“We’re Gonna Take Everyone” — Border Patrol Targets Prominent Humanitarian Group as Criminal Organization

The prosecution of No More Deaths volunteers, who leave water in the desert for migrants, reveals the group is being targeted by the Border Patrol.

Amber Stenson of "No More Deaths," a group of volunteers who provide water, food and first aid to illegal migrants crossing through the southern Arizona desert from Mexico, treats the blistered feet of men who were camped in the brush near the town of Aravaca Thursday, July 21, 2005.  (Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Amber Stenson of No More Deaths treats the blistered feet of men who were camped in the brush near the town of Aravaca, Arizona on July 21, 2005. Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

From the moment Scott Warren was arrested by Border Patrol agents on a remote property just north of the Mexican border, in January this year, there were questions. The 35-year-old college instructor, with a doctorate in geography and a history of academic and humanitarian work along the border, was found in a building known locally as “the Barn,” in the company of two young undocumented men from Mexico.

Accused of supplying the men with food, water, clothing, and a place to sleep, he was indicted by a grand jury in February, on two counts of harboring illegal aliens and one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens. The humanitarian aid volunteer could spend up to two decades in prison if convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms.


Scott Warren, a professor at Arizona State University and a volunteer with No More Deaths, was arrested and charged after Border Patrol allegedly witnessed him giving food and water to two migrants.

Photo: Carrot Quinn
Warren is also one of nine volunteers with No More Deaths, an official ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, to be hit with federal charges in recent months for leaving water in a remote federal wilderness preserve where migrants routinely disappear and die. His arrest came just hours after No More Deaths published a report that documents evidence of Border Patrol agents destroying jugs of water that the group leaves for migrants in the desert.

Now, more than three months after the raid on the Barn, filings in the criminal case against Warren reveal new details about the January operation, bolstering suspicions that law enforcement has come to see No More Deaths, an organization focused on preventing the loss of life in the borderlands, as a criminal organization aimed at aiding the unlawful entry of migrants into the U.S.

A motion to suppress evidence that was filed by Warren’s attorneys, who claim that the warrantless search of The Barn was unlawful, includes text messages between Border Patrol agents from before and after the raid, as well as reports written by agency officials at the time. The materials include talk of open investigations into No More Deaths as an organization, descriptions of Warren as a “recruiter” for the group, and links made between Warren’s arrest and prior enforcement actions that stemmed from the organization’s “illicit” work.

The Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector declined to comment on the recently filed materials, referring The Intercept’s questions, initially sent Friday, to the U.S. attorney’s office. The U.S. attorney’s office refused to say whether an investigation has been opened into No More Deaths as an organization, citing office policy. By Monday, the documents had been removed from the federal government’s online database of court records.

For those working to address the humanitarian crisis along the border, the documents underscore the challenges of continuing that work in the Trump era. Echoing the sentiments of her fellow No More Deaths volunteers, Kate Morgan-Olsen, abuse documentation and advocacy coordinator for the organization, said the records disclosed in Warren’s case confirmed what the group has always suspected: that the government views her organization as a target. “The documents, particularly the text messages, show what we thought was the case, which is that there is some sort of investigation into our organization,” she said.


A surveillance photo of “the Barn,” taken by Border Patrol agents on Nov. 17, 2017.

Photo: United States District Court for the District of Arizona

“Knock It Fast Before They Can Bolt”

The Barn, and the work that goes on there, is no secret. The Ajo, Arizona, property is openly used by humanitarian aid groups that provide food, water, and medical care to the adults and children who come stumbling out of the Arizona desert exhausted, dehydrated, and sometimes on the verge of death. The most prominent group to make use of the space, No More Deaths, has worked along the border for nearly a decade and a half. Warren has volunteered with the organization, among others, since 2014.

Border Patrol agents and humanitarian groups in Arizona, such as No More Deaths, have long operated with an understanding that spaces used to save human lives are generally off limits to law enforcement. The verbal agreement upheld by Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector and volunteers in the area is built on a set of written principles modeled after Red Cross guidelines on the treatment of humanitarian aid organizations, which include a passage that reads, “Medical treatment provided by humanitarian aid agencies should be recognized and respected by government agents and should be protected from surveillance and interference.”

