Longform

Cloaked Brutality: The Feds Bury Border Patrol Abuses of Immigrants, But What's Been Unearthed Reveals a Culture of Cruelty

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As for prosecutions of Border Patrol agents, the closest New Times could come was a U.S. Department of Justice statement that "at least" eight agents had been prosecuted since '04.

Seven of these cases involved the beating, sexual assault, or attempted murder of immigrants in Border Patrol custody. They do not include the still-under-investigation case in which the San Diego agents were caught on videotape savagely beating a compliant Hernandez Rojas, who later died.

As for details about agents brought up on charges, fired for misdeeds, or reprimanded, there is no sure way of discovering them— unless the rare case gets reported by an altruistic officer, winds up videotaped, or becomes part of a report by a humanitarian group — because CBP is anything but cooperative.

Infamous federal bureaucracy may be part of the problem, but the fact remains that the violent actions of border agents — who deal with a population of detainees who wind up back in Mexico, speak little or no English, and/or are too afraid or unsophisticated to complain — are cloaked in secrecy.

Even detailed information about how border agents are trained — including the kind of civil rights and weapons training they receive — is nearly impossible to come by.

It's not just activist groups that complain about the border-protection force. Union leaders who represent Border Patrol agents suggest that agency leaders are more concerned with boosting the number — not the quality — of agents.

"As long as the Border Patrol continues to place priority on the quantity of recruits rather than the quality of recruits, corruption within the Border Patrol will rise in the future," the National Border Patrol Council, Local 1613 posted on its Web site. The union represents about 1,500 non-supervisory agents and support personnel in the Border Patrol's San Diego Sector.

One reason agents go astray appears to be that, in the federal government's rush to add new agents in the wake of zealous calls for increased border security, Customs and Border Protection contends it can no longer follow its own policy of conducting polygraph examinations of potential agents.

James F. Tomsheck, assistant commissioner of CBP's Office of Internal Affairs, told federal lawmakers during a congressional hearing in March that only about 10 percent of potential agents undergo polygraphs that, in part, help determine applicants' motivation in seeking employment as agents. Of those who are tested, more than half are rejected as unsuitable for employment by the federal agency.

Homeland Security is adding 2,200 Border Patrol agents to help secure the nearly 7,000 miles of border that the United States shares with Mexico and Canada. Using Tomschek's math, this means that 220 would wind up tested, with 1,980 untested agents entering federal service. But the overriding point is that nearly 1,188 of the 2,200 would be rejected if they were tested.

The polygraphs matter, Tomsheck said to lawmakers, because the tests have weeded out individuals with ties to drug cartels trying to infiltrate the agency. But he said they aren't conducted on all applicants because the agency doesn't have enough money to hire sufficient polygraph examiners.

Tomsheck did not address whether there would be wisdom in hiring fewer new agents to make way for sufficient polygraph examiners — so that the new agents who are hired go through at least basic agency screening.


Migrants' stories of abuse at the hands of la migra go back decades. Border Patrol agents are accepted by Mexicans as one of the extreme dangers of illegally crossing into the United States — along with wild animals, treacherous terrain, and corrupt human smugglers hired to guide them through the desert.

Human rights organizations — including No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes), based in Tucson, Arizona; Border Angels, headquartered in San Diego; and Border Network for Human Rights, out of El Paso, Texas — have worked for decades to raise awareness of abuses that immigrants endure at the hands of border agents.

Despite their calls for reform, volunteers continue to hear stories of abuse from the men, women, and children the Border Patrol has detained.

No More Deaths volunteers documented hundreds of cases in a 2008 report, "Crossing the Line — Human Rights Abuses of Migrants in Short-Term Custody on the Arizona-Sonora Border."

Many of the stories are incomplete because migrants are afraid to provide their full identities, and once their brief encounters with volunteers at migrant-aid stations are over, they are gone, untraceable.

Paulino arrived at the No More Deaths aid station at the Nogales, Sonora port of entry on August 5, 2006. The 29-year-old from Cancún was crying and in severe pain. He told volunteers he had traveled alone through the desert for three days before he was captured by Border Patrol agents and deported. While in custody, he said armed agents kicked him in the stomach. He said they told him they didn't speak Spanish and refused to provide him medical attention.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo