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US Border Security Called Women’s Rights Advocate ‘Whore,’ Threatened With Charges For ‘Prostitution’

Amanda Rodriguez Varela is a 51 year-old Mexican citizen and women’s rights advocate from Ciudad Juarez. In 2015, she was falsely accused by United States Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers of “being a sex worker.” Officers called her a “whore” and implied she had sexually transmitted diseases. The officers also threatened to charge her with prostitution and mocked Varela for her gender equality work.

On behalf of Varela and others, who have experienced intimidation and harassment from border security officers, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapters in Texas and New Mexico submitted a complaint and request for investigation to John Roth, the inspector general for the Homeland Security Department. The same complaint and request was also submitted to Matthew Klein, who is the assistant commissioner for the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).

“This complaint includes multiple individual complaints of abuse at Southwest border [ports of entry] involving excessive force; the use of coercion to force individuals to surrender their legal rights and citizenship documents; and the lack of a clear, transparent, and complaint process for individuals to seek redress,” according to the complaint [PDF].

The ACLU asserted the individual complaints reflect a “broader pattern” of “unchecked abuse” within CBP. It requested a prompt investigation into allegations of abuse.

At the Ysleta/Zaragoza Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas, on September 1, 2015, officers subjected Varela to coercive interrogation. She informed the officers she was crossing into the U.S. to shop at a Walmart, and told them she worked for a “women’s rights non-profit organization” in Ciudad Juarez. They harassed her.

“You look so friendly and attractive to be crossing only for that reason [to shop in the United States],” one officer said. Varela replied, “Well, models need to cross into the U.S. too,” which prompted one officer to ask if she did “favors” in the U.S.

Varela said she sometimes did “favors” in the United States, which led an officer to tell her she was being a “whore.” Faced with this insult, Varela insisted she never had worked as a sex worker. The officers ignored Varela and asked if she had syphilis or gonorrhea. She was detained for over an hour before finally being allowed to cross the border.

On September 17, at the same border crossing, officers checked her visa and informed her she was now “flagged as a prostitute.” The officer claimed to have no idea why allegations of prostitution were in her record and pledged to investigate. She crossed into the U.S.

A second incident occurred on October 21. She showed CBP officers her visa and was sent to an interrogation room. A male officer with the last name of Quintanas claimed to know she was working as a sex worker. She denied the false accusation. The officer later scoffed at her when she said she worked for a women’s rights organization, insisting women have equality. The officer said of a fellow female officer, “You see, she carries a gun just like me and smokes cigarettes just like me. So your work for gender equality is a waste of time.”

After requesting Varela move closer to him, Officer Quintanas asked, “You prostitute yourself?” He asked if she did “favors.” Varela made it clear she misunderstood the word “favors.” It does not have a sexual meaning in Mexican Spanish. Varela’s fingerprints were taken, and officers searched her body. She then was threatened with “criminal charges for prostitution.”

“The CBP officer said that Ms. Rodríguez Varela would be incarcerated in the United States for at least a year. Her only way to avoid the charges, the officer claimed, was by signing an English-language DHS form,” the complaint alleges. “Afraid of serving jail time, she signed the form she was given, not understanding what the form meant.”

As it turned out, the officers successfully coerced her into giving up her right to enter the U.S. for five years. She was provided documents, which showed the officers had relied on “fabricated admissions about her prostitution” to ban her.

Raúl Humberto Cadena Castillo also experienced harassment by CBP. On January 22, 2015, Castillo, a 22 year-old Mexican citizen, requested a permit to travel to Albuquerque. The officers accused him of presenting false documents after he presented “recent paychecks, proof of residency, and proof of college enrollment.” He was enrolled at an engineering university in Ciudad Juarez.

Despite Castillo’s explanation that the paychecks from 2014 looked different from 2015 because Mexico reformed how businesses print paychecks, the CBP officer took Castillo to an interrogation room. Officers went through everything in Castillo’s pockets and then put him in handcuffs. The officers fabricated information about Castillo seeking “unauthorized employment in the United States.” Then, the officers forced Castillo to sign a document barring him from entering the U.S. for five years if he wanted to be released from detention.

In a 2013 incident, a 59 year-old woman named Margarita Rodriguez who lives in El Paso, Texas, was harassed at the Bridge of Americas Port of Entry. She has been a U.S. legal permanent resident for 35 years.

CBP officers contended she was a fugitive and asked her multiple times if she knew who Maria Carillo was. They handcuffed Rodriguez to a chair for more than an hour. “Why don’t you declare that you are Maria Carrillo? Tell the truth! You are a fugitive,” one officer shouted. The officer stepped on Rodriguez’s foot. “Why aren’t you answering me?”

Rodriguez was escorted to a room, where multiple “mug shot” pictures were taken. The officers appeared to complain that the fingerprints did not match and put her in handcuffs again. At that point, a male officer told her, “Tell us the truth ma’am because if you lie you will have a lot more trouble, because this passport isn’t yours.” But she insisted the legal documents she had belonged to her.

The complaint further describes how Rodriguez felt poorly as a result of severe diabetes. She asked to use the restroom and was denied. Two female CBP officers took her to a room and conducted a body search, including her genitalia. An officer kicked her leg to force her to open her legs more. She had everything in her bag dumped out, and officers interrogated her about her children and whether she had been deported before. Eventually, they let her use a restroom.

Her eye developed a problem, but the officers would not let her get her medication from her truck. The officers said, “What do you say, shall we deport her?” Rodriguez was asked to sign a document she could not read and was told it was a form for deportation. She refused to sign without talking to her children or an attorney. The officers relented and gave her back her legal documents. She was released into the United States, and ever since, she has been afraid to visit Mexico. She has an ill sister in Ciudad Juarez, but the trauma still lingers.

Within the complaint, there are examples of unjust searches that occurred. One woman—a cleaner at a municipal courthouse—crossed at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso in August 2013. She was subject to a strip search and female officers “made her lower her pants and underwear to her knees.” She was menstruating and was extremely humiliated. She was late for work and finally released a few hours later.

Later, in November, officers humiliated the same cleaner again. They conducted a strip search. Her car was searched. “If you don’t want us to do this, don’t go to Mexico,” an officer said. She was also berated for having only $25. “If you work so much, why do you only have $25?” They forced her to sign a document, but she has no idea what they made her sign.

On November 26, 2014, Michelle Fierro, a 25 year-old U.S. citizen, who was eight months pregnant, was stopped with her brother-in-law and her daughter at the Santa Teresa crossing in New Mexico. They took her brother-in-law to an interrogation room, and Fierro was effectively denied water, food, and the ability to use her cellphone while she waited in the car for six hours. An officer with the last name, Tobias, would not let her leave until they were done with her brother-in-law.

When Fierro’s mother became concerned, she went looking for Michelle. An officer with the last name Molinar told Fierro’s mother, “As long as your daughter continues to cross with these illegals, we’ll stop her and we can even take away the car.” The ACLU adds this “made no sense given the fact that Ms. Fierro had never crossed the border with any undocumented person.” This bigotry, however, led officers to take away the brother-in-law’s visa just so he would have to spend money on it again. Michelle is afraid to cross at this port of entry again, and Officer Molinar lives by her so she fears he may retaliate against her for speaking up about the incident.

Las Vegas metro police line the stage at the Nevada State Democratic Convention. (Photo via Millenials For Bernie on Twitter - @Bernlennials)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."