LA JOYA, Texas — Half a dozen Guatemalan men lay hidden in the back of a pickup speeding down a rural road near the border, side by side and covered with a sheet, when the truck bed was pelted with rocks.
Or at least the men thought they were rocks. The truck was barreling down a dirt road and, as the men later told a consular official, they presumed the tires had kicked up rocks into the truck bed.
The objects hitting the truck were bullets.
A trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety had fired from a helicopter to try to force the truck to stop. The Oct. 25 incident left two men dead, and now a Guatemalan government official wants to know why the trooper reacted with deadly force.
“I have a lot of questions,” said Alba Caceres, the Guatemalan consul in McAllen, a border city about 15 miles east of La Joya.
“Why aren’t the narco-traficos pursued this way?” Caceres asked, referring to drug smugglers. “Maybe if the officer explained why they made the determination to shoot them, we would understand. Right now, I am very confused.”
State officials declined to comment on the incident, citing an ongoing investigation.
Troopers are allowed to fire from helicopters under the department’s policy on the use of deadly force. The policy, a copy of which was provided by a spokesman, notes troopers can fire at vehicles to stop the driver, defend themselves or someone at risk, or make an arrest.
The trooper involved was placed on administrative leave, as agency policy requires after officer-involved shootings, according to department spokesman Tom Vinger. He said officials had contacted Guatemalan authorities.
Troopers suspected the truck driver was smuggling drugs, according to an agency statement, because the truck had “a typical ‘covered’ drug load in the bed.”
Smugglers have become common in the area in recent years, which lies just north of a break in the U.S. border wall running from Penitas to Sullivan City. The mostly rural, unpaved roads have few houses and sparse traffic.
Caceres met with men who were in the truck and related their account of the incident.
In addition to the six men in the truck bed, there were three in the cab, along with the driver and coyote, or smuggler, she said. The immigrants, all field workers, had each paid $5,000 to be smuggled through Mexico and into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. They had spent 19 days traveling from their hometown of San Martin Jilotepeque in Guatemala’s Chimaltenango department, where some lived in mud huts.
They crossed the Rio Grande on Oct. 25 in an inflatable raft, then walked for six hours across the flat ranch land populated by mesquite and prickly pear cactus to meet the Mexican coyote and his driver. They boarded the truck hoping to make it to family in Houston, New Jersey and New York.
A game warden spotted the red pickup about 3 p.m. north of La Joya and attempted to pull it over.
The men heard a siren, then the coyote said, “They’re going to catch us!”
The driver sped off. The warden gave chase, radioed for backup, and Texas Department of Public Safety ground units joined the pursuit, along with the helicopter.
Caceres said the men in the bed told her they had been covered with a sheet and that they tried to hold the cloth over them as the truck gained speed. The men were bouncing around so much that one received a cut across his back and later had to be hospitalized.
Then the men heard what sounded like fireworks.
One man “said it was like Christmas in Guatemala,” said Caceres, referring to the practice of setting off fireworks for the holiday. The man next to him, his brother-in-law, was bleeding, Caceres said. He had been shot.
On the other side of him lay the man’s brother — uninjured. But further down the line, another man had been shot.
The truck soon stopped. One man escaped, but the other 10 were caught. None of the men had drugs or weapons, officials said.
Marco Antonio Castro, 29, a father of two, died at the scene. Jose Leonardo Coj, 32, a father of three, died on his way to a hospital.
Caceres said she met with the men Friday at a Border Patrol facility in McAllen after visiting the shooting scene. Calls to U.S. officials requesting permission to speak with the men were not returned.
“We need to have a good relationship with ICE,” she said this week, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “In this case, I said I understand your job is to protect the border. But my job is to protect my people.”
She sent a letter last week to the lead investigator handling the case for the Texas Rangers, requesting records and case notes explaining what happened during the “fatal chase.” She also called on Texas officials to provide answers. She said she had not received a response from investigators.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas has called for a state investigation. And members of the local Guatemalan community — much smaller than those in Dallas and Houston, let alone New York and Los Angeles — have called Caceres to offer support.
Caceres, a mother of three, feels for the men, all of whom have children under age 10. She said Coj came looking for work to help pay for surgery for two of his children, ages 11 and 7. “There will be orphaned children,” Caceres said, “and families poorer than they were before.”
She wonders whether the shooter in the helicopter saw the men trying to cover themselves, especially the tall one whose feet must have been sticking out of the sheet, she said.
The detained men plan to return home to prepare their friends’ funerals, she said.
The two bodies were taken to a funeral home, where they remained pending the investigation. The Guatemalan government will pay to send them home, where local groups will cover the cost of burial, Caceres said. But they cannot cover all of the costs.