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A Seemingly Futile Job Can Breed Abuses by Agents : Border Patrol: They feel under siege from inside and outside the agency, but there are acts of compassion, too.

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Afternoon roll call at Imperial Beach, the nation’s busiest and most besieged Border Patrol station.

Two dozen men in green uniforms and close-cropped hair assemble at rows of tables, cracking jokes, adjusting sunglasses, girding for the night ahead. Theirs is a youthful gung-ho fraternity forged in the chaos at The Line where First and Third worlds collide.

Imperial Beach agents often quit after a few years, burned out by the chase: sprinting through treacherous canyons, four-wheeling down hillsides, single-handedly nabbing dozens of illegal immigrants.

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Roland Gonzalez, a mustachioed Border Patrol supervisor sporting a baseball-style cap, fires up the troops.

“Catch as many tonks as you guys can,” Gonzalez says, exhorting the agents to make arrests. “Safely. An alien is not worth busting a leg.”

Tonks .

The expression, used matter-of-factly around the station, hints at the insular and sometimes violent culture of the Border Patrol. The onomatopoeic slang refers to the sound of an agent’s flashlight striking an immigrant’s head.

In the frenzied world of The Line, a code of the shadows places fraternal loyalty above the law and sometimes condones dangerous tactics and abuse of border crossers, say critics and agents.

Feeling abandoned and under siege, some agents close ranks, regarding the mostly nonviolent migrants, the public and their supervisors as adversaries in a thankless, futile battle. The job breeds a frazzled mentality--an explosive fusion of frustration, callousness and tension.

“Ninety percent of the ‘thump’ (abuse) cases come from agents who are fried,” said Tim Still, a 12-year veteran in El Centro. “They are just not going to take any more that day. And the first person that mouths off at them-- smack .”

At the same time, the caricature of a thuggish “Green Gestapo"--an image burnished by the Mexican media and immigrant advocates--obscures a complex reality.

The patrol’s task is fraught with risks. Armed criminals and drunken troublemakers frequent the border, and in the most recent fiscal year, authorities recorded 167 alleged assaults on agents--about one per 13,000 arrests--injuring 49 agents, four seriously. Of 11 agents killed since 1980, 10 died in vehicle and aircraft accidents and one was gunned down by a suspected smuggler in Fresno.

Barraged by faces of Third World despair, agents are moved to acts of compassion and heroism. Pursuers turn rescuers: They deliver babies in the brush, thwart robbers and rapists who prey on migrants, and on rare occasions even let the saddest cases go free.

“Hey, we are human beings,” said former Agent Ralph Hunt, a burly, well-spoken six-year veteran. “We are not brutes. We are not racists. . . . A lot of people in the Border Patrol have a lot of integrity. They are hard-working.”

Slang such as tonk and wet --short for the slur wetback --is not malicious, agents say, although such language is officially forbidden. “It’s crude, it’s demeaning and it’s dehumanizing,” said William Thomas Veal, deputy Border Patrol chief in San Diego.

Officers defend the towering statue outside the Imperial Beach station that depicts an agent clutching a net and a chicken, the latter representing border slang for migrant: pollo . Agents say the sculpture, a gift from an admirer, merely embodies the twisted sense of reality found at the international boundary.

“I used to know agents whose idea of fun at night was to go across the border and drink beers and sing songs with the same people they’d be deporting the next day,” said former immigration Commissioner Leonel Castillo, who served during the Jimmy Carter Administration. Agents gave Castillo, the first Latino commissioner, a nickname: “Chief Tonk.”

Such seemingly contradictory attitudes are ingrained in Border Patrol culture, as is the intimidating code of silence that punishes perceived turncoats and interferes with internal brutality investigations.

“There’s a fortress mentality,” said Hunt, who left last fall to become an immigration service examiner. “That’s one of our failings. We are very insular.”

Agent Sally Sandoval, one of the few women at the Imperial Beach station, broke the unwritten code--and paid the price. She testified last year against fellow Agent Frank Jeschke, who had been indicted on federal charges of assaulting a U.S. resident.

Sandoval began fearing for her safety after she received intimidating notes in her station mail drawer. Fellow officers disrupted her radio calls in the field, say officials and former colleagues.

During the trial, Sandoval testified that the accused agent had a well-known reputation for abuse. Apprehensive about retaliation, Sandoval testified: “There is a code that we are not supposed to tell on other agents.”

The harassment was reported to the FBI; commanders warned at roll calls that those responsible could face criminal charges.

A jury acquitted Jeschke of the brutality charges in December. An internal inquiry also cleared Jeschke, now back at work, according to authorities who were unable to track down the agents behind the retaliation. Sandoval was transferred at her request.

Michael Williams, chief of the Border Patrol in Washington, disputes the existence of a pervasive code of silence.

“I don’t think it’s a problem in the patrol, I think it’s a problem in this particular case,” he said.

