It was no pleasure trip that awaited Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson when he boarded a plane earlier this month and reset his watch to the local time for Brook County, Texas.
Johnson ultimately embarked on this three-day excursion as something of a reconnaissance mission – one that would take him to the southernmost reaches of the United States in order to see what conditions are like along the U.S. border with Mexico.
This particular journey, which the county’s Republican sheriff undertook between September 28 and 30, wasn’t exactly his first visit to this volatile national boundary. Johnson had previously made expeditions to the border in 2012 and 2017 to get a firsthand glimpse at this crossing point in the illegal drug trade, which has been a perennial thorn in the side of Alamance County’s top-ranking law enforcement official.
In this case, Johnson undertook the trip at the invitation of The Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a nonprofit advocacy group that lobbies for tougher restrictions on the movement of people into the U.S. In this case, FAIR had teamed up with an assortment of public and private interests to give a select group of guests from other parts of the country a closer look at this nation’s efforts to police its border with Mexico. According to Johnson, FAIR had extended its invites to law enforcement officials and law-makers from the jurisdictions, which in his case had him pair with state representative Steve Ross, a Republican who represents the central and eastern portions of Alamance County.
For Johnson, this all-expenses paid trip was an opportunity to expand his own insights into the cross-border drug trade.
“I wanted to see where the drugs are coming across the border into the U.S.,” he recalled in a conversation earlier this week, “and I wanted to see the routes that they’re taking to come to Alamance County.”
Along the way, Johnson said that he and his fellow travelers were able to rub shoulders with U.S. border patrol agents as well as their state-level counterparts – who hailed not only from Texas but also from Florida, which has become a growing force along the U.S-Mexican border under the leadership of its governor and Republican Presidential contender Ronald DeSantis.
Another emerging factor in the business of border security has been troops of private volunteers who’ve been mustered by private landowners with extensive holdings along the border with Mexico. In fact, the staging ground for Johnson’s tour happened to be one of these privately-patrolled areas – a 1,500 acre ranch that has reportedly become a regular byway for drug traffickers as well as illegal immigrants.
Johnson recalled that the grounds of this ranch have been the scene of some grisly discoveries, including the skeletal remains of 125 people who either died of exposure while passing into the U.S. or who perished at the hands of murderous drug smugglers. The sheriff insists that the depredations of these traffickers, many of whom are affiliated with the notorious Sinaloa Cartel, have been felt as far away as his own patrol jurisdiction.
“It’s been a problem for us since 2005,” he added. “We’ve had 213 fentanyl deaths since 2013, and we’re probably only seizing 1 percent of the drugs that are coming into Alamance County.”
Johnson went on to point out that the DEA’s own data shows that central North Carolina has become a way station for drugs that are produced south of the border for end users in the Northeastern U.S. The sheriff contends that the volume of this illegal trade is increasingly stretching the resources of local authorities in his neck of the woods.
“First off all, we don’t have enough manpower to intercept everything that comes though,” he explained. “Secondly, we’re the only place in North Carolina with two interstates that run together from one end of the county to the other.”
Johnson said that his own experiences in Alamance County have offered him glimpses of the high degree of sophistication of the people who orchestrate this illegal drug trade. He added that the extent of their capabilities were also fully on view during his recent trip to the border.
The sheriff recalled that, at one point, he and his fellow delegates traveled along the Rio Grande on a flotilla of gun boats manned by teams of heavily-armed state troopers. During this journey, Johnson and the other guests noticed patrol helicopters that were faithfully shadowed by drones that were piloted by unseen individuals on the Mexican side of the border.
Even more disconcerting were the shortcomings in border security that Johnson’s hosts brought to his attention. These chinks in the proverbial armor included both physical weaknesses, such as conspicuous gaps in the federal government’s border walls, and policy-related handicaps, including a rule that supposedly prohibits the well-armed border guards from returning any fire they receive from the Mexican side of the border.
Since his return to Alamance County, Johnson has continued to reflect on his trip to the Lone Star State, with an ever-growing determination to share his experiences with the rest of the nation. To this end, the sheriff has agreed to travel to Washington, D.C. next month in order to bend the ears of federal leaders on behalf of his allies in FAIR.
Johnson acknowledged that the advocacy group has promised to pay his way to the Nation’s Capital on November 7 so that he can address a Congressional committee in support of a bill that aims to beef up security along the U.S.-Mexican border. The sheriff added, that notwithstanding his gratitude to the organization sponsoring his trip, he believes his remarks will ultimately be to the benefit of his constituents back home.
“I’m speaking on behalf of the people of Alamance County,” he declared. “My concern is with the number of deaths we’re having from fentanyl poisoning, as well as the drug trafficking and homicides that we’re seeing. I’m going to do everything in my power to stop this, even if it means addressing a committee in Washington, D.C.”