BROWNSVILLE — Gunmen presumed to be Mexican drug operatives opened fire today on a couple riding water skis on the binational Falcon Lake reservoir, possibly killing the husband and sending the woman fleeing frantically to the U.S. side.
Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez said the couple — believed to be from McAllen — had crossed to the Mexican side when they came under a spray of bullets by two boatloads of men. The man, 30, was shot in the head and his wife said she fears he is dead.
“They saw them approaching and started revving it up back to the U.S. side,” Gonzalez told the Associated Press. “The guys just started shooting at them from behind.”
According to unconfirmed reports, the woman circled back to get her husband but the gunmen continued shooting, even after she crossed back to the U.S. side.
Gonzalez said he had contacted the Mexican consulate for help finding the husband. As of late Thursday afternoon, he was tracing down leads with the FBI, said Mary Pulido, a dispatcher fielding a barrage of press calls.
“I do know that it happened on the Mexican side, that’s what’s making the investigation very difficult,” she said.
The shooting follows reports in May that boaters in the famed bass fishing oasis were at risk of being shaken down by “pirates” lurking on the Mexican side.
The 60-mile long Rio Grande reservoir is shared by the United States and Mexico, and due to its location along sparsely populated Starr and Zapata counties is believed to be a favorite location for trafficking drugs.
Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, who along with state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, recently traveled to the area for a briefing by the Texas Department of Public Safety on Falcon Lake dangers said that any gunfire that took place on the U.S. side of the lake — in some places demarcated by floating markers — would represent a serious step over the line for a drug war that’s “getting out of hand.”
“These guys are getting very aggressive,” he said. “It’s a significant incident, but it has international ramifications if the shots continued into our side. This was just a couple of people having a good time.”
Peña, as chair of the emergency preparedness committee, said the incident strengthened his resolve to fight budget cuts for DPS, who along with Border Patrol agents patrol the lake.
“They’re essentially the Texas marine force,” he said. “We need them to protect our citizens and keep our lakes safe.”
Thursday’s reported shooting comes during what may be the most deadly and prolonged streak of Mexican drug cartel violence in memory.
In May, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported several incidents of pirates shaking down U.S. boaters. The robbers in at least one case posed as Mexican federal law enforcement, searching fishing boats for guns and drugs and then demanding cash at gunpoint.
The DPS issued a statement warning people not to cross to the Mexican side of the lake. Boaters were encouraged to file a float plan with family members.
“The robbers are believed to be members of a drug trafficking organization or members of an enforcer group linked to a drug trafficking organization who are…using AK-47s or AR-15 rifles to threaten their victims,” it said. “They appear to be using local Mexican fishermen to operate the boats to get close to American fishermen.”
The warning came as the county of Zapata geared up for a summer of fishing tournaments, prompting the chamber of commerce to say that the warning was drastic and that people were safe if they stayed in U.S. waters.
Falcon Lake was formed by a dam in 1953 to conserve water for agriculture and control downstream flooding.
Mexican Pirates Attack US Couple on Falcon Lake; Husband Missing, Feared Dead
Mexican pirates operating on Falcon Lake, which is shared by the United States and Mexico, on Thursday shot an American tourist who had crossed the border on a Jet Ski.
Tiffany Hartley, 29, said her husband, David Michael Hartley, 30, was shot in the back of the head as they tried to escape an ambush on the lake, The Associated Press reports.
Hartley tried to turn around to save her husband but said she had to continue to retreat when she heard bullets whizzing by. Today, search teams continue to comb the Texas side of the lake for David, who is presumed dead. Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez said he had asked the Mexican consulate to conduct a search on his country’s side of the lake as well.
Falcon Lake pirate gangs in May after a spat of robberies prompted the Texas Department of Public Safety to issue a bulletin warning Americans to stay in U.S. waters. Authorities believe the pirates are offshoots of Mexican drug gangs operating in the area.
On April 30, five American fishermen crossed the border to explore Guerrero Viejo, a town that was abandoned and flooded when the Rio Grande was dammed to create Falcon Lake in 1953. The Americans’ boat was boarded by four men who said they were federal police but were not wearing uniforms.
The Texas Department of Public Safety said the men demanded to know if the fishermen had drugs before making off with $200. They also had several tattoos of the letter “Z,” raising suspicions that they were members of the Zetas drug cartel, which controls territory in northern Mexico.
Like the fishermen, the Hartleys had crossed the border Thursday to see Guerrero Viejo. Gonzalez said today that the gunmen chased the couple into American waters, according to the AP. He also said he suspects they returned for Hartley’s body or let it sink to the bottom of the lake in the hopes of destroying evidence of his murder.
Falcon Lake, which is approximately 50 miles south of Laredo, Texas, is a water sports and fishing destination, making it a prime target for an unusual brand of piracy. There have been at least five reported attacks on the lake this year, although none of them was deadly.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman Mike Cox told the AP that the last reported sighting of the pirates was on Aug. 31, when boaters reported seeing gunmen in a small craft with “Game Wardin” spelled out in duct tape on the side of the boat.
Search resumes for US man shot in Mexican waters
SAN ANTONIO — Texas officials planned Friday to renew warnings about pirates marauding on a U.S.-Mexico border lake after a Colorado tourist was gunned down in Mexican waters while his wife dodged bullets and raced her Jet Ski back to American soil.
Search teams combed the U.S. side of Falcon Lake for David Michael Hartley, 30, whose wife told police he was shot in the back of the head Thursday after being ambushed by gunmen on boats.
