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A Culture Of Cruelty

October 4, 2011

The organization I work with, No More Deaths, has produced a study…

It’s called a Culture of Cruelty, and I’m going to do my best to summarize their findings! Should be interesting, and hopefully clears up some of the confusion I’ve heard going around about it.

First of all: here’s the link to the site that has the whole thing on it: A Culture of Cruelty.

I feel that the best introduction is the one provided by the researchers at the above site:

We have entitled our report “A Culture of Cruelty” because we believe our findings demonstrate that the abuse, neglect, and dehumanization of migrants is part of the institutional culture of the Border Patrol, reinforced by an absence of meaningful accountability mechanisms.

When people are caught crossing, they are entered into short-term custody, at the hands of Border Patrol (BP). Thousands of them are deported back through a number of towns, including Naco, Agua Prieta, and Nogales. It is in these towns that No More Deaths (NMD) has been positioning volunteers to collect information on these immigrants’ experiences, and specifically how they’ve been treated by BP.


1. Volunteers were trained in survey techniques and it was confirmed that they spoke Spanish fluently.

2. All people who answered the survey were told exactly what the information would be used for

3. All personal information was kept secret, even on-site.

4. All participants were given the option of filing a report with the CRCL.

Demographics and Statistics

4,130: total number of interviews

12,895: total number of individuals

9,562: number of men sampled

2,147: number of women sampled

533: teenagers (13-18)

268: children (0-12)

29.5: average age (youngest was a newborn, oldest was 74)

Part 1

Defined Areas of Concern

There was another report entitled “Crossing the Line” that was produced in 2008 that defined several areas of concern with the practices of BP. These have been modified to be more applicable and provide recommendations for fixing existing problems. Here they are, with a little bit of explanation…

Psychological Abuse

NMDs used federal law and the UN Convention Against Torture to set the definitions of psychological abuse:

An act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering…upon another person within his custody or physical control

Based on this definition, the following observed actions of BP agents are defined as psychological abuse:

1. Threatening detainees with death

2. Playing Migracorridos, or songs about dying in the desert (BP went as far as to produce its own album of migracorridos, a sign of systemic abuse)

3. Preventing sleep

4. Threatening to leave women alone with a group of strange men

5. Forcing detainees to hold painful positions

6. Refusing to moderate temperatures (often while transporting detainees, agents will respond to requests to increase temperatures during cold weather and decrease them during hot weather by doing the opposite)

The data shows that of the 379 interviewees who reported psychological abuse, the number of reports from each demographic were proportional to demographic population (ie men didn’t report more abuse than children, or vice-versa)

Failure to Provide and the Denial of Water/Food in the Field and Processing Centers

This is self-explanatory, and it seems ridiculous that BP agents would specifically deny water or food to people who’d just crossed a desert. It begs the question: how are these actions gaining legitimacy as a way to treat another human being?

Included in these sections are unsanitary distribution methods. Often, BP agents would through frozen food on the ground. This is both unsanitary, degrading, and because the food was often frozen, inedible.

69 percent of people who stayed for more than 2 days received only crackers.

Failure to Provide Medical Treatment or Access to Medical Professionals

Given the environment that these people are being picked up in, medical treatment is often vital. As it has been shown, people as old as 74 are coming across. Many of these people come with medicine for pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and high blood-pressure. It has been regularly documented that BP agents refuse to give these medicines back, throw them out, or are simply confiscated. here are some other examples:

1. Open wounds, broken bones, etc going untreated before repatriation

2. Cactus wounds (one case was of a man who got a cactus spine in his eye, and sat for days without treatment)

3. Lack of treatment of debilitating blisters

Of 433 cases where treatment was necessary, BP tended to 59 (14%) of them, leaving 86% untreated

Physical Abuse

10% of detainees reported some form of physical abuse. There is no worthy justification for this. Children were just as likely to experience physical abuse as adults. Sexual abuse was committed against detainees. One woman described having to strip down, at which point the guards laughed at her, and touched her breasts. This was done in front of both male and female guards. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior.

Other forms of abuse:

Dangerous transportation practices, in which agents drive dangerously fast

Separation of family members

Dangerous repatriation practices, in which women and children were returned to Mexico at night, when they’d be more vulnerable

Lateral Repatriation

Failure to return belongings

Due Process, where people are forced to sign documents in a language they don’t understand, not providing access to the consulate when requested.

Part 2

Border Patrol Policy

It is BP policy to funnel border crossings to the more dangerous parts of the southwest, in a technique called “Prevention Through Deterrence”. The typical belief is that the wall is to keep people out, however, BP has routinely acknowledged that a wall’s primary purpose is to move crossings away from urban environments, which by virtue of being in the Southwest, means into the remote, deadly parts of the Sonoran Desert.

