The drive from Dallas to McAllen or Brownsville takes between eight and nine hours depending on whether you’re destined for Hidalgo or Cameron County.
That’s nearly the same distance that a white supremacist took from a suburb of Dallas last weekend to another border town, El Paso, where the man killed 22 people after opening fire during a daylight attack on shoppers inside a Walmart.
His motive? Killing Mexicans.
The Associated Press reported Friday afternoon that detectives confirmed 21-year-old Patrick Crusius confessed, telling investigators he targeted Mexicans.
In a manifesto posted online, the man called immigrants “invaders,” a term similar to rhetoric used by President Donald Trump at rallies when he talks about immigration.
A USA TODAY analysis of 64 rallies found that he’s said “invasion” at least 19 times, the word “animal” 34 times and the word “killer” nearly 36 times when discussing immigration.
The El Paso killings follow close to three years of people crossing the border illegally in large numbers resulting in policies like zero tolerance, family separations, “Remain in Mexico,” and overcrowded detention facilities that have placed border towns — like Brownsville, McAllen and El Paso — at the forefront in newspapers and television screens north of the checkpoints.
That thought is not lost on local law enforcement officials in the wake of the El Paso bloodshed.
“This gentleman in El Paso, he could have very easily decided to come down here,” said Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz. “You know, Brownsville, El Paso, Walmart, Hispanics? He could have very easily decided to come down here.”
‘IT CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE’
Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office Spokeswoman Jena Palacios stays uncomfortable.
She, like all law enforcement officers in the Rio Grande Valley, has to.
“Well, because we’re so close to the border. It’s always been something that you train for and we expect the unexpected, and you never know what’s going to happen, especially here in a border town,” Palacios said. “This is an example.”
For as much active-shooting training as the HCSO conducts, mass shootings seem to happen everywhere — in schools, in churches, at movie theaters, at concerts.
That’s why Palacios said law enforcement officers learn to not stay comfortable.
The HCSO utilizes an active-shooter academy to continue to train its employees. That academy is open to anyone in Hidalgo County and it’s free, Palacios said.
Since last weekend, Palacios said the HCSO has received a few calls asking about the program.
“We have received a few calls. Especially after that day,” she said. “People are scared. It can happen anywhere.”
In short, the program teaches people the basics of surviving an active shooter.
“You just have to be prepared,” Palacios said. “Just be as calm as possible and seek cover: run, hide and quiet phones and do what you can to survive.”
If you can’t run or hide, fight, she said, explaining the basics of the course.
However, law enforcement agencies in the Rio Grande Valley aren’t on their own when it comes to preparing for unpredictable violent attacks on innocent people.
The Texas Municipal Police Association assists local agencies with training.
“We are constantly in touch. The way we do it is we make training available if we can find a local agency willing to host it,” said TMPA Executive Director Kevin Lawrence. “We will provide the instructors, machinery, equipment and do all the reporting through (the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement). We just need someone willing to host and it’s never a problem.”
The FBI also works with Rio Grande Valley law enforcement agencies.
“The FBI routinely provides and participates in training with local and state agencies so that we are more effective at preventing and responding to active shooter events,” said Michelle Lee, FBI spokeswoman.
Tactical instructors from San Antonio FBI have been trained in Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, or ALERRT, protocols.
After the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that left six adults and 20 children ages 6 and 7 dead, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and FBI teamed up with ALERRT, an initiative supported by the state of Texas and housed at Texas State University.
“ALERRT has trained more than 114,000 law enforcement first responders in a response protocol adopted by the FBI as the national standard for special agent tactical instructors,” Lee said. “Many state and local police departments have also adopted it as a standard for active shooter response, ensuring law enforcement officers arriving on the scene understand how others are trained to respond.”
The FBI also has offices in Brownsville and McAllen.
“If we identify a possible threat in the RGV, we would coordinate with the local law enforcement agency, refer the matter, provide support or work it jointly,” Lee said.
CLOSE TO HOME
Within a week of the killing spree in El Paso, Rio Grande Valley police arrested two people for threatening violence at area Walmarts.
One such instance happened Wednesday, when a threatening Instagram post a 13-year-old is accused of publishing caused the Walmart in Weslaco to close.
“The Weslaco Police Department reminds the public, especially juveniles active on social media, that all threats will be investigated and taken seriously,” the police department said after the teen’s arrest. “There are consequences for these threats!”
In this case, the consequence is a third degree felony charge of terroristic threat.
The FBI assisted the Weslaco PD in that case.
On Saturday, Harlingen police also arrested a man who made a social media post threatening violence at a Walmart.
“During the course of this investigation officers learned that a male subject had used a social media site to post up an imminent threat that was to occur at the Wal-Mart in Harlingen on a specific date,” the Harlingen Police Department said in a press release. “The male subject was located at a residence in Harlingen, and placed under arrest for Terroristic Threat.”
Sadly, though, the Rio Grande Valley has had a mass shooting that meets the criteria to be labeled as such by researchers: a shooting where at least four people were injured.
On Nov. 28, 2016, then 25-year-old Raul Lopez Saenz is accused of shooting four of his co-workers, killing one of them, during a break inside the H-E-B at Goodwin Road and Expressway 83 in Palmview.
Lopez, now 28, is charged with murder, three counts of criminal attempted murder and a count of attempt to commit capital murder of multiple persons.
He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial Nov. 4.
There was also the La Plaza Mall robbery scare in July of last year when seven masked Mexican nationals used hammers to break glass inside a jewelry store that shoppers mistook for gunshots, causing panic.
Then there’s the case of 18-year-old Harlingen resident Joel Hayden Schrimsher, who police arrested June 6 after receiving a tip from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents based in Washington, D.C. about threatening Twitter posts.
Specifically, police accuse Schrimsher of threatening to set fire to a mosque and shoot up a synagogue.
More troubling are what Harlingen police say they found in Schrimsher’s house.
Investigators found aluminum powder, red iron oxide, sulfur nitrate and potassium nitrate, chemicals used in bomb making. Authorities also said they found hand-written formulas to make napalm, thermite, flash powder, nitroglycerin and smoke bombs. They also found white supremacist literature, including a copy of “Mein Kampf” and “The Turner Diaries.”
During a June court hearing, an investigator said Hayden said he was joking about the social media posts and the man’s parents testified the chemicals were used to make smoke bombs.
Saenz, the Cameron County DA, said he doesn’t buy it.
“The rhetoric, the chemicals, the mixing formulas that he downloaded, I mean just a whole bunch,” Saenz said. “If you look at just one particular fact or piece of evidence, but when you start to pile everything on top it reveals the profile of a young man we’ve come to know … through other incidents across the nation. He fits the profile.”
Saenz didn’t mince words.
“He has all the trappings of the terrorist,” Saenz said.
However, while instances of violence and threats have happened here, the Rio Grande Valley is largely a peaceful place, a point Palacios, the HCSO spokesperson, wanted to emphasize. But that doesn’t mean people should be complacent, she explained.
“We live in a safe community and we want the community to feel safe and secure,” Palacios said. “No matter how safe a community is, there is nothing wrong with being prepared in any situation. Knowledge is power.”