[Pnews] How the Border Patrol Began Its Investigation Into No More Deaths Volunteer Scott Warren
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jul 22 11:48:34 EDT 2019
How the Border Patrol Began Its Investigation Into No More Deaths
Volunteer Scott Warren
Ryan Devereaux - July 21, 2019
Not only that, the source said, Phillips was a member of a nonprofit
that, according to its website <https://isdanet.org/about-isda/>, was
made up of “concerned people from all walks of life who have joined
forces” to promote environmental conservation practices and educate the
public on “protecting and respecting valuable biological and cultural
resources and traditions.”
It got worse, the source said. The nonprofit also worked with
self-described humanitarian groups — the kind that use the Barn — that
leave water in the desert so that people don’t die.
Some law enforcement professionals might have written off the meeting,
choosing to devote their limited time and resources elsewhere. Not
Marquez, not the Border Patrol, and, eventually, not the U.S. Attorney’s
Office for the District of Arizona.
The meeting at the gas station would kick off a more than eight-month
investigation ultimately leading to the arrest of Scott Warren, an
Ajo-based humanitarian aid volunteer, on federal smuggling and
conspiracy charges, which would then lead to more than a year and a half
of legal wrangling, a week-and-a-half-long trial, a mistrial, and now a
retrial scheduled for this winter.
The details of this first meeting were included in recently unsealed
Border Patrol documents in Warren’s felony case, which show the lengths
the agency went to in an effort to build a criminal case against
humanitarian volunteers in southern Arizona. The documents were made
public late Friday, thanks to litigation by The Intercept and its parent
company, First Look Media, working with Arizona State University’s First
Reached by phone Saturday, Phillips, who’s in her 70s, responded to news
of Marquez’s investigative efforts with a mix of small-town amusement,
wonder, and a bit of horror. For one thing, she pointed out, the
nonprofit in question, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, or
ISDA, does not work with groups leaving water in the desert. Second, she
was not working with the group at the time that Marquez launched his
“ISDA has never, ever been involved in any of that,” she said. “That’s
Since 2000, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office has recorded
roughly 3,000 suspected migrant deaths in the desert, though the true
toll is guaranteed to be higher. Arizona’s vast and remote west desert,
with Ajo situated near its center, has historically been the state’s
deadliest stretch for migrants making their way north. For generations,
it has been standard practice in the unincorporated community to provide
food, water, and hospitality to the strangers who come stumbling into town.
After moving to Ajo more than a decade and a half ago, Phillips threw
herself into this tradition of humanitarian care, often pointing out
that no community would accept the annual discovery of dozens of human
bodies — 60 since the beginning of this year, including two sets of
remains over the last week, she noted — as an acceptable fact of life.
Considering the fact that her efforts apparently garnered the attention
of federal law enforcement, Phillips collected her thoughts in a written
statement, which she shared with The Intercept.
“These past couple years since Scott was charged with three felonies for
providing humanitarian aid, the same aid that the International Red
Cross has been providing worldwide for decades, have been extremely
difficult for all of us Ajo folks,” she wrote. “It is what we do, and
have done, frequently as a community, and most certainly as individuals
“We have become a cemetery,” she added, “for folks so desperate to
either escape life-threatening circumstances in their countries of
origin or to return to their U.S. families from whom they have been
_In a pretrial_ motion in April 2018, Scott Warren’s defense team
submitted as exhibits a series of text messages Marquez and other
members of the Ajo Disrupt unit had sent in the moments leading up to
Warren’s arrest, which included Border Patrol agents repeatedly using
the word “tonc” as they prepared to launch their operation. “Tonc” is
Border Patrol slang for migrants and supposedly refers to the sound a
flashlight makes when it connects with a human skull.
The exhibits also included a report Marquez wrote after Warren’s arrest,
in which he appeared to lean on information drawn from his gas station
tipoff the previous year, including references to the Barn as a “stash
house” and a fixation on humanitarian aid groups, particularly the
faith-based organization No More Deaths, based out of Tucson, Arizona,
and the Ajo Samaritans.
