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Border Patrol Agents Sabotaged Life-Saving Water Left in Desert for Immigrants, Watchdogs Say


Two immigration watchdog groups claim border patrol agents systematically damaged water and food caches meant for undocumented people making their way over the southern border of the United States. This allegation comes from a report published Wednesday by the Arizona groups No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos. They said agents sabotaged a sizable chunk of the 31,558 gallon jugs of water left for people between 2012 and 2015 throughout the southern Arizona Desert in the border patrol’s Tucson sector. Eighty-six percent was used, and various figures were blamed for damaging the rest. The report also mentioned wildlife, hunters, hikers, and border militia members, but the groups put most of the responsibility on border patrol agents.

“A similar analysis of land jurisdictions indicates that there is no statistically significant difference in vandalism among private, federal forest land, and state trust land,” they said. “Because Border Patrol agents are the only actors with equal access to these land jurisdictions within our study area, we conclude that US Border Patrol agents are the most likely actor responsible for the vandalism of humanitarian aid.”

That put people in grave jeopardy as they cross areas like Ajo, Arizona. Temperatures there got as high as 108 degrees Fahrenheit last August, according to The Weather Channel. This is the kind of environment prone to causing heat strokes. From the groups’ report:

“Yes, I remember people smashing and stepping on water bottles, I remember that being imparted to us in one way or another,” one former Border Patrol agent told us. “I also remember that the logic behind that, the logic that was imparted to us with that action, was that you stomp on their water, and ransack their food cache, in order to expedite their apprehension.”

The groups said they have video evidence backing up their allegations. A montage released Wednesday showed incidents where individuals, who appear to be border patrol agents, kick over or otherwise empty gallon jugs of water. During one incident, an agent can be seen pouring out gallon water jugs one after the other, complaining that someone left “trash” out in the field.

“It’s not yours, is it?” he said to the camera person. “All you have to do is tell me? Is it yours?”

All but one incident shown on footage happened during the Obama administration, with one occurring as late as January 10, 2017. The most recent is said to have happened during the current presidential term. Video was dated February 10, 2017 in that case.

A border patrol spokesman in the Tucson sector disputes the framing of Wednesday’s report. In phone conversation Thursday, Acting Special Operations Supervisor Steve Passement told Law&Crime that the agency doesn’t condone damaging humanitarian efforts.

“We don’t want these people working here,” he said about agents who sabotage caches. Depending on specific circumstances, official discipline could include written consultation or outright termination.

The older allegations in the report were already dealt with, he said, though he didn’t have access to information explaining how these were handled. As for the newer claims revealed in the early 2017 footage, the agency only just learned about it from the watchdog groups’ report. He said the humanitarian groups should give border patrol evidence of wrongdoing as soon as possible. The more time passes, the more difficult it becomes to run a probe. A year is a lot of time in this case. For example, it might become hard to locate a suspect.

“I can’t say if that person would still be employed,” he said, citing high turnover rates among agents.

Passement said border patrol works hard to establish a system to help people having trouble in the desert. For example, they leave rescue beacons in the wild, which are designed to be seen from a distance in the day and night. Some of those have satellite phones since cell reception is spotty in that region.

The agency does not condone the destruction of caches, he said, and they work to save as many lives as they can providing immediate medical treatment, if needed, to immigrants they find. Not only do immigrants have access to the caches, but these benefit citizens caught in the wild as well.

The area is dangerous as a matter of course. The environment features extreme temperatures year-round, lacks water, and in Passement’s words, is often “nothing but desert. Literally.” In this environment, there’s not even a guarantee that a person could find a cache or a rescue beacon, he said, and individuals could become victims of violent crime. A profile from the border patrol said agents with the Tucson sector saved 750 undocumented people during the fiscal year 2017. The Tucson office previously addressed the watchdogs’ report on Wednesday. In a statement obtained by Law&Crime, they addressed many of the issues discussed by Passement. They also said they worked with non-government organizations and foreign governments to help find missing migrants.

The report from the watchdog groups comes out amid a fraught, often ugly national debate over immigration south of the border. Deportation numbers were already unprecedented under Barack Obama, but President Donald Trump ran on a platform of severely restricting migration, often citing Mexico and Muslim-majority countries. In his first 100 days, ICE arrest rates were up from the previous administration, even among noncriminal individuals.

Correction – January 18, 6:19 p.m.: An earlier version of the article reflected an incorrect transcription of Passement’s words, and stated, “The agency does not condone the destruction of caches, he said, and they work to save as many lives as they can, providing food, water, and medical treatment to immigrants they find. Not only do immigrants have access to the caches, but it benefits citizens caught in the wild as well.”

We cut the passage about “food, water,” and adjusted the paragraph accordingly.

[Screengrab via No More Deaths]

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