In the spring of 2017, a plainclothes Border Patrol agent met a source at a gas station in the sleepy town of Ajo, Arizona, some 40 miles north of Mexico. The meetup was facilitated by a colleague. The source had information about human smuggling but wanted to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation for talking to law enforcement, specifically the Border Patrol, about what they knew.
John “Rambo” Marquez had nearly a decade of experience in the patrol. His unit, known as “Disrupt,” fancied itself an elite outfit designed to take down complex criminal smuggling networks. They didn’t let the fact that they weren’t special agents, like those from the Drug Enforcement Administration or FBI, and didn’t have the training or authorities to carry out the kind of investigative work those agencies do, stop them from pursuing potential leads.
And this was a lead. Not about an actual criminal group or some violent border crimes, but a lead nonetheless. The source informed Marquez that Mimi Phillips, a caterer and owner of a breakfast business in Ajo, was harboring illegal border crossers at a building known locally as “the Barn.” Some residents, the source said, had taken to calling the facility, long used by groups that search for missing and dead migrants, a “stash house.”
Not only that, the source said, Phillips was a member of a nonprofit that, according to its website, was made up of “concerned people from all walks of life who have joined forces” to promote environmental conservation practices and educate the public on “protecting and respecting valuable biological and cultural resources and traditions.”
It got worse, the source said. The nonprofit also worked with self-described humanitarian groups — the kind that use the Barn — that leave water in the desert so that people don’t die.
Some law enforcement professionals might have written off the meeting, choosing to devote their limited time and resources elsewhere. Not Marquez, not the Border Patrol, and, eventually, not the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona.
The meeting at the gas station would kick off a more than eight-month investigation ultimately leading to the arrest of Scott Warren, an Ajo-based humanitarian aid volunteer, on federal smuggling and conspiracy charges, which would then lead to more than a year and a half of legal wrangling, a week-and-a-half-long trial, a mistrial, and now a retrial scheduled for this winter.
The details of this first meeting were included in recently unsealed Border Patrol documents in Warren’s felony case, which show the lengths the agency went to in an effort to build a criminal case against humanitarian volunteers in southern Arizona. The documents were made public late Friday, thanks to litigation by The Intercept and its parent company, First Look Media, working with Arizona State University’s First Amendment Clinic.
Reached by phone Saturday, Phillips, who’s in her 70s, responded to news of Marquez’s investigative efforts with a mix of small-town amusement, wonder, and a bit of horror. For one thing, she pointed out, the nonprofit in question, the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, or ISDA, does not work with groups leaving water in the desert. Second, she was not working with the group at the time that Marquez launched his inquiry.
“ISDA has never, ever been involved in any of that,” she said. “That’s wild.”
Since 2000, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office has recorded roughly 3,000 suspected migrant deaths in the desert, though the true toll is guaranteed to be higher. Arizona’s vast and remote west desert, with Ajo situated near its center, has historically been the state’s deadliest stretch for migrants making their way north. For generations, it has been standard practice in the unincorporated community to provide food, water, and hospitality to the strangers who come stumbling into town.
After moving to Ajo more than a decade and a half ago, Phillips threw herself into this tradition of humanitarian care, often pointing out that no community would accept the annual discovery of dozens of human bodies — 60 since the beginning of this year, including two sets of remains over the last week, she noted — as an acceptable fact of life. Considering the fact that her efforts apparently garnered the attention of federal law enforcement, Phillips collected her thoughts in a written statement, which she shared with The Intercept.
“These past couple years since Scott was charged with three felonies for providing humanitarian aid, the same aid that the International Red Cross has been providing worldwide for decades, have been extremely difficult for all of us Ajo folks,” she wrote. “It is what we do, and have done, frequently as a community, and most certainly as individuals of conscience.”
“We have become a cemetery,” she added, “for folks so desperate to either escape life-threatening circumstances in their countries of origin or to return to their U.S. families from whom they have been deported.”
In a pretrial motion in April 2018, Scott Warren’s defense team submitted as exhibits a series of text messages Marquez and other members of the Ajo Disrupt unit had sent in the moments leading up to Warren’s arrest, which included Border Patrol agents repeatedly using the word “tonc” as they prepared to launch their operation. “Tonc” is Border Patrol slang for migrants and supposedly refers to the sound a flashlight makes when it connects with a human skull.
The exhibits also included a report Marquez wrote after Warren’s arrest, in which he appeared to lean on information drawn from his gas station tipoff the previous year, including references to the Barn as a “stash house” and a fixation on humanitarian aid groups, particularly the faith-based organization No More Deaths, based out of Tucson, Arizona, and the Ajo Samaritans.
At the time, The Intercept saved the exhibits, which had been uploaded to the federal government’s online database of criminal cases and reached out to the U.S. attorney’s office for comment. The comment never came. Three days later, by the time The Intercept published a story based on them, the exhibits had been sealed following complaints from the government’s lawyers. A source close to the case told The Intercept that the prosecutors were “fucking pissed,” taking the position that attaching the materials as exhibits violated an agreement between the two sides not to disclose discovery in the case.
