Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Chaos in God's Country

The men defending our southern border are overwhelmed.

National Guard agents monitor the banks of the Rio Grande on the border between El Paso, Texas state, United States, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on December 28, 2022.(Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

In Hondo, Texas, they have a warning to drivers: “This is God’s country, please don't drive like Hell.” 

I read the sign the first time I drove through Hondo, on my way to Brackettville. Tucked away from Austin and San Antonio in the Texas Hill Country, Hondo does feel like God’s country. 


I passed through town on Highway 90. I was sure to watch my speed. A few more towns followed. A dimly lit grain tower on the left of the byway, a Dairy Queen on the right. Stretches of black and the unwelcome passing headlights of an F-150.

This is small town America. It is beset with challenges. There are empty storefronts. Old tires are stacked up in front of a brick gas station, still adorned with defunct gas pumps from a bygone era. The street lights are dim, if they work at all. But the people of Southwest Texas remain, despite their challenges, just beyond the reach of the unyielding urbanization gripping their state. In that, there is peace and pride.

Their homes, however, like so many others on America’s border with Mexico, are in danger of being lost in the spiraling border crisis. 

I caught the glow of Uvalde, Texas, sometime around 10 p.m. I pulled up to the first stop light in town; billboards read “Uvalde Strong.” The town is still reeling from the heinous school shooting they endured last May. Just below a sign, eight Border Patrol squad trucks lined the highway, accompanied by one ICE van. Officers were patting down a suspect pressed against the van while others searched trash bags, presumably filled with narcotics.

In Uvalde, contrasts were plain. My hotel was a mile further up the road. A Border Patrol truck was parked at a Wendy’s. I hung a right off the highway. I passed a dusty garage filled with Border Patrol trucks, surplus Humvees, and some old Jeeps. I pulled into my hotel, checked in, and parked, next to twelve squad cars from the Texas Department of Public Safety. They were sent by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to protect the town. The state has put them up long-term at the Days Inn & Suites, there to keep Uvalde from being overrun by traffickers.  


I took my golf clubs out of my car, put them in my room, and went to see if there were any public safety officers in the hotel lobby bar. It was a Texas type of place, replete with portraits of the Republic’s Founding Fathers, neon Shiner Beer signs, and pool tables. I didn’t find any off-duty officers, but a local pub denizen introduced himself. He managed a motel in Camp Campos and was eager to detail the local art scene and his planning for crowds coming to Southwest Texas to see next year’s lunar eclipse. This, and his shoulder-length hair, caused me to suspect he was a guy who liked to hang out in Marfa. Of course, it turned out he had business there.

He asked me why I was in Uvalde and I told him I was meeting with sheriffs the next day to take a look at the border. He reassured me, “The sheriff's deputies here are great. When I started remodeling our motel they helped me expel a meth-trafficking ring from room fifteen in no time.” Our bartender cracked a Lone Star and shook his head: “There are twelve DPS agents at this hotel, something like fifty different agents of sorts assigned to our town, and we still have three high-speed chases a week seems like.” I recalled the sign in Hondo. It wasn’t a warning, it was a plea. 

During the next morning’s drive to Bracketville I counted nine squad cars, excluding those at Border Patrol’s checkpoint on Highway 90. I pulled into the Kinney County Sheriff’s Office and sat down with Sheriff Brad Coe.

Sheriff Coe strikes you as the type of man you want defending your town. A spitting image of Teddy Roosevelt or a modern-day Wyatt Earp, Sheriff Coe spent three decades as a Border Patrol agent before retiring and running for sheriff in Kinney County. He detailed the plight of Kinney County in stark terms, noting that the current iteration of the border crisis is the worst period of his career: "In all my years, I’ve never seen it this bad."

He told me that Kinney County was outfunded and outmanned: 

Let me put it this way. My budget for the office is $1.5 million. When I first took office it was $900,000. We can’t sustain that increase every year. When the cartels can afford to put up their own cell towers and phone system, they’re doing pretty damn good... And the Mexican government doesn’t care, they’re practically joined at the hip.

Despite the odds, Coe told me that his deputies are the best men he’s led during his career: “It’s six days a week, thirteen hour shifts. I have to say, the six full-timers, in all my years in law enforcement these six are some of the most dedicated and willing to do their job. They don’t complain much. They never complain about the little things… They’re like brothers and sisters. They’re all young, under the age of thirty-five… I couldn’t ask for a finer set of officers” 

Coe described a county overrun by trafficking. With a sixteen mile shared border with Mexico and over a thousand square miles of open country, Kinney County is primarily a human smuggling route. But is also used to traffic just about anything Customs prohibits. The sheriff has apprehended everything from fentanyl to fully automatic firearms and, recently, eggs. He described highly capable cartels that maintained intricate trafficking networks in every major city in the U.S.

I asked him if he believed the cartels could be accurately described as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. He didn’t hesitate: “Well they are. When they’re pushing their ideology, pushing the dope, and pushing the people, they’re a terrorist organization. There’s a statue of Santa Muerte they walk by every day and pay homage to.” 

He scrolled through footage from game cameras his officers had placed all over the county. The footage captured dozens of traffickers and migrants, all caught on camera in the hours before I arrived to interview him.

Coe walked through his spreadsheet estimating the number of illegal migrants law enforcement was unable to apprehend: “The gotaways are just an abstract number. We’ve got twenty here, a dozen there, but how many didn’t we see? On camera, we’re picking up stuff every night. So far this year, on camera, we’ve got 4,600 aliens that have not been caught. We’re averaging about 160 a day.” 

