I came across this over the top video – complete with heavy metal soundtrack and camo fatigues – by the private security firm called Craft International, which is training DPS troopers to be helicopter snipers. The video looks like a commercial for a “Call of Duty” game and it shows the firm’s founder Chris Kyle training the troopers in “helo-platform shooting.”
Craft International was founded in 2010 by Kyle, a former Navy SEAL and author of “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History,” about his tours of duty in Iraq. His company’s motto is: “Despite what your mamma told you, violence does solve problems.” Craft’s video glorifies Texas’ DPS sniper program, and makes it look like the troopers are training for a foray into Fallujah instead of keeping the peace in Texas.
Last week, many were shocked, including some national law enforcement experts, when it was revealed that Texas’ Department of Public Safety has helicopter snipers shooting to disable vehicles during high speed chases along the border.
The DPS program resulted in tragedy after two unarmed men were killed and one was critically injured on October 25th after a DPS sniper shot from a helicopter at a truck during a high speed chase near La Joya in Hidalgo County.
“Texas police officers have made using helicopters a priority, and they take helo-platform shooting very seriously, ” according to a recent article in Guns & Weapons for Law Enforcement magazine. When you see a video like this it makes you wonder what else is DPS up to?
Since a Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter sniper fatally shot two Guatemalan men and critically injured another last week during a high speed pursuit, the Hidalgo County District Attorney has asked the DPS to suspend its helicopter sniper program in Hidalgo County.
DPS Director Steve McCraw has asked the FBI to investigate the incident. Local community leaders, civil rights groups and and a handul of elected officials have also asked for both a state review of the program and a DOJ investigation into the incident. A Hidalgo County grand jury will also look at the case.
The men killed were Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, 32, and Marcos Antonio Castro Estrada, 29. Coj Cumar was a father of three who had come to the United States because his son needed surgery. Castro was a father of two whose wife is three months pregnant. Both men were from the town of San Martin Jilotepeque, about an hour outside of Guatemala City. A third man, who was wounded, is still in the hospital.
Law enforcement experts told the San Antonio Express-News last week that they were stunned by the DPS policies, which allowed snipers to disable vehicles during high speed pursuits. Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina, who has studied police pursuits across the country, said he’d “never heard of law enforcement agencies allowing officers to shoot at vehicles from helicopters.”
“There’s a trend to restrict officers from shooting at vehicles at all,” Alpert told the Express-News. “It’s not an efficient or effective policy to let officers shoot from vehicles, and certainly not from a helicopter.”
The DPS aerial sniper program, however, is just a fraction of the state law enforcement agency’s push toward using military tactics in civil law enforcement. To my knowledge, state elected officials have not scrutinized DPS’ new armored gun boat program or looked at the program’s lethal force policies. Each gun boat is stocked with several machine guns. No one has been shot yet by DPS on the Rio Grande, but last month a U.S. Border Patrol agent opened fire from a patrol boat at people standing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo. One man was fatally shot. Border Patrol says the people were throwing rocks. The FBI is investigating the incident.
DPS troopers received their aerial sniper training from a private outfit called Craft International, which was founded by Texan Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL and the author of “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History,” about his years fighting in Iraq.
According to an upcoming story in Guns & Weapons for Law Enforcement magazine’s January issue, Craft International trained DPS troopers in “aerial platform shooting.” “Because of the current border wars and strategic interests for potential terrorists,” the article explains, “Texas police officers have made using helicopters a priority, and they take helo-platform shooting very seriously.”
Craft International’s motto on its website is: “Despite what your mamma told you, violence does solve problems.” They also include a video glorifying the DPS sniper program on their site, which makes a nice commercial for other law enforcement itching to start their own helicopter sniper program.
The Facebook page for the Ganado Police Department, (Ganado is located between Houston and Corpus Christi) shows DPS troopers training for the helicopter sniper program in 2011.
