It was hours before sunrise, hours before his girlfriend and 6-year-old daughter, Athena, would climb out of bed, hours before his mother would open the doors to La Bonita Bakery. Acosta knew this road. For the past 10 years, he’d driven the 113 miles from Las Cruces to Silver City nearly every day to work with his mother, Sandra Calderon, helping to expand her business, adding a convenience store stocked with cold drinks, packaged snacks and fresh tacos.
A few minutes after 4 a.m., he neared the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint just west of Las Cruces. And from that point, everything that’s known about the final moments of Angel Acosta — 27-year-old father, son, brother, U.S. citizen and New Mexico businessman — has to be attributed to New Mexico State Police, the Doña Ana County Fire and Emergency Services Department and a terse statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The collision happened so fast, according to CBP’s statement, that Acosta may never have seen the 2010 Honda Pilot hurtling toward him. Neither driver appeared to hit the brakes.
Border Patrol agents were chasing Victor Mendoza, a 28-year-old Las Cruces resident, who a few minutes earlier had pulled off the road near the agency’s checkpoint. Mendoza was a product of Las Cruces and since graduating high school had traveled the Southwest, playing the trumpet with mariachi bands.
State Police records show that Mendoza, who may have been intoxicated at the time, sat in his car a few minutes before turning around and driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic on I-10. Two Border Patrol agents gave chase. As they crossed the median to catch up with him, their vehicle got stuck in the desert scrub, police records say. They activated the siren to get Mendoza’s attention, but he continued to barrel east, slamming into Acosta’s vehicle head on and sending it careening onto the shoulder. Mendoza died instantly.
Acosta’s 2021 Chevy pickup burst into flames; his body incinerated. The $40,000 in cash burned with him. The agents reported that they were “unable to render aid or remove” him before calling for help.
High-speed chases, higher death tolls
In the past five years, 13 people in southern New Mexico have died in a Border Patrol car chase. That’s a huge uptick from the previous five years — in which no such deaths occurred, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition, a San Diego-based organization of 60 border communities in California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico.
Within the same time period, those four states saw at least 76 fatalities tied to high-speed chases instigated by Border Patrol agents. The chases have killed migrants, bystanders and U.S. citizens all along the U.S.-Mexico border.
According to an SBCC report, Border Patrol’s chases are more deadly than its shootings: Between 2010 and 2022, 38 percent of people killed in an encounter with immigration agents died from a car chase, car accident or vehicle explosion. By comparison, fatal shootings attributed to the Border Patrol made up just 28 percent of violent deaths.
The chases might be instigated to apprehend undocumented immigrants, but they can end up hurting – and killing – U.S. citizens, as well. According to a review of the agency’s own published statements, 23 percent of crash fatalities in New Mexico involve U.S. citizens; nationally, that rate is at least 10 percent. It is likely that these statistics are a significant undercount, since many law enforcement reports don’t reveal the victim’s nationality.
The Border Patrol declined to answer questions from Searchlight New Mexico.
Police car chases kill someone almost daily
In recent years, high-speed law enforcement chases have come under increasing scrutiny. A 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that police car chases kill nearly one person every day across the country. National advocacy groups, such as the California-based Pursuit Safety, maintain that car chases should be a last resort — taken only “when there is no other way” to prevent deaths or injuries.
Law enforcement agencies across the country have taken heed, with many backing away from the practice altogether. Numerous police departments in New Mexico — from Las Cruces to Albuquerque — have joined the trend. Las Cruces’ policy, for example, states that pursuits “are not authorized” when the chase itself “endangers life more than the escape of the person pursued.”
Critics say the CBP policy is far less stringent and gives a lot of leeway to the individual agent’s discretion.
Its 19-page 2021 policy on car chases was made public — with partial redactions — for the first time only last year. It states that agents may pursue only when they believe the fleeing suspect is more dangerous than the high-speed chase itself.
“They have a lot of room to play in there to justify pursuits that we know put people at tremendous risk,” said Rebecca Sheff, an American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico senior staff attorney.
Dennis Kenney, a professor at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has studied police pursuits for decades and is regarded as one of the subject’s leading experts. He said policies that defer to an officer’s judgment are “old-style,” reminiscent of the policing of the 1980s and 1990s.
Officers aren’t always well-suited to make snap decisions in the field, he said, in part because of the adrenaline that comes with chasing a suspect. Good pursuit policies don’t rely solely on an officer’s discretion, but give a supervisor the authority to call off a pursuit, he said.
“Only a few things can happen in a high-speed chase,” said Kenney, himself a former police officer. “And most of them are bad.”
Pursuit expert Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina, has for years called for better-defined policies. In the 1990s, the Justice Department began scrutinizing high-speed car chases and paraphrased one of Alpert’s reports by concluding that a car “is the deadliest weapon in the police arsenal.”
Several recent cases bear that out.
In July, for example, Gloria I. Chavez, the recently departed head of the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, announced on Twitter that agents happened to “arrive on-scene” of an accident in Santa Teresa, N.M., about a dozen miles from El Paso. The agents called for medical aid immediately, she reported.
But as new details emerged, the story grew more complicated. The vehicle was actually fleeing the Border Patrol, police in Sunland Park said. The agency later said it had used an unmarked vehicle to chase a Chevy Tahoe full of undocumented migrants; it then confirmed that two Mexican citizens died on the scene, after being trapped underneath the vehicle. Ten others were taken to hospitals in El Paso.
