Immigrant killings case to go to grand jury

A red pick-up truck is moved from the scene of an incident after a chase between law enforcement and suspected human smugglers on 7 mile road north of La Joya last Thursday. Associated Press

A red pick-up truck is moved from the scene of an incident after a chase between law enforcement and suspected human smugglers on 7 mile road north of La Joya last Thursday.
Associated Press
By Christopher Sherman

Associated Press

McALLEN — A grand jury will consider the case of two Guatemalan immigrants killed when a Texas state trooper in a helicopter opened fire to stop a tarp-covered truck that authorities thought was ferrying drugs near the Mexico border, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said after meeting with Texas Rangers that the case “will be taken to a grand jury, there’s no doubt about that.” He added that he asked the investigators to tell the state Department of Public Safety that shooting from helicopters should be suspended until policies are reviewed.

On Oct. 25, a DPS helicopter joined state game wardens near La Joya in pursuit of what they thought was a drug-laden truck barreling down a rural gravel road. Instead, the tarp concealed six passengers including the two Guatemalans who died. La Joya is about 250 miles south of San Antonio.

A trooper aboard the helicopter fired in an effort to disable the truck. Later it was discovered that there were no drugs in the truck, but rather nine Guatemalan immigrants in addition to the driver and another passenger.

The only charge Guerra would confirm was a felony evading arrest for the driver, whom he described as a boy about 14 years old. The boy was detained and later released to a grandmother, he said.

The boy did not show up Tuesday for a scheduled appearance before a judge and state game wardens were actively searching for him, said Texas Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Cox.

Asked about charges for the trooper who fired, Guerra said, “That’s not even under consideration right now.”

Grand juries are investigative bodies. While the district attorney guides them in their efforts and presents evidence, they can take the investigation in any direction they see fit.

“The only thing that we’re discussing is an overview of the incident,” Guerra said of his meeting with investigators. “They brought preliminary facts and we are redirecting some areas in the investigation.”

The Texas Rangers, an elite arm of DPS that often investigates police-involved shootings, is leading the probe.

Guerra asked the investigators to relay to their bosses that the policy that allows shooting from the air should be reconsidered.

“They need to review that policy because of the high risk we have to the public and travelers on the roadways,” Guerra said. He said they especially need to consider their policies in areas that transition from rural to more suburban. He said he expected the DPS director and an oversight committee to look into this incident.

Alba Caceres, Guatemala’s consul in McAllen, said Tuesday that after interviewing the seven surviving immigrants, there was agreement that the helicopter had been 450 to 600 feet away when the shots were fired. She believes those aboard should have been able to see the truck was laden with people.

All of the immigrants said they had been able to see the helicopter at some point though she said the six in the bed of the truck were covered with a bed sheet. She said Wednesday she was still awaiting death certificates that would allow the repatriation of the bodies.

Killed in the incident were Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, 32, and Marcos Antonio Castro Estrada, 29. 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.

The American Civil Liberties Union and several community groups have scheduled a news conference and prayer vigil at the site Thursday.