Homeland Security prepares response team (video)
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Oct. 30, 2012 at 5:30 a.m.
Updated Oct. 31, 2012 at 5:31 a.m.
HOUSTON -- A cool breeze blew through a Houston aircraft hanger last week, as a Homeland Security Investigations' Special Response Team prepares to load into a helicopter.
The seven-man squad -- who cannot be named to protect their identities -- are dressed in at least 30 pounds of bulletproof gear, which includes a black, metal helmet and a vest that reads "POLICE" across the front.
Readying for the day, the operators pick up their M4 rifles -- an abbreviated version of the M16 rifle - and stand in lateral formation before uniformly dropping the rifle barrels down and to the left.
A faint, uncomplicated exchange of friendly chatter does little to indicate a six-hour day of drills and tactical training awaits the Houston-based team.
And even though the events of the day are simulated missions, the men are trained to approach each drill as though it were the actual operation.
"Basically, if this team responds, it's most likely going to be a dangerous" mission, said Special Agent Armando Astorga, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Houston. "Part of what the team does is to try and apprehend some of the most violent criminals."
Moments later, the Homeland Security helicopter lands in an open field about a mile from the hangar, stirring up patches of dirt and grass in all directions as the landing skids of the aircraft lower to the ground.
One-by-one, the uniformed operators exit the chopper, looking right, then left, as they form a 360-degree triangle and erect the M4s in all directions.
The exercise simulates how the team would respond to a take-down mission in a rural area, where high-risk criminals may be engaging, for example, in manufacturing bulk loads of illegal narcotics.
"When the operators get out of the helicopter, one of the first things they do is provide 360-degree coverage of the area that they're actually protecting, which allows the helicopter to exit, and then you're allowed to move on to the target," Astorga said.
The team practices the drill several times, loading and unloading from the helicopter.
About an hour later, they move to a second covert training location outside of Houston, where they practice firearms training, extracting criminals from vehicles, and "CQBs," or close quarter combat role-playing scenarios, using Simunition ammunition, or military-grade paintball bullets.
As Homeland Security Investigations agents, as well as response team operators, they must be prepared at all times to engage in some of the most ungovernable domestic and international lawbreakers living in Texas.
Part of the job requires the men to be on-call at all times, and many operators will keep a to-go bag packed, so they're able to deploy to any mission within four hours of a summons.
"It takes a lot of time and effort and dedication and motivation to be part of the team with all the extra hours and extra training you have to do," Astorga said, mentioning that the agents are still required to keep up with their normal HSI case work. "It takes a special kind of individual to want to do that."
Astorga said his elite team of 18 certified operators, who make up the SRT team in Houston, is required to train 20 hours a month to maintain their certification.
The team members respond statewide to federal Homeland Security Investigations' cases where their primary goal is to apprehend violent suspects. These cases, Astorga explained, would involve crimes that area law enforcement would not have the resources or tools to take down, such as large-scale child pornography cases, narcotics and weapons smuggling, commercial fraud, human trafficking, child sex tourism and raiding human smuggling-related stash houses - which are becoming more prevalent throughout South Texas as the business of illegal immigration-related human smuggling continues to thrive along U.S. Highway 59 and the U.S. 77 "Fatal Funnel."
The Fatal Funnel was named for those who have died along the highways for their involvement in the illegal trade of people or goods.
"We have 18 different groups in our office. Our agency works more diverse and different kinds of investigations than any other" law enforcement agency, said Jeff Hine, Homeland Security Investigations senior special agent and senior firearms instructor. "On human smuggling (cases), you may go into a house with 30 bodies. That in itself creates a situation in clearing that location safely."
Throughout the Crossroads, the response team has a presence. One team member, who cannot be named because he is an active agent working the South Texas region, is a native of the area and regularly involved in assisting with some of the agency's more dangerous missions.
Like this team member, response team operators often exist in their communities under the guise of "government employee," to maintain anonymity when they return home from special missions.
But if and when the team is called to respond to crimes in the Crossroads, Hine and Astorga said their men are aptly prepared, and will be focused on public safety.
"It's important for the public to know as a general purpose" that we exist "because we are public servants, and that such a team serves the public interest," Astorga said.
"I think taking (bad guys) off the streets is making your neighborhood safer. That's what we're here for," Hine added.
At the close of Tuesday's training day, the agents dismantled their weighty gear and sipped water from their bottles. The morning's cool temps were gone, and the events of a brutal SRT training day were evidenced by the team's sweat-dampened clothing.
"These are such dedicated agents who are willing to go through these hazards to keep the public safe," Astorga said. "There are a lot of sacrifices of blood, sweat and tears, and we feel it's commendable that we have a Special Response Team that is willing to go the extra mile."