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Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales during a Sept. 27, 2011, appearance on Fox News to discuss his border-violence report.
Photo courtesy Fox News
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales during a Sept. 27, 2011, appearance on Fox News to discuss his border-violence report.

Before retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales even stepped up to the podium, it was clear he was in a combative mood. Scales was in Austin in early November as an invited speaker for a security summit at the University of Texas at Austin’s Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. “Get ready, y’all are going to get it,” a law enforcement official warned me and another reporter in the auditorium. He looked supremely amused.

Scales, who has the pugnacious face of a retired boxer, didn’t disappoint. “The media has utterly failed in covering the border,” the general said, though, oddly, he excepted Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren from his indictment. Scales also excoriated the federal government and “all those three-letter agencies that are cooking the books and hiding the truth” for their failure to secure the southern border.

It turned out Scales was still smarting from criticism he received last year from both Texas congressmen and the media after releasing his report “Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment,” which he’d co-written with retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, drug czar under President Bill Clinton.

“We wrote a report last year and had our coming-out party at the [Texas] Capitol, but the media chose to eviscerate us,” he said. “I wish they’d read the report.”

Many of us had read the report—all 59 pages of it. It struck many as heavy on inflammatory rhetoric and light on evidence. It argued that “narco-terrorists” are turning Texas border counties into “sanitized tactical zones,” and that living on the border is “tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”

The report was commissioned by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw. They’re among the many Texas Republican officials who increasingly equate the war on drugs with the war on terror, a conflation that helps trigger not only more federal spending but more military intervention along the border.

Many border residents, including congressmen Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, didn’t like having their hometowns characterized as war zones. In a heated congressional committee meeting last year, the congressmen strongly criticized the generals’ report as based on anecdotal evidence and as politically motivated. They grilled the generals about how much they’d been paid ($80,000) and where they’d gotten their information.

A year later at the security summit in Austin, Scales was still upset. The worst thing, he said, was that he had invited his wife to the congressional hearing, telling her it would be a low-key affair. “It was an ambush,” he said. “In all my years of military service I had never been so humiliated. My wife wanted to kill Cuellar.”

Scales said he stands by the report, in which he linked Mexican cartels to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. “If you think it’s just crime and not terrorism, you’re just fooling yourself,” he said. Asked to describe specific incidences of the cartel-terrorism nexus he said, “It’s an existential ideology … the flow of narco money tied together by criminal enterprise, kidnapping, white slavery and other horrible criminal acts.”

The bottom line is this, he said: “The people guarding the border have been poorly chosen and poorly trained, and they have ridiculous rules of engagement. The FBI are notorious for cooking the books. The [crime] numbers are probably half of what it is. The terrorists have gone retail and are in our major cities—it will take generations to root them out.”

With that, General Scales sat down, a sour expression on his face. Next up was Greg Thrash from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “I hope we’re not one of those three-letter agencies you were referring to,” he chuckled. Scales stood up with his briefcase and headed toward the exit. “I hope it’s not something I said,” Thrash quipped.

“Gotta catch a plane,” Scales shrugged, walking out.

After the general had left, Thrash said his agency hadn’t seen any of the border-violence spillover mentioned in Scales’ report. “From our offices along the border, we don’t see any evidence of any massive spillover,” he said. “Our cases don’t support that.”

On February 15, 2011, ICE agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila were ambushed by gunmen on a Mexican highway. The 32-year-old Zapata died that day but Avila, who was injured, survived. That much is certain about the fateful event.

Agent Jaime Zapata Cover IllustrationTo this day, however, Zapata’s family and Victor Avila still don’t understand why they were sent, unescorted, to San Luis Potosi into territory controlled by the brutal Los Zetas drug cartel. As the months progressed after the fatal ambush, media reports revealed disturbing details about weapons bought in the U.S. and traced to the shooting. Now, Zapata’s parents in Brownsville wonder whether the gun that killed their son was part of a botched U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun-walking operation called Fast and Furious, which allowed hundreds of guns to be trafficked into Mexico.

