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debris in San Pedro border wall August 2012 Scott Nicol-1
Photo by Scott Nicol

In early May, Ruben Villarreal, Mayor of Rio Grande City, channeled the frustration of many residents in Starr and Hidalgo counties, where a proposed 14-mile border fence is slated to be built through the middle of his community. “I think it’s going to happen but they have us in limbo,” he said. “The federal government needs to give us the facts so we can be prepared. So if it is coming we can make a plan.”

A fence was first proposed in 2008. As the federal government served condemnations to Rio Grande Valley residents up and down the border, some residents in Rio Grande City, Los Ebanos and Roma were also taken to court but told the fence wouldn’t be built any time soon. U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar told the McAllen Monitor at the time that it was due to “engineering and hydraulic” problems. “Realistically and practically, they’re basically passing this decision to the next administration,” he said. “Certainly, for my constituents, we have a victory.”

The “engineering and hydraulic problems” the Congressman alluded to was the vexing problem of reality – and how to ignore it so that the Department of Homeland Security can sign off on the construction of an 18-foot fence in the middle of a floodplain. Building a fence that costs an estimated $4.5 million a mile in a floodplain sounds like a joke. It would be funny, too, if we weren’t paying for it, and if it wasn’t common practice for DHS to defy common sense and build fences in washes, floodplains and riverbeds just to fulfill its border fence quota with Congress.

As I noted back in 2011, at least 40 feet of steel border fence washed away during a flash flood in the Arizona desert. Arizona park officials warned the Department of Homeland Security that the fence would be washed away during the summer monsoon season. Despite their warnings, Border Patrol issued an environmental assessment saying that the fence “would not impede the natural flow of water or cause flooding.”

Scott Nicol, chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, has been following the issue closely since he saw mention of the fence in a 2010 government report. “I had thought they’d given up,” he told me back in 2011. “But apparently they were really pushing to get it done.”

After filing several FOIA requests, Nicol received several documents showing plans to move businesses and homes in the path of the fence. In Rio Grande City, the government’s proposed route would go right through a nursing home. Mayor Villarreal says there are only two nursing homes in the rural border county so it will be extremely difficult to find another facility for the displaced residents.

In September 2012, a representative from DHS and another from the International Boundary and Water Commission held a community meeting but failed to tell residents anything of substance, said Villarreal. The meeting was barely advertised, but even so, he said, at least 80 people showed up from the various small border towns that will be affected.

But the government meeting only created more confusion and frustration. “I would describe the meeting as the most shoddy, unorganized and insensitive meeting of that type that has ever been organized in my 13 years as a public official,” he said. “They were not forthcoming with information. They talked about hydrology studies in jargon nobody could understand and wouldn’t talk directly to the people about their concerns.”

Villarreal said after five years, city leaders and residents need the federal government to advise them on what they have planned for the communities. The Observer asked for an interview with Congressman Henry Cuellar about plans for the proposed fence. The Congressman sent a written response that he had spoken with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS, and they had “advised that due to the lack of funding in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, there will be no additional construction of a border fence at this time. CBP plans to execute the fencing project should funding become available at a later date.”

Congress has already proposed $1.5 billion for a “Southern Border Fencing Strategy” as part of its immigration reform bill, which is making its way through Congress. Conservatives have demanded more border fence as a contingency for any type of immigration reform. Villarreal is frustrated by how little Washington listens to people who actually live on the border. Increasing the number of Border Patrol agents would be much better than a fence in a floodplain, he said. “When we had a flood in 2010 my resources as a city were strained and Border Patrol helped us. People help solve problems in emergencies. An inanimate object like the fence just sits there.”

Pedro Aguilar

Last year 23-year-old Pedro Aguilar left his home in Honduras to take the perilous journey north to the United States. His dreams for a better life in the north ended in central Mexico when the dilapidated freight train migrants refer to as “the beast” ran over him. Aguilar was saved by a fellow traveler from El Salvador who called an ambulance. Doctors were able to save Aguilar’s life, but he lost his left leg below the knee.

