RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas (Border Report) — There were smiles and handshakes all around Thursday as federal officials gave local law enforcement agencies in Starr County $3 million to assist Border Patrol agents in this area, which has some of the highest rates of drug and human smuggling in the nation.

The money comes from Operation Stonegarden and is the most ever this South Texas border county has received in a fiscal year since the program began in 2008, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Border Report.

“It’s the largest increase that we’ve seen and it’s the largest amount that they’ve done in one particular year. The $3 million is for the sheriff, for the constables, for the police officers and now part of that will go to DPS to help them coordinate,” said Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Committee, who helped to secure the funds.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, announced $3 million for Starr County law enforcement through Operation Stonegarden on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

This is a $600,000 increase from Fiscal Year 2021, and is the only increase in funding from Operation Stonegarden among eight South Texas border counties, according to data obtained by Border Report.

“We can’t do it just with the federal government alone. It’s important to coordinate with local deputies, local police, local DPS officers all coordinating with the Border Patrol,” Cuellar said.

The boost in funds come during the last month of this fiscal year and were monies Cuellar said he got directed to Starr County because it has some of the highest rates of border crime.

A few years ago, Cuellar said he helped to push through Congress an increase in funding for Operation Stonegarden, up to $90 million from $55 million, and that freed up more money for the Southwest border.

Operation Stonegarden includes grants from the Department of Homeland Security, that are administered through states, and are available to any law enforcement agency along the borders with Mexico and Canada, according to DHS.

The $3 million from Operation Stonegarden for Starr County, Texas, will be distributed among local law enforcement agencies. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Republican who represents a large swath of the border in West Texas, has filed a bill to double the annual budget for Operation Stonegarden to $180 million, with at least $60 million reserved for the purchasing of technology and communications equipment

“Operation Stonegarden is a lifeline for our Border Patrol who rely on local law enforcement and sheriffs to support their efforts at our southern border,” Gonzales said in a statement.

Operation Stonegarden funds announced Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, will go to law enforcement agencies in Starr County, including DPS. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)
RGV Sector Border Patrol Acting Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Christian Alvarez. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“It’s a great program that allows us, the federal agencies, to rely on our community partners and provides them money for funds that they need for their equipment, vehicles, fuel. It helps us get more boots on the ground to be able to have more eyes on the border and on the river,” RGV Sector Border Patrol Acting Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Christian Alvarez told Border Report.

The funds received in Starr County will be distributed among various municipal police departments and the Starr County Sheriff’s Office, along with the district attorney’s office and constables, and will be used for overtime pay, vehicles, fuel, technology and new equipment, Cuellar said.

Alvarez says Starr County, with just 65,000 residents, has led the nation in terms of narcotic seizures.

“It’s a very active area. It’s a very desolate area. There’s not a lot of infrastructure so we do require manpower on the ground to be able to make those seizures,” Alvarez said.

Roma Police Chief IV Garza Jr., said his 25 patrol agents often are involved in chases, bailouts and help Border Patrol agents retrieve bundles of marijuana and other drugs that transnational criminal organizations try to get across the Rio Grande from Mexico.

Roma Police Chief IV Garza Jr., says his 25 officers on his police force will get overtime pay and new equipment from the $3 million Operation Stonegarden grant. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“We do see a lot of traffic coming in whether it’s smuggling persons or narcotics so our officers stay very busy with border security as well and we do help Border Patrol out a lot,” Garza said.

He said the money from Operation Stonegarden supplies overtime pay for officers to work on their off-time, and that allows for a multiplication of forces on the ground.

 “It enhances our protection because these officers are working Stonegarden operations and border security operations,” Garza said.

Since the program began in 2008, Starr County has received almost $25 million from Operation Stonegarden.

Neighboring Hidalgo County, with a population over 860,000, received $6 million this fiscal year from Operation Stonegarden, the same amount the county received in 2021, according to data.

Webb County, which includes Laredo, received $4.3 million, and also did not receive an increase from 2021 to 2022.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com