LA JOYA — A flying state trooper who fired shots from a rifle at a truck fleeing authorities Thursday afternoon believed the smugglers were carrying a drug load.
Instead, they were transporting illegal immigrants.
A preliminary investigation indicates two Guatemalan nationals were shot to death and another was injured in the gunfire, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told The Monitor.
The confirmation from DPS came late Friday evening — hours after Guatemalan officials chastised state troopers, calling the incident a “senseless murder.”
“I know my people are in the wrong crossing illegally and I know that the government of this country has to protect their border, but to shoot at unarmed humans is beyond me,” said Alva Caceres, the Guatemalan Consul General in McAllen. “I am very concerned; we have not received any information from them,” referring to DPS.
State game wardens chased after a red pickup truck Thursday afternoon along Farm-to-Market Road 2221 before calling in a DPS helicopter to assist in the pursuit, the state agency said in a statement.
The pickup was transporting nine Guatemalan nationals who had entered the country illegally and an unidentified driver.
A DPS sharpshooter opened fire on the fleeing truck — believing it contained drugs, not people — before the chase ended with a flat tire along Mile 7 near La Joya, west of the expansive Pueblo de Palmas colonia.
Two occupants died and a third was injured.
DPS waited until Friday evening to confirm the preliminary investigation shows the troopers’ bullets killed the Guatemalan nationals. Other area law enforcement officials familiar with the case confirmed to The Monitor the fatal mistake Thursday evening.
Caceres said the surviving immigrants told her office the tarp covering them flew off the truck during the chase, exposing the people in the bed of the truck.
No drugs were found in the vehicle. A photograph of the pickup shows what appear to be several bullet-holes on the left rear side of the truck, with a shredded rear tire.
“These statements taken from the survivors leave me outraged,” she said. “I can’t conceive how a police officer fires at unarmed humans. These are people from humble origins that even at first glance do not look like hardened criminals.”
The Guatemalans left their home country 19 days ago near Guatemala City and had planned on meeting friends and relatives in Houston, New York and New Jersey, Caceres said. The victims’ identities have not been disclosed.
Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, called for a full investigation of the fatal shooting.
“We are eager to hear the facts in this case. What we know so far raises disturbing questions,” Burke said in a statement. “Why is a state game warden involved in enforcement of federal immigration law? Why is a game warden in dangerous high speed pursuit of people who were suspected of nothing more than a civil offense? And where’s the ‘public safety’ when a trooper in a helicopter opens fire on unarmed persons in a vehicle on a public road?”
DIFFERENT PURSUIT POLICIES
Police chases have become commonplace in Rio Grande Valley — especially in Hidalgo County, where nearly 13 percent of all DPS chases between 2005 and 2010 occurred, according to an analysis by The Texas Tribune and San Antonio Express-News.
DPS allows troopers to open fire on vehicles when defending themselves or someone else from serious harm or death. That includes opening fire from helicopters to disable vehicles or when deadly force is ruled necessary.
The agency said Friday that the high speeds the truck reached while fleeing from game wardens endangered the public.
DPS’ gutsy policy contradicts common practice for all other law enforcement agencies in the Rio Grande Valley, where deadly force may only be used if a peace officer believes death is imminent.
Whenever a pursuit take place police officers follow a strict policy that dictates their duties while keeping in mind the safety of the public, said Mission Police Chief Martin Garza.
In order to fire a weapon at a vehicle, there has to be an imminent threat to an officer or a third party and the order must be approved by a commander or higher, Garza said.
“Under no circumstance will that order be given if there is a passenger in the vehicle,” he said.
For McAllen police, the use of a firearm in general is very restricted matter — only in extraneous circumstances, said Police Chief Victor Rodriguez.
Incidents involving the use of deadly force are dynamic and fast paced in nature, said San Juan Police Chief Juan Gonzalez.
“An officer in a deadly force situation must asses an imminent threat taking into account the actions of the suspect and the totality of the circumstances,” Gonzalez said adding that a firearm is used when other force options are not available.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers "are trained to use deadly force in circumstances that pose a threat to their lives, the lives of their fellow law enforcement partners and innocent third parties," agency spokesman Doug Mosier said.
A report presented Thursday to the United Nations by the American Civil Liberties Union said shootings and excessive force by CBP officers along the border have left at least 20 people dead or seriously injured since 2010. Eight of those cases involved officers responding to people throwing rocks and six were killed while standing on the Mexican side of the border.
‘REAL TRAGEDY’ ON A ‘POROUS BORDER’
State officials’ criticism of federal authorities on border security has escalated in recent years, leaving Texas to invest its own resources in securing the Rio Grande from what the state has called an escalation in drug cartel activity along the border.
The contention of heightened crime along the border contradicts crime rates that have shown double-digit drops in recent years, though state authorities have been quick to argue that the numbers do not show a full picture of border violence.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a vocal critic of the federal government’s border security policies by claiming South Texas ranchers are under attack by drug cartels, called Thursday’s fatal shootings a “a very tragic incident.”
But he remained steadfast on his talking points about border security.
“This is a real tragedy, but the reality is that there is dangerous activity in the border everyday as a result of a porous border and the activity of drug cartels,” Staples said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Ildefonso Ortiz and Jacqueline Armendariz cover courts, law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at Iortiz@themonitor.com and at 956-683-4437. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (956) 683-4434.