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RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas — The red pickup truck tears down the country road, mesquite trees and untamed brush all around. It bears a heavy load in the back, which officials later said provoked Texas game wardens to suspect drugs and give chase. Within minutes, a helicopter carrying state troopers — including a sharpshooter — joins the pursuit near a small town in the Rio Grande Valley on the border with Mexico.
"It's got a tarp with what looks like [drug] bundles," a voice says over the two-way radio. More details are supplied: southbound at 80 mph. The truck makes several turns before heading east on an unpaved road, according to an audio recording of the pursuit obtained by KRGV-TV, a local station. The truck charges east on Mile Seven. "We have a clear spot." The radio goes silent for 14 seconds. Sharpshooter Miguel Avila takes aim at the pickup truck. "Shots fired! Shots fired!"
No "bundles" were found. The pickup truck was carrying a group of Guatemalan migrants who had slipped across the border in search of jobs further north. Two were killed. According to autopsy reports, Marcos Antonio Castro Estrada, 29, and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, 32, died from gunshot wounds. Both were husbands and fathers, said the Guatemalan consul. Cumar had set out for the U.S. to find work to pay for a surgery for his son.
Last year's shooting in the Rio Grande Valley, a daisy chain of small towns and cities, rattled politicians, outraged Texans across the state and transcended debates about immigration to become a homeland-security issue. "Only in Texas do we have sniping from helicopters," read one headline.The American Civil Liberties Union-Texas (ACLU-TX) mounted a public drumming of the state police and joined other groups for a vigil at the site of the shooting. The (McAllen) Monitor, a local newspaper, framed the shooting by asking: "What if it was a father trying to rush an injured child to the hospital? What if it was just a 14-year-old kid who decided to take a joyride in daddy’s truck?"
Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, responded to criticism by saying in a statement that "any number of innocent bystanders or young lives could have been lost or suffered serious bodily injury." Later, the state police revised its policy by prohibiting shooting from the air unless fired upon first.
Public outcry over the shooting underscored tensions in a region that is at once a theater for a vast border-security operation and also a place that more than 1.2 million Texans call home. This year, South Texas displaced the Tucson, Ariz., sector as the nation’s top human-smuggling corridor, based on the number of apprehensions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Smuggling estimates is an imperfect science at best, but these numbers are often used to gauge the level of traffic.
On South Texas highways, where anti-littering signs warn: "Don't Mess With Texas," it is common to cross paths with a sheriff's deputy, local police, Border Patrol agents, a county drug-task-force agent and one of the black state-trooper cruisers all within a few minutes.
"One of the things we learned as a result of the shooting is that gamewardens are empowered to arrest people for smuggling," says Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU-of Texas. "Everyone down there is border enforcement."
Over the summer, local unease evidently reached Washington. In July, Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, a freshman member from the Rio Grande Valley, resigned from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus over its tacit support for the border-security measures contained in the Senate-approved immigration-reform bill. The bipartisan bill, which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, included funding for more drones, more agents and more helicopters in a border-security package worth an estimated $6 billion. These measures would be added to an state and federal funding for border security that has flooded into the region in the name of national and border security.
In a written statement, Vela said he opposed the "proposed militarization of the border" and criticized lawmakers for "extracting a pound of flesh" as a condition for passing immigration reform. "For some legislators it is easy to give up the pound of flesh," he said, "when it's not their flesh."
Michelle Garcia shares her own experiences in reporting this and other stories from the border.
"The car with the halogen headlights has been tailing me across the network of highways in San Antonio for the last 30 minutes. Whoever is at the wheel must be a cop. Because even here, in the northern reaches of the borderlands, one learns that somewhere, someone is always watching, following, asking questions..."
Two major highways — 281 and 77 — run north from the border through South Texas, across massive cattle ranchers and fields where farmers till long neat rows in 100-degree heat. Tractor trailers hauling goods and, often enough, contraband from Mexico share the highway with tourists, families and ranchers. Local news is populated with drug busts and reports of migrants stowed away in U-Haul trailers and discovered in the nearby chaparral, dead from heat and exposure.
The small town of Alice straddles Highway 281, some 120 miles from the border, and it was there that Inez Arredondo, who owns an insurance company, says she crossed paths with border enforcement twice in two weeks. After she moved from the center of town to a village a few miles south of Alice, Arredondo says, a Border Patrol agent stopped her on the highway for going three miles over the speed limit. Soon after, local police pulled her over after she failed to use her blinker.
"It was pretty late, 11 o'clock," she said. Arredondo had picked up her son from a coming-of-age quinceañera dance in town and had entered the southbound highway. The officer, she says, asked her if she was carrying illicit cargo. He peered into the backseat while questioning her about the car, a 2007 Mercedes-Benz. Arredondo explained that she was in the process of purchasing it in a private transaction and he let her go with a warning.
But the incidents, the questioning, the thin pretext for each stop left her rattled. How far does the highway vigilance go? she wondered while relating the incident to her sister. "Do you think that these people know my business, like my personal business?"
