Records: Operation Lone Star resulting in increases as high as 1,000% in minor citations for drivers in Starr County
As part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, the Rio Grande Valley has seen an increase in troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety to prevent human smuggling and drugs from crossing the border.
Many Starr County residents are saying that increased presence has led to more frivolous citations rather than their protection as drivers are being pulled over for no apparent reason.
Thanks to an open records request, Channel 5 News looked over 100 pages of citations handed out by DPS in Starr County from January to June of this year compared to prior to when Operation Lone Star was put into effect.
The citation that had the highest increase was for having anything on the car’s windshield. It went up by 1,060%.
The next highest increase was for having any transparent material on the windshield, which went up by over 840%.
Tickets like these are costing Starr County resident Tomas Martinez a lot of headaches. He says he’s struggling to pay the tickets he received because now he has to make car repairs he can’t even afford to make.
“In a couple months I’ve been stopped six times,” Martinez said. “I have three tickets, and I got three or four warnings.”
Martinez says many residents are so scared of getting stopped, they’ve stopped going out.
“They stop us for absolutely no reason,” Martinez said. “They’ll tell you that they’re stopping you to check on you. And that’s how they’ll get people, some without licenses.”
The numbers also show that citations for human smuggling and drug possession also went up, but not as high as minor traffic violations.
Citations for possession of illegal drugs went up to 103% from an average of 41 to 83 a month.
Human smuggling citations went up 17% from an average of 6.5 to 7.6 a month
A 2014 study done by the Border Network for Human Rights shows that when DPS troopers increased in Starr County, traffic citation rates for Hispanics rose by 127% compared to a 40% drop in citation rates for whites.
“It’s creating a tax on poor people who are already struggling,” John-Michael Torres, a spokesperson for the Valley non-profit La Union del Pueblo Entero said. “These fines, even a small fine, are devastating to families living paycheck to paycheck.”
Torres says low income residents are the ones who are more likely to have older cars, with mechanical problems. This was echoed by Starr County Judge Eloy Vera back in March when Lone Star had just begun. He urged DPS troopers to consider that many Starr residents come from humble backgrounds.
But DPS Lt. Christopher Olivarez says minor traffic stops are sometimes how they can catch bigger crimes.
DPS can’t deport immigrants, Olivarez said, adding that they are making a difference with Operation Lone Star.
“Now with the influx of migrants that are coming across, it’s causing a distraction for law enforcement because law enforcement is tied up with these migrants,” Lt. Olivarez said.
Taxpayers are footing the bill. Olivarez said it costs about $2.5 million a week to fund DPS troopers for Operation Lone Star. He says they are trying to handle the criminal activity that border patrol agents are too tied up to handle.
“We’re providing over 1,000 DPS resources to the RGV and Del Rio sectors,” Lt. Olivarez said. “Our DPS troopers since the start of Operation Lone Star have come into contact and referred over 43,000 migrants.”
Judge Vera says despite the increase in immigrants crossing illegally into the county, crime hasn’t gone up.
“Our crime rate has not gone up, our jails have been the same,” Judge Vera said.
For Martinez, this issue remains what he calls a civil rights issue.
“What the governor is telling us is that we are the worst, we are the bad people,” Martinez said. “And this is how he wants to claim to protect white people in central Texas. But it’s all a lie.”