A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper in a helicopter opened fire on a fleeing pick-up truck suspected of carrying a "drug load" last Thursday, but the truck wasn't carrying drugs -- it was instead carrying undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, and two of them were killed in the shooting. Marco Antonio Castro and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar become the 54th and 55th persons to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.
"During the pursuit, the vehicle appeared to have a typical 'covered' drug load in the bed of the truck," Vinger said. "DPS aircraft joined the pursuit of the suspected drug load, which was traveling at reckless speeds, endangering the public. A DPS trooper discharged his firearm from the helicopter to disable the vehicle."
The truck swerved, then came to halt after a tire was punctured. No drugs were found in it, but it was carrying nine Guatemalan nationals, one of whom was wounded by gunfire in addition to the two who were killed.
Guatemalan consul in McAllen, Texas, Alba Caceres said all the men had traveled together from the city of San Martin Jilotepeque in Chimaltenango, paying $2,000 each to get to the US-Mexico border and another $3,000 to be transported to the interior US. Most were headed to New Jersey. The group had crossed the Rio Grande River Thursday morning and walked six hours through the scrub before meeting up with the pick-up truck, Caceres said.
"We need a serious and big investigation into this case because I cannot understand why DPS made the decision to shoot them," she said. "I have never seen something similar to this."
After talking with survivors, Caceres later told the Associated Press the men told her the tarp covering them in the bed of the pick-up blew off the truck during the chase, leaving them clearly visible from the air.
"These statements taken from the survivors leave me outraged," she said. "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."
Caceres wasn't alone in demanding an investigation. Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas also joined the call.
"What we know so far raises disturbing questions," Burke said. "Why is a state game warden involved in enforcement of federal immigration law? Why is a game warden in dangerous high-speed pursuit of people who were suspected of nothing more than a civil offense? And where's the 'public safety' when a trooper in a helicopter opens fire on unarmed persons in a vehicle on a public road?"
Earlier this year, DPS Director Steve McCraw said the use of armed sharpshooters on helicopters patrolling the border region was necessary to secure the safety of law enforcement.
"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 Texas."
According to DPS policy, lethal force is can be used when the officer or someone else is at "substantial risk of death or bodily injury." Troopers can shoot at vehicles either when deadly force is justified or when it is "for the sole purpose and intent of disabling a vehicle." When shooting at a vehicle, the policy warns, "there may be a risk of harm to occupants of the suspect vehicle who may not be involved, or involved to a lesser extent, with the actions of the suspect creating the threat."
Police use of force experts were stunned by the DPS policies. Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina, who has studied police pursuits at departments 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 said. "It's not an efficient or effective policy to let officers shoot from vehicles, and certainly not from a helicopter."
Manuel Zamora of the Center for Security Studies at Angelo State University said some departments had begun training in the use of special weapons in situations where criminals could kill or injure others. If a trooper "can see someone would be fatally injured or wounded, then they would probably be justified in using deadly force," Zamora said.
But in the Thursday killing, the truck was traveling down an unpaved road surrounded by grass fields in a sparsely populated area. The only people fatally injured or wounded were those who came under fire from the as yet unnamed trooper.