How Mexico Cartels Corrupt US Border Agents

An investigative report by the Texas Observer last month revived longstanding concerns about US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), calling into question whether the nation’s largest law enforcement agency is effectively combating corruption and infiltration by criminal organizations…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Report Highlights “Fast-Track” Deportations of Central American Refugees

Human Rights Watch released a report last week highlighting the apparently systemic failure of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to properly screen Central American migrants, particularly Hondurans, for “credible” or “reasonable” fear of returning to their countries of origin.

According to data obtained from CBP via a Freedom of Information Act request, “the vast majority of Hondurans, at least 80 percent, are placed in fast-track expedited removal and reinstatement of removal proceedings.” The report suggests that this practice may exclude many migrants with legitimate asylum requests from pursuing their claim past even the most preliminary stages of the process.

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For the report, HRW interviewed 35 Central American migrants who were either in detention in the U.S. or had recently been deported to Honduras, the most dangerous country in the most dangerous region on the planet. As the graphic above shows, the vast majority of migrants from the “Northern Triangle” countries (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) were deported under expedited removal and reinstatement of removal proceedings. Moreover, as the organization notes, “only a minuscule minority, 1.9 percent [of Hondurans], got flagged for credible fear assessments by CBP.”

Expedited processing used to be performed only at official U.S. border crossing checkpoints, but in recent years it has been used for undocumented migrants detained pretty much anywhere. Citing a drop in the proportion of migrants granted permission to pursue their asylum claims by US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers, HRW suggests that new, more stringent benchmarks for establishing “credible” or “reasonable” fear instituted in February 2014 may have “inappropriately raise[ed] the burden of proof required” at this early stage of the asylum-seeking process.

Of the migrants HRW interviewed, fewer than half of the detainees who told Border Patrol officials about their fear of returning to Honduras were referred for further assessment to determine whether their fear was “credible” or “reasonable,” despite U.S. law requiring that such cases be referred to a USCIS asylum officer.

Some interviewees reported lacking access to competent legal counsel and even being ignored, given misinformation or pressured by U.S. immigration officials to not fight deportation or to drop asylum claims. The title of HRW’s report, “You don’t have rights here,” comes from a statement allegedly uttered by a Border Patrol agent to one eventual deportee, referred to by the pseudonym “Mateo S.” Mateo described a CBP agent attempting to force him to sign papers consenting to his own deportation. When he refused, Mateo said, “[The agent] told me I was deported anyway. He said he ‘had the law in his hand and he was going to sign for me.'”

Mateo had fled from Honduras after falling victim to a local extortion racket that targeted his business. When he could no longer afford the “war tax,” gangsters tried to kidnap his son. “I sent my son and my wife to the United States,” he told HRW. “Once I knew they were safe, I fled too.” Despite expressing a credible fear of being targeted by the gang if returned to Honduras, Mateo was deported on September 9, 2014.

Another Honduran deportee, Marlon J., described being chosen at random as the victim of a gang initiation ritual and getting shot seven times in the back for absolutely no reason. Unfortunately, he did not feel he could turn to the state for protection or redress. “Here in Honduras, you can’t file a police complaint,” according to Marlon, “because after that the gang comes and finishes your family.” Roberto L., also deported to Honduras in September, said he had witnessed the murder of his mother and that his life is in danger “at a national level.” “I’m just going to be here [in Honduras] for three weeks,” he said. “Then I’ll try [to cross into the U.S.] again.”

Human Rights Watch notes that the group “was unable to corroborate claims about the specific dangers interviewees said they faced in Honduras.” Nevertheless, the organization writes that “[t]he failure of CBP and other US immigration agencies to identify asylum seekers raises concerns that the US government is violating its international human rights obligations to examine asylum claims before returning them to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.”

The report continues:

“Migrants who were not referred for a credible fear interview told Human Rights Watch that interviews by CBP are brief and focused on explaining additional consequences of deportation, such as bars to return for set periods of time, rather than exploring their fear of return…The migrants we interviewed said that the CBP officers whom they encountered seemed singularly focused on removing them from the United States, which impeded their ability to make their fears known.”

