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

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"Please, you're hurting me," she said, which elicited no mercy from her captor.

When told this story, Border Patrol Agent Eric Cantu, spokesman for the agency's Tucson sector, said agents have to approach every suspect as a potential threat.

There is no room, he said, for niceties in a desert where armed drug smugglers hide under the cover of darkness and where bajadores, bold enough to rob from murderous drug smugglers, roam in search of victims. There is little time to distinguish between immigrants who will submit to arrest peacefully, he said, and those who will lunge for an agent's weapon.

"Just getting to where [agents] need to be is full of danger," Cantu said. "And once you get there, you have a group of strangers willing to risk everything to get into the U.S. — and you're standing in their way."

Cantu, a former Marine with almost four years on the job, concedes that there are bad agents but that most carry out their duties with integrity:

"We're noble men and women. And we're dedicated to our jobs. We don't do it to crush dreams. We don't do it to humiliate. We do it for our country."

Juan Carlos Diaz Romero has a much different perspective after years of tending to deported migrants who arrive with signs of abuse at the No More Deaths migrant-aid station. He routinely hears stories that immigrants were denied food, water, or medical attention while in custody.

The full-time volunteer, who lives nearby, says he suffered Border Patrol abuse when he tried to cross into Arizona.

"I've suffered just like they have," he said. "I want to help, so I just stay here."

Of the deportees he encounters, Diaz Romero says, "Many people who arrive here have been beaten, have gone days without food.

"Oh, and if they [have] run, that only made the agents angry. The [agents] beat them to punish them."

Deportee Armando told volunteers that an agent beat him for fleeing. It happened after he had grown too tired to go on. He stopped, turned toward the agent, and threw his hands up in the air. The officer caught up, yanked Armando's head back, and slammed his fist into the side of the immigrant's face.

Officials deported the Michoacán native, and he later arrived at the migrant-aid station. Volunteers noted in their reports that he had scratches on his chest, was bleeding from a large gash in his hand, and looked like he had been savagely beaten.

Volunteer Sally Meisenhelder has encountered someone like Armando each time she has traveled from her New Mexico home to work at the aid station at the Nogales port of entry.

"Every day I have been at the port, I have met someone who was physically abused by Border Patrol, sometimes in a sadistic manner," she wrote in a signed affidavit included in the "Crossing the Line" report. "The injuries I have personally seen have been fractures of feet, after being run over by vehicles, pulmonary contusions caused by beating to the chest wall, lacerations caused by being pushed down on the ground, [and] bruises and sprains."

Sarah Roberts provided medical care to one man who told her a Border Patrol agent in Douglas, Arizona, kicked him in the head after he asked for food for a child. The man said the agent also swung his foot at a woman who asked for food. Another migrant warded off the kick intended for the woman with his hand, absorbing a blow so strong that it broke his wristwatch.

Roberts did her best to console Juana before they walked about a half-mile to the comedor.

While they ate, Roberts told the group at the soup kitchen that she was there to provide first aid and to document accounts of treatment by Border Patrol agents.

After the meal, a few went to Roberts for aspirin, a muscle rub, or something to heal the deep cuts or raw blisters on their feet. Those who needed more attention followed her to Grupo Beta, a Mexican aid station not far from the border.

In a back room, Roberts filled a small tub with water for the deportees to soak their feet. She applied medication and gave them fresh pairs of socks. Her husband helped wrap sprained ankles and handed out Girl Scout cookies and clothes.

No one Roberts saw that day volunteered that he or she had been abused by the Border Patrol. But when questioned about what they ate, the conditions of their holding cells, or how the agents spoke to them, a different picture emerged.

Some said they were given food — a few saltine crackers — and water in a dirty bucket. They said agents did not hit or manhandle them, only mocked or berated them.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo