“Kick Ass, Ask Questions Later”: A Border Patrol Whistleblower Speaks Out About Culture of Abuse Against Migrants

The former agent said that he could not stand by as he saw reports that the abuses he witnessed continue -- including the destruction of water jugs.

Illustration: Simón Prades for The Intercept

The 4-year-old boy and his parents had been lost for days in the desert and were desperately thirsty. Mario, a new Border Patrol officer, had received a call that there were migrants in the area and went out looking for them near the village of Menagers Dam, or Ali Ak Chin, on the Tohono O’odham reservation in Arizona. It was nearly dawn when Mario first spotted the mother in a wash. The family readily gave themselves up, and the woman told Mario that they needed water.

“They were pretty banged up,” Mario told The Intercept. “They were in distress.” He alerted his superior officer to his location. Just as the officer was arriving on the scene, Mario handed the 4-year-old boy a jug of water. Before the boy could take a sip, however, the officer kicked the jug out of the child’s hands and barked, “There’s no amnesty here.” He then reprimanded Mario for offering him water, warning him, “Don’t go south on me.” In other words, don’t show an ounce of sympathy for those from below the border.

Mario said he was shocked and offended by the officer’s actions. But it was just one of many incidents of brutality that he would witness during his two years with the Border Patrol, about which he is speaking out for the first time.

The Intercept is identifying Mario by a pseudonym because he still works for a federal agency, and fears that using his name would lead to reprisals and jeopardize his job. A military veteran, Mario enlisted in the Border Patrol in 2009 and resigned in 2011. Although he has been out of the Border Patrol for years, his account sheds light on practices that reportedly continue today, and provides a rare insight into the culture of an agency that has been rhetorically emboldened by the Trump administration and promised more money, personnel, and technology to carry out aggressive border enforcement.

In wide-ranging conversations, Mario discussed assaults and other abuses against migrants, a lack of effective oversight, and a disturbing culture of dehumanization in the agency. He says that he has decided to step forward to tell the American public about conduct he found embarrassing, cruel, and unregulated.

The Intercept has not been able to corroborate all of the specific details of Mario’s claims, but two other former personnel who have spoken publicly about problems with the agency — James Tomsheck, the former head of internal affairs for Customs and Border Protection, and Francisco Cantú, author of a recent Border Patrol memoir, who served in the same station as Mario — say that his stories line up with their knowledge and experiences. They are also corroborated by complaints filed by migrants and allegations published by NGOs and news outlets. Mario confirmed his position in the agency with photographs of himself in uniform, old ID cards, serial numbers of BP-issued gear, as well as detailed knowledge of the area in Arizona where he was posted, Ajo station in the Tucson sector.

As the part of Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency, the Border Patrol is notoriously opaque. Most of its actions occur in locked-door stations, holding facilities, or remote desert regions inaccessible to the public, journalists, and lawmakers. There have been few front-line agents willing to speak to the press. “The Green Line of silence is higher and wider than it’s ever been before,” Tomsheck told The Intercept, referring to the implicit Border Patrol pact not to speak publicly about what happens in the field. There is “a clear understanding on the part of the rank and file in the Border Patrol that if they should engage in whistleblower activities, or do anything to promote transparency, that they would be retaliated against in a way that would likely end their career.”

Mario said that he could not stand by as he watched reports that the kind of abuses he witnessed continue. 

Though Mario’s run with the Border Patrol is over, he told The Intercept that he could not stand by as he watched reports that the kind of abuses he witnessed continue. In just the past year, Border Patrol agents fatally shot an unarmed woman and have reportedly threatened to rape children in their custody. Evidence also emerged that agents regularly dissuade potential asylum-seekers from asking for protection, and slash bottles of water left out for people crossing in the desert. What finally spurred Mario to come forward was the January arrest of Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid activist, for allegedly “harboring illegal aliens.” Warren was a volunteer who provided food, water, and clothing to migrants, and when Mario read about him in the news, he thought it was clear that Warren was trying to “stop the deaths” in the desert. He said he wasn’t surprised that the Border Patrol targeted Warren — “it’s just the nature of the beast” — but wished there was something he could do. So he decided to speak out.

“Kick ass, ask questions later.” That was the mentality of the Border Patrol when Mario signed up and was dispatched to the remote desert region near Ajo, Arizona. In the years Mario was stationed there, Ajo was among the busiest migrant crossing and drug trafficking corridors in the country, which agents referred to, Mario said, as “the wild wild West.” According to his descriptions, Border Patrol agents conducted themselves much like the lawless and violent cowboys and colonizers that preceded them.

Mario claimed that the same officer who’d kicked the water bottle out of the child’s hands also ordered others to slash water bottles left out by humanitarian aid groups for thirsty migrants. Around late 2009, Mario was with a group of agents, including trainees and two senior officers, when they spotted aid workers leaving gallons of water along a migrant trail. The agents waited for the aid workers to leave, and then, referring to the water as “tonk water” — “tonk” is common Border Patrol slang, and comes from the noise a flashlight supposedly makes when thudding against a migrant’s head — the senior officer told the trainees who were with him, “If I were you, I’d take care of it.” Three agents then walked to where the jugs were, “took their Leathermans out, and just sliced them open.” The officer both gave the order and saw that the agents slashed the bottles.

Mario said this was typical — and so was pouring out migrants’ water and dumping out their food when they dropped their bags to run from the Border Patrol. I asked him if this was something that he had been ordered or trained to do. “Yeah, you just dump it [the food and water] out. Cut it. Step on it,” he said. Mario’s account adds to evidence gathered by the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, which released a report this year documenting thousands of vandalized water bottles between 2012 and 2015, and video of more recent incidents (I volunteered with the organization and was part of the team that wrote the report. After the report was published, nine volunteers with No More Deaths were hit with federal charges for leaving water in a federal wilderness preserve — including Warren, the academic whose arrest motivated Mario to come forward.) The Border Patrol’s rationale for destroying supply drops was that if they deprived migrants of water and food, they would have to turn themselves in. Taking away water in the desert, however, means putting lives in serious danger; 412 migrants were found dead along the border in 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration, and over 7,000 bodies have been discovered over the past two decades.

Illustration: Simón Prades for The Intercept

“Tonk” was a part of everyday lexicon in the agency, said Mario. “Agents would laugh, joke around, [and ask], ‘How many tonks did you catch today?’” He explained that “they laugh about this because if you use an intermediate weapon like [pepper] spray, Taser, or a baton, policy says you have to write a memo. But if you use a flashlight, you don’t have to write a memo, so it was always common knowledge: Use your flashlight.” Besides “tonk water,” agents also used the term “tonk lover” to refer to humanitarian aid volunteers.

Drug smugglers were “backpackers,” and migrants in distress seeking to turn themselves in were referred to as “give-ups.” Mario described a sense of competitiveness: Arresting “give-ups” was seen as less impressive than arresting “backpackers” or seizing drugs. Border Patrol agents labeled “pretty much … all immigrants as criminals and animals,” Mario said. “Tuning up” migrants meant to rough them up before bringing them back to the station. Agents were trained in how to “break” migrants so they would divulge who among them was the guide. “You have to put fear in them,” Mario said. The officer that trained him repeatedly explained to Mario and his unit that “sometimes you need to operate in the gray.”

Mario said that an agent once boasted about handcuffing two migrants together around a saguaro cactus as the agent searched for drugs. (Cantú told me he’d heard similar stories.) In another incident he witnessed, a burly senior officer, without provocation, repeatedly kicked three male migrants, trying to force a confession about drug trafficking. The agent, according to Mario, “laid [the migrants] on the floor,” and then began “kicking the guys asking them where the dope was. Kept kicking them, kept kicking them.” No confession came, and no drugs were found.

His field training officer repeatedly explained to Mario and his unit that “sometimes you need to operate in the gray.”

Mario said that when he was in the Border Patrol academy, it was taught that “as soon as [migrants] pick up a rock and it goes over their head, you can light them up however you want. It’s fair game.” By “light them up,” he meant shoot to kill. The Border Patrol says it has made its guidelines for the use of force more restrictive in recent years, but there have still been recent instances of fatal shootings, including the killing of Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old Guatemalan woman who was shot at the border in Texas this May. The Border Patrol initially described González as part of a group of “assailants” that had attacked an agent “using blunt objects.” Later statements contradicted that account.

