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.