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Border agents on horseback surround No More Deaths camp just before Christmas

BP agents said they were seeking warrant for raid, humanitarian workers say

Just before Christmas Eve, Border Patrol agents on horseback surrounded No More Death's humanitarian aid station south of Tucson and told volunteers they were pursuing a warrant to raid the camp, the group said. 

If agents do conduct a raid, it would be the third incursion into the camp near Arivaca, Ariz., in five months, coming near the end of a spike in the number of remains found in southwestern Arizona—a likely sign that a larger number of people are attempting to cross illegally, and are dying in remote stretches of the desert.

The raids have occurred at 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.

Activists with the group said that mounted border agents rode around the camp's edge on Wednesday night, telling the group that they intended to obtain a federal warrant to carry out another raid there.

En español: Agentes fronterizos a caballo rodean el campo No Más Muertes justo antes de Navidad

NMD said that Border Patrol's move comes during freezing temperatures in the desert surrounding Arivaca, and that Border Patrol’s policies "are directly responsible for the crisis, death, and disappearance of people in the borderlands."

This year, 214 different sets of remains have been found in Arizona, including 39 in the corridor that covers the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and dozens more in corridor that covers the Tohono O'odham Nation, according to a database run by Humane Borders and the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. 

This represents a significant spike from 2019 when 144 cases were discovered, and is the highest number in 13 years since 2007 when 223 sets of remains were found in Southern Arizona. More than half of those sets of remains were eventually identified, but the remainder, largely skeletal remains, still do not have a name. 

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Officials with BP's parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, did not directly respond to TucsonSentinel.com's request for comment Thursday about the possibility of another raid.

"At this time, the Border Patrol is conducting routine law enforcement activities in the area," said John Mennell, a spokesman for CBP.

On Wednesday, agents with the BP's tracked a group of 11 people from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Byrd Camp. Agents said they observed three people, suspected of being in the country illegally, "attempt to flee the camp, but ran back when they saw agents nearby," Mennell said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona did not respond to a request for comment about a potential warrant.

Named for noted children's author Byrd Baylor — who owns 10 acres that include the camp — the encampment 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. 

"Border Patrol’s continual harassment of Byrd Camp prevents patients from receiving essential care," No More Deaths said in a statement. "These raids are designed to drive migrants in need of lifesaving care away from the humanitarian aid station, making the desert even more deadly. The criminalization of migration and humanitarian aid has deadly consequences."

"No amount of reform can change an agency that continuously targets people seeking humanitarian aid with violent military-style force, especially on the eve of a holiday meant to celebrate hospitality towards travelers from distant lands," said Montana Thames, a No More Deaths volunteer. "These actions are simply a continuation of the violent practices Border Patrol uses to terrorize those crossing the desert daily. They must be defunded."

Previous raid

 In July, Border Patrol agents, including members of the agency's tactical team known as BORTAC, raided the No More Deaths camp, arresting more than three dozen people who were receiving medical care, food, water and shelter. 

This was followed by a second raid in October. No More Deaths representatives described the October raids as a "military-style" incursion with a "massive show of armed force." Agents armed with assault rifles descended on the camp with ATVs, "dozens" of trucks, and a Bearcat armored vehicle, "chasing and detaining people who had sought out respite from the heat," No More Deaths said.

Agents held seven volunteers for nearly three hours, while 12 people "who were receiving medical care, food, water, and shelter from the 100+ degree heat" were detained by the agents, the aid group said Tuesday.

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Along long with the escalated actions, Border Patrol officials also amped up their rhetoric against the group, saying that the organization which has built a reputation for saving lives in Southern Arizona's deserts was "harboring" people. 

In a series of tweets, the chief of BP's Tucson Sector, Roy Villareal, announced that agents from Tucson Sector Border Patrol and Air and Marine Operations Tucson Air Branch executed a federal warrant at the Byrd Camp. Villareal wrote that this was the second time that the "so-called Samaritan camp" had been raided over the past three months. In July, Border Patrol agents, including members of the agency's tactical team known as BORTAC, raided the No More Deaths camp, arresting more than three dozen people who were receiving medical care, food, water and shelter.

Meanwhile, No More Death's own Twitter account announced that agents entered the camp for a "potential raid" at 6:45 p.m. and said that updates would follow. Video from a cellphone shows several Border Patrol Chevy Tahoes drive toward the camp, joined by the armored Bearcat while a Blackhawk helicopter hovered overhead.

NMD said that agents "chased and terrorized those that were receiving care, all while the helicopter hovered low above them kicking up dust and debris, making it nearly impossible to see."

