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Border Patrol raids No More Deaths camp

Humanitarian aid group links raid to documents release showing BORTAC involved in 2017 raid

Border Patrol agents have once again raided the No More Deaths camp, detaining at least one person Thursday at the group's permanent desert aid camp south of Arivaca. The humanitarian aid group called the raid an "escalation" from the agency after the release of documents surrounding a similar raid more than three years ago.

Update: More than 30 arrested as Border Patrol executes federal warrant at No More Deaths camp

In statements and video posted to Twitter, the humanitarian group said that agents "entered our humanitarian aid camp near Arivaca AZ today without a warrant, detaining one person, in a clear prioritization of an enforcement-only strategy." No More Deaths volunteers said that agents later surrounded the property and set up surveillance outside of the Byrd Camp, a collection of military surplus tents, trailers, and shacks where volunteers work to provide water food and medicine to those crossing the desert, just a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

In video posted to Twitter, a Border Patrol agent on an ATV drives past the camp's sign, a vehicle door that's painted green and has the hand-painted words "No Mas Muertes" and "Bienvenidos." Spanish for "No More Deaths" and "Welcome." 

By 11 p.m., about six hours after the announcement of the raid, No More Deaths volunteers said that Border Patrol agents were still surveilling the aid station. The agents had also "set up a checkpoint" on the public road just outside of the Byrd Camp and were "detaining and searching all vehicles leaving." 

In a statement, a CBP spokesman said that Tucson Sector agents "detected a suspected group of illegal aliens moving north from the international border between Mexico and the United States. "Agents tracked the suspected illegal aliens into an area near Arivaca, Arizona," he said. "Border Patrol is currently conducting law enforcement operations in the area." 

The group asked supports to call agency officials and "demand agents stand down and respect humanitarian aid."

“Once again, Border Patrol is concentrating their resources on interfering with humanitarian aid during the most deadly time of year for people crossing the border,” said Paige Corich-Kleim, one of the group’s volunteers. “People are dying in the desert because of border enforcement policy, and now Border Patrol wants to prevent people from accessing life-saving assistance. We view this is a clear violation of international humanitarian law.“”

The group also noted that they had to request agents put on masks, as a defense against the spread of COVID-19. 

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This is despite a May statement from agency officials who said that, "CBP officers are required at this time to use agency-approved masks when performing job functions that entail an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. These job functions include encounters with the traveling public."

"Temperatures in the Arivaca area are currently surging over 100 degrees. Our work becomes even more vital in the midst of this heat wave and Border Patrol’s actions present as a clear obstruction to people receiving life-saving humanitarian aid," the group said. "Border Patrol has always been aware of our work at Byrd Camp and we have continued to maintain open lines of communication with them. The camp is on private property and we have always exercised our rights against warrantless searches," volunteers wrote.

The Byrd Camp—named for noted children's author Byrd Baylor who owns 10 acres that include the camp—has been in operation since 2004 and operated for more than a decade under a tenuous detente between humanitarian volunteers and the Tucson Sector leadership. However, in 2017, this detente collapsed, and over the next three years, federal prosecutors pursued charges against nine No More Deaths volunteers. 

This includes the felony prosecution of No More Deaths volunteer Dr. Scott Warren, who was charged with two counts of harboring illegal aliens and one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens. Last Spring, a jury said it was unable to reach a decision on the charges, resulting in a mistrial. The government withdrew the conspiracy charge, and tried to charge Warren with two counts of harboring, but in November, a second jury refused to convict him. 

A federal judge tossed out the convictions of four NMD volunteers in January, and in February prosecutors dropped a misdemeanor charge against Warren. 

No More Deaths volunteers linked the recent raid to the release of two documents linked to a similar raid just over three years ago, including an email that notes that the agency tactical unit, or BORTAC, was involved. The elite unit known as BORTAC has become notorious for its involvement in the federal government's response to protest in Portland, Oregon over the last two weeks. 

"This escalation comes only a day after NMD released documents revealing that the Border Patrol union (a pro-Trump anti-immigrant extremist org) provoked a June 2017 raid of our camp, calling in support from BORTAC, the agency’s special operations unit," volunteers wrote.