At the time, The Intercept saved the exhibits, which had been uploaded
to the federal government’s online database of criminal cases and
reached out to the U.S. attorney’s office for comment. The comment never
came. Three days later, by the time The Intercept published a story
on them, the exhibits had been sealed following complaints from the
government’s lawyers. A source close to the case told The Intercept that
the prosecutors were “fucking pissed,” taking the position that
attaching the materials as exhibits violated an agreement between the
two sides not to disclose discovery in the case.
Seven months later, lawyers for a separate group of No More Deaths
volunteers again attached discovery as exhibits in a pretrial motion.
Again the U.S. attorney’s office complained, again the materials were
sealed, and again The Intercept collected the evidence
The exhibits revealed that Marquez exchanged a series of text messages
with an Ajo-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official named Margot
Bissell, who provided the Border Patrol agent with names of No More
Deaths volunteers, whom they called “bean droppers,” and discussed and
celebrated the idea that the volunteers would be criminally charged
(which they were
for leaving humanitarian aid supplies on federal lands.
Image: U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona; Screenshot:
Finally, in March of this year, Warren’s lawyers filed an 80-page motion
to dismiss the felony charges against him on the grounds that it was a
case of selective enforcement — namely that the Border Patrol targeted
Warren for his involvement in humanitarian aid work.
This time, the defense did not attach discovery in the case as exhibits.
They did, however, reference several sets of text messages and internal
Border Patrol reports. Detailed in a yearlong investigation
The Intercept published in May, the text messages included communication
between Marquez and a second Ajo-based Fish and Wildlife official,
Donald Ebann, that were focused on Warren’s movements in the days
leading up to his arrest. The reports, meanwhile, included a reference
to Marquez’s write-up of his secret source meeting.
The materials unsealed Friday include the various text messages and
reports cited in reporting on Warren’s case, but they also provide new
information, including an investigative timeline produced by the
intelligence unit for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. Made up of a
dozen events spanning nine months, the document offers an eye-opening
window into the Border Patrol’s efforts to monitor and target
humanitarian aid volunteers in southern Arizona as criminals.
The timeline and other documents came to light because The Intercept,
with the help of the ASU law students, intervened in the litigation,
arguing that the prosecution was inappropriately sealing evidence in the
case, thus inhibiting the ability of the press to understand and relay
critical facts about the case to the public. The Intercept and ASU were
later joined by the Arizona Republic, the New York Times, the Washington
Post, the Associated Press, and CNN in the case. (The U.S. attorney’s
office did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Secrecy breeds mistrust,” David Bralow, First Look Media’s First
Amendment Counsel, said in a statement. “Transparency ensures that the
community can fully appreciate the nature of the government’s case
against Mr. Warren and evaluate the conduct of officials — law
enforcement and prosecutors — authorized to act on the community’s behalf.”
“The court’s order releasing these documents vindicates this important
constitutional right and we are grateful,” Bralow continued, though he
added, “there may be more work to do,” including an evaluation of
“redactions made by the prosecutors to determine whether they also
deprive the public of important information.”
_The Border Patrol’s_ timeline began with Marquez’s tipoff at the gas
station in Ajo. Three months later, in July 2017, a No More Deaths
volunteer was arrested and charged with “criminal damages” for allegedly
vandalizing a Border Patrol surveillance camera on the Cabeza Prieta
National Wildlife Refuge. (The disposition of that case is not included
in the redacted timeline.)
By the end of the year, the timeline claims, unidentified Ajo residents
had told members of the Disrupt unit that “ever since multiple NGOs had
begun using ‘The Barn’ as a base of operations, they noticed an increase
of both vehicle and pedestrian traffic,” as well as “more and more
illegal alien paraphernalia such as black water jugs and carpet booties”
migrants use to cover their tracks in the desert sand.
Included in the timeline were the names and birthdates of six
individuals who were stopped on the Cabeza refuge in November 2017. The
timeline makes no mention of crimes the individuals were suspected of
committing, stating only that “they claimed to be involved with the Ajo
Samaritans and stated they were performing their duties as servants of
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.”
Heading into 2018, the timeline shows an acceleration in law enforcement
activity around humanitarian aid volunteers in Ajo — volunteers who,
that same year, recovered a record number of human remains in the region
and were in the midst of an effort to ramp up the distribution of water
jugs in the remote areas where those bodies were turning up.
