(CBS News) BROOKS COUNTY, Texas - The Border Patrol is as busy as ever catching smugglers hauling drugs from Mexico. But many who are caught are now being given a free pass.
Brooks County Sheriff Rey Rodriguez took us on Texas Highway 281. This is a major route for smugglers bringing narcotics into the United States from Mexico. He acknowledges that drugs come up here every day and in multiple loads.
Each year the Border Patrol checkpoint seizes hundreds of thousands of pounds of marijuana.
"We have 'em put it in spare tires and gas tanks," said a Border Patrol agent, whose voice and identity has been disguised because the agent feared of being fired for telling us what happens next - that up to 60 smugglers a month are being let go.
"We catch 'em, but then because our hands are tied, they end up walking and being released," said the agent.
As for what the biggest load of marijuana he's seen where someone was still let go, he said: "The biggest load that I've seen is right around 140 pounds."
Police here say federal authorities generally won't prosecute traffickers moving less than 150 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $120,000. So they leave those cases and the costs to local district attorneys, including Carlos Garcia of Brooks County.
"If we were to accept them, we're accepting them with all those financial responsibilities as well, and right now we're just not at a point where we can do that," Garcia said, adding that they just can't afford it.
The Justice Department used to help pay for the prosecutions in border areas. The funding reached $31 million in 2010 but fell to $5 million this year. There's no money in the White House budget request for next year.
"We're having problems here," said Garcia. "And it's not crime that's in our area, it's crime that's passing through our area. They just happen to get caught here."
He later added that "they're going to the rest of the United States."
The Justice Department declined our request for an interview. But in a statement, the agency said it had to "make difficult choices regarding funding" for border prosecutions.
The Border Patrol told CBS News in an email that if no one picks up those cases, agents have "no alternative but to seize the illegal drugs ... and then release the individuals involved".
Asked how it squares for him, as a law enforcement officer, the agent said: "It's a punch in the gut, because this is not the way the system should work or is supposed to work."
Since suspects can't be released at this highway checkpoint, federal agents are often stuck giving smugglers a ride to the nearest bus stop.