EL PASO, Texas -- The U.S. Border Patrol abruptly changed its policy on pursuits along a crash-prone stretch of Paisano Avenue through downtown El Paso in wake of last week's wreck that killed seven and injured three.
That's according to a copy of an internal Border Patrol memo obtained Wednesday by El Paso Matters. The memo, sent on June 25, hours after the wreck, ordered an end to pursuits in that area.
The memo to agents from Jeffrey J. Dinise, patrol agent in charge of the Border Patrol’s El Paso station, first discussed the car crash and then stated, “Starting today, the eastbound and westbound lanes of Paisano Drive between the 1966 Spur and S. Santa Fe Street in Downtown El Paso will be designated a “no pursuit zone.” (Text bolded in the memo.)
The agency wouldn't officially comment on the memo. A spokesman for the El Paso sector, Agent George Gomez, said “CBP does not comment on leaked documents.”
Last Thursday's deadly crash along Paisano came after agents chased a four-door sedan carrying ten people that the Border Patrol's El Paso leader alleges was a "human smuggling incident." The crash was in the same spot as a fatal wreck in January during another Border Patrol chase.
Two Border Patrol agents spoke to El Paso Matters about pursuit policies and other issues, on the condition they not be identified.
“I think (the updated Paisano pursuit policy) is a good start, but they should have done that a long time ago. The fact that they are taking those extreme measures toward a (Department of Homeland Security) policy tells you that something went really wrong,” the first agent said.
The second agent said the dangers of vehicle pursuits in that area is well-known. “It’s no secret that this curve is dangerous. Way prior to this last incident pursuits have been called off and we have terminated and lost smuggler load ups because of the dangerous curve.”
This part of the road is known as the “deadly curve” because of the high incidence of deadly car accidents that have happened at the same spot on Paisano.
One of those agents also said it is atypical in human smuggling for there to be so many El Pasoans in the vehicle.
“I have been in the department for (many) years, and every single time that we have smuggling cases there’s either one driver, or the driver with a passenger. But you’re not going to take seven people in a vehicle (a number initially provided by police and Border Patrol) whenever you are planning to pick up more people. That doesn’t make any sense,” the agent said.
The Border Patrol declined to share its vehicle pursuit policy with El Paso Matters, and has refused requests for this information in the past from elected officials who have expressed concern over the frequency of fatal car crashes in pursuits involving border patrol vehicles.
One of the Border Patrol agents who spoke to El Paso Matters said agents receive limited training in pursuits.
“The only training that we get on the pursuit policy is at the academy. That’s the only time that you get in the vehicle and you practice the chase policy. Every year we get a refresher, which is four hours, and the only thing that we do is go over the written policy. But there are no practical exercises,” the agent said.
“Training is so important. Doctors, lawyers, they get a four- year degree and then they specialize and then they continue training every year, they have a certain amount of credit hours. That’s how law enforcement should be, especially when human lives are in our hands.”
Astrid Dominguez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Texas Border Rights Center, said there is a need for greater accountability for Border Patrol vehicle pursuits.
“This is not the first time a U.S. Border Patrol chase terminated in a lethal crash, unnecessarily ending lives,” Dominguez said. “Meanwhile, the agency refuses to release its vehicle pursuit policy to the public, dodging accountability for its actions or calls for reforms. At a time when there’s a nationwide effort to hold police agencies accountable, Border Patrol should not be exempted; they need to stop endangering border communities and engage in meaningful reforms to protect the sanctity of life.”
Eyewitness accounts of the deadly car crash conflict with what Border Patrol officials have said about the events leading up to it.
One witness, who requested anonymity because he works near the scene, had previously told ABC-7 he saw the car speed by at what he believed to be 90 miles an hour, with the Border Patrol following, before hearing the crash. He said the border agents arrived at the crash scene within 10 to 15 seconds later.
But Border Patrol maintains agents broke off the chase after it reached dangerously high speeds heading into downtown El Paso.
Wilmer Gomez Gomez of Guatemala was one of 10 people in the vehicle that violently struck a semi-trailer on Paisano about 2:15 a.m. on June 25. The 25-year-old Gomez, one of the three who survived the crash, said he remembers being pursued by approximately seven Border Patrol vehicles. “They were chasing us, they never stopped chasing us,” Gomez said.
In an interview with El Paso Matters, Gomez recounted that when he got into the car with a group of five others, a Border Patrol vehicle was nearby blocking the four-door sedan. Gomez said that the Border Patrol vehicle moved out of the way, letting the car pass, before it and other Border Patrol vehicles began chasing them.
El Paso police didn’t respond to questions about the wreck and deaths, saying they don’t comment on ongoing investigations. Border Patrol officials did not respond to a request for comment about allegations that agents moved out of the way of the vehicle before the chase, or that agents were in pursuit at the time of the wreck.