Sandy Huffaker / Reuters / Landov

Border Patrol’s rapid expansion fueled abuses, critics say

Inadequate training and poor hiring decisions have contributed to alleged misconduct, including deaths

SAN DIEGO — Valentin Tachiquin first learned that something might have happened to his daughter Munique when his 12-year-old granddaughter recognized her mother’s car, riddled with bullets, on the local TV news.

When Tachiquin called the police for information about his daughter’s shooting, they told him the incident involved Border Patrol, not the police. The Border Patrol officer he spoke to on the phone refused to give his last name, claimed to have no supervisor and referred the distraught father to an automated hotline. Tachiquin, a corrections officer in the California prison system, had to learn from TV news and the Internet that a Border Patrol agent had shot his daughter nine times in an incident whose cause remains contested nearly two years later. 

Annabell Gomez holds a high school photograph of her daughter, Valeria “Munique” Tachiquin Alvarado, during a protest against U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego.
David Maung / EPA

Now, Tachiquin has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit for the September 2012 shooting, but he’s still not certain if Justin Tackett, the agent who shot his daughter, faced any disciplinary action or if he is still employed by Border Patrol and, if so, in what capacity.

“There’s no closure. There’s nothing. It’s going to be two years and nothing has been done,” says Tachiquin who is a U.S. citizen, like his daughter, Valeria “Munique” Tachiquin Alvarado.

The Tachiquin family’s struggle to obtain answers comes amid mounting concerns about the professionalism and transparency of the Border Patrol. As part of the push to secure U.S. borders after the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush called in 2006 for a doubling of the number of Border Patrol personnel. Since then, the organization has grown from 9,000 agents to more than 21,000. This swift growth has led to looser standards, critics say, allowing individuals with questionable backgrounds to join the agency. Those who question the ramp up have also been frustrated by what they describe as the Border Patrol’s lack of transparency regarding its policies and incidents of alleged misconduct.

“Had the expansion of Border Patrol come hand-in-hand with improved training and practices, better background checks, then we probably wouldn’t be dealing with as many cases as we have now,” says Pedro Rios, director of the U.S.-Mexico Program for the American Friends Service Committee, a human-rights organization. 

You had people who had red flags in their background even after they’d already been taught how we do our job, they knew our methods and techniques, and they were out in the field with a badge and a gun.

Shawn Moran

vice president, National Border Patrol Council

U.S. Border Patrol agents speak near the U.S.-Mexico border fence overlooking Tijuana, Mexico on October 3, 2013.
John Moore / Getty Images

As early as 2008, the National Border Patrol Council, the CBP’s union, began expressing reservations about the expansion. In a report that year, the group found that educational standards of new recruits had dropped and that some new agents read and wrote only at a middle-school level. It also voiced concerns about deferred background checks and shortened training programs, which first fell from 91 days to 81 and then 55 days when language training was separated from the curriculum.

“The standards were cut in terms of recruiting, training and the hiring process,” says Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council. “You had people who had red flags in their background even after they’d already been taught how we do our job, they knew our methods and techniques, and they were already out in the field with a badge and a gun.”

Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees the Border Patrol, stress that such deferred background investigations only affected an extremely limited number of applicants. They also point out that they recently extended Border Patrol training from 55 to 66 days and that most of the cuts in training involved language instruction for those who tested out.

“Each applicant is subject to a rigorous pre-employment process, which includes improved initial screening of applicants, an exhaustive background investigation that begins upon the initial selection of a prospective employee and pre-employment polygraph examinations of law-enforcement candidates,” says Michael Friel, a spokesperson for CBP.

Still, a number of incidents suggest that widespread problems persist. In a high-profile incident in March, a Border Patrol agent killed himself after allegedly kidnapping and assaulting three women who entered the country illegally.

