McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Texas law enforcement agents in a helicopter were close enough to a pickup truck to see it was carrying people, not drugs, before a sharpshooter opened fire, killing two Guatemalan men hiding under a cover in the vehicle’s bed, a diplomat said Tuesday.
Texas Department of Public Safety officials have said the helicopter crew believed the truck was carrying a drug load and they shot to stop it.
But after interviewing seven survivors, Alba Caceres, Guatemala’s consul in McAllen, said there was agreement that the helicopter was 450 to 600 feet away when a trooper inside fired in an attempt to disable the fleeing vehicle. She said the trooper should have been able to see the people inside.
“They all saw it (the helicopter),” Caceres said. “All of them, including those riding up front because they were stuck against the window.”
Along with the driver, four passengers were riding in the cab — three of them crammed behind the front seat, she said. The other six passengers, including the two who were killed, were in the truck’s bed, covered with a sheet.
Caceres had said Monday that her skepticism was building that a helicopter could fire on a vehicle without seeing people stuffed into the cabin and bed. “Neither you nor I believe it,” she said.
A Department of Public Safety spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, a group of community-based organizations, has scheduled a Thursday news conference and prayer vigil at the site of the shooting.
A coalition of civil rights organizations, including the ACLU of Texas, LUPE (La Unión Del Pueblo Entero) and others, will hold a press briefing on Thursday near the town of La Joya.
Speakers representing each group will address issues of public safety, government accountability, use of force policies, and demand a full investigation into the shooting deaths of the two unarmed passengers by a Department of Public Safety sharpshooter who fired from a helicopter while in pursuit of a suspect vehicle.
Members of the community will gather afterward to remember the lives of the two fathers who were killed and pray for the recovery of another man injured during the indiscriminate law enforcement barrage.
“What is most at risk with all of this is that trust that the community must have in its law enforcement officers,” said Daniel Diaz, a community organizer for LUPE. In a time in which there is a real, present fear of violence, our families feel that they must be able to trust their peace officers. Incidents like this one, along with the way that DPS blew off the murders as ‘justifiable police actions’ leaves that trust shaken.”
Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, 32, and Marcos Antonio Castro Estrada, 29, were shot and killed. Coj was a father of three who was traveling to the United States because his eldest son needed surgery to repair an arm injured cutting fire wood, Caceres said.
Castro was a father of two whose wife is three months pregnant. Both men were from San Martin Jilotepeque, about an hour outside of the Guatemalan capital.
“There were no drugs. There was no public. The only ones immediately in danger in the incident were the two men who died, and their families that are now left without husbands and fathers,” Romana Casas of ARISE.
Caceres was awaiting death certificates that would allow the bodies to be taken back to Guatemala.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens spotted the truck Thursday near La Joya and called for help when the driver wouldn’t stop. The DPS helicopter responded and joined the chase.
DPS has said the crew believed the truck was carrying a load of drugs when the trooper tried to disable it by shooting out a tire on a rural, gravel road.
Caceres has made a formal request for an investigation. The Texas Rangers, an arm of DPS that often assists other agencies in officer-involved shootings, is leading the probe.
Immediately after the shootings, ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke urged state officials to fully investigate the fatal shooting of unarmed persons in a moving vehicle on an open road.
“Why is a state game warden involved in enforcement of federal immigration law? Where’s the ‘public safety’ when a trooper in a helicopter opens fire on unarmed persons in a vehicle on a public road?” asked Burke.
DPS has said the troopers suspected the pickup was carrying a “typical covered drug load,” and the driver was going at reckless speeds. Agency regulations say troopers are allowed to use force when defending themselves or someone else from serious harm or death. Shooting at vehicles is justified to disable a vehicle or when deadly force is deemed necessary.
“You always expect that a coyote (smuggler) will abandon you,” Caceres said. “You expect that organized crime will kidnap you. You expect that common criminals will assault you. But you would never expect that a United States authority would take your life.”
Especially when that authority is a game warden.
“That game wardens and highway patrol officers are engaging in activities properly belonging to Customs and Border Patrol is yet one more, mortally clear sign of the need for a comprehensive, just and humane immigration reform,” said Michael Seifert, the coordinator for the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network.
“The Equal Voice Network looks forward to the day when workers looking to support their needy families can safely migrate through our region,” he said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
Equal Voice News reporter Kathy Mulady contributed to this report.