[Pnews] A Border Patrol Whistleblower Speaks Out About Culture of Abuse Against Migrants

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Sep 20 11:20:05 EDT 2018


  “Kick Ass, Ask Questions Later”: A Border Patrol Whistleblower Speaks
  Out About Culture of Abuse Against Migrants

John Washington - September 20, 2018

_The 4-year-old_ boy and his parents had been lost for days in the 
desert and were desperately thirsty. Mario, a new Border Patrol officer, 
had received a call that there were migrants in the area and went out 
looking for them near the village of Menagers Dam, or Ali Ak Chin, on 
the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona. It was nearly dawn when Mario 
first spotted the mother in a wash. The family readily gave themselves 
up, and the woman told Mario that they needed water.

“They were pretty banged up,” Mario told The Intercept. “They were in 
distress.” He alerted his superior officer to his location. Just as 
the officer was arriving on the scene, Mario handed the 4-year-old boy a 
jug of water. Before the boy could take a sip, however, the officer 
kicked the jug out of the child’s hands and barked, “There’s no amnesty 
here.” He then reprimanded Mario for offering him water, warning him, 
“Don’t go south on me.” In other words, don’t show an ounce of sympathy 
for those from below the border.

Mario said he was shocked and offended by the officer’s actions. But it 
was just one of many incidents of brutality that he would witness during 
his two years with the Border Patrol, about which he is speaking out for 
the first time.

The Intercept is identifying Mario by a pseudonym because he still works 
for a federal agency, and fears that using his name would lead to 
reprisals and jeopardize his job. A military veteran, Mario enlisted in 
the Border Patrol in 2009 and resigned in 2011. Although he has been out 
of the Border Patrol for years, his account sheds light on practices 
that reportedly continue today, and provides a rare insight into the 
culture of an agency that has been rhetorically emboldened by the Trump 
administration and promised more money, personnel, and technology to 
carry out aggressive border enforcement.

In wide-ranging conversations, Mario discussed assaults and other abuses 
against migrants, a lack of effective oversight, and a disturbing 
culture of dehumanization in the agency. He says that he has decided to 
step forward to tell the American public about conduct he found 
embarrassing, cruel, and unregulated.

The Intercept has not been able to corroborate all of the specific 
details of Mario’s claims, but two other former personnel who have 
spoken publicly about problems with the agency — James Tomsheck, the 
former head of internal affairs for Customs and Border Protection, and 
Francisco Cantú, author of a recent Border Patrol memoir 
who served in the same station as Mario — say that his stories line up 
with their knowledge and experiences. They are also corroborated by 
complaints filed by migrants and allegations published by NGOs and news 
outlets. Mario confirmed his position in the agency with photographs of 
himself in uniform, old ID cards, serial numbers of BP-issued gear, as 
well as detailed knowledge of the area in Arizona where he was posted, 
Ajo station in the Tucson sector.

As the part of Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest 
federal law enforcement agency, the Border Patrol is notoriously opaque. 
Most of its actions occur in locked-door stations, holding facilities, 
or remote desert regions inaccessible to the public, journalists, and 
There have been few front-line agents willing to speak to the press. 
“The Green Line of silence is higher and wider than it’s ever been 
before,” Tomsheck told The Intercept, referring to the implicit Border 
Patrol pact not to speak publicly about what happens in the field. There 
is “a clear understanding on the part of the rank and file in the Border 
Patrol that if they should engage in whistleblower activities, or do 
anything to promote transparency, that they would be retaliated against 
in a way that would likely end their career.”

Though Mario’s run with the Border Patrol is over, he told The Intercept 
that he could not stand by as he watched reports that the kind of abuses 
he witnessed continue. In just the past year, Border Patrol agents 
fatally shot an unarmed woman 
and have reportedly threatened to rape children 
in their custody. Evidence also emerged that agents regularly dissuade 
potential asylum-seekers 
from asking for protection, and slash bottles of water 
<http://www.thedisappearedreport.org/> left out for people crossing in 
the desert. What finally spurred Mario to come forward was the January 
arrest of Scott Warren 
a humanitarian aid activist, for allegedly “harboring illegal aliens.” 
Warren was a volunteer who provided food, water, and clothing to 
migrants, and when Mario read about him in the news, he thought it was 
clear that Warren was trying to “stop the deaths” in the desert. He said 
he wasn’t surprised that the Border Patrol targeted Warren — “it’s just 
the nature of the beast” — but wished there was something he could do. 
So he decided to speak out.