HRW notes that “DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has referred to [migrant] detention as part of an “aggressive deterrence strategy.” Families, including women and children, are often placed in long-term detention even when there is no legal requirement to do so. As I wrote in a previous post:

Being detained after entering the United States, especially for children, can be just as traumatic as any other part of the trip. The infrastructure to deal with the recent influx of juvenile migrants simply doesn’t exist. Between 2008 and 2012, at least 1,366 children were illegally held in adult facilities for more than 72 hours. Conditions at overcrowded youth facilities sometimes border on inhumane. A number of migrants’ rights groups recently filed a joint complaint with DHS alleging extremely disturbing physical, psychological and sexual abuses suffered by unaccompanied migrant children at the hands of Border Patrol authorities.

However, the Obama administration seems to have acknowledged the likely failure of its ‘deterrence’ strategy – which has included everything from mass deportations to a CBP-funded song about the horrifying dangers of riding the freight train known as “The Beast” through Mexico. To wit, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently announced plans to build a 2,400-bed “South Texas Family Detention Center” in Dilley, TX to be operated on a for-profit basis by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

The Texas Observer reported that the” massive facility would double the existing federal capacity for immigrant families…”

[Critics] point to the failed experiment with detaining immigrant families at T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center, a CCA-run facility about 45 minutes northeast of Austin. The Obama administration removed families from the former jail in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, accounts of children suffering psychological trauma and a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic.

Locking up more women and children is hardly a reasonable solution, but there have been some positive developments regarding immigration policy recently. In a first, the Board of Immigration Appeals recently ruled that a Guatemalan women who was the victim of severe domestic abuse was eligible for asylum. The Obama administration also just announced that it would expedite a family reunification program that will help thousands of Haitians join their family members in the U.S. and earlier announced a similar initiative targeted at Central American families.

These are steps in the right direction, but sending these refugees back to the countries from which they are fleeing is neither ethical nor pragmatic. Neither is locking them in “iceboxes.” Violence, corruption and political repression have been on the rise in the Northern Triangle for some time. So have the numbers of migrants from those countries attempting to cross the U.S. border. It’s unproductive and potentially illegal to turn away legitimate asylum-seekers – not to mention immoral, especially when considering the United States’ responsibility for so much of the mess Central America.

Who is extorting the families of child migrants detained in the US?

The New York Times just published a new report that adds to the long and lengthening list of horrors experienced by immigrants and their families:

The federal government is investigating how detailed information about migrant children being held at two American military bases wound up in the hands of con artists who are using it to lure unsuspecting relatives into paying hefty sums to reunite their families, preying on people who have been separated for years, according to the F.B.I.

Now, the F.B.I. says, swindlers have gotten hold of precise details about the children to reach out to their relatives across the country, claiming that payments are required to cover the processing costs and travel expenses of reuniting families. Cases of the fraud have been reported in 12 states so far, from New York to California, with the con artists seeking $350 to $6,000 in so-called fees, the F.B.I. says.

The leak of information is the latest setback in a saga that has compromised the Obama administration’s broader aspirations for an immigration overhaul. Investigators are trying to determine whether a federal database on the children was hacked, or if a contractor or government employee with access to information on the minors sold it to con artists, a government official familiar with the case said.

As the Times makes clear, the person or people responsible have yet to be identified. But, considering some of the information about US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that has been revealed recently, I think it’s reasonable to suspect some elements within the agency could have been involved.

Last month, a group of migrants represented by a number of non-governmental organizations alleged shocking instances of cruel treatment by CBP employees while in detention, including “physical and sexual abuse, verbal abuse, failure to provide medical treatment, mistreatment of infants and pregnant and nursing minors, inhumane detention conditions, due process concerns, and use of shackles.”

There have been other accusations of misconduct leveled against CBP. Latino Rebels reported a few weeks ago that a Honduran woman said she was held without being fed for three days at the McAllen Border Patrol Station, while she was in the third trimester of her pregnancy.

In one of the more disturbing recent episodes involving CBP, a 32-year-old agent by the name of Esteban Manzanares encountered three Honduran women – a mother and her two daughters – in southern Texas. He proceeded to rape the mother and slash her wrists, then he raped the 14-year-old daughter and attempted to kill her by breaking her neck. The mother and one of her daughters escaped, but Manzanares took the other girl back to his home where he kept her prisoner until the end of his shift. He sexually assaulted the girl once he came home, but reportedly committed suicide before authorities could find and arrest him.

