'Deplorable': CBP official condemns border agents' FB jokes about migrant deaths
'Maybe this will get some bad agents out of here' - senior Border Patrol agent
A top official at Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday of a secret Facebook group for BP agents that the "views expressed in those posts are deplorable and do not represent the core values that we swear to uphold."
With revelations this week that active and retired Border Patrol agents and former agency employees maintained a Facebook group marked by jokes about migrant deaths, and a vulgar illustration involving a member of Congress, officials said they were investigating the posts and the agents' union "strongly" condemned them.
One senior Border Patrol agent in Southern Arizona said that "maybe this will get some bad agents out of here."
Robert E. Perez, CBP's deputy commissioner, sent an internal email to agency staffers, including Border Patrol employees, Wednesday morning.
"The discovery earlier this week of some CBP employees engaging in disturbing social media activity is disappointing and unacceptable, and these activities undermine the credibility of our agency," Perez said in the email, which was leaked to TucsonSentinel.com by a federal employee whose name is being withheld to protect that person's position within the Department of Homeland Security.
"I am confident that the allegations that have surfaced in recent days do not represent the vast majority of our employees who faithfully execute our mission responsibilities, going above and beyond the call of duty every day," Perez wrote. "In CBP’s millions of daily interactions with the public and those we apprehend or encounter, I know our employees treat people with professionalism, dignity and respect."
The social media posts are yet another black-eye for the agency, which has been hammered by criticism for it handling of migrants, especially children, at Border Patrol stations as the agency struggles to deal with an influx of Central American families traveling with children, or children traveling without parents or guardians, seeking asylum in the United States.
On Monday, TucsonSentinel.com published a report from ProPublica that described the Facebook group with 9,500 members from the across the country, many of them Border Patrol current and former agents. Created in August 2016, the group, "I'm 10-15," (10-15 is the Border Patrol code for "aliens in custody") described itself as a forum for "funny" and "serious" discussions about work with the patrol. "Remember you are never alone in this family," the introduction said.
Members of the private Facebook group joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress about to visit a detention facility in Texas on Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings.
In one exchange, group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. One member posted a GIF of Elmo with the quote, “Oh well.” Another responded with an image and the words “If he dies, he dies.”
Response from the revelations was sharp and immediate.
In a statement, the head of a watchdog group at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol's parent agency, said that he was "made aware of disturbing social media activity hosted on a private Facebook group that may include a number of CBP employees."
Matthew Klein, assistant commissioner for CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility, said that the agency "immediately informed" the Office of the Inspector General for Homeland Security "and initiated an investigation."
And, he quoted the agency's standards of conduct, both on and off duty, which states: "Employees will not make abusive, derisive, profane, or harassing statements or gestures, or engage in any other conduct evidencing hatred or invidious prejudice to or about one person or group on account of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability. This includes comments and posts made on private social media sites."
'Maybe this will get some bad agents out of here'
Perez quoted those standards in his Wednesday notice, urging all CBP employees to review the rules.
"We are in positions of public trust. It is imperative that we remain mindful about how our conduct – both on- and off-duty – reflects upon our agency," he wrote.
"The CBP Office of Professional Responsibility, in consultation with the DHS Office of Inspector General, is investigating this matter, and employees who are found to have violated CBP's Standards of Conduct will be held accountable," Perez wrote.
Tuesday, Carla Provost, the chief of the Border Patrol, also condemned the posts.
"These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see—and expect—from our agents day in and day out," she said. "Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable."
Meanwhile, as the revelations began to spread, Tucson Sector officials used Twitter to remind people that Border Patrol agents are "committed to securing our border and being good neighbors to those we serve in southern Arizona," including an image of an agent helping to change on a tire along the highway.
"I don't know why people post this stuff," said a senior Border Patrol agent, who was not authorized to speak. "It's juvenile, stupid and it makes us all look bad. We're in the midst of a difficult time, and these guys are killing us with this nonsense."
"Maybe this will get some bad agents out of here," the agent said.
The Border Patrol's union, the National Border Patrol Council, released their own statement, saying that the Facebook group was a "small minority" and that it was "unfortunate and embarrassing" to have the agency's image tarnished.