Aguilar and 25 other travelers, including Father Alejandro Solalinde, arrived in Austin Wednesday to raise awareness about the dangers that migrants like Aguilar face as they travel north. They are also advocating for immigration reform in the United States that they say will lessen the suffering of immigrant families. The travelers arrived in Austin in a caravan of several cars and vans they call the “Caravan of Hope.” It’s modeled after Mexican peace activist Javier Sicilia’s highly publicized “Caravan of Peace,” which traveled through the United States last summer.

Aguilar said that he, like thousands of other Central Americans, left his country because of growing poverty and violence. Aguilar said his 29-year-old sister was robbed and killed for a pair of tennis shoes in 2011. His 35-year-old brother was killed that same year by gunmen. “ I don’t know why they killed him. The authorities did nothing,” he said. “There’s so much impunity.”

Their murders finally convinced Aguilar that he should leave Honduras. “Since I was 9 years old, I had the idea of wanting to be in the United States,” he said. “I had seen how people who went to the United States, if they worked hard, they could get somewhere. In Honduras you kill yourself working from dawn to dusk, and you have nothing to show for it.”

The caravan arrived at the Mexican American Cultural Center in downtown Austin Wednesday evening for a screening of the documentary “El Albergue” about the migrant shelter run by Father Solalinde in Oaxaca that offers refuge to Central American and South American migrants. The screening was followed by a panel that included Aguilar and other caravan members as well as a brief speech by Father Solalinde, whose work protecting migrants has resulted in several death threats. The priest now travels with four bodyguards in Mexico.

Sixty-four-year-old Mercedes Moreno left El Salvador shortly before civil war broke out. She left behind two young sons in the care of her mother. “I had always thought I’d go back but then the war started,” she said.

After several years, Moreno was finally reunited with her sons in Los Angeles. Her oldest son, Jose, was deported after being ticketed for jaywalking. He was returned to El Salvador but had no identification. The police picked him up, and he was tortured for several months, Moreno said. When he was finally released, her son fled El Salvador to reunite with his mother in California. He never made it. Her 22-year-old son disappeared in Mexico in 1991 and was never heard from again.

“There’s no closure,” Moreno said. “I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. At night, I wonder if he’s gotten something to eat or if he’s been hurt. I’ve searched everywhere for him in Mexico.”

Father Alejandro Solalinde urged the audience of more than 200 people at the cultural center to embrace humanity instead of material wealth. Greed and corruption fuels organized crime, which preys on the poor, he said. “We are living through one of the worst crises in humanity because we have put God to the side and put money in his place.”

On Wednesday, Pedro Aguilar said he still couldn’t believe that he had finally made it to the United States. Just 11 months ago, he had been lying in a Mexican hospital at the lowest point in his young life. He never could have imagined that he would be an invited speaker on a caravan crossing the United States to promote immigration reform. Now Aguilar works in a nonprofit bakery in central Mexico that employs migrants who were maimed during their journey north. “I am trying to do my part. I feel like I carry the weight of other immigrants. Those who never made it. So I try to carry on with bravery and courage. I know that in this life you can make it. Under whatever circumstance you have to keep going.”


Pedro Aguilar has been unable to afford a prosthetic leg. Anyone interested in helping can contact him at [email protected]


The so-called “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, released their much-awaited comprehensive immigration reform bill late Tuesday. It’s thrilling to finally see a reform bill which looks like it has some momentum come out of Congress—until you see the first section devoted to border security, which is like a kick in the gut for border communities.

Get ready for more fences, more invasive surveillance and more “boots on the ground.”

The bill appropriates $1.5 billion for the “Southern Border Fencing Strategy” to identify where fencing, including double-layer fencing, infrastructure, and technology would be deployed along the Southern border.

