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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Allie Morris and Dianne Solis

Death of public safety officer at Texas-Mexico border was preventable, experts say

EAGLE PASS, Texas — The patrol arrived around sunset and entered a stretch of rolling hills dense with cactus, sage and towering carrizo cane. The way into the property was an unlit, narrow dirt road pockmarked with potholes, near a hydroelectric power plant.

Texas Department of Public Safety officers and U.S. Border Patrol agents set off into the night and eventually came across Guatemalan and Mexican migrants who had crossed the border only hours before. A federal agent drove in with a pickup truck and loaded the migrants into the open bed.

Anthony Salas, a DPS special agent, later climbed in and perched on the truck’s roof to keep watch. The other officers walked behind the vehicle as it maneuvered over patchy dirt and then started up an incline.

At the top, the driver took a wide turn and ran off the road into a 3-foot ditch obscured by plants. As the truck tipped over, Salas slid and the vehicle landed on him. Several of the migrants were injured. Salas was airlifted to a San Antonio hospital where he died the next day.

The account of what happened during the state’s multibillion-dollar border security operation is laid out in a DPS investigation that provides the most detail to date about what led to Salas’ death last January.

Independent law enforcement experts who reviewed the investigation at The Dallas Morning News’ request called his death preventable and said the transport method put both agents and migrants at risk.

“There was no need for him to sit up there,” said Victor Manjarrez Jr., a former Border Patrol chief in Tucson and El Paso who now teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso. “In my opinion, this was very preventable.”

The Department of Public Safety declined to answer repeated questions about Salas’ death and whether any policies had changed as a result. A DPS spokesperson said the available information was provided through public records, and “the department has nothing further to add at this time.”

But the department’s six-page investigative report does little to explain why Salas was on the roof or what safety policies are guiding a mission that has sent hundreds of state troopers from across Texas to patrol the state’s 1,254-mile border with Mexico. It also raises questions about the state’s working relationship with the U.S. Border Patrol.

In a statement this week, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, said the incident is still under review by its Office of Professional Responsibility. Following Salas’ death, the Border Patrol spokesperson said the Del Rio Sector Chief issued a memo calling for detainees to be transported “only in the designed passenger transport area of secured vehicles.”

Much of the work on the state-run border mission known as Operation Lone Star plays out in rural counties along the Texas-Mexico border, where private landowners invite state troopers onto their land to arrest migrants for trespassing. The patrols often go out in the dark, making the rugged landscape even more treacherous.

The night of the wreck, the group was conducting an “apprehension mission for Operation Lone Star,” according to the DPS investigative report, and a Border Patrol agent was driving the truck that belonged to the federal agency.

The Border Patrol’s own transport policy calls for the use of seat belts, when possible. Yet a federal agent told DPS officers investigating Salas’ death that “it is a common practice to position on the top of the vehicle” to oversee migrants riding in the bed during transport, according to the department’s report. The DPS investigation noted several times that the crash occurred on private property, where traffic laws do not apply.

If agents had followed U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy “by ensuring everyone was buckled in, if they had waited for an appropriate vehicle like (Border Patrol) vans, he would still be alive,” said Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent of six years and now a critic of the agency. “There was no emergency prior to the incident that may have required them to violate policy. There’s no reason for this man to have died like this.”

It’s not clear whether the Texas Department of Public Safety has developed any specific safety protocols for border transports almost two years into the operation that is unprecedented in size and scope. One night last summer, a pickup truck driving on a border ranch without headlights hit a pothole so hard, five state troopers riding in the open bed were injured, according to public records obtained by the Morning News.

While the department released the undated investigative report into Salas’ accident, it refused to make public other records the Morning News requested, including audio interviews taken with migrants and officers after the crash. The department said it did not have to release the information because the investigation did not result in a criminal conviction and Salas’ family asked that only the written report be made public.

Members of Salas’ family did not agree to comment on the case.

A Freedom of Information Act request to The Border Patrol about the joint operation and the federal investigation is unanswered after four months.

Former Marine stationed in El Paso

Scouring the border for migrants was a far cry from Salas’ regular work for DPS.

