Shot Dead from the Air–"We thought that they might be carrying drugs"

Thursday, November 1, 2012
La Joya, Texas

As the sun blazed its afternoon blasts of heat down onto a desolate stretch of a west Hidalgo county road, close to fifty Rio Grande Valley residents gathered for a press conference and a prayer vigil.

We were standing in the middle of nowhere, at the corner of FM 2221 and Mile 7 road, north of a town called La Joya, in western Hidalgo county. We huddled around two white crosses, and a small “altar de los muertos”. Aside from the roar of the occasional tanker truck hauling gas from the wells that dot this part of the Rio Grande Valley, it was eerily quiet.

A week earlier, roughly at the same time of day, six Guatemalan men had been hunkered down in the back of a pickup truck. They were fleeing from a Texas Parks and Wildlife officer who had tried to pull them over. A fourteen year old was driving the truck down the narrow, gravel road when a sniper with the state troopers, following the pickup in a helicopter, began shooting at the truck with a high-powered rifle. Three men of the men were hit by the trooper, and two of them, Marco Antonio Castro and José Leonardo Coj, died.

According to Alba Caceres of the Guatemalan consulate, both men were from a small village in western Guatemala. Marco Antonio Castro, she said, left behind two children, and his wife pregnant with a third. José Leonardo Coj had never wanted to make the journey, but when his eleven year old son injured his arm and need surgery, Coj saw no other alternative than to come north to find some work to be able to help his boy.

According to initial reports by the Department of Public Safety, the state trooper opened fire thinking that the pickup truck was carrying drugs — not people. The Guatemalan consul, however, after speaking to the survivors of the shooting, said that the men in the back of the pickup could clearly see the helicopter and the sniper, and they claimed that they had motioned at the sharpshooter not to fire.

As the story began to unfold, the bizarreness of the police action became more apparent, and, to residents, disturbing. “Is this going to be the way that it is from now on,” said Daniel Diaz, a LUPE organizer, “police shoot at people from a helicopter just because they suspect something?” Terri Burke, the Executive Director of ACLU of Texas, on a radio interview later in the day, pointed out that the truck could well have been driven by area teenagers “out drinking and acting stupid, like teenagers sometimes do.”

The DPS undermined public confidence even more when director Steve McCraw, asked the Texas Rangers to head up the investigation of the incident.

The Texas Rangers are a branch of the same Department of Public Safety.

A week after the incident, the DPS issued yet another press statement, this time saying that the pickup was fired upon as it was traveling towards schools that would be letting their students out that that time, and felt that the speeding pickup truck would create a danger to the public.

Those of us gathering around the crosses representing the lives of the two men that died, wondered if that were the case—if in fact the trooper was trying to disable the truck before it got near the schools—then why didn’t they say that in the first place? Why all of the talk about shooting at a truck suspected of  carrying drugs?

Thus a press conference, with its demands for an independent review of the case by a group not associated with the Department of Public Safety. According to the Associated Press, these demands were echoed by Representatives Lon Burnam of Fort Worth and Armando Walle of Houston, who said they want the committee to review the trooper’s conduct and the agency’s policy on firing at moving vehicles.

The back-and-forth about who did what, when, how, and why was clearly a concern to those gathered yesterday near the site of the deaths. But there were also the names of the men on the crosses, and their stories. Steve McCraw himself called the shootings “tragic” and so they were—particularly for the families of these two men.

A rancher who lives just up the road had the last question at the conference. She quietly asked the Guatemalan consul if there was some place where she could contribute some money for the families of these men.

It was a question that led us into our prayer, that offer of help rising up from that very dusty, dry patch of Texas and heading far south, to a green village in the mountains of Chimaltenango, where surely the wives and the children, the parents and the siblings of Marco Antonio and José had awoken last week perhaps with the same taste of dust in their mouths, but with a far deeper sense of this tragedy then any of us could ever imagine

The event ended, and we all left to return to our own lives. As I headed back to the highway, I passed three Border Patrol units, speeding up the road, and then a county constable’s car, and then two La Joya police units. I scanned the sky. I did not feel safe.

News sources are reporting that the shooting incident is now under review by the FBI.
A video interview with the families can be found here:


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