The law does not say that we cannot patrol. Our jurisdiction kinda changes.
Within law enforcement there is not one border, but three. The first is the line between two countries, etched on a map, with clear points of entry. Within 25 miles of that line, immigration agents have great leeway to search and question people, including coming onto private property without owner's consent. The "extended border," as defined by law and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, stretches 100 miles from a border crossing and authorizes agents with "reasonable suspicion" to conduct warrantless searches. "The functional border" surrounds airports and transportation hubs and allows for detention and searches if, among other things, there is "reasonable certainty" that an international border was crossed.
Efrain Perez, a spokesman for the regional U.S. Customs and Border Patrol station in Laredo, 90 miles away, said Alice fits within the "second tier enforcement." But when it was pointed out that the town sits more than 100 miles from the border, he explained that "the law does not say that we cannot patrol. Our jurisdiction kinda changes."
"If you're out past midnight on the highway or out on country road, you're going to get stopped. Period," said State Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, a longtime member of the criminal justice committee, whose district extends from the border to Alice. "People know that, and they try and stay off of rural roads or farm roads past midnight."
In general, stops don't make much news unless they involve a public figure. On July 19, former state representative Aaron Peña was returning to the Rio Grande Valley from Austin, the state capital, in a 2001 Dodge pickup truck he had recently purchased as a gift for his college-bound son.
Peña had cleared Robstown, 25 miles east of Alice, when he noticed a police officer shadowing him. The officer motioned for him to pull over and within moments, Peña says, two agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrived wearing badges that read: "Homeland Security."
The first officer had stopped Peña because his registration was expired. Then they discovered that his insurance policy did not list the pickup truck. What began as a regular traffic stop quickly grew into a border-security issue. The officers became suspicious after Peña explained that he worked in Austin but lived hundreds of miles away, near the border. They thought it odd that his driver's license said Aaron Peña instead of his full name: Lionel Aaron Peña.
"I said, 'Really, guys, let me assure you I'm just a dad who bought an old pickup truck for his son,'" Peña recalled as he sat in a restaurant in Austin.
The questioning intensified when officers noticed that the liner on the bed of the truck looked new. Could he be smuggling cash? Dope? Peña was dismayed that a mere traffic stop could lead to suggestions that he was involved in smuggling, "What offended me was to be treated like a common criminal."
The officers impounded the truck, but Peña quickly recovered it after the tow-truck driver gave him a ride to a nearby insurance agent, where he purchased a policy.
He had been snagged in what ICE officials termed an "ongoing randomized operation," one that involved monitoring north-south traffic flow. Greg Palmore, an ICE spokesman in Houston, says Robstown is one of the "chokehold points" where highway traffic flows funnel through. Smugglers, he explains, attempt to evade the border checkpoints at the 100-mile mark, so operations must expand as result. Chokehold points provide an opportunity to nab smugglers, he says because "they don't expect you there."
Peña had retired from the Texas Legislature two years earlier, after a decade in office. He had made headlines by switching parties from Democrat to Republican in what is traditionally a Democratic region. At the time of the incident in Robstown, he was en route to a meeting with the staff of Sen. John Cornyn, a conservative Republican who has fiercely advocated for intensifying border enforcement.
Peña calls himself a "lover of liberty and freedom." So how's liberty and freedom in South Texas right now? He smirks and replies, "Occasionally we run into the government."
As with Inez Arredondo, something seems off in Peña's story. He repeats the scenario – traveling on Highway 77 going south. South? "Yeah, I know," says Peña, "If I was going to be selling drugs I'd be going down the other [side of the] road."
Asset-forfeiture reports show that in 2012, the sheriff's department seized $779,127 in a county with a population of 41,000.
In Texas, smugglers tend to abide by a few ground rules: Drugs go north; weapons and money go south. And thanks to a legal strategy known as asset forfeiture, Highways 281 and 77 have proved highly lucrative for local police and sheriff's departments.
Created to clamp down on the lifeblood of organized crime and drug syndicates, state and federal civil asset forfeiture laws allow authorities to confiscate money and goods believed to be connected to illegal activity. In fact, authorities do not have to charge a person with a crime in order to seize their property.
Few places make greater use of asset forfeiture than the sheriff's department in Jim Wells County, where Inez Arredondo lives. Capt. Ray Escamilla, who has gained national fame for high-volume money seizures on the highway, estimates he has seized some $6.4 million since 1997.
In August, Escamilla came across some 700 rounds of ammunition for high-powered weapons, including AR-15s, M-16s and M-4s. "This is a serious deal," Escamilla told Al Jazeera America. The driver said the cargo was destined for Mexico. Although possession of the ammo was not illegal, Escamilla says, its probable link to criminal activity fit within the definition of asset forfeiture. A few weeks later, he searched a trailer hitched to a pickup truck after noticing that the trailer's registration was expired. The search turned up $15,000 in a secret compartment. Escamilla says he called in a canine unit, which made a positive call, indicating the presence of drugs. But no drugs were found.
