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Border Patrol, DPS Set Aside Past Conflict, Buddy up for 'Team Sport' of Border Security

Last year, the agencies began deploying vehicles carrying one officer from each organization. Ten so-called Cortina units — Cortina is Spanish for curtain — now work the border each shift to intercept people and drugs entering the U.S. illegally.

(TNS) — In the Rio Grande Valley, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and U.S. Border Patrol agents are working side-by-side. Literally.

Last year, the agencies began deploying vehicles carrying one officer from each organization. Ten so-called Cortina units — Cortina is Spanish for curtain — now work the border each shift, part of a coordinated effort to intercept people and drugs entering the U.S. illegally.

They're a small part of the massive law enforcement push at the Texas-Mexico line, but the units could prove to be key markers in the much-debated relationship between the two agencies.

"We're in this to support Border Patrol," said Jose Rodriguez, DPS' commander over the Rio Grande Valley.

That rapport has been under the microscope ever since Texas launched its border surge in 2014.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol's parent agency, last year stirred controversy by saying it had not participated in Texas' operation. But the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector released a video a few months later touting "unprecedented integration" with DPS.

With those issues still swirling — especially after DPS asked for a billion-dollar border security budget for the next two years — the Cortina units stand out as a piece of tangible evidence.

To learn more about the little-discussed units and the current state of the agencies' broader relationship, The Dallas Morning News spoke recently to Rodriguez and the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector chief, Manuel Padilla.

Asked point-blank if DPS' border efforts were helpful, Padilla didn't hesitate.

"Border security is a team sport," he said. "So yes, here and everywhere else, we do need the efforts of federal state and local agencies."

Here are three things to know about the Cortina units:

The idea isn't new. But it is different.

The feds have used these types of joint units before. Padilla pointed in particular to the 1990s, when Border Patrol agents rode along with El Paso police officers.

"If we are working in the same exact area of operation, it just makes sense to work closely together," he said.

But the setup does mark a shift for DPS.

Rodriguez noted that state troopers are used to sticking to the highways. And that arrangement produced outcry that DPS was just writing traffic tickets at the border. In recent months, though, the agency has sought to be more proactive.

The Cortina units are one way for troopers to "get off the blacktop."

"You've got to get on the ground," Rodriguez said. "You've got to get out of the vehicle."

This isn't some cheesy buddy cop movie.

Two officers. Two agencies. One car. What's the big deal, especially given that there are only seven units operating from Rio Grande City and three more from McAllen?

An obvious upshot is improved communications. Another is that the agencies can complement each other's legal authority.

The feds, for instance, are the only ones who can actually apprehend a person crossing into the U.S. illegally. But some crimes might fall below the threshold for federal prosecution. And DPS might be better positioned in some cases to file state charges.

Officials pointed to an instance from last year when a Cortina unit was tipped to drug smugglers in Starr County by Border Patrol aircraft. They seized 245 pounds of marijuana, and DPS filed two charges against the 17-year-old driver.

"We're leveraging authorities and leveraging capabilities," Padilla said.

Dispute? What dispute?

The political football over border security isn't going away anytime soon.

The debates continue over which agencies deserve the most credit at the border, which metrics should be used to determine success at the Texas-Mexico line, and how much the state should spend on what traditionally has been a federal responsibility.

Still, Rodriguez and Padilla dismissed the notion that they aren't on the same page.

Padilla, who's been in his role since January, said he was "not aware of the circumstances around" the earlier dispute over the feds' participation in Texas' operation. But he said "partnerships have been fundamental to what we do."

And though Rodriguez said the relationship is still evolving, he said there's been an active commitment to "the partnership and to working together."

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