For a county of 3,100 people, the numbers were overwhelming. At any given moment, the population of migrants trespassing through the county could outnumber the number of citizens. The sheriff was clear-eyed in his assessment of the economy fueling the lawlessness in his county:

When we interviewed a female sometime back, she was a little distraught. She owed the cartels $5,000 for being smuggled to the border. There’s another $3,000 to be smuggled to another location. She was gonna be smuggled further east, but that was gonna cost her another $5,000. So, she didn’t have two nickels to her name. She owes $10-15,000 dollars. So what do they do? Indentured slavery, you’re gonna work on this farm or for this rancher for the next ten to fifteen years until the cartel is paid back. 

He recounted the damages the modern slave trade brought his town: 

Our hunters didn’t come back because of what’s going on. Fortunately the Galveston troopers bring some revenue because they eat and use gas. But if the troopers go away and the hunters don’t come back… that’s all this country has, the hunters. We do have some agriculture but the hunts are what brings the money in. If it wasn’t for the troopers filling up gasoline three or four times a day, we’d be in hurting status. That’s part of the reason I’m fightin’ so hard.

Describing frequent high speed chases, he continued, “It’s to the point where I’ve had two this month, two this weekend. Used to the officers would call me with a lot of adrenaline when we had chases. Now they just sigh. They’re getting too accustomed to it. That’s what worries me more than anything.”

Kinney County has been abandoned by the federal government, and Sheriff Coe knows it. He left me with a list of immediate needs from other counties and states: 

A) Put all the prayer out there that you can. I’m a big believer in the power of prayer. Moral support, with legislation, stand up with us. B) Send us all the support you can. I know budgets are tight and things are expensive, but we’ll put officers up at reduced rates or a lot of the time even for free. If they can send interdiction teams, we know there are westbound shipments that we don’t have the capacity to stop.

Two counties, so far, have heeded the sheriff’s call for reinforcement. Operating under Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, Goliad County has stationed three officers in Brackettville. Galveston County, victimized by the second-most fentanyl overdoses in the state, sent six. 

I walked out of Sheriff Coe's office with Constable Justin West from Galveston County. “Anytime Galveston County is hit by hurricanes, the State of Texas responds. We’re here to help those who help us,” he said. Constable West is a meat-and-potatoes law enforcement officer. The constable has a mission to do on the border, and my inclination is he’s going to damn well do it.

During my forty-five-minute conversation with the sheriff, Kinney County deputies apprehended three vehicles full of migrants. Three traffickers sat in handcuffs in the lobby. One of the traffickers, a young woman with snakebite piercings, struggled to hold back tears. She looked like the kind of girl you’d find in any college town’s coffee shop. But in Southwest Texas, lines are blurred. Anyone can become a criminal. 

Before a routine patrol, we sat in an old ranch home built in 1894. Locals were allowing Galveston’s police to stay there free of charge. Constable West told me that despite Galveston County’s population being 100 times larger than Kinney County’s, Kinney County experienced more crime. Before Galveston’s police arrived, service calls from Kinney County’s residents were up 600 percent.

We drove out to Kinney County’s backroads, checking for migrants along a railroad track. Trash lined the county’s dirt roads. Water bottles, trash bags, sleeping bags, and train schedules were littered everywhere I looked. The constable explained that the large cylinders under the tracks provided shelter for the smugglers to shield their victims from the elements. At one point, Galveston County police were apprehending nearly fifty or sixty migrants a day on the tracks.

West beckoned towards a rancher’s cut fencing, adorned with survey tape. The tape was placed there by coyotes to help traffickers guide their victims through the countryside. He told me that the cartels usually use color-coded arm bands to track their victims, but recently he had started seeing migrants who had been tattooed with barcodes. For those who know their history, the imagery that detail conjures is discomforting. For the multi-billion dollar slave trade, arm bands just aren’t efficient enough. 

I stopped at Ziggy’s Roadside BBQ before leaving Brackettville. The brisket was good, and I enjoyed it while listening to the owner detail an encounter with a migrant who had rummaged through his golf cart that morning while Sheriff Coe’s deputies took notes.

Everywhere I stopped seemed touched by crime. In a community once defended from Mexico’s lawlessness by Fort Clark, American citizens are subjected to daily indignities and danger. In Brackettville, Texas you meet the real forgotten Americans. 

I pulled into Del Rio, Texas, about an hour and a half later. Del Rio was overrun by migrant caravans in 2021, producing some of the most shocking images of the crisis.

Policy makers federally and in the state seemed to respond to the pictures, apparently embarrassed by the spectacle their neglect had created. Unlike Brackettville, Del Rio was fortified. Humvees lined steel fencing at Del Rio’s port of entry overlooking Ciudad Acuña. Startled by my self-guided tour of their post, two National Guardsmen woke up and jumped out of their Humvee. I could tell they were Texas boys by the Arrow-T patch on their uniforms. My grandfathers wore the same patch. They told me they had been on deployment in South Texas for a year.

When I asked how the deployment was, one of them sheepishly grinned. He pointed at the spot where the fencing ended. “It’s the same shit, different year.” I had caught them napping, after all. 

As I drove north to San Angelo and out of the borderlands, I realized I was re-entering the United States. The de facto United States, at least. As I have written for this magazine, narco-terrorists maintain operational control of large swaths of Mexican territory. but in the past two years, due to federal neglect, Mexican cartels have expanded their operational control into the United States. What Pancho Villa couldn’t accomplish, his spiritual successors have.

Law enforcement is outnumbered, out-paid, and outgunned in Mexico. Policymakers are left in paralysis, unable to marshal will or resources to combat the cartels. Now, the same paralysis is spreading in Texas.

Soon, the same paralysis will spread throughout the United States. Only a few good men like Sheriff Brad Coe and Constable Justin West stand in the way, and they are pleading for help. With untold millions already successfully trafficked into the United States, it is a matter of time before the hell I've seen is brought to all of God’s country.