The internal communications of law enforcement as they descended on the Barn in mid-January shows that those past practices are no longer being respected.

“Toncs at the barn,” wrote agent Brendan Burns at 4:38 p.m., in group text titled, “Los Perros Bravos part 3.”

Common in Border Patrol slang, the word toncs, or tonks, is used to refer to migrants. Though its precise etymology is unclear, the word, by some accounts, refers to the sound a law enforcement-issued flashlight makes when it connects with a human skull.


An excerpt from text messages sent between Border Patrol agents during a January raid in Ajo, Arizona.

Screenshot: United States District Court for the District of Arizona

“Get ready to roll this way all who are available,” Burns wrote. “Came out of the house.”

“10-4,” replied agent Albert Ballesteros, whose avatar featured white letters and an image on a black background — “WATERBOARDING — BAPTIZING TERRORISTS WITH FREEDOM SINCE 2003” — encircling a stick figure strapped to a rack with a bucket of water being poured into his mouth.

From his vantage point, Burns was able to identify Warren by sight. “Scott Warren pointing out terrain to them,” he wrote, adding, in reference to the two men Warren was with, “Probably the two from Ajo yesterday.”

“How much time do we have?” Border Patrol supervisor Desiderio Vargas wrote.

“Unknown,” Burns replied. “We’re watching now. We’d like to get guys in position to get up and knock it fast before they can bolt.”


An excerpt from text messages sent between Border Patrol agents during a January raid in Ajo, Arizona.

Screenshot: United States District Court for the District of Arizona

Ballesteros advised that a contingent of the raiding party would convene at a hotel on the highway. “I am here now,” he wrote. Burns called for the perimeter to be secured before dark. In a message to another member of the team, Chris Smith, Burns wrote, “Smitty just run it by your side regarding prosecution for these guys.”

“For 1324 harboring and conspiracy for the uscs,” he added, referring to the statute the Border Patrol intended to invoke against U.S. citizens found on the property.

“T4,” Smith replied. “I believe Nogales has an investigation on the organization.”

At that point, Vargas wrote, “I’m asking now for the AUSA” — referring to the Assistant United States Attorney — “Waiting for the call back.”

There is no indication in the messages as to whether the call was ever returned. “T4,” Burns said in response. “We’re gonna take everyone in regardless.”

“Everyone be as professional as possible,” said Vargas, the supervisor.

“Of course,” Burns replied. “You know us.”

In a message sent after the raid concluded, Burns provided a word of advice on questioning the migrants who were arrested, to ensure that they would become useful material witnesses. “Sandoval make sure those toncs are isolated so we can get good mat wit interviews.”

“10-4,” replied Ballesteros, the agent with the waterboarding avatar.


An excerpt from text messages sent between Border Patrol agents during the January operation at the Barn.

Screenshot: United States District Court for the District of Arizona

The “Stash House” Narrative

As Burns suspected, the two undocumented immigrants arrested that day became material witnesses for the U.S. government, used in the state’s case against Warren.

In its initial one-page complaint, the government claimed that Border Patrol agents conducting surveillance had observed Warren, and the men he was arrested with, entering the Barn before they were taken into custody. The agents, along with Pima County sheriff’s deputies performed a so-called knock and talk search on the property, leading to a determination that the migrants had entered the country unlawfully. Once in custody, the migrants allegedly told law enforcement that Warren had provided them with food, water, clean clothes, and beds to sleep in over the course of the three days.

In a report filed that day, agent John C. Marquez narrates the events that led up to the arrests, reporting that he and agent Burns set up an observation post on a Bureau of Land Management property that provided a view of the Barn, after getting word from an undocumented immigrant picked up the day before of other migrants moving through the area. “The Barn,” Marquez wrote, “is also known as a ‘stash house’, and is suspected to be used by Non-Government Organizations (NGO) to harbor illegal aliens.” Marquez added that “local residents” had “complained of finding paraphernalia associated with illegal alien activity such as black water jugs and carpet booties in the immediate vicinity of ‘The Barn.’”

