The bodies have been turning up for years, thousands of them, scattered across the borderlands in the American Southwest. Ever-stricter border enforcement has encouraged migrants to avoid cities like San Diego and El Paso and take their chances at remote desert crossings instead. As they trek across the vast, unfamiliar and scorching terrain, many get disoriented and run out of water, with devastating consequences. So far this year, 94 bodies have been recovered in Arizona alone.
Since 2004, a faith-based coalition called No More Deaths has been leaving gallon jugs of water near common migration routes in a desperate bid to save lives. But in May of this year, just as temperatures in the harsh Sonoran Desert climbed above 100 degrees, the group’s volunteers began to notice that their water bottles were being slashed, destroyed or emptied. With violence from ranchers and vigilantes a constant threat, No More Deaths installed hidden cameras. They were surprised at what they found: Border Patrol agents were purposely, even gleefully, destroying the life-saving jugs of water.
Visible on the tape, which will be broadcast for the first time tonight on the PBS show “Need to Know,” are three Border Patrol agents, two men and a woman, walking along a migrant trail and approaching half a dozen one-gallon jugs of water. The female agent stops in front of the containers and begins to kick them, with force, down a ravine. The bottles crash against rocks, bursting open. She’s smiling. One of the agents watching her smiles as well, seeming to take real pleasure in the spectacle. He says something under his breath, and the word “tonk” is clearly audible. “Tonk,” it turns out, is a bit of derogatory slang used by some Border Patrol agents to refer to undocumented immigrants. One agent told me it’s derived from the sound a flashlight makes when you hit someone over the head — tonk. After destroying the entire water supply, the three agents continue along the path.
(In response to specific questions about these events, Border Patrol officials replied only with a general statement emphasizing that misconduct would not be tolerated and that agents were trained to treat migrants with dignity and respect.)
The event was not an anomaly. A volunteer with No More Deaths had complained several months earlier to Lisa Reed, community liaison for the Tucson Sector Border Patrol, that water was being destroyed by agents. Reed responded then with an email saying, “I am preparing a memo from the Chief to all the agents directing them to leave water alone.” The agents on the tape apparently either never got the memo — or simply ignored it.
This attitude extends into the Border Patrol’s holding facilities.
I met Demetrio, a migrant in his early 20s from Veracruz, Mexico, after he was apprehended by the Border Patrol. At the time of his capture, he’d been lost in the Arizona desert without food or water for three days. When he arrived at the Border Patrol custody facility outside Tucson, he told agents he felt sick and was running a fever. “I asked to see a doctor … and they said no,” Demetrio said. “One of them said, ‘Put him in there and let him die.’” They shoved him into an overcrowded cell. He was vomiting blood and felt so faint he could barely stand. Yet, according to Demetrio, he was not given any food or water for at least six to seven hours.
Border Patrol protocol requires agents to provide detainees with food, drinking water and emergency medical services, to hold them under humane conditions, and to refrain from making degrading remarks, but this is rarely honored in practice, say human rights advocates. Over the past 15 years, reports documenting human rights abuses at the hands of Border Patrol agents have been published by Amnesty International, the ACLU, No More Deaths, even the United Nations. Contrary to their own protocols, Border Patrol agents have been accused of systematically denying food and water to migrants in custody, forcing them into overcrowded cells, stealing their money, confiscating medications, and denying them medical treatment. Migrants have described agents hurling verbal abuse, racial slurs and curses, and inflicting sexual assault, physical violence, even death. At least 14 migrants and border residents have died at the hands of Border Patrol agents over the past two years. These practices appear to be systemic, amounting to what No More Deaths calls “a culture of cruelty.”