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Texas Governor’s Race Shaped by Death of 53 Asylum Seekers, Abortion Access & Calls for Gun Control

Web ExclusiveJuly 05, 2022
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In San Antonio, Texas, the alleged driver of the truck where 53 asylum seekers died after they were trapped in scorching heat made his first appearance in court Thursday. One survivor from Guatemala has told the Associated Press that the truck driver put powdered chicken bouillon on the floor to throw off the dogs at security checkpoints. In Part 2 of our interview, we get an update from Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, and also discuss how the Texas state Supreme Court ruled Friday that a century-old law banning abortions can take effect, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision striking down Roe v. Wade. The Texas ruling means anyone providing an abortion could face lawsuits and financial penalties. Whole Women’s Health has since suspended abortion care at its clinics across Texas. The Tribune has reported on how the end of Roe and renewed calls for gun control the recent massacre in Uvalde, Texas, could reshape the race for Texas governor.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

In San Antonio, Texas, the alleged driver of the truck where dozens of asylum seekers died after they were trapped in scorching heat made his first appearance in court Thursday. Homero Zamorano faces human smuggling charges resulting in the death of 53 people. Three others have also been arrested in connection with the tragedy. One survivor from Guatemala has told the Associated Press the truck driver put powdered chicken bouillon on the floor to throw off the dogs at security checkpoints.

We’re continuing our conversation with Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune.

I think this is the largest, the deadliest human trafficking death toll in U.S. history. Can you talk about what happened in San Antonio and what you understand happened at this point?

SEWELL CHAN: Sure, Amy. An 18-wheel tractor-trailer containing, as you say, you know, more than 60 people, 53 of whom perished, was found parked, just a week ago, near the intersection of two interstate highways in southwest San Antonio. And, you know, the scene was just staggering. People were coming out of the trailer, you know, dead or dying. They’ve been trapped there, of course, in this really, really horrifying example of kind of — you know, very dehumanizing. And as you say, four people have been arrested. Two of them, the driver and an apparent alleged accomplice, face serious trafficking charges that could carry the death penalty.

AMY GOODMAN: They went through a U.S. checkpoint from Mexico to the United States with this tractor-trailer filled with human beings. And then we hear that they spread this kind of chicken bouillon or something to throw off dogs who might smell the human scent?

SEWELL CHAN: It’s an example of, really, the lengths to which people will go, you know, both the victims and also, frankly, the middle people who exploit them — will go in order to try to evade law enforcement. And, you know, there are some in Texas who would say, if you’re entering the U.S. illegally, you know, you’re assuming a certain level of risk. But I think that that’s a very inhumane way of viewing things. You know, the idea that people would be — the idea that the people exploiting them would be so desperate as to try to literally kind of conceal the smell of their human cargo, it’s just — it’s too horrifying to think about almost.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to move on to all of these cases. In the first part of our interview, we talked about what happened in Uvalde, the massacre. Now you have this human smuggling operation that resulted in 53 deaths. Then you have Roe — I mean, Roe v. Wade is a Texas case — being overturned by the Supreme Court. Well, in Texas, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday that a century-old law banning abortions can take effect following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision striking down Roe. The Texas ruling means anyone providing an abortion could face lawsuits and financial penalties. Whole Woman’s Health has since suspended abortion care at its clinics across Texas. Now, the Tribune reported on this in a story headlined “How the end of Roe and the Uvalde school shooting could reshape the race for Texas governor.” Explain.

SEWELL CHAN: Well, as you say, you know, abortion has effectively ended in Texas. And I think that we’re the largest state, nearly 30 million people, in which that is the case, Amy. And I think that you’re seeing, you know, the Democrats make a play for moderate voters, for female voters, for people who feel turned off that this is just too much. And you’ve seen Democratic nominee Beto O’Rourke’s numbers rising. And by some measures, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, he was only five points or so behind Governor Greg Abbott, who is the Republican incumbent seeking reelection.

I want to point out that no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994. So it’s going to be an uphill battle for O’Rourke to climb, for him to wage, even though, of course, O’Rourke came quite close to beating Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I remember back at the beginning, right after the Uvalde massacre, when 19 fourth graders and their two teachers were murdered, Greg Abbott held — not a news conference exactly, that I could tell, but he just went there in force, with the Rangers behind him, to speak. Beto O’Rourke stood up in the auditorium. And the person who tried to silence him the most was the Uvalde mayor, Don McLaughlin, who said “you” — I think he called him “you sick son of a bitch.” And then Beto O’Rourke walked out. Can you talk about what the governor’s role has been in trying to find out what’s happened in Uvalde, and also what Uvalde means?