Ebann, the Fish and Wildlife official, met with members of the Disrupt
unit at the Ajo Border Patrol station on December 12, 2017, where he was
informed of “intelligence indicating possible alien smuggling and/or
harboring” at the Barn. Ebann told the agents that he was familiar with
the property (he lives nearby) and that he was looking to serve Warren a
summons for trespassing on federal lands.
According to the timeline, “when the idea of calling the Border Patrol
was expressed, two residents, that can only be described as an older
couple,” reportedly told their fellow resident not to do so. “The couple
called a friend and an unknown female arrived and transported the
illegal alien to an unknown location,” it said.
Three days after they learned of the 2017 incident, members of the Ajo
Disrupt unit met with members of the Tucson sector’s intelligence unit.
An agent by the name of Walker provided the Ajo team with “information
on the current operations of No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths” and
“identified and provided guidance on how to investigate their activities.”
Six days later, just hours after No More Deaths published a report
detailing the Border Patrol destruction of jugs containing thousands of
gallons of water left in the desert, Warren was placed under arrest.
“We’ve perceived the arrest as retaliatory, but it’s not surprising that
there was some level of investigation into the organization,” Paige
Corich-Kleim, a longtime No More Deaths volunteer, told The Intercept.
The timeline confirms collaboration between Fish and Wildlife and Border
Patrol, and across Border Patrol stations, she said, adding that the
involvement of the Tucson sector’s intelligence unit was “concerning.”
Image: U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona; Screenshot:
_Despite their investigative_ digging, messages Disrupt unit members
sent immediately before Warren’s arrest suggest a surprised elation upon
finding the humanitarian aid volunteer in the company of suspected
migrants. When agent Alberto “Balls” Ballesteros first got word of the
“2 toncs at the house,” for example, his reply was: “What!?!?!?!?!?! Nice!”
At Warren’s felony trial earlier this summer, Marquez testified that
Warren’s was the only criminal case he had ever been involved in. He
later corrected himself, acknowledging that he’d arrested people since
then. Whatever it was, newly revealed text messages Marquez sent Ebann
after Warren was taken into custody indicate that the agent realized
what he was doing was a big deal. When Ebann asked Marquez if they had
seized Warren’s phone, Marquez said they were “about to.”
“He had it on him thank god,” he wrote.
“Good evidence,” the Fish and Wildlife officer replied.
“For sure,” Marquez agreed. “We are taking everything very seriously.”
Marquez added that his supervisor, Desiderio Vargas, was “making sure we
do things right.”
In the time since Marquez sent that message, a United Nations panel of
human rights experts
and 15 U.S. senators
— including five presidential candidates — have called on the Department
of Justice to drop the charges stemming from his operation.
The first No More Deaths trial, involving four volunteers accused of
littering and trespassing, resulted in four convictions, with the
volunteers sentenced to probation and given $250 fines. A second case
involving four other No More Deaths volunteers facing similar charges
did not go to trial, though those defendants, too, ended up receiving
probation and fines.
A judge has not rendered a decision in Warren’s misdemeanor case
which ended in May.
His felony trial ended in a hung
jury in June, with eight of 12 jurors taking the position that he should
not be convicted on any of the counts he was facing, including two for
harboring and one for conspiracy
Earlier this month, the U.S. attorney’s office announced that it would
retry Warren on the harboring charges, while ditching the conspiracy
charge. The second trial is scheduled for November. Warren faces a
decade in prison if convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms.
While the Trump administration has framed its immigration crackdown as a
war against the worst of the worst, the past 2 1/2 years have revealed a
shift in the prioritization of time, energy, and law enforcement
resources toward organizations and individuals that come into contact
with migrants, and whose politics do not align with the president’s.
On April 11, 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to
Nogales, Arizona, where he delivered a speech describing the border as a
lawless war zone where people are routinely beheaded with machetes. To
combat this mayhem, Sessions announced that he was directing his
prosecutors to bring in more smuggling cases. Less than two weeks later,
Marquez was at the gas station receiving his tip. Nine months after
that, Warren was arrested, and the U.S. attorney’s office agreed to take
a case that previous prosecutors may have well declined.
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