SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Texas unveiled the second of six new ‘interceptor’ gunboats on Thursday, similar to Navy swift boats that plied the rivers of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, to patrol the waterways of the Mexico border.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Texas Highway Patrol and the Texas Rangers, said the 34-foot shallow water crafts would be deployed on the Rio Grande and the Intercoastal Waterway, which separates the Texas mainland from Padre Island.
“They have night vision capabilities, they have ballistic shielding, and the first couple of boats have fully automatic machine guns,” department spokesman Tom Vinger told Reuters.
Texas Governor Rick Perry has repeatedly called on the Obama administration to send National Guard troops to boost security on the Texas-Mexico border, which is heavily trafficked by often gun-toting drug smugglers from Mexico.
Vinger said the boats would mainly patrol the Rio Grande, and would be geared toward stopping smugglers of drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants.
Last year, U.S. law enforcement officials exchanged shots over the Rio Grande with suspected drug runners near the south Texas town of Abram, according to news reports. In a separate incident, a West Texas road crew in Hudspeth County, east of El Paso, came under fire from Mexico.
Then in September 2010, U.S. citizen David Hartley was fatally shot while riding a personal watercraft on Falcon Lake, which straddles the Texas-Mexico border.
The first gunboat was quietly placed into service in December. All will be named in honor of public safety officers who have died in the line of duty. The one dedicated on Thursday is named for Trooper David Rucker, killed in 1981.
Vinger said the boats, which will be operated by Department of Public Safety personnel and are emblazoned with the words ‘Texas Highway Patrol,’ each will have three super quiet 300 horsepower outboard engines.
The boats will be allowed to patrol the northern half of the Rio Grande between El Paso and its mouth near Brownsville, because the international boundary line runs down the middle of the river.
Vinger said the best use of the boats would be to deal with what border lawmen call ‘splash downs.’ When drug smugglers are confronted with law enforcement officers in Texas, they currently can speed back to the Rio Grande, drive their vehicle into the river, and then, using rafts, float themselves and their drug cargoes back to Mexico.
“Currently, they have just been allowed to do that,” Vinger said. “Now, with these boats, we will be able to arrest and interdict these smugglers.”
He didn’t know when all six of the boats of what has already been dubbed the ‘Texas Navy’ will be in service.
About 50,000 people have been killed in raging drug violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched an army-backed offensive against the powerful drug cartels shortly after taking office five years ago.
Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Johnston