Under the Trump administration, the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection have been accused of illegally turning back asylum-seekers, spreading falsehoods about the asylum process, or not following the proper procedures to determine if someone is afraid of returning to their home country. According to Mario, this latter practice used to be common.

Agents refer to the processing of migrants at Border Patrol stations as “rolling” them; it includes taking migrants’ basic biographical information, cataloguing their property, and then fingerprinting and photographing them. Customs and Border Protection protocol says that agents should also try to determine whether the migrant might have an asylum claim, even if they don’t ask for protection outright. According to the policy, they should “explore any statement or indications, verbal or nonverbal, that the alien actually may have a fear of persecution or torture on return to his or her country.” The agents must also “fully advise” the migrant of the asylum process.

“We never ask that,” Mario said. “We were just, ‘What’s your name? Is this your real name?’ What country they’re from …” When I pointed out that Border Patrol agents were obligated to ask about potential asylum claims, he responded: Yeah, you are. But it’s kind of like … We would kind of lead the witness,” convincing migrants to agree to “voluntary return,” a quick deportation process that only Border Patrol can perform, which requires minimal paperwork and yet may negatively impact future claims for legal status in the United States. I asked if he had been trained or coached in “leading the witness.”

“Well yeah,” Mario said, “you’re kind of thrown in, like baptism under fire. They don’t give you a class in processing aliens. The guy that you’re relieving tells you, Hey, this is what you’re going to do, this is how I do it.”

The abuse Mario witnessed wasn’t only directed at migrants. Mario said that the same abusive senior officer had once humiliated and then physically assaulted a junior agent in his training unit. It was common for the officers in charge of training to force the junior agents to draw maps of the area they had been working in; one day, one of the agents was having a hard time with the task, so the officer called the agent to the front of the class and began to berate and punch him.

“I mean closed fist, pound him right on the chest, like, ‘Are you not getting this?’” Mario said. “‘Are you stupid? What is wrong with you? You need to quit. You’re not built for this. You’re an idiot. I don’t want you in my patrol,’” Mario remembers him saying. The assault continued to the point where the junior agent fell back and shattered a fire extinguisher’s glass panel.

“I was kind of shocked,” Mario said, “and I knew that if I stepped in, that I would be next, so I kind of left it at that.” But the incident didn’t sit right, and Mario decided to report it to the Office of Inspector General. He called the watchdog’s office in Los Angeles and explained to an agent over the phone not only about the assault, but also about other officers encouraging agents to commit time-sheet fraud and manipulate the fuses on their trucks so they could drive at night without headlamps (Mario did not file a written complaint, but The Intercept has viewed his notes showing dates, phone numbers, and the names of the people he contacted. Tomsheck also said he’d seen reports of “inappropriately aggressive” behavior in training sessions.)

A few weeks later, according to Mario, a representative from the Inspector General came to speak to his unit, interviewing all the agents except for Mario. The investigative method singled him out and “ever since,” Mario explained, “I was kind of like the pariah in the station, and I felt like I was targeted.”

The issues were not only with one particular officer, Mario said. He pointed to the horse patrol, saying that it was “notorious for beating up illegals. … Most of those guys were under investigation for use of force.” When abusive officers were disciplined, they were usually temporarily reassigned to the “rubber-gun squad” — desk or garage jobs — “and then you’d be clear and you’d be back on duty.”

In response to Mario’s allegations, the Border Patrol acknowledged that “like any organization … periodically there will be elements in the workforce that succumb to corruption. When that occurs CBP acts decisively and appropriately.” They also pointed to new policies for training, reporting, and investigating excessive use of force articulated in the policy guidelines updated in 2014.

For Mario, the encouragement to “operate in the gray” summed up the attitude of the Border Patrol — operating outside of the law. He described some of the actions of Border Patrol as “borderline inhumane.” Though he remained with agency for another year, after witnessing the officer kick the water out of the child’s hands, he first thought to himself, “This place is not somewhere I want to be. I’m going to go to another agency.”

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