LA JOYA — Authorities believe they killed a gang member wanted for capital murder Tuesday evening after he shot two police officers and opened fire several times during a standoff that lasted more than three hours.
Bursts of gunfire erupted in the residential neighborhood, prompting neighbors to evacuate or lay low inside their homes.
Only after 8 p.m. Tuesday, when a SWAT team rammed the door of a home near the intersection of 9 ½ Street and Leo Avenue, deploying a tear gas canister and exchanging gunfire, was the area declared secure by local law enforcement officials.
“The threat has been taken care of,” Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra told reporters about 9 p.m. Wednesday. “He’s presumed dead at this time.”
Authorities had previously identified the suspect involved in Tuesday’s standoff as Joaquin Cibrian, who was wanted for the homicide of a teenage Mexican national. Guerra named him during an interview Tuesday afternoon, but referred to the shooter only as “the threat” at a news conference later that night.
But they could not confirm Cibrian’s death until they’d cleared the house of explosives that he told negotiators he’d rigged inside. The McAllen bomb squad continued that effort Tuesday night.
“We’re taking some precautions before we move in,” Guerra said.
Edinburg police investigators attempted to arrest Cibrian, 29, for the slaying of Gerardo Omar Melendez Verdin, 19, a Mexican national who’d been living in Mission. Investigators obtained a warrant for Cibrian’s arrest on a capital murder charge after Verdin was found dead July 16 in a vacant lot on the 2800 block of East University Drive.
Verdin had been shot in the back of his head, Edinburg Police Chief Rolando Castañeda said.
Six Edinburg officers responded to the La Joya house Tuesday afternoon after police there said they’d spotted a vehicle that matched the description of one linked to the capital murder case, Castañeda said. La Joya police, Department of Public Safety troopers and sheriff’s deputies “already were following the suspect’s vehicle.”
“As our officers were getting out of the car, the suspect, which we have not identified yet, opened up on our officers,” the chief said.
Two Edinburg officers suffered gunshot wounds — one to the arm, the other to both legs and possibly elsewhere, Castañeda said.
“Right now, they’re all doing fine,” Castañeda said, without naming the officers wounded.
Other officers pulled the wounded investigators from the direct line of fire, the chief said. Others took cover and were “pinned” behind their vehicles, Guerra said.
With the suspect still inside the house, “a very large response” from several local agencies flooded the area, Guerra said.
“The suspect kept firing, and we were able to relieve those officers from the positions where they were pinned from,” Guerra said.
Authorities used several armored vehicles to free the officers who’d been pinned behind their vehicles.
“We immediately called out our negotiators: San Juan PD and the Texas Rangers negotiations unit made contact with this capital murder suspect and he advised that he was going to go ahead and surrender,” the sheriff said.
Instead, Cibrian opened fire.
“However as he opened the door, he immediately engaged our personnel that were waiting for him to make the arrest,” Guerra said.
Officers cleared nearby homes because “we felt that the citizens in the surrounding neighborhood, we did not know if they were all evacuated or not” and could be in danger, Guerra said.
Police contacted the shooter again and said he’d surrender. Instead, he opened fire on officers again, the sheriff said.
“At that time we decided that he was not going to give up,” he said. “So we deployed an armored vehicle and rammed the front door and ejected the tear gas. At that point, he came out firing multiple rounds.”
Officers returned fire, presumably killing Cibrian.
Neither Guerra nor Castañeda took questions at the Tuesday night news conference. No other suspects related to the capital murder investigation have been named.
The Sheriff’s Office took command of the crime scene from Edinburg police after at least one of its officers opened fire, Guerra said. He then turned over management of the investigation to the Texas Rangers after deputies also returned fire.
Edinburg police spokesman Lt. Oscar Treviño recently said Cibrian was a confirmed Texas Syndicate gang member with a lengthy criminal record linked to addresses in Alice and Corpus Christi.
The Texas Syndicate has its roots as a prison gang that started more than four decades in California. Today, it boasts more than 4,400 members across Texas — second-most among gangs in the state — and has ties to Mexican drug cartels, according to the annual DPS gang threat assessment published in April.
Neighbors who weren’t evacuated hid in their homes as dozens of law enforcement officers converged on La Joya early Tuesday evening. Several armored vehicles were brought in an attempt to contain Cibrian, who’d opened fire on officers several times.
Liz Delgado, 39, stood with her two sons, 14 and 11, in the driveway of her duplex on King Avenue a few blocks away from the barricaded house.
“I’m just scared for these two,” she said. “I mean, I have no idea what’s going on and everything happening nowadays, I don’t know, I’m just scared for my boys.”
She said the family moved to the neighborhood so her oldest son could play baseball for La Joya High School.
Jose Luis Salinas, 28, stood two blocks away, watching the standoff as helicopters buzzed overhead.
“I never seen anything this big,” said Salinas, adding that he’s lived in the neighborhood for 16 years. “I heard a bunch of pops and ran out.”
For many living in La Joya, where most homes are less than two miles from the Rio Grande, police activity like pursuits or immigrant busts are regular occurrences. But Tuesday’s standoff was a different animal.
“Nothing had ever happened like this in this area,” said Gloria Flores, 66. “This is terrible.”
Some residents were being allowed back into their homes Tuesday night, though authorities had set up a two-block-wide crime scene to search for stray bullets or other potential evidence that had not been gathered, Guerra said.
Home health care nurse Lilly Sanchez, 57, said she arrived at a patient’s home near the crime scene about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. She’d visited the home to administer insulin to her patient, an 81-year-old woman.
Not long after that, she and others in the house heard gunfire. A Border Patrol agent canvassing the neighborhood told them to lay down inside the house and that nobody could leave.
“When we heard the active shooting, it was really scary,” Sanchez said. “It was still kind of scary, but altogether we’re fine. I’m glad I’m stuck here because of her, you know.”