US Border Patrol tactical unit facing renewed scrutiny over Uvalde response
Written by ABC Audio. All rights reserved. on January 24, 2023
(UVALDE, Texas) — In the hours after the May 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz was quick to laud his agents’ actions, writing on Twitter that they “put themselves between the shooter and children, to draw the shooter’s attention away from potential victims and save lives.”
Ortiz’s tweet reflects the broader narrative of that day — that an elite federal SWAT team arrived on scene and quickly moved to end the siege and neutralize the gunman. Meanwhile, the blame for law enforcement’s bungled response has been largely assigned to local and state police agencies for their failure to act as assertively.
But investigative records reviewed by ABC News suggest that members of that tactical team from U.S. Border Patrol, called BORTAC, appeared to be hindered by same type of decision-making paralysis, group-think and miscommunication that crippled the broader response from the more than 300 law enforcement officials who descended on Robb Elementary School on May 24.
John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security, said that federal authorities are limited in how much authority they can assert when supporting local law enforcement activity — and because of the initial failure to establish an incident command structure, BORTAC’s presence and capabilities were largely squandered.
“No matter how well-trained and well-equipped the BORTAC team was, their response still succumbed to the same chaos resulting from lack of incident command,” said Cohen, also a longtime former street cop and renowned expert on police training and investigative tactics.
Often called as first responders
While BORTAC agents did ultimately act to end the 77-minute siege that took the lives of 19 students and two teachers, evidence reviewed by ABC News indicates that BORTAC agents arrived within 20 minutes of the 18-year-old suspect’s entry into the building, and struggled to act decisively.
Uvalde is less than 80 miles from Mexico, and Border Patrol agents are often called upon as first responders in south Texas and other areas near the border. Nearly 150 of their agents responded to the shooting at Robb, more than any other law enforcement agency.
The first seven Border Patrol agents entered Robb Elementary at 11:51 a.m. carrying ballistic shields and other equipment, investigative records reviewed by ABC News show. Paul Guerrero, the team’s acting commander, arrived on site at 12:09 p.m. — more than 30 minutes before the shooting would conclude with gunfire as police finally mounted a counterassault.
At 12:13 p.m., investigative records show that Lt. Mariano Pargas, Uvalde’s acting police chief, briefed Guerrero on the situation inside the classroom, telling him, “We’ve got victims in there.”
Additional BORTAC agents arrived on-scene shortly after Guerrero, and by 12:15 p.m. — 25 minutes before the incident concluded — a full tactical team had congregated outside the school, records show.
Meanwhile, confusion about BORTAC’s presence on the scene proliferated among other law enforcement officials on site.
At 12:11 p.m., according to records reviewed by ABC News, a voice was overheard on a police body camera telling an unidentified person that BORTAC was still 45 minutes away — despite several agents, including their commander, already being on-site, with others just moments away.
No longer an ‘active shooter’
Throughout the episode, the gunman remained inside two classrooms, occasionally firing off rounds from the large stockpile of ammunition he brought with him. Outside the rooms, police gathered in the hallway and took up positions, though no one moved to engage the gunman or stop the rampage for more than an hour.
Senior police officials would later explain their inaction as the result of the judgment that the siege was no longer an “active shooter” situation, but instead a “barricaded subject” incident that would allow for law enforcement to slowly try to bring the episode to a conclusion, potentially through negotiation.
By 12:21 p.m., when the gunman opened fire inside the classroom for what is believed to be the final time before the police confrontation, records show that a full team of BORTAC agents were on-site with ballistic shields, tactical weapons and breaching equipment; their commanding officer was present and briefed; and, perhaps most importantly, they were aware the suspect remained an “active shooter.”
Police doctrine dictates that officers called into an active shooter environment immediately pursue the gunman without regard for their own safety, Cohen said. Federal authorities were therefore placed in a difficult position when they arrived on the scene and learned that the shooter remained in the classroom, firing indiscriminately, but that the incident was being treated as a “barricaded shooter” situation and officers had not attempted to enter the classroom.
At 12:30 p.m., the school district’s police chief, Pete Arredondo, was overheard on a colleague’s police body camera saying, “We’ve cleared out everything except for that room … but uh, we’re ready to breach but that door’s locked.”
Ten minutes later, Arredondo was again seen on body-worn camera footage explaining to someone on the phone that the BORTAC team was poised to attempt a breach, but not until they secured a key to open the classroom door.
A July 2022 report published by a special committee of the Texas state legislature found that Guerrero at one point went to his car to retrieve a breaching tool and returned to the hallway outside classroom, but determined that using the tool would take too long and dangerously expose an officer to gunfire coming from inside the classroom. Eventually, Guerrero organized a stack of BORTAC agents, and, at 12:50 p.m., entered classroom 111 and killed the suspect. Guerrero declined to comment for this story.
During an interview with ABC News, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said that Arredondo’s failure to act decisively as on-scene commander contributed to the passive response from other agencies.
“Officers from different agencies, Border Patrol agents, everyone was minding based upon the information that [Arredondo] had,” McCraw said. “It’s very difficult to process in your mind that this is still an active shooter when you have people waiting around.”
A ‘comprehensive review’
An investigation conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety into the law enforcement response has been turned over to District Attorney Christina Mitchell, who is now weighing charges. Mitchell has indicated that charging decisions will take time, possibly until the one-year anniversary of the shooting at the end of May.
In Uvalde, Arredondo was terminated. (He has repeatedly defended his actions and told investigators that he did not believe the gunman was an active shooter when he and others arrived.) Pargas, the then-acting Uvalde police chief, stepped down after officials said they would move to fire him. One responding state trooper has been fired for his actions on that day, another has resigned, and a third is appealing their dismissal.
Nearly eight months after the shooting, an agency spokesperson said a “comprehensive review” of BORTAC operations that day remains ongoing, and the review’s findings will be released to the public “when appropriate.”
“[Border Patrol] will continue to work with our federal, state, and local partners to answer the difficult questions on what went wrong and how we can improve our responses,” the spokesperson said. “We owe this to the Uvalde community, and the nation.”
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