PIMA COUNTY, ARIZONA - JUNE 16:  Discarded clothes and a sneaker lay on the ground on a trail used by migrants entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico June 16, 2006 in Pima County, Arizona. Since 1998 over 2,650 men, women and children have died attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, a record 473 illegal immigrants died while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border during the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2005. The group No More Deaths runs 24-hour camps in the desert conducting search and rescue patrols for migrants in peril.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Discarded clothes and a sneaker lie on a trail used by migrants entering the United States from Mexico on June 16, 2006, in Pima County, Ariz.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The NGOs are engaged in “humanitarian supply drops for illegal aliens,” Marquez wrote. “These supply drops consist of food, water, and other items to aid illegal aliens as they further their entry into The United States,” he went on to say. “One of the NGOs identified as operating out of ‘The Barn’ is No More Deaths (NMD).” In the passage that followed, Marquez described Warren as “an active volunteer for NMD who organizes and recruits college students to aid in supply drops, and speaks publicly on immigration issues.”

Then, in a line that acknowledged a link between Warren’s arrest and a standoff between the Border Patrol and No More Deaths last summer, Marquez added that the organization “was long suspected of illegally harboring and aiding illegal aliens and a search warrant for their illicit activities was recently executed at their humanitarian station near Arivaca, Arizona.” Noting the “search warrant resulted in the arrest of several illegal aliens,” Marquez said the raid last summer “revealed that NMD would provide illegal aliens with food and water along with showers and new clothes to wear to further their illegal entry into the United States.”

The incident in Arivaca that Marquez referenced was, for many No More Deaths volunteers, the first concrete sign that the Border Patrol would be taking a more aggressive approach to the group. Last June, the Border Patrol followed four men, later identified as Mexican nationals, to a No More Deaths encampment in the unincorporated community of Arivaca. With temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, volunteers said the men arrived in desperate need of medical care. Border Patrol agents surrounded the camp and a tense, multi-day standoff ensued. After three days, the Border Patrol secured a warrant to enter the property and arrested the migrants.

The warrant included evidence that the men were photographed “by a sensor” minutes before they entered the camp, raising questions among volunteers as to how intensely their camp was being watched. “This is the second time in a matter of weeks that they’ve attempted to penetrate the camp, that they’ve set this situation up,” Margo Cowan, an attorney for No More Deaths, told The Intercept at the time. “Prior to that, there weren’t these kinds of incursions and there wasn’t this kind of surveillance.”

In Warren’s case, a second document produced by the Border Patrol and included in recent court filings, written by Border Patrol intelligence agent Mary Ann Fogal, also suggests a keen interest in No More Deaths’ humanitarian aid work, again citing “supply drops” used to “support illegal aliens as they further their entry into the United States.” Describing the surveillance that occurred before his arrest, Fogal suggested that Warren, like the organization he volunteers with, was on the Border Patrol’s radar before the raid at the Barn. “Agents recognized the man as Scott Warren,” Fogal wrote. “Agents also recognized the vehicle as one frequently driven by Warren. Warren is a resident of Ajo, Arizona. Warren is involved with NMD.”

Prosecuted for Humanitarian Work

At the time, Warren’s fellow volunteers reacted to the news of his arrest with disgust, but they were not surprised. In the months leading up to the operation, they had observed a marked shift in the Border Patrol’s tactics, including the ramped up surveillance and open disregard for protocols observed last summer. For them, the explanation for the shift was obvious: President Donald Trump came into office with strong support from law enforcement, including the Border Patrol in particular, and now his agents felt empowered to take the sort of actions they had long been denied.

Senior Trump administration officials, particularly Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have called on law enforcement to bring the investigative and prosecutorial hammer down on anyone involved in unlawfully moving people into and around the country. Officials have also called for the prosecution of parents who pay to have their children smuggled into the U.S. Whether an organization could be similarly targeted for efforts to prevent people from dying in the desert remains an open question.

