By Kavitha Surana, Brittny Mejia and James Queally
On a rainy November afternoon last year, eight men held tight to a gray tarp, their bodies pressed against one another as they lay feet to head in the bed of a pickup truck. Most knew one another from Acatic, a Mexican town in the state of Jalisco, where the country’s most vicious cartel has caused the morgue to overflow.
Rainwater pooled on the tarp, running in rivulets down the sides and soaking the men underneath. The closeness provided only some warmth, as the men lay shivering, feeling every bump of the rocky scrubland as they crossed into the United States.
As many modern police agencies move away from high-speed chases, placing tight restrictions on when their officers can pursue suspects, the Border Patrol allows its agents wide latitude to use them to catch people trying to enter the country illegally, a practice that often ends in gruesome injuries and, sometimes, death, a ProPublica and The Los Angeles Times investigation has found.
At speeds deemed by experts to be wildly unsafe, agents box in moving vehicles, puncture tires and employ tactics intended to spin cars off the road.
They initiate dangerous chases after noting that cars are carrying unrestrained children or are packed so far beyond capacity that the weight makes them “ride low.” They catch up to find people screaming and banging from the insides of trunks.
Every nine days, on average, these chases end in a crash. One caused a fire that spread over more than 20 acres. Another injured a dozen bystanders and six immigrants, including a 6-year-old girl who wound up on life support.
In the last four years alone, along the U.S. side of the border, at least 250 people were injured and 22 died after a Border Patrol pursuit.
The Border Patrol did not provide these numbers or fulfill requests made for months seeking to document what agents do after suspected smugglers fail to pull over.
Instead, reporters mined more than 9,000 federal criminal complaints filed against suspected human smugglers from 2015 to 2018 to build a database about Border Patrol pursuits and tactics. The documents describe agents’ reasons for initiating a pursuit, whether there was a crash and how it happened. The database is almost certainly an undercount — it does not include cases in which the driver got away or died, since the complaints are filed only after arrests. It also does not include pursuits for other crimes, including drug smuggling.
The analysis, the first of its kind, found that Border Patrol agents engaged in more than 500 pursuits in border districts in California, Texas, New México and Arizona. Of those, 1 in 3 ended in a crash.
The danger has ramped up in the two years under President Donald Trump, who declared illegal border crossing a national emergency. Human smuggling prosecutions along the border have increased by 25 percent; the number of people injured in pursuit crashes has increased by 42 percent. Among those harmed were Border Patrol agents. One was hit by flying debris while trying to spike a tire; another was dragged for at least 30 feet.
Last year brought the most pursuits in every district in the period examined, even as apprehensions for illegal border crossings did not increase significantly over prior years.
The climb can be attributed to a number of factors: Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda; the increase in deportations of long-term residents, who then try to return to family still inside the United States; record-breaking violence over the past two years in cartel-ravaged Mexico, an origination point for many of the immigrants in the cases examined.
The trend of dangerous chases has continued into 2019.
On Feb. 19 in San Diego County, high-speed Border Patrol chases ended in two major crashes, including one in which a smuggler’s car blew a red light and plowed into a semi, killing the smuggler and an immigrant.
Border Patrol Agent Justin Castrejon, briefing a gaggle of reporters after one of the crashes, said, “This is just an example of the dangers alien smuggling organizations put people in.” He said, “We have a very exact pursuit policy,” and that crashes were “something we experience from time to time as Border Patrol agents.”
There is no question that smugglers are part of a dangerous ecosystem that takes advantage of vulnerable people. They flee with little regard for the safety of their passengers or anyone on the road. They try to ram agents. Passengers beg them to stop, and they refuse. In a couple of cases, they forced passengers to jump out at speeds up to 90 mph. One used a child as a human shield.
Few argue that they should go unchecked.
“You kind of have to weigh a lot of factors. If I let this person go, are they going to hurt someone else?” said David Kim, assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol’s El Centro sector in California. “A significant amount of the time when we’re engaged in a pursuit, you have no idea what’s in the vehicle.”
But experts who reviewed Border Patrol cases for this investigation found that the agency’s loose pursuit policies only made matters worse, escalating the peril to passengers, agents and the public.
“The mission of the Border Patrol is different than the urban police department, but it still doesn’t relieve them of the duty to protect, if not all citizens, then all people,” said Geoff Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who has authored national reports on pursuit policy. “They should know that these drivers are hired mules. They’re told … ‘You just run.’ Why are you chasing someone you know is just going to run from you, and risk somebody’s life?”
A month ago, ProPublica and the Times presented the Border Patrol’s national office with the findings of this investigation, along with a request for an interview and questions about the agency’s policies, training and the current state of its accountability procedures for the use of force while driving.
They acknowledged receipt but refused to respond.
