Rory Carroll, The Guardian, January 17, 2018
United States border patrol agents routinely vandalise containers of water and other supplies left in the Arizona desert for migrants, condemning people to die of thirst in baking temperatures, according to two humanitarian groups.
In a report published on Wednesday, the Tucson-based groups said the agents committed the alleged sabotage with impunity in an attempt to deter and punish people who illegally cross from Mexico.
Volunteers found water gallons vandalised 415 times, on average twice a week, in an 800 sq mile patch of Sonoran desert south-west of Tucson, from March 2012 to December 2015, the report said. The damage affected 3,586 gallons.
The report also accused border patrol agents of vandalising food and blankets and harassing volunteers in the field.
“Through statistical analysis, video evidence, and personal experience, our team has uncovered a disturbing reality. In the majority of cases, US border patrol agents are responsible for the widespread interference with essential humanitarian efforts.”
The report, published by No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, said wildlife—as well as hunters, hikers and border militia members—also damaged aid drops. But it said the main culprits were agents from border patrol, a branch of Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
“The practice of destruction of and interference with aid is not the deviant behavior of a few rogue border patrol agents, it is a systemic feature of enforcement practices in the borderlands.”
Steve Passament, a border patrol spokesman in the Tucson sector, said the agency did not condone the destruction of or tampering with water or food caches. “We don’t want to see anyone out there die. We have to do our enforcement job and we do it as humanely as possible. We want to save lives.”
If the groups which published the report had evidence of agents sabotaging humanitarian supplies they should “immediately bring it to our attention” because agents would be disciplined, he said.
The report came amid renewed rancour in Washington over Donald Trump’s desire to build a border wall and his alleged racism towards non-white immigrants. Congress is scrambling to reach a deal on immigration and border security before federal funding expires on Friday, raising the spectre of a government shutdown.
In addition to building a wall Trump wishes to hire another 5,000 border patrol agents.
Caitlin Deighan, a spokeswoman for No More Deaths, said the policy of militarising the border and funnelling migrants into remote, perilous desert, where thousands died, dated from President Bill Clinton’s era. “It’s been ongoing throughout every administration since.”
Barack Obama occupied the White House during the water vandalism detailed in the report. Pima county’s medical examiner received the remains of at least 593 border crossers during this period.
Trump’s plan to further fortify the border and deport more people—people who often will try to return – will mean more suffering and death, said Deighan. “We do expect this crisis to worsen under the current administration.”
Border crossers should drink between five to 12 litres of water daily, depending on conditions. Few manage to carry more than seven litres even though a journey through the desolate scrub can last several days or even weeks.
According to No More Deaths, of 31,558 gallon jugs of water left on migration trails between 2012 and 2015, over 86% was used.
Birds, cattle and other animals destroyed 533 gallons and humans destroyed 3,586 gallons, said the report.
Hunters, militia members and other actors were partly to blame but statistical analysis of the different land jurisdictions—national forest, state trust land and private land—identified border patrol as the only group with regular access and consistent presence in all three jurisdictions.
The report also cited anecdotal evidence from volunteers and an unnamed former border patrol agent interviewed last year who was quoted saying: “I remember people smashing and stepping on water bottles, I remember that being imparted on to us in one way or another.”
The report also quoted a 37-year-old Mexican border crosser named Miguel: “They break the bottles so you can’t even use them to fill up in the tanks. I needed water, some of the other people in the group needed water, but we found them destroyed. [I felt] helplessness, rage. They [the US border patrol] must hate us.”
The report is the second of a three-part series on death and disappearance on the border. The first part was released last year.