LAREDO, Texas - The largest law enforcement agency in the U.S. is as big as the combined forces of the FBI, the ATF, and the DEA.
You may not know it by three letters, but you might be their color: green.
The Border Patrol has nearly 20,000 agents, responsible for keeping out people who have no legal business being in this country.
One of the key members of that Thin Green Line is Jason Owens, 43, chief of the Laredo Sector for the Border Patrol and a native Georgian.
“It's basically just a constant cat and mouse game where they're looking for the next way to beat us," he explained as we walked along a well-worn dirt path leading up from the Rio Grande.
We stood more than a thousand miles from Shorter University in Rome, Georgia, where Owens earned a Master's in Accounting. But there are days when he looks across the Rio Grande, hears the gun battles with drug cartels and realizes the Peach State is truly a world away.
“These are highly equipped and highly capable adversaries that are causing all kinds of havoc in those border communities on a daily basis and it's right next door to where we live," he pointed out.
Inside their command center in Laredo, agents chase down tips from callers and phone apps while monitoring a huge array of television monitors. Feeds from 48 fixed cameras cycle through. Eventually, they hope to add as many as 700 game warden cameras. But right now coverage only stretches for about 40 miles. The Laredo sector is responsible for 170 miles of the Rio Grande.
Owens believes a wall would help him do his work.
"It absolutely would," he agreed. "Anything and everything. We have 170 miles of border with Mexico in the Laredo Sector alone. Right now, we have zero border wall.”
The Rio Grande was high and moving fast the week the FOX 5 I-Team spent in Texas. Mexicans came to their side of the river to toss in fishing nets or stare back. The Border Patrol says a smuggler can take only minutes to get someone across in a raft, where they can race into the woods and quickly melt into neighborhoods like Riverhill, a community pocked with dilapidated or burned out houses. It's a place where one can easily disappear for a while, and wait for a ride heading north.
For the Border Patrol that means constant boats on the water, helicopters over the water, and a lot of boots on the ground.
Agents showed us the evidence of a smuggling route: wet clothes tossed to the ground in exchange for dry ones. Water bottles scattered in the underbrush.
They also look for "foot sign," tracks that smugglers and their customers make along the sandy trails and dirt roads.
“We've seen blowers," one agent explained. "They carried a blower charged with a battery blowing all the sign off.”
No one crosses the Rio Grande without the OK of the cartels. According to the Border Patrol, it will cost a Mexican $5000 to cross. Central Americans, $10,000. But it's the group paying as much as $20,000 each that most worry the Border Patrol these days. Immigrants from Bangladesh. Since October, they've apprehended more than 200 Bangladeshis in the Laredo Sector alone.
“It's becoming a huge area of concern for us because the question becomes why are they coming across?" warned sector chief Owens. "Is it just to seek the American dream of the American way of life? The potential for threat is definitely there when you're talking about somebody from a country with a terrorist nexus.”
And Owens has no doubt some are still getting through.
On all major roads leading away from the Rio Grande, the Border Patrol operates a network of 34 checkpoints, many several miles inland. That's how they found a tractor trailer packed with 59 illegal immigrants north of Laredo in April.
But they don't have enough time -- or agents -- to thoroughly check every vehicle. When we drove north on our way to San Antonio, we slowed down for only a few seconds at the Laredo North checkpoint. The agent asked whether we were Americans. We said yes. She said thanks. We drove on.
President Trump has authorized an additional 5500 Border Patrol agents. But the agency is already having trouble maintaining its current 20-thousand force. Over the years, some new hires wound up secretly working for Mexican gangs or the cartels. Others have been charged with raping immigrants or killing them and covering up their murders.
Critics worry the Border Patrol has relaxed its standards in a rush to beef up the force.
Not true, says the Laredo sector chief.
“We don't want to see anyone wearing this badge and uniform who shouldn't be wearing it," insisted Owens.
But he admits a steady stream of Border Patrol agents are resigning to work in safer law enforcement jobs.
“Every time they encounter someone, they don't know who they're dealing with and almost every time they're significantly outnumbered.”
Some agents told us they no longer risk going over the International Bridge to visit Nuevo Laredo off-duty like they might have years ago.
Times have changed. The world's a different place along the Rio Grande.