A Low Bar
High-speed pursuits were once the norm across law enforcement agencies in the United States. Even a routine traffic stop could trigger one. By the early 1990s, they had generated enough damage — and lawsuits — to prompt calls for reform. The Department of Justice released narrower pursuit guidelines, and agencies began to pull back.
There’s now a formula to evaluate whether or not to pursue, said Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It takes into consideration the weather, how populated an area is and the seriousness of the offense.
“It’s a process of balancing risk against necessity,” he said.
ProPublica and The Times reviewed the pursuit policies of police departments in the five largest cities in the U.S., as well as a dozen jurisdictions in the states that touch the border. All but one policy are more restrictive than the Border Patrol’s.
The Dallas Police Department, as well as the largest counties in Arizona and New México, bar officers from initiating chases unless they are pursuing suspected violent felons. The Border Patrol’s policy, released in 2009 and updated in 2011, does not limit the kinds of offenses agents can use as justification for chases. It advises agents to pursue only when the “benefit of emergency driving outweighs the immediate danger.”
Human smuggling is a felony. But most drivers caught in the United States are making only a short last leg of a journey, and they are not deeply connected to the cartels that run smuggling operations. Often, they are down-on-their-luck U.S. citizens, making anywhere from a couple of hundred to a few thousand dollars, according to the analysis. Sometimes, they are immigrants getting a discount on their journey for manning the wheel. A few have been as young as 14 or 15.
In the cases examined, agents never recovered caches of weapons and only rarely found drugs. After 504 pursuits over four years, agents found drugs in nine cases and personal guns in four. The most serious crime charged for most pursuits reviewed was “bringing in and harboring aliens.” Those convicted often served less than a year.
Border Patrol chases happened in thick fog and rain, and on treacherous mountain roads. They happened on unpopulated stretches of desert highway, but also miles from the border, on interstates at rush hour, in school zones and residential areas, and through strip mall parking lots, forcing pedestrians to run out of the way.
In one case, an agent pushed 110 mph trying to keep up with a sedan, noting “the Nissan was operating at above their performance capabilities.” He followed as it weaved through traffic, hit a curb, slid into a dirt triangle and got off the highway in El Centro, California. The agent followed as it blew a red light. He saw it go “airborne,” emit sparks and smoke, and spew oil.
As the agent kept up the pursuit, the Nissan crashed into a car carrying a newborn baby, who was bruised in the accident.
During the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Alpert met with top Border Patrol officials to discuss reforming the agency’s policy. He believes chases should be restricted to violent felony suspects. Specifically, he suggested agents not chase people suspected solely of immigration violations.
“Their comeback was, ‘We’re not an urban police department and our rules are different,’” Alpert said.
The ProPublica-Times analysis found case after case of Border Patrol agents using tactics that can escalate the danger of chases.
The most common was the use of spike strips at high speeds.
Spike strips are sleeves of hollow metal pins laid out in the path of a fleeing vehicle, meant to pierce and deflate a tire over the span of several seconds, instead of in a blowout. The hope is that the driver will surrender as the tires disintegrate.
While the devices are generally seen as effective, they can be lethal at high speeds, especially above 70 mph, experts said. Even the Los Angeles Police Department, which has a policy most experts consider permissive, discourages officers from deploying spike strips above 65 mph. The Border Patrol has no official cutoff speed, though agents first have to get approval from a supervisor to deploy the devices.
The use of spike strips in the first two years of Trump’s administration nearly doubled compared with the last two years of Obama’s, from 28 to 52 pursuits, in the cases examined. Though documents rarely mentioned the speeds at which cars were traveling, reporters identified 11 pursuits since 2015 in which an agent deployed spikes after noting the car was going faster than 70 mph; nine of those chases happened in the last two years.
The biggest problem with spike strips is the unpredictability they introduce. Drivers swerve to avoid them, gunning the motor even if their tires have been punctured.
Oyiza Pearson, 33, was heading to pick up her son from the babysitter when she turned onto California 125 in La Mesa on May 2, 2018.
In her rearview mirror, she saw a Nissan Pathfinder barreling toward her. She saw red and blue lights, and heard emergency sirens. The Pathfinder, packed with immigrants, had just dodged a set of spike strips at 95 mph.
She tried to pull over.
But the Pathfinder invaded her lane in an attempt to pass her. It clipped her driver’s side, spun out and T-boned her passenger side. The airbag deployed in her face. Agents blocked in the Pathfinder.
“That’s why they were able to catch him,” she says of the crash.
When she opened her eyes, pain was shooting through her spine and it hurt to move her neck. Her car, a Nissan Juke that she had just finished paying off, was totaled.
In some instances, the Border Patrol used risky offensive driving techniques at high speeds, standing in stark contrast to the policies of other large law enforcement agencies that make use of those same maneuvers.
