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Texas Police Gun Down Immigrants From Helicopter
DPS: Policy allowed troopers to fire on suspected smuggler

By Lynn Brezosky and Jason Buch

November 01, 2012 "
My San Antonio" --  LA JOYA — Skid marks and a patch of dried blood in the gravel of a desolate country road were about the only signs left Friday of a deadly pursuit that happened here.

Two men from Guatemala died Thursday when a Department of Public Safety helicopter opened fire on a red pickup suspected of smuggling immigrants.

A third person was hospitalized and six were arrested in the latest in a string of smuggling attempts that turned deadly while packed vehicles flee from state or federal authorities.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger said the chase began when Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens attempted to pull over the truck they thought was carrying drugs. When the driver didn't stop, the wardens called DPS for assistance.

“During the pursuit, the vehicle appeared to have a typical ‘covered' drug load in the bed of the truck,” Vinger said. “DPS aircraft joined the pursuit of the suspected drug load, which was traveling at reckless speeds, endangering the public. A DPS trooper discharged his firearm from the helicopter to disable the vehicle.”

No drugs were found in the truck.

During interviews at a Border Patrol facility, survivors told consular officials that the men died from gunfire, and that their cover was flimsy and blowing off, enough so that the trooper in the helicopter could see them.

Vinger said the officer who discharged his weapon was placed on administrative leave.

In an interview this summer, DPS Director Steve McCraw said it is imperative to protect troopers on the ground when patrolling the border.

“That's what our aerial assets are doing, and we need to protect those aerial assets and in doing so, we put a sniper on those,” he said of armed helicopter agents. “And we're really not apologetic about it. We've got an obligation to protect our men and women when we're trying to protect Texas.”

The deceased were men age 20 to 25; one was the father of two, the other the father of three, said Alba Caceres, the Guatemalan consul in McAllen.

Their names were withheld, pending official notification of relatives, Caceres said.

All nine people believed to be in the truck left the same city together Oct. 8, she said. Each paid $2,000 to be taken from San Martín Jilotepeque in the state of Chimaltenango, through Mexico, and another $3,000 to be brought to the interior United States. Most were headed to New Jersey.

The group crossed the Rio Grande early Thursday, Caceres said. They walked six hours through scrubland before meeting up with the truck.

“We need a serious and big investigation into this case because I cannot understand why DPS made the decision to shoot them,” she said. “I have never seen something similar to this.”

Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, has called for a state investigation.

“What we know so far raises disturbing questions,” Burke said. “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?”

Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Cox said Texas game wardens routinely patrol these areas and are authorized to respond to suspected criminal activity.

“We have 532 game wardens across Texas and all of them are fully commissioned Texas peace officers, they have the same statutory authority as highway patrol troopers,” he said.

Almost every DPS helicopter on patrol is manned by a tactical flight officer, who operates surveillance equipment and is trained to use the AR-10 rifle stored in the chopper.

According to DPS policy, lethal force is can be used when the officer or someone else is at “substantial risk of death or bodily injury.”

Troopers can fire at vehicles when deadly force is justified or it's “for the sole purpose and intent of disabling a vehicle.”


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