Photos and Video from Bensman’s unauthorized visit with U.S. troops of the 19th Engineer Battalion deployed to the Texas-Mexico border
Hidalgo, Texas – Unauthorized. That was pretty much the mark on my forehead as far as all the public information officers were concerned. On the morning of my second day to check in on the border military operation formerly known as Operation Faithful Patriot, November 13-16, I still hadn’t secured permissions for interviews with officials, embeds with the regular U.S. Army forces deploying here, or access to base camps. Not for lack of trying. It was due to impenetrable multi-agency bureaucracy. That just served to trigger the old rogue still in this former reporter.
On my own recognizance, I quickly found an army compound within eyesight of the Hidalgo Port of Entry and parked. Within a minute, the gate opened and a Humvee loaded with concertina wire pulled out, followed by a company of soldiers from the 19th Engineer Battalion in pretty full battle-rattle. I jumped out of the car, and followed them on foot along a perfectly public hike and bike trail, through gaps in some of the tall permanent fencing overlooking the Rio Grande, until they stopped under the vehicle bridge next to the river and started pulling gear out for one of their missions. I learned that all army missions here are ordained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which knows all the ins and outs of what is needed, where.
As a quick aside, the purpose of my visit was to learn how President Donald Trump’s brand new 5,000-soldier border mission deployment was progressing. I wanted to see for myself how the troops were being used in daily routine and to learn how they might be used as the migrant columns from Honduras moved closer to the border. Critics and proponents alike may take from all this what they will but here’s the bottom line up front of what I saw and learned, for good or ill:
- New troops and equipment were still rolling into at least two main camps in South Texas the week before Thanksgiving, one at the sleepy Donna Port of Entry and the other at the busier Hidalgo Port of Entry. Tents were going up. Heavy construction equipment and large trucks had been brought in and parked, along with Humvees. Helicopters reconnoitered above the camps or flew past them.
- Although unconfirmed, in the town of Weslaco about 15 miles inland from the river, acres of land cleared, leveled and newly fenced, at least to my mind, bore the hallmarks of one of the “tent cities” of the sort DHS said would be used for extended detentions of caravaners seeking asylum. The compound was at least 25 acres. It was very freshly cleared and surrounded by fencing with “Warning: military installation” signs posted at intervals while a large abandoned former furniture store nearby was taken over by the army. No tents were set up but rows of port-o-potties could be seen and large stationary CBP lighting banks had been set up throughout the largely empty interior. The space would be good to store heavy construction equipment and vehicles too.
- Troops began deploying from the Donna and Hidalgo camps further upriver to the Laredo, Texas area for operations that CBP officials determined would be helpful.
- Camps and troops may have had an unexpected inverse impact. Intelligence contacts told me Mexican cartels forced elements of the caravan to the California border. The reason: the Mexican cartel across the Rio Grande, CDG, was angered by the U.S. troop deployment because it slowed the pace of drug smuggling and blamed the caravan for drawing them. The cartel, I was told, demanded the migrants pay steep fees to cross through their territory or go elsewhere, hence the initial moves to Tijuana. No telling whether this is true, but there it is.
- Most of the troops were not carrying arms, however plenty of Military Police carried side arms. No long guns were visible.
I started out circling around the camp at the Donna port of entry, as seen below
For the next two hours after my unauthorized self-embed, I was able to see what the troops were being used for in this early phase; bolstering existing fencing and barriers with razor wire and stringing unknown lengths of it along open areas right on the river or nearby.
I observed as soldiers of the 19th broke into smaller squads and began installing razor wire underneath the pedestrian and vehicle bridges connecting the U.S. and Mexico. Groups of people waiting in the U.S.-bound entrance line on the bridge above gawked down at the American troops below.
Permission for me to interview a military or CBP official never came through. But some information slipped out anyway as I spent time with soldiers and Border Patrol officers. Every day, the soldiers in this sector had been adding obstacles for illegal entrants, mainly by stringing razor wire along spots that previously were wide open. I noticed razor wire everywhere along the river bank and above it, in many different places under and surrounding the port, where heavy brush gives way to pavement.
The job on the beautiful fall morning of November 16, temperature an unusually forgiving 66 degrees, was to lay wire along the bottoms and tops of the barrier walls to make it that much more difficult to stage climbing at the bottoms and to go over the tops.
Elsewhere in the region was evidence of the gathering deployment, a large equipment staging grounds based in an abandoned Weslaco furniture store called Craig’s Furniture. About 20 miles east of the Hidalgo port and bridge was a slower quieter one in Donna, Texas. There, construction and encampment was a full-time affair (see below).
Following are photos and videos I took of what seems like it will be a standard mission for the troops of fortifying open areas and refortifying barriers already in place.
Here the troops are stringing wire directly under the Hidalgo port of entry bridge. Stringing wire everywhere. Border patrol told me that, even right under the port of entry bridge itself, illegal aliens constantly cross or try to flee home when chased. Wire here will deter that sort of activity.
One strategy is to make it harder for illegal aliens to climb the walls. The plan was to string razor wire along the base but also along the tops of permanent barriers like this:
Fifteen miles inland, in the town Weslaco, troops were settling in next to an abandoned Craig’s Furniture store right off on US 83. They had cleared acres of land next door, perhaps to serve as one of the tent cities President Trump has promised to house asylum seekers for extended periods due to bed-space shortages in hard detention facilities.
Local Border Patrol agents said adding wire to this section of pedestrian fencing (below) was a good idea because illegal aliens often hopped it easily and made their way to the parking lot on the right, where they easily blended in and moved into town.
One small section of the land in Weslaco next to Craig’s Furniture also serves as secure storage for heavy military equipment like this, as well as trucks and Humvees for the border op.
See video snapshots of the deployment and operations here. This is the 19th Engineer Battalion leaving the compound for the day’s work. Click the photo to see the video:
The soldiers moving razor wire to the base of a permanent barrier.
I intend to cover the progress of the operation as it progresses. In the meantime, over and out.