An Observer evaluation finds that DPS’ spy planes are flying over Texas communities, with little oversight.
by G.W. Schulz and Melissa del Bosque
Might 23, 2018
In latest years, the Texas Division of Public Security has spent greater than $15 million on two high-altitude surveillance planes. Sometimes flying at greater than 2 miles above the earth, the planes are inconceivable to identify from the bottom, leaving Texans at the hours of darkness about whether or not they’re being watched.
The planes, in line with the producer, are able to monitoring individuals and autos from a number of miles away and transmitting high-definition video overlaid with highly effective mapping software program in actual time to analysts. By analyzing flight logs and monitoring knowledge, the Observer, in partnership with The Investigative Fund, discovered that from January 2015 to July 2017, throughout Operation Safe Texas, DPS flew these high-tech planes tons of of occasions over broad swaths of Central and South Texas. Nearly all of the flights have been concentrated over simply two South Texas counties — Starr and Hidalgo — alongside the border.
One aircraft is stationed close to the border in Edinburg, within the Rio Grande Valley. The opposite relies greater than 200 miles north, in San Antonio, which has skilled the best variety of inland surveillance flights. Lots of the San Antonio flights have been concentrated within the metropolis’s southeast, the place the DPS aircraft flew over Sam Houston Excessive Faculty, Martin Luther King Park and different places. DPS planes additionally flew over Austin at the least 38 occasions for legal investigations or flight coaching. The planes circled Houston at the least 20 occasions in reference to legal investigations.
Two small border cities in Starr County — Rio Grande Metropolis and Roma — had probably the most flights per zip code of anyplace within the state. From January 2015 to July 2017, spy planes flew over Rio Grande Metropolis 357 occasions, making the border city of some 14,500 inhabitants probably the most watched metropolis in Texas.
Noe Castillo, Rio Grande Metropolis’s chief of police, stated he was conscious that DPS operates surveillance planes, however he’d by no means requested for a aircraft’s assist with an investigation. “Our metropolis hasn’t used them,” he stated. “We will make a request, however we’ve by no means had a scenario the place we wanted it.”
Castillo stated the crime price in his metropolis is decrease than in lots of components of the nation. In 2016, the newest 12 months with FBI knowledge obtainable, Rio Grande Metropolis had solely 17 incidents of violent crime. “I reside 200 yards from the border and it’s a peaceable place,” he stated.
Within the neighboring city of Roma, inhabitants 10,265, DPS surveillance planes flew over the border metropolis 274 occasions throughout the identical time interval. The planes flew over town of Mission in Hidalgo County, residence to the Nationwide Butterfly Middle, 96 occasions.
Nearly all of the tons of of DPS flight logs the Observer obtained by way of the Texas Public Info Act present little details about what the planes have been in search of. The aim of the flights was typically unlisted. In different situations, the data comprise brief explanations comparable to “border interdiction patrol,” or, within the case of non-border flights, “legal transport,” “legal images” or “legal investigation.”
The planes have additionally been used for functions which might be even additional afield from what DPS Director Steve McCraw has described as a border mission, comparable to flying out of state to select up fugitives. In February 2016, DPS despatched one in every of its surveillance planes to Arizona to retrieve John Feit, a retired Catholic priest who’d been ordered to face trial in Texas for the 1960 homicide of a girl in McAllen.
In 2015, DPS sent a surveillance aircraft to rural Erath County, close to Fort Price, to fly over a corn area and make sure that marijuana was planted there. Days later, the Erath County sheriff performed a raid on the sphere, however there weren’t any marijuana growers round and no arrests have been made, in line with police stories. The sheriff additionally deserted makes an attempt to grab the farmland as a result of investigators couldn’t produce any proof that the lienholder of the property was concerned. DPS spokesperson Tom Vinger declined to elucidate why DPS was utilizing one in every of its high-tech planes to chase pot growers, or how a lot the operation price the company.
One of probably the most notable findings from our knowledge evaluation and mapping mission is that DPS could also be flying its surveillance planes over the border and into Mexico, regardless of division working procedures that prohibit aerial surveillance missions exterior U.S. airspace. The monitoring knowledge we obtained from Flightradar24, a industrial flight-tracking service, signifies that DPS planes crossed the Texas-Mexico border a number of occasions between January 2015 and July 2017, flying so far as 9 kilometers into Mexico. (Learn more about how we did the analysis and mapping here.) However as a result of the in any other case state-of-the-art planes have used an imprecise transponder, the corporate triangulated places primarily based on knowledge compiled from a community of floor receivers. As a result of these receivers are sparse close to the border, Flightradar24 says, the monitoring coordinates could be off by as a lot as 10 kilometers, placing these flights both contained in the U.S. border or deeper into Mexico.
Vinger responded to the Observer’s findings of potential cross-border flights by electronic mail, saying they have been “incorrect” and citing “accuracy points with publicly obtainable software program to trace planes.” Vinger additionally wrote, “There have been no complaints or stories made to the division by the federal authorities in Mexico or by our federal authorities.”
However there’s some compelling proof that cross-border surveillance is likely to be occurring. In a contract doc obtained by the Observer by way of a public info request, Pilatus, the corporate that constructed the planes, details their surveillance capabilities, itemizing “searchable satellite tv for pc and road map layers for North America in addition to knowledge vectors for Mexico extending into the nation roughly 10 miles from the border.”
