US man fishing in Mexico says he escaped gunfire on Falcon Lake



KHOU 11 News

Posted on August 26, 2011 at 12:24 PM

Falcon Lake

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FALCON LAKE - The Sheriff of Zapata County is reminding people not to venture into Mexico at Falcon Lake after a U.S. man fishing in Mexican waters reported someone fired at his boat.

“He experienced a bullet hole through his windshield.  No one was physically hurt,” said Zapata County Sheriff Siegfried “Sigi” Gonzalez.

Authorities in Texas issued a warning about pirates in May of 2010.

“I continue to strongly urge that U. S. fishermen remain on the U. S. side of Falcon Lake,” said Gonzalez in an email response to a question about security.

Falcon Lake is world renowned for its bass fishing. It became the scene of a high-profile murder investigation last September after Tiffany Hartley reported gunmen shot her husband while the pair was jet skiing in Mexico.

Recently, KHOU 11 accompanied the border patrol marine unit on tour of the watery international boundary separating the U.S. and Mexico.

“It’s 44,000 acres of lake," said Omar Garcia, the border patrol supervisor of the marine unit. "And 65 percent of it is in Mexico.”

Fishermen searching for the best bass don’t have to stay in U.S. waters.

“The rule of thumb is, as long as they don’t touch land or make contact with another vessel on the Mexican side, they can come back and forth without having to go through an inspection at a port of entry,” said Ramiro Cerillo, US border patrol supervisor in Zapata County.

While on patrol we were required to wear life preservers and body armor just like the agents. The boat launched from the same dock used by David and Tiffany Hartley when they went jet skiing last September.

“Anything East of the markers is US, anything west is Mexico.” said agent Garcia as he steered the boat toward a large, metal marker protruding from the Lake.

The Hartley's were six miles inside Mexican waters. Tiffany Hartley told investigators the couple was taking photos of a partially submerged church in Guerrero Viejo, a flooded ghost town.

The agents who patrol the lake said it’s not common to see jet skis that far away from the shore.

“We haven’t seen a lot of them. It’s very rare that we see them," said Cerillo. "If we do see them, it’s in the coves.”

In May of last year, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a warning about pirates on Falcon Lake in an area controlled by the Zetas cartel. Several fishermen had reported they’d been robbed while in Mexican waters.

The area is a smuggling route for drug traffickers.

”They’ll try to blend in with fishing boats and bring their contraband in the boats themselves," said Clara Torres, Assistant Patrol Chief for the Laredo Sector, which includes Falcon Lake.

“Once they get in that brush, it’s almost impossible to see them," said Garcia, as he steered the boat toward a cove.

The coves are good fishing spots, but also great hiding places for smugglers or pirates.

When Tiffany Hartley reported gunmen shot her husband in the head, it stunned locals living near the lake, according to Karran Westerman, who publishes the tiny Zapata County Times.

“At first there was disbelief,” Westerman said.

But nearly a year later, disbelief has been replaced by doubt.

“I think there are still a lot of questions, a lot of doubt," Westerman said. "Exactly what happened? Were the Zetas really involved?”

The Hartley murder investigation remains open on both sides of the border. Authorities have not recovered David Hartley’s body or jet ski.

The lead investigator in Mexico was murdered and decapitated just after the search for evidence began.

Tiffany Hartley moved back to Colorado, where she continues to pressure authorities to resume the search for her husband’s body.

Despite the high profile case, the bass still lure plenty of fishermen and women to Falcon Lake. Kristy Evans was fishing on the lake's shore.

“It’s a great sport," Evans said. "You just want to keep it somewhere safe.”

Her fishing companion said most people avoid Mexican waters altogether.

“I won’t risk it,” Jose Gomez said.

Tiffany Hartley told KHOU by phone she and her husband were not aware of the warning at Falcon Lake when they ventured into Mexico.

“We were just tourists looking at church,” Hartley said.