Law Enforcement

America's Curiously Famous Drug-Smuggling Border Trap


America's Curiously Famous Drug-Smuggling Border Trap

Photograph by Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

Never bring drugs into Sierra Blanca, Tex. The tiny town near the Mexican border serves as a major immigration and smuggling checkpoint for vehicles traveling between California and Florida. Agents at that checkpoint have a knack for arresting people on even the smallest of drug charges, especially when they’re celebrities. Snoop Dogg (sorry, “Snoop Lion”), Willie Nelson, actor Armie Hammer (who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), and hacker George Hotz have all been arrested on drug charges there. On Sept. 19, Sierra Blanca agents snagged another one: Fiona Apple, who had .01 pounds of marijuana and .01 lbs. of hash in her tour bus. Bloomberg Businessweek spoke with Rusty Fleming, public information officer at Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office, about why the obscure Texas town has become the most famous border checkpoint in the U.S.

What are so many celebrities doing in Sierra Blanca, anyway?
The Sierra Blanca checkpoint is right along Interstate 10 that runs from the West Coast to the East Coast. If you’re going to go from L.A. to Houston, or San Antonio, or New Orleans, or Florida, you have to come right through here. To my knowledge, on I-10 from L.A. to Florida, this is the only checkpoint that I know of on the eastbound side. That’s the primary reason that tour buses and those kind of people come through here all the time. The checkpoint is set up by Department of Homeland Security— i.e., border patrol.

But it’s not on the U.S.-Mexico border, right?
Right. If you’re driving, we’re 30 miles from the border, or 20 miles as the crow flies. But when you come that close to the border, the D.H.S. puts checkpoints out. This is not a voluntary inspection. They just pick out every single vehicle—bus, truck, bicyclist, anything that’s coming through the checkpoint—for inspection. The primary purpose of border patrol is to check U.S. citizenship. Secondarily, they determine whether to check for concealed humans or narcotics. This is done in a number of ways.

How does the process work?
When you pull into the checkpoint, you’re asked if you’re a U.S. citizen. They may run a narcotics dog around the vehicle, or if the agent questioning the driver sees or hears something to give him probable cause, then you’re asked to pull over to secondary lane [for a full search]. It’s just a short lane, about 20 feet. All occupants are asked to disembark the vehicle. The agents then do a secondary inspection. If a canine alerts them to concealed humans or narcotics, they find them and then go from there.

Are more people caught in Sierra Blanca than at other border checkpoints?
I don’t have the numbers on me, but I can say that many checkpoints probably don’t arrest as many people because they’re on far less-traveled roads. There are checkpoints in south Texas that are on some relatively small highways, so there aren’t going to be big tour buses with celebrities running up and down those roads.

How big is Sierra Blanca anyway?
Sierra Blanca—the town—is about 600 people. We see approximately 17,000 vehicles a day. That’s probably about 25,000 to 30,000 people. More than 90 percent of the money in arrests and finds produced by the [Hudspeth County] Sheriff’s Office comes from the checkpoint.

Do you have to do anything differently when a celebrity gets arrested?
We’re all very used to dealing with people from all walks of life. A celebrity really doesn’t mean anything to us. We don’t handle any of them differently than anyone else. When Snoop Dogg came through here, the amount of of dope he had on him was a misdemeanor in state of Texas. We issued him a citation and let him go on his way. When it came to Willie, well, he had a little more dope on him. It crossed the line into felony territory so he was booked, posted bond, and he left. Armand Hammer was here for three or four days in a tank, one of the three we have here. We didn’t know who he was until months after; he never exposed himself in that way.

In the case of Miss Apple, the amount of marijuana was a misdemeanor. If that was all they’d found, they would’ve written her a ticket. But she also had hash—and hash in the state of Texas is a felony, no matter if it’s a pound or just a speck. She was arrested and brought here. I gotta tell you, most of the celebrities we get, they don’t even want special treatment.

What happened when she was arrested?
At the time of her arrest, it was in the evening and I was made aware that she was coming in. I didn’t know who she was so I looked her up and I knew my phone was going to blow up the next morning. I came in to gather the arrest info to develop a press release. Our jail is across the street from the courthouse and it was going to be 24 to 48 hours before our magistrate came back and Miss Apple could be arraigned. Our chief deputy said, “Let’s get her across the street, so she can go before a judge and doesn’t have to wait that long.” We didn’t do that because she was Fiona Apple. We understand that 99 percent of the people who come into this jail are not from Sierra Blanca. They’re in transit and would like to get on their way. The wheels of justice tend to run rather slow in west Texas so we try to be accommodating for everybody.

[Fiona Apple] got about as far as the hallway here before she started throwing the fit. It was 10 feet from my office, so I walked out there and introduced myself and asked what the problem was. It was very convoluted. I couldn’t understand what her issues were because she was rambling. She kept saying, “I don’t want to be treated like a celebrity and like I’m somebody special,” so I said, “O.K., take her back there until the magistrate gets back.” But she didn’t like that, either. I said, “Honey, that’s how it works.” She eventually calmed down and was good with our jailers. We’ve seen far worse than one little female in our hallway throwing a fit. By our standards this was no big deal.

She later had some choice words for you at a concert, insinuating that your office treated her improperly. You responded with a pretty, um, colorful press release in response.
Well, that’s one way to put it. I wrote a two-part response. The first part was that if you have a real legal complaint, please contact the state’s attorney general office immediately. Then I wrote out my own personal response. I didn’t represent this department or our sheriff, this was Rusty Fleming. I wasn’t trying to be degrading, but I was trying to get her attention. I’ve been embedded with drug cartels, I’ve interviewed active cartel members. I have run with drug lords and you think that any of us are going to be intimated by you threatening us? That’s not going to happen.

I work down here with men who put their lives on the line every day. They seize 10,000 lbs. of narcotics a month and they save people’s lives from the cartels’ hit men. That doesn’t even make the local paper. But we pop one little pop star and the entire world’s attention is focused on it. Sometimes that gets to be demoralizing.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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