Abuse of Power and Its Consequences

Last Updated: September 11, 2020

Deaths by Border Patrol

Cruel and unaccountable border agents have existed since the 1920s. When the border patrol was created in 1924, white supremacists entered the agency, building the culture of xenophobia and impunity that exists to this day. They built a culture of corruption as well — CBP agents are arrested for criminal activity and corruption at a per-capita rate that exceeds any other federal agency.

Even with a legacy of violence and hate, the border patrol as we know it today wouldn’t exist until the 1990s, when policies like Operation Gatekeeper would over-inflate the agency’s budget, and give them carte blanche to fully militarize the southern border.

Because of these dangerous enforcement-only policies, more than 100 people have died as a result of an encounter with Border Patrol agents since 2010. CBP’s culture of abuse and reckless use of force has led to the deaths of many U.S. citizens and noncitizens. A majority of victims are killed in fatal shootings, while a significant number have died as a result of reckless car chases, untreated medical issues and potential neglect, or other forms of violence.

Beginning with the horrific killing of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas in 2010, SBCC has tracked deaths of U.S. citizens and non-citizens in the southern border region, through analyses of media coverage and official Customs and Border Protection communications. These tragic losses of life represent only a fraction of those lost to border militarization, as they do not include those disappeared in the harsh and deadly wilderness by wasteful wall and violent agents, nor do they include those impacted by border agents deployed to other parts of the country.

In the last 10 years, 2012 was the deadliest year so far with a total of 17 reported deaths attributed to CBP interactions. In 2019, 16 people were killed by CBP officials and 9 people have been killed so far in 2020. The graphic below shows the reported cause of death for people killed in a CBP interaction. In many cases, the cause of death is not known, either because of a lack of media reporting or a lack of transparency from CBP.

The majority of people that have died in an encounter with CBP agents have died due to a fatal shooting. Between 2010 and 2020, 53% of all victims of CBP violence were killed in a shooting. Two-in-ten (22%) of victims died of an unknown cause, followed by 21% of cases where a victim died as a result of a fatal car accident. Multiple cases have been reported where CBP agents have shot at cars, pursued vehicles causing them to crash or rollover, and even used their cars to run over migrants. One-in-ten (10%) of victims have died of medical issues or potential medical neglect, like James Paul Markowitz who died at a hospital after showing ‘signs of distress’ while in custody.

Deaths as a result of Border Patrol encounters are geographically concentrated in the highly militarized southern border region, but people have also been killed by CBP agents along the U.S.-Canada Border. Between 2010 and 2020, 53 people were killed in Texas, followed by 23 victims in California, 18 in Arizona, and 7 in New Mexico. In the north, 2 people were killed in Wisconsin, Maine, and Michigan respectively, and one person in the state of New York.

Demographic information on victims killed by CBP encounters can be sparse, but a significant percentage of victims are young. About a quarter (24%) of all victims killed between 2010 and 2020 were between the ages of 18 to 29.

Similarly, the nationality of the victims killed by CBP is unknown four out of ten times. Mexicans are the most-often killed by CBP agents (28 people), followed by U.S. citizens (23), Guatemalans (11), and Hondurans (2). Other demographic data like race and ethnicity are rarely reported or tracked, and are thus not included in this analysis.

Anastasio Hernandez Rojas

The story of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas’ brutal killing by border agents and his family’s quest for justice highlights horrors of militarization, but it’s also the story of how the border community has struggled for justice.


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Among victims killed by Border Patrol, men make up a majority (63%) of victims. Between 2010 and 2020, 15% of victims were female.


Cross-Border Shootings

Since 2010 there have been at least 6 documented cases of people killed by Border Patrol across the border. The case of 16-year old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez stands out — this Mexican teen was killed after reportedly throwing rocks across the border in Arizona. José Antonio was shot 10 times in the back. The agent who killed him was charged with second-degree murder but was later acquited and found not guilty. Prosecutors are now seeking a retrial of Agent Swartz set to begin in October 2020.

In early 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case, deciding that Mexican victims had no authority to sue in U.S. courts. The court stressed that this was an issue of national security, and justice for cross-border shootings could require congressional authorization.






ANASTASIO HERNANDEZ ROJAS

On May 28, 2010, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a longtime resident of San Diego, was brutally beaten, shot with a Taser and killed by border agents at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. UPDATE: His family has recently settled with the U.S. Government over their civil lawsuit.






