SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas (ValleyCentral) — U.S. Customs and Border Protection is placing a surveillance balloon in the sky over this beach community.

On Thursday, CBP announced its Air and Marine Operations will launch a tethered aerostat, Argos, at U.S. Coast Guard Station South Padre Island.

The aerostat will be tethered and flying over the Island this month, officials said, attributing the need to the surveillance to “upticks in transportation avenues and conveyances for illegal smuggling, fishing, and immigration activities”.

The Argos aerostat is part of CBP and DHS’s strategy to confront smuggling, trafficking and poaching in the Gulf of Mexico offshore South Padre Island, officials said. This is a strategy used once previously, authorities said.

“This is the second deployment of an aerostat at South Padre Island, and past deployments have enhanced CBP’s border security posture, expanded its situational awareness capabilities, and increased reach and ability for USCG and other state and local law enforcement organizations,” CBP said.

In its announcement, federal authorities detailed the purposes of the surveillance technology aboard the Argos.

CBP shared additional information related to its privacy impact assessments.

“The specific surveillance technology onboard the aerostat is designed to collect information about cross-border traffic and associated activities and is not intended to interfere in non-criminal activity, and all data transmitted to law enforcement entities is stored and protected in accordance with all legal, regulatory, and policy requirements for privacy,” CBP stated.

Previous deployment

The last time CBP deployed an aerostat over the Island was in 2018.

Cameron County Parks Director Joe Vega, whose department oversees Isla Blanca Park near where the aerostat was tethered and will be tethered again, said beachgoers back then were asking what was in the air and about its purpose.

“We feel safer with it” South Padre Island resident Tommy Saenz told media in 2018. “It monitors air, land and sea. If there’s any illegal activity let’s say in the Gulf of Mexico like illegal fishing they can detect the illegal fishing and go stop that.”

However, the balloon sustained “catastrophic damage” amid cold weather and high winds.

DHS said then that “a broken metal punctured the balloon causing rapid deflation.” 

Following the deflation, CBP said that the agency had removed the sensitive surveillance equipment aboard the damaged aerostat and was assessing options for future operations at the Island.