Actions taken by law enforcement to capture refugees attempting to cross the vast wilderness of the United States-Mexico borderlands frequently leads to injury, trauma, death, and disappearance, according to a new report.
“Deadly Apprehension Methods: The Consequences of Chase & Scatter In The Wilderness” is the first of a three-part series published by the humanitarian aid organizations La Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths. The series analyzes publicly available federal policy, the testimonies of border crossing survivors, and cases from the “Missing Migrant Crisis Line.”
Although President Barack Obama concedes the border crisis is a “humanitarian situation,” the federal government’s current approach more closely resembles an active hunting ground. The federal government does not, as the report notes, “publicly recognize the large-scale human catastrophe its enforcement activities have engineered.”
The Obama administration will soon hand Trump an established deterrence infrastructure, which promotes the fear of death, injury, imprisonment, and deportation to dissuade people from fleeing death, injury, and imprisonment in their own countries. Plans to build more infrastructure and further militarize the border under the Donald Trump’s presidential administration will likely exacerbate the crisis.
“Whether by pursuing individuals into rivers, over cliffs, or deep into the desert, what may be framed as a ‘never-ending game’ by agents on the ground contributes, in the end, to a disturbing pattern of state-sanctioned disappearance,” the report argues. Officials weaponize the expansive wilderness against refugees, concentrating enforcement and infrastructure around urban ports of entry to intentionally push refugees to the backcountry, where the journey is far more dangerous.
Disappearance in the borderlands is a “significant but underreported dimension of the violence that is routinely inflicted on individuals and communities.” It is not a “natural or inevitable phenomenon” but a “direct consequence of U.S. border enforcement policies and practices.”
The report notes, “Habitual acts of cruelty by agents are entirely consistent with the logic and objectives of deterrence.” If ever located, the report found that those who have disappeared while crossing the border most often turn up in “detention centers, in morgues, or skeletonized on the desert floor.” Many human remains are never identified and thousands are never located at all.
Forty-seven of the 58 people surveyed reported being chased by Border Patrol agents within the last five years. Those 47 people reported 67 incidents of chase, which is to say that some were chased multiple times.
Risks of Terrain
Other than surrender, the “sole method of apprehension available to Border Patrol personnel is chase through deadly terrain.” There, migrants face high risk of dehydration, exhaustion, drowning, falls, and other hazards that could lead to injury and death. Chases can span multiple hours and often occur in the dark of night, as immigration officials try to corral and apprehend migrants in rugged terrain full of hazards like cacti, trees, shrubs, cliffs, canyons, and loose rock. They face extreme temperatures, which can lead to heat exhaustion and dehydration during the day and hypothermia at night.
The survey found that in 40.9% chases, someone was injured by the terrain.
“We run as if we were blind, as if we had a cloth over our eyes. Border Patrol can see everything though, and they know where the fences and the cliffs are. They will chase you towards them,” said one border crosser, who was injured after running into barbed wire. (Note: Border Patrol agents typically wear night vision goggles.)
Jose Cesario Aguilar Esparza was chased while crossing through remote regions of Southern Arizona with his two nephews and a guide. Border Patrol agents pursued him over the edge of a cliff, where he fell to his death.
Twenty-nine year-old Maycol from El Salvador went missing in the borderlands of South Texas in August 2015 after being chased by a low-flying helicopter. Maycol was traveling with a group and abandoned. He texted his family to say he broke his foot. Eight months later, no one has heard from Maycol or has information on his whereabouts.
Blisters are common among crossers, who have walked for dozens of miles. They are made worse by hours-long chases by border agents. Without medical supplies, people with such wounds face a high risk of infection.
Potable water sources in the borderlands are scarce and what water can be found is often polluted. Migrants often drop their supplies when forced to run. Border agents reportedly dump out food and water they might find when pursuing migrants.
Agents deliberately chase migrants back toward bodies of water they have crossed, confiscating flotation devices they may have used to come across in the first place.
Twenty-six year-old Nestor was reported to the Missing Migrant Crisis Line by his mother. In December 2015, he and his companion crossed the Rio Grande, one of the deadliest water crossings for those attempting the journey, and was confronted by border agents on the other side. Nestor fled back along the edge of the water but fell into the river. His companion, who was caught, said he heard Nestor shout from the river. He told agents Nestor wasn’t a good swimmer. But the agents did nothing. Four months later, no one knows if Nestor is dead or alive.
Even for those who are good swimmers, strong currents and debris make it difficult for people to get back across rivers like the Rio Grande when chased by border agents, especially at night.
A survey of reports found eight cases of people who died or disappeared when agents drove them toward water in 2015. As the report from this three-part series notes, the number is likely higher as there is no binational effort to document these deaths.
Scattered And Left Behind
Border Patrol agents use SUVs, ATVs, dirt bikes, horseback, and helicopters to pursue migrants at high speeds.
