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Report Reveals High-Speed Chases from Greg Abbott’s Ineffective and Costly Border Operation Have Killed At Least 74 People, Including a Seven-Year-Old Girl

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Civil rights organizations said in a complaint last summer that at least 30 people, including a number of bystanders, had been killed as a result of often unnecessary high-speed chases stemming from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s multi-billion dollar Operation Lone Star (OLS) scheme. In the year since, that number has alarmingly ballooned, advocates said.

Per a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), media reports and Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) records reveal that “in the 29 months between the start of OLS in March 2021 and July 2023, at least 74 people were killed and another 189 injured as the result of 49 pursuits by Texas troopers or local law enforcement, or both, in Operation Lone Star counties.” Some deaths have involved people who had nothing to do with the chases and were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. “Among the bystanders killed was a 7-year-old girl, and among bystanders injured were five children of unknown age – all of them Texas residents,” HRW said.

Under Abbott’s operation, officers have been conducting these traffic stops with a purported goal of combatting unauthorized migration and drug trafficking. This is a dubious claim. In reality, civil rights advocates last year pointed to “significant evidence that DPS is engaged in racial profiling—discriminating against Latinx drivers and passengers—in these stops.” 

In just one example, a DPS officer stated they had probable cause to prolong a traffic stop because they claimed they could tell just by scent if someone lacked legal immigration status. “Undocumented aliens emit a distinct odor due to sweat and being exposed to the environment,” the officer said in an affidavit. This is just plain racist – and stupid. But even more disturbingly, these traffic stops have, “with alarming frequency,” turned into deadly vehicle pursuits due to “overzealous” enforcement, HRW said. 

Seven-year-old Emilia Tambunga and her grandmother, Maria, were going out for ice cream when a vehicle being pursued by a Crockett County Sheriff’s deputy ran a red light and rammed into them. Arturo Fonseca, a local resident who witnessed another high-speed chase that killed two people unrelated to the pursuit, called the chases a danger to the community. “We are driving in the area daily, so it presents a risk to us,” he told HRW. Many of the drivers killed have been young Texans of color, HRW said, “recruited through social media platforms to drive people from border communities to destinations within the state.”

“Passengers—mostly migrants (who may be recently arrived asylum seekers seeking safety, or migrants seeking to reunite with family members in the US or to build a dignified life)—perish at an alarming rate,” the report continued. “Unsuspecting motorists, among them Texas residents going about their daily lives, have been killed and injured.” 

Other residents have experienced outrageous property damage resulting from the high-speed chases. Dilia Villarreal, a local teacher, saw more than $70,000 in damage to her fence and solar panels due to an Operation Lone Star crash. The teacher said she’s seen zero compensation for the damage. “It’s been very depressing for me,” she said. “It’s like somebody crashing their vehicle into your house and they just say ‘sorry’ and go on their merry way.”

“Of the 5,230 total vehicle pursuits that DPS troopers engaged in across Texas’ 254 counties since March 2021, 3,558 of them, or roughly 68 percent of all pursuits, occurred in the 60 Operation Lone Star counties that represent 13 percent of the state’s population,” HRW said. “This means Operation Lone Star county residents are experiencing a disproportionate share of vehicle pursuits across the state.”

These chases have continued as reporting has indicated OLS, which has been burning through $2.5 million dollars a week as of last year, has just not worked. When reporters sought data that would back state claims that the program has been effective, Abbott, DPS and the Texas Military Department fought public record requests, The Texas Tribune, The Marshall Project and ProPublica reported in 2022.

 Abbott’s crashes mirror a disturbing pattern seen at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in recent years. Last year, The New York Times reported on an alarming jump in deaths resulting from high-speed chases by border officers. “From 2010 to 2019, high-speed chases by the Border Patrol resulted in an average of 3.5 deaths a year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union,” the report said. “In 2020, there were 14 such deaths; in 2021, there were 21, the last on Christmas.” 

This reporting and collective outrage from advocates forced CBP leadership to release updated policy pertaining to vehicle pursuits. But even after the top law enforcement agency in the nation took steps to address similar deadly incidents, Abbott feels he can continue his ineffective, costly and deadly border scheme unabated. In fact, Abbott has been seeking to expand his anti-immigrant agenda, supporting recent state proposals that could “turn every law enforcement officer in the state of Texas into an immigration officer, giving wide latitude to question and challenge the citizenship of just about anyone and interfere with federal immigration enforcement,” Rep. Joaquin Castro warned.

HRW noted that Texas officers always have the option of abandoning a pursuit when it seems just too risky. But instead, policies and incentives by OLS “lead to just such ill-advised, reckless, and too often fatal encounters with law enforcement.” OLS has already cost state taxpayers billions of dollars, and counting. But other costs, like the tragically short life of seven-year-old Emilia Tambunga, cannot be so easily calculated.