Texas Guard is shooting pepper balls to deter migrants at the border

by Vern Evans

CIUDAD JUÁREZ — National Guard members on the Texas-Mexico border have added pepper ball guns to their arsenal, firing at migrants who are gathering on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande or trying to break through the tangle of concertina wire strung along the border.

Migrants interviewed in Mexico say they’ve been shot by the rounds, which leave welts and bruises. It’s the latest escalation by Texas at the southern border through Gov. Greg Abbott’s multibillion-dollar initiative, Operation Lone Star.

The state has deployed thousands of National Guard members to patrol the border since the initiative began in March 2021. The pepper ball launchers, which shoot munitions containing a chemical that causes irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, are a new addition.

The weapons resemble paintball guns. They’re powered by a carbon dioxide cartridge and can hold about 180 rounds, according to a video recently posted on the official Operation Lone Star YouTube page and later shared by the governor’s office. The goal is to get all National Guard members certified in using the weapon.

“We’ve had some instances where we have caught migrants or members of the cartel cutting the c-wire and trying to send people through,” Spc. Aiden Hogan says in the video, referring to the concertina wire the state has deployed along parts of the border. He doesn’t say how they identify the targets as members of cartels. “We’ve been able to send them back with deploying the pepper ball launcher.”

The balls are to be shot in the general direction of migrants, not directly at them, to break up groups and deter them, according to the video. But migrants interviewed by The Texas Tribune said some people have been hit. And people who help migrants at the border say they are worried about the continued escalation of tactics by state forces.

On an early weekday morning in May, a few hundred migrants said they were sleeping on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande when National Guard soldiers on the American side fired pepper balls.

The migrants, some of whom had been camping for several days waiting to cross through concertina wire, said they fled from the riverbank, attempting not to breathe in the irritant.

A migrant woman, who declined to be identified out of fear that soldiers would retaliate against her, shared a video of the aftermath that showed her coughing while her daughter held onto her, while a boy standing nearby has red streaks on his face. The woman said one of the projectiles hit her daughter in the head.

“Look how they left the boy, with tears,” a man is heard saying. “Look how they left the little girl too, they also got her mom.”

Nicolas Gonzalez, a 46-year-old Colombian migrant in the group, pointed to small bruises near his elbow and hand, which he said were caused by the pepper balls.

“They have no respect for us, they don’t care that there’s pregnant women or children here,” he said. “They treat us worse than animals, like they are hunting us down.”

Gil Kerlikowske, former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection who oversaw the implementation of the same technology at the agency amid scrutiny over agents’ use of force, said the pepper balls can do serious damage to people.

In one high-profile incident, a young woman in Boston died when she was shot in the eye with a pepper ball by police trying to control a crowd gathered around Fenway Park to celebrate a Red Sox playoff victory.

“They’re not really nonlethal,” Kerlikowske said. “No one should just write this off as well, you know, an irritant. They can be very dangerous.”

Using the pepper ball launchers requires a lot of training and an understanding of the dangers the weapon can pose, Kerlikowske said.

Kerlikowske, who has also led police departments in Seattle, Buffalo and Florida, said police officers are “not going to use tear gas without having emergency medical personnel standing by available to help someone” if they are injured.

Asked for comment for this story, a spokesperson for Abbott defended the border mission without directly addressing the use of pepper balls.

“Texas is utilizing every tool and strategy to respond to this ongoing border crisis, as President Biden’s reckless open border policies invite record high levels of illegal immigrants, criminals, and deadly drugs like fentanyl into our country,” said Andrew Mahaleris, the spokesperson.

Last week, Major General Thomas M. Suelzer, leader of the Guard, told a Texas Senate committee that soldiers are trained to “hit an inanimate object” so the pepper ball ruptures.

“We specifically train them: Do not shoot directly at an individual because if hit in the wrong place, it can cause serious bodily injury,” Suelzer testified.

The addition of the launchers comes as troops have experienced an increase in aggression from migrants, Suelzer said, including a soldier who was recently bitten and another who was elbowed repeatedly.

National Guard soldiers can use force to defend themselves or others, Suelzer told lawmakers. As a situation unfolds, troops are trained to first announce themselves or clearly show there is an authority present. Following that, they are to try persuading someone with words — “saying, please stop,” Suelzer said. If the situation escalates, force enters the equation, he said.

“It is primarily used to stop a breaching of the barrier so there’s already been an illegal crossing, people are now crawling through the concertina wire field and we are saying go back and they are not doing it,” Suelzer said. “Now there’s noncompliance.”

But among advocates and people who work with migrants along the border, the use of force is alarming.

Alan Lizarraga of the Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based immigrant rights group, said that Abbott’s Operation Lone Star is “putting families at risk.”

“We’ve been really concerned with how this is escalating and how this is playing out on the ground,” he said.

Brian Elmore is an emergency medicine doctor in El Paso who helps coordinate medical help for migrants. In recent weeks, he said he’s treated migrants with injuries — bruises, fractures, muscle strains — that migrants said were caused by Texas National Guard members and in some instances Mexican authorities.

Elmore said he had not witnessed Guard members shooting at migrants or pushing them into the dry riverbank, as migrants have claimed over the last two months, but that the injuries he’s helped treat were consistent with those that would be caused by such use of force.

“I’ve never seen so much desperation in my life,” he said.

Adam Isacson, a regional security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said he is concerned the National Guard is keeping out people who are seeking safety and violating the due process for asylum seekers. Under federal law, anyone who entered the country — even those who crossed the border illegally — have a right to request asylum.

“Turning away someone who is asking for refuge is called refoulment and international law regards it to be a serious human rights violation,” he said.

The new strategy is being implemented amid tensions between Texas and the federal government as Texas state troopers and National Guard have flooded areas of the border under Operation Lone Star, launched in March 2021. A new law that would let Texas police arrest people suspected of having entered the country illegally, historically the jurisdiction of federal authorities, remains tied up in courts after the Department of Justice sued Texas to stop it from going into effect.

The Justice Department also sued Texas last year over the implementation of a floating barrier on the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass.

Rodolfo Rubio Salas, an immigration professor at El Colegio de Chihuahua in Ciudad Juárez, said the Mexican government needs to investigate the Texas National Guard’s tactics. He added that Mexican journalists and advocacy groups have reported cases of migrants being injured but the Mexican government hasn’t done anything about it.

“I find the tactics used by the Texas National Guard reprehensible,” he said. “I believe that the main focus should be on reporting and raising our voice diplomatically about abuses of power, improper use of force, and violation of the rights of migrants.”

Eduardo Rojas, legal strategy coordinator for Fundación para la Justicia, a human rights advocacy group in Mexico City, said Mexico’s government needs to step up and protect migrants from any force the Texas National Guard is using to deter migrants — especially if the projectiles fired by soldiers are crossing the border.

“If the [pepper ball] bullets cross into Mexican territory, it can be considered a violation of Mexico’s national sovereignty,” he said.

After a Guard member shot and wounded a man who was exercising across the border last year, Mexican authorities said they contacted senior officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Rangers to condemn the Guard member’s action.

That shooting followed another of a migrant last year, on the Texas side near McAllen, the first reported shooting by a Guard member posted at the border through Operation Lone Star. The migrant was shot in the shoulder and taken to a hospital for evaluation and treatment.

This story is part of an ongoing collaboration with FRONTLINE (PBS). It is supported through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Texas National Guard is shooting pepper balls to deter migrants at the border” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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