Hold Rooms and Short-Term Custody Memorandum (June 2 2008)

This Memorandum was acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, and sets standards for when migrants should be given access to food, water, medical care, and what processing center conditions should be to ensure humane treatment. Also protected are property recovery and due process protection, and special consideration for juveniles.

The Proper Treatment of Detainees Memorandum (may 2nd 2008)

This policy requires that detainees not experience any form of verbal abuse, and instructs Border Patrol employees to treat these migrants in the way that they’d like to be treated were their positions switched. These two memoranda don’t provide any guidance on how to avoid physical abuse, separation of families, and safe transportation/repatriation practices.

Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Local Arrangement of Repatriation of Mexican Nationals

This is an agreement between the Mexican Consulate and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that mandates that Mexican nationals be repatriated in accordance with their human rights, that their families be preserved, and ‘special needs’ deportees be given different treatment, such as for unaccompanied minors or women, who must be repatriated during daylight hours. Also covered is the requirement that BP and ICE alert the Mexican government to people with medical issues. Horizontal repatriation is also forbidden, where people are deported to places unfamiliar to them, often far from where they were picked up, often to areas subject to travel advisories by the US government.

No Transparency is also an issue

There’s no oversight of the actions of BP, especially on a day-to-day basis. As the study states: No More Deaths and other organizations have attempted to engage the system by submitting good-faith reports of abuse to the office of  Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL). There has been no discernible result from more than 75 reports of abuse. A point made in the report is that the CRCL is a subset of DHS, and often the responsibility of evaluating the abuse report falls to the same organization implicated in the report itself.

Part 3


This section of the publication deals with the contextual issues contributing to abuse by BP. They make the point that with the implementation of NAFTA, which wreaked havoc with the job market in northern Mexico, and the use of Operation Hold The Line, Operation Streamline, and Operation Gatekeeper, together known as the “Southwest Border Strategy”, it shouldn’t be surprising that actions coming from within an organization that goes out of its way and spends millions of dollars to maximize the suffering of an entire group of people, would also have a built-in culture of cruelty.

The criminalization both federally and locally of immigrants is also cited as a contributor to the sentiments of BP. The economic factors, such as the private prison lobby, and all the other private interests represented in border militarization contribute to a social climate that allows the culture of abuse to flourish in BP ranks.

The lack of external oversight of the actions of BP is one of the most serious problems with the organization. This is discussed earlier, so I won’t go into it.

Part 4

The previous 3 sections have dealt with the problems of current policy in Border Patrol, but the publication doesn’t just stop at tearing down the system. The purpose of this section is to provide a set of solutions to the problems described earlier. I think the most interesting one is for oversight.

No More Deaths calls for the creation of a government funded group of people, consisting of a diverse range of professionals, including medical and childcare experts, completely removed from BP or DHS, that would be able to evaluate reports of abuse in a fair way.

There are a bunch of other recommendations, so you should read the report and decide for yourself!

Response To The Report

The report has gotten attention from Fox News, NPR, KTAR, CNN, AZ Rep, Houston Chronicle, and many others! Border Patrol has given official statements, and it should be obvious that they’re merely repeating the party line:

Escalante, the Border Patrol spokesman, said migrants in custody are provided snacks and juice every four hours, and detainees who are in Border Patrol custody longer than eight hours are provided meals.

This is clearly not true, as the evidence shows. However, it’s not all just repeating the official policies. Alan Bersin, commissioner of the Customs and Border Patrol, said:

Since 2004 in October, 127 CBP personnel have been arrested, charged or convicted of corruption. Of the 127 arrests, 95 are considered mission compromising acts of corruption. This means that the employee’s illegal activities were for personal gain and violated, or facilitated the violation of, the laws CBP personnel are charged with enforcing.

Considering there are about 40,000 people who work for BP, and the abuses are so widespread, the mere 95 people arrested is not representative of the level of abuse going on.

Even so, it’s a place to start.








2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2011 8:36 pm

    Not related to current post, but wanted to let you know “The Wild Anthropologist” is included in an attempt at comprehensive anthropology blog list and through 31 December, can vote for 10 best anthropology blogs.

    • December 28, 2011 10:46 pm

      Hey! so I’m excited to see how this project turns out! I’ve been working on the website for an organization I volunteer with, so I haven’t had a chance to do as much posting as I’d like. Anyway, I’ve updated, and I’ve been promoting the event on facebook, so we’ll see what happens!

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