McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Frantic calls to emergency responders described a chaotic scene with people frightened, wounded and fleeing in all directions after masked gunmen opened fire on a Texas cockfight near the Mexico border.
Authorities believe the wild shooting that left three dead and eight wounded early Thursday was a sloppy hit on two brothers.
Three people were charged with cockfighting and engaging in organized criminal activity Friday just before officials identified the victims, who all had criminal pasts. The brothers believed to be the target of the shooting were among those killed. The gunmen remained at large.
A recording of the 911 calls obtained by The Associated Press details the pandemonium that ensued when two to four masked gunmen opened fire at a cockfight near Edcouch, about 15 miles northeast of McAllen, where as many as 200 people were present.
“My husband is shot and he has a cellphone, but he says he was dying,” said a woman on the 911 tape who had received a call from her wounded husband. “He says he doesn’t know exactly where he’s at. I think he ran.”
The man was critically wounded, but survived.
Another woman called as she was escaping the shooting. She tried to explain the location.
“We had to take off, ma’am,” she told the dispatcher. “We have kids. There was a machine gun. There’s everything, ma’am. There’s a shootout.”
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said Friday it was “the crime scene from hell.” Some 300 beer cans and about 20 dead roosters littered the ground.
“Obviously they’re amateurs,” Trevino said of the shooters.
Killed in the fray were 49-year-old Ramiro Garcia and his brother, 53-year-old Juan Santos Garcia, and 42-year-old Arturo Buentello Garza.
Trevino said Garza was likely a bystander, but the Garcias were well known to authorities for previous criminal activity, including drug possession. Trevino said one possibility is that it was revenge for a previous drive-by shooting, though he did not provide details.
“We believe there are a lot of different groups that had it in for the Garcias,” which will make it difficult to pinpoint the group responsible for the attack, Trevino said.
The shooting had no connection to violence in Mexico, he said. “This was strictly a local issue.”
Trevino’s comments came shortly after arraignment hearings Friday for 51-year-old Heriberto Leandro; his wife, 52-year-old Leticia Leandro; and 37-year-old Humberto Blanco. They were taken in for questioning the night of the attack and arrested later Thursday morning.
The Leandros owned the small ranch. Heriberto Leandro built the corrugated metal pavilion that covered the bleachers and ring. He told investigators he had tried his hand at running the fights but didn’t make money at it so instead rented the facility to Blanco.
All three were held on $1 million bonds, each charged with one count of cockfighting and one count of engaging in organized criminal activity. None spoke at the hearing or had an attorney present.
Trevino said the eight people injured, including two who remained in critical condition, would eventually face misdemeanor cockfighting charges.
The crowd is usually highly scrutinized at the gate and witnesses told investigators the shooters jumped out of a vehicle, leading Trevino to suspect they may have been smuggled in. Their masks led investigators to speculate that people at the event probably knew their attackers.
Cockfights showcase battles between birds that have been fitted with sharp metal blades or curved spikes on their legs. Spectators gamble on which bird will be victorious in the sometimes hourlong fights that end when one or both of the birds are dead or maimed. The last state to ban cockfighting was Louisiana, in 2008.
The operation makes its money off the entrance fee paid by participants and the beer and tacos sold at the concession stand, Trevino said. The house does not typically take a cut of the bets made among attendees.
“This is a big, big business,” Trevino said. “You can generate a lot of money in this.”
In addition to the gunmen, investigators are focusing their attention on two figures Trevino said are at the top of the area’s cockfighting scene. One is a local business owner, and the other is a major broker of cockfights. Trevino did not identify either person.
Authorities are also pursuing forfeiture of the property involved.
Anonymous callers have offered authorities numerous tips since the shooting, but Trevino expressed frustration that no one reported the cockfighting earlier.
“What upsets me is that the neighbors have known about this for years,” Trevino said. “All they had to do was pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey we have a heck of an illegal activity next door. Please don’t use my name, but do something about it,’ and I guarantee we would have.”