Wait, so they'll shoot at you from helicopters?
That's the unnerving question we were left asking after a Texas Department of Public Safety sharpshooter, from his chopper, fired at a truck of Guatemalan immigrants speeding along a rural border road in October. An audio recording of the chase later confirmed that troopers believed the pickup was carrying drugs, not immigrants, as it sped down the Hidalgo County road. But instead of shooting out the truck's tires, as intended, the DPS sniper shot and killed two Guatemalan immigrants hidden under a tarp in the truck bed.
The shooting underscored the unusual and potentially dangerous policy allowing state troopers to fire on vehicles during hot pursuit — other states rarely, if ever, allow the practice. But the incident also highlights how Texas is blurring the line between military action and policing.
Insisting the feds haven't done enough to secure la frontera, Texas lawmakers since 2007 have approved more than $600 million for border operations. Most of that cash has gone to build a small DPS army on the border, with specialized Ranger Reconnaissance teams, helicopters, and even high-speed gunboats armed with multiple .30-caliber, fully automatic machine guns to patrol the Rio Grande.
Meanwhile, even as the country at-large debates if, when, and how law enforcement should be permitted to use surveillance aircraft (like drones) over US soil, DPS ratcheted up its surveillance efforts in 2012. As the Center for Investigative Reporting first uncovered, DPS in July inked a $7.4 million contract with a Swiss company for a high altitude spy plane, complete with an array of surveillance cameras and high-resolution thermal imaging systems.
Happy to exploit border security for the hot-button issue that it is, state Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples has continued to call for militarizing large swaths of the borderlands, creating "sanitary tactical zones." Perhaps after 2012, we're already there.
While investigations first started in 2011, the scandal roiling the ranks at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland snowballed this year, unearthing a total 49 victim trainees, all female, and 25 military training instructors investigated for misconduct ranging from inappropriate sexual relationships to harassment, sexual assault, and rape. So far nine boot camp instructors have faced charges.
Advocates for victims of military sexual trauma say the scandal at Lackland exposes flaws in the military's system of handling rape or assault cases. Those fears were further validated in an Air Force investigation released last month, which cited "a culture too accepting of misconduct" that led to the scandal.
At evidentiary hearings against trainers, women have testified to succumbing to sexual advances after feeling they had no other choice, begging uneasy questions over the power instructors wield and when, if ever, such encounters should be considered consensual. Other women who reported harassment testified they were reprimanded for bad performance, removed from their units, and threatened to repeat parts of basic training.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups like Protect Our Defenders urge Congress to pass the STOP Act, legislation that would take sexual assault investigations outside the military chain of command, saying the problem isn't isolated to Lackland or even the Air Force — something illustrated in alarming detail in this year's documentary Invisible War by filmmaker Kirby Dick, which chronicled stories of several women across the branches who were not only raped in the military but ravaged by a system unwilling to prosecute their rapists.
By the Defense Department's own estimate, some 19,000 active duty servicemen and women were raped or sexually assaulted in the military in 2010. Another damning statistic from that DoD: 82 percent of women and 90 percent of men who chose to come forward with complaints of sexual assault or harassment said they wouldn't do it again if given the choice.
He-Man women-haters club (or the Texas GOP)
So goes another turbulent year for women's health in Texas.
With state family planning funding cut to the bone, the Women's Health Program survived the 2011 Lege as the sole bright spot for women's health care in the state, providing cancer screenings and contraception to thousands of uninsured, low-income women. But the Texas GOP's bullheadedness on the Planned Parenthood front has threatened to dismantle it.
At issue is a rule lawmakers passed defining who can provide services under the WHP, a Medicaid-waiver program aimed at reducing unplanned pregnancies in Texas. The program, which saved the state millions, drew 90 percent of its $36 million annual cost from the feds.
Though PP's family planning clinics — i.e. non-abortion providers — care for nearly half the clients enrolled in the program, the state banned the organization entirely, passing a rule that kicks "affiliates" of abortion providers out of the program.
Early this year Texas lost its standoff with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which said it could not legally fund a program that arbitrarily gives the boot to qualified providers.
Fiscal consequences be damned, Gov. Rick Perry and company chose to forego federal funding (90 percent of the program, remember) and promised to start a fully state-funded WHP.
But as the legal battles continue to shake out, Perry has made it clear that, should the courts rule Texas can't ban PP, he'd rather kill the program altogether. A new lawsuit PP filed in federal court this month seeks to keep Perry from following through on that threat.
As the media heralded the importance of "Hispanic vote" after November's election, San Antonio's own Castro twins were front and center to explain it to the nation.
Mayor Julián Castro had his moment in the limelight as keynote speaker at the DNC, but following President Obama's impressive numbers among Hispanics — winning anywhere from 70 to 75 percent of the vote, depending on what poll you consider — the Mayor and twin Congressman-elect Joaquín Castro hit the national media circuit. Their message to the GOP: Latinos are part of the American family, whether you like it or not, and you need them to win elections.
It's not comprehensive immigration reform, nor is it a path to citizenship. But undocumented students — who, regardless of your views on immigration, did nothing wrong when their parents brought them into the country illegally as children — will no longer be thrown into immigrant detention centers and deported. Obama's deferred-action policy, announced this summer, also provides renewable two-year work permits for such DREAM Act-eligible immigrants.
That doesn't take away from the sting when Republicans file DREAM-like bills that don't offer a path to citizenship, when Mitt Romney utters "self-deportation," or when Congressman Lamar Smith rails on about "amnesty." Nor does it hide Obama's clear political motivations behind announcing the policy when he did.
But it's a long way from where our San Antonio student hunger strikers started in late 2010. As undocumented student Pamela Resendiz told us earlier this year, "Now, my fellow DREAMers can go to bed and not think that they might get deported at any minute."
Here in Texas, our dominant party issues dire warnings about protecting the fossil-fuel industry from "extreme environmentalists," while making the abolishment of the Environmental Protection Agency a party platform point (literally).
San Antonio continues to stand in stark contrast, both in rhetoric and in practice. While Castro had his "Climate Change Awareness" month in 2011, this year CPS Energy inked a historic 400-kilowatt power-purchase agreement with South Korea-based OCI Solar Power, sealing the country's largest-ever solar project by a city-owned utility.
Under the 25-year deal, OCI will open a plant to manufacture solar panels and components, creating an estimated 800 permanent jobs with salaries of about $47,000 — a $100 million local investment, CPS says. And by moving OCI's North American and manufacturing headquarters to the Alamo City, there are hopes OCI, once it produces panels for the 400-megawatt solar farm, will boost production beyond San Antonio's needs, feeding the North and South American markets.
The move further seals San Antonio's place as the solar city, where leaders are willing to deploy solar on a scale that could actually begin to edge us away from fossil fuels, all the while creating jobs and reducing greenhouse gases, water consumption and air pollution.