The search continues for the body of Texan David Hartley, the American man who was reportedly shot while he and his wife were jet skiing on the Mexican side of a border-straddling lake. David’s wife, Tiffany Hartley, has made many media appearances during the week, and has become the face of the incident. But Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez is the one who first told reporters he suspected lake “pirates” were to blame for the alleged shooting, which put the story on the national radar. And it turns out this isn’t the first time Gonzalez has been in the national press talking up threats from south of the border.
For years, dating back to the Bush administration, Gonzalez has been calling for more federal funding and resources for border security. He helped found and led a coalition of border sheriffs in Texas that received millions in funds from Gov. Rick Perry (R).
Before the pirates, Gonzalez was one of the drivers of the argument that the southern border provided an opportunity for terrorists, and that local sheriffs needed more resources to deal with the threat.
“If smugglers can bring a hundred people or 2,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States, how simple would it be to bring terrorists into this country, or a suitcase loaded with a dirty bomb?” Gonzalez told The Washington Times on October 14, 2005 (via Nexis). “I am very surprised it hasn’t already happened.”
Gonzalez has testified to Congress on border security. At a hearing in July 2006, The New York Times reported that Gonzalez “said a smuggling ‘infrastructure’ that brought illegal workers and illegal drugs into the country could easily be exploited by terrorists.”
Appearing on Hannity & Colmes on Fox News in August 2006. He said that
Well, information we have been receiving for quite some time is that these individuals from countries of special interest make it to Central America, South America, and then into Mexico. They try to assimilate. They try to blend in with the Mexican population, and they’re brought into the United States through the southwestern border of this county.
When asked what the solution was, he said militarizing the border wasn’t exactly the right answer.
Well, I don’t know if militarizing the border is the right word to say, but I can tell you this: Several congressman have shown interest in what we’re trying to doing here, as to being linebackers like on a football team. The Border Patrol being the first line of defense, we want to be the second line of defense.
In April, Gonzalez was quoted in a Washington Times article about cartel violence, and the paper recorded his opinion about how beheading people became a cartel practice.
Zapata County, Texas, Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., who has experienced the border violence firsthand, said his department started seeing beheadings in Mexico about a year after the videotaped beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 in Pakistan.
“Terrorists from the Middle East brought this practice to Central America then to Mexico. It is also a practice of the [violent U.S. street gang known as] MS-13,” Sheriff Gonzalez told The Washington Times. “They are getting worse and worse. It never stops shocking me.
“I am even more nervous about this practice spilling over into U.S. cities,” he said, noting that Mexican drug cartels are now operating in more than 200 American cities. “What a shame.”
Then there is the case of the Mexican helicopters. On March 11, the sheriff sounded the alarm over apparent “incursions” by a Mexican military helicopter into Texas. Gonzalez told the San Antonio Express-News that he had reviewed photographs of a helicopter that was spotted hovering over homes on the Texas side of the Rio Grande.
“It’s always been said that the Mexican military does in fact … that there have been incursions,” Gonzalez told the newspaper. “But this is not New Mexico or Arizona. Here we’ve got a river, there’s a boundary line. And then of course having Falcon Lake, Falcon Dam, it’s a lot wider. It’s not just a trickle of a river, it’s an actual dam. You know where the boundary’s at.”
“We made the proper notifications, and the helicopter did cross back into Mexico, and that was the extent of it, really,” Customs and Border Protection spokesman Rick Pauza told the newspaper a day later. “There really isn’t that much to it.” On March 31, another helicopter was spotted, this time on the outskirts of Zapata. “It looks to be military,” Gonzalez told The (McAllen) Monitor. “But at the same time, I don’t know if it’s being used to transport narcotics or people into the country.” On April 2, the Express-News reported Gonzalez saying that he’d had several unconfirmed reports of helicopters, including one from what the Express-News called a “federal officer.” “I don’t want to get him involved because it sounds like they’re going to fire him for saying the truth,” Gonzalez said.
And now, the pirates. On May 17, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a warning to boaters after a string of robberies and attempted robberies on Lake Falcon. The DPS release said “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 heavily armed and using AK-47s or AR-15 rifles to threaten their victims” and also used the term “pirates” to refer to the suspects. So it’s no clear who coined “lake pirates.” But in a May 27 ABC report, Gonzalez made the case for the Falcon Lake robbers to be considered as such.
“It’s piracy,” he said. “It may not be on the high seas, but they are taking advantage of people on this lake by threatening and robbing them.”
“To me, this is spillover violence,” Gonzalez told the AP on May 28.
This past week, Tiffany Hartley said on television that she and her husband had heard the warnings about the “pirates” before going out to the lake on October 30. The day of the incident, before the identity of the Hartleys were presumably known, KRGV reported on the incident, saying “Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, Jr. tells CHANNEL 5 NEWS armed pirates shot at a McAllen couple on Falcon Lake this afternoon.”
In an appearance on the Today this past week, Gonzalez said he had long been concerned something like the Hartley incident could happen.
“The one thing I dreaded the most is having a fisherman come over here, go to the lake, go to Mexico, and challenge some of these thugs, with these weapons that they have, who barely know how to use them. And getting shot in the head, and falling in the water,” he said. “And I’m going to have a body in the water that I’m not going to be able to retrieve. The one thing I dreaded most came true.”
“The violence has probably crossed over again into our county,” he said.
TPM made many calls to the sheriff’s office over the last week, but has not yet been able to reach the sheriff.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com