The ACLU protested the July incident as “extremely disturbing” in a letter to CBP. A pursuit like this “puts not only the occupants of the vehicle at risk, but also poses great danger to the general public,” the letter stated, adding that the crash appeared to have happened in a residential area. “There have already been 17 deaths this year due to Border Patrol vehicle pursuits, while there were 23 last year — an 11-fold increase since 2019. This incident again highlights that it is urgent for CBP to revise its vehicle pursuit policy to prioritize public safety.”
Among other recent cases:
- On April 29, 2021, Border Patrol agents were patrolling around Kingsville, Tex., near the Gulf of Mexico, when they ran over two migrants who were “burrowed” in “extremely thick and tall grass,” killing one.
- On Aug. 7, 2021, a Border Patrol agent on I-10 used a “vehicle immobilization device” on a fleeing Jeep Liberty near Picacho Peak, a popular Arizona hiking spot between Tucson and Phoenix. The Jeep lost control, crossed the median into oncoming traffic and collided with a tractor trailer. Three people were killed and eight were taken to hospitals.
- On Sept. 18, 2021, Border Patrol agents in New Mexico reported an SUV that skirted a checkpoint near Deming. An agent gave chase, but the SUV did not stop and eventually lost control, launching several passengers out of it and catching fire. Nine people were airlifted to hospitals and two died.
Mounting pressure on Border Patrol
In February, the federal Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties announced it was investigating allegations that Border Patrol agents engage in “unwarranted” high-speed chases. The agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, did not answer multiple requests for comment regarding the investigation’s status.
In May, Chris Magnus, CBP’s newly appointed commissioner, reportedly said he was working on a new, safer pursuit policy.
But there has been little evidence of progress. Last month, six members of Congress from California, Arizona, Texas and Illinois sent a letter to Magnus, calling the number of dangerous Border Patrol car chases “untenable.”
“Though these deadly crashes are currently under investigation, we cannot ignore these incidents,” the letter read. “Agent-involved vehicle pursuits have killed 44 people in just the last two years, U.S. citizens and migrants alike, some of which were innocent bystanders and drivers.”
It’s common in border communities for Border Patrol agents to respond to calls that often have little or nothing to do with immigration. For example, in Las Cruces, which is both New Mexico’s second-largest city and some 50 miles from the border, there can be a lot of overlap between city police and their federal counterparts. The case of Mendoza and Acosta is such an example.
And it’s why Sandra Calderon, Acosta’s mother, said her heart sank when he didn’t check in with family members for hours after leaving home. She also worried about the fact that he was traveling with so much cash.
“I was thinking, holy shit, if he’s not answering … he’s been stopped by Border Patrol with $40,000 cash,” she recalled on a recent evening, speaking from her bakery’s back office.
She said she wasn’t informed about the accident until 12:35 p.m., some eight hours after the fact. Even then, she said, she wasn’t told that he had died.
“We didn’t know where he was,” Calderon said. “And we didn’t know who to contact to let us know.”
Little recourse for victims
Despite the rise in deaths, few cases have resulted in visible consequences for Border Patrol agents. Agents are rarely terminated for misconduct, an internal CBP report published last year shows. Of 1,721 disciplinary actions in 2020, only 29 resulted in removal. The vast majority — nearly 1,600 — came in the form of counseling, reprimands or “non-adverse” suspensions.
Critics say that victims’ families have little to no recourse.
After Acosta was killed, the family looked into suing, according to his stepfather, Troy Miller. They spoke to several attorneys who all gave the same advice: “Pretty much, you can’t do anything,” Miller said.
A June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court alarmed some immigration attorneys, making them question whether such lawsuits have any chance in the future. In Egbert v. Boule, the majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, gave federal agents near-total immunity from civil lawsuits. The dissenting opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor was scathing in its conclusion: “CBP agents are now absolutely immunized from liability,” she wrote, “no matter how egregious the misconduct or resultant injury.”
Many attorneys who take on these cases are affiliated with large civil rights groups, such as the ACLU. Even then, cases can be hard to win, given their remote nature.
“It’s a he-said-she-said and there’s no witnesses,” said Irasema Coronado, director of Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies. “If there is a witness, it’s another Border Patrol agent.”
Suing federal immigration officers can be much more difficult than suing city police officers, Sheff agreed, because witnesses are often non-citizens who are detained or deported before an attorney can get to them.
“CBP essentially controls access to witnesses,” she said.
The Border Patrol for years has relied on internal investigators to assess and collect evidence for cases like fatal vehicle pursuits. When it comes to these “critical incident teams,” there’s no shortage of critics.
For decades, the secretive teams have internally investigated use-of-force allegations, allowing the agency to sweep abuse under the rug, critics say. In May, Magnus announced he was disbanding the teams and giving their duties to the Office of Professional Responsibility, a division within CBP that oversees problems related to corruption, misconduct and mismanagement.
‘Fly high, Angel’
Back in Silver City, Acosta’s family is processing their grief. Inside La Bonita Bakery, the walls are decorated with tributes (“Fly high, Angel”) and symbols of their Catholic faith: crosses, praying hands, saints. They’ve installed a descanso — a roadside cross with wings — near the scene of his fiery death.
“Angel. Apr. 3 1995. Apr. 15 2022. Te amo hasta la luna el sol y pa’tras.”
I love you to the moon, the sun and back.
His mother wears a cross around her neck that’s etched with her son’s name. She has a new tattoo on her right forearm, a pair of praying hands holding a rosary behind a bright red rose. “Fly High Angel Acosta,” the caption reads. The ink under the top layer of her skin is infused with his ashes.