SEWELL CHAN: Well, I wish we knew more. The governor, you know, had a couple of press conferences. And, you know, the probably better known one at this point is the one in which he said that he was, quote, “livid” at having been misinformed about some crucial details about what happened in Uvalde, which raised a lot of questions even further — right? — about mistrust, distrust, about conflicting accounts, about what the — if even the governor had been given misinformation, you know, what does that mean for the people in the town, who tell us repeatedly that they have been left in the dark, that they have not been kept apprised of the investigation? You know, things seem to be moving very, very slowly in the transparency front.

You know, Texas is a very pro- — you know, Texas is a very Second Amendment-oriented state, Amy. So I’m not sure how much Uvalde is going to really swing things. I do think that there is revulsion about the gun massacre, of course, and about these tragedies. My personal sense is that Roe — is that the abortion issue, just because it affects so many people, might end up being kind of, you know, a stronger factor in this fall’s elections.

AMY GOODMAN: But even in the case of the governor saying he was misinformed, that was weeks ago. You would think the way the governor deals with saying, “I was misinformed, and I’m livid,” is hold another news conference and say, “So I have personally required all of my people to get the information, and this is what we’re going to tell you to this point,” which brings me to you, Sewell Chan, the editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune. Have you ever faced such a kind of black box when it comes to trying to get information? How do you feel stymied in getting information about Uvalde?

SEWELL CHAN: Well, I want to point out that a coalition of Texas newsrooms and media organizations have written letters. We have called on the government to release, you know, records, to use its discretion under the Texas Public Information Act to make records available and to try to open the state legislative hearings, which have been closed entire — the state investigative committee of the Legislature, which has been holding hearings behind closed doors.

So, you know, Amy, I would point to a broader pattern of a lack of transparency, a lack of kind of responsiveness to public records requests. You know, frankly, this is a state where even reporters’ emails and queries, repeated ones, do not necessarily get responded to by state agencies. And so, you know, some would say that there’s a culture of opacity here. You know, I think when you look at the gap between really the open records laws that Texas passed, as many states and the federal government did in the 1970s — right? — in the aftermath of Watergate, the gap between that moment and now, when there is so little transparency, it raises very troubling questions about accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, also reporters like your own reporters at The Texas Tribune being prevented from getting close to the funerals of the massacre victims by self-appointed guards, bikers, people riding motorcycles.

SEWELL CHAN: Yeah, there was a lot of, frankly, what I would call harassment of the press in Uvalde. Now, there are some who say that, you know, it was a global kind of media scene and that the media descended on the town. One neighboring police department or, you know, one other Texas police department said recently that the media kind of really divided the town. I try, as a member of the press, to be very humble and sympathetic to those accounts. I know that the media is a very broad category, of course. Some people were less respectful than others.

Nonetheless, I do think it’s very, very troubling when you have, you know, local people, or these bikers, as you say, but also local police departments that really came to Uvalde and, in many ways, kind of physically blocked the press from going to funerals, but, more importantly, from attending public meetings, Amy. I mean, you know, there have been reporters blocked from public meetings. There have been, you know, reporters basically told to go away. And that’s very troubling at this time of rising threats to press freedom in the United States and abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we interviewed Texas state Senator Roland Gutierrez a number of times. And at one point he was promised information from Steve McCraw, the head of the Department of Public Security, and he — Public Safety, and he was waiting for that information. And then McCraw, he said, texted him and said, “I can’t give it to you. I was told to give you no information.” This was about who the police officers were inside the school at the time. And Roland Gutierrez said what was cited was that the DA had opened an investigation and was empaneling a grand jury. The DA of the area, of Uvalde and that overall area, is District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee. What is happening there? Who is she investigating, with the murderer dead?

SEWELL CHAN: Well, that’s a really good question. And the district attorney has hired a law firm to assist it with this investigation. But given that the — as you say, the lone gunman is dead, you know, it’s not clear what exactly a grand jury would even do. And the district attorney actually said at one point that this was not a criminal investigation, which raises the question of why everything has been held in such secrecy.

And recently, at a meeting of the Uvalde City Council, you had survivors, you had relatives of victims, you know, really pleading, pleading with the City Council, pleading with the mayor to release more records. And the mayor cited letters from the district attorney and the Texas Department of Public Safety to say he could not release any information right now, pending the completion of this investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: It seems like it’s almost being used as an information wall, a kind of blockade. Or, in fact, is she investigating the police and the police response? Could that be? Have you seen that in South Texas before?

SEWELL CHAN: Well, that would actually be a remarkable development and one that we would want to cover very, very closely. I have not seen signs of that yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Sewell Chan, I want to thank you for being with us, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune. To see the first part of our interview with Sewell, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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