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Fugitives’ reckless driving a concern for public safety
An increase in the number of incidents involving the smuggling of undocumented immigrants into South Texas from the Mexican border has put local law enforcement agencies on heightened alert.
The ongoing stream of reports related to the pursuit and capture of those transporting immigrants in cars and pickup trucks between Laredo and San Antonio includes a number of recent incidents in Frio County, where Dilley and Pearsall police, sheriff’s deputies and the US Border Patrol have intercepted smugglers.
At the Dilley PD, Chief Homer Delgado said recently that he and his officers have a number of concerns specific to the safety of the community, among them reckless driving and an apparent lack of protective gear among the many who are being carried illegally through the county.
“The department is concerned about the notable increase in vehicle pursuits that are occurring in our community,” the police chief said on Tuesday, February 9. “Public safety is our top priority and we will continue to carefully balance the need to pursue versus the risk of the pursuit.
“We believe that the human smugglers are to blame for the increase in pursuits,” Chief Delgado added.
In each of the police department’s recent cases, both Chief Delgado and Sgt. Angel Esparza said, none of the undocumented immigrants who were being transported through Frio County had masks or any other form of personal protective equipment (PPE), a concern that the officers say is heightened in the event that the travelers evade capture and mix with community members.
In other incidents, the officers point to the speed at which smugglers have been driving cars and pickup trucks in their efforts to evade capture, both on the interstate and on city streets, as a serious hazard to public safety.
“It’s becoming a daily thing,” Sgt. Esparza said of the frequency of human smuggling interceptions. He added on Monday this week that the Dilley PD concurs with nationwide news media reporting that the spike in the number of cases involving human smuggling this winter may have risen by more than a hundred percent over the same time period last year. “Our primary concern is the safety of our community members.”
Both in Frio and La Salle counties, officers are racking up case reports involving the pursuit and capture of undocumented immigrants and, in some incidents, the arrest and charging of those believed responsible for the transports.
In one such case, Dilley PD Cpl. Adrian Ruiz and Ofc. Emanuel Renteria were on patrol near IH-35 on Sunday evening, January 31, when they spotted the driver of a small sedan committing a traffic violation, an incident that led to a short pursuit and the capture of eight undocumented immigrants shortly after 10:15 p.m.
According to a police report on the case, the driver of the 2001 Kia had failed to use a turn signal near the intersection of Hwy 85 and the IH-35 access road. When the officers attempted to effect a traffic stop, the Kia driver accelerated from them to evade capture but was brought to a halt near Milemarker 90 on the interstate’s east-side access road.
“The driver attempted to hit the railroad tracks, and when the vehicle stopped, nine people came out of the car,” Sgt. Esparza said. “Once again, this is an inside view of human smugglers having complete disregard for the lives they transport and the community they are released in, without any PPE during this pandemic.”
Border Patrol agents took the eight passengers from the Kia into custody, but the Dilley PD has yet to capture or identify the driver, who fled the scene on foot.
Additional assistance in the case was provided by the Highway Patrol and the Frio County Sheriff’s Office.
“This was an example of the types of human smuggling cases that we are seeing on a regular basis,” the sergeant said.
In an earlier interview Chief Delgado said that the Dilley PD is advised when a pursuit by law enforcement from other jurisdictions is approaching the community. In such cases, he said, the Dilley PD will try to avert a local catastrophe by blocking roads leading into residential neighborhoods, thereby preventing fugitives from further endangering the public.
Before dawn on Thursday last week, the Dilley PD was involved in the interception of another vehicle carrying undocumented immigrants, having spotted a Chevrolet pickup truck traveling at a high rate of speed on Hwy 85.
Sgt. Esparza was among those effecting the traffic stop and reported after the incident that the vehicle appeared to contain several passengers on its back seat “who were pretending to be asleep.”
“When asked for their identification, the driver said that his passengers were too tired to provide any ID,” Sgt. Esparza said.
The police department detained six men and one woman who had been traveling in the pickup truck and determined that all were undocumented immigrants. They were remanded into the custody of the US Border Patrol for processing.
“Once again, none of the individuals was wearing any personal protective equipment,” Esparza said, “and they posed a potential health threat to our community.”
Officers are describing a weekend incident involving a high-speed pursuit as likely unrelated to human smuggling. The driver of a late-model sport utility vehicle was arrested on charges of evading arrest or detention after she led officers in a chase between Dilley and Cotulla. Dilley police had tried to effect a traffic stop after they saw the vehicle speeding on Main Street.
“The vehicle traveled south on the IH-35 access road into La Salle County and then went into the Gardendale area, onto a dirt road and made a U-turn,” Esparza said. “The driver then made her way back to the west-side access road, where La Salle County deputies took over the pursuit.”
Sgt. Esparza said he and sheriff’s deputies were still engaged in the pursuit when Texas Highway Patrol troopers deployed tire-deflating spikes in the road, bringing the SUV to a halt near Milemarker 68. The driver was taken into custody by the Dilley PD with assistance from the La Salle deputies.
In La Salle County, the sheriff’s office uses funds from the federal Operation Stonegarden reserve to support the salaries of officers who work additional shifts alongside other agencies in border-area protection. This includes interstate highway patrols which are likely to encounter smugglers of undocumented immigrants as well as illegal contraband.
La Salle County Sheriff’s Investigator Homar Olivarez agrees that local law enforcement agencies are engaged in the interception of human smuggling nearly every day on duty, and in some cases the pursuit of a reckless driver ends in a crash or serious damage to property. Local farmers and ranchers, he said, are all too aware of the increase in smuggling cases because they find their fences demolished by vehicles that have plowed through them in the drivers’ attempts to evade capture.
“On the evening of Tuesday, February 2, we had several incidents that tied up the resources of our department and the Border Patrol, the Highway Patrol and the Encinal Police Department, as well as local constables,” the investigator said. “There were a significant number of incidents in just one night. There is no mistaking that this is a noticeable surge in the practice of human smuggling.”
Olivarez said that while many of the undocumented immigrants taken into custody are Mexican nationals, several are also nationals of Central and South American countries. The majority are young adult males.
“The Encinal Police Department is reporting that its officers were involved in a pursuit in which the fugitive driver reached speeds in excess of a hundred and twenty miles per hour,” Olivarez said. “This is an example of the seriously hazardous lengths the smugglers will go to in their attempts to evade capture.
“We have seen a wide variety of vehicles used in these attempts,” the sheriff’s investigator said. “There are several cases involving pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, but we have also seen high-value sedans used to transport immigrants.”
Last weekend, the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office was engaged in three incidents of human smuggling. Olivarez noted that a common denominator in the case reports is the frequency with which drivers accelerate from traffic stops after committing infractions such as speeding, failing to observe traffic signs or failing to use turn signals.
The sheriff’s office and the US Border Patrol have identified areas of South Texas in which smuggling traffic has intensified, and Olivarez describes these as hotspots worthy of additional patrol. Much of that work, he added, involves officers’ salaries supplemented by Operation Stonegarden.
“We have targeted several hotspots in this county, and we are coordinating with the Highway Patrol, Encinal PD and constables to combat the smuggling trend that is affecting our communities,” the investigator said. “On Saturday evening, February 6, officers stopped a Dodge dually pickup truck whose driver was carrying a handgun. Deputy Oscar Macias stopped the vehicle at the highway entrance ramp at Milemarker 69. There was no pursuit, but six passengers came out of that truck and fled on foot. The driver was detained.
“We are seeing them get more brazen in their attempts at transporting undocumented immigrants into Texas,” Olivarez said. “They continue to flee, putting the public at risk by speeding and possibly releasing people into the community without protective masks.”