace for Precinct 4 for more than 3 decades. 

In 2014, TXDot did hire the Williamson County Constable's office to go after habitual toll runners on the same 49 mile stretch of SH130. County records show Constables terminated the 5 year contract earlier this year after catching only 1 repeat offender, leaving no law enforcement agencies contractually obligated to cover that stretch of SH130. 

"We go out there on the tollways and we work out there because you are trying to prevent, you are trying to prevent that 150/140 mile an hour collision," says Captain Gleason. He runs the Williamson County Sheriff's office traffic unit. Like other local agencies, his deputies are not required to work the tollway but do so anyway.

"When it's quiet on the radio and there's nothing going on, then they'll venture out there and go looking for mules," Gleason says of his deputies. That's because, he adds Mexican drug cartels use the Tollway now instead of I-35. They, too, have noticed less law enforcement on there gives them more freedom to operate.

"Basically you can now mitigate travelling through San Antonio, New Braunfels, Austin, Hays County Sheriff's Office, just every city along Austin, Round Rock, Georgetown and then drop in right to Dallas," Gleason says of the thruway SH130 has created. "So you've defeated all interdiction units working that IH-35 by getting on a toll road that basically has no one on it," 

Alleged mules took SH130 in late July, sending Williamson County deputies on a wild chase. "Once they made it to 45," says Gleason, "the suspects start throwing cell phones, guns, a half pound of methamphetamine out the window."

The driver was caught but the passenger took off. Dozens of officers from several agencies were called in for the pursuit, the suspect was taken into custody hours later. "It sets a more dangerous tone because of the people you are dealing with," Gleason says of the drug runners. "The people that deal large numbers of narcotics, such as the mules that come out of the border area, they all normally all have cartel ties to them."

But being at the border is State Law Enforcement's main priority, as DPS director Colonel Steve McCraw has testified on record. A directive ordered in June 2014 by then Governor Rick Perry. "They weren't hired to be border patrol agents," Bill Gravell says. 

But that depends on who you ask. During the 2015 legislative session Governor Greg Abbott signed HB11, a bill that gives DPS roughly eight hundred million dollars to secure the border, including adding 250 troopers to the South Texas region by 2017. Supporters included Republican State Representatives and Senators from Williamson County. 

"My motivation is simple," says Gravell. A former pastor who is also a Republican is firm that his frustration isn't political. "I am tired of getting up in the middle of the night and going to fatality accidents and seeing more dead people," he says

And he's worried he will see many more, "I would call on our Governor to really reconsider the deployment to South Texas of our DPS Troopers, let's bring our men and women back home."

FOX7 reached out to Governor Abbott's office, they did not respond to our request for comment. 

We also reached out to the Department of Public Safety for initial investigation into crashes on Williamson County Highways. They declined an interview but did send a statement, 

"DPS was specifically directed by state leaders to begin the border surge in June 2014 to combat drug and human smuggling along the border.

Subsequently, DPS informed state leaders that the rotation of troopers from all across the state to the area of operation on the border was creating patrol gaps in other areas of the state. The Texas Legislature and Leadership responded by authorizing 250 additional trooper positions to be permanently stationed in the border area by August 2017.

It is important to note that all area law enforcement agencies play a role in reducing crashes in a given area, as does driver behavior. History has shown that most wrecks are preventable, so it is critical that all drivers pay close attention while driving and adhere to traffic laws at all times.  

There is no evidence to suggest that border rotations played a role in the crashes you outlined."

Interagency cooperation contract

Link to the PDF!

To view other documents, contracts, click on the links below:
Statement from Perry Dewhurst & Straus
Interagency contract amendment
TxDot Toll Road Contract
Habitual Violator