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In southern Texas, patching the border wall with $49 million in gates

Congress agreed last year to pay for 35 new gates to cover gaps in the valley’s border wall. Buying surrounding land and installing the gates is expected to cost $49 million.

A decade ago, Juan Cavazos watched as government authorities built a border wall on two acres of his land in the Rio Grande Valley. To smugglers, they created a barrier. To Cavazos, they created a problem.

The Rio Grande winds here, and with it, the border. Because the river sometimes changes course, walls have to be built some distance away from its banks. Cavazos, like many property owners in the valley, has land in Brownsville, south of the wall that is still part of the United States, so the Border Patrol installed an electronic gate and showed Cavazos, 75, a retired teacher, how to operate the keypad.

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Cavazos said the gate works, but has not stopped smugglers.

"There's another gap a block away," he said. "Trump wants to build the wall, but they need to close the gaps first."

And there are lots of gaps. On the 1,954-mile southern border, 654 miles are blocked by a fence or wall. That's particularly troubling in the Rio Grande Valley, the epicenter for drug and migrant smuggling. This region in southern Texas has 316 miles of border and only 55 miles of barriers, with 35 gaps that were left without gates for lack of funding.

"I liken it to an unfinished house," said Manuel Padilla, Rio Grande Valley sector chief for the Border Patrol.

Padilla spoke at a briefing Friday at sector headquarters in Edinburg, about 30 miles north of the border. He called the briefing after Gov. Greg Abbott visited a nearby armory to tout deployment of 650 National Guard troops to the valley to boost border security. Padilla said the area has become "chaotic," with increased migrant apprehensions, stash house busts and drug seizures.

"Yesterday we had our highest apprehension day this fiscal year, well over 700 apprehensions — definitely very concerning," Padilla said, noting that the valley accounts for about 40% of apprehensions and marijuana seizures across the southern border so far this year.

So far, 237,176 people have been caught crossing the border illegally since the federal fiscal year began in October, about a fifth of them last month. Congress agreed last year to pay for 35 new gates to cover gaps in the valley's border wall. Buying surrounding land and installing the gates is expected to cost $49 million. Construction is scheduled to start in October.

"We need effective barriers and infrastructure to deny the entry of illegal aliens and contraband," Padilla said. "The high activity combined with the lack of personnel, technology and infrastructure provide the ideal environment for chaotic activity along the border communities."

One recent afternoon Border Patrol Agent Robert Rodriguez drove southwest of Edinburg to where half a dozen gates are expected to be installed along several miles of border fence near Peñitas.

The need to leave gaps for property owners — and install gates to allow access to their land — is one of the distinct challenges of securing the border along the Rio Grande. The two-lane gaps, wide enough for two pickups to pass at once, are currently monitored with security cameras and sensors.

"Smugglers come in here," Rodriguez said. "This would be the path of least resistance for them."

The gates can be opened using a pass code or remotely by radio, Rodriguez said. Residents are provided codes and instructions.

"They've been pretty cooperative and understanding," he said, noting the gates turn the area from a smuggler hot spot into a deterrent.

"It's impeding their entry or at least slowing them down," he said. Otherwise, the existing fence "just funnels people through there."

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Rodriguez pulled up to one of the metal gates installed in recent years and pointed north, where a flea market was underway. Shoppers flowed past stands hawking fresh mangoes, corn and taquitos. Since the gate was added, migrant apprehensions dropped by half, Rodriguez said.

But the gates trouble some locals.

After the border wall was extended through a local birding area in 2009, Border Patrol installed a gate that's rarely open to the public, said Tiffany Kersten, who serves on the board of the local Sierra Club.

"We're very concerned that the same thing will happen" at other wildlife refuges scheduled for new wall construction in the area, she said.

A complete border could adversely effect wildlife in the Rio Grande Valley. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Last month, Congress authorized $1.6 billion for new border barriers, including fencing atop levees that span nearly all of the Rio Grande Valley's Hidalgo County. John-Michael Torres, a spokesman for the local community group La Union del Pueblo Entero, said that gates do little to alleviate the effect of the walls on the local population.

"Our communities go down to the levees: There are churches, cemeteries, RV parks south of the levees that would be potentially inaccessible," he said. "Even if there are gates there, it impacts the livability of those areas. You are stuck behind a wall, and if a gate doesn't open you have to drive miles to get around."

Residents were also skeptical that the gates will stop smugglers.

Officials promised Noel Benavides that if they build a wall across his property in the valley town of Roma, they would install a gate and give him the code. But Benavides said he expects smugglers will acquire the codes soon after.

"Money can buy anything," said Benavides, 75, who runs a western wear store in town.

In Peñitas, truck driver Eddie Garcia lives across the street from several gaps in the border fence where he has seen migrants flee into nearby woods. Garcia, 28, has also seen Border Patrol agents give chase, on the ground and in helicopters.

The father of three said he feels safe thanks to the patrols, but doesn't expect the chases to end after new gates arrive.

"There's a lot of ways they can jump the wall," he said of migrants. "A gate's not going to stop them."

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