LA JOYA, Texas – A Texas state trooper who fired on a pickup truck from a helicopter and killed two illegal immigrants during a chase through the desert was trying to disable the vehicle and suspected it was being used to smuggle drugs, authorities said Friday.
The disclosure came a day after the incident that left two Guatemalan nationals dead on an isolated gravel road near the town of La Joya, just north of the Mexico border.
State game wardens were the first to encounter the truck Thursday. After the driver refused to stop, they radioed for help and state police responded, according to Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman Mike Cox.
When the helicopter with a sharpshooter arrived, officers concluded that the truck appeared to be carrying a “typical covered drug load” on its bed and was traveling at reckless speeds, police said.
After the shots were fired and the truck’s tires blown out, the driver lost control and crashed into a ditch. State police said a preliminary investigation revealed that the shots fired from the helicopter struck the vehicle’s occupants.
Eight people who were in the truck were arrested. At least seven of them were also from Guatemala. No drugs were found.
The Guatemalan consul in McAllen, Alba Caceres, told the Associated Press that the surviving witnesses told her “one died immediately, the other was apparently taken to a hospital and died on the way.”
The sharpshooter was placed on administrative leave, a standard procedure after such incidents.
An expert on police chases said the decision to fire on the truck was “a reckless act” that served “no legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
“In 25 years following police pursuits, I hadn’t seen a situation where an officer shot a speeding vehicle from a helicopter,” said Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. Such action would be reasonable only if “you know for sure the person driving the car deserves to die and that there are no other occupants.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety referred questions about its policy governing the use of deadly force to its general manual, which says troopers are allowed to use such 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.
Diplomats quickly began their own investigation into the chase.
The head of the Guatemalan Consulate in McAllen said she is demanding federal and state authorities provide an explanation.
The Guatemalans started their journey 19 days ago near Guatemala City, with plans to stay with friends and relatives in New York, New Jersey and Houston, she said.