More than 100,000 illegal immigrants, including narcotics smugglers and convicted criminals, have been caught by the U.S. Border Patrol since it tethered three huge surveillance blimps over Texas' Rio Grande Valley last fall.
The agency told The Texas Tribune
that the aerostats — as the balloons are called — are part of a new enforcement effort that is trying to deal with shifting immigration patterns.
While traditionally many illegal entrants have been Mexicans seeking employment, agents say they now are concerned about drug traffickers from Central America. There has been a sharp increase in seizures of methamphetamine in the valley, and heroin arrests are up by more than 135 percent.
On April 16, the agency also announced that it had caught 20 convicted sex offenders.
More than 100 additional Border Patrol agents have been sent to the valley and new watchtowers are being built.
But the agency largely credits the blimps with gathering the intelligence that has led to the stepped-up arrests.
Fox News reported
last November that the agency was borrowing the spy equipment from the Pentagon.
Originally designed to detect terrorists in war-torn Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the aerostats float 2,500 feet above the parched desert and ranchland near the border. Cameras and sensors mounted inside can pick out figures as far as two miles away.
Last July, a report obtained under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit revealed the balloons also may be equipped with arms: "Additional payload upgrades could include expendables or nonlethal weapons designed to immobilize [targets of interest]," it said.
But in a statement to Fox, the agency insisted it had "no plans to arm its unmanned aircraft systems with nonlethal weapons or weapons of any kind." The balloons are in the sky over Texas to "provide an important surveillance and reconnaissance capability for interdiction agents on the ground and on the waterways," the statement said.
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