Although criminal charges were not brought against the driver, both the money and the trailer were seized because of suspected ties to crime. The case is listed as The State of Texas v. a Home-made Trailer. The driver must return to the county within 20 days with an attorney or risk losing his property.
Asset-forfeiture reports obtained by Al Jazeera America under the state's Open Records Act show that in 2012, the sheriff's department seized $779,127 in a county with a population of 41,000. But sums can be even higher. Just south of where Aaron Peña was detained, the Kingsville Specialized Crimes and Narcotics Task Force, raked in over $1 million one year. According to the reports asset-forfeiture funds have paid for salaries, equipment and travel.
Texas has some of the most lax asset forfeiture laws in the country and, according to the report "Policing for Profits," produced by the public-interest law firm Institute for Justice, it has one of the highest levels of revenue from asset forfeiture among the 50 states. Among Texas's top earners of seized funds, the report reveals, confiscated funds make up 40 percent of law-enforcement budgets. The average law-enforcement-department budget within the state is $1 million, and of that, 15 percent is typically drawn from forfeited funds.
Critics say the potential windfall from seizures through asset forfeiture not only influences policing practices, but may explains the heavy police presence on southbound highways and promotes racial profiling.
According to the attorney general's office, several counties have not reported seized funds to the state government. Audits of Jim Wells County asset forfeiture spending and those of neighboring Brooks County have turned up expenditures on parties, cowboy boots and salary bonuses. A few years ago, the district attorney of both counties pleaded guilty to misappropriating funds seized by those who watch the highways.
Hardware purchases have included five helicopters, one spy plane, six armed patrol boats and 326 patrol vehicles.
Highways 281 and 77 are lined with palm trees when they reach the Rio Grande Valley. Orange groves that once thrived here have gone the way of the manufacturing jobs that relocated to Mexico in 1990s. Although billions of dollars in border commerce passes through the Valley, the area has some of the nation's highest poverty rates.
In recent years the state police, at the urging of Gov. Rick Perry, has greatly expanded its presence along the border to such an extent that the San Antonio Express-Newsdescribed the build-up of state operations as the creation of a "small army."
According to state police figures, crime levels have declined in Texas, but in the "2013 Texas Public Safety Threat Overview," the department identified Mexican drug traffickers as their top organized-crime threat.
Since 2008, state government spending on border security has topped $452 million, according to the Legislative Budget Board. In the last state budget, lawmakers awarded $212.9 million to the state police, and funding is projected to increase to $331.2 million in the next fiscal year.
State dollars have gone toward hiring additional state-police agents and the creation of an intelligence center in Austin, supported by multiple agencies and charged with monitoring the border security. Hardware purchases have included five helicopters, one spy plane, six armed patrol boats and 326 patrol vehicles.
In exchange for the border-security funding, lawmakers wrote in law-enforcement goals into the state budget, which include 25 investigations by state police and 3.4 million "traffic violator contacts."
In early August, Daniel Diaz, a former college football player and local activist (who carries a bullhorn in the trunk), was driving through the town of La Joya. He slows down and says, "They have us pretty much under control," referring to the police. Indeed, some years the number of traffic stops in La Joya has exceeded the number of residents, according to a report by the ACLU-TX. But the sleepy towns in this county are also site of the highest number of high-speed chases by state police: 656 in five years. Roadside shrines mark the areas where the chases resulted in deaths.
Diaz set out down an isolated road. There is not much to see at the site of the helicopter shooting, just miles of brush and ranch land. Earlier in the day, the pickup driver in the helicopter shooting — now 15 years old — was arraigned in juvenile court. Moonfaced and slight, he appeared solemn before the judge. Nearby, his grandmother, wearing a pink skirt, with her hair neatly pulled back in a braid, wept. The judge would soon decide if the young driver would be charged as an adult. As for the sharpshooter, a grand jury declined to indict him; the case is under review by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Civil Rights.
One week later, five miles down the road on which Diaz was traveling, and near the site of the shooting, six people died in another high-speed chase involving a state trooper. According to initial reports, Sgt. Enrique Chavez, driving an unmarked vehicle, pursued a pickup truck believed to be stolen.
Eighteen-year-old Hector Ramirez, from the town of Roma, was at the wheel of the truck when it slammed into two other cars, killing another motorist, his wife and their four children, who lived nearby in Peñitas. An investigation byThe (McAllen) Monitorlater revealed that, although the truck had been reported stolen a week earlier, the chase began when the officer noticed that the driver was not wearing his seatbelt.
The state police did not respond to requests for clarification about the cause of the chase, the status of the officer involved or the number of high-speed chases in the area. On Sept. 17, a grand jury handed down a 17-count indictment against the driver of the pickup truck, including charges of murder and evading arrest. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Hidalgo County District Attorney René Guerra says no charges against the state trooper were under consideration. "He's doing law-enforcement work. He's not going to be charged."