The Pursuit Intervention Technique, commonly called a PIT maneuver, in which an officer strikes the rear of a fleeing vehicle to make it spin out and come to a stop, should rarely be used at speeds above 35 mph, experts said. The tactic of “boxing in” a fleeing car, where two or more law enforcement vehicles surround it to force it to slow down, is also not meant to be used at high speeds, experts said.
The LAPD and California Highway Patrol, which combine to engage in thousands of chases per year, direct officers not to use a PIT maneuver at speeds above 35 mph. Some agencies discourage or prohibit box and PIT maneuvers altogether. Even the Border Patrol considers use of a PIT maneuver against a car driving faster than 40 mph to be “deadly force,” Kim said.
But in at least five cases, the ProPublica-Times analysis found, Border Patrol agents attempted to use a PIT or box maneuver when a car was going faster than 40 mph. Some instances occurred in places where pedestrians or other cars were in danger of getting hit.
On Christmas Eve 2017, agents chased a Ford Escape that was going up to 90 mph on a highway in Arizona. One agent tried to perform a PIT maneuver, but the driver slowed down and swerved toward him. A second agent made a second PIT attempt, and again, the driver swerved toward him. Both agents had to perform evasive maneuvers to avoid hitting the driver, who sped off erratically and later shot at agents. The car eventually flipped, and a passenger was thrown 20 yards.
Kim, the assistant chief patrol agent, maintains offensive driving is sometimes necessary.
“If I’m chasing this vehicle and I see that it keeps swerving in and out of traffic, it’s already cut some vehicles off and made them crash … in my mind, they have no regard for human life … they need to be stopped, otherwise if they keep going they’re just going to continue doing that,” Kim said.
Alpert, who reviewed several cases for this analysis, criticized the speeds at which agents were chasing suspects and requesting permission to use offensive driving maneuvers.
“The speeds seem crazy,” he said. “If you’re driving that fast, unless this guy really poses an imminent threat, why would you risk yourself, the public and even the fleeing suspect to a likelihood of a serious consequence, for what?”
A Body on the Road
Before he climbed into the bed of that pickup truck last November, Santiago Ruvalcaba Medina, who was 20 at the time, had tried to enter the United States legally.
In September 2016, with his family, he turned himself in at the Ysleta Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas, to seek asylum. He described how 10 armed men had come to his home earlier that month and taken his two older brothers. Their mangled bodies turned up days later; they had been tortured before they were killed.
Those evaluating his claim checked a box on his application: “There is a significant possibility that the assertions underlying the applicant’s claim could be found credible.”
Eight of his family members, including his mother and younger siblings, were allowed to make their case for asylum and now live in Oklahoma. Ruvalcaba and five relatives — mostly men — were denied and ordered removed without explanation.
Back in México, Ruvalcaba tried to apply for a visa through a middleman but was scammed out of $785. As Christmas neared last year, he longed to be with his mother, who was about to undergo surgery.
“I didn’t have any other way,” he said.
So last November, he took a flight to Tijuana and waited 15 days in an apartment for his smuggler, along with three others who agreed to pay $8,000 each for transport across the border. They joined even more men, and about 20 of them packed into a van with no seats. Their weight sank the vehicle close the ground, which would have been a giveaway to Border Patrol agents that it was filled with human cargo.
So the group split in half. Ruvalcaba was one of 10 who wound up in the pickup truck.
He doesn’t remember the ride. Border Patrol officials said someone reported two trucks had rammed through a gate; agents arrived to find a sideview mirror on the ground. They think the smuggler moved a barrier at the border called a “tank trap” and cut a wire to get through. Agents later spotted the pickup with a missing mirror and chased it.
When the truck flipped, all 10 passengers were ejected. Driver Luis Alberto Virgen, a U.S. citizen, was the only person wearing a seat belt. He was charged with murder because three of the passengers died. He pleaded not guilty.
Ruvalcaba spent 12 days in a coma with a fractured spine and a broken skull. As soon as he could walk and eat again, he was moved from a hospital to a detention center, and later deported.
He lives near Guadalajara, with relatives who know him as a different person. There’s the Ruvalcaba before the accident, who had studied to be a mechanic and taught himself Portuguese. And the one after, who can’t remember the word for “rice.”
When he smiles, if he smiles, only the right corner of his mouth lifts wide enough to reveal braces. The left pulls downward, his cheek flat, paralyzed.
“It’s horrible to see him like this,” said his sister Sandra. “Santi was the happiest kid in the world.”
“Really?” Ruvalcaba asked, not remembering.
The Border Patrol has the power to stem the damage, experts say.
It can reform its pursuit policy, said Gil Kerlikowske, who served as U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner under Obama.