That last case may be an extreme example of the apparent culture of CBP agents viewing migrants as less than human, but the bad behavior extends beyond agents’ treatment of migrants. Even US citizens have reported being harassed and intimidated by CBP agents. Todd Miller reported recently on the story of Shena Gutierrez, whose husband Jose Gutierrez Guzman was beaten so severely by CBP agents in 2011 that he suffered permanent brain damage.

Shena was “aggressively questioned and cuffed” by CBP after returning from a demonstration against CBP violence in Mexico. One of the agents dumped the contents of her purse onto the floor and “began to trample on her life, quite literally, with his black boots.” Shena was also subjected to invasive body cavity searches while in detention and currently faces charges for “refusing to leave government property.” (Miller’s article is not only well-reported and well-written, but also very moving. I highly recommend it.)

A report from the American Immigration Council released in May found that 97 percent of abuse complaints investigated internally by CBP ended with no disciplinary action taken. This culture of impunity seems to have endowed the Border Patrol with an attitude of omnipotence. Mexican newspaper El Universal reported last month that thousands of employees of CBP and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were being investigated for ties to organized crime. According to InSight Crime;

Accusations against agents include protecting and escorting drug shipments, spying, and identifying informants, as well as trafficking drugs on behalf of Mexican criminal groups.

US border patrol officials have been accused of abusing migrants, facilitating human smuggling and trafficking weapons for cartels, in addition to aiding in drug trafficking operations.

Given all this, I would be thoroughly unsurprised if it turns out that CBP agents had sold the information used to extort families of detained migrants to criminals, or if they simply carried out the con job themselves. Whoever is responsible for these heinous and despicable acts should be ashamed, but if it was CBP agents, it would be basically par for the course.

Meet the refugees from the War on Drugs

Over the past few weeks, the sudden explosion of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America entering the United States has received a lot of press. On June 2, President Obama announced that his administration was seeking congressional approval for an extra $1.4 billion in federal funding to help alleviate what he described as an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

According to figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the number of “unaccompanied alien children” CBP “encountered” rose from 3,304 in fiscal year 2009 to over 46,000 so far in FY2014. Vox.com put together a helpful graphic to visualize the data:

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In recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson, who oversees CBP’s parent agency, pushed back against Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn’s suggestion that the desire for citizenship or reuniting with family members might be the driving force behind the recent surge. “I think it is primarily the conditions in the countries that they are leaving from,” Johnson said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) also recently implied that these immigrants are seeking to somehow take advantage of being in the US. “Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America,” he said

This explanation seems highly suspect in light of the fact that total net migration from Latin America to the US has been in decline while deportations have been on the rise in recent years. Furthermore, the government’s treatment of immigrants can hardly be characterized as “lax.” The Obama administration’s harsh immigration, detention and deportation policies have sparked widespread criticism and even civil disobedience in the United States.

In attempting to reach the United States via Mexico, migrants from Central America of all ages undertake risks that include being abandoned, extorted, robbed, kidnapped, raped, enslaved and even accidentally dismembered along the way. In April of this year, hundreds of undocumented migrants from Central America marched on Mexico’s presidential residence to voice their demand that the country “ensure [their] right to free passage…without humiliation or violence, on [their] way to the northern border.”

After enduring harrowing journeys of hundreds or even thousands of miles and after paying hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars to smugglers and criminals, many of these migrants – including an increasingly large number of children – reach the United States only to be apprehended, detained and eventually shipped back across the border.

Being detained after entering the United States, especially for children, can be just as traumatic as any other part of the trip. The infrastructure to deal with the recent influx of juvenile migrants simply doesn’t exist. Between 2008 and 2012, at least 1,366 children were illegally held in adult facilities for more than 72 hours. Conditions at overcrowded youth facilities sometimes border on inhumane. A number of migrants’ rights groups recently filed a joint complaint with DHS alleging extremely disturbing physical, psychological and sexual abuses suffered by unaccompanied migrant children at the hands of Border Patrol authorities.

Considering the extreme burdens and risks involved in attempting to unlawfully immigrate to the United States from Central America, one must ask why one would undertake such a treacherous passage. (Many try more than once.) Is the allure of life in the United States simply too much to resist, or is it “primarily the conditions in the countries that [migrants] are leaving from” that are behind the recent spike?

