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Special Report: Criminals harass Customs and Border Protection helicopters with lasers

The cat-and-mouse game between Border Patrol agents and people attempting to sneak across the Rio Grande changes dramatically when air support arrives. (KGBT)

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas (KGBT) - The cat-and-mouse game between Border Patrol agents and people attempting to sneak across the Rio Grande changes dramatically when air support arrives.

CBS 4 News reporter Tiffany Huertas accompanied pilots with the U.S. Customs Protection Air and Marine Operations division, who offered her a firsthand look at how they work with Border Patrol agents on the ground.

Several people had just climbed over the border fence west of the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge when the helicopter arrived. Equipped with night-vision technology, the helicopter crew quickly told Border Patrol agents exactly where the people were hiding.

"That big tree down there by the light cart. OK, you got a couple in that big tree," said Air Enforcement Agent Shannon Lipps, who previously worked as a Border Patrol agent on the ground. "The rest are just laid up in the grass by the levee."

Then a green light started illuminating the cockpit.

"Ah! This knucklehead from Mexico is lasing us," Lipps said.

The helicopter crew could see someone in Mexico pointing a laser at them, but couldn't do anything about it.

"We'll pass that information on to sector. Sector will call their counterparts in the government of Mexico. Whether they make contact with these subject(s) or not, we don't know," Lipps said.

Pointing a laser beam at a plane or a helicopter is a federal crime punishable by a maximum five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas.

"That laser beam, if it hits you in the eyeball, that could cause permanent damage. That could cause blindness," Lipps said.

While federal agents can't cross the border to arrest people who harass helicopters from Mexico, they work diligently to track down people who harass helicopters from United States territory.

  • In June 2015, a federal judge sentenced a Hidalgo man to two years in federal prison for pointing a laser at a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
  • In September 2016, a federal judge sentenced a La Joya man to time served — seven days — for pointing a laser at a Customs and Border Protection helicopter, according to federal court records.

According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office:

According to agents with CBP Air and Marine, lasers are particularly hazardous when directed at aircraft. At a minimum, they create distractions for crews who routinely operate in the vicinity of power lines and towers. Lasers can also create temporary or permanent blindness. Further, since lasers can also be attached to weaponry, pilots will often take immediate evasive action which can also put them in harm’s way.

Lipps said the helicopter crew doesn't let the harassment stop them from assisting Border Patrol agents on the ground.

"When you hear that air support because you know there's somebody above you that's going to see what's going on," Lipps said, adding later: "We're agents just like they are. They're our brothers and sisters down on the ground. We'll definitely do everything we can to help them out."

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