New York-based writer Mary Cuddehe is, to my knowledge, the first to take an in-depth look into Zapata’s fatal shooting and its aftermath, in a story released today by the digital publishing house Atavist. Through extensive interviews, reporting and travel from violence-torn Nuevo Laredo to Zapata’s hometown of Brownsville, Cuddehe pieces together a compelling and heartbreaking story of a family devastated by the loss of their son and a government unwilling to give them answers that will help them find peace.

Atavist was kind enough to share an excerpt of “Agent Zapata” with the Observer. As someone who follows events along the U.S-Mexico border closely, I was intrigued to finally see an in-depth piece about this puzzling and tragic murder. Naturally, I had a lot of questions for Cuddehe about her reporting. Following is our conversation about her really excellent story—for a couple dollars, you can download the entire story to your mobile device or computer. You can read an excerpt from “Agent Zapata” here.

Observer: Why did you decide to write this story?

Cuddehe: One day in a conversation with Evan Ratliff, the editor of Atavist, he mentioned that he’d never seen a big piece on the Fast & Furious operation. I had lived in Mexico for a couple of years, and I remember the attack (on Zapata) very well but I hadn’t followed the story very closely. So when I started doing the research into Fast & Furious I found myself drawn into the mystery.

Observer: At one point in your story you write that it’s a wonder that something like what happened to Zapata doesn’t happen more often. Could you explain this further?

Cuddehe: It’s striking to me given the presence of U.S. law enforcement in Mexico in recent decades, which has grown. There are such close relations between the U.S. and Mexico, and given the unique role of  U.S. law enforcement (in Mexico) it is almost surprising that this hasn’t happened more often. But everyone I talk to says there’s this agreement that it’s ‘hands off’ on American law enforcement in Mexico.

Observer: I’ve heard that often as well. But do you think that agreement still holds? Because pretty much everything has changed in Mexico with regards to who is off-limits.

Cuddehe: That was a question people were starting to ask after the attack on Zapata. And then there was the attack on the CIA agents (in Mexico). It remains to be seen, but it does seem like all bets are off.

Observer: Typically, it’s very difficult to get any information from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. You got pretty amazing access to the ICE agents who worked with Zapata for your story. Was it difficult to get that access?

Cuddehe:  It’s so funny that it seems like great access because I was so frustrated doing the reporting for the story. Basically, I just showed up at the (ICE) headquarters. They had a bust unveiling for what would have been Jaime’s 34th birthday. I had already been talking to Jaime’s parents and they told me about it. It was a quasi-public thing so I was able to get in and while I was there I hung around and waited until I could talk to people. It’s much more difficult to say no to someone in person. Just because of that, I was able to speak to the agents. But they didn’t really say anything. It was amazing to be in the building and talking to people, but on the other hand it was ridiculous because I didn’t really feel like I was getting anything.

Observer: You got more from the ICE agents than many reporters normally get.

Cuddehe: I had been calling them over and over and not getting anywhere. So it was just me being relentless. Driving to Texas and not taking no for an answer.

Observer: And you had to get permission from their supervisor.

Cuddehe: I was surprised when he gave me permission. And that’s been one of the interesting tensions of this story. On one hand the agency has been really great with the family and done their best to honor him with ceremonies but at the same time they’re not giving the family the answers to the questions that they seek.

Observer: I’ve never seen such a detailed account of the actual ambush and shooting. How did you get your information?

Cuddehe: Most of the information comes from interviews I did with Victor Avila’s sister. He is the only witness, obviously, other than the men who allegedly took part in the attack. So I had to trust his sister’s narration of the events. Victor Avila hasn’t given an interview since the attack. I also read some reports that had statements he’d given that afternoon of the attack but it wasn’t very detailed.

Observer: One of the big looming questions in your piece is the motive for the shooting. Why did it happen?

Cuddehe: I did my best in the story to lay out the different possibilities. My suspicion is that the attack happened initially because they did really think the people in this fancy SUV were rivals from another gang. Maybe they got going and realized they weren’t dealing with the Gulf Cartel but figured they’d finish what they started. That to me seems like the likeliest thing. But we may never really know the answer.

Observer: And are there still doubts that the people in jail in Mexico for the crime may not have done it?

Cuddehe: Well, that’s a given with any arrest in Mexico. That there’s going to be some scrutiny and questioning of the validity of the arrests. But the people I’ve spoken with seem pretty confident that they have the right people.

