Murder on Falcon Lake (Updated: Witness Corroborates Hartley)
September 30, 2010, is the date that may force the federal government to deal with the U.S.-Mexico border. On that date, Texans David and Tiffany Hartley were jet skiing on Falcon Lake. Only Tiffany would return alive.
Dispatcher: Hello? Ma'am? Yes. Okay. Are you sure that your husband got shot?
Tiffany: Yes. In his head.
Dispatcher: Okay. Yeah. Was he thrown out of the jet ski that he's in the water or something?
Tiffany: He was thrown off the jet ski and I couldn't pick him up to get him on mine. (sobbing)
Dispatcher: Ma'am? Were you shot at on the Mexican side or on the US side? So it was the Mexican Side. Okay, did you see anybody?
Tiffany: There were three boats.
Falcon Lake straddles the Texas-Mexico border in a remote area between Laredo, TX, and Nuevo Laredo to the north and McAllen, TX, to the south. The Hartleys had stopped on the Mexican side of the lake to see the mission at Old Guerrero. Three boats belonging to pirates from the violent Zetas drug gang appeared out of nowhere and opened fire. The Zetas control the Mexican side of the lake and have turned it into something like a miniature version of the Somali coast, operating as pirates with near impunity. So far, Mexican authorities have questioned whether the shooting occurred, and have not allowed U.S. or Texas authorities in to search for Hartley's body.
Up to September 30, the Falcon Lake pirates had never murdered Americans. But over the past several months, the Zetas have posed as game wardens and seized the boats of Americans enjoying the lake's fishing. Having shaken down the fishermen for whatever valuables they had on board or on their persons, the pirates would let them go. And in June, authorities issued a very disturbing alert: The Zetas were plotting to destroy the Falcon Dam to strike out against a rival gang. That act had the potential to flood an area that is inhabited by about four million people.
But an uptick in violence was always inevitable: The Zetas are also involved in the civil war that has raged in Nuevo Laredo for the past several years. That war has seen everything from assassinations of public officials to bombings to beheadings to gun battles that leave neighborhoods looking like sections of Baghdad in the height of the Iraq war. I have cell phone video of the aftermath of a Nuevo Laredo gun battle that took place in July, but it's so graphic that YouTube won't host it. PJTV's Brandi Milloy has hosted a terrific series on the Arizona border. This story from Al Jazeera English, about the assassination of a leading political candidate this year, gives some hints as to just how violent the drug war there has become.
Only the Rio Grande and a border checkpoint separate Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo. And at Falcon Lake, there's nothing stopping the drug cartels from capturing Americans, robbing them, firing on them, and in the case of David Hartley, murdering them in cold blood. On the Fox News Wednesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry weighed in on the tragedy, the U.S. government's failure to secure the border, and the Mexican government's refusal to let Americans in to help search for Hartley's body. And he revealed that David Hartley is actually the third American recently murdered on the border:
Just a week ago, we had two Americans killed assassination-style on the border in northern Hidalgo County. There are places along the border, Gretchen, that it is out of control. I don't know how many more Americans have to lose their lives before the federal government steps in and sends the troops.
Bullets from gunfights in Ciudad Juarez have flown across the border and struck buildings, including City Hall, in El Paso. Nuevo Laredo is a war zone. And innocent American lives are being lost.
For their part, the Obama administration is sending in National Guard troops: About 1200 for the entire U.S.-Mexico border started arriving in August. But just in Texas, that border stretches nearly 800 miles. When Gov. Perry sensibly requested more troops, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano laughed him off.
How the Falcon Lake murder impacts politics and the race for Texas governor remains to be seen. Both Perry, the 10-year incumbent, and Democratic nominee Bill White have staked claims to being the best solution for border security. Perry has twice tried to meet with President Obama during visits to Texas to discuss the issue, and has been rebuffed both times. White never criticized Obama's refusals, and has claimed that he can use his connections with the administration to get more action than Perry can. But as mayor of Houston, White presided over a sanctuary city, and the administration is exploiting the border to create racial tension in the hopes of locking in Hispanic voters as a Democratic bloc. Both Perry and White have gone on the record opposing Arizona-style laws that would empower local and state police to take more active roles in enforcing immigration law. Most in White's party agree with that stance; most in Perry's party disagree.