JOSE ANTONIO ELENA RODRIGUEZ

On October 10, 2012, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16 year-old Mexican resident was shot in the back after an alleged rocking incident with a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent. UPDATE: Judge to let Border Patrol agent's murder case proceed.






SERGIO ADRIAN HERNANDEZ-GUERECA

On June 7, 2010, Sergio Adrian Hernandez-Guereca, a 15 year-old Mexican resident was shot by a CBP agent while standing on the Mexican side of the Mexico–United States border, and the agent was on the American side.



Border Patrol Corruption & Abuse

The number of deaths resulting from an interaction with CBP officers are indicators of the horrific culture of abuse, corruption, and disregard for human life that plagues the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency. Unfortunately, these killings are not the only examples of abuse of power and corruption within CBP.

Numerous studies — both internal and external — have shown that CBP is plagued with a culture of impunity, corruption, and abuse. Its systemic problems also run deep. The discovery of a secret Facebook group full of racist, misogynist and xenophobic posts by Border Patrol agents recently brought to light more evidence of the agency’s culture of abuse. In it, agents routinely made sexist jokes, made fun of migrant deaths, and shared other hateful content. A year later, little action was taken by CBP, again pointing to the lack of transparency and accountability for the agency. Countless other reports have linked CBP to cases of officer misconduct, corruption and a general lack of accountability for criminal conduct and abusive actions.

A note on CBP & Government Data

This section briefly outlines data illustrating the range of CBP corruption and abuse. It is important to note that the agency is notorious for its lack of transparency and for hiding or manipulating data and definitions -- such as changing the definition of what they define as ‘corruption’ to underestimate the number of cases. As such, data on alleged cases of CBP abuse or corruption are limited, and some are unreliable. As with other government data, figures and reports are interpreted with caution. In some cases, external researchers and advocates have produced evidence to substantiate underwhelming government reports. However, many statistics are hidden or are simply not collected by the agency. What’s more, the agency was recently reclassified as a ‘security agency’ by the Trump administration. This makes CBP even less transparent as the reclassification shields the agency from releasing even more information to the public.

For example, complaints of abuse and rights violations can be made to DHS’ office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL). The office, which is tasked with oversight of agencies like CBP, publishes data on complaints and allegations of abuse against CBP agents. However, there are numerous reasons why this information cannot be considered to be reliable. An ACLU-Arizona report states, for instance, that the CRCL only publishes data on reports they choose to investigate -- not those received. What’s more, only complaints done in English are presented, wholly excluding any complaints done in Spanish or other languages. That same ACLU report further found gross differences in the number of civil rights violations that the oversight agency reported to Congress, and reports that they obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request. In fiscal year 2014, for example, CRCL reported just 3 cases of Fourth Amendment violations -- but the ACLU found over 100 cases that same time period for only the Tucson sector. Further concerns on the quality of these data arise when one considers how the data is collected and stored, or even how terms are defined -- such as ‘abuse’ or ‘corruption.’
Ultimately the quality and validity of any data depends on how it was collected, how it was cleaned, and how it is finally reported and interpreted. In many cases, CBP or other government agencies are the only source of data available for advocates or researchers. In those instances where external research is missing, an extra layer of caution is applied.


Excessive Use of Force

Excessive and unnecessary use of force — both lethal and non-lethal — are common in CBP. Allegations are routinely made of Border Patrol agents committing violence against migrants, such as the recent case of an agent ‘inadvertently’ running over someone with their vehicle.

In 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioned a review of its use of force policies from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) after mounting public pressure. The research institute primarily found a number of issues in how CBP officers used excessive and deadly force, recorded incidents, and carried out investigations. The researchers reviewed 67 cases between 2010 and 2012 to make their determinations and recommendations, confirming that agents too-often relied on deadly violence against rock throwers, shot at vehicles, and rarely investigated deadly force incidents. This report, which CBP fought to make public, eventually led to an updated use-of-force handbook.

Data on excessive use of force by agents is limited. But the information that researchers have been able to access paints a picture of CBP’s reckless tactics when patrolling the border or conducting apprehensions. A limited analysis of formal complaints filed to CBP’s Office of Internal Affairs by the American Immigration Council shows that a majority of allegations against agents are for physical abuse (40%) or use of excessive force (38%). Reports of “unspecified abuse” ranked third at 13% of all formal complaints made between 2009 and 2012.

