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Video shows Texas National Guard soldiers appearing to ignore a mother and baby’s pleas for help in the Rio Grande

Soldiers on Operation Lone Star guard the concertina wire barrier on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Courtesy photo
Texas National Guard
Soldiers on Operation Lone Star guard the concertina wire barrier on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Friday Dec. 22nd at 4:20pm CST to include a statement from the Texas Military Department.

A video obtained by Texas Public Radio shows members of the Texas National Guard appearing to ignore cries for help from a woman carrying a baby who seemed to be in danger of drowning in the Rio Grande.

Eyewitnesses attested that both mother and child “went under for a while” after several minutes of struggling, before resurfacing again.

The woman, who appeared to be a migrant attempting to cross into the U.S., could be heard at various points in the recording pleading in Spanish, “I can’t walk anymore. I’m begging you, please help me. I really can’t anymore.” Members of the Texas National Guard watched from a boat just a few feet away.

Later in the video, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) airboat was seen speeding by, just a few feet away from the woman and child.

TPR confirmed the veracity of the video but was unable to independently verify what happened before and after the video cuts out. Witnesses said the woman and child were able to eventually reach the southern banks of the river in Mexico on their own.

In a statement to TPR, the Texas Military Department said "we aware of the recent video showing a woman and a child near the Mexican shoreline requesting support.”

“Texas National Guard Soldiers approached by boat and determined that there were no signs of medical distress, injury or incapacitation and they had the ability to return the short distance back to the Mexican shore," read the statement. "The Soldiers remained on site to monitor the situation."

CBP did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Video shows Texas National Guard ignoring a mother and baby’s pleas for help in the Rio Grande

Priscilla Lugo, justice advocacy coordinator for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, recorded the video between Shelby Park and the Kickapoo Tribe Reservation in Eagle Pass on Saturday, Dec. 12, just before 11:00 a.m.

“About 500 feet before the buoys, which are right around the beginning of the Urbina Property, that's when we see a group of three adults and one child crossing the river,” Lugo said. “Two of the adults successfully cross the river, and that's when we see mom carrying a baby. They get stuck, too tired to walk. Mom gets too tired to walk and she's crying, screaming, begging for help.”

Lugo said there were two water rafts near the woman, with two guardsmen in each of the rafts “four to six feet away.”

“Please bring the boat closer,” the woman can be heard yelling loudly. “Please don’t abandon me here.”

The video appears to show the four guardsmen watching the woman intently, but not communicating with her or offering her aid in any way.

“It’s so stark to see how we are fed this lie and this performance that these people are here to keep us safe and that they're here doing a public safety measure,” said Lugo. “They are literally just letting a mother and a young child potentially drown, taking that risk. And that is considered a viable way to do public safety in the state of Texas and border communities.”

Lugo said that PRLDEF obtained special access to the area as part of a digital media project related to public safety and Operation Lone Star (OLS), Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border security mission that has militarized the Rio Grande at multiple points along the Texas-Mexico border in order to curb immigration.

Jessie Fuentes, local owner of Epi’s Canoe and Kayak, sued the State of Texas in July for the militarization of the river where he makes a living providing canoe rides, claiming that the state endangered his livelihood and the local ecosystem.

Fuentes was with Lugo during the incident, and he provided the permission that PRLDEF required to be on the water that morning. He said the state is not technically allowed to prohibit anyone from accessing the navigable waters of the Rio Grande but has had to work with CBP in the past and now DPS to coordinate rides on the river.

“I’ve got a contact going with DPS, and they don’t let anyone else down there,” Fuentes said. “It’s something that I fought very hard for. I think they understand they can’t hold me from navigable waters, but I call them and work with them and they let us launch.”

The riverside city, sometimes referred to as 'La Puerta de Mexico' or 'Mexico’s Door,' 'is at the center of a struggle between the State of Texas and the federal government over shutting that door to illegal immigration.

Eagle Pass has become the epicenter of Abbott’s OLS security mission as the state has become embroiled in a legal battle with the federal government over its right to place spiked buoys and razor wire in order to deter immigration. The installations have faced criticism for potentially violating the rights of migrants who seek asylum, and they present a danger to anyone traveling through the river.

It's already against federal law to enter the U.S. without permission. In Texas, it's now a state crime too, after Gov. Abbott signed into law a state immigration bill with strict penalties.

Ari Sawyer, border researcher for the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the actions of the state represent a danger to people traveling through the community of Eagle Pass.

