AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The white Honda Civic sped down Highway 57, a rural two-lane corridor that reaches the U.S.-Mexico border, after a Texas sheriff’s deputy tried pulling over the car and gave chase when it didn’t stop.
High-speed pursuits of migrants and suspected smugglers have become routine in Texas. But Wednesday’s chase came to one of the deadliest endings in recent years: a head-on crash that killed eight people, including Honduran citizens and two residents of Georgia.
The mangled wreckage at the scene near La Pryor, a small town about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of San Antonio, laid bare the danger of high-speed pursuits undertaken by an ever-expanding presence of law enforcement at the border. Texas alone has stationed hundreds of additional troopers the past two years in the name of curbing the flow of migrants and drugs.
The crash has also renewed criticism that the pursuits are too fast and have gone on for too long despite chases that have ended in injuries or death. In January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a new policy for vehicle pursuits with an eye toward increasing safety.
For some, changes haven’t spread wide enough.
“They can mitigate getting into these issues and these high-speed chases that end in death,” said David Stout, a county commissioner in El Paso.
Stout said Texas troopers have engaged in roughly 500 high-speed pursuits in his border county alone this year, more than half of which exceeded speeds of 100 mph (160 kph).
Authorities had still not released identities of the victims Thursday, including the 21-year-old driver of the Civic and five passengers in the vehicle. The Civic collided with a Chevrolet Equinox, which caught fire with a man and woman inside. Both were killed.
It is not clear the top speeds the cars reached during the pursuit, which began when a Zavala County sheriff’s deputy tried pulling the Civic over around dawn. The sheriff’s office did not comment Thursday beyond providing a brief report.
The crash is under investigation by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s sprawling border mission known as Operation Lone Star. The department did not immediately provide figures on high-speed pursuits. But Director Steve McCraw did not dispute that his own troopers have been involved in thousands of chases the past two years.
A pursuit can be called off, McCraw said, if “it becomes an unreasonable risk to the public or yourself.” He said troopers will also back off if police aircraft arrive to keep an eye on the fleeing vehicle.
“The problem with that is when we’ve done that, they continue to drive fast,” McCraw said in an interview Thursday. “So once the chase is on, it’s not like they just slow down.”
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union and another civil rights group sent a complaint to the U.S. Justice Department over high-speed pursuits along the Texas border. Citing news reports, the groups said they had counted 30 deaths and 71 injuries in chases involving state troopers during the first 16 months of Abbott’s border mission.
Pedro Rios, a director of the American Friends Service Committee, has studied the policies of federal agents involved in vehicle pursuits and believes the chases should be forbidden altogether.
“What we’ve called on is for vehicle pursuits to end because the risk to the safety of not only migrants, but also the officers or the agents and other bystanders, such as in this case, could be put in jeopardy,” he said.
The Texas crash marked the highest death toll in a crash involving migrants since 13 people died in a collision in remote Holtville, California, in March 2021. Another chase by local police last year near the Texas border also ended in the deaths of four migrants.
McCraw said he has never fired a trooper over their actions during a pursuit.
“I’m sure that we’ve had some coaching or counseling,” he said. “That just happens by nature because it’s a fine line between how fast you drive. And sometimes it may not be a risk to the public as much as it’s risk to the trooper driving 153 miles an hour down the roadway.”
In El Paso, Stout said high-speed pursuits this year have resulted in more than 60 accidents. He recalled one chase that ended with a car crashing on a bridge. When two migrants inside the car got out, Stout said, they fell to their deaths.
“That really sticks out in my mind when I think about these things,” he said.
Gonzalez reported from McAllen, Texas. Associated Press reporters Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas contributed to this report.