Border Patrol Launches Militarized Raid of Borderlands Humanitarian Aid Camp

Camouflaged U.S. Border Patrol agents in armored vehicles launched a nighttime raid on a humanitarian aid camp in southern Arizona on Friday. Agents zip-tied volunteers’ hands behind their backs, shouted at them with rifles raised, and confiscated their cellphones, as well as the organization’s medical records. At least two helicopters hovered above the camp and a film crew documented the operation on the ground. Agents moved through camp structures and arrested more than 30 undocumented immigrants who were receiving treatment after trekking through the desert in the middle of heat wave.

The humanitarian group, No More Deaths, a faith-based organization out of Tucson, believes the operation was likely part retaliation, part violent publicity stunt. The raid marked the second time in two years that the Border Patrol descended on one of No More Deaths’ aid stations immediately after the group published materials that cast a negative light on the border enforcement agency.

On Wednesday, the group shared documents regarding a remarkably similar raid on the same camp three years ago, which showed the Border Patrol’s national union clamoring for a crackdown on No More Deaths. On Thursday, less than 24 hours after the documents were posted online, Border Patrol entered the camp without a warrant and took an undocumented woman into custody. The agency then surrounded the location and set up a checkpoint to detain and search volunteers as they came and went. The camp remained surrounded until Friday’s raid.

“They started rolling in when the sun was setting, raided the camp when it was dark, and created a lot more fear and chaos.”

Montana Thames, who gathered accounts from the detained volunteers, described the operation as a militarized show of force that featured the same Border Patrol tactical teams that were recently deployed to suppress protests in Portland, Oregon. According to Thames, who is also a No More Deaths volunteer, when agents entered the camp in Arivaca, Arizona, roughly 10 miles north of the border, they claimed that they had a warrant but refused to show it. “They pretty aggressively got people out of there and then trashed the camp,” Thames told The Intercept on Saturday. In addition to the aircraft hovering above the camp, volunteers reported the use of at least two dozen marked and unmarked vehicles, ATVs, and armored personnel carriers.

Some of the agents looked to be members of the Border Patrol’s BORTAC teams, the same commando-style units that were filmed bundling protesters into unmarked cars in Portland, volunteers said — photos from the raid appear to back up those claims. According to Thames, members of the tactical unit raised their rifles and shouted at volunteers while they were zip-tied. The decision to wait until nightfall to conduct the operation felt deliberate and produced “unnecessary trauma” for the migrants receiving care and volunteers alike, Thames said: “They started rolling in when the sun was setting, raided the camp when it was dark, and created a lot more fear and chaos.”

In a series of tweets, Roy D. Villareal, chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, said that agents detected a group of migrants moving through the desert southeast of Arivaca the day before the raid took place after tracking them “through remote mountains for two days.” Villareal said agents encountered a migrant “outside the perimeter of the camp” who “was quickly evaluated by a Border Patrol EMT and transported by Arivaca Fire Department to a local hospital for medical treatment.”

No More Deaths said that the woman in question was receiving care and that the arrest occurred inside the camp without a warrant. “I know for a fact, 100 percent, that all of the patients were stable and were getting care from medically trained, medically professional volunteers,” Thames said.

Volunteers on the ground were particularly disturbed by the way that the Border Patrol, after seizing the volunteers’ phones and foreclosing the possibility of non-law enforcement documentation of the event, proceeded to film the operation, climbing on top of vehicles to get various angles of migrants being placed under arrest. “There was someone seeking aid and they had this person stretched out like a photoshoot,” Thames said. “The aid workers were detained for two hours, so I think it’s safe to say that for at least an hour or two, they were just taking photos of people for their PR.”

Border Patrol agents eventually showed No More Deaths a copy of a search warrant for the aid station, Thames said, which identified phones and paperwork as targets. While volunteers were zip-tied, the agents ripped through every vehicle and structure on the property and confiscated the group’s “SOAP notes,” paperwork that the organization uses to document medical conditions and care provided to migrants at the camp. Many No More Deaths volunteers also work as nurses and first responders; the group models its work off standards that the Red Cross uses in conflict zones around the world.

Once the migrants were arrested and loaded into buses, the volunteers were released. They found that the physical damage to their camp was severe. Border agents slashed tent walls open with knives and photos from the scene show ransacked tents. “They went into our office and took all the paperwork,” Thames said. “They took all of our SOAP notes, all of our medical records, and every single volunteer’s phone.” The phones and humanitarian aid documents remain in Border Patrol custody.