Data also show that CBP and Border Patrol face very little accountability for their violent tactics. The same American Immigration Council report found that among the complaints analyzed in their dataset, a majority of cases resulted in no action taken (58%). In one case, a Border Patrol agent allegedly kicked a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry. In another allegation, a man reported being stomped on his back by an agent after he was handcuffed and arrested. Both of these cases resulted in ‘no action’ taken, according to the analysis.


Arrests of Agents & Corruption

Hundreds of CBP agents are arrested every year for a range of criminal activity and misconduct, including corruption. In fact, CBP agents are arrested for corruption at a per-capita rate that exceeds any other federal agency. Corruption is so pervasive, that the FBI launched a campaign to address it at the border. Reports also show that the agency was directed to change the definition of corruption to minimize the appearance of cases.

In fiscal year 2018, the latest year that data has been publicized, there were 287 arrests of CBP personnel -- the highest record to date. Of these, 52% of arrests were of Border Patrol agents, and 40% of arrests were of Office of Field Operations (OFO) personnel.

According to CBP data, most arrests were for alcohol or drug-related misconduct, followed by domestic family issues. Some 6% of arrests in 2018 were for “impeding the criminal justice system.” There were 8 arrests for weapons violations and 7 cases of corruption. And according to a GAO report, between 2005 and 2012, there were a total 2,170 arrests due to cases of “misconduct such as domestic violence or driving under the influence.”



Drug Related Corruption


38% of arrests of border patrol agents for corruption were related to drugs.


Immigration Related Corruption

34% of arrests of border patrol agents were linked to immigration-related crimes like smuggling or allowing improper entries


Corruption at the Southern Border

71% of corruption related arrests of border patrol agents happened in the southwest border.



Estimates also show that officers are 5 times more likely to be arrested than other law enforcement personnel. Recently, an agent was arrested in Tucson for drug trafficking large quantities of illegal drugs like cocaine, fentanyl, and heroin. Problems of misconduct and criminal acts are so rampant within CBP, that the agency itself has tried to dissuade its own agents from misbehavior. For example, CBP operated an internal website - Trust Betrayed - that listed criminal misconduct and other abuses from its own agents. The site, now archived, paints a vivid portrait of the criminal acts that CBP agents can and have taken a part in.

A total 144 CBP employees were arrested or indicted for corruption between 2005 and 2012. Experts have warned against corruption of Border Patrol agents, especially because of their proximity to criminal operations that involve drug trafficking and smuggling. An investigation by the Texas Tribune and Reveal found that among cases of corruption they analyzed, a third (at least 50 cases) were in Texas. A paper published in the Security Journal (Janscis, 2019) analyzed cases of CBP corruption related arrests and found that the number of years in service was a statistical predictor of corruption -- meaning that CBP employees were more likely to commit acts of corruption the longer they were in service.


Abuses in CBP Custody

The mistreatment and abuse of people in short-term Customs and Border Protection custody has been documented for years. As undocumented migrants are apprehended by Border Patrol, many are temporarily held in CBP custody. People are over-crowded into concrete holding facilities that are referred to as ‘hieleras’, infamous for being freezing cold and inhumane. The facilities often lack beds and showers and medical personnel. Many reports have also indicated that migrants often go without access to soap or other hygiene products, and people being forced to sleep on the ground.

Survey data corroborates the hundreds of accounts of abuse and mistreatment in CBP detention. The figure below shows that between 2018 and March 2020, at least half of migrants surveyed reported not having access to medical services while in detention. In the first part of 2020, 45% of Mexican migrants surveyed reported that there was a lack of toilets available, and 43% said they faced extreme temperatures (whether hot or cold). A quarter of respondents in 2020 (26%) said they were in an overcrowded space, and roughly one-in-ten (7%) reported being left without food or water. Other research shows similarly disturbing trends, pointing to repeated cases of medical neglect, dehydration, overcrowding, verbal and physical abuse, and others.

As more and more families and children arrive at the southern border, the mistreatment and abuse of vulnerable groups in CBP custody has received special attention. Since fiscal year 2014, over 30 people have died while in CBP custody - including 6 children - according to a recent government report. The death of defenseless kids is especially horrifying. Three of the children died due to flu-complications. According to the same government report, CBP was recommended that they vaccinate detainees but the agency rejected the proposal.