Here we go again. For anyone who has closely followed the building of the border fence in Texas, this is an immediate red flag. Landowners like Brownsville resident Eloisa Tamez have been fighting the condemnation of their land since 2008. Much of the unfenced land left along the southern border is in Texas and it is owned by private landowners.

The proposed fencing means another round of land condemnations and costly court battles for landowners and business owners. Since 2007—when the Department of Homeland Security first started land condemnations under the 2006 Secure Fence Act in Texas—the agency has never adequately explained the decision-making process that determines where the fencing is built. And border residents say DHS seldom confers with communities before they start building.

Even worse, the immigration status of millions will hinge on the building of these border fences by the National Guard, as well as adding more drone surveillance to the border. And then finally a determination by a hyper-partisan Congress on whether the border is secure.

The bill creates a new class of immigrant called the “Registered Provisional Immigrant.” The bill says “RPIs” can travel outside of the country for up to 180 days a year and they can work. But it is a provisional status, presumably with even less rights than a Legal Permanent Resident status. According to the bill, immigrants cannot begin the process of becoming Legal Permanent Residents, (aka securing a green card) until the Homeland Security secretary submits a notice to Congress and the president that the Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy is “substantially deployed and substantially operational,” and that the Secure Fence Strategy is implemented and “substantially completed.”

This could take years. Government officials have been trying to form a coherent border security strategy ever since 9/11 with little success. The past decade is littered with ideas and technologies that were once touted as the latest and greatest only to be later scrapped because they didn’t work and cost taxpayers too much. For instance, the virtual fence project was canceled in 2011 because of cost overruns and technical glitches. The radar sometimes mistook desert brush for border crossers when it was windy. And when it rained, the radar often didn’t work at all. The whole experiment cost taxpayers $1 billion.

Kathleen Campbell Walker, an El Paso immigration attorney with the law firm Cox Smith, says she was disappointed to see the fence provision in the bill. “A lot of communities—like El Paso where I live—have found the border fence to be a very offensive symbol,” says  “I’m sorry to see the building of a fence used as a prerequisite for immigration reform.”

Rio Grande Valley resident Scott Nicol, chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, has been a steadfast opponent of building more fence, which he sees as environmentally destructive and an ultimately ineffective security tool. “If they’re talking about basing immigrant adjustment on the completion of the wall it’s going to take years because of the condemnations that will have to take place,” says Nicol. “The walls have already been built where it’s easy to condemn properties. They can destroy nature refuges without blinking because they’re on federal lands. But what’s left now is private property and most of it is in Texas.”

Even worse, he says, is that the walls are often ineffective. They clog with debris and flood communities or they fall over in flash floods. People can scale them with relative ease. “When the Gang of Eight was visiting Nogales they watched a woman climb the fence,” says Nicol.

For those already weary from fighting the U.S. government for their land for the past five years, the specter of another round of land condemnations is frightening. “My sense is that the government is plowing ahead on a security plan and the indigenous people in this community are still in the dark,” says Dr. Margo Tamez, daughter of Eloisa Tamez, who are of members of the Lipan Apache tribe.

As we spoke Tuesday, Margo said her mother was in federal court in Brownsville, still fighting to hold onto their property in El Calaboz, a tiny border community outside of Brownsville. The U.S. government is trying to take the land underneath the 18-foot border fence it already built in the middle of her property. They are offering the family $100. “We are subjected to decisions made from far away and not consulted about the things being done to our land,” says Margo, who now works as an assistant professor in Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia.

The comprehensive immigration reform bill is a hefty 844 pages. Many border residents are anxious to examine it in greater depth and weigh its impacts on their communities. “I’m still digesting this,” says Campbell Walker of the bill. “It’s going to be controversial and it still has a long way to go before it’s signed by the president.”

Another mind-boggling corruption case out of Hidalgo County was revealed Wednesday, when a 13-count federal indictment was filed against the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Investigations in McAllen.