“In no way do the actions of CBP or Texas officials captured in this video reflect their public safety mission,” Sawyer said. “On the contrary, they are endangering lives at the border at a place where hundreds of people have drowned, often in an effort to seek protection, reunite with family, or search for a better quality of life.”

Sawyer said that HRW has documented similar behavior by Texas officials over the summer on multiple occasions.

In a setback to the Republican governor, the conservative New-Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree that migration was an 'invasion.'

Lugo and Fuentes halted their canoe ride that morning when they heard the woman and child screaming for help. Lugo said they knew they could not interfere with the Texas National Guard by law, and they did not know what was happening or what would occur next.

“We hear and then see the CBP airboat coming from upriver,” Lugo said. “[We thought] CBP is coming. [We thought] they probably call them because CBP is usually the one that does rescue operations. So maybe that’s why they aren’t helping. And then CBP drives their airboat within six feet of her. Very, very close.”

Lugo said CBP did not stop to offer aid, and the wake caused by the airboat was powerful enough to move their canoe from a longer distance of several yards away.

“They go under for a second. Like, for a while. I don't know," Lugo said. "After a minute or so, we turn, and we see her and the baby crawling onto the back of the riverbed on the Mexican side of the border.”

Its unclear whether Texas National Guard troops working as part of Operation Lone Star are allowed to have contact with migrants, and in what capacity. It's also unknown if they made dispatches to Border Patrol for aid.

TPR has filed open records requests seeking clarity on water rescue policy under Operation Lone Star.

Texas National Guard troops navigate the Rio Grande on the north side of the river after migrants crossed the Rio Grande River on July 20, 2023, from Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico into Eagle Pass, Texas hoping to seek asylum in the U.S.
Omar Ornelas/ El Paso Times/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Co
Texas National Guard troops navigate the Rio Grande on the north side of the river after migrants crossed the Rio Grande River on July 20, 2023, from Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico into Eagle Pass, Texas hoping to seek asylum in the U.S.

In April of 2022, Texas National Guard Spc. Bishop Evans died after jumping into the Rio Grande to save a drowning migrant without a proper flotation device. The Texas Tribune reported that the Texas Military Department acknowledged that Evans and others had not received the proper equipment required to perform such a rescue due to supply chain issues.

Department of Public Safety spokesperson Ericka Miller told The Texas Tribune at the time that The Texas Guard does “not track water rescues” since they “are not part of our security operations.”

Major General Thomas M. Suelzer, Adjutant General for the State of Texas and senior uniformed Texas National Guard officer, told state lawmakers in May of 2022 that troops are advised not to jump in the water to avoid risks.

"It all starts from the top," said Congressman Joaquin Castro on a call with TPR after reviewing the footage. "Gov. Greg Abbott has been just virulently anti-immigrant. Has set a very ugly tone for how you treat other human beings."

Castro said this is not the first time his office has seen similar incidents related to OLS on the border, and attributed the occurrences to the current political climate.

"Border security and immigration is one of those issues in American politics that is among the thorniest. People have very strong opinions about it one way or another," Castro told TPR. "But that has been exacerbated over the last seven or eight years because the leader of the Republican Party Donald Trump has made immigrants his number one boogeyman."

An Army National Guard soldier stands guard near a cordon of razor wire as state officials monitor the Rio Grande by boat near Eagle Pass in 2023.
Adress Latif
An Army National Guard soldier stands guard near a cordon of razor wire as state officials monitor the Rio Grande by boat near Eagle Pass in 2023.

Lugo explained that the river has gone through an extensive transformation because of the OLS militarization.

“The first thing that we saw is this really stark comparison of what’s on the right and left of the river,” Lugo said. “When you're going downstream, you see on the [Mexican side] Piedras Negras, this beautiful park, murals, people walking, people fishing, and people just hanging out enjoying the park. And on the [Texas] side, it looks like a war zone because all you see are multiple layers of concertina wire and there's shipping containers and more concertina wire on top of the shipping containers. And it was just really stark seeing the differences.”

Fuentes said the transformation has also affected his canoe business.

“I used to be able to have races and have classes on the river, but nobody wants to get in there. Nobody wants to take chances anymore,” Fuentes said. “So the only other alternative that I had was providing photojournalists and reporters an opportunity to view. But because of the concertina wire and everything, a normal 45 minute trip has turned into a two and a half to three hour trip.”

“Every time that I take someone [on a canoe ride], in which over the last month I think I've been out there about three or four times,” Fuentes said. “I tell you this — it's a new story, it's a new cruelty, it's a new tactic, it's a new prevention. It’s pretty bad.”

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Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.