On Friday, July 21st, 2017, the world watched the horrific footage of 16-year-old Cruz Velazquez Acevedo taking multiples sips of an unidentified liquid that would lead to his death – all while in custody of the largest law enforcement agency in the country, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which includes the Border Patrol.
In the video, it appears as though Border Patrol agents encouraged the boy to drink the substance while being inspected for admission into the United States at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The substance would later be identified as methamphetamine. A few hours later the teenage boy would die of a massive overdose.
Multiple questions come to mind when digesting this preventable death:
- Why did the agents allow/encourage Cruz to drink the unknown substance?
- Why didn’t they test the substance if they thought it was drugs?
- What is CBP’s procedure when interacting with children?
- Why haven’t the agents been held accountable?
While I’d like to say that Cruz’s death was an isolated occurrence, I can’t. Cruz is not the only child who has died during an encounter with border agents.
On June 7, 2010, Sergio Adrian Hernandez-Guereca, a 15-year-old Mexican national, was shot by Border Patrol agent Jesus Mesa, Jr. while playing with friends. Sergio was on the Mexican side of the border, while former agent Mesa was on the U.S. side in the El Paso-Juárez border region. He fired his gun at least twice and one of the bullets hit Sergio in the face and killed him.
Two years later, in Nogales, Arizona, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old Mexican resident was shot 10 times, eight of which were in the back, by Border Patrol agent Lonnie Ray Swartz. Although former agent Swartz alleges that Jose and friends were throwing rocks over the border wall into the U.S., the geographical location of the incident tells another story. Witnesses said José was just walking down the street. Like Sergio Adrian, José Antonio was standing in the Mexican side of the border when he was gunned down.
The indictment of Lonnie Ray Swartz was the first time an agent was charged with a cross-border shooting. The criminal case is pending in an Arizona federal court.
Sadly, since 2010, at least 50 people have died, including at least four minors, during an encounter with a border agent.
There seems to be an overarching theme that plagues this agency – one that is getting harder and harder to hide: There is a complete lack of oversight, accountability and transparency at CBP.
For the last six years, the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), a border advocacy group that promotes policies and solutions that improve the quality of life of border residents and those that travel through the region, has worked tirelessly to hold this agency accountable for its negligence and gross misconduct.
SBCC, for example, has signed on to amicus briefs for both Sergio and Jose’s cases. But these court cases are just one piece of the puzzle.
Thanks to public pressure and dialogue with the agency, SBCC and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) forced CBP to address its excessive use of force. In 2014, a report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) was released and included a critical review of its use-of-force cases and policies. In the same year, the agency also released an updated use-of-force policy, guidelines and procedures handbook. While the release of the PERF review and the use-of-force policies was a turning point in public efforts to create transparency and accountability in an agency known for secrecy, the real measure of success was how quickly and effectively the agency would implement appropriate changes based on the report’s recommendations and updated policies. Unfortunately, we are still waiting to see the recommendations implemented.
NGOs have also been able to help implement standards to ensure that unaccompanied children and women have their basic needs met while in short-term detention facilities run by CBP. In 2015, the Transportation, Escort, Detention and Search standards, also known as TEDS, was put in place to hold the agency accountable for the deplorable conditions of detention facilities. Prior to these standards, CBP was the only federal agency that did not have to abide by basic standards in the treatment of detainees, including children and women, which led to serious human rights violations.
It’s now been three years since the agency updated its use-of-force policies and two years since the TEDS standards have been put into place, and sadly the agency still operates as a clandestine paramilitary organization. There are still cases that involve the mistreatment of children and there are still abuses at the hands of CBP agents and officers. To exacerbate these challenges, we now have a have an administration that wants to throw more resources to this agency without holding it accountable or increasing oversight and accountability mechanisms.
Instead of investing billions of dollars in more walls or more agents that we don’t need, we should invest the money in upgrading our crumbling ports of entry and hiring more inspectors to improve trade and tourism. This will help stimulate our economy by unleashing a flurry of economic activity along the southern border region that will fuel the economy and create jobs for everyone across the nation. Money could also be used to train agents so they can be better prepared to handle minors.
Without the proper oversight and accountability measures, this agency will continue to operate under a veil of secrecy that enables Border Patrol agents to ignore constitutional rights and the most basic values of a democratic society.
Fighting for fair and just treatment has been an uphill battle for SBCC and other NGOs, but we will continue to stand tall in the face of an out of control agency and fight for the rights of all people, especially children.