_“Kick ass, ask_ questions later.” That was the mentality of the Border 
Patrol when Mario signed up and was dispatched to the remote desert 
region near Ajo, Arizona. In the years Mario was stationed there, Ajo 
was among the busiest migrant crossing and drug trafficking corridors in 
the country, which agents referred to, Mario said, as “the wild wild 
West.” According to his descriptions, Border Patrol agents conducted 
themselves much like the lawless and violent cowboys and colonizers that 
preceded them.

Mario claimed that the same officer who’d kicked the water bottle out of 
the child’s hands also ordered others to slash water bottles left out by 
humanitarian aid groups for thirsty migrants. Around late 2009, Mario 
was with a group of agents, including trainees and two senior officers, 
when they spotted aid workers leaving gallons of water along a migrant 
trail. The agents waited for the aid workers to leave, and then, 
referring to the water as “tonk water” — “tonk” is common Border Patrol 
slang, and comes from the noise a flashlight supposedly makes when 
thudding against a migrant’s head — the senior officer told the trainees 
who were with him, “If I were you, I’d take care of it.” Three agents 
then walked to where the jugs were, “took their Leathermans out, and 
just sliced them open.” The officer both gave the order and saw that the 
agents slashed the bottles.

Mario said this was typical — and so was pouring out migrants’ water and 
dumping out their food when they dropped their bags to run from the 
Border Patrol. I asked him if this was something that he had been 
ordered or trained to do. “Yeah, you just dump it [the food and water] 
out. Cut it. Step on it,” he said. Mario’s account adds to evidence 
gathered by the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, which released a 
this year documenting thousands of vandalized water bottles between 2012 
and 2015, and video of more recent incidents (I volunteered with the 
organization and was part of the team that wrote the report. After the 
report was published, nine volunteers with No More Deaths were hit with 
federal charges 
for leaving water in a federal wilderness preserve — including Warren 
the academic whose arrest motivated Mario to come forward.) The Border 
Patrol’s rationale for destroying supply drops was that if they deprived 
migrants of water and food, they would have to turn themselves in. 
Taking away water in the desert, however, means putting lives in serious 
danger; 412 migrants were found dead 
along the border in 2017, according to the International Organization 
for Migration, and over 7,000 bodies 
have been discovered 
over the past two decades.

_“Tonk” was a_ part of everyday lexicon in the agency, said Mario. 
“Agents would laugh, joke around, [and ask], ‘How many tonks did you 
catch today?’” He explained that “they laugh about this because if you 
use an intermediate weapon like [pepper] spray, Taser, or a baton, 
policy says you have to write a memo. But if you use a flashlight, you 
don’t have to write a memo, so it was always common knowledge: Use your 
flashlight.” Besides “tonk water,” agents also used the term “tonk 
lover” to refer to humanitarian aid volunteers.

Drug smugglers were “backpackers,” and migrants in distress seeking to 
turn themselves in were referred to as “give-ups.” Mario described a 
sense of competitiveness: Arresting “give-ups” was seen as less 
impressive than arresting “backpackers” or seizing drugs. Border Patrol 
agents labeled “pretty much … all immigrants as criminals and animals,” 
Mario said. “Tuning up” migrants meant to rough them up before bringing 
them back to the station. Agents were trained in how to “break” migrants 
so they would divulge who among them was the guide. “You have to put 
fear in them,” Mario said. The officer that trained him repeatedly 
explained to Mario and his unit that “sometimes you need to operate in 
the gray.”

Mario said that an agent once boasted about handcuffing two migrants 
together around a saguaro cactus as the agent searched for drugs. (Cantú 
told me he’d heard similar stories.) In another incident he witnessed, a 
burly senior officer, without provocation, repeatedly kicked three male 
migrants, trying to force a confession about drug trafficking. The 
agent, according to Mario, “laid [the migrants] on the floor,” and then 
began “kicking the guys asking them where the dope was. Kept kicking 
them, kept kicking them.” No confession came, and no drugs were found.

    His field training officer repeatedly explained to Mario and his
    unit that “sometimes you need to operate in the gray.”