The Intercept sent the Border Patrol a series of questions regarding Friday’s raid and requested an unedited copy of the footage of the operation. The agency provided no answers or footage, and instead issued the following statement: “On July 31, 2020, Border Patrol agents from the Tucson Border Patrol Sector, with support from CBP Air and Marine Operation’s Tucson Air Branch executed a federal search warrant on the No More Deaths camp near Arivaca, Arizona. Upon entry, over three dozen Illegal border crossers were found within the camp.”

This is not the first time the Border Patrol raided a No More Deaths camp after the group released unflattering information about the agency. In January 2018, a plainclothes Border Patrol team set up surveillance on one of the group’s aid stations in the unincorporated community of Ajo, Arizona, just hours after the group published a report implicating the agency in the destruction of thousands of gallon water jugs left for migrants crossing the desert. The raid that followed led to the arrest of humanitarian aid volunteer Scott Warren and two young undocumented men from Central America.

Warren was accused of providing the men with food, clothes, and a place to sleep over three days. The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged him with smuggling and conspiracy. He faced up to 20 years in prison. His first trial ended in a hung jury. He was acquitted on all charges in the second. Trump administration prosecutors in Arizona have brought nine federal cases against No More Deaths, nearly all of them for leaving water for migrants on public lands. The only convictions the administration was able to obtain were tossed out earlier this year by a federal judge, who wrote that they hinged on “gruesome logic” that criminalized “interfering with a border enforcement strategy of deterrence by death.”

The group, whose mission is to end death and suffering in the Sonoran Desert, was born in response to the Border Patrol’s multi-decade ongoing strategy of funneling migration flows into the border’s deadliest areas — at minimum, more than 7,200 people have died as a result of the strategy.

“Yesterday, Border Patrol harmed 30 people in irreparable ways. On a daily basis those who migrate through the Arizona desert are targeted, terrorized, detained, and deported,” Warren said in a statement Saturday. “Last night, we witnessed these tactics deployed against people who sought medical care and relief at our Byrd Camp aid station. As always when humanitarian aid in the borderlands is targeted, those who seek care are the ones that face the brunt of these violent escalations.”

“As always when humanitarian aid in the borderlands is targeted, those who seek care are the ones that face the brunt of these violent escalations.”

The Border Patrol’s first raid on No More Deaths’ camp in Arivaca came just months after Trump’s January 2017 inauguration. Like the operation last week, the raid unfolded in the middle of a blistering heat wave and featured agents filming the operation on the ground. In a June 2017 email released by the group last week, an individual who No More Deaths believes is a top official at the Border Patrol’s national union complained that waiting for a warrant unnecessarily delayed the operation and alleged, without evidence, that No More Deaths used humanitarian aid as cover to smuggle drugs and people across the border. A second email the group shared revealed that BORTAC agents advised on the 2017 raid.

Both of the emails were released under the Freedom of Information Act. The Border Patrol’s union has close ties to the White House through Trump administration adviser Stephen Miller, the ultra-hardline architect of the president’s border and immigration policies. BORTAC, meanwhile, has repeatedly been called on for some of the administration’s most politicized operations, including a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities earlier this year and the more recent events in Portland.

The Border Patrol’s campaign against No More Deaths in Arizona is part of a broader pattern of agencies under the Department of Homeland Security — which includes the Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — targeting critics of the president’s border and immigration policies with surveillance and aggressive law enforcement action. As hacked documents reported on earlier this month by The Intercept showed, DHS and its component agencies have repeatedly cast border and immigration advocates as members of “antifa” and violent anarchist extremists, groups that the agency and the president have described as domestic terrorists.

“That’s what fascists do — they retaliate,” said Greg Kuykendall, a Tucson-based attorney who represented Scott Warren as the government tried and failed to put him behind bars. “Tucson juries and Tucson judges have experienced the kind of perils that people face in the desert and they understand that humanitarian aid is not a crime — it’s a gift from God.”

“In any civilized society, of which there are plenty around the rest of the world, humanitarian aid camps are recognized as a basic good and a thing that needs to be provided, normally by either NGOs or governments themselves, and they’re absolutely off-limits from law enforcement. That’s well-established in the International Red Cross guidelines, as well as the United Nations’ guidelines,” Kuykendall added. “Every organization that deals with refugees and people that are in crisis situations, whether they’re manmade or not, understands that humanitarian aid stations cannot be places where law enforcement is allowed to go hunting.”

The veteran defense attorney suggested that perhaps the Border Patrol deployments to Portland informed the agency’s decisions in Arizona. “They’re pissed off they didn’t get sent to Portland to beat some hippies’ heads,” he said, so instead the agency flexed its muscles against the targets it had on hand: a group of weary migrants and humanitarian aid volunteers providing them care.

“There’s a lot of places you could be looking for harm being done besides the baked desert of Southern Arizona,” Kuykendall said. “Like maybe Washington, D.C.”

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