HARLINGEN, Texas – Chants of "Knock it Down, Knock it Down!" reverberated through a small Harlingen neighborhood in mid-December as the Texas Joint Counterdrug Task Force's Operation Crackdown demolished another abandoned and unsafe structure. The house was known as a drug haven to the local Harlingen Police Department. The structure was less than half a mile from the Sam Houston Elementary School.
Operation Crackdown is a program in which Texas Military Forces (TXMF) soldiers and airmen demolish structures associated with the drug trade. To date, the program has demolished close to 1,350 structures, varying from frame houses, to an abandoned warehouse, to a 40,000 sq./ft. former nursing home.
The task force is responsible for the coordination and organization of all Crackdown missions; they partner with cities across the state to help reduce drug use and other illegal activities.
Thirty-five fifth-grade students, from Sam Houston Elementary School gave a clear and unmistakable, "knock it down" command, ordering Texas Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Carl White Jr. to destroy the building.
Without hesitation, White smiled and gave a nod to the students as he slowly raised the boom and positioned the bucket over the roof of the small wood structure that just five years earlier had been called home to an elderly man.
The massive 45,000-pound excavator roared as its bucket cut through the wooden structure as easily as a hot knife through butter. First the roof collapsed then White folded the walls onto the structure as if he was giving an advanced origami demonstration. The structure collapsed into a pile of rubble and dust in under five minutes.
As dust rose up and debris settled to the ground, the children raised the hands and yelled with excitement, "cool," "this rocks" and "Wow, did you see that?”
Sam Houston Elementary School assistant principal Faustino Villanueva said the children's participation throughout the day helps them understand their involvement in the community.
"It's good because the children look up to the National Guard and service members in the armed forces,” Villanueva said. “They see [the service members] and feel proud, confident and secure.”
Fifth grade teacher, Odilia Moreno, said some structures close to the elementary school were unsafe and she worried her school children would one day be injured if they were to explore the abandoned and dilapidated structures.
Members of the Operation Crackdown team are personally selected for their heavy equipment operator skills, knowledge and experience. SGT Chris Mejia, 342nd Engineering Company, has assisted with Operation Crack for several years as a heavy equipment transport driver.
"This is our third mission in Harlingen. We love coming to Harlingen because the city has done all of the necessary preparation and welcomes us. During our missions in 2011 and 2012, we [tore down] 55 Harlingen structures. We plan on demolishing around 30 structures at 15 locations this trip," Mejia said.
Each mission requires up to a year to plan, coordinate and receive clearances for all the legal requirements to be completed. Each structure is required to undergo several safety and hazardous materials inspections and then receive written permission from the owners prior to demolition.
City Code Enforcement Manager Elida Mendoza said one of the time consuming parts is tracking down the legal owner and receiving their written permission. Many of the houses have not been lived in for several years, family members move away and the properties became abandoned.
Once abandoned, the former homes can quickly become a place where drug users, drug dealers and gang members use them as a place to get high, execute drug transactions and participate in other illegal activities.
Mayor Chris Boswell also expressed support for Operation Crackdown.
"The partnership with the Texas National Guard has proven to be a successful tool in beautifying our community and fighting crime," the mayor said. "This partnership, along with the excellent job of our police department, has been a key factor in the significant reduction in crime we have experienced during the past two years."
Harlingen Police Department Commander Miryam Anderson explained the police often deal with repeat calls for service to structures which are used for drug activity and criminal mischief.
"This resource [Operation Crackdown] helps police in reducing crime. This is a win, win situation for all. Our neighbors have been telling us how pleased they are with what the Texas Military Forces, the Texas Joint Counterdrug Task Force and Operation Crackdown are doing," Anderson said.
Col. Suzanne Adkinson, commander of the Texas Joint Counterdrug Task Force, said the program is beneficial to local communities, as well as to service members.
"Operation Crackdown enhances military readiness by allowing Air and Army National Guardsmen members to utilize their equipment in a 'real world' mission. This improves readiness for Texas Military Forces soldiers and airmen, while enhancing the public safety of citizens and their children by supporting communities in the demolition of structures used by the drug trade," Adkinson said.