WASHINGTON — Within the sprawling distances of South Texas, sheriff’s deputies, local and county cops, Texas Rangers and Highway Patrol troopers, U.S. Border Patrol agents, immigration officers and other members of law enforcement work together on a day by day basis.
Along the greater than 1,200 miles of border between Mexico and Texas, federal, state and native law enforcement agencies respond to at least one one other’s calls for backup and commonly conduct joint operations.
So it was commonplace that agents with Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement responded to the desperate request for backup from the Uvalde Police Department on Tuesday. It was highly unusual, nonetheless, for ICE officers to be pulling children out of faculty windows, and for Border Patrol agents to play such a central role in response to a college shooter, firing the bullets that killed him.
The Uvalde police asked for tactical equipment once they called for backup, and members of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, the agency’s version of a SWAT team, dropped what they were doing and went to the college, a couple of 40-minute drive from where that they had been working on the southwest border.
(Although the Border Patrol’s mission is to secure the nation’s international boundaries, it’s allowed to operate as much as 100 miles from a land or coastal border.)
Ultimately — about 35 minutes after the unit members arrived at the college, Steven C. McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a news conference on Friday — it was a sharpshooter from the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, or BORTAC, who killed the gunman around 12:50 p.m.
On the news conference, Mr. McCraw said the local police had been in command of the response and that not sending law enforcement officers into the classroom where the gunman was for greater than an hour had been “the unsuitable decision.”
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Border Patrol created the BORTAC unit in 1984, in response to rioting at immigration detention facilities. Since then, agents within the unit have at times found themselves in high-profile situations. In April 2000, it was a gun-wielding BORTAC agent who seized Elián González, the Cuban boy who was at the middle of a world custody battle. The agent grabbed the boy from his great-uncle’s arms after agents had forced their way into the home in Miami where Elián had been staying.
The little-known unit, headquartered in El Paso, has about 250 agents. Its members most frequently operate along the country’s borders, conducting operations like breaking into stash houses where smugglers hide drugs and weapons. Most people the unit targets are violent, with lengthy criminal records. Its agents have enhanced, Special Forces-type training; they typically carry stun grenades and hold sniper certifications. They arrived at Robb Elementary School on Tuesday with three ballistic shields, that are designed to stop or deflect bullets and other projectiles.
Becoming a member of the unit involves a three-week selection process that features constant physical and mental stress and food and sleep deprivation.
“We’re searching for an overall combination of toughness, heart, intelligence and integrity,” Mike Marino, a supervisory agent with BORTAC, said earlier this yr. “The goal is to evaluate in someone what is generally immeasurable. You’ve gotten to get a way of person’s true being.”
Members of the unit also operate all over the world and have provided training and supported military motion in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The unit has been criticized for a few of its actions, including its involvement in former President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to quash protests against police violence in Portland, Ore. in 2020, after George Floyd’s murder. That June, Mr. Trump sent 66 agents from the specialized unit, together with other federal law enforcement officers, to Pearland, Texas, for the burial service of Mr. Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Mr. Trump also sent members of the unit to so-called sanctuary cities — where local police are instructed not to help federal immigration enforcement agents. They were sent to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers with arrests of undocumented immigrants. Many saw the operation as a scare tactic, a part of the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
While it’s rare for the BORTAC team to play such a central role within the response to an area crime, it has happened before.
In 2015, members of the team assisted with the manhunt of the escaped convicted killers Richard Matt and David Sweat in upstate Recent York. A member of the team shot and killed Mr. Matt, after the team found him hiding within the woods.
Many Border Patrol agents and officers with Customs and Border Protection, its parent agency, live within the Uvalde area, which is a component of the 245-mile-long Del Rio Border Patrol sector. About 160 agents and officers work out of the Uvalde station, which is about an hour from the U.S. border with Mexico and has a traffic checkpoint. Parts of the Texas border are popular crossing points for undocumented migrants, and Border Patrol agents, of their green uniforms — about 9,200 of them within the state — are in all places.
Raul Ortiz, the Border Patrol chief, said that when his agents got the decision in regards to the Uvalde shooting around 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, between 80 and 100 of them — each on and off duty — headed to the college.
“Immediately, we decided that we wanted to interact,” Mr. Ortiz said Wednesday on CNN.
“The folks that work in law enforcement, particularly in South Texas, have such a robust sort of common bond, almost familial,”said Charley Wilkison, the chief director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, knowledgeable association. “Sometimes in South Texas, law enforcement is just seen as one thing.”
Chief Victor Rodriguez of the police department in McAllen, Texas, said Border Patrol works so closely with local law enforcement that it is taken into account one other law enforcement asset in the neighborhood.
Most frequently, he said, incidents that Border Patrol responds to together with local officers are related to immigration.
In a situation like the college shooting in Uvalde, Mr. Rodriguez said, “all local law enforcement agencies react and reply to see in the event that they may help.”
Edgar Sandoval contributed reporting from Uvalde, Texas.