by René Kladzyk, El Paso Matters
EL PASO -- Two eyewitness accounts of the deadly car crash in Downtown El Paso conflict with what law enforcement officials have said about the events prior to the accident that killed seven and left three with serious injuries.
Border Patrol officials have said agents initially pursued a vehicle believed to be transporting undocumented immigrants, but broke off the chase after it reached dangerously high speeds heading into Downtown El Paso. They said the driver who evaded agents bears sole responsibility for the deaths.
Wilmer Gomez Gomez of Guatemala was one of 10 people in the vehicle that violently struck a trailer on Paisano Avenue at about 2:15 a.m. on June 25. Twenty-five-year-old Gomez, 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, a Border Patrol vehicle was nearby, blocking the gray Chevrolet Cruze. Gomez said that the Border Patrol vehicle moved out of the way, letting the Cruze pass, before it and other Border Patrol vehicles began chasing them. Gomez said he and a group of five others were picked up by the car; Border Patrol officials said three undocumented immigrants were in the vehicle, but police on Wednesday said five of the people in the vehicle were Guatemalans.
Friends of Liliana Jiménez, who died in the fatal crash on Paisano June 25, console each other as they gather at the site of the accident to remember their friend. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)
A witness at the crash scene also said he saw multiple Border Patrol vehicles pursuing the Chevy Cruze before it crashed. The witness, who asked not to be identified, works near the scene of the crash and was outside smoking a cigarette with two other people when the collision occurred.
The witness decided to speak out after hearing that the Border Patrol denied it was in pursuit of the vehicle. “It looked like they were in pursuit. We saw the lights when they were coming down Paisano right behind the car,” he said.
The witness claimed that he and his two coworkers got to the crash scene within 20 seconds of the accident. He said he saw two Border Patrol vehicles behind the Chevy Cruze going down the hill before it crashed, and by the time he and his coworkers arrived at the scene, there were already eight to 10 more Border Patrol vehicles there.
He observed a Border Patrol agent questioning one of the crash survivors about his immigration status while the survivor was badly injured and trapped in the vehicle. “He was screaming for help. He was telling the Border Patrol agent not to let him die and to give him help. All of the Border Patrol agents were trying to do as much as they (could). But one of them asked him, ‘Are you a U.S. citizen? Do you have papers?’”
The witness said he was ordered to leave the scene of the crash shortly afterwards.
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.
Border Patrol changes policy on Paisano pursuits
Border Patrol officials have released prepared statements about the crash, including one on June 27 from Gloria Chavez, the chief patrol agent for the El Paso sector. She said Border Patrol agents from the Santa Teresa station attempted to stop the car in Sunland Park but it sped away heading east, toward El Paso. Agents from the El Paso station saw the vehicle a short time later and began pursuit with lights and sirens.
UPDATE: June 27, 2020 See FACTS regarding the human smuggling event. USBP El Paso has confirmed that 3 of the 10 occupants in the car were illegal aliens (2 Mexico; 1 Guatemala). The investigation into the other occupants is ongoing; updates will be provided when appropriate. pic.twitter.com/XO3XS07pTZ
— Gloria I. Chavez (@USBPChiefEPT) June 27, 2020
"A Border Patrol supervisor monitoring the radio terminated the pursuit almost as soon as it began. Due to the high rate of speed of the suspect vehicle and the road conditions, Border Patrol agents complied with the order, turned off emergency lights and sirens and then lost view of the vehicle. Agents later came upon the vehicle, which had crashed into a parked trailer,” Chavez said in the statement.
The crash was in the same spot as a fatal wreck in January during a Border Patrol chase.
When asked if the Border Patrol had altered pursuit policies on Paisano as a result of the June 25 crash, Agent George Gomez said in a June 27 email to El Paso Matters, “in regards to new policy or guidelines, we are currently unaware of Headquarters implementing new procedures.”
However, El Paso Matters obtained a copy of an internal memo sent on June 25, hours after the wreck, ordering 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.)
When asked about discrepancies between the memo and his earlier statement saying he was unaware of changes to pursuit policy on Paisano, Gomez said in an email on June 30, “CBP does not comment on leaked documents.”
Border Patrol agents speak out
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.
Who was in the vehicle
A press release by the El Paso Police Department on June 26 indicated that four of the people who died in the crash were El Paso residents, including the driver, an 18 year old male. Of the remaining three deceased, one was a Mexican national, and two were not identified by nationality.
Friends of the victims in the June 25 fatal accident gather at the crash site on Paisano to mourn on Monday evening. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)
El Paso police issued a new release on Wednesday that identified eight of the 10 people in the vehicle and provided different nationality information than the original release. "Any discrepancies in names and/or nationalities listed on the initial release are due to fraudulent identification(s) found on the bodies of the deceased, or information provided by the injured," the release said.
The driver was identified as Gustavo Cervantes, 18, of El Paso, who was killed in the crash. Others killed were identified as Yadira Barrera, 16, of El Paso; Liliana Jimenez, 16, of El Paso; an unidentified 19-year-old from El Paso who family members has said is Jorge Manuel Acosta; Oscar Miguel Garcia-Bran, 21, of Guatemala; Elivira Tot Chiroy, 19, of Guatemala; and Santos Porfirio Garcia, 32, of Guatemala.
The injured who survived the crash were identified as Wilmer Gomez Gomez, 25, of Guatemala; Omar Misael Coyoy of Guatemala; and a 16-year old from Ciudad Juarez who has not been identified.
Yvette Acosta, the mother of Jorge Acosta, said he was the type of person who did not like getting into trouble. In the week leading up to the accident, Jorge had been a little withdrawn because of a separation between him and his child’s mother. He lived with his grandparents and focused on work for a heating and cooling company and providing for his young son, his mother said.
“Whatever they are saying that he was, I don't know about the other people, I don't know them. These are kids that he met and he decided to hang around with them -- why I don’t know, but I do know that my son was not doing things like that (human smuggling) that I am aware of,” Acosta said.
She said her son usually drove himself to and from places, but on the day of the accident his friends picked him up. He told his grandparents he was only going to be gone for a little while.
A Border Patrol agent 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.
Border Patrol pursuit policy
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.”
Elida S. Perez contributed to this story.