Nonetheless, federal authorities took extraordinary steps late last year after learning that several Arizona agents were engaged in alleged criminality and had covered up illicit shootings. Investigators from the FBI and U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General conducted ethics training to remind Tucson-area agents of their obligation to turn in violators.

“Many employees appear to be loath to report . . . incidents involving co-workers that may involve breaches of ethics and integrity,” patrol chiefs in Tucson concluded in an internal memorandum.

Thomas A. Watson, a Tucson agent who reported a partner for a fatal shooting last year, said he was fired this month in retribution for having uncorked what became a highly publicized scandal and murder prosecution.

“It’s a big cover-up: I broke the code of silence and they want to get back at me,” said Watson, a five-year veteran once decorated for pulling two immigrants from a raging canal. “I knew I was doing the right thing by turning him in for murder, even though I embarrassed them.”

Border Patrol authorities said Watson was fired for waiting 15 hours before reporting the killing and other violations.

In a notorious case a decade ago, a jury convicted two El Paso agents for intimidating a fellow officer who assisted their prosecution for beating a 12-year-old boy. The whistle-blower found the sobriquet “fink” stamped on papers and emblazoned on a sign at his station. One officer went to prison; the other’s conviction was overturned on appeal.

Last year, a barroom brawl landed El Centro Agent Raymundo Chavez in jail after he bit a fellow officer who had reported that a co-worker roughed up a migrant, according to court papers. When off-duty colleagues pulled the two combatants apart, Chavez spat out a chunk of the other agent’s ear and snarled: “There you go, f-----.”

A judge ordered Chavez to stay 150 yards away from the victim, who alleged that he faced “a clear and present danger of armed aggression in the workplace.” Chavez returned to work after a 31-day suspension and a four-month jail term.

In the field, agents share a shadowy nether world with the migrants who daily stream north, often to be arrested and sent back to try again. The largely nocturnal ritual reaches peak intensity in San Diego, where agents--using horses, helicopters, all-terrain vehicles and mountain bikes--defend the most-overrun, most-fortified 15 miles on The Line.

Crowds mass at such busy crossings as the Tijuana River, a gritty arena of confrontation illuminated by stadium lights designed to reduce robberies and rock-throwing by street toughs. Regulars call the hazardous strip el Bordo : the Edge.

Agents generally number fewer than a hundred, their adversaries several thousand as the nightly tableau unfolds where the river curls north into San Diego.

In the dust and haze of the river levee, migrants and smugglers huddle at bonfires and perch atop a 10-foot steel border fence, waiting patiently as pale green Border Patrol vehicles rumble back and forth.

“Normally, (Border Patrol agents) behave well,” said Fernando Vasquez, 30, a restaurant worker interviewed one night on the levee who said la migra has arrested him four times. Then Vasquez added: “Usually they only hit you if you keep running.”

Violence cannot be explained solely as the product of brutal officers, say agents who cite extreme working conditions: the sheer volume of arrests, the language and cultural barriers, the youth and inexperience of many officers, the dangers of operating alone at night.

Although law enforcement can be inherently frustrating, the Border Patrol faces special pressures. Agents must confront dozens, sometime hundreds, of suspects in a volatile milieu that has little in common with the controlled crime scene of traditional police work.

“I think, without doubt, that the Border Patrol agent’s job is much more stressful than the metropolitan police officer’s job,” said Kevin M. Gilmartin, an Arizona psychologist who has counseled federal and local authorities.

Moreover, the Border Patrol enjoys less public empathy than other law enforcement officers. Fed-up agents leave regularly for better-paying federal agencies or local police forces, stoking one of the highest attrition rates in the U.S. bureaucracy.

“There’s almost an air of hopelessness,” said Gilmartin, who noted that alcoholism appears more frequent among Border Patrol agents. “They become cynical, burned out.”

Overwhelmed and outnumbered, border guards deployed in dark canyons and isolated fields often come on strong, spewing profanities in crude Spanish, bluffing about nearby reinforcements. On occasion they resort to force.

“Sometimes there’s one person in a group who wants to mouth off or cause problems, and you have to take him down a little harder,” Agent G.W. Knight Jr. said one night, hiking through a marsh to set an ambush along paths leading out of the Tijuana hills.

“It’s your judgment what the minimum amount of force is,” said Knight, a chatty ex-Marine who once arrested a group of 30 people--solo. “Everyone perceives that differently.”

Some managers perpetuate an abusive climate, veteran agents said.

“We have supervisors who don’t know how to be supervisors,” said Agent Mike Hance. “They turn into bullies, thinking they can intimidate the aliens. Agents see them doing that and do the same thing.”

Exasperated agents improvise hazardous tactics, crossing the line literally as well as figuratively.