"The content found in this group—whose membership is comprised of agents, retired employees, employees who no longer work for Border Patrol, and members of the public–is not representative of our employees and does a great disservice to all Border Patrol agents, the overwhelming majority of whom perform their duties honorably," said NBPC officials.
The union has "spoken out about the need to help those who are sick or injured and protect those who are in our custody and has worked with Congress to obtain the resources to do so," and the NBPC said that union representatives have reminded agents "about the need to be professional while on social media and that posting material that is inappropriate and unacceptable does great harm to the reputation of the Border Patrol."
"While one person posting inappropriate content is unacceptable and cannot be condoned, there is bound to be a subset of people whose values do not represent the entirety of those in the larger group," the union argued. "The men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol are by and large professional law enforcement officers who only want to do their job – to have a small minority of Facebook group members tarnish that image is unfortunate and embarrassing."
Throw a 'burrito at these bitches'
The union also referred obliquely to comments made by Ocasio-Cortez that the administration "has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying."
Ocasio-Cortez criticized the agency on Instagram, setting off a weeks-long controversy about the meaning of the term "concentration camps," an issue that gained more traction following statements from lawyers that migrant children were living in squalid conditions at Border Patrol stations, and Congressional representatives demanded access to those sites.
On the "10-15" page, posters heaped scorn on the freshman congresswoman and Rep. Veronica Escobar.
One member encouraged Border Patrol agents to hurl a “burrito at these bitches.” Another, apparently a patrol supervisor, wrote, “Fuck the hoes.” “There should be no photo ops for these scum buckets,” posted a third member.
Perhaps the most disturbing posts target Ocasio-Cortez. One includes a photo illustration of her engaged in oral sex at an immigrant detention center. Text accompanying the image reads, “Lucky Illegal Immigrant Glory Hole Special Starring AOC.”
Another is a photo illustration of a smiling President Donald Trump forcing Ocasio-Cortez’s head toward his crotch. The agent who posted the image commented: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won.”
"Whether one agrees with the politics of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Escobar, they both must be treated with dignity and respect. Similarly, when Rep. Ocasio-Cortez refers to CBP facilities as concentration camps and our agents as Nazis – when neither could be further from the truth – she does nothing to improve the political discourse; however as stated above, the discourse must be handled professionally," said the union's leaders.
The revelations may have also amped up the tension between Ocasio-Cortez and members of the Border Patrol as 38 members of the Hispanic Caucus visited a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas. The Congressional Democrats also reportedly braved a gauntlet of pro-Trump protestors on their way into the station.
"There was definitely some bad blood between the members and the agents," said Rep. Nanette Barragán, pointing to an incident during the tour.
After the tour, some agents reportedly complained that the 5-foot, 4-inch Congresswoman threatened them and forced her way into a cell to speak with women in the facility. After the tour, she wrote on Twitter that one of the detained women "described their treatment at the hands of officers as ‘psychological warfare’ — waking them at odd hours for no reason, calling them wh*res, etc."
She also told reporters in El Paso that conditions at the facility were unacceptable, and she criticized the behavior of the officers she encountered there. The detained women were held without access to running water, Ocasio-Cortez said, and were "told by CBP officers to drink out of the toilet."
Border Patrol detention cells often have stainless-steel sinks that are installed in a unit with toilets, but Ocasio-Cortez said that the water-tap was broken. Observers argued that migrants were "confused" about the tap design, but Ocasio-Cortez responded on Twitter.
"This was in fact the type of toilet we saw in the cell. Except there was just one, and the sink portion was not functioning," she said, adding that U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley "smartly tried to open the faucet, and nothing came out."
Later, Ocasio-Cortez called the "10-15" page a "racist & sexually violent secret CBP Facebook group."
"They're threatening violence on members of Congress," she said.
Joaquin Castro, a U.S. Rep. from Texas broke a rule banning cellphones and published images from the cells inside. Castro said that women at the station were "crammed in a prison-like cell."
"Our border patrol system is broken. And part of the reason it stays broken is because it's kept secret. The American people must see what is being carried out in their name," Castro said.
"These agents don't deserve to wear any uniform representing the United States of America," Castro said.