Seven months later, lawyers for a separate group of No More Deaths volunteers again attached discovery as exhibits in a pretrial motion. Again the U.S. attorney’s office complained, again the materials were sealed, and again The Intercept collected the evidence before it disappeared.
The exhibits revealed that Marquez exchanged a series of text messages with an Ajo-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official named Margot Bissell, who provided the Border Patrol agent with names of No More Deaths volunteers, whom they called “bean droppers,” and discussed and celebrated the idea that the volunteers would be criminally charged (which they were) for leaving humanitarian aid supplies on federal lands.
Finally, in March of this year, Warren’s lawyers filed an 80-page motion to dismiss the felony charges against him on the grounds that it was a case of selective enforcement — namely that the Border Patrol targeted Warren for his involvement in humanitarian aid work.
This time, the defense did not attach discovery in the case as exhibits. They did, however, reference several sets of text messages and internal Border Patrol reports. Detailed in a yearlong investigation The Intercept published in May, the text messages included communication between Marquez and a second Ajo-based Fish and Wildlife official, Donald Ebann, that were focused on Warren’s movements in the days leading up to his arrest. The reports, meanwhile, included a reference to Marquez’s write-up of his secret source meeting.
The materials unsealed Friday include the various text messages and reports cited in reporting on Warren’s case, but they also provide new information, including an investigative timeline produced by the intelligence unit for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. Made up of a dozen events spanning nine months, the document offers an eye-opening window into the Border Patrol’s efforts to monitor and target humanitarian aid volunteers in southern Arizona as criminals.
The timeline and other documents came to light because The Intercept, with the help of the ASU law students, intervened in the litigation, arguing that the prosecution was inappropriately sealing evidence in the case, thus inhibiting the ability of the press to understand and relay critical facts about the case to the public. The Intercept and ASU were later joined by the Arizona Republic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and CNN in the case. (The U.S. attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Secrecy breeds mistrust,” David Bralow, First Look Media’s First Amendment Counsel, said in a statement. “Transparency ensures that the community can fully appreciate the nature of the government’s case against Mr. Warren and evaluate the conduct of officials — law enforcement and prosecutors — authorized to act on the community’s behalf.”
“The court’s order releasing these documents vindicates this important constitutional right and we are grateful,” Bralow continued, though he added, “there may be more work to do,” including an evaluation of “redactions made by the prosecutors to determine whether they also deprive the public of important information.”
The Border Patrol’s timeline began with Marquez’s tipoff at the gas station in Ajo. Three months later, in July 2017, a No More Deaths volunteer was arrested and charged with “criminal damages” for allegedly vandalizing a Border Patrol surveillance camera on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. (The disposition of that case is not included in the redacted timeline.)
By the end of the year, the timeline claims, unidentified Ajo residents had told members of the Disrupt unit that “ever since multiple NGOs had begun using ‘The Barn’ as a base of operations, they noticed an increase of both vehicle and pedestrian traffic,” as well as “more and more illegal alien paraphernalia such as black water jugs and carpet booties” migrants use to cover their tracks in the desert sand.
Included in the timeline were the names and birthdates of six individuals who were stopped on the Cabeza refuge in November 2017. The timeline makes no mention of crimes the individuals were suspected of committing, stating only that “they claimed to be involved with the Ajo Samaritans and stated they were performing their duties as servants of The Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.”
Heading into 2018, the timeline shows an acceleration in law enforcement activity around humanitarian aid volunteers in Ajo — volunteers who, that same year, recovered a record number of human remains in the region and were in the midst of an effort to ramp up the distribution of water jugs in the remote areas where those bodies were turning up.
Ebann, the Fish and Wildlife official, met with members of the Disrupt unit at the Ajo Border Patrol station on December 12, 2017, where he was informed of “intelligence indicating possible alien smuggling and/or harboring” at the Barn. Ebann told the agents that he was familiar with the property (he lives nearby) and that he was looking to serve Warren a summons for trespassing on federal lands.
Though it is not mentioned in the timeline, Ebann’s office restructured its permitting process in the summer of 2017 to require visitors to agree to not leave humanitarian aid supplies on the Cabeza refuge, and they created a series of blacklists made up entirely of humanitarian aid volunteers who ran afoul of the guidelines. By the end of the year, nine of those individuals had been charged with federal misdemeanors, including trespassing and littering, for leaving humanitarian aid supplies on the refuge. Warren was one of them.
“On January 8, 2018, DISRUPT agents received information from an anonymous resident of Ajo regarding an incident that occurred in the spring of 2017,” the timeline went on to say. “The anonymous resident stated a suspected illegal alien with an injured foot or leg was found in the town of Ajo.”
