27TTYouth-articleLarge.jpgBy JULIÁN AGUILAR

EAGLE PASS, Tex. — Freddie knows he is lucky. If he were six months older, he could be in a state prison.

Or he could have been labeled a snitch and treated as such by Mexican cartel operatives.

Or he could be dead. Instead, Freddie will be free in December after finishing a year of court-ordered juvenile probation in his drug smuggling case. And he owes his good fortune to Bruce Ballou, the chief juvenile probation officer for Maverick, Zavala and Dimmit Counties.

Mr. Ballou, who has held his position for a year, focuses on a “restorative justice” approach to rehabilitation. He has helped Freddie and other teenagers who have gotten caught up in the drug trade that flourishes on the Texas-Mexico border, but who are willing to turn their lives around.

“It is a forgiving piece, not necessarily a judicial hammer, but a piece where we put the victims back whole and we put back into the system instead of take away from the system,” Mr. Ballou said of his approach, which includes teaching the teenagers skills like construction, electrical work and carpentry at detention centers. “The benefit to the kids is that they are learning a trade.”

Mr. Ballou is also the driving force behind a planned South Texas juvenile detention village that will focus on helping others like Freddie. In November, six months before Freddie turned 17, he was on the banks of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, just across the border from Piedras Negras, Coahuila, waiting for what he thought would be an 80-pound shipment of marijuana. After Freddie talked to his spotter, a Mexican soldier for the Zetas drug gang whom he knew only as Saul, a Mexican smuggler arrived with a load meant for Freddie. United States Border Patrol agents then moved in, and the teenager put his truck in reverse. In a panic, he ran into a pecan tree and was taken into custody, charged with possession of 400 — not 80 — pounds of marijuana.

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