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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Brian Dick, a Tucson border agent, was sentenced in January to more than five years in prison for raping a female agent.

While his crime wasn't directed at an immigrant, his victim shed light on the harassment agents face after reporting abuse by a fellow agent.

The Arizona Daily Star reported that the female agent told her attacker in court that she "received nonstop calls from private numbers from your buddies." She said these callers "should be ashamed of wearing a badge and uniform."

Her story demonstrates that if agents harassed her, one of their own, for reporting that Dick raped her, it is not a stretch to believe what human rights activists have preached for decades — agents are unlikely to report witnessing colleagues abuse immigrants.

There is no doubt that Border Patrol agents have dangerous jobs. And not all of them go home unharmed at the end of their shifts.

Jesus Albino Navarro-Montes was arrested in February 2009 in Mexico and extradited to the United States to face murder charges. Navarro-Montes allegedly ran down Agent Luis Aguilar, who later died, with a Hummer H2 in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area in California. Navarro-Montes' case is pending.

Later that year, on July 23, a 30-year-old agent was shot and killed while on a call. Agent Robert W. Rosas Jr. was patrolling alone and had radioed spotting several individuals traveling north toward the U.S. border. Then, contact was lost.

Agents were rushing to Rosas' location on a remote border trail east of San Diego when they heard gunshots. They found his vehicle and bullet-riddled body a few feet away.

A judge sentenced Christian Daniel Castro-Alvarez, a Mexican teenager, to 40 years in prison for Rosas' murder.

Though stats on abused immigrants must be ferreted out by news media and activist groups, U.S. border officials are happy to release figures on assaults against Border Patrol agents.

CBP announced that, across the nation, there were 986 assaults on agents in fiscal year 2010, up from 974 the previous year. Along the Southwest border, 974 agents were assaulted in 2010, up from 958 in 2009, the agency says.

Just as immigrants endure desert conditions, including the threat of human assault, Border Patrol agents must work in the same environs, officials note. Not mentioned is that they have the advantages of citizenship, salaries, badges, and licensed weapons.

"We don't mind tracking a group for three, four, five miles in the middle of the heat, in the middle of the cold, whatever," Tucson Sector Agent Cantu said. "That's what we're about."


"There are currently no uniform regulations. [There is] no independent oversight of the treatment of those detained," wrote the authors of No More Deaths' "Crossing the Line" report. "The testimonies [in the report] reveal a systematic refusal to respect the dignity of human beings and a failure to uphold human rights."

Advocacy groups want this culture of cruelty to change. They want Customs and Border Protection to admit there is a big problem and enforce reform. They want the agency to make agents' behavior toward immigrants transparent — stop giving the public the runaround.

On the ground level, they want agents put on notice that there will be serious repercussions if they do not inform immigrants of their rights, provide basic medical care, offer sufficient food and water, and treat them with dignity while they are detained.

Vicki B. Gaubeca, director of the ACLU's Regional Center for Border Rights in New Mexico, said human rights organizations across the country met in September with Border Patrol leaders in Washington, D.C.

"[CBP officials] are going over their training guidelines, over their criteria for use of force," she said, adding that the agency's convoluted complaint system needs addressing. "Even if you had the courage to complain, you would have to figure out whom you make that complaint to."

Pedro Rios, of the American Friends Service Committee, said his organization is part of a larger network of border groups, including the ACLU of New Mexico, talking to the federal agency about creating a border-abuse-documentation system so groups can track the information they collect on migrant abuse.

"We [could then] extract how many abuse-of-authority cases, how many shootings," Rios said. "I do believe that it's the government's responsibility to have that information readily available."

Their message is reaching members of Congress. Sort of.

During a congressional hearing on April 14 about homeland security, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) asked Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Alan Bersin and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton about abuse of illegal immigrants in Border Patrol custody.

"Can you please explain what steps you're going to be taking to ensure that every individual in custody is treated humanely, and .  .  . describe what oversight [exists] to prevent abuse of detained immigrants at Border Patrol facilities. I've asked this question before. I've gotten responses. I'm told that changes are being made.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo