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CBP project offers rancher peace of mind

20131219 Penitas Border-Patrol-Aerostat 0569 featurePEÑITAS—Standing on a piece of property about a half-mile south of U.S. 83 with a clear view of Mexico, rancher Mauro Reyna could think of no better place for a pilot project aimed at tracking illegal traffic across the border.

It's the second phase of testing for aerostats, helium-filled balloons with infrared cameras, in the Rio Grande Valley. Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Rosendo Hinojosa said the equipment, originally deployed in Afghanistan by the Department of Defense, will undergo six months of testing on the Texas-Mexico border.

"Understanding that we've got 54 miles of what we call tactical infrastructure, which is the fence, the reality is that that fencing stops in Peñitas. I've seen several news reports from the police chief talking about the issues that impact this community as a result of that," Hinojosa said.

The agency also is launching aerostats in Sullivan City and Falfurrias.

"When that aerostat is deployed up in the air, everybody knows that we've got capabilities that we didn't have before," Hinojosa said.

The chief said until 2012, Tucson, Ariz., was listed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection as the No. 1 port of entry priority, but last year the emphasis switched to the Rio Grande Valley, primarily because of people crossing the border illegally who are classified as "other than Mexican."

As a result, in addition to the increased number of Border Patrol agents headed to the border, the agency also is beefing up mobile technology.

Peñitas Police Chief Roel Bermea said he already could see a difference in the first few days the aerostat was erected. The small community averages 4-5 chases a week because of drug or human smuggling, but things have been quiet, he said.

"It was up all weekend, and we had no calls whatsoever," Bermea said. "If it's going to be doing what it's intended to do, it will help us focus on inner-city crime. We'll see what happens in the next six months."

An aerostat first was tested in 2012 in Roma, but John Beck, who oversaw the project, said while results showed it did deter traffic in the immediate area, the testing didn't take into account the efficiency of using the equipment. This phase, he said, will analyze the practicality of the equipment, looking at total costs versus results and the amount of time it takes to dismantle and reassemble the tower and aerostat.

It's 52 feet long and can go as hight as 1,300 feet in the air. Each aerostat requires a crew that includes a flight director and sensor operators. The technology is a decade old, but it includes an infrared camera that can pick up images within a five- to 10-mile radius. The balloon can stay up in the air for days before it needs to come down for maintenance and to be topped off with helium.

"What I anticipate seeing here in the not too distant future is that the traffic that's selected this location as an entry point is probably going to be looking for a different place to enter, especially once we're successful in interdicting whatever cross-border traffic is occurring," Hinojosa said.

Beck said the plan is to move the aerostat, one of three being used in the pilot, as needed. The project marks unprecedented cooperation between the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, and the Department of Defense, he said.

John Milne, test director with CBP, said the original cost of the aerostat is $2.6 million and the tower the balloon is tethered to is valued at about $1.5 million. The agency has received about 1,300 pieces of equipment from the Department of Defense valued at about $21 million, he said. Another 3,100 items, with a value of about $483 million, are pending.

"CBP's Office of Technology and Innovation has been working with the Department of Defense for a while now to identify and exploit DOD technology that has returned from overseas," Milne said.

Meanwhile, Reyna said his property feels safer with the aerostat flying above it. The ranch has been in his family for three generations, and times have changed in the past few decades, he said. Reyna's seen people crossing illegally into the United States in groups of 20 to 30 in the middle of the day.

He's heard some people may complain about the government looking into their backyards, but Reyna believes the six-month project will benefit his neighbors.

"I think most ranchers like the fact that they're going to be able to keep their fences up and their gates up," Reyna said. "What this does is just reflects the present day. The numbers don't lie."

PEÑITAS—Standing on a piece of property about a half-mile south of U.S. 83 with a clear view of Mexico, rancher Mauro Reyna could think of no better place for a pilot project aimed at tracking illegal traffic across the border.

It's the second phase of testing for aerostats, helium-filled balloons with infrared cameras, in the Rio Grande Valley. Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Rosendo Hinojosa said the equipment, originally deployed in Afghanistan by the Department of Defense, will undergo six months of testing on the Texas-Mexico border.

"Understanding that we've got 54 miles of what we call tactical infrastructure, which is the fence, the reality is that that fencing stops in Peñitas. I've seen several news reports from the police chief talking about the issues that impact this community as a result of that," Hinojosa said.

The agency also is launching aerostats in Sullivan City and Falfurrias.

"When that aerostat is deployed up in the air, everybody knows that we've got capabilities that we didn't have before," Hinojosa said.

The chief said until 2012, Tucson, Ariz., was listed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection as the No. 1 port of entry priority, but last year the emphasis switched to the Rio Grande Valley, primarily because of people crossing the border illegally who are classified as "other than Mexican."

As a result, in addition to the increased number of Border Patrol agents headed to the border, the agency also is beefing up mobile technology.

Peñitas Police Chief Roel Bermea said he already could see a difference in the first few days the aerostat was erected. The small community averages 4-5 chases a week because of drug or human smuggling, but things have been quiet, he said.

"It was up all weekend, and we had no calls whatsoever," Bermea said. "If it's going to be doing what it's intended to do, it will help us focus on inner-city crime. We'll see what happens in the next six months."

An aerostat first was tested in 2012 in Roma, but John Beck, who oversaw the project, said while results showed it did deter traffic in the immediate area, the testing didn't take into account the efficiency of using the equipment. This phase, he said, will analyze the practicality of the equipment, looking at total costs versus results and the amount of time it takes to dismantle and reassemble the tower and aerostat.

It's 52 feet long and can go as hight as 1,300 feet in the air. Each aerostat requires a crew that includes a flight director and sensor operators. The technology is a decade old, but it includes an infrared camera that can pick up images within a five- to 10-mile radius. The balloon can stay up in the air for days before it needs to come down for maintenance and to be topped off with helium.

"What I anticipate seeing here in the not too distant future is that the traffic that's selected this location as an entry point is probably going to be looking for a different place to enter, especially once we're successful in interdicting whatever cross-border traffic is occurring," Hinojosa said.

Beck said the plan is to move the aerostat, one of three being used in the pilot, as needed. The project marks unprecedented cooperation between the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, and the Department of Defense, he said.

John Milne, test director with CBP, said the original cost of the aerostat is $2.6 million and the tower the balloon is tethered to is valued at about $1.5 million. The agency has received about 1,300 pieces of equipment from the Department of Defense valued at about $21 million, he said. Another 3,100 items, with a value of about $483 million, are pending.

"CBP's Office of Technology and Innovation has been working with the Department of Defense for a while now to identify and exploit DOD technology that has returned from overseas," Milne said. 

Meanwhile, Reyna said his property feels safer with the aerostat flying above it. The ranch has been in his family for three generations, and times have changed in the past few decades, he said. Reyna's seen people crossing illegally into the United States in groups of 20 to 30 in the middle of the day.

He's heard some people may complain about the government looking into their backyards, but Reyna believes the six-month project will benefit his neighbors.

"I think most ranchers like the fact that they're going to be able to keep their fences up and their gates up," Reyna said. "What this does is just reflects the present day. The numbers don't lie."

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CoverageAreaThe Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.

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