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Mexican Official Condemns Use of Spike Strips in Border Chases

Consul general accuses state and federal law enforcement agencies of 'gross negligence' after two men are killed in a pursuit Sunday.

March 11, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The Mexican Consulate used harsh language Monday to criticize U.S. law enforcement agencies for their high-speed pursuits of vehicles carrying suspected illegal immigrants, after a chase Sunday ended with two people dead and 20 injured.

Consul General Rodulfo Figueroa accused the California Highway Patrol and the U.S. Border Patrol of "gross negligence" for using spike strips in pursuits that have reached speeds of nearly 100 mph.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know what the consequences are going to be, even if they don't hit the spikes," Figueroa said Monday. "This is not the first time that something of this sort has happened."

Sunday's crash occurred when a Chevrolet pickup truck swerved to miss a CHP spike strip, lost control and rolled over several times, ejecting most of the 22 occupants onto Interstate 8. The driver and one passenger, both men, died instantly. The other passengers -- five women, 14 men and a 9-year-old boy -- were taken to local hospitals. Two people remained in critical condition Monday, officials said.

CHP Assistant Chief Steven Lykins insists that the accident was caused by the driver's attempt to avoid the spike strip -- not the strip itself. But he acknowledged Monday that if the officers had known there were so many people in the truck, making it unstable, they probably would not have made the decision to use the spike strip. They thought there were only three or four undocumented immigrants inside, Lykins said.

"That would have weighed very heavily on that decision," he said. "Both the officer and the supervisor ... had to make a decision based on the facts presented to them and neither of them knew that there were 22 people in that truck."

The CHP and Border Patrol officials defended their policies Monday, saying that they believe they are doing everything they can to enforce the laws and conduct pursuits safely. Both agencies have similar policies that instruct officers to stop pursuits when the risk of continuing outweighs the danger of letting the driver escape. But even after an officer pulls back, the agency can still set up a spike strip.

The crash Sunday night was the latest in a series of accidents involving suspected smuggling of illegal immigrants that have left more than a dozen people dead in the past two years. In January, three women were killed and 12 people were injured when a pickup truck ran over a spike strip and then crashed into a guardrail. Last June, a van full of undocumented immigrants was traveling the wrong way in an attempt to evade a Border Patrol checkpoint when it struck four oncoming vehicles, killing six and injuring 16.

Law enforcement agencies have long considered spike strips a popular way to end high-speed chases because they are designed to deflate tires slowly and make it difficult to drive. But critics in San Diego and Imperial County say the strips are dangerous in border pursuits because the trucks used to transport illegal immigrants are often overloaded with people and are likely to roll over.

"Lessons are just not learned and the death toll keeps on rising," said Claudia Smith, border project director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

She is lobbying immigration officials and politicians to take a closer look at high-speed chases of cars loaded with suspected illegal border crossers. And on Wednesday, Smith and others plan to hold a candlelight vigil in downtown San Diego to protest the pursuit policies.

Figueroa of the Mexican Consulate said that he has also urged CHP and Border Patrol authorities to reconsider their policies regarding high-speed pursuits and spike strips, but that both agencies have been unwilling to make any changes. Figueroa said he recognizes that the smugglers are breaking the law but added, "There must be a better way to stop them, deport them and arrest them instead of pursuing them at 100 mph."

Figueroa said his staff was notified shortly after the accident and spent most of the night at the hospitals with the injured.

Border Patrol spokesman Raleigh Leonard said agencies along the border are seeing a different breed of smugglers who are "very resourceful, if not ruthless." Leonard noted that some drivers purposely travel the wrong way on a highway to avoid checkpoints and agents or fill their tires with silicon to prevent their tires from deflating.

The Border Patrol is trying to focus on the front end, he said, by educating prospective immigrants about the dangers of putting their lives in the hands of smugglers. "The deaths are senseless," he said. "It's baffling that this truck was even loaded up with 22 people ... and that they would even think that would be safe."

The pursuit began just after 5 p.m. Sunday, when El Centro Border Patrol agents spotted a stolen 1998 Chevrolet pickup near the Mexican border in Imperial County. They began following the truck along westbound Interstate 8 and then notified the CHP, which took over the pursuit about 25 minutes later.

When a CHP officer turned on its lights and attempted to stop the pickup, the driver sped up to as fast as 95 mph and used the center divider to pass slower cars, officers said. At one point, the truck was westbound in the eastbound lanes of the interstate.

The CHP said it ended its ground pursuit when a San Diego County sheriff's helicopter got into position overhead. But officers set up spike strips farther down the highway. The truck swerved around two sets of spike strips, but lost control when it tried to avoid a third, which was set up about five miles east of El Cajon.

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