The 37-year-old special agent and former Marine was usually stationed in El Paso, where he served on an elite special response team entrusted to handle hostage and active shooter situations, according to an obituary released by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

When Gov. Greg Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, state troopers from across Texas were drafted into working border stints that can last nine days at a time.

Salas was working on a “Special Operations Group Brush Team,” tasked with apprehending migrants, the report said. Despite the high-profile work, the brush teams have no specific written protocols or policies, according to the DPS.

The teams attend an all-terrain vehicle safety course “to familiarize themselves with the safety practices and capabilities of vehicles of that type,” according to the state’s public records division, but the department did not say what other specialized training, if any, they receive.

Operation Lone Star “is a continuation of DPS’s overall law enforcement mission,” the agency’s assistant general counsel ML Calcote said on Jan. 20 in response to a public records request. “Therefore, the same policies, procedures, training, and other guidelines that apply statewide also apply to OLS.”

The night of the wreck on Jan. 21, 2022, Salas and two other DPS officers teamed up with a Border Patrol Tactical Unit for an Operation Lone Star mission, according to the DPS report. Shortly after the shift began at 4 p.m, the group set out for a ranch in rural Maverick County, a two-hour drive southwest of San Antonio, where a group of migrants had been spotted on camera.

It’s normal for the agencies to work together, the DPS report said, because the Border Patrol agents have “extensive knowledge concerning the area of the operation.”

After loading the migrants into an unmarked Chevy Silverado, some Border Patrol agents rode on the tailgate to catch a ride closer to their vehicles, the report said. Once those agents got off, Salas moved from his seat inside the truck’s cab to the open bed.

Border Patrol agents interviewed for the investigation, whose names were redacted from the report, disagreed on where exactly Salas positioned himself, but investigators said evidence suggested he sat on the edge of the roof.

Decreased visibility

The DPS investigators recreated what happened next in their own vehicles, according to the report, and found that as the Border Patrol agent drove up a hill, the pitch of the truck would have caused him to lose sight of the road. The report blamed the crash on poor visibility, noting foliage concealed the deep ditch and the driver was unfamiliar with the location.

Investigators determined the driver wasn’t using a cellphone at the time of the crash. The report said Salas’ position on the vehicle “increased the risk of falling,” but it does not delve into why he was there in the first place.

Manjarrez, the former Border Patrol chief, called the undated, six-page report “thin” and said it left key questions unanswered.

For example, in the seconds before the rollover the investigators’ analysis concluded the truck had been traveling 6 to 8 mph. However, in interviews, the migrants all agreed the Border Patrol agent had been driving too fast, the DPS report said.

The report does not explain why the truck driven by the Border Patrol agent was unmarked, a vehicle typically used for very specific undercover operations, according to a former CBP official.

The state’s account also does not say whether the driver suffered injuries or what happened to the migrants, four of whom were taken to the hospital after the wreck, according to an incident report by the Maverick County Sheriff Office. It’s not clear whether the migrants had been handcuffed at the time of the rollover.

‘Flew out of the truck bed’

A spokeswoman for the Guatemalan Interior Ministry wouldn’t provide the migrants’ names but said in a written statement they “flew out of the truck bed” during the accident.

Afterward, the five Guatemalans were met at a Border Patrol office by a consular official, who unsuccessfully tried to get them passage into the U.S. The migrants, the spokeswoman said, were then sent back to Mexico, as is common under a pandemic-era policy known as Title 42.

There’s no record they were arrested on state trespassing charges.

The Mexican Consulate hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment over more than four months.

After being presented with the department’s findings, the Maverick County district attorney declined to press charges. “It was a tragic accident,” said Maverick County District Attorney Roberto Serna. “There was nothing criminal that they could determine.”

Salas’ death has drawn little public scrutiny from lawmakers or other top officials.

At a campaign event shortly after Salas’ death, Abbott declared the migrants the team was after had been transporting drugs, according to reporting by News 4 in San Antonio. In a statement provided to the Morning News, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said: “there were no indications the undocumented migrants in this case were involved in drug smuggling on the date of this incident.”