 The DHS-OIG is tasked with investigating allegations of fraud and other crimes committed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents as well as the Border Patrol. The investigative agency, based in Washington, has thirteen field offices including McAllen.

The McAllen Monitor and Associated Press published the details of the 31-page indictment Wednesday.

Eugenio Pedraza, the special agent in charge of the McAllen office until he was put on leave in October 2011, and Marco Rodriguez, another agent, are charged with conspiracy and falsifying documents in at least seven investigations. The cases involved agents accused of taking bribes to allow immigrants and drugs across an international bridge in Brownsville. Pedraza and other agents falsified the documents ahead of an internal audit and a FBI investigation, according to the indictment.

Several other agents from the McAllen office are also implicated but not named in the indictment. In an initial court appearance Wednesday, both of the former agents pled not guilty, according to the AP. Their bonds were set at $50,000 each.

Interestingly, it was a confidential informant from Mexico who set the federal investigation in motion in McAllen, according to the indictment. The informant had been permitted to remain in the United States as long as he or she assisted the McAllen office in investigations. The informant assisted in the case of a customs officer who was reportedly taking money to allow immigrants into the United States. After the informant was no longer needed in McAllen, he or she was sent to work with agents at the DHS-OIG office in Dallas. Once the informant arrived in Dallas, he or she told agents about unethical behavior in McAllen, and the Dallas office reported the allegations to its Washington headquarters.

Here’s where the story gets weirder. The informant’s complaints were leaked to Pedraza in McAllen, who quickly initiated proceedings to have the informant deported to Mexico before the allegations could be investigated. Pedraza then falsified paperwork regarding the deportation, according to the indictment.

The Department of Homeland Security has been struggling to crack down on corruption among border agents. In the last decade the number of Border Patrol agents on the southern border has increased from 9,100 to more than 18,500 agents. In the rush to put more “boots on the ground,” polygraphs and other background checks were sometimes waived for new hires.

A December report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the majority of corruption cases among U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were along the southern border. The GAO made several recommendations to crack down on corruption including periodic polygraph tests of agents in the field.

During a recent reporting trip to McAllen, I was told that the FBI had reserved two floors of a local hotel for its agents from Washington while they conducted various investigations in the valley. It seemed like an exaggeration at the time. Now I’m not so sure.

Jones County Courthouse in Anson, TX.
Wikimedia Commons
Jones County Courthouse in Anson, TX.

The tiny panhandle town of Anson, population 2,400, has an empty $35 million prison that nobody needs. Now county leaders are hoping the Texas Legislature can bail them out of their fiscal mess.

Back in 2009, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice promised Jones County that it would help fill the 1,112-bed facility in Anson with parole and probation violators if the county built the jail. But in 2010, the state reneged on the deal, citing a lack of inmates. Now rural Jones County, which borrowed the money to build the jail, owes bondholders more than $8 million in delinquent payments. County Judge Dale Spurgin told the Abilene Reporter-News last year that private bond investors will be on the hook for the debt, not his county’s taxpayers. Still, Spurgin and other county leaders have been looking everywhere for warm bodies to fill the jail, “since the state walked out on us,” he told the Reporter-News.

It looks like the state might jilt Jones County once again. The prison boom that got its start in the 1990s has gone bust. State legislators are now looking to rehabilitation programs as a more affordable option to costly lockups. Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and member of the Senate Finance Committee, has noted that the state already has 10,000 surplus jail beds. The senator wants a two-year study to identify outdated and costly prisons that the state could shut down.

No doubt Jones County’s leaders will be lobbying the Legislature even harder to bail them out of their financial mire. In early March, a budget rider that would allocate $19.5 million in state money to buy the empty jail in Anson was moved to Article XI of the budget—aka the “wish list.” That means state taxpayers likely won’t be bailing out Jones County. There was a time when rural counties thought of prisons as gold mines. Now it seems they’re only fool’s gold.

immigration reform

What a difference an election makes. Two years ago, Governor Rick Perry made the ban on sanctuary cities a legislative priority, and state Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) even camped outside the clerk’s office to make sure she was the first to file her Arizona-style anti-immigration bills.