A veteran described how he has risked triggering international incidents by charging into Mexico on foot pursuits as far as the median of Calle Internacional, a main Tijuana highway paralleling the border.

“I was mainly worried about getting caught by a judicial (Mexican policeman),” said the agent, who requested anonymity. “If the guy draws down on me, I’m not going to give up. . . . These people taunt you, they spit at you and throw rocks at you. Then, if you cross the line, it’s like you violate their national honor.”

Questionable Border Patrol driving techniques have drawn recurring criticism.

Before a new fence reduced the crowds, agents cruising the banks of the Tijuana River would routinely maneuver their vehicles to herd throngs back toward Mexico. In a hazardous game of chicken, agents veered rapidly toward crowds and spun “doughnuts” to kick up blinding dust clouds.

Some higher-ups tacitly endorsed the tactics, which broke patrol regulations, agents said in interviews.

“ ‘Run them off the levee,’ that’s all we heard,” said ex-officer Hunt. “It was absurd. I refused to do it. I’m not going to endanger myself and I’m not going to endanger them.”

In 1989, 14-year-old Eduardo Hernandez Hernandez was killed when run over by a Border Patrol truck that scattered a group south of the levee. The boy was en route to his father’s home in Los Angeles. The U.S. government paid $50,000 to settle a civil claim filed by the boy’s family, who charged that reckless conduct caused his death. The driver was cleared of wrongdoing.

Last month, Mexican officials condemned the actions of Border Patrol agents at the usually placid Tijuana River, transformed by heavy winter rains into a torrent where 20 illegal immigrants have drowned.

Some agents have repeatedly charged at groups on the levee embankment, forcing people into the river, according to a formal complaint filed by the Mexican Consulate in San Diego.

Officers of Grupo Beta, an undercover Mexican border police squad, witnessed at least 10 such late-night incidents during February and March, including three in which agents also struck fleeing migrants, Mexican officials said. There are no allegations that anyone drowned as a result.

Border Patrol commanders said an investigation found the allegations to be unsubstantiated.

In fact, the Border Patrol chief in San Diego, Gustavo De La Vina, won praise for appearing on Mexican television to warn of the river danger. Field agents made numerous rescues in the fetid, fast-moving waters.

The allegations are reminiscent of a controversy that erupted during the 1970s and ‘80s in California’s Central Valley, where activists--including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, then bishop of Stockton--criticized the Border Patrol for swooping down on fields and herding agricultural laborers toward rivers and canals. About a dozen fleeing migrants drowned during the sweeps. Then, as now, Border Patrol officials vehemently denied endangering anyone.

Improvisational tactics shift with the terrain. In El Paso, agents skirmish regularly with los lancheros, unionized boatmen who brazenly ferry illegal immigrants across the Rio Grande in rafts crafted of inner tubes and plywood.

In 1991, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that two agents were negligent when they grabbed the anchoring line of a raft carrying five illegal immigrants back to Mexico, causing the vessel to capsize. Armando Valenzuela Macias, a 28-year-old sheet-metal worker, drowned. The judge awarded his family $210,000 in civil damages. Neither agent was disciplined.

During a struggle in May, 1991, an agent shot and killed Ruben Navarrete Tarin, a veteran lanchero known as a petty criminal and drug abuser. El Paso police cleared Agent Seth Hocker, saying he fired into Navarrete’s chest in self-defense.

Mexican officials, citing eyewitnesses, charge that the agent’s life was not in danger. Long after Navarrete’s death, riverbank graffiti scrawled in black spray-paint eulogized the lanchero and demanded punishment of his “assassin.”

Compounding the hazards are a sense of futility and an us-versus-them mind-set, which extends from San Diego to small, predominantly Latino border towns where agents feel marooned and sometimes reviled. Gilbert Estrada, a supervisor in Douglas, Ariz., said: “Agents aren’t necessarily the most popular people around here.”

Internal conflict flares as well, reflected in scathing station house graffiti, biting cartoons and accusatory memoranda. An underground newsletter penned by agents who dubbed themselves “The Phantom” mercilessly lampooned Laredo, Tex., commanders for months.

“Read all about it!” proclaimed a headline. “Management screws up again!” Chiefs brought in handwriting experts to track down the authors, who were eventually fired.

Another source of tension: the dilapidated state of vehicles, radios and other equipment, despite an expanding array of high-tech gadgetry that includes electronic sensors, aircraft and night-vision devices. A federal audit found that as many as half of agency vehicles were down for repair at any given time in 1991, leaving some areas unpatrolled during shift changes.

Last July, a Temecula agent charged that supervisors ignored his written warning that a sedan should not be driven. The rear axle failed the next day--not, fortuitously, during a chase. “The results could have been devastating,” the agent complained in a memo.

