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The mission to recapture Fronton Island, Texas.

Texas Recaptures Island From Cartel Smugglers

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Cartels have used Fronton Island to smuggle cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, weapons, and people.

by Todd Bensman

NEAR FRONTON, Texas — Dawn was breaking on an October Monday as a Texas Rangers leader spoke to an armed gathering of police and military personnel. He seemed like a World War II military commander, pep-talking soldiers as they prepared to invade an enemy-held island.

It so happened that here in 2023, the Texans also were about to invade an enemy-held island. This one was a 170-acre, mile-long land mass in the middle of the Rio Grande. Their enemy: ultra-violent Mexican cartels that have used it with impunity to smuggle cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, weapons, and people, all while shooting at American cops, riddling Border Patrol boats with bullets, and intimidating Texas farmers, ranchers, and the 180 residents of the isolated Texas riverfront village of Fronton.

But no more, after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered his forces to retake “Fronton Island” and hold it.

With D-Day about to begin, the Rangers officer dished advice and encouragement to his troops.

The team had medical evacuation plans and extra blood on hand “in case we do get engaged and someone is shot or something,” he told the men, some of whom shifted from one foot to another or repositioned their M-4 rifles.

“Let’s keep a close eye on those structures that are up there that have that height advantage on us,” he warned. These were the burned out, bullet-pocked structures on a Mexican-side bluff overlooking Fronton Island. They were often used as snipers’ perches, with many marked by spray-painted cartel acronyms. “We have not seen people in there this morning, but we know that that’s what they’re used for,” he said.

Because an improvised explosive was found on Fronton Island recently amid a stash of semi-automatic rifles and ammunition, he warned the troops not to disturb backpacks or piles of clothes. They might be booby-trapped. Mark it and call in the bomb squad, he said. 

A Texas Rangers captain interjected to tell the troops not to take it personally if a typical eruption of combat between warring cartel factions over there happened to send rounds their way. Don’t automatically just shoot back.

“When those guys engage, we have a lot of bullets fly our way,” the captain explained. “It’s not directed fire, so just be aware of that. If they start firing on someone over there, you’ll kind of just want to take some cover. Bullets have definitely flown over our heads.”

But if they do direct fire at any of you while you’re taking the island, the first officer warned, make sure you don’t kill a Mexican soldier by accident to avoid international controversy, maybe even a Mexican extradition and trial. If fire comes from cartel gunmen fleeing a losing gun battle, as often happens, “That will initiate a large response from us, rightfully so,” the Ranger said. And, oh yeah, watch out for Africanized bees found on the island, he said. “They’re aggressive.”

When the invasion pep talk ended and the sun was spreading orange rays of light, dozens of armed men, including military personnel who refused to be photographed, boarded roaring convoys of all-terrain vehicles, and invaded Fronton Island.

With police drones scouting the brush ahead for gunmen, they ground through mud left by a rare overnight rainfall. The officers were sweating from humidity, body armor, and stress, trying to familiarize themselves with the island where many will spend their future shifts for months or even years to come.

The idea was for these vanguards to secure Fronton Island enough to have Texas National Guard engineers go in with heavy earth-moving machinery to completely denude its thick, covering blanket of vegetation, fortify its newly barren length with concertina wire, and deny its future use to these cartels by force of arms.

It is the third and largest Rio Grande island that Texas has seized in 2023. The earlier two were taken in the Eagle Pass area.

All the national media was in Eagle Pass to monitor the mass influx of migrants. The Texas seizure of Fronton Island, however, highlights a consequence of the overall border crisis that went largely unnoticed but demands equal attention. While Border Patrol agents have been focused on processing illegal border-crossers for three years, the cartels have gone unchecked.

Why Texas Invaded a Large Rio Grande No-Man’s Land Island

According to local, state, and federal law enforcement officials, the two extraordinarily murderous rival cartels that control or fight for Fronton Island — the Gulf Cartel and Cartel del Noreste (CDN) — reigned over this island partly because the U.S. and Mexico forgot long ago which one owns it. American and Mexican military and law enforcement avoided the diplomatic risk of working on the other’s possible territory without permission.

“Ownership has always been an issue for the State of Texas,” said Mike Salinas, a recently retired Border Patrol agent of 30 years. “And as far as Border Patrol is concerned, it was always a ‘let’s not get on there and find out’ because the optics of that whole thing might open up a big old Pandora’s Box of holy moly.”

