EXCLUSIVE: Trooper ‘overkill’ at border results in disproportionate number of citations for South Texans, data shows

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The deployment of over 1,000 Texas state troopers to the Rio Grande Valley to address what Gov. Greg Abbott called a “border crisis” resulted in a large number of traffic citations issued in four predominantly Hispanic border counties, data obtained by Border Report shows.

Over 16% of all citations issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety between March 1 and May 31 were in the counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy on the Texas-Mexico border, according to data recently provided to Border Report by DPS under the Freedom of Information Act.

And that put particular economic hardships on residents in remote and less-populated Starr County, leaders told Border Report.

Data shows that of the 177,632 total citations issued statewide during that period, 28,983 citations were issued in the four counties during those first three months of Abbott’s Operation Lone Star.

Citations issued included:

  • Hidalgo County: 14,800
  • Cameron County: 7,270
  • Starr County: 6,422
  • Willacy County: 491

During that period, Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties each had more citations issued than of any of the other 251 counties in Texas, according to records from the Highway Safety Operations Center.

The result was an economic hardship imposed on residents in some of the state’s poorest counties with some of the highest Hispanic populations — many who were afraid to venture from their homes, local leaders told Border Report.

This file photo shows Texas state troopers and Department of Public Service vehicles on March 9, 2021, in Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas, where Operation Lone Star was promoted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Starr County, with just 64,633 residents, is the second-poorest county in the state, with a median household income of just $30,387 and a median individual income of just $14,038, according to 2019 U.S. Census data. It is located in rural flatlands west of Hidalgo County and just north of the Mexican cities of Camargo and Mier, and 96% of Starr County residents are Hispanic.

Based on population figures and the number of citations issued, 9.4% of residents received tickets from March to May in the early months of Operation Lone Star.

This led to many residents being afraid to leave their homes for fear they would get a motor violation, which they could not afford, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said.

This file photo shows Texas Gov. Greg Abbott flanked by Texas Department of Public Safety Director Tim McCraw and Major Gen. Tracy Norris, the Adjutant General of the Texas National Guard, on March 9, 2021, in Mission, Texas, to tout Operation Lone Star. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Abbott launched Operation Lone Star on March 6 to combat what he called the smuggling of people and drugs into Texas.

“We will surge the resources and law enforcement personnel needed to confront this crisis,” he said in a statement announcing Operation Lone Star.

During a March 9 visit to Mission, Texas, Abbott touted the added DPS resources, as well as 500 National Guardsmen units that he was surging to the RGV region to help what he called a “tidal wave” of migrants, as well as human traffickers and drug smugglers inundating the South Texas border.

“There is a crisis on the Texas border right now with an overwhelming number of people coming across the border. This crisis is a result of President Biden’s open-border policies which invites illegal immigration and creates a human crisis that will only grow increasingly worse by the day,” Abbott said on March 9, surrounded by DPS state troopers at Anzalduas Park on the banks of the Rio Grande.

This file photo shows Texas Gov. Greg Abbott disembark a DPS helicopter on March 9, 2021, at Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas, to talk to media about Operation Lone Star. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“The cartels are involved in every single one of these border crossers we see,” said Abbott as blades of the DPS helicopter whirled to a stop in the background. “Their strategy is to overwhelm Border Patrol agents and officials and during those moments cartels will bring across the border more dangerous elements.”

But in mid-June, Abbott redirected the majority of state troopers further northwest to the Del Rio region, and that’s when residents finally received some relief and began to venture back out of their homes, Vera said.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera is seen on June 22, 2021, at his Rio Grande City offices in South Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“We certainly believe in securing the border and having law enforcement but there is such a thing as overkill and that’s what we had here,” Vera told Border Report on June 22 during an interview in his office in Rio Grande City, the county seat. “You couldn’t drive down Highway 83 without encountering a DPS unit every 100 yards or two or three parked on the side of the road.”

Vera said the massive presence of troopers “was disturbing a lot of our residents because of the number of citations that were given.”

At the time, however, Vera did not have an actual account of the number of citations issued.

“There is such a thing as overkill and that’s what we had here.”

Starr county Judge Eloy Vera

Border Report on June 15 requested the information from DPS, but it took several weeks to compile. And when it arrived, it was so dated that we requested additional information to account for the period from June 1 to Aug. 10.

That information was sent last week to Border Report. However, it was sent in a different format, which doesn’t compare to the earlier data received.

The second batch of data shows that 38,576 traffic stops were conducted in the four South Texas border counties from June 1 through Aug. 10. It is uncertain, however, based on the data supplied, to know how many of those traffic stops resulted in actual citations issued, as opposed to warnings.

The data does show that 12.5% of all DPS traffic stops made from June 1 through Aug. 10 were conducted in the four border counties of the Rio Grande Valley — where at least 500 troopers remained after hundreds were sent to the Del Rio area.

Statewide, there were 308,589 stops made of motorists from June 1 through Aug. 10, the data shows.

In Starr County, there were 6,422 citations issued from March 1 to May 31 by DPS. And from June 1 through Aug. 10 there were 10,909 traffic stops conducted in Starr County, which resulted in an unknown number of traffic citations or warnings issued.

Vera said he received complaints from many residents who said they received costly tickets for what he considered “minor” traffic infractions that were issued by troopers positioned on the only highway running east to west through the county. He said this caused residents to be fearful to leave their homes because many drive older model vehicles and he said some can’t afford to renew their registrations, fix cracked windshields or broken taillights. He said many received tickets that cost them hundreds of dollars, which they couldn’t afford.

“I had been assured the number of citations would be minimal, that they were here to enforce or curtail human and drug trafficking. But if you look at the numbers of the citations given, a vast majority were given for either speeding or not flashing when you wanted to change lanes, a light bulb was missing. Just minor infractions,” Vera said. “They shouldn’t single out one county to enforce the law above all others.”

Vera said his county suffered economically as residents stopped going to local residents, reduced their visits to gas stations and grocery stores, and all this occurred just as vaccinations for coronavirus were rising and residents should have been emerging from a year-long pandemic lockdown.

This file photo shows Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes trade and economic development in the county, told Border Report that local leaders would rather that state and federal officials invest in the county’s ports of entry and help market and promote its retail development than characterize the region as overtaken by criminals and drug smugglers.

“When we talk about what we see in the border communities and what we know is happening in a border community it’s really about a new beginning for Starr County and the greater opportunities, and we don’t think that’s tied to an area that is rampant with crime or that is being overtaken by people invading the community,” Benavidez told Border Report during a visit to her Rio Grande City offices in late June.

“We all agree that we want a safe and secure home and that is not unique to the border. That goes for anyone who lives in any urban area or in any community for that matter. What we would love to see is investments that would help us increase our educational attainment, provide more medical services and be able to bring this community to a place that allows it to thrive by having community and economic development that is a component of border security and not necessarily that being the only focus based on an enforcement side,” she said.

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