A 2015 Austin American-Statesman story uncovered a report created in 2010 by former DPS contractor Abrams Studying and Info Methods, a non-public protection agency, that detailed DPS surveillance, utilizing older RC-26 planes, on the Zetas cartel in Mexico. The company allegedly shared info with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Mexican navy. The part detailing the collaboration within the report was preceded with the warning, “Need to be careful here as we are admitting to spying on Mexico.”
DPS denied to the Statesman that it had performed spying operations in Mexico. The Observer requested ICE whether or not it had labored with DPS on surveillance flights in Mexico, and the company provided solely a quick written response: “ICE officers can neither affirm nor deny the existence of an investigation or operational exercise.”
DPS stated the planes have state-of-the-art ADS-B transponders, which may enable for extra correct flight monitoring, however in line with Flightradar24, DPS hasn’t activated the transponder within the aircraft that frequently patrols the border. Vinger wrote that every DPS plane additionally makes use of GPS mapping that’s “correct inside 3 meters to help the crew with situational consciousness always — that is very true close to the Texas-Mexico border.” DPS declined to launch that monitoring knowledge.
If DPS is crossing into Mexico to conduct surveillance, it’s extremely uncommon and probably harmful, stated Raúl Benítez-Manaut, a professor of geopolitics on the Nationwide Autonomous College of Mexico. The border is already crowded with Mexican and American federal legislation enforcement businesses, and accidents or misidentification are actual dangers, he stated, particularly if the Mexican navy isn’t notified. Drones are one factor, Benítez-Manaut stated; in the event that they crash or get shot down mistakenly, at the least there’s nobody onboard. In 2010, for instance, a mini Orbiter unmanned drone operated by the Mexican authorities crashed in a backyard in El Paso — and nobody was injured. However a piloted aircraft is much extra dangerous, Benítez-Manaut stated. “The Mexican Air Pressure may assume the aircraft belongs to a drug-trafficking group and shoot it down.”
A spokesperson for the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C., stated by electronic mail that Mexican authorities “haven’t any register of such aerial surveillance actions.” She added that america is obligated to conduct itself with “strict respect for the territorial and jurisdictional sovereignty of the Mexican State.”
After the acquisition of the primary spy aircraft in 2012, McCraw lobbied for a second aircraft in a letter to Governor Greg Abbott, explaining that it might be used as a “power multiplier” on the border. “Through the previous two years,” McCraw wrote, “the Pilatus has flown 1,585 hours, participated in 201 investigations, carried out 772 company assists, directed floor personnel to interdict 3,464 individuals, and situated 20 misplaced individuals.”
Based on the company, it costs $474 per hour on common to function one of many planes. Vinger stated in an electronic mail that the company didn’t monitor whether or not any of these 3,464 apprehensions led to an indictment, prosecution or conviction.
For the reason that company publicly releases so little info, it’s inconceivable to confirm McCraw’s numbers. The Legislative Funds Board, a joint committee that opinions state company spending, issued a vital report in 2015 that discovered “the shortage of constant reporting on border safety” makes it troublesome to “consider the strategic worth” of Texas’ spending.
Victor Manjarrez Jr. labored for the U.S. Border Patrol for greater than 20 years, together with as sector chief. He’s now affiliate director of the Middle for Legislation & Human Habits on the College of Texas at El Paso, the place he has noticed DPS’ rising function in border safety with skepticism. “With what the state has finished, I believe we have to step again and say, ‘Is it definitely worth the worth?’” Manjarrez stated. The spy planes strike him as little greater than “some very costly toys.”
U.S. Customs and Border Safety already operates an aerial surveillance program utilizing unmanned drones, which has price taxpayers properly over $360 million for the reason that program began in 2004. This system has often run into issues. A minimum of two drones have crashed on patrol, and expenditures have been laborious to account for, in line with a withering 2015 report introduced by John Roth, former inspector basic for the Division of Homeland Safety, which oversees CBP. Roth really helpful halting the acquisition of drones till the company may set up metrics for achievement. “They by no means established any efficiency measures, to allow them to’t inform whether or not this system is successful or not,” Roth advised C-SPAN after releasing his report.
It’s a criticism that would simply apply to Texas. “They by no means did set out to start with what they hoped to perform on the finish of the day,” Manjarrez stated of DPS and state legislators who’ve signed off on one costly border safety operation after one other. “Now they positive did use the phrase ‘border safety,’ however, by God, you could possibly ask 50 totally different individuals what meaning and get 50 totally different responses.”
Throughout his time within the Border Patrol, Manjarrez recalled, a part of the technique was to make the company’s fleet of planes and helicopters seen on the border, on the idea that the sheer present of power may deter individuals from attempting to cross illegally or smuggle medicine into the nation. “The entire level is to have that visible deterrence,” he stated. “However how are you doing that with a high-altitude spy aircraft that nobody can see?”
G.W. Schulz is a journalist of 15 years protecting safety and legal justice points and a latest graduate of the Grasp’s program in journalism on the College of Texas-Austin.
This text was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, the place Melissa del Bosque is a Lannan reporting fellow.