WASHINGTON — Angie Simms had been searching for her 25-year-old son for a week, filing a missing persons report and calling anyone who might have seen him when the call came last August. Her son, Erik A. Molix, was in a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where he was tied to his bed, on a ventilator and in an artificial coma.
Mr. Molix had suffered head trauma after the SUV he was driving carrying nine undocumented immigrants rolled into it near Las Cruces, NM, while Border Patrol agents chased him at speeds of up to 73 miles per hour. He died on August 15, nearly two weeks after the crash; even by then, no one from the Border Patrol or any other law enforcement or government agency had contacted his family.
The number of migrants crossing the border illegally has soared, with the border patrol registering the highest number of encounters in more than six decades in the fiscal year ending September 30. With the rise is an increase in the number of deaths and injuries from high-speed pursuits by the Border Patrol, a trend that Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, attributes to an increase in brutal smugglers trying to flee its agents.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, high-speed chases by the Border Patrol resulted in an average of 3.5 deaths per year between 2010 and 2019. In 2020, there were 14 such deaths; in 2021 there were 21, the last at Christmas.
The agency recorded more than 700 “use of force” incidents on or near the southern border in the past fiscal year. Customs and Border Protection does not disclose how many of them are dead or how many high-speed chases take place each year.
Crossing the border or helping people without papers is risky, regardless of the circumstances, and stopping such crossings – and the criminal activity of smugglers – is central to the work of the Border Police. But the rising death toll raises questions about how far the agency should go with pursuits of smugglers and migrants, and when and how officers should conduct high-speed chases.
Customs and Border Protection has yet to explain what happened to her son, Ms. Simms, a fifth-grade teacher in San Diego. She saw a press release issued two weeks after the crash; officials say it is not the agency’s responsibility to explain. She said she understood that officials suspected her son was involved in illegal activities, transporting undocumented immigrants.
“But that doesn’t mean you have to die for it,” she said.
Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, has a policy that states that agents and officers can conduct high-speed chases when they determine “that the benefit of law enforcement and the need to drive in an emergency outweighs against the immediate and potential danger created by such emergency driving.” The ACLU argues that the policy, which the agency first made public last month, gives officers too much latitude in determining the risk to public safety.
In a statement to DailyExpertNews, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security, said that “CBP agents and officers risk their lives every day to keep our communities safe,” the Department of Homeland Security “provides the public with the honest , objective and transparent investigation of incidents of violence to ensure that our highest standards are maintained and enforced.”
But previously unreported documents and details of the crash in which Mr. Molix’s death shed light on what critics say is a disturbing pattern in which Border Patrol is keeping its operations opaque, despite the mounting human toll of aggressive enforcement actions.
A high-speed chase
Early on Aug. 3, a Border Patrol officer spotted an SUV driving slowly just north of Las Cruces with what appeared to be a heavy load, according to a report by the New Mexico State Police Department.
As the SUV swerved to dodge a border checkpoint, on a lonely stretch of road about 70 miles north of the border, the officer and a colleague in a separate car began chasing him. They chased it for about a mile before one of them “snapped into the vehicle and it rolled,” according to local emergency calls. Eight of the ten passengers — migrants from Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — were kicked off the plane. An Ecuadorian man later died.
The New Mexico State Police Department was among those responding to the crash. Body camera footage of a state police officer captured one of the Border Patrol agents and said: “Our critical incident team is coming out. They do all things at the crime scene — well, not at the crime scene, but at the scene of the critical incident.”
The officer said he and his colleague would make statements to the team, who would share it with police.
Critical Incident teams are rarely called by Customs and Border Protection or the Border Patrol. There is no public description of the scope of their jurisdiction.
Luis Miranda, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, said the teams are made up of “highly trained evidence-gathering experts” who collect and process evidence for investigations, including investigations into people smuggling and drug trafficking. He also said the teams are assisting with investigations conducted by the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates claims of officer misconduct and related to internal police affairs.
Another Homeland Security officer, who was authorized to speak to a reporter about the teams on the condition that the officer’s name was not used, confirmed another role they have: collecting evidence that can be used to identify a Protect Border Patrol Officer and “help deal with potential liability issues”, such as a future civil suit.
Andrea Guerrero, who leads a community group in San Diego and has spent the past year investigating critical incident teams and their work, said it was “an outright conflict of interest” for the department charged with investigating possible misconduct by members of the public. the Border Patrol to rely on help from Border Patrol agents in the teams. She has called on Congress to investigate and file a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security.
Customs and border officials said the sector’s critical incident team was only helping El Paso with measurements for a reconstruction of the crash outside Las Cruces; the Office of Professional Responsibility, they said, is investigating the incident. Still, in the days after the crash, a member of the critical incidents team in El Paso contacted state police to obtain the department’s full report for its own administrative review by the border patrol, according to an email sent out. has been released by the state police.
Few public answers
Border patrols resulting in injury or death can be investigated by multiple entities: the FBI, state and local law enforcement, the Inspector General of the Homeland Security Service or the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and the Office of Professional Responsibility , where most such incidents come under review. But the findings on individual cases are rarely disclosed; such studies tend to yield few public details other than total numbers, showing that only a fraction results in any kind of discipline.
An incident in 2010 attracted international attention and calls for change. A 42-year-old Mexican who was caught illegally entering the country died after being tied up, beaten and startled with a taser by Border Patrol agents. The Justice Department declined to investigate, but more than a decade later, the case will go to court this year at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — an apparent first for a person murdered by an American law enforcement officer.
Following the man’s death, the Obama administration made changes to address a series of complaints about excessive use of force against border police officers and bring greater transparency and accountability to customs and border protection. An external assessment of Customs and Border Protection’s use of force policy recommended defining the authority and role of critical incident teams.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit policy and research organization that conducted the external review, said that if his organization had known more about the team’s purpose at the time, it would have raised “red flags.” . But instead of explaining what the teams were doing, the agency removed any mention of them from its use of force policy.
In another question-packed case, a Border Patrol agent in Nogales, Arizona, shot an unarmed undocumented woman, Marisol García Alcántara, in the head last June while sitting in the back seat of a car. A Nogales police report noted that the Border Patrol supervisor at the scene refused to provide information to officers about what had happened leading up to the crash. The report also noted that a critical incident team was on the scene.
Ms. García Alcántara, a mother of three, was taken to a hospital in Tucson, where doctors removed most of the bullet from her head. Three days later, she was discharged and sent to an immigration and customs detention center, where she remained for 22 days before being deported to Mexico. She said she was never interviewed by law enforcement officers; a Customs and Border Protection official said the FBI was investigating.
Arizona Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat representing Tucson, said Ms. García Alcántara’s case raised questions about the “illegal practice” of the critical incident teams who, he said, have no legal clearance and escape oversight. of Congress. Other legislators are also asking for answers.
The answers didn’t come easy for Ms. Simms, who had heard whispers about a car accident and Border Patrol while sitting next to her son in the hospital.
Three days after Mr. Molix died, Mrs. Simms first heard from Customs and Border Patrol. “We wanted to extend our condolences to you and your family,” a researcher texted with the Office of Professional Responsibility. “We also had to see if we could meet with you to sign a medical release form for Mr. Erik Anthony Molix.”
An ACLU attorney, Shaw Drake, has pieced together the details of the crash using police reports, body camera footage and emergency call recordings obtained from public records.
Details of the investigation into what Mr Molix was up to that day remain secret. Customs and Border Protection said that because Mr. While Molix was not in Border Police custody after being hospitalized, he was under no obligation to notify his family of his injuries.