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Border crisis central to rural county sheriff race

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(The Center Square) – The border crisis has become a central focal point of a small rural county sheriff’s race. The incumbent in the race argues the border shouldn’t be the focus of the campaign.

Lavaca County Sheriff Micah Harmon, who’s running for reelection, told residents at a Republican Party precinct chair event this week that, “contrary to opponents’ claims, Lavaca County is not the epicenter of border crisis.”

He also said the border crisis and crime occurring in the county has been “overexaggerated throughout the campaign,” reiterating his slogan, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it.”

Lavaca County is one of 53 counties that have declared an invasion. It’s also among 60 that have issued disaster declarations citing the border crisis. The declarations enabled the sheriff’s office to apply for and receive nearly $600,000 in Operation Lone Star grants to purchase new vehicles and equipment and pay for overtime.

His primary challenger, former Lavaca County Justice of the Peace Steve Greenwell, who served for years as a Homeland Security Investigations supervisory special agent and Border Patrol agent, warned about drugs coming into the county from the border last year.

Last fall, a Lavaca County man was arrested by a neighboring sheriff’s office, which seized 11 kilograms of methamphetamine, enough to kill the entire county population twice over.

“All contraband and smuggling, whether it be people, drugs, weapons or money, is conspiratorial in nature,” Greenwell told The Center Square. “Multiple people are involved in getting drugs from the border to Houston, and they come straight through our county. Our job in law enforcement is to follow all the leads going back to the border. This requires interagency interdiction efforts that match the sophistication of the cartels’ networks.

“If we don’t start pushing back real soon, we’re done. The battle is local, statewide.”

Since then, two residents have died from fentanyl poisoning in the county. More recently, in the last seven days, 13 individuals were arrested, the majority were booked on drug-related charges, according to county jail inmate records.

Four booked in the nearly full jail have immigration detainers, meaning they’re in the country illegally. Three Hispanic male relatives are charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury. A fourth man with an INS detainer has been charged with assault causing bodily injury to a family member.

“Do we have border related issues, yes,” Harmon told The Center Square. The county has vehicles that are stolen, pursuits of alleged smugglers and bailouts, he said.

Harmon has come under fire by residents for not joining an Operation Lone Star task force, led by Goliad Sheriff Roy Boyd. Greenwell did last December; Boyd has endorsed Greenwell for sheriff.

The task force, which has expanded to 30 agencies, includes Hallettsville and Yoakum police departments but not the Lavaca County Sheriff’s Office, is focused on criminal networks determined to reach major cartel hubs in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

Harmon told The Center Square he “wasn’t approached to join task force. Anyone claiming we don’t cooperate with other agencies is false information.” He also said the sheriff’s office “doesn’t have to be part of a task force to help each other and assist each other on operations.”

When asked if he would join the task force if asked, he said, “We don’t have a person to assign to task force,” saying it was a personnel issue even after receiving nearly $600,000 in funds.

Boyd responded, saying, “Sheriff Harmon was invited to join. He declined the offer. We do not hold it against him. Not everyone is up to the task of this new level of enforcement activity. Some communities do not want their law enforcement to engage in proactive policing for one reason or another. We work for the citizens of our counties. And each is a little different.”

Boyd also told The Center Square, “The effectiveness of the Operation Lone Star Task Force is measured not only in arrests and cases made, but in the fact that smuggling organizations have altered their routes to avoid participating jurisdictions.

“Border Patrol has been analyzing intel and confirmed our suspicions. Cartel operatives and members have taken advantage of a gap in coverage created by counties who turned down the offer to join the OLS Task Force back in 2021,” including Lavaca and DeWitt counties, whose sheriffs were at a meeting roughly three years ago when Boyd asked for input to create the task force, he said.

Cartel operatives are using Highway 72, which runs through Karnes, DeWitt, Lavaca and Colorado counties to reach Houston, Boyd said. “Criminals use this route north and south, taking stolen trucks south to pick up drugs and illegal aliens, using the same route north to deliver their payloads,” he told The Center Square. “This creates a higher density of cartel presence in those counties as they avoid OLS Task Force enforcement efforts. The gap in coverage also makes it harder to eliminate cartel activity in our region. These sanctuary counties have given free range for criminal organizations to operate. It is my hope that something will change in those counties, and we will have the opportunity to deny cartels and other criminals the ability to conduct business in South Texas.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, who supports the task force, “has asked us, as law enforcement, to step up and fight transnational criminal activity,” Boyd said. OLS Task Force agencies “are doing their part, but not everyone is willing to take on the burden of responsibility and join in the fight. It is not an easy task, but we owe it to the people we serve to do everything within our power to protect them from this criminal activity.”