Recently, DPS Director Steve McCraw spent $7.4 million on a high altitude spy plane, according to G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Hopefully, legislators will start asking questions next session, McCraw will have plenty of explaining to do—and hopefully it won’t take another tragedy like last week’s to reveal problems with the agency’s border security programs.
First the armored boats with machine guns on the Rio Grande now helicopter snipers. Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, seems bent on turning Texas border communities into Iraq.
On Thursday a DPS helicopter sniper-opened fire on a truck on a Texas highway killing two men and injuring a third passenger near La Joya in Hidalgo County, reports the McAllen Monitor. Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers were pursuing the red truck, which they thought contained a drug load and called for back up from a DPS helicopter. It turned out the truck was not carrying drugs but nine Guatemalan nationals and an unidentified driver.
What is especially disturbing about the shooting incident is the testimony from the survivors in the truck. Alba Caceres, the Guatemalan Consul General in McAllen told the Monitor that survivors testified the tarp had flown off the truck exposing the people in the pick up bed so that it was clear to the sniper the truck was transporting people, not drugs.
“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,” Caceres told the Monitor. “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 two deceased men were between ages 20 to 25; one was the father of two, the other the father of three, reports the San Antonio Express-News. Their names were withheld, pending official notification of relatives.
The nine Guatemalans travelling in the truck left the same city together on October 8, Caceres told the Express-News. Each had paid $2,000 to be taken from San Martín Jilotepeque in the state of Chimaltenango, Guatemala through Mexico, and then another $3,000 to be brought to the United States. Most were headed for jobs in New Jersey.
The trooper who shot the men has been put on administrative leave, according to DPS. Lethal force can be used when the officer or someone else is at substantial risk of death or bodily injury, according to agency policy.
A trooper trained to use an AR-10 rifle from the air mans nearly every DPS helicopter, reports the Express-News. DPS Director Steve McCraw told the newspaper the snipers were needed 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. “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.”
I suggest you read both the San Antonio Express-News and Monitor stories to get more details because this shooting incident really is remarkable both for its cruelty and sheer lack of logic.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in our state leadership at the moment who appears sane enough to tell DPS Director McCraw that shooting unarmed people from a helicopter is a bad idea.
Is it just me or have our state leaders turned into the cast for The Expendables? With Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeting to an international election monitoring group last week “BRING IT” and Ag Commissioner Todd Staples advocating for “sanitary tactical zones along the border” and a Governor who shoots coyotes with a laser-sighted pistol who’s really going to put the brakes on McCraw’s transformation into Dr. Strangelove?
In January 2012, the number of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into the United States suddenlydoubled. As months passed, the number of children apprehended at the border just kept growing. U.S. government officials scrambled to find shelters for the influx of children and nonprofits struggled to figure out why so many kids were willing to risk the long, dangerous journey to the United States.
These children who have been apprehended at the U.S. border, ranging in ages from 4 to 18, primarily come from three countries: Guatemala (35 percent), El Salvador (27 percent) and Honduras (25 percent). All three countries are currently experiencing some of the highest murder rates in the world. Much of the violence is being spurred by drug trafficking, weak state institutions, corruption and gang violence. The New York-based Women’s Refugee Commission spent several months interviewing the children detained in the United States and on Monday released its report, “The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America.”
What the group found was that poverty is no longer the primary reason children are migrating to the United States—what’s driving them from their homes is fear. “They fear for their lives,” said commission attorney Jessica Jones in a telephone press conference Monday. “What we heard from many of the children is, ‘I know I may die on the journey, but I knew I would die if I stayed home,’” she said.
Researchers at the nonprofit commission interviewed more than 150 children detained in the United States and met with U.S. government agencies tasked with handling the influx of children. The commission came to the troubling conclusion that this level of migration will be the new norm due to the growing rates of violence in Central America.
Children cited public schools overrun by violent gangs and neighborhoods divided by gang affiliation where people can’t move freely without being threatened with violence. Girls cited an increase in gang rapes and street violence and said that authorities were unable to protect them. Jones said the commission interviewed one 11-year-old girl who had been paying protection money since she was 9 to prevent gang members from raping her and her grandmother. “At age 11, she raised the money herself and found a guide to take her to the United States,” said Jones. “For these children the United States represents hope and a place of security.”