The fear of being captured causes people to run from Border Patrol agents. In the chaos and confusion, they are often separated from their belongings, from guides, and from other members of their family and group. They are left behind if injured and unable to keep running.
“Slower moving people, including the very young, very old, sick, and injured, are left behind alone in the backcountry,” the report found. The scattering of individuals that results when Border Agents chase them “causes individuals to become disoriented, lost, and empty-handed: many border crossers perish during the prolonged exposure to the elements that results.”
The tactic of chasing and scattering migrants is “indisputably responsible for human deaths and disappearances.”
Four out of ten chases resulted in someone from the group being lost after the chase.
The brother of a man named Cirilio contacted the crisis hotline after learning Cirilio crossed into south Texas when his group was pursued by a helicopter. Cirilio suffered heat exhaustion and was left behind in the “middle of the desert.” Eight months later, no one has found him.
One refugee named Angel was chased by border agents in February 2016 while attempting to cross into Arizona. He was chased by a low-flying helicopter for over an hour, which flew at “about the height of a telephone pole.” The helicopter was so close to the ground it kicked up dust and debris.
Angel fell into a hole while running, twisted his ankle, and injured his knee. But border agents did not stop for him. They pursued the rest of the group. He was left behind and limped through the desert for three days looking for help.
“Helicopters often swoop low over groups of individuals to indicate their location to ground agents or to ‘drive’ their movement in a desired direction.” Sometimes, helicopters tip their blades toward the ground, which both kicks up enormous amounts of dirt and debris but also endangers refugees, who must flee the blades. This is part of agents’ efforts to “wear them out” and “hold them down.”
The survey recorded 67 chases in remote terrain, 36.9 percent of which involved a helicopter. The number of people lost after a chase involving a helicopter was significantly higher than the number of people lost after a chase without a helicopter.
“Border Patrol agents only look for those who are running; they want to try to catch those who are running,” one man said, while recounting how agents chased him. “They don’t go after those who stay behind…They don’t even care.”
Beatings and Apprehension
For those refugees apprehended, they are often tackled, beaten, and shot by tasers. Some are beaten guns or kicked by border agents while they are down.
A young man named Ernesto said he was beaten so severely during his arrest that his vision was impaired from brain swelling.
The use of tasers since 2008 against refugees runs the risk of “hypovolemia [low body fluid due to dehydration] can cause metabolic disturbances which can make the heart more irritable and at greater vulnerability to electrical disturbances from a Taser.” They are used even when people are fleeing back over the border to Mexico, sometimes attempting to climb back over border walls.
Refugees suffering from dehydration who are shot with a Taser may suffer “metabolic disturbances which can make the heart more irritable and at greater vulnerability to electrical disturbances from a Taser.”
Dogs are used to attack refugees. The survey recorded two cases where border crossers were bitten and dragged down by K-9 units in the wilderness. Others were threatened with mauling if they moved.
Most of the available “use of force” data pertains to incidents in urban ports of entry, not those happening in the wilderness. The survey found in 18.2 percent of cases someone was injured during apprehension. Some reported being slammed into cacti, sharp rocks, and tree branches.
Some refugees were assaulted by vehicles. David was chased at high speeds by agents on ATVs. His leg was run over, leaving him with a knee fracture. When David screamed, the border agent backed up and ran over his head. He did not get medical care for over 24 hours for a fractured patella and a soft-tissue contusion.
Deadly force is only to be used against those who “pose an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to another person.” It is prohibited to “solely prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect.”
Yet, “imminent danger” is apparently a loose concept for border patrol agents, who assert people throwing rocks can pose a lethal threat. Agents have responded to rock throwers with deadly force.
This includes the death of 15 year-old Sergio Hernandez Guereca, who was shot on the Mexico side of the border after he threw rocks at an agent. There’s a “startling lack of detail in public reports of deadly shootings in response to alleged rock throwing in remote areas.”
People run because they fear agents’ deadly reputation. They are known for beatings, shootings, and rape. As a result, people who are lost and in need of help still run away and avoid these agents. This creates a “cycle of escalating violence,” which can “ultimately end in disappearance.”
As far as imminent danger goes, the authors found that, in cases where chase and scatter were mentioned by survey participants, 36.9 percent of incidents ended in death or disappearance.
Those who survive walk past bones and dead bodies. They encounter rattlesnakes and hear coyotes. They make haunting decisions to leave others behind, and even if they return for someone, they rarely find them.
Refugees said isolation is the “greatest enemy.” Some are so traumatized that even if they have the opportunity to be rescued, they don’t take that opportunity for fear of what might border agents might do to them.
In conclusion, the authors of the report demand an end to “prevention through deterrence as an enforcement doctrine.” They also call for removal of walls, fences, and infrastructure that serves “only to push migration into the deadly backcountry.” They urge more transparency on behalf of immigration enforcement agencies so that there can be accountability for deaths and disappearances because, at present, there is “no way to know the true number of the dead in the borderlands.”