The Texas legislature, which won't be in session until 2011, will have its own ideas regardless of whether Gov. Perry holds onto his large lead in the race or White slips up on him. Republicans are likely to capture up to 10 new state House seats in the November elections, giving them a solid hold on both houses of the legislature and all statewide offices. This increase in the House will move the caucus to the right, and several legislators have already said that they will propose Arizona-style laws for Texas next year. Such a law is likely to pass, putting the next governor on the spot to accept it or veto it. After the Hartley murder, a veto would be political suicide.
Regardless of what the Texas legislature does or does not do, securing the border is a federal responsibility, and the federal government has failed in its duty whether Republicans or Democrats have been in charge. The Obama administration, though, has taken this record of irresponsibility and added aggression against border states to it, by laughing off Texas' requests and by suing Arizona to get its security law struck down. That lawsuit is not only controversial and unpopular across America, it has attracted intervention by 11 foreign countries -- including Mexico.
Looking ahead, should Texas pass such a law, will the Obama administration put Texas in its lawsuit crosshairs? If it does, it will be facing a Texas that has already just about run out of patience with the Washington Democrats' hard left social policies, and it will be facing Attorney General Greg Abbott. Abbott is one of the fiercest attorneys general in the country, already at legal war with the administration over its use of the EPA to stop Texas' effective air cleanup program and ObamaCare. They don't say "Don't mess with Texas" for nothing. If the Obama administration attacks Texas again, Texas will fight back.
Whatever happens between now and the 82nd session of the Texas legislature next year, the tragedy of David Hartley's murder is an outrage and it is galvanizing an already angry Texas that wants the federal government to do the jobs the Constitution tells it to do, and leave the rest to the states as the Constitution says. Texans have long been more than tolerant of the illegal immigrant population here, but have also long wanted real action to secure its border with Mexico so we can know who is coming here and what their intentions are. The drug war is changing the nature of the border, though, and along with that, Texans' patience is running short. David Hartley's murder may be the event that forces politicians from Austin to Washington to finally take real action.
If Washington doesn't move, Texas will.
Update: Gov. Perry is calling on Mexico's President Calderon to step up the search for Hartley's body and wants a report within 48 hours.
Update: A witness has come forward to corroborate Tiffany Hartley's story about the boat chase.
Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez says he has a witness who saw Tiffany Hartley being chased by men in a small boat.
Skeptics have questioned why neither the jet ski nor David Hartley's body have been found. Both questions can be easily accounted for. One, Mexican authorities by their own admission haven't taken the story very seriously and haven't looked very hard. They say that that's about to change. Two, the pirates have tended to be robbers more than murderers, and a jet ski would be of considerable use and value to them. They could have captured it, intending to use it in future raids or sell it. Three, they could have taken Hartley's body after they had chased Mrs. Hartley away. They might have done this for any number of reasons, not least of which would be to hide evidence of their crime. Mass graves of those who get in the way are an unfortunate fact of Mexico's drug war. And four, taking Mexican authorities' word on anything is a risky prospect. Mexico's police forces have been deeply corrupted by the drug cartels, and those who aren't corrupted may well be intimidated by the extreme violence and assassinations that the drug gangs have perpetrated over the past couple of years. A newspaper in Ciudad Juarez recently published an editorial surrendering to the drug gangs -- intimidation is widespread and not entirely unreasonable, all things considered. The Zetas may have any number of local officers and officials on the payroll, or at least have them cowed into silence. This is why I think Gov. Perry appealed directly to President Calderon for help in the search. Calderon has been a thorn when it comes to border security, but he's evidently clean on the drug war.
Also, the murder has become an issue in the campaign for Texas governor.