New Report – A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse & Impunity in Border Patrol Short-term Custody

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Below is a very important report by No More Deaths describing serious problems concerning short-term custody practices by the U.S. Border Patrol. The findings of this report are twofold: First, human rights abuses of individuals in short-term U.S. Border Patrol custody are systematic and widespread. The abuses documented over the past two and a half years do not reflect anomalous incidents but rather an institutional culture of abuse within Border Patrol. Second, the custody standards that do exist are inadequate and are not subject to the oversight necessary to ensure their implementation. Without drastic changes to Border Patrol custody standards and independent accountability mechanisms, the senseless abuse of immigrants along the border and in Border Patrol custody is certain to continue. Please find a brief summary of the report’s methodology, findings, and recommendations below. 

For a copy of the full report, click here.
For a copy of the executive summary, click here.
For additional information and materials, please visit:
For more information, contact:  Danielle Alvarado, 408-646-2175;


No More Deaths’ September 2011 report, A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse & Impunity in Border Patrol Short-term Custody, is based on interviews with 12,895 people deported through Naco, Nogales, and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico from Fall 2008 to Spring 2011. More than 30,000 incidents of abuse and mistreatment were documented.

Key findings:

Through these interviews, No More Deaths identified 12 areas of concern where the Border Patrol is responsible for consistent violations of the human rights of migrants and in the full report provides prevalence statistics and case examples for each of these areas: denial of or insufficient water; denial of or insufficient food; failure to provide medical treatment or access to medical professionals; inhumane processing center conditions; verbal abuse; physical abuse; psychological abuse; dangerous transportation practices; separation of family members; dangerous repatriation practices; failure to return personal belongings; and due process concerns. Their findings include the following:

•    Border Patrol agents denied food to 2981 people and gave insufficient food to 11,384 people. Only 20 percent of people in custody for more than two days received a meal. 
•    Agents denied water to 863 people and gave insufficient access to water to 1402 additional people. Children were more likely than adults to be denied water or given insufficient water.  Many of those denied water by Border Patrol were already suffering from moderate to severe dehydration at the time they were apprehended.
•    Physical abuse was reported by 10 percent of interviewees, including teens and children. The longer people were held in custody, the more likely they were to experience physical abuse.
•    Of the 433 incidents in which emergency medical treatment or medications were needed, Border Patrol provided access to care in 59 cases—86 percent were deported without needed medical treatment.
•    The most commonly reported forms of inhumane processing center conditions were overcrowding (5763 reports), followed by unsanitary or dirty conditions (3107), extreme cold (2922), and extreme heat (2349).
•    2926 incidents of failure to return personal belongings were recorded: 398 cases of failure to return shoes or shoelaces, 211 cases of failure to return money, 201 cases of failure to return identification, 191 cases of failure to return important documents, and 125 cases where no personal belongings were returned at all.  People deported without money or key personal belongings are at heightened risk of exploitation and physical harm.
•    Border Patrol deported 869 family members separately, including 17 children and 41 teens. Family separation frequently involved “lateral repatriation,” or deportation through ports of entry that are distant from the location of apprehension. It is a costly practice that increases the risk of physical harm to those who are removed to unfamiliar or dangerous locations. 
•    1051 women, 190 teens, and 94 children were repatriated after dark in violation of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Mexican Consulate and U.S. Customs and Border Protection and, in the case of children, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008.
•    Increasing reports of psychological abuse included threatening detainees with death; depriving them of sleep; keeping vehicles and cells extremely hot or cold temperatures; playing traumatizing songs about people dying in the desert (migracorridos) loudly and continuously; and forced holding of strenuous or painful positions for no apparent reason other than to humiliate.

These findings demonstrate that mistreatment and abuse in Border Patrol custody are not aberrational; rather, they reflect common agency practice. Many of them plainly meet the definition of torture under international law.

It is important to note that for the past two years, No More Deaths and their partners in Naco and Agua Prieta, Sonora have made a good faith effort to engage the existing system, filing over 75 complaints with Office of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties (CRCL). To our knowledge, no identifiable outcome has been achieved in a single case since the first complaints were filed.  

Our experience suggests that CRCL lacks the independence and power to conduct the necessary oversight. The office is under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), alongside the Customs and Border Patrol, and thus it must attempt to function as a credible watchdog while simultaneously remaining on good terms with the divisions of DHS it is charged with investigating. Cases reviewed by CRCL are often referred back to the same DHS agency named in the complaint.

Key Recommendations:  

In order to protect the rights of all individuals detained by the Border Patrol, a comprehensive set of standards regulating short-term custody must be established. This includes:

•    guaranteeing full access to water, food, medical care, sanitary and humane processing center conditions, due process protections, and safe transportation and repatriation practices;
•    ensuring that agents do not verbally, physically, or psychologically abuse detainees;
•    respecting and returning property of those in custody;
•    immediately ending Border Patrol apprehension methods that intend to scatter groups and ensuring that agents actively assist with search and rescue missions;
•    and ceasing the practice of, and publicly announcing opposition to, the vandalism and removal of resources such as food, water, or blankets that have been left for those in crisis.