Observer: How is Jaime Zapata’s family doing after his death?

Cuddehe: The scrutiny and intense media interest and the way its been politicized has made the grieving process unusually arduous for them. But the last time we spoke they seemed to be looking for closure so they could move on.

Observer: What would be closure for them?

Cuddehe: That’s the interesting thing about this story. It has evolved for them over time. The questions around the case have become more complex. I think they would like to know why was Jaime sent to San Luis Potosi? They still haven’t even seen the autopsy report. There are still so many basic questions about what he was doing and why he was sent that they haven’t been able to get answers too. And I think some of those answers would help them move on.

Observer: What was the most puzzling thing about the story for you? What questions are still pending?

Cuddehe: There were so many questions. Initially, I spent a lot of time trying to find out what Jaime’s mission was in Mexico City and never got answers to that. I wasn’t able to ever get an interview with ATF. It still seems odd that ICE wouldn’t give any info about what Jaime was doing in Mexico City.

Mexico’s drug war is enriching Texas border communities in more ways than one. Not only have wealthy Mexican business owners invested in the region, local law enforcement is benefiting from millions in assets seized from drug traffickers.

Texas has some of the country’s broadest asset-forfeiture rules. The law allows personal assets to be seized by officers during the investigation of possible felonies and misdemeanors. Funds from seized assets are distributed by federal agencies to local law enforcement agencies after joint investigations.

Increasingly, such money is being used to build surveillance networks and militarize the border, which is already bristling with predator drones, armored gun boats, the National Guard and a border fence. Civil liberties advocates like the ACLU want to ensure that privacy laws and First Amendment rights in border communities keep pace with security measures. “With drones and other surveillance technology, our concern is always, what kind of data are they collecting, how is it kept, and what other entities are they sharing it with?” says ACLU of Texas policy strategist Matt Simpson. “Communities need to have a say in how their communities are being policed.”

In September, the Mission Police Department installed a surveillance network of 32 cameras in Mission for an estimated $395,000, according to McAllen newspaper The Monitor. The network is already equipped with automated license plate readers, which can scan and process thousands of license plates per hour. Civil libertarians are concerned that there are virtually no rules or guidelines about how the data can be used and shared.

The department could afford the state-of-the-art technology because it received $1.18 million this year from the seized assets of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, former boss of the Gulf Cartel, who is serving a life sentence in the United States.

More money is on the way. Four decades into America’s war on drugs, asset forfeiture funds at the state and federal level are ballooning. In 2011, the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund was $1.8 billion, more than three times the $500 million balance in 2003.

Defense contractors are following the money. It’s estimated that the state and local law enforcement market for homeland security expenditures will reach $19.2 billion by 2014, up from approximately $15.8 billion in 2009, according to a recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Now, even the border’s smallest police departments have SWAT units, armored carriers and other military-grade equipment. In August, the Laredo Morning Times reported that the Webb County Sheriff’s office is considering buying a drone helicopter for surveillance. No doubt Webb County can afford it. In September, Sheriff Martin Cuellar received a check for more than $800,000 from the federal government for his department’s role in busting a drug smuggling ring.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, convened a group of elected officials Monday at the Texas Capitol to watch a video taken from the helicopter during the DPS sniper shooting last month where two unarmed Guatemalan men were killed and one critically injured.

The Department of Public Safety helicopter was assisting Texas game wardens as they tried to pull over a pickup truck, during a high speed pursuit near La Joya in Hidalgo County. Wardens reportedly thought the truck was carrying a drug load. Instead it was packed with undocumented Guatemalan migrant workers concealed under a tarp.

After the October 25 fatal shooting, survivors said the tarp had come loose during the pursuit. They said they could clearly be seen by the sniper, according to various news reports.

But Burnam said watching the video footage taken from the helicopter it appeared the tarp was fastened throughout the chase. “I could not by watching this video detect anything other than the tarp being secured. And I could easily see why they thought it was a load of drugs.”