Texas lawmakers filed More than 85 immigration bills during the 2011 session. The debate was divisive, even bringing one Democratic legislator to tears on the Texas House floor. It couldn’t be more different this legislative session. Just a handful of immigration bills filed in Texas, and they’ve engendered little.

“It’s like night and day,” says Cristina Parker, spokesperson for the immigration advocacy group Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, or RITA. “We’re just not seeing much at the state level. All eyes are on federal reform right now.”

Aaron Peña, a Republican who served in the Texas House last session before retiring to become a consultant, says the 2012 election losses and his party’s inability to attract Hispanic voters has a lot to do with the subdued tone on immigration this session. “The harsh rhetoric put a lot of Hispanics off the Republican Party,” he says. “It took the election to bring that home.”

In a state in which Hispanics comprise 38 percent of the population—and growing—Peña says his party needs to adapt or suffer the consequences. Texas’ GOP leadership had tried for years to mute the divisive language among the party’s grassroots activists with little success. With the bruising nationwide losses last November, even Republicans in a stalwart red state like Texas had finally gotten the message, he says. “demographics don’t lie.”

The small number of immigration bills filed have so far been at a standstill at the Texas Capitol. Peña and Parker say they are closely watching House Bill 152, by state Rep. Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas) which would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license. The bill would undo a 2011 provision that banned undocumented immigrants from receiving a Texas license.

“I consider it a bellwhether,” Peña says. “If the bill passed it would show that views among Republicans in Texas really are changing on immigration.”

The bill, like other immigration legislation, still hasn’t gotten a hearing. Parker says her group, which is an alliance of law enforcement members, business, faith leaders and immigrant advocates, is also closely monitoring HB 2187 by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) which would expand the federal Secure Communities program to city jails. “If it’s expanded that concerns us,” Parker says. “It would make a terrible situation worse.” In 2010, a report by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law Center, found that jails in Travis and Harris counties had the nation’s highest rate of deporting people for misdemeanors.

With 66 days left in the legislative session, HB 2187 has yet to get a hearing either. “I don’t want to say that we aren’t monitoring the state legislature because we are,” Parker says. “But right now all of our energy and our lobbying is focused on Washington, D.C., and federal immigration reform. That for us is the Holy Grail.”


Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto has adopted a policy of not talking about the violence plaguing his country.

Gone are the press conferences touting the deployment of more troops or the capture of yet another drug kingpin. Despite the new president’s silence, little has changed regarding the drug war’s death toll since former President Felipe Calderon fled to Harvard in December. In the first 100 days of Peña Nieto’s presidency the daily drug-related murder rate has slightly risen and a fresh round of attacks have been leveled against media outlets and reporters.

In short, life hasn’t gotten any better for Mexicans living in the most violence-plagued parts of the country. Last year, I wrote about the devastation of the small farming communities in the Juarez Valley just outside of Juarez. An estimated 70 percent of the population was killed, disappeared or forced to flee. Many went into exile in the United States. The Reyes Salazar family, well known community activists from the small farming town of Guadalupe, fought to save their town with terrible consequences. Six of their family members were murdered. To date, the authorities have never investigated or pursued the family’s killers.

After the murders, at least thirty-two members of the family were forced to seek asylum in the United States. Saul Reyes Salazar, the patriarch of the family, won asylum for his immediate family in January 2012. Last month Saul’s sister Claudia and six other family members were also granted asylum with the help of the UT School of Law Immigration Clinic run by attorneys Barbara Hines and Denise Gilman.

“I’m thrilled that they won asylum,” says Hines, the lead attorney on the case. “They suffered extraordinary persecution in Mexico and deserved protection in the United States.”