Mario said that when he was in the Border Patrol academy, it was taught 
that “as soon as [migrants] pick up a rock and it goes over their head, 
you can light them up however you want. It’s fair game.” By “light them 
up,” he meant shoot to kill. The Border Patrol says it has made its 
guidelines for the use of force more restrictive in recent years, but 
there have still been recent instances of fatal shootings, including the 
killing of Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old Guatemalan 
woman who was shot at the border in Texas this May. The Border Patrol 
initially described González as part of a group of “assailants” that had 
attacked an agent “using blunt objects.” Later statements contradicted 
that account 

_Under the Trump_ administration, the Border Patrol and Customs and 
Border Protection have been accused 
of illegally turning back asylum-seekers 
spreading falsehoods about the asylum process, or not following the 
proper procedures to determine if someone is afraid of returning to 
their home country. According to Mario, this latter practice used to be 

Agents refer to the processing of migrants at Border Patrol stations as 
“rolling” them; it includes taking migrants’ basic biographical 
information, cataloguing their property, and then fingerprinting and 
photographing them. Customs and Border Protection protocol 
<http://www.governmentattic.org/5docs/CPB-IFM_2006.pdf> says that agents 
should also try to determine whether the migrant might have an asylum 
claim, even if they don’t ask for protection outright. According to the 
policy, they should “explore any statement or indications, verbal or 
nonverbal, that the alien actually may have a fear of persecution or 
torture on return to his or her country.” The agents must also “fully 
advise” the migrant of the asylum process.

“We never ask that,” Mario said. “We were just, ‘What’s your name? Is 
this your real name?’ What country they’re from …” When I pointed out 
that Border Patrol agents were obligated to ask about potential asylum 
claims, he responded: /“/Yeah, you are. But it’s kind of like … We would 
kind of lead the witness,” convincing migrants to agree to “voluntary 
a quick deportation process that only Border Patrol can perform, which 
requires minimal paperwork and yet may negatively impact future claims 
for legal status in the United States. I asked if he had been trained or 
coached in “leading the witness.”

“Well yeah,” Mario said, “you’re kind of thrown in, like baptism under 
fire. They don’t give you a class in processing aliens. The guy that 
you’re relieving tells you, Hey, this is what you’re going to do, this 
is how I do it.”

_The abuse Mario_ witnessed wasn’t only directed at migrants. Mario said 
that the same abusive senior officer had once humiliated and then 
physically assaulted a junior agent in his training unit. It was common 
for the officers in charge of training to force the junior agents to 
draw maps of the area they had been working in; one day, one of the 
agents was having a hard time with the task, so the officer called the 
agent to the front of the class and began to berate and punch him.

“I mean closed fist, pound him right on the chest, like, ‘Are you not 
getting this?’” Mario said. “‘Are you stupid? What is wrong with you? 
You need to quit. You’re not built for this. You’re an idiot. I don’t 
want you in my patrol,’” Mario remembers him saying. The assault 
continued to the point where the junior agent fell back and shattered a 
fire extinguisher’s glass panel.

“I was kind of shocked,” Mario said, “and I knew that if I stepped in, 
that I would be next, so I kind of left it at that.” But the incident 
didn’t sit right, and Mario decided to report it to the Office of 
Inspector General. He called the watchdog’s office in Los Angeles and 
explained to an agent over the phone not only about the assault, but 
also about other officers encouraging agents to commit time-sheet fraud 
and manipulate the fuses on their trucks so they could drive at night 
without headlamps (Mario did not file a written complaint, but The 
Intercept has viewed his notes showing dates, phone numbers, and the 
names of the people he contacted. Tomsheck also said he’d seen reports 
of “inappropriately aggressive” behavior in training sessions.)

A few weeks later, according to Mario, a representative from the 
Inspector General came to speak to his unit, interviewing all the agents 
except for Mario. The investigative method singled him out and “ever 
since,” Mario explained, “I was kind of like the pariah in the station, 
and I felt like I was targeted.”

The issues were not only with one particular officer, Mario said. He 
pointed to the horse patrol, saying that it was “notorious for beating 
up illegals. … Most of those guys were under investigation for use 
of force.” When abusive officers were disciplined, they were usually 
temporarily reassigned to the “rubber-gun squad” — desk or garage jobs — 
“and then you’d be clear and you’d be back on duty.”

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