Burnam said he and the other legislators could hear the commentary by the troopers in the helicopter as the chase ensued. After the DPS sniper, Miguel Avila, shot at the truck which was traveling at 80 mph on a caliche road, the truck finally skidded to a stop. Three of the tires had been shot out. “People started bailing out of the back of the truck from under the tarp,” Burnam says. The legislators listened as Avila realized he’d shot at a truckload of people, not a drugload. “He said ‘Oh my god.’ He was just appalled,” says Burnam. No drugs were found in the truck. The men were unarmed.

“It was a horrible tragedy from what I could see in the video,” Burnam says. What troubles him most is that Avila was only following DPS policy and training which allows troopers to shoot at moving vehicles to disable them. Avila shot at the truck because it was approaching a school and the safety of the school children was at stake, claims DPS. A 14-year-old boy was driving the truck packed with Guatemalan migrants.

Burnam says he is concerned about a culture within DPS that is militarizing the border. “The relevant question is there anything we can do to avoid this in the future?” he says. “Steve McCraw, the DPS director, says the agency needs helicopter snipers because we are in a war on drugs, and they keep escalating the battle. There’s an arms race on the border.”

At the meeting Monday, Burnam was joined by State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, State Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston and staffers from the offices of State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen and Republican House Speaker Joe Straus. Burnam said he’s unsure yet whether there will be legislation to change the policy during the upcoming legislative session.

Democrat Pete Gallego won a hotly contested race against Republican Francisco Canseco
PHOTO SOURCE: www.facebook.com/pete.gallego
Democrat Pete Gallego won a hotly contested race against Republican Francisco Canseco.

 

A day after the presidential election, even Republican strategists agree that Mitt Romney blew it with Latino voters and that the GOP has some serious soul searching ahead of it. Deep in the heart of red Texas, Republicans should also see the writing on the wall.

“Clearly, when you look at African-American and Latino voters, they went overwhelmingly for the president,” John Stineman, a Republican strategist from Iowa told Fox News Latino. “And that’s certainly a gap that’s going to require a lot of attention from Republicans.”

Overwhelming is right.  Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote while Romney won a piddly 27 percent, according to national exit polls. Obama did even better than in 2008 with Latino turnout, when he took 67 percent to Republican John McCain’s 31 percent.

Remember more than a decade ago when George W. Bush won about 40 percent of the Latino vote nationally? The Texas Republican Party and groups like the Hispanic Republicans of Texas, co-founded by George W.’s nephew George P. Bush, want to prove it wasn’t an anomaly.

Republican state Chair Steve Munisteri admitted it was crucial to the party’s survival during a 2011 Observer interview: “The Republican Party is living on borrowed time. If every Latino were to vote today in Texas, the Republican Party would lose all of its statewide seats.”

George P. Bush and others were feeling confident after the 2010 election, with six Hispanic Republicans, including Aaron Peña who switched parties, in the Texas House and two in U.S. Congress.

But last night those numbers plummeted. Republicans may still hold the majority of seats in Texas, but Tuesday’s election showed the party has serious problems for relevancy with the growing Hispanic electorate in Texas.

Of the seven Hispanic Republicans elected in 2010, only two remain: State Rep. Larry Gonzalez of Round Rock and U.S. Rep. Bill Flores.

Sure, there were some wins last night for Hispanic Republicans: State Rep. Jason Villalba in Dallas beat his Democratic opponent; Democrat-turned-Republican J.M. Lozano won his Coastal Bend district; and Ted Cruz trounced his democratic opponent for a U.S. Senate seat.

But there were more bruising defeats than triumphs. The biggest was the loss of Congressional District 23, a rural district that spans from San Antonio to El Paso County. Nationally, both parties see the majority Hispanic district as a bellwether that signals which party can best appeal to the growing number of Latino voters. Both sides combined to pour more than $10 million into the race, making it one of the nation’s most expensive per capita.

Last night, Democratic challenger Pete Gallego won the district with 50.3 percent to Republican Francisco “Quico” Canseco’s 45.3 percent. (Canseco has filed a complaint with the Secretary of State, claiming voting irregularities). It was a resounding loss for Republicans who poured millions into the race.

The 2012 election has forced the national Republican Party to acknowledge reality—America is more diverse than it used to be. In fact, it’s starting to look a lot like Texas. So as the national Republican Party engages in some soul searching, Texas’s GOP should do the same. Last night’s significant losses do not bode well for the party’s future.

