Smugglers ‘own the mountain’ where deadly pursuit started, ex-border chief says

Border Report

Ex-Border Patrol chief recalls daily battle against human traffickers where Mexico, Texas and New Mexico meet

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Victor Manjarrez Jr. recalls two human-smuggling hotspots when he was sector chief of the U.S. Border Patrol in El Paso a decade ago.

One was Downtown El Paso, where the “coyotes” (smugglers) found ways to sort the Rio Grande, a fast-moving irrigation canal next to it, and the border fence that preceded the steel bollard wall.

The other was Sunland Park, a town where a 4,675-foot mountain divides the U.S. and Mexico as the Rio Grande turns north into New Mexico.

“They have a system of guides and spotters on the Mexican side. They can see the road, they can see movement, they known when to go and when to pull back,” Manjarrez said. “They can take out a cellphone and arrange for someone to pick up (the migrants). They own the high-ground.”

Mount Cristo Rey is pictured through the US-Mexico border fence near downtown El Paso, Texas, Sunday, April 8, 2018. (PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)
A giant limestone statue of Jesus Christ stands atop Mount Cristo Rey in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on February 19, 2017, on the US/Mexico border. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Very often those receiving the phone call were American teenagers promised “easy money” by gang members or older relatives. They would drive the migrants to a stash house, a bus station in Downtown El Paso or even drive them up Interstate 10, Manjarrez recalls.

“It’s a real tragedy. They go for the younger kids because they’re easier to take advantage of. They’re more likely to do it for a smaller fee. This is true not just for human smuggling but for narcotics as well,” said the former Border Patrol chief. At the lower end, the drivers get no more than a few hundred dollars per migrant, he said.

That’s why he’s not surprised to learn that federal officials are linking the deaths of seven teenagers and young adults fleeing the Border Patrol to an alleged human smuggling attempt. A total of 10 people were packed into a Chevrolet Cruze that crashed against a parked trailer at the corner of West Paisano and San Antonio Streets in Downtown El Paso. Three survivors remain in the hospital.

Relatives and friends of the seven teens and young adults killed last week while fleeing the Border Patrol have set up a sidewalk memorial at the site of the fatal car crash in El Paso. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Thursday’s crash remains under investigation by the El Paso Police Department. The Office of Professional Responsibility of U.S. Customs and Border Protection is also investigating, as well as the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security.

“All preliminary information collected so far indicates that this was indeed a human smuggling event,” Border Patrol El Paso Sector Chief Agent Gloria Chavez said late Friday. “I cannot stress enough how transnational organizations continue to exploit human beings and manipulate the youth in our communities by recruiting them to be their mules and smugglers.”

Chavez said agents responded to ground sensor activity in Sunland Park, N.M. One of them noticed a suspicious vehicle with numerous passengers in an area known for human smuggling activity.

“The agent immediately relayed the license plate of the vehicle via radio. The vehicle sped away and was later encountered in El Paso, Texas by agents assigned to the El Paso Station who activated emergency lights and sirens to conduct a vehicle stop,” Chavez said.

She alleges the driver ignored the lights and siren and kept driving east on Paisano Drive into El Paso, disregarding speed limits and traffic signals.

Chavez said a Border Patrol supervisor monitoring radio traffic terminated the pursuit “almost as soon as it began.” The pursuing agent complied with the order and turned off the lights and siren, and lost view of the fleeing vehicle, she said.

Other agents came upon the vehicle after it went over a median and crashed into a parked trailer. They called EMS and proceeded to render aid, Chavez said.

A tribute to one of the victims. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Some relatives of the victims questioned the Border Patrol having terminated the chase and the implication that the young men and women killed were involved in human smuggling. El Paso Police said three of the 10 were either Mexican or Guatemalan.

Adriana Acosta, the mother of Jorge Acosta, one of the deceased, said she didn’t know who the foreigners were.

She pointed out that her son was only a passenger in the car. “Whatever happened, he had no control,” the mom said. “He usually liked to take his own car because he didn’t want any trouble.”

She added that Jorge had recently graduated from the El Paso Job Corps center and worked as a cashier at a gas station. “He had a normal job, he wasn’t doing anything questionable,” Adriana Acosta said.

She said she didn’t know the driver of the Chevrolet Cruze beyond him being Jorge’s friend. “He was an adult, he didn’t bring his friends home anymore so I cannot tell you what kind of friends they were,” she said.

The mother added that Jorge is survived by a 1-year-old son Jaden Adriel and that he had recently separated from his girlfriend.

Manjarrez said the involvement of teenagers and young adults in any smuggling activity troubled him when he was in charge of the Border Patrol in El Paso and in Tucson, Ariz.

“That’s why we went out to the schools to talk to the kids, to dissuade them from doing this,” Manjarrez said. “But now, the kids are out of school and that is concerning. I’m surprised it’s not happening more often.”

Friends have set up a GoFundMe account for Jorge Acosta’s funeral expenses. So far, $3,208 of the   $5,000 goal has been raised.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Latest Video

Now Trending on KRQE.com

Video Forecast

Grant's Friday Evening Forecast

Thumbnail for the video titled "Grant's Friday Evening Forecast"
More Weather Video Forecast
Albuquerque Hourly Forecast

Don't Miss

More Don't Miss