Marion law enforcement visit Mexico border

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Posted July 15, 2021 | By Carlos Medina,

Ocala Police Chief Mike Balken (left), and Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods (right).

Ocala Police Chief Mike Balken and Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods were shown in a video reacting to the situation at the border with Mexico in Texas late Wednesday evening.

In the video, the two area law enforcement leaders are seen standing by the slated fence that separates the two countries near McAllen, Texas. The video, which begins at 11:47 p.m., does not show people on the southern side of the fence, but there is a din of people talking as U.S. immigration and border patrol officials keep watch.

“It’s heartbreaking to see these people standing outside of a wall wanting to get into this country,” Balken said.

Woods agreed.

“It hurts,” Woods said. “We don’t want to leave the human beings out here. We don’t want to leave their children out here. Bad guys don’t do good things and they will abuse and use the innocent and the innocent are standing right here.”

The trip, which was organized by U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, a Republican from Gainesville, was meant to give law enforcement a deeper perspective of how immigration and border security issues ultimately affect the entire country, not just border towns like McAllen.

Across the border from McAllen, is the Mexican city of Reynosa. It is known as a key drug and human trafficking point and a hotbed of drug cartel activity.

The number of illegal drugs crossing the border, including illicit fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine are in the billions of dollars. From the border, those drugs are distributed around the country.

“That’s the root cause of the problem. I almost feel helpless back home,” Woods said. “I’m trying to shoot a buffalo with a bb gun.”

The cartels running the trafficking business are also causing chaos in Reynosa and across Mexico. On June 19, gunmen killed 14 people in separate attacks. Tamaulipas state Gov. Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca called the victims “innocent citizens” rather than members of one gang killed by a rival.

Balken issued a written response for why he was making the trip.

“Since the beginning of 2018, we’ve responded to well over 900 overdose incidents which resulted in the deaths of nearly 140 Ocala citizens. Subsequent investigations into these deaths has convinced me that the heroin and fentanyl responsible for our overdose deaths is entering the United States directly from Mexico. Having a better understanding of how and why this is occurring at such an alarming rate should help us better allocate resources and develop investigative techniques to more effectively disrupt the flow of drugs into our community,” according to his response.

In the U.S., overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government reported on July 14.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed death certificates to come up with the estimate for 2020 drug overdose deaths. The estimate of more than 93,000 translates to an average of more than 250 deaths each day, or roughly 11 every hour.

That estimate far eclipses the high of about 72,000 drug overdose deaths reached the previous year and amounts to a 29% increase.

While prescription painkillers once drove the nation’s overdose epidemic, they were supplanted first by heroin and then by fentanyl, a dangerously powerful opioid, in recent years. Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer but has increasingly been sold illicitly and mixed with other drugs.

Fentanyl was involved in more than 60% of the overdose deaths last year, CDC data suggests.

In addition to Balken and Woods, Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood, Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith, Putnam County Sheriff Gator DeLoach and Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staley also traveled to the border.

The approximate cost of the trip, including hotel stay is $800, according to OPD. The expense was paid for using the tax-funded department travel and training fund, OPD stated.

The sheriff’s department did not immediately state how it paid for the trip.

Both Balken and Woods are expected back on Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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