“Clearly the policy needs to be rethought,” he said. “You think about the issues, the injuries, the humanitarian issues, but there is also an incredible cost of medical care and treatment.”
Many agencies urge caution when pursuing vehicles with large numbers of occupants. Sheriff’s deputies in New México’s Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, are not allowed to deploy spike strips when chasing heavily occupied vehicles, including a “van that is known to be transporting passengers.”
“The number of occupants in a car has to be a factor when you chase. … A police pursuit is the most dangerous thing we do,” said Travis Yates, a major with the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Police Department who has taught national pursuit driving courses for more than two decades. “It shocks me the number of people that are innocent, truly innocent, killed in police chases.”
The Border Patrol can use helicopters to track suspects, a widely accepted practice. At least a dozen agencies in border states encourage officers to call in air support so they can avoid car chases.
The Border Patrol’s policy calls for “aerial surveillance and assistance” to be used to the “maximum extent available” during pursuits, yet the ProPublica-Times investigation found Border Patrol agents used helicopters to track cars in only 22 cases from 2015 to 2018. Twice, agents called for helicopters but none were available. In 16 cases, agents called for helicopters only after the fleeing car came to a stop, to track migrants running away on foot.
Kim, the assistant patrol chief in El Centro, said his agents have access to air support only on certain days of the week. “We wish we had air support 24/7,” he said.
Kerlikowske said that while the agency’s Air & Marine Unit can assist during chases, helicopters are used for security reasons beyond catching immigrants here illegally. “Even though CBP has a lot of helicopters and a lot of air support, it isn’t something that would fit into a tactical plan when it comes to vehicle pursuits. One, it’s a very different mission, and two, they’re spread out along thousands of square miles.”
In Arizona, Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier is skeptical that helicopters eliminate the danger. “We’ve seen it time and time again: no ground units following, my aircraft is way high in the area. … The bad guy does not say, ‘I guess I got away.’ They continue driving like a complete idiot for a while assuming they are still pursued.”
The Border Patrol can introduce more technological solutions. Alpert advocates StarChase, a GPS tag that shoots out to attach to a fleeing car, allowing officers to fall back and track it remotely. Many police departments use it, including the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which pursues heavily occupied vehicles along the border.
On a recent visit by reporters to the El Centro sector on the California border, agents demonstrated a new device called the Grappler. It sits on the front bumper of a Border Patrol truck and fires out cable to tie up the back tires of a fleeing vehicle.
In November, an agent deployed the Grappler and successfully stopped a Chrysler PT Cruiser carrying six people. The Border Patrol is the first U.S. law enforcement agency to deploy the Grappler in the field as part of a pilot program rolled out in September.
Agents said it was a safer option for them than spike strips, because it doesn’t require agents to stand on the road. Independent experts interviewed for this story said the device has not been used enough in the field to assess its safety for those in the pursued car.
Representatives for both StarChase and the Grappler said the devices cost as much as $5,000 to mount to each vehicle.
The other men in the pickup truck that November remember Jorge Luis Garcia Isordia as the most nervous among them. He was 22, stick-thin and wore glasses, and when the smuggler first loaded them into a van, he vomited.
As he waited to cross the border, he texted with his girlfriend, Ana Rosa Gonzalez Ponce, whose six children knew him as their father. The two worked together, along with her 16-year-old and 14-year-old daughters, near the entrance of town as ladrilleros, making bricks for roofs and placing them into an oven to harden.
They had lived together for more than a year, down an alleyway that reeks of urine, in a ramshackle house where the bed sits feet from the fridge.
García made $50 a week, working Monday through Saturday. Over the past year, the two had lost money on a scam promising work visas in Florida and had fallen into debt. He had left in hopes of making their money back.
“He told me he wanted to get ahead, that it was impossible here,” she recalled. “I said if he wanted to leave, I would support him.”
He texted her a photo at the beach in Tijuana as he waited for his ride. On Nov. 30, she sent him a message: “My love, if you’re OK, just answer me.”
In Acatic one afternoon in February, Gonzalez Ponce stood at his grave and thought about money. The debt, which now includes the trip that killed García, has climbed to $10,000. Work yields barely enough to eat.
“How am I going to pay?” she asked.
She shared what she’d been thinking.
That it might be time to cross the border herself.
Kavitha Surana is a senior reporting fellow at ProPublica, covering immigration. Brittny Mejia is a reporter on the Los Angeles Times’ Metro desk covering breaking news and stories on immigration and race. James Queally writes about crime and policing in Southern California for the Los Angeles Times. ProPublica computational journalist Jeff Kao, independent journalist Joanne Faryon and ICFJ fellows Xenia Beatriz González Oliva and Daniel Villatoro García contributed to this report. This story was co-published The Los Angeles Times. Article and photos reproduced with permission by ProPublica, propublica.org.
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