Abbott did not respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., a Democrat who represents Maverick County where the rollover occurred, said in a written statement that “whether it be vehicle accidents involving migrants with regard to the loss of Special Agent Salas or an attempted water rescue with regard to the loss of Spc. Bishop Evans, the methods in which many migrants are coming continuously put the lives of our law enforcement officers and National Guard members in danger.”

Morales was referring to Evans, a 22-year-old with the Texas National Guard, who drowned in April 2022 when he tried to rescue migrants struggling with the currents of the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass.

A family left behind

Anthony Salas was a Pittsburgh Steelers devotee and a fan of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, and DC and Marvel comic books, according to an official DPS obituary.

He is survived by a wife, two daughters and a son. His wife didn’t respond to inquiries, and his mother declined to comment for this story in January.

A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $55,000 for the family, exceeding the $10,000 goal. An elaborate funeral at an El Paso Catholic church drew long lines of Border Patrol agents in green uniforms and DPS agents in tan uniforms with their signature cowboy hats. Among them was the head of DPS, Steve McCraw. Those in uniform saluted as the flag-draped casket was rolled into the church archway and bagpipes played.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick presented Salas’ widow with the state flag. White doves flew into the sky outside the church as part of services.

In Eagle Pass, no crosses or plastic flowers mark the mesquite-shaded site of the accident.

Rene Herrera, a Maverick County resident, recalls the January evening when five ambulances barreled past his home near the formidable hydro plant, built in 1932 just off the Rio Grande.

Each ambulance carried an injured person: Salas and four migrants.

Immigration is overwhelming and risky for everyone, Herrera said, from migrants making the journey to law enforcement trying to stop them.

“Some questions are kind of hard to answer,” said Herrera, who visited the accident site the day after the crash. “Most (migrants) say ‘I am just here for a better living.’... In the long run, we are in it together.”

Potential lessons

Questions remain about what lessons and policy adjustments are needed to prevent such tragic accidents.

Better joint operational training would help between federal and state agencies, said James Wong, former deputy assistant commissioner of internal affairs for Customs and Border Protection and a former Louisiana state trooper. Wong added he was impressed that state investigators did a reenactment of the accident and analyzed technical issues.

“This may be a valuable lesson learned from this unfortunate incident,” said Wong, who reviewed the Texas investigative report and looked at photos from news coverage. “You just can’t throw people at the border situation because it is unique.”

One policy change could severely limit the use of pickup trucks in transport, Wong said. Migrants can be held at a location until a proper Border Patrol transport vehicle, such as a van with secure doors, arrives at the location, he said.

“We’re talking about the safety not only of the officers but of the detainees, too,” he said. “They’re lucky none of the detainees got killed.”

The Customs and Border Protection transport and detention standards say using an “unsecured vehicle to transport detainees should be avoided; however, operational circumstances may require officers/agents to use an unsecured vehicle to transport a detainee.”

An unsecured transport vehicle is defined by the agency as lacking security measures that separate detainees from officers and limit detainees’ escape. The pickup truck used in the Eagle Pass accident didn’t fit that definition.

Wong said using an unsecured vehicle was very rare during his tenure and occurred only for certain undercover operations such as with a cooperating individual in an investigation. Customs and Border Protection, with about 65,000 employees, is the nation’s largest law enforcement agency.

Since Salas’ death, there has been at least one accident involving DPS troopers working the border mission in Maverick County, according to an incident synopsis obtained by the Morning News through a public records request.

A Texas National Guard member was driving a pickup truck at night with five state troopers in the bed when it hit a large pothole, “causing the vehicle to bounce abruptly, making the occupants jump and lose their seating.” All troopers in the bed suffered minor injuries, the report said, including bruising, redness and limb pain.

Texas National Guard members riding inside the cab said they had been driving no more than 10 mph. Troopers involved recalled the vehicle going much faster, at least 35 mph when it hit the pothole. The vehicle’s lights had been turned off so the truck could move stealthily.

Jenn Budd, the former Border Patrol agent, said more safety precautions must be placed in all missions, including joint ones like that of Operation Lone Star.

“Most certainly, they should not be putting people in the back of an open bed and driving them down those dangerous roads,” Budd said. “They’re dangerous roads (and) they should not be carrying anyone in the vehicle that does not have a seat belt.”


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