Numerous allegations of sexual assault and abuse have been made against CBP employees by those detained in their custody. Between 2009 and 2014, there were 214 allegations of sexual abuse of minors filed against CBP. Interviews with children in custody detail repeated incidents of assault and intimidation by agents.



Deaths & Disappearances of Migrants

For decades, thousands of people have died attempting to cross the southwestern border in remote regions. The causes of death vary. Many have died due to drowning, exposure to harsh temperatures and terrain, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and dangers related to smuggling, among others. U.S. policies have directly contributed to these deaths by forcibly pushing migrants into the desert and other dangerous terrains and away from urban centers. The lynchpin policy of ‘prevention through deterrence’ was designed to raise the cost of crossing by funneling people into the dangerous Sonoran desert and beyond.

Since then, a large body of research has shown that hardened border enforcement raised the number of deaths, and overall failed to decrease the number of undocumented entries. Moreover, the continued militarization of the border region has exacerbated the devastating loss of life in the southwest border.

The thousands of deaths and disappearances that have ensued are thus linked to purposeful policy. Tracking the number of deaths in the southern border region is a difficult task for multiple reasons. Only bodies that are found by local authorities or volunteer groups are recorded, and identifying them poses additional challenges. Migrants increasingly cross through more remote areas, attempting to avoid border agents. Lastly, while Border Patrol records the number of deaths, there are many reasons why their figures undercount the total number of fatalities in the border. However, multiple county medical offices and volunteer organizations track and record deaths to illustrate the dangers of failed enforcement policies.

According to official Border Patrol data, since 1998 almost 8,000 people have died attempting to cross the southern border. Documented deaths peaked in 2005 at nearly 500 deaths, decreasing slightly and again increasing around 2012.

Some 300 deaths were recorded in fiscal year 2019, with a majority concentrated in the state of Texas. In fiscal 2019, 78 deaths were recorded in the Laredo sector, 69 in the Rio Grande Valley sector, 61 in the Tucson sector, followed by 38 in the Del Rio sector.

The map below shows documented migrant deaths across the southern border region so far in calendar year 2020, as well as 2019 and 2018. The data show that deaths of migrants are clustered around the Sonoran desert in Arizona and in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas, but also occur in California and New Mexico. Data are collected by the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project and help illustrate the geography of fatalities. These data may differ from official Border Patrol data as the methodologies differ.

On-the-ground groups in Arizona and Texas also collect additional data in partnership with local medical offices to supplement official statistics, presented below. According to the latest data from Humane Borders, about 100 deaths have been recorded in Arizona in 2020 so far. More than 3,000 bodies have been found in Arizona in the last 20 years. Only about 18% of bodies found so far in 2020 have been identified. Most deaths were recorded in Pima County (85%), followed by Cochise (6%), Maricopa (4%) and Santa Cruz (3%). It should be noted that there are likely many more deaths in parts of the border that are sparsely populated and which have no organizations or law enforcement officials searching for remains, such as in the Boot Heel region of New Mexico.

The cause of death for most bodies recovered cannot be identified. A majority of cases in Arizona in 2020 (73%) were of skeletal remains, followed by undetermined causes (9%), blunt force injury (8%) and exposure (4%).

Volunteer organizations and humanitarian groups have for decades worked to preserve human life by putting out water stations in the desert, providing medical supplies, and other aid. Yet time and time again Border Patrol agents have been documented destroying vital water supplies in the desert, further endangering human lives. No More Deaths and Coalición de Derechos Humanos recently published a report documenting and analyzing the repeated and systematic destruction of water drops in the desert. Using a series of spatial and statistical analysis techniques, combined with personal testimonies, they demonstrate that the border agency routinely destroys water tanks and other supplies. They found that during a 46-month period, about 4,000 gallons of water were destroyed.

Migrant fatalities have also been increasing in Texas, and in the last 10 years more migrants now die in south Texas than in the Arizona desert. All told, researchers have identified at least 3,000 migrants in South Texas in the last two decades. Identifying remains in Texas is more complicated than other states. A majority of land in the southern region in Texas is private -- impeding access by volunteers and humanitarian aid workers. Few counties in south Texas - which are among the poorest in the country - track deaths as they do in Arizona.

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