For me, the good news that Claudia Reyes Salazar and other members of her family were granted asylum is overshadowed by the realization that they may never be able to go home. Recently, more members of the Reyes Salazar family were forced to flee Mexico. They are also asking for asylum. And from Enrique Peña Nieto’s government? Only silence.

Tweeting the Drug War
Jen Reel
Saturday's panel at SXSW interactive.

The Texas Observer’s SXSW Interactive panel Life on the Line: Tweeting the Drug War highlighted the bravery of citizen reporters living in Tamaulipas—the most censored state in Mexico—to an international audience in Austin.

I joined KGBT-TV Interactive Manager Sergio Chapa, and UT-Brownsville Professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, to discuss the media blackout in the state of Tamaulipas on the Texas-Mexico border where reporters have been killed and threatened and Mexican news outlets bombed or burned to the ground.

The most censored state in Mexico also happens to be the country’s most innovative when it comes to circumventing the media blackout using social media. The panel highlights the birth in 2010 of the city hashtag #reynosafollow to collect and disseminate information on gun battles, blockades and other important information. Since 2010, citizen reporters in Reynosa have pioneered methods for sharing information while protecting their online identities.

As if to prove our point, a massive gun battle raged in Reynosa a day after our SXSW panel. The Mexican media didn’t report on the battle, which went on for three hours. Later, the government reported two dead and one injured, but through #reynosafollow journalists and citizens were able to verify that as many as 50 people died that evening.

A Rally for Medicaid Expansion Tuesday
Melissa del Bosque
A Rally for Medicaid Expansion Tuesday


Back in 2010 Governor Rick Perry compared the passage of the Affordable Care Act—aka Obamacare— to something like Godzilla crushing the Statue of Liberty. “Freedom was frontally attacked by passage of this monstrosity,” he huffed.

In three years, Perry’s rhetoric hasn’t changed much on health care reform despite lobbying from thousands of Texans, local government leaders and the medical community. On Tuesday, an estimated 2,000 Medicaid recipients and supporters gathered outside the Texas Capitol to persuade Perry and other Republicans to get behind the Medicaid expansion.

As lawmakers met inside the Capitol, former Texas Medicaid director DeAnn Friedholm addressed the crowd from the south steps, chiding Perry and legislators who have steadfastly rejected the expansion. Accepting the Medicaid expansion could provide the state with $100 billion in federal money the first decade, and provide insurance for at least 1.5 million Texans. “We’re here because people in the Capitol either don’t understand or even worse they understand but don’t care,” she said. “And we need to make it absolutely unacceptable, morally and politically, for them to do nothing.”

Friedholm, now the director of health reform for the advocacy group Consumers Union, said legislators should not get sidetracked by the argument that Medicaid is broken. “Can it be better? Yes!” she said emphatically. “But the biggest problem for Medicaid right now are the payments which are so far behind that doctors won’t accept Medicaid. And it’s the Texas Legislature that’s in charge of setting Medicaid rates.”

Texas Rally for Medicaid ExpansionIt’s rare that the business community, local government and powerful healthcare groups like the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Medical Association come together on an issue, she said. “The last time that happened was 10 years ago, and we passed CHIP [the Children’s Health Insurance Program] which is a pretty great program.”

People came from all over the state for Tuesday’s rally. Mike Seifert, a community coordinator with the grassroots RGV Equal Voice Network said 107 people from the Rio Grande Valley got up at 3:30 a.m. to board two buses for Austin. “It’s not easy when you’ve got kids and jobs, but they wanted to be here,” he said.

Seifert said Medicaid expansion could transform things for people along the Texas-Mexico border who “live day-in and day-out with the anguish of not having health insurance.” Many uninsured residents used to go to Mexico for low-cost health care, but are now unable to go because of the violence, he said. “I know of a woman who used to see a dentist in Mexico but she can’t go anymore. She had to pull out her own tooth because she didn’t have insurance.”