Presidential hopeful Rep. Tim Ryan wrote on Twitter that "This is not a FUCKING joke," referring to comments made on the Facebook page.
"We take all the posts that were put out today very seriously," said Brian Hastings, the Border Patrol's chief of operations during an interview on CNN. "These do not represent the thoughts of the men and women of the US Border Patrol. Each one of these allegations will be thoroughly investigated," Hastings said.
Hastings also said that with "over 680,000 apprehensions this year," agents are "under a great deal of stress." This number includes not just Border Patrol's apprehensions, but also those declared "inadmissible" by customs officers.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the report points to "clear and systemic problems that must be addressed immediately," at DHS and CBP.
"This Facebook group is beyond sexist and racist -- it is truly abhorrent and shameful, and there is no excuse for this depraved behavior," Thompson said. "The agents found to be responsible for these vile comments should no longer have the privilege of representing the United States of America in uniform."
'Commonplace' terms in agency
While the union has argued that the comments in Facebook page shared between 9,500 agents, former agents, and CBP employees represents a "small minority," texts between agents revealed in court records show the use of racial epithets and cruel humor about the treatment of migrants by several Tucson Sector agents.
In May, court records uncovered by TucsonSentinel.com showed that a Nogales Border Patrol agent — accused of running down a Guatemalan man and then lying about it — called people apprehended by agents "disgusting subhuman shit," and repeatedly used a racial epithet for border-crossers in text messages.
Border Patrol agent Matthew Bowen faces an assault charge for striking a 23-year-old Guatemalan man with his Ford F-150 during an incident in Dec. 2017.
Bowen uses the term "tonk" to describe the man he allegedly tried to run-over, in a text conversation with another agent, Lonnie Ray Swartz, who was acquitted last year of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges during two separate jury trials. Swartz was accused of unlawfully shooting and killing 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez during a cross-border incident nearly seven years ago.
In his message to Swartz, Bowen described the incident, writing: "I used an f150 to do a human pit maneuver on a guat running from an agent. It was in front of cameras and everybody thought I ran him over so they made it into an SIR even though the tonk was totally fine. Just a little push with a ford bumper."
"Guat" is apparently short for Guatemalan, and a "human pit maneuver" is a reference to the Precision Immobilization Technique, or PIT, a maneuver in which an agent uses his vehicle to disable a fleeing vehicle by ramming it and pressing the rear quarter panel so it spins out and stops.
The term "tonc" or "tonk" is widely used by agents to refer to border crossers, but the term's origin is unknown. Some have said that the term refers to the sound of a metal flashlight hitting a skull, while others have claimed that it stands for "temporarily outside naturalized country," or "true origin not known."
Similarly, agents involved in the case against Scott Warren, a No More Deaths volunteer who was arrested and charged for harboring in January 2018 in Ajo, Ariz., also used the term "toncs," in group texts.
In a group text called "Los Perros Bravos part 3," at three Border Patrol agents repeatedly used the word as two agents were on surveillance.
In the group text, John Marquez and his partner, Brendan Burns, sent text messages to a larger group of agents, including Allberto Ballesteros, apparently nicknamed “Balls” by other agents.
In the message to Ballesteros and Marquez, Burns tells the two agents, “2 toncs at the house,” using a racial epithet for undocumented people, Ballesteros replies “Nice!”
During Warren's trial, the agents admitted using the term, and said that it the term referred to "temporarily outside naturalized country."
Bowen's lawyer, Sean Chapman, moved to exclude the texts, writing that the terms were "commonplace" among agents and that allowing them in court would prejudice a jury.
In one message to Swartz on November 20, just weeks before the alleged incident, Bowen complains about a rocking incident, and calls the people involved, "mindless murdering savages."
"PLEASE let us take the gloves off trump! and we all just responded to code to 2 agents trying to catch 5 tonks at the fence in mariposa, tonks starting rocking caused one agent to fall and sustain a gash to his arm. disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire," Bowen wrote.
Another agent wrote to Bowen on Dec. 18, asking, "Did you gas hiscorpse or just use regular peanut oil while tazing?? For a frying effect...."
Bowen replied, "Guats are best made crispy with an olive oil from their native [country]."