That ambiguity spiked the island’s real estate value as a haven for operatives fleeing Mexican military crackdowns or American law enforcement chasing them south. In fact, local residents and cops say the whole region became a major drug trafficking corridor because, with police agencies shying away from direct action, the cartels used the island to stash drugs for smuggling northward, and brought cash and weapons southbound.

Furthermore, the cartel scouts could easily monitor the only paved road that U.S. cops could drive to Fronton to time their load moves. Gunmen became so confident in their immunity from capture on either side that they lost any reluctance to shoot at police.

In November 2016, gunmen on the island opened fire on Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) troopers surveilling them, wounding one. In 2019, someone fired more than 50 rounds at a Border Patrol boat, riddling it but miraculously wounding no one. Fatal shootings and body discoveries, though, are not uncommon on the Fronton-area stretch of river.

Long before the current mass migration crisis started in 2021, cartel “lead or silver” offers had intimidated almost everyone who lives in the town of Fronton on the Texas mainland, especially property owners whose land fronts the Rio Grande. Cartel gunmen are bold here, showing no compunction about firing on federal and local police officers.

One 80-year-old lifelong, third-generation Fronton resident, whose fence had been torn open a week earlier by a marijuana trafficker who crashed there in a police chase, told me he hadn’t gone near his river neighbor’s property 200 yards away — in 30 years.

“I’m afraid,” he responded when I asked why. When I pressed for more, he pivoted to the fact that I was filming the fence gash with my phone as we spoke.

“I know you’re filming me,” he incorrectly accused me. I insisted that I hadn’t filmed his face, nor would I identify him.

“You’d better not, because, you know, I’ll sue you,” he responded, abruptly walking away.

“It’s an island of death,” said Jaeson Jones, a retired captain in DPS’s intelligence division. Jones worked against Mexican cartels for many years, and knows the area well. “It’s dangerous, man. It really is,” be said.

Especially now that Border Patrol is off the line, Jones said, and the cartels are cashing in, transporting people. Indeed, each night hundreds of migrants cross through the area of Fronton. 

Eight parents who brought single children over through the Fronton Island area told me they’d paid $9,000 for the cartel to smuggle them up from Honduras. Two parents who brought one child said they paid the cartel $15,000 for the journey.

Money frequently is recovered on cartel smuggling routes along the U.S. southern border.

The cartels are fighting over the lucrative new trade over the island’s east side or elsewhere through the area, Jones said. He pointed to the September 10 cartel shootings of seven people, among them American citizens, who drove across the front lines in nearby Ciudad Miguel Aleman.

Texas DPS Regional Director Victor Escalon, who is overseeing the Fronton Island mission, explained that Texas decided to act now because physical insecurity in the region has grown even worse with the mass migration crisis.

“The federal government is not able to cover all these areas and provide the safety and security of landowners who are in Texas, bottom line,” Escalon said. “When you have a landowner out here saying, ‘hey man, I’m out here feeding my cows and I see three men coming across with backpacks and they’re armed and why do I have to live like that?’ Well, this is the answer, and I call it being proactive.”

Before Texas could take the island, the old issue of ownership first had to be settled. Texas Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham ordered surveys, which found all of it belonged to Texas.

“It has been a joy and pleasure making Texas bigger for the last six months,” Buckingham quipped recently on George Rodriguez’s San Antonio radio show El Conservador. “Watch out Alaska, here we come.”

But not everyone is optimistic that the Texas effort and expense of clearing the island and defending it will end the area’s problems. Other large, thickly vegetated islands are situated across from Fronton.

“All it’s going to do is do away with an island,” said Salinas, the 30-year retired Border Patrol agent. “I think they’ll still be able to move whatever commodity north or south. It’s going to be a speed bump for them [the cartels], in my opinion. They have the resources, money, and time. They’re not unionized, and they’re not shift workers.”

The DPS Regional Director Escalon accepts the possibility of a prolonged island campaign in the Rio Grande.

“This is a lifelong mission, a lifelong operation. It never ends,” Escalon said. “They’re going to move, and if they move somewhere else, we’ll identify it and just follow them everywhere up and down the river. The way we look at this is, this is forever.”

This article first was produced by the Center for Immigration Studies.

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