Stories of abuse and misconduct are common throughout the border region. The American Civil Liberties Union released a document earlier this year that compiled  numerous complaints about agents’ behavior at interior Border Patrol checkpoints. In one incident, a Border Patrol agent allegedly yelled at a 61-year-old American citizen to “Shut your f---ing mouth!” when the man objected to agents using a dog to search his car without clear justification. In an apparent effort to conceal his identity, the agent hid his badge and gave a fake name to the retiree.

People who file complaints after such incidents are usually unable to learn if the agents were found to have acted improperly and, if so, whether they were disciplined as a result. Often, the person filing a complaint never learns the agent’s name.

CBP officials emphasize that, like their counterparts at other federal agencies, they are not required to make administrative matters about their employees, such as official reprimands or personnel files, public. Issues relating to disciplinary actions do not become public unless the employee is involved in a criminal case.

That was the case with Tackett. Through the wrongful-death lawsuit and a wrongful-termination suit he filed against a previous employer, details about Tackett’s history have become available.

What is the true identity of Border Patrol? Is it a military force that’s put up to a different set of standards? Is it a policing force that would be required to operate under the same requirements that any police force would?

Juanita Molina

executive director, Border Action Network

A U.S. Border Patrol agent speaks to a driver at a checkpoint from Mexico into the United States on February 26, 2013.
John Moore / Getty Images

On Sept. 28, 2012, in an apartment in suburban Chula Vista, California, a suburb of San Diego, Alvarado opened the door to see Tackett and another Border Patrol agent dressed in plain clothes. The men had an arrest warrant for a man with immigration violations, but the warrant did not allow the agents to search any homes or vehicles. Alvarado, who had no connection to the warrant, decided to leave.

According to details of the police investigation that followed, Alvarado hit Tackett with her car as she drove away. Afraid for his life, the agent then fired his pistol at her while hanging from the hood of her car, shooting her nine times. Other witness accounts contend that Tackett jumped on the hood of Alvarado’s car to stop her from leaving after another Border Patrol agent shattered her window. Panicked, Alvarado then drove a short distance and stopped; Tackett jumped off the car and as Alvarado began backing up, he shot her, walking toward the car as he fired.

Tachiquin says Tackett — who had a dubious work history long before joining Border Patrol, according to the wrongful-death lawsuit and the wrongful termination suit Tackett filed — should never have been hired. Tackett joined the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department in the summer of 2000. In three and a half years in the department, he racked up at least five reprimands and suspensions for misconduct.

During one of four motor-vehicle accidents in which he was involved, Tackett lost control of his patrol car and rolled it over while responding to a call. In a separate incident, his supervisors charged him with ignoring orders and providing false information to investigators. He was also accused of locking a suspect in a car without air conditioning and with all the windows closed on a hot day. On another occasion, Tackett searched a suspect’s hotel room without first gaining a warrant or acting on sufficient legal grounds. The district attorney subsequently dismissed the case against the suspect, saying that the Fourth Amendment violations were “almost too numerous to list.”

In yet another incident, Tackett was ordered to investigate a possible hit and run. He ignored orders to wait for local police backup before approaching the suspect’s car, resulting in an altercation with the driver. His supervisor later said that Tackett “instigated the incident” and “unnecessarily exposed himself and the Sheriff's Department to a citizen complaint or civil suit.”

In December 2003, Tackett resigned before the sheriff’s department could fire him. He later filed the wrongful termination suit, saying that Latino deputies received preferential treatment. (Tackett is white.) He also alleged that the department had accused him of misconduct for taking action against well-connected individuals. His lawsuit was dismissed on a summary judgment.

After he left the sheriff’s department, Tackett worked for two years as an assistant to former Congressman Duncan Lee Hunter. Alvarado’s family alleges that Hunter’s office helped Tackett get the job with the Border Patrol in 2006. That was the same year the agency received orders to double its numbers.

As the Border Patrol grew, people living near the border with Mexico say, the agency took on an ever-expanding role within their communities — but without the same oversight as local police departments. Citizens now reported seeing Border Patrol officials, restricted to operating within 100 miles of the border, at interior checkpoints and patrolling in suburban neighborhoods.

