An August 25 letter to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico and the ACLU of Texas described an August 3 Border Patrol vehicle pursuit that led to two fatalities in New Mexico.
Early in the morning of August 3, 2021, a Border Patrol agent assigned to the Las Cruces, New Mexico, U.S. Border Patrol Station was reportedly patrolling New Mexico State Road 185 approximately six miles south of the Border Patrol checkpoint, which is located approximately 69 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. According to CBP, the agent witnessed a northbound vehicle pull to the side of the road and then proceed north. The Border Patrol agent reportedly followed the vehicle without activating his emergency equipment.
The vehicle reportedly evaded the Border Patrol checkpoint by driving onto the southbound lanes of New Mexico State Road 185 and then continued north, at which time the Border Patrol agent activated his emergency equipment and attempted to stop the vehicle. Another Border Patrol unit also reportedly pursued the vehicle.
Approximately three miles north of the Border Patrol checkpoint, the vehicle crashed. Several occupants were ejected from the vehicle. The agency’s statement simply claims “the driver lost control and crashed,” but does not indicate the location or conduct of Border Patrol agents’ vehicles immediately preceding the crash.
A CBP release, issued two weeks later, reported that one passenger aboard the vehicle, a male citizen of Ecuador, died (original link). The vehicle’s driver, a male U.S. citizen, died of his injuries 12 days after the crash. Eight other passengers were hospitalized.
“This incident is being investigated by Homeland Security Investigations, the New Mexico State Police, and reviewed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Professional Responsibility and the El Paso County Office of the Medical Examiner,” CBP’s release continued. “The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General was also notified.”
It was the first of two Border Patrol pursuits ending in fatal crashes in four days. Three people died in a crash following an August 7, 2021 chase in Arizona.
This incident would be featured in a January 10, 2022 front-page New York Times story about Border Patrol vehicle pursuit tactics. The Times account included the role of Border Patrol’s secretive Critical Incident Teams (BPCITs), which advocates accuse of having helped to frustrate investigations into abuses committed by agents:
Body camera footage from a state police officer captured one of the Border Patrol agents saying: “Our critical incident team is coming out. They’ll do all the crime scene stuff—well, not crime scene, but critical incident scene.” The agent said that he and his colleague would give statements to the team, which it would share with the police.
On June 7, 2022, the ACLU of Texas and ACLU of New Mexico confirmed that Border Patrol Critical Incident Team personnel were at the scene of the crash within about an hour. Through state-level public records requests, the ACLU obtained the first-ever publicly available copy of a BPCIT incident report. The 162-page document “raises more questions than it answers,” the organization observed (original link). It pointed out several inconsistencies in the BPCIT report’s findings, including its descriptions of the distance at which the Border Patrol vehicle was following, when it activated its lights and sirens, whether “spike strips” were used to disable the pursued vehicle, and even the number of miles over which the chase took place.
The quality of the incident report, the ACLU offices concluded, raises concerns about CBP’s plan to terminate the BPCITs by absorbing their personnel into CBP’s Office of Public Responsibility (OPR) by the end of September 2022. “While OPR is tasked with conducting independent and impartial investigations, confidence in their results is wholly undermined by the involvement of Border Patrol’s CITs as investigators.”
Times reporter Eileen Sullivan identified the vehicle’s driver: 25-year-old Erik A. Molix, who was transporting nine undocumented migrants in a sport utility vehicle. Agents chased him at speeds reaching 73 miles per hour. A Border Patrol vehicle clipped Molix’s SUV, sending it tumbling off the road.
One of the surviving migrants aboard Molix’s SUV told Al Jazeera that, after Molix initially fled a Border Patrol vehicle:
“the agent rammed the rear of the SUV. …I remember that as soon as they hit us in the back, this coyote grabbed the wheel like he was driving a Ferrari.… I stared at the speedometer and saw we were going like a hundred and something. The car was even shaking. And right when I got up, I felt the Border Patrol hit us again, and that’s where I lost consciousness.”
Reporting in December 2022, Al Jazeera’s Mark Scialla stated that “this is the first time” that the migrant, Honduran citizen Lesvin Gámez, had shared his story. “The Border Patrol never contacted him to explain what had happened nor asked for his account. His story runs contrary to the Border Patrol’s version of events and raises questions about the involvement of” the Border Patrol Critical Incident Team.
Molix’s mother, a 5th-grade teacher in El Paso, found out about her son’s death from a CBP news release. While he may have been doing something illegal, she told the Times, “That doesn’t mean you have to die for it.”
The ACLU’s August 2021 letter called on CBP to carry out “robust and independent investigations” into the pursuit incident, and that the agency publicly release its written vehicle pursuit policy and review whether Border Patrol agents deviated from it during the August 3 chase.
CBP made its vehicle pursuit policy public, in redacted form, for the first time in November 2021 (original link). On May 24, 2022, the Associated Press reported that CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus “developing a new policy for vehicle pursuits with an eye toward increasing safety.”
— Rebecca Sheff, Shaw Drake, “CBP’s Vehicle Pursuit Policy and Border Patrol’s Deadly Pursuit of a Vehicle on August 3, 2021 near Las Cruces, New Mexico” (New Mexico and Texas: ACLU of New Mexico, ACLU of Texas, August 25, 2021) https://www.aclutx.org/sites/default/files/aclu_letter_to_cbp_re_las_cruces_vehicle_pursuit.pdf.
— “Smuggler loses control of vehicle while evading checkpoint, causing a death and injuries to ejected passengers” (Las Cruces: CBP, August 17, 2021) https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/speeches-and-statements/smuggler-loses-control-vehicle-while-evading-checkpoint-causing.
— Eileen Sullivan, “A Rise in Deadly Border Patrol Chases Renews Concerns About Accountability” (New York: The New York Times, January 9, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/09/us/politics/border-patrol-migrant-deaths.html.
— Emergency Driving Including Vehicular Pursuits by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Personnel (Washington: CBP, January 16, 2021) https://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2021-Nov/CBP-directive-emergency-driving-Including-vehicular-pursuits-us-cbp-personnel-redacted.pdf.
— Elliot Spagat, “Border agency plans vehicle pursuit policy to raise safety” (Donna: Associated Press, May 24, 2022) https://apnews.com/article/politics-us-customs-and-border-protection-texas-law-enforcement-agencies-694e39abaca42abbee4f1093484b9b76.
— Shaw Drake, Rebecca Sheff, “Border Patrol is Investigating Itself Following Deaths, Report Reveals” (Texas and New Mexico, ACLU of Texas and ACLU of New Mexico, June 7, 2022) https://www.aclu.org/news/immigrants-rights/border-patrol-is-investigating-itself-following-deaths-report-reveals.
— Report as prepared by EPT CIT including all facts pertaining to the case listed above (El Paso: U.S. Border Patrol, 2021) https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/22016802-us_cbp_final_report_redacted.
— Scialla, Mark. “‘Hurting People’: The ‘Cover-up Teams’ Operating on the US Border,” December 12, 2022. <https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2022/12/12/the-cover-up-teams-operating-on-the-us-border>.