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ACLU again questions Border Patrol pursuits, investigations after rollover leaves 2 dead

Emergency workers spray down a Chevrolet Tahoe at the scene of a fatal crash on Wednesday in Santa Teresa.
Corrie Boudreaux El Paso Matters
Emergency workers spray down a Chevrolet Tahoe at the scene of a fatal crash on Wednesday in Santa Teresa.

SANTA TERESA, New Mexico -- Civil rights advocacy groups are again raising concerns about high-speed pursuits by U.S. Border Patrol agents after a crash in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, early Wednesday left two people dead and 10 others injured.

While it remains unclear what the role the Border Patrol played in the crash, the American Civil Liberties Unions of New Mexico and Texas are calling for an independent investigation into the incident.

Daniel Medrano, chief of Sunland Park Fire Department, works the scene of a fatal crash on McNutt Road in Santa Teresa on Wednesday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The crash happened shortly before 5 a.m. when Border Patrol “made contact with” a Chevrolet Tahoe at Pete Domenici Highway and New Mexico State Road 9 and initiated a pursuit, which they “immediately broke off,” Daniel Medrano, fire chief of the Sunland Park Fire Department, told reporters on the scene.

The driver of the Tahoe lost control and rolled the car into the desert at McNutt and Airport roads, he said.

The two people who died on the scene had not been identified as of Friday morning. Nine of the 10 people injured were Mexican nationals, the Mexican Consulate confirmed. Two people had critical injuries and were taken to University Medical Center of El Paso – one by helicopter. The rest with injuries not considered life-threatening were taken to area hospitals.

The driver, who was not injured, was taken into custody by Border Patrol, Medrano said.

In a statement issued Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said agents “arrived on the scene of a single vehicle rollover accident” but made no mention of a pursuit.

A CBP spokesman on Friday said there was no pursuit involved, but that the driver was speeding and failed to yield or slow down when Border Patrol agents flashed their lights at the Tahoe. The spokesman said two of the people in the vehicle were “committing a felony by taking part in human smuggling,” but wouldn’t elaborate on whether they had been formally charged.

Officials with the New Mexico State Police on Friday said the crash and what led up to it is still under investigation. No other information was immediately available.

In a letter sent Wednesday to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, the ACLU groups called for an investigation into the crash by the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility. It also asked that those involved in the crash not be expelled under Title 42. 

“All occupants of the vehicle must have the opportunity to consult with counsel, to be available to investigators, and to pursue any and all protections and legal remedies that may be available to them,” the letter states.

Crashes involving Border Patrol high-speed chases remain under scrutiny as increases in deadly crashes involving the agency have been reported.

Among the high-profile cases is the June 2020 crash when a Chevrolet Cruze with 10 people inside collided into a trailer at a curve along Paisano Drive in Downtown El Paso during a human smuggling attempt. Seven people – including four El Paso teens – died at the scene.

The Border Patrol denied it was pursuing the car at the time of the crash, though two survivors of the crash and other witnesses claimed otherwise, El Paso Matters previously reported.

Another is an Aug. 3, 2021, crash when a migrant smuggler evading a Border Patrol checkpoint at New Mexico State Road 185 lost control of his vehicle. Two people were killed – including a U.S. citizen whose parent is now a client of the ACLU of New Mexico. Eight others were injured.

Rebecca Sheff, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Mexico specializing in immigrant rights, said the “pattern is all too familiar.”

In 2021, there were 23 vehicle pursuit deaths linked to Border Patrol encounters, according to the ACLU. The organization created a tracker that includes all known fatal encounters with CBP personnel as reported by the agency’s public affairs office and the media as of January 2010.

As of July 5, the tracker lists 241 deaths – including 89 involving vehicle pursuits. Of the 241 deaths, 35 are listed as U.S. citizens or legal residents.

The ACLU’s scrutiny of Border Patrol chases extends to the agency’s investigative practices.

“There’s an inherent bias and conflict of interest when the Border Patrol investigates its own,” Sheff said.

Special Border Patrol units called Critical Incident Teams help collect evidence and conduct interviews in investigations involving agents. The teams were under the direction of the CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

The CBP commissioner in May sent a memo to the heads of Border Patrol and other agencies stating that the Critical Incident Teams will be disbanded no later than Oct. 1. Critical incidents involving CBP personnel will instead be handled by the Office of Professional Responsibility. The office will also serve as CBP’s lead in external investigative and prosecutive entities related to these incidents, according to the memo.

“To ensure our Agency achieves the highest levels of accountability, OPR will be the CBP entity responsible for responding to critical incidents and ensuring all reviews and investigations are conducted by personnel with appropriate expertise, training, and oversight,” the memo states.

The CBP spokesman said the Santa Teresa incident is being investigated by the OPR.

Sheff said the ACLUs of Texas and New Mexico are also asking that all records of the Critical Incident Teams be preserved and that there be an independent investigation into those cases as they may be “potentially tainted.”

“They need to be reviewed in depth,” she said.

This article first appeared on El Paso Matters and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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