BROWNSVILLE — The Texas DPS chief on Friday asked federal agents to review the deaths of two Guatemalan immigrants, killed last week when a state trooper opened fire on a smuggling vehicle near La Joya.
The Texas Rangers will hand over their investigation to federal agents upon completion, according to Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw.
McCraw said he asked the FBI and Justice Department to conduct an independent investigation into the Oct. 25 shooting by a trooper in a helicopter. Two of a group of nine Guatemalan immigrants, suspected of being in the country illegally, were shot and killed while being smuggled through the Rio Grande Valley.
McCraw's request on Friday came after a coalition of civil rights groups joined the local Guatemalan consul in decrying the incident and the ensuing investigation by Texas Rangers, an arm of the DPS.
“The Texas Rangers will turn over its completed investigation and evidence to the FBI and Justice Department, including the video and audiotapes of this incident,” McCraw said in an agency news release.
The statement came as records released by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education showed that the trooper, state Police Officer Miguel Avila, was a law enforcement veteran of more than 10 years who had during the past two years completed dozens of hours of specialized training in aircraft operations, including 34 hours since October 2011. He did eight hours of tactical firearms training on May 22. The records showed no disciplinary actions.
Avila was put on administrative leave after the shooting. He was back on the job Thursday, though reassigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of investigation.
The civil rights groups were not the only ones to seek a wider probe.
In a letter dated Wednesday, two Democratic state lawmakers called on the Legislature's Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety to convene an emergency hearing on the DPS policy on firing on moving vehicles and the officer's conduct in the case.
“DPS is alone among the other law enforcement bodies in the Valley in allowing officers to fire upon a vehicle for the purpose of stopping it,” wrote Reps. Lon Burnam and Armando Walle.
Committee Chairman Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, said Friday he had spoken to McCraw and saw no need for a policy review.
“I can't find anyplace or anywhere protocol wasn't followed,” Miller told the Associated Press on Friday. “Looks like everything was done according to DPS policy. It's unfortunate some people died, but I guess the lesson is: Don't be running from the law. So there will be no hearing.”
The consul, McAllen-based Alba Caceres, reported that survivors said the DPS helicopter was flying low and that the blanket covering them had blown off, exposing them in the bed of the pickup.
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger has said the agency had “irrefutable evidence” that the covering did not blow off the truck, making it appear to police to be a covered drug load. He has declined to elaborate on the nature of the evidence.
In a news release Thursday, the agency offered diagrams of the 14-mile pursuit and said Avila discharged his weapon in an effort to stop a midafternoon chase as the vehicle headed toward nearby schools.
State park rangers had called DPS after the driver of the fleeing red pickup refused to stop, despite being followed for more than six miles.
The pursuit ended on an unpaved road in a sparsely populated area, some 2.6 miles from two schools, DPS said.
Marco Antonio Castro, 29, and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar, 32, were shot and died. Seven others, who along with the deceased are from the city of San Martín Jilotepeque in Guatemala, have been detained.
The driver is believed to be a 14-year-old Mexican national. Border Patrol agents apprehended him in the hours after the chase, but juvenile authorities released him to a grandparent and he has since gone missing.
Civil rights groups and some federal lawmakers are questioning the use of deadly force during border-enforcement operations, which the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday called a “disturbing trend.”
Betty Perez, whose family owns a ranch near the shooting, said there seems to be more and more of a law enforcement presence in her area, about 10 miles north of the border, and that it's not uncommon for locals to be stopped while driving their trucks.
“We don't see so many immigrants walking through like we used to, but we do see fast cars going north,” she said. “In the past year, we've seen more chases.”
By Lynn Brezosky and Jason Buch
Updated 1:38 a.m., Saturday, November 3, 2012
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