This is why it was especially shocking to find that some of the children were abused and mistreated by U.S. Border Patrol agents after being apprehended, according to the report’s findings. Several children reported being kicked, tasered and being called names like “filthy pig” and “worthless,” according to Michelle Brane, director of the committee’s detention and asylum program.
Brane said they interviewed a 17-year old boy who reported that Border Patrol agents near McAllen grabbed him by the neck and pushed him to the ground, then tasered him. “He was most upset because they did the same thing to a pregnant woman also apprehended in his group,” Brane says. “He couldn’t understand why they would Taser a pregnant woman.”
The commission also spoke with two girls ages 12 and 14, who were beaten by Border Patrol agents. One girl’s injuries were severe enough to require she be taken to the hospital. The girl was too afraid to tell the doctor about how her injuries had been caused because the same guard was standing right next to her in the exam room, says Brane.
The report makes several recommendations for U.S. government institutions caring for the migrant children from smaller group home facilities to more child friendly holding places that look less like detention facilities. And it recommends that Border Patrol prioritize screening for asylum cases and care for migrant children. “This migration is going to be the new norm,” said Brane. “And here in the United States we need to make sure that basic human rights are met.”
Juan Frairie Escobedo at the El Paso press conference Tuesday.
On Sunday in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua Gov. Cesar Duarte triumphantly announced before the TV cameras that police had finally caught the man who killed well-known activist Marisela Escobedo on the Chihuahua State Capitol steps in December 2010.
At the time of her death, Marisela was holding a vigil to bring her 16-year-old daughter’s killer to justice, one of the dozens of marches and events that made her famous in Mexico for her courage and persistence in seeking justice in the murder of her daughter Rubi Fraire Escobedo.
At a press conference held by the state police Sunday, Jose Enrique Jimenez Zavala, known as “El Wicked,” was presented as the man who shot Marisela Escobedo. According to police, Jimenez is an alleged gunman for the Los Aztecas gang, which are enforcers for the Juarez cartel. In a televised confession, the 29-year-old Jimenez said he carried out Escobedo’s murder on orders from the Zetas and La Linea (gunmen for the Juarez cartel). Jimenez said they wanted her killed because she was drawing too much attention through her protests.
The only problem is that Jimenez isn’t the killer, says Escobedo’s son, Juan Fraire Escobedo. In a press conference Tuesday at the El Paso law office of Carlos Spector, Juan said that his uncle—who was an eyewitness to the murder of Marisela—ID’d the killer but Mexican authorities have done nothing to capture him. Escobedo, who is seeking political asylum in the United States, says the man who killed his mother is an U.S. citizen but works for organized crime in Mexico.
“I’m very sad and angry that they still haven’t resolved my mother’s case,” he said in a telephone interview after the press conference. “We met with the Mexican authorities at the Mexican consulate in El Paso last year and ID’d the criminal. They promised there would be an investigation. But after that they never responded to me again. Jimenez is not the man who killed my mother.”
Mexican authorities have also failed to solve the murder of his sister Rubi, he says, which occurred in 2008. Sergio Barraza, Rubi’s former boyfriend, confessed to the killing and even led authorities to where he had burnt her body, but the judges declared him innocent for lack of evidence. Marisela began a campiagn for judicial reform and was working to have Barraza arrested when she was killed. According to Juan Fraire Escobedo, Barraza is now a member of the Zetas Cartel.
Fraire Escobedo says the only thing he agrees with from the government’s claims this week is that the orders to kill his mother were given by the Zetas and La Linea. “Jimenez is nothing more than a scapegoat for the authorities,” he says.
To learn more about Juan Fraire Escobedo’s fight for justice for his family hear him speak at a Texas Observer forum last March with the nonprofit group Mexicans in Exile, who are advocating for justice and human rights in Mexico.