At the rally, Courtney Wyrtzen, from Austin, held up a photo of her 11-year-old daughter Blythe, who suffers from a nervous system disorder called Rett Syndrome. Wyrtzen said her family relies on Medicaid’s Medically Dependent Children Program for the treatments her daughter needs. “Children with special needs are receiving life saving care from Medicaid,” she said. “We need to protect it.”  Courtney Wyrtzen

Perry isn’t yielding on the Medicaid expansion. But at least there seems to be discussion among Republicans on how to lift Texas out of its dismal role as the state with the highest number of uninsured in the nation. Some legislators are reportedly    looking at a waiver recently granted to Arkansas that would allow newly eligible Medicaid recipients to move into a state health insurance exchange. The federal matching funds for Medicaid would be provided as a subsidy to taxpayers.

The clock is ticking. The federal government will only provide its generous 100 percent match (later shrinking to 90 percent) through 2016. It’s late in the game for Texas to draft an entirely new waiver application and program, and Perry already rejected setting up a state exchange like the one Arkansas will use.

We could know a whole lot more about where Texas is heading later this week. House Appropriations Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) announced today that his committee will discuss Medicaid expansion Friday.

Texas DPS snipers in training
Craft International
Texas DPS snipers in training

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw announced Thursday that DPS officers would no longer shoot from helicopters to disable vehicles, “unless we’re being shot at or someone else is being shot at.”

McCraw made the announcement during a the House Appropriations Committee hearing, after Houston Rep. Sylvester Turner asked McCraw to address the controversial policy.

Last October, DPS helicopter sniper Miguel Avila opened fire on a truck during a chase down a caliche road near the small Hidalgo County town of La Joya. Avila killed two men and injured a third. Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers had been pursuing the truck, thinking it was moving drugs, and called for backup from the DPS helicopter.

But the truck was not carrying drugs or weapons. Instead, nine Guatemalan nationals were hidden in the truck bed under a tarp. The driver was a 14-year-old boy.

The men had each paid $2,000 to be taken from San Martín Jilotepeque in the state of Chimaltenango, Guatemala through Mexico, and then another $3,000 each for passage into the United States. Most were headed for jobs in New Jersey, Alba Caceres, the Guatemalan Consul based in McAllen told the San Antonio Express-News after the shooting.

McCraw said DPS had reviewed its policy last Friday and decided to end it. “I’m a firm believer that they did exactly what they thought they needed to do,” he said of the DPS snipers. “And it was consistent with the Texas penal code.”

Despite McCraw’s continuing defense of the policy, the shooting was almost universally condemned by law enforcement experts and civil rights groups. ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke applauded the agency’s decision to end the policy in a statement.

“We are relieved that Texas is ending this extreme practice, which no other southwestern border states have ever allowed. We hope that this decision is a step, if only a small one, toward ending the culture of violence that pervades enforcement of border security in Texas.”

It may be a small step toward sanity in border security policy, but Texas still has a long way to go. A tragedy forced DPS to ponder its lethal force policies regarding helicopter snipers but not a word has been said about use of force policies regarding DPS’ armored gunboats now patrolling the Rio Grande.

During his remarks, McCraw mentioned that officers needed to reserve the right to shoot back. He said officers had been shot at more than 77 times from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, but didn’t specify the time frame or where that statistic came from. He also didn’t say whether any officers had been wounded or killed in those shootings.

Bullets are flying from the U.S. side of the river, too. DPS has just begun its armed patrols on the river, while Border Patrol has been patrolling for years with some controversy. In September, a Border Patrol agent on a boat fired on a group of people on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, killing a man at a barbecue. In the last three years, U.S. agents have fatally shot four other unarmed Mexicans as they stood on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

Between the Border Patrol and DPS, that makes two law enforcement agencies enthusiastically patrolling the border—and DPS’s new armored gunboats make the Border Patrol boats look like toys. Hopefully, it won’t take another tragedy before legislators look into the firepower behind DPS’s new “marine tactical unit.”

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