For a complete set of these standards that would guarantee basic rights, please see pages 47-49.

An independent oversight mechanism must be established in which community and human rights groups play a central role. While DHS must improve its ability to hold its own employees accountable, there is an urgent need for an independent body charged with the following responsibilities:

•    investigating complaints filed directly or by a third party;
•    monitoring the implementation of standards in short-term facilities;
•    imposing disciplinary sanctions on Border Patrol agents who commit egregious and repeat abuses;
•    providing restitution to victims;
•    and tracking, analyzing, and publicly reporting on aggregate information drawn from complaints, their resolutions, and facility ratings. 

For more recommendations regarding oversight, please see page 50.

Selected Testimonies:Dec. 15, 2009: Juliana, 30, from Mexico
She stated that she had lived for 10 years in Moreno Valley, Calif., and has four children who are U.S. citizens. She was attempting to cross into the U.S. to resolve a problem with Child Protective Services. CPS required her to return her children to the U.S. even though she herself is not permitted to stay there. Juliana crossed in a group of 22 people and walked for a week in the desert. At about 3 a.m. on Dec. 7, Border Patrol agents apprehended the group. One taunted the migrants and told them to raise their arms above their heads and dance. Juliana told the agent, “We are not your monkeys. We will not dance for you.” The agents loaded the group into a car crowded with other people and took them to a center near Tucson (name unknown). Approximately 45 women were held in a cell made for 20. The toilet was right next to the bed and the detainees were given cold and insufficient food twice a day: a small container of juice and a hamburger that was still frozen. Only on the day that the consulate was present did they receive hot food. The center was very cold. After signing a voluntary departure order, Juliana was held in the center for three days. She saw children separated from families and held in a separate cell. A woman in her cell said she had been there for a month and that the same children had been there a month ago. Another woman who was seven months pregnant had a fever and asked to go to the hospital. The guards would not let her go, insisting that she wasn’t pregnant. The woman suffered a miscarriage. Juliana had severely sprained her ankle while walking in the desert, and at no point in custody did she receive medical treatment. At the time that No More Deaths encountered her, she was in severe pain and could not put much weight on the injured ankle.

Nov. 4, 2010: José Miguel, 54, from Sinaloa, Mexico
He lived for 35 years in Los Angeles, working at the downtown swap meet. He had a wife and five U.S. citizen children. José returned to Sinaloa to see his sick mother. On his way back, he was apprehended by a Border Patrol agent in the desert. The agent put him in the patrol truck and drove recklessly, causing the vehicle to flip over into a ditch. Two women riding with José were injured and one was bleeding from the head. José suffered a serious back injury and fainted after the accident. He was taken to the hospital in Douglas where he spent two nights. José refused to sign deportation papers. Agents yelled threats at him and held him for 24 hours without food or water. They told him if he signed the papers, he could see a doctor again and get pain medication. In the end, he signed the papers. José was deported Oct. 29 with a back brace and a week’s worth of Oxycodone. Follow-up to initial interview: On Nov. 5, José ran out of Oxycodone. He was in a lot of pain, still wearing the brace, and had trouble walking. He died a short time later in Nogales.

March 15, 2010: Jorge, 27, from Guatemala
Six Border Patrol agents, including some on horses and motorcycles, surrounded his group of 10. He was thrown onto the ground face first and an agent hit him on the side with the butt of a gun while agents yelled insults. Jorge was held for three days in the Tucson processing center. When he repeatedly asked to see a doctor, he was denied. Agents threw out any food the detainees had and provided none even when it was requested; over the course of three days, they received only packets of crackers. Jorge now suffers chronic stomach pain as a result of going so long without eating. Border Patrol also took everyone’s clothes except a t-shirt and pants and then turned on the air conditioning. Jorge says his belongings, including his birth certificate and $100 U.S. currency, were confiscated and not returned. Jorge has a cousin and father who live in Santa Monica, Calif., where he lived for 10 years before being deported. He was apprehended by Border Patrol as he attempted to return to them.We ask Congress to urge the Administration to develop comprehensive short-term custody standards and create independent oversight of the Border Patrol in order to curb these serious and systemic abuses.

We ask Congress to urge the Administration to develop comprehensive short-term custody standards and create independent oversight of the Border Patrol in order to curb these serious and systemic abuses.

Media Coverage of Report:

Report alleges Border Patrol abuse of illegal immigrants

Report: Border Patrol abuses widespread

Ariz. border agents mistreat migrants, report says