Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector should consider closing one of its remote bases if it can’t renovate it, the agency’s internal watchdog said.
The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General audited seven forward operating bases in the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso and Tucson sectors and found that only one had “security issues, safety and health concerns and inadequate living conditions,” according to a recently released report.
The OIG redacted all the names and locations of the bases, but the response by Customs and Border Protection revealed that the base also serves as a joint command center and is located in the west desert, one of the busiest corridors in the Tucson Sector.
The inspector general describes agents eating, working and exercising in one common area, an air conditioner not designed to handle high temperatures, security concerns, unsafe well water and a primary access road that is deteriorating.
“Large portions of the road have washed away completely,” inspectors wrote, “others are impassable because of large craters in the road.”
CBP said it’s limited in what it can do because the road is managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
CBP said it agreed with the OIG’s report but added that closing the base is not an option. It said the location of the base is crucial and closing it would be detrimental to what the Border Patrol has accomplished in that area.
Renovating the base is a priority for CBP, officials with the agency said, but it couldn’t provide a timeline of when it would complete its renovation, citing the budget climate.
In the meantime, CBP said it has added a new septic field and has plans for a new water well and an upgrade to the control and command room. Right now the agency spends $2,000 a week to have a truck deliver water to the base.
While the other six bases had adequate living conditions, federal investigators found security lapses — including nonworking security cameras and gates that were not up to standard — and determined that CBP does not regularly inspect the bases.
The report recommended that CBP replace or repair the security cameras, establish processes to do periodic inspections and improve record keeping.
CBP said it agreed with the findings and that it had taken steps to correct the problems before the report was released last week.
“CBP is committed to ensuring the health and well-being of all employees, including those assigned to the remote Forward Operating Bases that represent a vital component of Border Patrol operations,” it said in a written statement. The agency declined a request for an interview.
From the beginning, the Border Patrol union has had concerns about housing conditions at the camp. Last year the union sent a letter to U.S. Sen. John McCain about problems with Legionnaires’ disease at the forward operating base in Yuma.
“In recent months there have been four outbreaks of Legionnaires’ at this FOB caused by contaminated water,” the union wrote in October.
“U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations prohibit the FOB from drilling wells, meaning that all water needs to be trucked in. This trucked-in water poses a health risk because if the trucks are not cleaned sufficiently, it leads to the specter of Legionnaires’, ” it said.
McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake asked the Department of Homeland Security to look into poor living conditions at forward operating bases along the southwest border, specifically at Camp Grip in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
“The inspector general report is very disturbing but not surprising,” McCain said in an email.
“Agents assigned to these posts are away from their families, doing dangerous work in a very difficult environment,” he said. “It is imperative that we give them tools to succeed and to repair these FOBs that are a critical component of securing our border.
“CBP has vowed to comply with the recommendations in the IG report and we will make certain they follow through with these promises.”
Agents with the Border Patrol union said they are glad for the report and the attention it will hopefully bring to these issues.
“We’ve been bringing up those issues for years and all (CBP) says, ‘We’ll get to it,’” said Art del Cueto, president of the local Border Patrol union.
But at the same time, he said, the union hopes the agency will reconsider the role the forward operating bases play today.
“Agents out there working the same hours and areas as regular agents are being forced to stay at these camps and not go home,” del Cueto said.
The money used for upkeep and per diem given agents, he said, could be saved and better used elsewhere.
The union suggested using some of the bases to process people agents arrest in remote areas, he said. “Having agents stay there overnight doesn’t make sense.”