The timeline then described how the injured migrant mentioned the name of an Ajo resident and said that he wanted to go to the “escuela.” While the individual’s first name is redacted in the timeline, the same passage was referenced in a pretrial motion in Warren’s felony case and the individual was identified as Phillips. “She is known to be a pro-immigration advocate and is a member of various humanitarian organizations to include No More Deaths and the Ajo Samaritans,” the timeline said, adding that “escuela” was likely a reference to the Curley School, a historic building in Ajo’s town center.
According to the timeline, “when the idea of calling the Border Patrol was expressed, two residents, that can only be described as an older couple,” reportedly told their fellow resident not to do so. “The couple called a friend and an unknown female arrived and transported the illegal alien to an unknown location,” it said.
Three days after they learned of the 2017 incident, members of the Ajo Disrupt unit met with members of the Tucson sector’s intelligence unit.
An agent by the name of Walker provided the Ajo team with “information on the current operations of No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths” and “identified and provided guidance on how to investigate their activities.”
Six days later, just hours after No More Deaths published a report detailing the Border Patrol destruction of jugs containing thousands of gallons of water left in the desert, Warren was placed under arrest.
“We’ve perceived the arrest as retaliatory, but it’s not surprising that there was some level of investigation into the organization,” Paige Corich-Kleim, a longtime No More Deaths volunteer, told The Intercept.
The timeline confirms collaboration between Fish and Wildlife and Border Patrol, and across Border Patrol stations, she said, adding that the involvement of the Tucson sector’s intelligence unit was “concerning.”
Despite their investigative digging, messages Disrupt unit members sent immediately before Warren’s arrest suggest a surprised elation upon finding the humanitarian aid volunteer in the company of suspected migrants. When agent Alberto “Balls” Ballesteros first got word of the “2 toncs at the house,” for example, his reply was: “What!?!?!?!?!?! Nice!”
At Warren’s felony trial earlier this summer, Marquez testified that Warren’s was the only criminal case he had ever been involved in. He later corrected himself, acknowledging that he’d arrested people since then. Whatever it was, newly revealed text messages Marquez sent Ebann after Warren was taken into custody indicate that the agent realized what he was doing was a big deal. When Ebann asked Marquez if they had seized Warren’s phone, Marquez said they were “about to.”
“He had it on him thank god,” he wrote.
“Good evidence,” the Fish and Wildlife officer replied.
“For sure,” Marquez agreed. “We are taking everything very seriously.” Marquez added that his supervisor, Desiderio Vargas, was “making sure we do things right.”
Images: U.S. Attorney’s Office of Arizona; Screenshots: The Intercept
In the time since Marquez sent that message, a United Nations panel of human rights experts and 15 U.S. senators — including five presidential candidates — have called on the Department of Justice to drop the charges stemming from his operation.
The first No More Deaths trial, involving four volunteers accused of littering and trespassing, resulted in four convictions, with the volunteers sentenced to probation and given $250 fines. A second case involving four other No More Deaths volunteers facing similar charges did not go to trial, though those defendants, too, ended up receiving probation and fines.
A judge has not rendered a decision in Warren’s misdemeanor case, which ended in May.
His felony trial ended in a hung jury in June, with eight of 12 jurors taking the position that he should not be convicted on any of the counts he was facing, including two for harboring and one for conspiracy. Earlier this month, the U.S. attorney’s office announced that it would retry Warren on the harboring charges, while ditching the conspiracy charge. The second trial is scheduled for November. Warren faces a decade in prison if convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms.
While the Trump administration has framed its immigration crackdown as a war against the worst of the worst, the past 2 1/2 years have revealed a shift in the prioritization of time, energy, and law enforcement resources toward organizations and individuals that come into contact with migrants, and whose politics do not align with the president’s.
On April 11, 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to Nogales, Arizona, where he delivered a speech describing the border as a lawless war zone where people are routinely beheaded with machetes. To combat this mayhem, Sessions announced that he was directing his prosecutors to bring in more smuggling cases. Less than two weeks later, Marquez was at the gas station receiving his tip. Nine months after that, Warren was arrested, and the U.S. attorney’s office agreed to take a case that previous prosecutors may have well declined.
In the year after Warren was taken into custody, The Intercept revealed a binational intelligence-gathering operation targeting journalists, activists, and attorneys working with migrants along the border and, in Arizona, continued threats of smuggling charges leveled against advocates working with asylum seekers at U.S. ports of entry. In a report published last month, Amnesty International described the ongoing crackdown as “an unlawful and politically motivated campaign of intimidation, threats, harassment, and criminal investigations against people who defend the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.”
Back in Ajo, humanitarian aid work continues. “To deny this basic care, one human being to another, is unconscionable,” Phillips said in her statement to The Intercept. “Sadly, we now know that our United States government thinks differently. It wants to criminalize this aid that we have always offered.”