A Texas National Guard observation post is seen along a road in Mission, Texas, in January 2022. The troops are deployed to the U.S. border with Mexico as part of a more than 2-year-old mission to reduce crime between legal ports of entry.

A Texas National Guard observation post is seen along a road in Mission, Texas, in January 2022. The troops are deployed to the U.S. border with Mexico as part of a more than 2-year-old mission to reduce crime between legal ports of entry. (Rose L. Thayer/Stars and Stripes)

AUSTIN, Texas — A soldier with the Texas National Guard has been cleared of civilian criminal charges for shooting and wounding a migrant while he was deployed along the border with Mexico, according to an investigation of the January incident.

The Texas Rangers, a state police agency, investigated the shooting and closed the case June 23 after the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute the soldier, according to a report on the investigation.

The report included several eye-witness accounts of how Spc. Angel Gallegos, then 27 years old, shot his service weapon, grazing the shoulder of Ricardo Rodriguez Nieto at about 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 15 in an abandoned house in Mission, a small town on the Texas border. The incident was initially reported to police as an accidental discharge.

The soldier was deployed as part of two-year-old state mission known as Operation Lone Star, in which Guard members are partnered with state police to deter criminal activity between legal ports of entry along the Texas border with Mexico. However, in the Texas Rangers’ report, there is no mention of any state police officers present at the time of the shooting — only Border Patrol agents.

The use-of-force policy for troops serving on Operation Lone Star allows for them to use the minimum force necessary for self-defense or in defense of others, according to a review of training materials provided to troops last year.

The Texas Military Department declined to answer questions about whether Gallegos faced discipline within the Guard for the accidental firing of his weapon or whether it was determined that he acted within the boundaries of the mission’s use-of-force guidelines.

Gallegos, who was interviewed by investigators the following day at his hotel in nearby McAllen, said he reported to the Border Patrol station in McAllen at 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 14 and only had an M-17 handgun on him that night. He also had a headlamp.

At about 4:15 a.m., soldiers received a radio call to assist a Border Patrol agent with a search dog in tracking a group of migrants who had crossed into Texas from Mexico between the legal ports of entry. The migrants ended up at the abandoned house where Gallegos told investigators he could see people inside the house through the back entrance.

One man had a backpack with a rope ladder, the soldier said.

When Gallegos entered the house, everyone began to run, he said. One man, Nieto, ran toward the front window, despite Gallegos ordering him to stop. He tried to detain Nieto, but the man pushed back, threw his elbows backward and gave Gallegos “hammer blows.”

Gallegos said he feared he would be seriously injured because he did not know his surroundings and could not see the man’s hands in the dark. He could only see what was in front of him in his headlamp, he said.

He then unholstered his weapon as Nieto continued to be physically aggressive. The soldier then switched his handgun from his right hand to his left to use his right hand to grab the man. They continued to struggle, Gallegos lost his balance and started to fall. As he fell backward, he accidentally fired the weapon, and Nieto landed on top of him.

Gallegos told investigators that he didn’t return his weapon to its holster because the holster was on his right side.

Another soldier, Uriel Araujo, who was there was also interviewed by investigators. He provided a similar account. He did not see the gun fire, he only heard it.

“Araujo mentioned it just happened so fast and it was dark inside,” according to the investigation.

A Border Patrol agent who was there told investigators that he was not in the house at the time of the shooting. He only heard the gunshot and then entered the building.

Investigators also interviewed three migrants detained in the house and Nieto. Each said Gallegos came into the house and quickly fired his weapon. None mentioned a physical struggle between the two men.

“Nieto said as soon as he entered, he shot him,” according to the report. “Nieto stated the soldier yelled do not move at the same time he was shooting. Nieto said the soldier never got close to him during the altercation. Nieto stated he lost a little of his hearing when the soldier shot.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in January that its Office of Professional Responsibility reviewed the incident but declined in April to release the results of the review.

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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