In Gallego-Canseco Race, Big Money in the Big Bend

Key Texas congressional race attracts $7 million from outside groups.
Bill Clinton and Pete Gallego
PHOTO SOURCE: www.facebook.com/pete.gallego.9
Bill Clinton and Pete Gallego.

By Nov. 6, both political parties and their allies will have poured more than $1 billion into campaigns for just a handful of seats in Congress. One of the most hotly contested races—and one of the costliest—is Texas’ 23rd district, where Democrat Pete Gallego is challenging Republican incumbent Francisco “Quico” Canseco. And it’s getting nasty. A total of $10 million has been spent so far, about $660 per registered voter, making this congressional race one of the most expensive races per capita in the nation.

That’s a lot of cash for a sparsely populated congressional district that spans two time zones, from South San Antonio to El Paso County. The big spending is not just because the district will help determine who controls the U.S. House, but also because both parties see the majority Hispanic district as a bellwether that signals which party can best appeal to the growing number of Latino voters. Two years  ago, Republicans broke through when Canseco, from San Antonio, rode the tea party wave to victory, ousting Democrat Ciro Rodriguez by five points. For the first time, the GOP had seven Hispanic Republicans in Congress, which was heralded as a sign that Republicans were finally winning over Latinos.

Now Democrats hope to reclaim the district. Gallego, an attorney and former Democratic state representative from Alpine, has set out to prove that Canseco’s win in 2010 was an aberration in an otherwise Democratic-leaning district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee PAC has spent more than $1.7 million backing Gallego and flew former President Bill Clinton into San Antonio to stump on his behalf. The National Congressional Republican Committee has spent more than $1.6 million supporting Canseco, and the GOP gave the relatively unknown congressman a coveted speaking slot at the convention over the summer.

But the big money in this race is coming from special interests. Outside groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the National Rifle Association have already spent more than $7 million on the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The outside PAC and super PAC money poured into a blitz of TV ads, mailers and radio spots has given the race a nasty tone. San Antonio, which has the highest concentration of voters in the district, is ground zero for the daily attacks by either side. In his ads, Canseco leans heavily on the term “radical,” claiming that Gallego is backed by “radical environmental groups” and is pro-abortion. He’s also not afraid to use Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary to get himself elected. Both candidates are Catholic and campaigning in a predominantly Catholic district. Recently, Canseco’s campaign sent out Spanish language mailers with a photo of a teen crying next to a doctor’s exam chair draped in Catholic rosaries that says in Spanish “Pete Gallego supports abortion 100 percent.”

Canseco is benefiting from more than $1 million worth of negative ads from a new super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund. The latest ad, titled “Hunting,” features an animated rifle shooting down jobs and tax cuts for Texas’s oil and gas industry. The super PACs’ top donors include Chevron Corp., Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino, homebuilder tycoon Bob Perry and reality show millionaire Donald Trump, according to the Center for Responsive
Politics.

Groups supporting Gallego have countered with TV ads by the House Majority PAC and League of Conservation Voters Super PAC, which are spending just under $1 million on media buys. The latest ad claims Canseco was sued by small business clients for deception, and while in Congress he protected corporate tax breaks so jobs could be shipped off shore. Some of the top donors to the super PACs are the Las Vegas workers union, Houston trial layer Amber Mostyn and Fred Eychaner, a Chicago-based media baron and top donor to President Barack Obama.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if every single person in Texas who was eligible to vote registered and voted, this would be a Democratic state,” former President Bill Clinton told a packed auditorium recently during a rally in San Antonio to support Gallego’s campaign. But if Latinos don’t show up at the polls Tuesday, the race could be a narrow victory for Canseco and the Republicans.

Training video from Craft International.
Screen grab from a thecraft.com video
Video screen grab from www.thecraft.com.

 

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?

Training video from Craft International.
Video screen grab from www.thecraft.com

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.

 

DPS officers train in Ganado, TX. PHOTO SOURCE: GANADO POLICE DEPARTMENT ON FACEBOOK.

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?

Photo by Eugenio del Bosque
Migrant children deported into Reynosa, Mexico

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.”

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