Texas is an urban state, and commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture has become one of the more obscure statewide offices. Most Texans don’t regularly think about boll weevil eradication or irrigation issues, especially when they’re sitting in traffic on I-10. Ag commissioner just isn’t the political stepping-stone it once was. So what’s an ambitious politician who wants to run for higher office to do?
For Todd Staples, the answer is to run the Department of Agriculture like he’s Chuck Norris.
Staples, a Republican who’s openly running for lieutenant governor in 2014, has made the threat of narco-terrorism on the Mexico border his central issue. If you’re wondering what narco-terrorism has to do with agriculture, well, Staples claims that drug cartels are threatening Texas farmers and, in turn, our food supply.
In late August, the ag commissioner was the keynote speaker at a narco-terrorism conference at Angelo State University, where he plugged the debut of his 16-part video series titled “Texas Traffic—True Stories of Drug and Human Smuggling.” The department is posting these videos on the ag department’s ProtectYourTexasBorder.com site. Each week, the website features a new interview with a border resident or law-enforcement official.
At the narco-terrorism conference, Staples argued that the federal government hasn’t done enough to secure the border. Among his solutions: triple the number of “boots on the ground,” send surplus military equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan to the border, and categorize cartel violence as “terroristic activity by violent transnational organizations.”
“It’s time for the federal government to answer the call of duty and provide sufficient protection for our citizens and resources,” Staples said in written statement to the Observer about why he created the video series and the website. “Bullet holes don’t lie. The ProtectYourTexasBorder website provides firsthand accounts of the dangers along our border. Farmers and ranchers along the Rio Grande are caught in the middle of a conflict that affects every citizen of our nation. A threat to our food supply is a threat to our homeland security. Texas stands ready to fight these terrorists and protect our residents, but we must have increased federal support to secure our borders, defeat our enemies and safeguard our national food supply.”
Lambasting the federal government for not securing the border has become a tried-and-true talking point for any Republican candidate with aspirations for higher office. Last year, Staples commissioned an $80,000 study by two retired U.S. Army generals that called for turning Texas border counties into “sanitary tactical zones” where military operations can push back the narco-terrorists.
Some border residents aren’t pleased with Staples’ zeal to militarize their hometowns. One of his biggest critics, it turns out, is Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, who told The Monitor newspaper in McAllen that his border county last year had its second-lowest crime rate in 15 years. “To say the farmers and ranchers have been victimized personally—other than the trespassing—have been assaulted, threatened?” Treviño said. “I don’t have the statistics to support those allegations.”
“People who run into border-related trouble should report the problem to law enforcement,” Treviño told The Monitor, “instead of telling Staples, who isn’t a law-enforcement official and can’t directly tackle the problem. And that’s why I find [it] so frustrating. And I don’t know, maybe Commissioner Staples is looking to beef up his political résumé. Why else would you do something like that?”
U.S. Border Patrol agents at a Detroit Bus Station
Since 9/11, Congress has tripled the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents to more than 21,000. In the scramble to find willing recruits, the Department of Homeland Security sometimes defers background checks and relaxes recruitment standards.
With the increase in agents, there’s also been an increase in complaints from citizens who live along our international borders. Especially the northern border where Border Patrol agents now sometimes staff 911 call centers or respond in remote areas to domestic disturbance abuse calls and other cases normally relegated to the police department or sheriff’s office. For instance, last June a 75-year-old man, Charles Robinson, was fatally shot in Jackman, Maine, after he fired on a Border Patrol agent, who responded to a domestic dispute call at Robinson’s residence.
On the southern border, there have also been deaths. A grand jury has been convened to look into the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas in 2010 by border agents. Hernandez, a citizen of Mexico, was being deported at the San Diego port of entry when he was beaten and tased by over a dozen agents. He died a few days later. Earlier this year, PBS’ “Need to Know” aired cell phone footage taken by an eyewitness of the incident.
I’ve heard repeatedly from civil rights advocates and border citizens that it’s time that border patrol policies and training be re-examined. But it’s an idea that hasn’t caught up with members of Congress yet.