“What is the true identity of Border Patrol? Is it a military force that’s put up to a different set of standards? Is it a policing force that would be required to operate under the same requirements that any police force would? Having it be vague and not having a clear answer around this question after such a huge spurt of growth creates opportunity for chaos,” says Juanita Molina, executive director of Border Action Network, a human-rights group in Tucson, Arizona. 

These agents, who have the most difficult job I can think of in terms of what you’re asked to do, also have these unprecedented powers over other peoples’ lives, so we really want to make sure we’re getting this right.

Beto O’Rourke

U.S. House representative, D-Texas

The case against Tackett is still pending, but for members of border communities, the Border Patrol’s unwillingness to speak openly about such incidents remains a serious concern.

Eugene Iredale, the attorney representing Alvarado’s family, says that without a lawsuit, it’s difficult for victims’ family members and the public to get the facts about an incident.

“For somebody who doesn’t have either the wherewithal or the sophistication to say, ‘I want to file a lawsuit alleging that this is a wrongful death and an excessive use of force,’ which is illegal under either state statute or the federal constitution,” he says, “what mechanisms do we have to allow the family to know at least the basics of the information surrounding the person’s death?”

Even members of Congress have difficulty accessing information about incidents involving the Border Patrol and the organization’s policies. In February of last year, at the request of the Border Patrol, the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy organization, completed an examination of 67 shooting incidents using the Border Patrol’s internal files. Members from both houses of Congress requested copies of the report but received only summaries that did not include controversial findings.

In February of this year, the Los Angeles Times received a leaked copy of the full report. It says that, among other issues, Border Patrol agents often stepped in the path of moving cars, allegedly to justify shooting at drivers and that they sometimes fired in frustration at people throwing rocks from the Mexican side of the border. When agents used their weapons, Border Patrol showed a “lack of diligence” investigating these incidents, the LA Times says. Additionally, the report suggests that the Border Patrol may not always conduct regular and in-depth reviews following the use of deadly force.

Last month, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher issued orders telling agents not to position themselves in front of moving cars and to avoid situations that could result in the use of deadly force against rock throwers. CBP and the Border Patrol also made their use-of-force policy public.

Advocates say making the policy public is an important step but that it’s still insufficient. “We need to know how is that policy being implemented and what sort of training agents are receiving and, if agents violate the policy in any way, what are the consequences?” says Christian Ramirez, human rights director at Alliance San Diego.

For their part, CBP officials say that third-party investigations are conducted by police or federal agencies whenever Border Patrol agents resort to the use of force. At the conclusion of the investigation, if the third party elects to make the results public, CBP shares them.

Even within the Border Patrol, there is support for more openness. Moran of the Border Patrol union says he believes the vast majority of use-of-force incidents are justified. Giving the public better access to information would likely vindicate agents in most instances, he says.

“Open up the books, tell all the facts, talk about the agent’s experience — I’m not saying give up the agent’s identity, but talk about their length of experience, talk about if they’ve had other use-of-force incidents,” he says. 

Hoping to improve the situation, two congressmen from the border region introduced a bill in late March calling for better oversight of the Border Patrol and CBP as a whole. The bipartisan pair, Congressmen Steve Pearce (R – New Mexico) and Beto O’Rourke (D - Texas) are working to generate widespread support for the bill, but O’Rourke says it’s now a member-by-member push.

“These agents, who have the most difficult job I can think of in terms of what you’re asked to do in the federal government, also have these unprecedented powers over other peoples’ lives, so we really want to make sure we’re getting this right,” says O'Rourke, whose district includes El Paso and the surrounding area. “When we don’t get it right, we get a lack of professionalism in some agents — not all and certainly not most, but some — and in the worst case, we get these awful abuses of power.”

Tom A. Peter reported from San Diego, California, with the support of the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship.

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