This incident occurred shortly after a stolen Chevrolet Suburban fleeing a patrol sedan crashed in front of a Temecula high school, killing six people and unleashing a torrent of community criticism of patrol chase tactics. The patrol said its agents did nothing wrong but acknowledged confusion with radio communications and a breakdown of emergency sirens and overhead lights in the pursuing sedan.

Condemnation after the Temecula crash reinforced a perception among agents that the government, public and press either ignore or impede the Border Patrol’s mission--especially in California, seen as a bastion of anti-agency sentiment.

“Most of the country doesn’t have a clue,” said former agent Hunt, lamenting the cumulative social impact of illegal immigration. “The Border Patrol is a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage.”

Many agents joined up to staunch the flow, drawn by the allure of secure federal employment and working outdoors in a unique brand of law enforcement. Agents come mostly from working-class backgrounds and border states, often with past experience in the military or small police departments. They take pride in enduring the onslaught, especially nabbing the minority of hardened lawbreakers.

“I like to catch the gangbangers, the little thugs sitting on the fence just waiting to steal your car,” said Matt Madore, a young agent from Upstate New York with a degree in criminal justice.

On patrol, however, Madore banters with prisoners who climb obediently into his caged Bronco. He once bought lunch for a Salvadoran who rode with him for several hours and helped the agent prepare for a Spanish exam.

This curious bond between hunter and hunted revealed itself after a large group trampled Agent Rudy Diaz under the Interstate 5 freeway in San Diego, breaking his foot. The last four stopped, however, and helped the fallen agent, who gratefully ordered them transported to McDonald’s.

“I gave them $30 and told them to eat as much as they wanted,” Diaz recalled.

Haunting Art Apac are the faces of two dazed children whom he arrested on a bus near Laredo. They were traveling unaccompanied to their parents’ home in Miami. A smuggler had robbed them and had tried to molest the 5-year-old girl, but her 8-year-old brother fought off the attack.

“I was heartbroken,” said Apac. “And that’s only two aliens out of the 100 you’ll see in a day.”

A few agents even admit to having risked their jobs by letting illegal immigrants go free. Explaining why he released a man headed to visit a hospitalized relative, a veteran concluded: “One alien isn’t going to change the immigration problem.”

Despite the toll it exacts, The Line can exert a powerful hold.

Former supervisor Randy Williamson served 20 years in San Diego before retiring recently to a home a few miles from Mexico. He vacations in Baja, peppers his conversation with Spanish, and, like many other non-Latino agents, married a Mexican woman.

His war stories include a memorable character: “Lester,” a 1970s-era supervisor whose repertoire of pranks featured mock “executions” of a “migrant"--a realistic, rag-stuffed dummy hidden in bushes. Lester would drive up with a vanload of prisoners, order the “migrant” to surrender, and then, to the horror of the passengers, pull his revolver and fire several rounds into the lifelike figure.

Although Lester represents a faded extreme, Williamson said that surviving the border demands a combination of humor, stoicism and ferocity.

“You screw with them,” Williamson said, “instead of them screwing with you.”

The Border Patrol: Facts and Figures

Border Patrol agents make more arrests than any other U.S. law enforcement officers. The patrol, founded in Texas in 1924 with 450 agents, has grown into a nationwide force. Stopping drug traffic has become one of its major roles in the past decade.

Who are the agents: Anglo: 56.6% Latino: 41.0% Black: 2.0% Other: 0.4% Women: 3.6% Men: 96.4%

Where they’re deployed: Texas and New Mexico: 45.0% California: 31.5% Arizona: 12.0% Canadian border: 8.0% Florida and Puerto Rico: 2.5% New Orleans: 1.0%

Number of agents nationwide ’82: 2,227 ’87: 3,180 ’92: 4,002

Job Requirements: * Background: U.S. citizen, age 18-34 when hired. * Education: High school graduate. * Training: Applicants must complete 18-week training program at a federal academy in Georgia. * Language: Must attain basic proficiency in Spanish within one year.

Annual Pay Starting Five-year level Border Patrol agent $24,000-$25,000 $36,000 U.S. Customs agent $24,000-$25,000 $50,000 LAPD officer $34,500 $42,000 CHP officer $35,000 $42,500 U.S. marshal $24,000-$25,000 $36,000-$40,000 Federal prison guard $20,000 $27,500

Estimated 1992 salaries

The Work: Arrests and Drug Seizures Most apprehensions of illegal immigrants occur along the border with Mexico. Here are patrol arrest totals for the past decade. Figures are for fiscal years ending Sept. 30.

‘82: 743,000 ’86: 1,615,000 ’92: 1,146,914 The Border Patrol has assumed a front-line role in the war on drugs. Confiscations of smuggled drugs, principally marijuana and cocaine, have risen sharply. Figures are for fiscal years ending Sept. 30. Drug value (in millions of dollars) ’89: $1,191 ’92: $1,400 Number of drug seizures ’89: 5,441 ’92: 5,070

Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.


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