The gunmen are suspected pirates who have turned Falcon Lake, a waterskiing and bass fishing hotspot down the border from Laredo, into uneasy waters for fishermen and boaters. There have been at least five reported run-ins with pirates on the lake this year, though prior holdups had never been deadly.
Hartley’s fate was unclear. Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez said 29-year-old Tiffany Hartley fears her husband is dead. She circled back on her Jet Ski to rescue him but had to retreat when she heard bullets whizzing by.
Gonzalez said he had contacted the Mexican consulate to ask them to search for Hartley on its side of the lake.
“I’m not trying to place the blame on her or him,” Gonzalez said. “But we’ve told people not to go over there, and now this happens.”
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department spokesman Mike Cox said Friday that the state planned to issue a fresh warning to boaters about staying on the U.S. side of the lake. The last warning came in May, and some campers on the lake have taken to arming themselves.
Falcon Lake is a dammed section of the Rio Grande that straddles the border. The border is marked by 14 partially submerged concrete towers that mark the Rio Grande’s path before the lake was created in 1954.
According to Gonzalez, Tiffany Hartley told police that the couple rode their Jet Skis for sightseeing and to take pictures of a famous church in Old Guerrero. They were riding back when they saw the armed gunmen on the boats, and immediately began racing back to U.S. waters.
David Hartley didn’t make it. His wife told authorities he was shot in the back in the head; Cox said one of the boats may have crossed into U.S. waters briefly while trying to run down Tiffany Hartley.
Cox said Tiffany Hartley estimated that the shooting took place about five to six miles from the Texas shoreline where she parked and called for help.
In April, pirates robbed another group of boaters who also went to Old Guerrero to see the church. Cox said the most recent reported pirate sighting had been Aug. 31, when boaters saw gunmen riding a small skiff with “Game Wardin” misspelled in duct tape on the side of the vessel.
Cox said it appeared the pirates were trying to imitate state game warden boats they have seen patrolling the lake.
Gonzalez has previously chalked up the dangerous waters as the product of fighting between rival Mexican drug gangs.
Violence on the Mexican side of the lake has been climbing for several months, as a fractured partnership between the region’s dominant Gulf Cartel and its former enforcers, the Zetas, plunged many of the area’s Mexican border cities into violence.
Agents feared Mexican drug cartel attack on border dam
An alleged plot by a Mexican drug cartel to blow up a dam along the Texas border — and unleash billions of gallons of water into a region with millions of civilians — sent American police, federal agents and disaster officials secretly scrambling last month to thwart such an attack, authorities confirmed Wednesday.
Whether or not the cartel, which is known to have stolen bulk quantities of gunpowder and dynamite, could have taken down the 5-mile-long Falcon Dam may never be known since the attack never came to pass.
It may have been derailed by a stepped-up presence by the Mexican military, which was acting in part on intelligence from the U.S. government, sources said.
The warning, which swung officials into action, was based on what the federal government contends were “serious and reliable sources” and prompted the Department of Homeland Security to sound the alarm to first responders along the South Texas-Mexico border.
Mexico’s Zeta cartel was planning to destroy the dam not to terrorize civilians, but to get back at its rival and former ally, the Gulf cartel, which controls smuggling routes from the reservoir to the Gulf of Mexico, said Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, head of the Southwest Border Sheriff’s Coalition, as did others familiar with the alleged plot.
But in the process, massive amounts of agricultural land would stand to be flooded as well as significant parts of a region where about 4 million people live along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The dam along the lower Rio Grande was finished in 1954 as part of a joint U.S.-Mexico project to collect water for flood control, hydroelectric power and water for drinking and agriculture.
Gonzalez’s agency was among many that responded, as did the U.S. Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety and even game wardens, who put more boats on the water.
Citing security concerns, neither Homeland Security nor DPS commented.
“We trust that DPS and their federal and local law enforcement partners are constantly collecting intelligence and monitoring all threats to Texas and taking the appropriate action to protect our citizens from those who would do us harm,” said Gov. Rick Perry’s deputy press secretary Katherine Cesinger.
Law enforcement officials huddled at the dam, near Rio Grande City, to discuss the threat and how to stifle it, said an officer who attended the meeting.
Officers interviewed by the Chronicle gave the warning varying degrees of credibility. They noted that among the Zetas ranks are Mexican military defectors who were trained in special forces tactics, including demolition.
Special cameras were set up along the dam, which has six 50-foot-tall steel gates, and lawmen hid in brush.
A Mexican military spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he had not heard of any threat to the Falcon Dam and expressed doubt that the Zetas would try such an attack.
“This isn’t the way these groups operate, they have never attacked installations like that,” he said.
Rick Pauza, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, in Laredo, said the port of entry at the dam had been at a heightened alert due to violence in Mexico.
The attack may have been thwarted in Mexico. It raises the fear of what the powerful cartels could do.
“It would have been a hell of a disaster,” said Gene Falcon, director of emergency preparedness for Starr County, site of the dam. “There was plenty of concern.”
With handbills and bullhorns, members of the Zeta cartel are said to have warned the civilian population on the Mexican side of the river near the dam to get out of the area, according to residents and intelligence information from law enforcement officials.
A border law enforcement official told the Chronicle the warnings originated in part by the seizure of small amounts of dynamite near the dam, and the discovery of a copy of the alert on the Mexican side of the border.
Capt. Francisco Garcia, of the Roma (Texas) Police Department, said there was no way to know what the traffickers were capable of doing, but bringing down the dam would require nearly a tractor-trailer full of dynamite.
“As far as blowing it up — making it fall apart completely — it would have to be something like 9/11,” he said. “By the time they’d start to do something, there will be so much law enforcement there it’d be ridiculous.”
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