For the past decade, the political debate over whether our borders have enough “boots on the ground” has been white hot, but a much-needed debate over who fills those boots and how they exercise their authority has been sadly lacking.
The ACLU and a network of civil rights advocates along the border have taken it upon themselves to document patterns of abuse and catalogue repeat offenders with the goal of asking for policy changes in the future.
They’re tracking the complaints in a new database called the U.S./Mexico Binational Abuse Documentation System. For the project, the ACLU’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces, New Mexico, created the web-based platform so that advocates can document complaints of abuse or misconduct from wherever they are along the border.
“Across the border there’s the sense that the same types of abuse are occurring from the more mundane of not providing food and water to people in detention to excessive use of force,” says Brian Erickson, an ACLU policy analyst who is overseeing the database project. “This is a tool to see whether the abuses are systemic in nature. The biggest goal is to hold Border Patrol accountable and to offer up policies that we want to see changed.”
Groups in California, Arizona and El Paso have already begun using the database. This week, a civil rights coalition called The RGV Equal Voice Network, announced the start of the project in the Rio Grande Valley.
Mike Seifert, spokesperson for the RGV Equal Voice Network, said the coalition is also promoting a hotline in the Valley where people can report abuses to be collected in the database. “We’re looking at everything,” he says. “Tasings, shooting events because of rock throwing and home invasions. We want to make it clear though that we can’t offer legal advice but we can refer cases to the ACLU.”
The secure database will be private and only available to people in the advocacy organizations who have been trained to use it, says Erickson.
Last May, a riot in a private prison in Natchez, Mississippi, turned deadly when a prison guard was beaten to death. The riot was sparked by undocumented immigrants angered by poor food and medical care and abusive guards. It’s only the latest in a series of riots that have occurred in the booming immigrant detention system in the United States.
In Pecos, Texas, riots broke out in 2008 over medical negilgence after a detainee with epilepsy died in solitary confinement. Despite the riots, deaths and documented cases of abuse the number of detention facilities — many of them private jails — increased by 208 percent between 2002 and 2008. The industry has grown massive, fed by Operation Streamline a federal policy expanded in 2005 to detain immigrants who enter the country illegally. People who enter illegally for the first time can serve a 30 day sentence in jail while a repeat offender can serve anywhere from 1 to 20 years in prison.
Since 2001, it has cost U.S. taxpayers $5.5 billion to incarcerate undocumented immigrants yet research shows that it does little to deter immigrants from coming illegally to the United States. Thursday, Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership and other civil justice groups will testify at a Congressional Briefing sponsored by U.S. Representative Jared Polis. The briefing will examine human rights abuses and waste, which they say is prevalent in the Federal Bureau of Prison’s “Criminal Alien Requirements” private prison contracting program. “The federal government has another 1,000 beds budgeted for 2013,” says Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “Private detention facilities have grown exponentially but research shows incarcerating people doesn’t deter them from coming.The biggest determinant is the economy.”
So many immigrants have been incarcerated for entering the country illegally that it has radically changed the composition of the federal prison population. In 2011, for the first time Hispanics made up 50.3 percent of people sentenced for felonies even though they make up just 16 percent of the U.S. population. Libal and other advocates hope the federal government will consider less costly and more humane alternatives to jail. “We have less undocumented Mexicans entering the country than in decades and we’re still expanding the detention system,” he says. “There has to be a better policy.”
Read a new report released by Grassroots Leadership called “Operation Streamline:Costs and Consequences.”
An U.S. Border Patrol agent has shot another man in Mexico – this time in Nuevo Laredo. Nora Isabel Lam Gallegos reported that her husband Guillermo Arevalo Pedroz, 36, was fatally shot on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande Monday at a popular park called “The Skating Rink.” Arevalo and his family were having a BBQ and celebrating a birthday, according to Gallegos who was interviewed by Laredo’s KGNS News.
