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DPS’ Out-of-Control Border Wars

by Published on
Training video from Craft International.
Training video from Craft International.

Ever since Gov. Rick Perry tasked the Texas Department of Public Safety with tighter border security during the 2006 election cycle, trigger-happy bureaucrats have been given carte blanche to turn the state into their own personal theater of war. In October, DPS made headlines when a state trooper in a helicopter shot at unarmed Guatemalan immigrants riding in the back of a truck in Hidalgo County. Two of the Guatemalan men were killed. Last week, the Austin American-Statesman reported that DPS officers have fired from helicopters while pursuing vehicles five times over the past two years. In only one instance was the DPS successful in stopping a vehicle without causing fatalities. Two of the instances required the additional use of spikes in the road to ultimately stop the vehicles, and two instances resulted in the suspects fleeing the scene for Mexico.

“We’re really not apologetic about it,” DPS Director Steve McCraw said of the policy of allowing armed troopers to fire from helicopters. His remarks came before the Guatemalan killings. “We’ve got an obligation to protect our men and women when we’re trying to protect Texas.”

That DPS allows its officers to fire from helicopters when apparently no other American law enforcement agency does so says something about the agency’s sense of mission. McCraw is fond of painting the Texas border region as a war zone, and he’s got the paperwork to prove it. Funny thing, though: A private firm that stands to profit from the continued militarization of the Texas border region generated that proof.

In March, the independent news site Alternet exposed the controversial relationship between DPS and Abrams Learning & Information Systems (ALIS), owned by retired U.S. Army Gen. John Abrams. DPS has paid ALIS millions since 2007 to not only create the state’s border security strategy, but execute a P.R. campaign to create the perception that Mexican drug violence threatens the lives of Texas civilians on an ever-increasing basis.

Even more alarming is the fact that ALIS has been awarded millions in contracts with virtually no public discussion or scrutiny. The Texas Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS, has allowed McCraw and DPS to run the state’s border security operations, dubbed Operation Border Star, with little oversight. In fact, a follow-up investigation by the Statesman turned up very few state officials outside of law enforcement who had ever heard of the small Virginia firm despite the fact that it received $22.7 million from DPS and the Governor’s Office for border-security operations from FY 2007 to FY 2011.

What’s more, the DPS and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott have refused to release details of Operation Border Star to the Center for International Policy, claiming it would put law enforcement officers at risk. The same documents, however, were released to for-profit security consultants contracted by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who’s been waging his own little border war.

Is this what conservatives mean by small government? Leaving public safety to private defense companies founded by former military brass with little to no border experience looking to cash in on America’s fervor for “secure borders?”

Although state Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) called for an investigation of the contracts between the DPS and ALIS in March of this year, and Comptroller Susan Combs responded in April that her office would “focus on, but not limit the audit scope” to DPS’s contract with ALIS, I cannot find any public report of such an investigation eight months later. An earlier review by the Compliance and Oversight Division of the governor’s office obtained by the Statesman revealed that DPS has a history of improperly diverting federal stimulus funds to pay ALIS, as well as other shoddy accounting practices.

A DPS spokesperson told KRGV News in the Rio Grande Valley that she couldn’t explain why DPS decided to circumvent the state competitive bidding process in 2006 when they began their special relationship with ALIS. The governor’s office declined to comment.

We can’t continue to let private firms profit, using our tax dollars, from this reckless and sometimes deadly militarization. It’s time for the Legislature to launch a full-scale investigation into DPS, McCraw and Perry’s handling of Operation Border Star.

Corrected on Jan. 3, 2013: The original story stated that DPS Director Steve McCraw had been “downright cruel in his reaction to the October killings” of two Guatemalan men and cited a San Antonio Express-News article in which McCraw is quoted as saying he’s “really not apologetic about it.”

However, as the Express-News article made clear, McCraw’s quote was drawn from an interview prior to the Guatemalan fatalities. He was speaking about DPS’ policy of allowing armed troopers to fire from helicopters. We have corrected the story and apologize for the error.

Cindy Casares is a columnist for the Texas Observer. She is also the founding Editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos established in 2007. She has a Master's in Mass Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. Prior to her career in journalism, she spent ten years in New York City as an advertising copywriter. During her undergraduate career at the University of Texas she served under Governor Ann Richards as a Senate Messenger during the 72nd Texas Legislature.

  • Sam Davis

    So let me get this straight, Fast and Furious was a horrible federal program that should result in the firing of the Attorney General along with most of the Justice Department and ATF. Border Star, on the other hand, is a well-run murky program that is fine despite its obvious flaws because Rick Perry and Greg Abbott say so. Can we handcuff these guys and haul them to the World Court?

    • James Ritter

      You lost me Sam Davis, how you can compare “Fast and Furious” to “Border Star” is a far stretch of the imagination.

  • PrattonTexas

    Seriously? Protecting our border when an all out murderous drug-cartel war is ongoing a few yards from where millions of Texans live is bad? Out of control? Is law enforcement not to be armed, not to be ready to open fire on evil doers? Or, are the narcos just another oppressed group that do what they do only because mean Americans don’t hug them enough? I’m not for a militarized domestic police force at all and I think such has gone too far in most places but, the border is inherently different. A more militarized police presence is not only acceptable, it appears necessary. The response must be tuned to the threat and any reading of what is going on in cities just across the border demonstrate that the level of violence is far beyond normal criminal activity.

    • Ted Unlis

      Earth to PrattonTexas, no one in the fleeing pickup was armed, the only shots fired were by the DPS shooter in the helicopter for the reason of stopping a vehicle the shooter incorrectly assumed was loaded with dope, which still would have not justified the use of deadly force, and the two Guatemalans who wound up dead were illegal immigrants, not violent drug cartel members. You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts

  • JacquelineArmendariz

    Actually, those comments from McCraw were NOT in response to the deaths in October. The SA Express-News wrote:

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

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

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