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Texas National Guard soldier drowns during attempted migrant rescue

The Guard member was deployed to Eagle Pass, Tex., on the U.S.-Mexico border as part of Operation Lone Star

A migrant family begins crossing a low-flowing section of the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on March 29, 2021. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A Texas National Guard soldier drowned early Friday in the Rio Grande while trying to rescue migrants struggling with swift currents as they crossed the border, according to state officials.

Lt. Christopher Olivarez of the Texas Department of Public Safety said the Guard member was part of the border security initiative Operation Lone Star, which was ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). Olivarez said the Guard member was carried away by the current during the rescue attempt near Eagle Pass, Tex., a border city about 140 miles southwest of San Antonio.

Powerful river currents have resulted in at least 10 drownings this week alone, Olivarez said. Eagle Pass officials said that in recent weeks they have seen an increase in crossings from Piedras Negras, Mexico, the city on the opposite side of the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass.

Officials have not recovered the soldier’s body. The Texas Military Department confirmed a soldier disappeared but did not verify reports of a fatality, calling them false.

“The Texas Military Department, Texas DPS and Border Patrol are working rapidly to find the Soldier,” a statement released Friday said.

The department said more details will be released as they become available.

Jon Anfinsen, local president of the Border Patrol union in the Del Rio sector, said the young soldier reacted when he saw a woman in distress, according to calls he received from agents. The soldier pulled off his armor, put down his rifle and jumped into the river after her.

The woman survived, Anfinsen said. But the soldier has not been seen since.

National Guard members stationed at the border typically set up their equipment on the river bank. It is not clear whether the soldier was wearing any flotation devices. The water level varies from knee- to chin-high. A body was recovered but it appears to be unrelated to the soldier’s vanishing, three officials confirmed.

Eleven bodies have been recovered from the U.S. side of this stretch of river — which extends beyond Del Rio to the west — the union leader said, and at least 12 were found on the Mexican side this month alone. It’s a tragedy that weighs on Border Patrol agents, Anfinsen added.

“Sometimes you see migrants use an inner tube, but in this part of the river, people hold hands and walk across in a human chain. If they step in a hole, that’s it,” he said. “The river looks calm and walkable but it’s fast-moving and deceiving.”

A Border Patrol dive team and state troopers are assisting in the search. Several hours have passed since the soldier was last seen around 9 a.m. Central time, state and union officials said.

Border Patrol agents rescued a dozen people in the same area last week after the “group was scattered after being swept off their feet by the swift current,” according to a release from Del Rio sector spokesman Dennis Smith.

“Agents acted quickly and deployed flotation devices and rescue ropes. The boat unit made multiple trips to the boat ramp, ferrying the subjects to safety.”

Eagle Pass’s mayor lamented the spate of deaths.

“It’s just so many people crossing, many are holding kids and older ladies are crossing and we don’t know if they can even swim,” Mayor Rolando Salinas said, confirming the search was for the 22-year-old male soldier. “Most times people cross when the water is low, but in Spanish we call it the Rio Bravo because it’s really unpredictable.”

Earlier this month, a 14-year-old from Honduras died while attempting to cross the Rio Grande with his cousins and sister near the same border city. The teens were traveling to be reunited with family in Houston but his sister lost grip of Cristopher Alvarado Sabillón in the dark waters, according to NBC News.

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