Officers responded to a van along the Expressway 83 frontage road on a weekday morning.
Only when they arrived did they realize the Ford van had not been deserted. Luis Alfredo Coronado, 36, had been shot in the neck. He was unresponsive and later died at an area hospital.
Few leads have surfaced in Coronado’s suspected murder, but investigators have said they suspect he had ties to criminal activity. They found more than 17 pounds of pot from the van.
The case is Palmview’s first homicide in nearly three years.
Investigators have identified “people of interest” that have fled to Mexico since the April 19 suspected murder, identified by the Texas Department of Public Safety as one of 23 such murder cases classified as spillover violence that involved organized criminals based in Mexico.
“Would it be a spillover of border violence?” asked Palmview Police Chief Chris Barrera. “I would say it was.”
DPS Director Steve McCraw testified May 11 on Capitol Hill that his agency has identified 22 murders, 24 assaults, 15 shootings and five kidnappings since January 2010 that are “directly related to the Mexican cartels.”
After a public information request by The Monitor, the agency provided a list of the incidents that details each of the spillover crimes identified by state investigators.
The assessment includes murders from the Brownsville to El Paso and as far north as Dallas. All of the kidnappings, shootings and assaults classified by DPS as spillover occurred in counties that border the Rio Grande.
The DPS assessment came as a surprise to some law enforcement leaders in Hidalgo County, whose cases were included on the list but said the incidents are not spillover from Mexico. Rather, they are crimes not atypical to communities along the Texas-Mexico border.
“The border is not under control,” said Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, who disputes the four homicides included in the DPS spillover list that were investigated by his deputies. “But it is a lot more safe and secure than it ever has been before.”
The DPS list marks Hidalgo County as the center of spillover violence in Texas, recording 23 incidents — more than a third of the statewide total — since January 2010.
In all, 16 counties, including all that stretch from Brownsville to Laredo — and as far as upstate as Houston and Dallas — have tallied spillover crimes, according to the state’s assessment.
“Texas is a law enforcement state and there are cartels that seek to exploit remote areas of our border for organized smuggling activity for profit,” McCraw said in a telephone interview . “We have an obligation to protect Texas from these organized cartels.”
The cases include high-profile suspected kidnappings in McAllen and San Juan, as well as several previously unreported shootings and assaults on U.S. Border Patrol agents along the Rio Grande, which had not been made public.
NUMBER OF DPS SPILLOVER INCIDENTS ACROSS TEXAS, BY COUNTY
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Some previously unreported details in the assessment include:
>> A Sept. 16, 2010 kidnapping of an Alton man who was abducted at gunpoint from his home. Alton police had previously declined to give details about the incident. Texas Rangers later rescued the man at a mechanic’s shop near Palmview. DPS identified the incident as spillover after a 22-year-old woman was arrested on an aggravated kidnapping warrant at the Anzalduas International Bridge. It’s unclear what ties the man had to organized crime, if any, though law enforcement sources told The Monitor the victim is a former Mexican policeman.
>> Border Patrol agents on land and in boats surrounded a vehicle near the Anzalduas International Bridge. Smugglers fired shots at agents, who returned fire into Mexico. The incident was reported by local media, but Border Patrol never confirmed until Friday that a smuggler was killed during the confrontation.
>> On May 10, agents fired about 16 rounds from a M4 submachine gun while attempting to stop two rafts filled with people and drug bundles along the Rio Grande near McAllen. The shots from Border Patrol came after a person in Mexico pointed a handgun toward agents, who are unsure if anyone was shot.
>> Border Patrol agents “were caught in a gun battle” between drug cartel members and the Mexican military near Fronton, a riverside village in western Starr County. Between 50 and 60 rounds were exchanged by soldiers and cartel members, who attempted to cross the Rio Grande while fleeing Mexican soldiers.
>> Two Pharr men were kidnapped March 16, 2010, at a South McAllen shopping center. One victim escaped after he was shot in the arm. The other was shot in the leg, driven to a secluded area, forced to his knees and then shot in the back of the head before being pushed down a levee bank. Both victims survived. DPS says McAllen police intelligence suggests the kidnappers work for the Zetas Cartel. But McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez disputes that, saying the kidnappers are not tied to any single organization.
>> A Molotov cocktail was thrown by a drug smuggler June 23, 2010, after a pursuit near La Grulla. The smuggler tossed the homemade bomb at the getaway vehicle, attempting to destroy the drug load. The Molotov cocktail struck a Texas Ranger, but did not explode.
INTERACTIVE MAP: DPS identifies spillover events across Texas
Woody Lee, deputy chief for Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, disputed the notion that more than a dozen shootings and assaults in Hidalgo and Starr counties constitute spillover violence. Rather, Lee said, the increased hostility stems from agents “frustrating the loads” of narcotics and is a regular part of Border Patrol agents’ daily tasks.
“As we keep pressing down on the border security, what we run into is more aggressive tactics against our agents,” Lee said.
A Border Patrol agent not authorized to speak on local activity said assaults on agents have jumped in recent years. Agents regularly fire gunshots and deploy less-lethal options at smugglers along the river, but few of the incidents are made public.
“Part of it is the keeping perception of safety,” the agent said.
Lee said it’s not Border Patrol’s policy to go public with most incidents, especially those that only involve less-lethal weapons.
“There’s investigations, privacy issues, there’s judicial procedures that we need to follow on this,” he said.
Federal authorities’ definition of spillover violence differs from that of DPS, setting more clear and restrictive parameters. And among the crimes listed as spillover by state officials, few involved innocent bystanders.
