Heavy Traffic

Border drug lords get rich while attorney Mike Barclay gets worn out defending the poor smugglers

Barclay manages to make the best of this bleak milieu. His professional yet easygoing style has won him admirers from all sides of the courtroom. He has helped make sure that the crushing load of drug cases is not used as an excuse to deprive the mules and coyotes their due process. Despite his age, he has rekindled a passion for his work, once again embracing the youthful, idealistic notion that, with care and hard work, he can help ensure that something akin to justice--or, at least, fairness--is meted out day-to-day in this hopeless border war.

"He's a throwback to the lawyers of bygone days," Furgeson says. "For him, making certain our justice system works is more than a job; it is a calling."

Mike Barclay began his career in Dallas a half-century ago and for 30 years had a reputation as one of the city's premier criminal defense lawyers. He defended all manner of thieves, murderers and rapists, and he was viewed by those in the judicial system as a learned, always-prepared litigator. His courtroom theatrics were legendary.
Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson says that smugglers have become so advanced in scouting the area that when he leaves his office, someone is on the phone alerting people on the other side of the border.
Courtesy of Brewster County Sheriff's Office
Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson says that smugglers have become so advanced in scouting the area that when he leaves his office, someone is on the phone alerting people on the other side of the border.

"Over the years, he's reached a status where he probably gets away with more in court than he should," Furgeson says. "Prosecutors often defer to him and rarely object, he's friends with everyone in the courthouse and, most important, he commands great respect."

He also commands a caseload far greater than any he ever juggled in Dallas. "I wasn't here long before I realized that the courts were literally inundated with cases of drug and alien trafficking," Barclay says.

His phone rings constantly. Weary judges ask if he'll take court appointments and an occasional client who couldn't afford to hire counsel for his own defense or that of a family member. Barclay spends much of his time making the 100-mile trek to the federal courthouse in Pecos, where a fast-moving "rocket docket" is the order of the day.

The phrase was born during the tenure of the late U.S. District Judge Lucius Bunton. Because of the flood of cases arriving in his court, he made it clear to attorneys--defense and prosecution alike--that two witnesses were not to be called when one would do. His courtroom opened early and often didn't close until late at night. Jurors might be excused for a quick lunch, but lawyers were instructed to remain and eat the same sack lunch served to inmates at the nearby jail. "I soon got pretty good at making a motion with a bite of mystery-meat sandwich in my mouth," Barclay says.

That treadmill style of justice continues today. "It's the only way to keep your head above water," says Judge Furgeson, who replaced Bunton and adopted his practices. Barclay, he says, is one of the few who can keep up with the pace and still do well by each of his clients.

Those clients range from frightened, desperate young men to older, more hardened criminals with nothing more than greed as a motive for their crimes. For the majority of those he defends, however, the veteran attorney feels a noticeable degree of sympathy.

"They're desperate," he says, "because they're hungry. Their families are hungry. They've reached a point where they'll do anything to improve their hopeless situations." And so they risk going to jail for a paltry sum. The going rate for a mule, Barclay says, is $100 per pound of marijuana he successfully smuggles in. No up-front payment, no promise of legal help if arrested, no knowledge of the English language and no assurance against bodily harm. The poorly compensated mules are the key link in the Mexico-to-U.S. drug chain and yet are the most expendable.

The same applies to the coyote, who receives about $150 per illegal immigrant he is able to smuggle across the border--while Mexico kingpins like Ruben Valdes, once head of an organization that moved more than 200 people a week before he recently received a 27-year prison sentence for practicing the illicit trade, earn $1,500 to $2,000 from each person jammed into the back of a sweatbox trailer.

It is a discomforting statistic, but officials investigating the recent Victoria incident wherein 19 immigrants were found suffocated estimate they had been worth as much as $200,000 in smuggling fees. The driver, meanwhile, admitted to authorities that he was to have been paid only $2,500.

"More than once," Barclay says, "I've seen cases where one of the mules, carrying, say, 50 pounds of marijuana, was sent across while the people hiring him knew he'd be caught. He was just a decoy, there to divert attention from another mule close behind him with 500 pounds."

Even the courts, he says, are generally prone to view his clients' crimes with some degree of leniency since it is not the endless reserve of downtrodden and defeated middlemen the authorities are really after.

"The judges know that in most instances these people are just being used," says Larry Leon, Alpine's resident DEA agent. "For the most part," he says, "these are sad people, down on their luck. They need money so badly they're willing to take the chance of going to jail for a long time." Law enforcement's primary interest in them, then, is any information they might provide about where the drugs they're smuggling originated and where and to whom they are to be delivered.

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