For No More Deaths volunteers and casual observers alike, the timing of Warren’s arrest was particularly curious. Just hours before Warren was taken into custody, the group published a report, along with the organization Coalición de Derechos Humanos, that documents evidence of Border Patrol agents systematically destroying jugs of water left for migrants crossing the desert.

FILE -- William Berk and Lydia Delphia, volunteers with No More Deaths, hike through the desert, carrying water to drop for migrants near Arivaca, Ariz., July 25, 2013. The Border Patrol raided the humanitarian aid group's base camp in 2017, arresting four men who had crossed into the United States illegally and were at the camp receiving emergency medical care. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Volunteers with No More Deaths hike through the desert carrying water to drop for migrants near Arivaca, Ariz., on July 25, 2013.

Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times/Redux

Based on a three-year analysis of mapping data, land jurisdictions, and hunting seasons, the report found that “3,586 gallons of water were vandalized” through 2015, and concluded that “the only actors with a sufficiently large and consistent presence across a sufficiently wide area of the desert, during periods when hunting is both authorized and prohibited, are agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.” The report also included video of Border Patrol agents destroying jugs of water left in the desert.

Following Warren’s arrest in Ajo, The Intercept was first to report that Warren was one of nine volunteers to be hit with federal charges in a period of a few months. While Warren’s felony charges stemming from the Barn raid carried the heaviest penalties, he and eight other volunteers were charged last winter with federal crimes for leaving jugs of water, cans of beans, and other supplies on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, a particularly remote region where 45 percent of the human remains discovered in the state were found in 2017.

Many of the charges currently leveled against No More Deaths volunteers have been brought before, though those cases were years ago, and they ultimately fell apart. In 2005, for example, two volunteers with the organization were arrested by Border Patrol agents as they attempted to transport three undocumented migrants to a local hospital. A judge threw out the charges. Similarly, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, five years later, overturned a littering conviction against a No More Deaths volunteer for leaving gallons of water for migrants passing through an Arizona wildlife refuge.

When asked about No More Deaths’ work, senior Border Patrol officials have maintained that their agency, too, is in the business of saving lives, that destruction of humanitarian aid supplies is strictly prohibited, and that the two groups are not working at cross purposes. No More Deaths disagrees. “Any effort by the Border Patrol to provide humanitarian aid is merely a band-aid solution on to a crisis of its own making,” the organization argued in its most recent report.

A shrine honoring the lives of those who have died in the desert made of objects found throughout the desert on migrant trails at the No More Deaths camp in Arivaca, Arizona. The group deposits water and gives medical attention to migrants in need traveling from Mexico through the desert to the United States.

A shrine, made of objects found on migrant trails, honors the lives of those who have died in the desert, at the No More Deaths camp in Arivaca, Ariz.

Photo: Matt Nager/Redux

Currently, Warren’s lawyers are arguing that the government’s case amounts to an attack on their client’s religious freedom.

For No More Deaths volunteers, one of the greatest concerns stemming from stepped-up enforcement against their organization is the impact it could have on those who find themselves lost, stranded, or dying in the desert. In the last decade and a half, a minimum of 8,000 people have died trying to cross into the U.S. The Arizona borderlands where No More Deaths operates are among the deadliest in the country.

According to Morgan-Olsen, No More Deaths volunteers see the government’s efforts as part of a broader trend across the country. “There’s any number of folks that we’ve seen in the last couple of months, who the state has been targeting for their work as immigrants, as immigrant rights activists, or as people who are in solidarity with those folks,” she said. With Warren’s arrest, the documents surrounding it, and the charges against other volunteers, she added, “We’re starting to see a more clear narrative of how that’s happening with No More Deaths.”

Top photo: Amber Stenson of No More Deaths treats the blistered feet of men who were camped in the brush near the town of Aravaca, Ariz., on July 21, 2005.

Join The Conversation