Federal authorities define spillover as “deliberate, planned attacks by the cartels on U.S. assets, including civilian, military or law enforcement officials, innocent U.S. citizens or physical institutions.”
The federal definition does not include trafficker-on-trafficker violence in the U.S or Mexico.
That plays an important part in why federal authorities have maintained incidents of spillover violence are rare on U.S. soil. Most incidents involve Mexican cartels or drugs involve people with ties to organized crime.
That’s true of most incidents on the DPS spillover crime list, as well.
Among the 27 incidents listed by DPS that occurred in the Valley, only two involved innocent victims:
>> An 18-year-old girl was abducted in San Juan and taken to Reynosa on August 22, 2010, and later was released unharmed, DPS said. But after the case went public, The Monitor interviewed investigators who doubted the case actually was a kidnapping. The victim, an illegal immigrant, never sounded fearful when they spoke with her via cell phone, and her supposed abductors later released her in Reynosa without any ransom paid.
>> A January 26 attack on Monte Alto missionaries Sam and Nancy Davis, who arrived at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge after a frantic chase outside San Fernando, Tamps,. in January. Nancy Davis later died at McAllen Medical Center from a gunshot wound to the head. DPS classified the incident as a spillover assault.
Also included on the DPS list as an assault — not a homicide — is the Sept. 30, 2010, attack on Falcon Lake involving former McAllen resident Tiffany Hartley-Young and her husband, David Hartley. Investigators have said they believe low-level members of the Zetas drug cartel shot Hartley as the couple visited the Mexican side of the reservoir, which borders Zapata County. Hartley’s corpse has not been found.
State officials tally spillover incidents with a broader stroke than their federal counterparts.
DPS defines spillover as anything that involves cartel activity that has an impact on Texans north of the Rio Grande — even criminal-on-criminal attacks. Even seizures of drugs from Mexico — virtually everything along the border — qualify as cartel-related, McCraw said.
McCraw contends that any assault or attack on U.S. law enforcement — state, local or federal — with ties to Mexico or cartel drugs qualifies as spillover, as well.
“They’re the ones who risk their lives daily to protect Texas from these cartels that clearly constitute a threat to the government of Mexico,” he said. “And these cartels constitute a threat to the state of Texas and the nation.”
McCraw pointed to a recent methamphetamine bust along Interstate 35 outside Laredo. Authorities seized 122 pounds of meth that crossed from Mexico — another spillover crime in Texas, he said.
“Is that a cartel-related crime? Yeah,” he said.
Treviño questioned that logic, saying a dispute between two drug dealers in New York over 5 pounds of Mexican marijuana would not be considered spillover violence.
“The drug business is known to be violent,” he said. “Just because it happens on the border, it is not spillover crime.”
Treviño denies the four homicides identified by DPS qualify as spillover violence.
A pair of 2010 murders involving a local drug smuggling ring are included on DPS’ list.
Deputies uncovered Roberto Javier Resendez, 18, from a backyard grave outside Palmhurst on Aug. 26, 2010.
Investigators concluded Resendez was hired to murder Gilberto Rosales Aguilar, 33, in a remote field north of Palmview in February 2010. Investigators found his body with the word rata — thief — atop his bald head, inscribed with a felt-tipped marker.
Fearing Resendez would eventually confess to the hired hit, the smugglers killed him and buried him beneath a thick layer of concrete and a chicken coop. Deputies also recovered marijuana bundles inscribed with “CDG” — calling letters of the Gulf Cartel — while arresting the other smugglers.
Despite that, the Hidalgo County-based smugglers had no association with Mexican cartels beyond the narcotics they smuggled through the area, Treviño said.
“This was an internal problem that was managed by a local transport cell,” the sheriff said. “It had nothing to do with drug cartel violence, other than drug cartel people that delivered the dope.”
Rodriguez, the McAllen chief, also disputes the sole case investigated by his department that made the DPS list.
The chief said investigators initially believed the kidnapping in a Wal-Mart parking lot in South McAllen had cartel ties, but later abandoned that idea after they further investigated the case.
“We called it organized crime because they were obviously organized,” Rodriguez said. “Somehow (the case) made a leap from organized crime to cartel stuff.”
Both the sheriff and the McAllen police chief point to crime rates that have dropped in recent years, roughly over the same period that national attention on securing the border has escalated.
Treviño pointed to a 40 percent drop in violent crime across Hidalgo County in 2010. Similar patterns have been seen in other Texas border cities — a point President Obama focused upon when he spoke in El Paso on May 10.
“Maybe they’ll say we need a moat,” Obama said of Republicans pushing for more border security funding amid the lower crime statistics. “Or alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied. And I understand that. That’s politics.”
McCraw and others criticized such notions, however, saying the numbers that show dropping crime rates — the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting statistics — do not include extortions, kidnappings and drug offenses that are key to the spillover debate.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, shared that criticism of crime statistics as he oversaw the border security hearing with McCraw and Rodriguez earlier this month.
“They kidnap, they kill and extort, and yet all of that is removed from the definition of spillover violence,” he said of drug cartels. “I don’t think we’re getting an accurate assessment here.”
Many have suggested assessments on border security ties to political alignment.
Treviño pointed to Gov. Rick Perry’s appearance on Fox News at the Edinburg airport on Tuesday, with a DPS helicopter in the backdrop, as a political maneuver for a potential run at president.
By Friday, the governor announced he would consider a run for the Republican nomination for next year’s presidential election.
The sheriff likened combating border violence to DPS’ efforts at curbing drunk driving across the state.
“They have not eliminated the problem, and it is not under control,” he said of drunk driving. “They have done a very good job in managing it … and every attempt is being made to lower it. Same thing with border crime.”