Family members of Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha show shirts made to remember him at a gathering of family and friends for the anniversary of his death, April 22, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why This Matters

Border Patrol has refused to answer questions about why they tried to pull over and then chase Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha. His family and community are still waiting for answers.

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A shaky hand filmed the moment when Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha scored a goal with a free kick – his trademark move – delivering a 2-1 win to his team, the Valley Center High School Jaguars. It was the last home game of his senior year. 

The four-year varsity soccer player was widely admired in Valley Center and neighboring Pauma Valley for his formidable defense. To those around him, he was “El Tigre” or “Meño.”

But less than a year later, the 19-year-old’s sudden death during a car chase involving Border Patrol would turn his local stardom into legacy. 

A U.S. citizen with a clean record, save for a speeding ticket, Jesús joined a growing list of those who have died during interactions with the federal police agency tasked with safeguarding the country’s borders. 

But to many of the 31,000 people who make up the communities of Pauma Valley and Valley Center, Jesús’ death is a tragic and unfathomable loss of a young man – described as an example for his peers to follow – with talent and promise. 

“Being able to live up to the humility that he had is something that we all strive for,” said Julio Ruiz, the varsity coach at Valley Center High School. “Even as adults we are learning from him.” 

On April 23, 2022, Border Patrol agents chased Jesús from where they first spotted him driving near Pine Valley to El Cajon, where his car swerved off the freeway near the Mollison Avenue exit. The white Infiniti flew into the embankment and collided with several trees. 

Border Patrol has refused to answer specific questions about the chase and consequent crash, including why agents tried to pull him over and then chase him. But internal reports from the agency filed after the crash point to only one violation: failure to yield. 

Jesús’ brother and uncle were the first family members to discover he died. They had been driving around San Diego County freeways looking up crashes to see if any matched his car. 

Finally they spotted the Infiniti’s unmistakable red rims. From the other side of a chain link fence, Jose watched his brother’s car as it was towed out of the embankment. A worker with the towing company looked at Jose and slid his hand across his neck, silently saying the driver didn’t survive. 

“Even though the accident was so bad, he was still 100% himself,” Jose said. “Everything was completely on his body, his hands, everything was just him. I just feel like God just took him outta the seat like, ‘Here, come with me. It’s time.’ ”

The day of Jesús’ burial, loved ones gathered at Jesús’ parents’ house in Pauma Valley. Nestled in an orange grove, cars were parked all along the narrow dirt road leading to his front door. 

The truck of Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha’s father is shown on Feb. 8, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

What his loved ones remember about him was his work ethic, humility and leadership. His soccer coaches described him as someone who quietly led by example, never asking for credit or the spotlight. 

In fact, Jesús was shy – so shy that if someone looked him in the eyes too long he’d look away, his brother said. 

With his family, especially his mom and girlfriend, Jesús was loving. His dream was to buy his parents a home so they wouldn’t have to work anymore. His girlfriend said Jesús had proposed to her just a week before he died. 

Those memories bring his family back to the cemetery again and again. Constantly adorned with flowers, religious idols and a Mexican flag, his grave has company almost every day. 

“He’s never gonna be alone,” Jose said. 

At a memorial marking one year since Jesús’ death, around 100 family, friends and community members gathered at a local nursery to remember him. 

Inside a tent at the nursery, a table displayed framed photos of Jesús, candles, toy tigers, a car and motorcycle. At one point, loved ones approached the front of the tent to have a moment in front of a large photo of Jesús. Kids played soccer on a nearby hill. 

Still, without more answers to what led the teen to run away from Border Patrol, or why agents started chasing him in the first place, getting closure on the death feels impossible. 

“We ask ourselves questions and questions,” a family member close to Jesús who did not want to be named said. “Why didn’t he stop? Why was (he) afraid?” 

Family and friends recite the rosary at a gathering to mark the anniversary of the death of Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha, April 22, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Even his girlfriend at the time, Amairani Rodriguez, who was on the phone with Jesús as he fled Border Patrol and eventually crashed, can’t understand why he ran. In the heat of the moment, she said she didn’t think to tell him to pull over.

Jesús’ family doesn’t know exactly what he was doing that Saturday before he died. They said he was never in trouble with the law, save for a ticket he got in 2020 for street racing, which Jose said Jesús denied doing. 

But if he was doing something illegal, the family wants to know that, too. Without answers on what led to his death, the questions keep them up at night. And the community is still learning how to cope with the loss. 

The gravesite of Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha is shown on Feb. 8, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“Just still in disbelief sometimes,” Juan Gonzalez, another one of Jesús’ soccer coaches said. “The moments of silence, the long drives home from work where the sadness and all the emotions creep back in. Me, personally, I don’t know if I’m finished mourning.” 

Ruiz, the varsity coach, got a tattoo of him on his shoulder. 

“What he did for that school athletically and the way he led, nobody else had really done that,” Ruiz said. “It was a big, big deal for us when he graduated, and then when this happened, it was just something so sudden and so tragic.”

After graduation, Jesús’ coaches decided to retire his number – #5 – from the soccer team. That decision became even more poignant after his death. 

For Jose, the death of his brother has felt like losing a piece of himself. They were nearly twins, he said, only a year-and-a-half apart in age. They shared passions for cars, and sports, playing in a league with their dad every weekend. 

“The thing that hits me the most is when all of us are together. Not just my family, but my grandparents, my aunts, everyone. We’re there at a party or whatever and I get that sense, I look around and there’s someone missing here,” Jose said. 

“It’s all good. My eyes get watery, but I suck it up.” 

Family and friends approach a photo of Jesús Manuel Saldaña Rocha at a gathering to mark the anniversary of his death, April 22, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Soccer and family were two of the most important things to Jesús. His parents went to every game he had – including the last game of Jesús’ career, when he scored the free kick. 

Jesús walked down the field, holding hands with his tearful parents. It was a Valley Center High School tradition for honoring soon-to-be graduates. As they walked, an announcer listed off Jesús’ accomplishments, favorite memory from playing soccer and his advice to younger players: 

“Enjoy it. Have fun as much as you can. Because before you know it, it’s all over in the blink of an eye.”

Zoë Meyers contributed reporting. 

Explore more stories from our investigation into Border Patrol’s vehicle pursuit policies.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...