Cruelty on the Border

Cruelty on the Border

A hidden camera shows Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs left for migrants, and the abuse just gets worse

The bodies have been turning up for years, thousands of them, scattered across the borderlands in the American Southwest. Ever-stricter border enforcement has encouraged migrants to avoid cities like San Diego and El Paso and take their chances at remote desert crossings instead. As they trek across the vast, unfamiliar and scorching terrain, many get disoriented and run out of water, with devastating consequences. So far this year, 94 bodies have been recovered in Arizona alone.

Since 2004, a faith-based coalition called No More Deaths has been leaving gallon jugs of water near common migration routes in a desperate bid to save lives. But in May of this year, just as temperatures in the harsh Sonoran Desert climbed above 100 degrees, the group’s volunteers began to notice that their water bottles were being slashed, destroyed or emptied. With violence from ranchers and vigilantes a constant threat, No More Deaths installed hidden cameras. They were surprised at what they found: Border Patrol agents were purposely, even gleefully, destroying the life-saving jugs of water.

Visible on the tape, which will be broadcast for the first time tonight on the PBS show “Need to Know,” are three Border Patrol agents, two men and a woman, walking along a migrant trail and approaching half a dozen one-gallon jugs of water. The female agent stops in front of the containers and begins to kick them, with force, down a ravine. The bottles crash against rocks, bursting open. She’s smiling. One of the agents watching her smiles as well, seeming to take real pleasure in the spectacle. He says something under his breath, and the word “tonk” is clearly audible. “Tonk,” it turns out, is a bit of derogatory slang used by some Border Patrol agents to refer to undocumented immigrants. One agent told me it’s derived from the sound a flashlight makes when you hit someone over the head — tonk. After destroying the entire water supply, the three agents continue along the path.

(In response to specific questions about these events, Border Patrol officials replied only with a general statement emphasizing that misconduct would not be tolerated and that agents were trained to treat migrants with dignity and respect.)
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