On June 15, 2017, Tucson Sector agents came onto the NMD camp with a warrant and arrested four Mexican men suspected of entering the country without authorization. After the raid, a spokesman defended the agency saying that the men were spotted with "surveillance technology" and were walking north on a "known smuggling route." 

Other agents tracked the men to the No More Deaths camp, but "did not find foot sign of the individuals leaving the camp," he wrote. The spokesman wrote that agents "reached out to No Mas Muertes Camp representatives to continue a positive working relationship and resolve the situation amicably." 

"The talks, however, were unsuccessful," he said. 

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The raid violated a long-standing agreement between members of No More Deaths and Tucson Sector officials put into place in 2013 by former Tucson Sector Chief Manuel Padilla. 

Padilla left the Tucson Sector in 2015 to take charge of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. 

The documents including a June 21 email from someone at Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. In the email, the official writes to someone in Ajo, Arizona and notes that two agents from the agency's tactical unit known as BORTAC, or Border Patrol Tactical Unit, were involved in the raid, serving in an "advisory capacity for the perimeter/warrant service." 

BORTAC has been around since 1984, and was originally created to deal with rioting at Immigration and Naturalization Service detention facilities—the precursor to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, in recent years, BORTAC has been gathered together under what the agency calls it's Special Operations Group, aping the U.S. militaries terms as BORTAC has shifted toward what the agency calls a "global response capability." BORTAC agents serving as a SWAT team, as well as advisors to foreign law enforcement, including Iraqi police. 

The official also asks through the heavily redacted email if "we can cut sign here with Tucson station." It's not clear what the official is requesting, however, the phrase "cut sign" usually refers to how agents track people through the desert, looking for footprints, broken branches and other signs.

The official also notes that they think agents from the Nogales station's "disrupt" unit "hit the No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes Camp last week." 

Though the sender is redacted, the second document is likely from Brandon Judd, the head the Border Patrol's union, the National Border Patrol Council. 

In the email to Kevin McAleenan—then the acting commissioner of Border Patrol's parent agency Customs and Border Protection—and his deputy Ronald Vitiello, the sender sharply criticized the chief of the Tucson Sector, and said that he was "more concerned than ever before with the Border Patrol's direction." The sender notes his Congressional testimony, which matches similar statements given by Judd in 2016. 

In the email, written on June 15, 2017, Judd criticized Rodolfo Karisch and complained that "management told agents to stand down so that a warrant could be obtained" for the raid. "As of this writing and two days after illegal entry no warrant has been obtained. Instead, hundreds of man-hours have been spent surrounding and surveilling the camp." 

"Management told more than one agent that the [Assistant U.S. Attorney] wants to try diplomacy prior to seeking a warrant," Judd wrote. "It needs to be noted that diplomacy has never worked with this group and more than one vehicle has driven in and out of the camp," since June 13 that year. He also claimed that both drugs and people had been "successfully smuggled" out of the camp. 

Karisch left the Tucson Sector in 2019 to become the chief of the Rio Grande Valley Sector. 

Meanwhile, McAleenan was promoted to become the acting head of Homeland Security before he was ousted in November 2019, and Vitiello was tapped to run ICE until he was ousted in April 2019. 

"The revelation implies that the Border Patrol Union, one of the most powerful law enforcement unions in the country, played a role in provoking the 2017 raid," wrote No More Deaths. 

"At a time when nationwide organizing in defense of Black lives is focused on defunding and abolishing law enforcement, the role of law enforcement unions cannot be minimized. The Border Patrol Union endorsed Trump during the election," the group wrote. "The revelation that they may have influenced the agency to raid a humanitarian aid station adds weight to accusations that Trump is using the Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security to impose his political goals."

"The 2017 raid of our field clinic and the targeting of aid workers more broadly was one of the indications that DHS was becoming more aggressive in their tactics under Trump,” said No More Deaths volunteer Max Granger. "The government is widening the net of those they considered ‘criminal.’ For almost two decades, undocumented communities and border residents have organized and raised the alarm around these agencies. Once they started targeting citizens—and now that they’re targeting white protestors—more people are paying attention." 

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No More Deaths

A Border Patrol agent at the No More Deaths camp in 2017.

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