They also said that agents "smashed windows, broke doors, and destroyed essential camp infrastructure as well as supplies." Photographs from the group showed a portable shade structured toppled over.

The raid came after Border Patrol began surveilling the camp on Saturday, said Marissa Butler, a No More Deaths volunteer. This created an "antagonistic and distressing environment for those receiving care since late Saturday night," the group said.

In a statement, NMD said that Border Patrol has "refused on multiple occasions to meet with volunteers to discuss previous shared agreements that upheld the right to provide humanitarian aid." And, the group said that the sector chief, Villareal sent No More Deaths representatives "a formal letter asserting this refusal."

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a religious group which supports No More Deaths as an official ministry, called the raid "bullying and manipulative," and confirmed that among the 19 people taken into custody, seven were No More Deaths volunteers.

"We're deeply dismayed to learn of the October 5 raid on the No More Deaths Camp," said Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, UUSC president.

Tucson Sector chief defends October raid

During an interview in October with TucsonSentinel.com, Villareal defending the last raid, and said that that while his agency and No More Deaths have a "mutual mission," the agency will "enforce" U.S. immigration law. 

"When he first came to the Tucson Sector as its chief, Villareal said he met with NMD leadership, and spoke to group about a "mutual mission, preventing the loss of life and providing aid" in the desert. However,  "during that meeting,  I was very clear mission is border security and enforcing the law, as long as they remain within the scope of the law." 

And, he disputed the idea that the relationship between NMD and Tucson Sector was deteriorating during his tenure. "The relationship isn’t deteriorating, but there is a clear line of enforcement where we’re going to take action," he said. In recent weeks, Villareal said he could not meet with the group because he was waiting for a "clear understanding" from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona. "It's a unique situation," he said, because there was a potential for investigation for criminal prosecution. 

"I'm not opposed to any organization that’s providing" humanitarian aid, but that group "has to a clear undertanding that there are laws that we enforce, and they have to abide by the those laws," Villareal said. 

Since that interview, Villareal has headed to Washington D.C. to help with planning at CBP's headquarters, and in the interim has been replaced by 25-year veteran John Modlin. Modlin posted on Twitter that he was serving as the interim chief patrol agent in the Tucson Sector. 

"While every part of this country has its unique challenges, my mission as a Border Patrol agent has always been the same: secure our borders and ensure the safety of our communities," Modlin wrote. "I look forward to working with Tucson Sector's many government, tribal and community partners as I continue with that mission in Southern Arizona," he added.

July raid linked to BP union, sign of crumbling relationship between agency and volunteers

After the raid occurred in July, No More Deaths published images showing a line of vehicles heading into the camp, including an armored vehicle known as a Bearcat that carried members of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit. The elite unit known as BORTAC became notorious over the summer for its involvement in the federal government's response to protests in Portland, Ore. 

"For two hours, in darkness, they detained and chased people receiving care while a Border Patrol cameraman filmed the scene," said a volunteer with No More Deaths. "The day before, agents had entered the property without a warrant and detained one person receiving care. Border Patrol then set up 24-hour surveillance around the perimeter, deterring anyone else from entering the camp to seek help." 

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A spokesman with the agency confirmed the summer raid, and said in a statement that agents from the Tucson Border Patrol Sector, with support from CBP Air and Marine Operation’s Tucson Air Branch "executed a federal search warrant on the No More Deaths camp near Arivaca, Arizona." Agents apprehended "over three dozen" people who were suspected of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, he said.

"When raiding our humanitarian aid camp last night Border Patrol had a warrant, but refused to show it upon entry," No More Deaths said of the July incident.  "The warrant specified the seizure of all cell phones and paperwork, in a clear attempt to suppress documentation of their actions."

The group called the July "military-style raid" at the aid station a "clear example of Border Patrol’s deadly pattern of interfering with humanitarian aid." 

"Many No More Deaths volunteers work as EMTs, paramedics, nurses, and doctors. Volunteers are trained to respect the autonomy of individuals receiving care — as is standard practice in the medical field, they only call 911 and Border Patrol with patient consent. All persons at camp had been medically evaluated, were stable, and were receiving continuous care," the group said of the summer incident.

The group complained in July 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." 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." 

No More Deaths volunteers said then that Border Patrol agents had "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 about the July raid, 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," Paige Corich-Kleim, one of the group’s volunteers, said in July. "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. 

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."

In 2019, federal officials attempted to prosecute 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. 

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Other NMD volunteers were charged and prosecuted for driving a vehicle into the wilderness in Cabeza Prieta, and for leaving food and water and other supplies. 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 July's 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. 

The day before the raid in July, NMD volunteers released documents that showed the National Border Patrol Council had complained about the group.

"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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No More Deaths

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

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