Let’s take closer look at three of the countries Vox and CBP highlighted – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. On top is the raw number of child migrants “encountered” by CPB from each country and below are the per capita rates:

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In 2009, Honduras underwent a coup supported by the United States, which installed a government whose economic policies have resulted in increased poverty and unemployment in addition to decreased economic growth and social spending. According to the CIA, Honduras has the eighth-worst wealth inequality in the world and more than half of the nation’s population lives in poverty.

According to the same agency, Guatemala sits only three places away from its neighbor as the eleventh most-unequal country on earth (also with a majority of its citizens in poverty.) El Salvador ranks thirtieth in inequality, with more than one-third of its population living in poverty. Unemployment in both El Salvador and Guatemala also remain relatively high.

But economic factors alone do not offer a complete explanation for the increase in child migration. Mexico too is highly unequal and has major problems with underemployment and poverty, but immigration by Mexican nationals has basically flatlined during the last few years.

Let’s look at some more data. Here’s the homicide rate in each country per 100,000 people, including Mexico:

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Mexico certainly isn’t bragging about its homicide rate of 15 or 20 per 100,000, but it’s fairly clear that the three countries that comprise the “Northern Triangle” are facing much higher levels of violence. In 2013, the Americas superseded Africa as the world’s most violent region, in large part due to crime-related killings in Central America. Last year San Pedro Sula, Honduras was named the “deadliest city in the world” for its murder rate of 169 per 100,000.

In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has linked the rising number of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle to the growth of crime-related violence in those countries, noting that “while the United States is receiving the majority of the new asylum claims, combined, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, documented a 712% increase in the number of asylum applications from citizens of these three countries.”

Considering this, something seems off about these charts:

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Despite markedly higher rates of violence in the Northern Triangle, those countries have received US security aid less than or proportional to what Mexico receives in recent years. Also, the State Department’s own estimates suggest that a large and increasing percentage of drugs and other illicit goods trafficked to the United States flow through the Northern Triangle. Yet anti-narcotics funding for those countries is once again less than or proportional to what Mexico has received:

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While the trend seems to be shifting toward providing more assistance to the Northern Triangle, the US government’s own estimates suggest that trafficking in the region is not declining and may even be increasing.

The US-led War on Drugs has not worked anywhere it has been tried in Latin America. It has only increased the profits of criminal groups, which allowed them to corrupt governments and security forces in order to more easily diversify into other nefarious sectors of the underground economy.

US-supported “free trade” pacts like NAFTA and CAFTA-DR have had devastating effects on some of the region’s most vulnerable groups of people. For those seeking to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families, legitimate economic opportunities can be rare. Joining the informal economy is often less a choice than a necessity.

Ironically, many refugees of these US-led efforts are fleeing to the very country that bears significant responsibility for their home nations’ plight. President Obama acknowledged that the influx of unaccompanied minors is a “humanitarian crisis” and Secretary Johnson recognized that these children were primarily being “pushed” from their home countries, not “pulled” to the US by “lax enforcement.” But there has been little attention paid to the root causes of the situation.

Spending more money on top of the tens of billions spent on militarizing the border and the War on Drugs without changing these fundamentally failed policies would be a mistake. The US should recognize that as the main belligerent in the War on Drugs, it bears responsibility for the refugees that war has created. Not only should we treat those refugees as such, but we should afford them the support and respect they deserve, especially in the case of unaccompanied minors.

For now, perhaps we have to accept that the behemoth prison-military-industrial complex won’t be felled by a wave of lone children from Central America pouring over the border. But every such moment of heightened attention is an opportunity to point to the broader issues behind the crisis of the moment and to offer criticisms and suggestions for improving the system.

What we cannot accept is locking them in cages and telling them, as one CBP officer allegedly said to a 17-year-old girl who fled Guatemala after being impregnated by a rapist and having her family subsequently threatened by gangsters, “Welcome to hell…We’re going to put you on a plane [back home], and I hope it explodes. That would be the happiest day of my life.”


* Data compiled from:





1. http://www.securityassistance.org/latin-america-and-caribbean/data/country/military/country/2001/2015/is_all/Latin%20America%20and%20the%20Caribbean

2. http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children