Gallegos and other witnesses say U.S. Border Patrol agents in a boat were trying to apprehend a man swimming across the Rio Grande to Texas. The man turned back toward Mexico and an agent fired toward the Mexican side of the riverbank hitting Gallegos’ husband at the park. No Border Patrol agents were hurt in the incident.
In a statement from the Border Patrol, the agency said people in Mexico pelted the agents with rocks, reports KGNS News. The Mexican government has repeatedly lodged diplomatic complaints with the United States concerning the “disproportionate use of lethal force” by U.S. immigration agents. Both the FBI and the Mexican government are investigating the incident.
According to El Universal, a Mexico City-based newspaper, an U.S. citizen reportedly filmed the entire incident on a cell phone and turned it over to the Mexican authorities.
This is the second time an U.S. Border Patrol agent in Texas has fatally shot someone in Mexico in the last three months. In both cases, Border Patrol claimed they were being pelted with rocks, which required them to shoot in self defense.
On July 9, an U.S. Border Patrol agent fatally shot Juan Pablo Perez Santillan. The 30-year-old was standing on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros just across from Brownsville. In a lawsuit filed by his family, they claim Perez Santillan was standing on the riverbank while a group of people swam across the river to Texas. The group was spotted by U.S. Border Patrol agents. In a statement after the shooting, the agency says its agents were pelted with rocks and fired in self defense.
This death in Nuevo Laredo is the fifth time an U.S. border agent has killed someone on Mexican soil in the last two years. Ramses Torres, 17, was shot in Nogales, Sonora, in 2011, and Jose Yañez Reyes was killed that same year in Tijuana. Sergio Hernandez Guereca, 15, was killed in Juarez in 2010 by U.S. Border Patrol, agent Jesus Mesa.
This a disturbing trend that doesn’t bode well for an already tense relationship with Mexico. With the increasing number of fatal shootings in Mexico by U.S. agents and the shooting of two CIA agents in Mexico last week by the Federal Police, Mexico’s incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto has not only domestic woes to contend with but international ones as well.
Early on the morning of July 9, A U.S. Border Patrol agent fatally shot Juan Pablo Perez Santillan in Mexico. The 30-year-old was standing on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros just across from Brownsville.
Border Patrol says the agent fired in self-defense. At a press conference after the shooting, agency spokesperson Enrique Mendiola said two agents opened fire in separate incidents around the same time that morning. A group of Mexicans, trying to cross the river, pelted the agents with rocks, he said, while in the other incident a man allegedly flashed a gun on the Mexican side of the river. Witnesses in Mexico say Perez Santillan was unarmed.
The Mexican Foreign Ministry denounced Perez’s death as a disproportionate use of force. Both countries say the shooting is being investigated, but it’s doubtful anything will come of it. In June 2010, 15-year-old Sergio Hernandez-Guereca was killed in Mexico by a U.S. Border Patrol agent standing in El Paso. The boy’s parents filed a wrongful death suit in U.S. court, but it was dismissed. The federal judge said the family had no standing because Hernandez-Guereca was killed on Mexican soil. Incensed by the ruling, the Chihuahuan state government issued a warrant for the Border Patrol agent’s arrest. But the warrant is largely viewed as symbolic, since the chances of extradition are next to none.
Deaths like these are on the rise. The Perez Santillan case is the fourth time a U.S. border agent has killed someone on Mexican soil in the last two years. Ramses Torres, 17, was shot in Nogales, Sonora, in 2011, and Jose Yañez Reyes was killed that same year in Tijuana.
Undeterred by the setback in the El Paso ruling, Juan Pablo Perez Santillan’s family filed a civil suit in U.S. court in late July. “What happened is a terrible tragedy,” said Brownsville civil rights lawyer Ed Stapleton, who filed the suit for the family. “Arguing this case is going to be an uphill battle, but it’s important to keep developing it as a legal issue.”
The case probably won’t be heard any time soon, however. In early August, Stapleton’s suit on behalf of the family was rescinded, and he was replaced by Austin-based attorney Marc Rosenthal. Rosenthal has yet to re-file the suit.