Tuesday, 16 May 2023 06:38

The Border Patrol’s Fearless 5%

Ernestine Lopez (front row, third from the left) was one of six in the first class of women admitted to the Border Patrol Academy in 1975. Credit: Courtesy of Ernestine Lopez

Female agents are so rare in the U.S. Border Patrol that they have their own nickname: the Fearless 5%. It’s meant as a badge of honor, but the title is a bold admission of the agency’s inability to recruit or retain women.

The Border Patrol is one of the largest federal law enforcement agencies in the U.S., with roughly 19,000 officers. It also has one of the largest gender disparities – for decades, the number of women on the force has held steady around 5%. Despite years of demands for reform, the Border Patrol hasn’t managed to substantially increase the number of women in the agency.

Reporter Erin Siegal McIntyre set out to examine why this number has remained so low. She spoke with more than two dozen current and former Border Patrol agents and reviewed hundreds of pages of complaints and lawsuits in which agents allege sexual harassment or assault. Those interviews and documents reveal a workplace where a wide range of sexual misconduct is pervasive: from stale sex jokes to retaliation for reporting sexual misconduct and assault and rape.

Siegal McIntyre starts with the first class of women who were allowed to become Border Patrol agents in 1975. We hear from Ernestine Lopez, a member of that class. Days before graduation, she is raped by a classmate and reports it. She’s abruptly fired, leading her on a 12-year legal battle against the government. This is the first time Lopez, now 85, has told her story publicly.

Next, we hear from a young woman who loved working as an agent but left the Border Patrol at the peak of her career. Her supervisor had targeted her and other women on her team by hiding a camera in the floor drain in the women’s restroom. This is the first time she has spoken to a news outlet about her experience of reporting her supervisor and pursuing a case in court against him and the Border Patrol.

Then we follow the story of Kevin Warner, a Border Patrol probationary agent who was abruptly fired months after participating in a sex game along with a dozen other agents, including his superiors. Warner alleges that he was wrongfully discharged. Then Siegal McIntyre takes her reporting to a former chief of the Border Patrol, Mark Morgan. She asks about workplace culture, the low number of women in the agency and the lack of transparency around investigations of sexual misconduct in the patrol.

Support for Erin Siegal McIntyre’s work was provided by the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Harnisch Foundation. Special thanks to Ruth Ann Harnisch, Deborah Golden and the Gumshoe Group for their legal support and to John Turner and Gary Kirk from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC Chapel Hill.

Dig Deeper

Read: Senior Border Patrol Agent Faces Charges of Sexually Assaulting Colleague (The New York Times)

Read: Border Patrol Has a Problem With Women (U.S. News & World Report)

Read: Border Patrol Knew About Harrowing ‘Game of Smiles’ Sexual Assault Claims, But Did Not Take Action, Former Official Says (Newsweek)

Read: A Top Border Patrol Official Resigned After Allegedly Pressuring Female Employees for Sex, Officials Say (NBC News)

Read: Protecting the Predators at DHS (Project on Government Oversight)

Listen: Bad Watchdog Episode 4: The Story of an Agency (Project on Government Oversight)

Credits

Lead reporter: Erin Siegal McIntyre | Reporter/producer: Anayansi Diaz-Cortes | Additional reporting: Aura Bogado | Producer: Najib Aminy | Editors: Jenny Casas and Kate Howard | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Digital producer: Nikki Frick | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production: Kathryn Styer Martínez | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson

Support for Erin Siegal McIntyre’s work was provided by the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Harnisch Foundation. Special thanks to Ruth Ann Harnisch, Deborah Golden and the Gumshoe Group for their legal support and to John Turner and Gary Kirk from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC Chapel Hill.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson,
Erin Siegal McIntyre: So I’m here in Greensboro, North Carolina. Oh, it is too windy guys. I’m just going to go inside.
Speaker 3: How’s it going? Career fair?
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Yeah.
Al Letson: The University of North Carolina in Greensboro is hosting a career fair. Hundreds of students are crowded in a gym where recruiters from banks, grocery stores, local school districts, Chick-fil-A are all competing for the student’s attention. Most booths look the same. Many have banners or some swag, but there’s one that stands out.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: I do see the border patrol right in the middle. The only booth here with flashing lights.
Al Letson: Erin Siegal McIntyre is an investigative reporter who teaches journalism at UNC Chapel Hill. A lot of her work is about immigration and the US border with Mexico.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: My name is Erin McIntyre.
Al Letson: She stops a student she sees leaving the border patrol’s booth and asks if she’s interested in a career as an agent.
Speaker 4: I’m more of a yoga person. I like the beach than just overall that’s not necessarily a career path that I want to go into, so yeah.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: So like law enforcement that kind of?
Speaker 4: No.
Al Letson: Erin makes her way through the crowd following the flashing lights to the border patrol’s booth.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Can you tell me what’s up with the strobe lights? A
Speaker 5: The strobe lights, it gets people attention like moths to the flame. That’s what it is. Oh, it works. It works though.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: It feels like a mix between a rave and then a police car.
Speaker 5: You don’t know if you want to dance or run, huh?
Al Letson: Erin asks one of the agents, “What’s the best part of the job?”
Speaker 6: The best part? There’s tons of stuff you can do. You can come to work and ride horses. You can come to work and ride ATVs. You can get a canine. You can fly a drone. There’s a lot of stuff to do.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: And what’s the most challenging part?
Speaker 6: What’s the most challenging? The desert probably and the deceased bodies you find all over the desert.
Al Letson: The Border Patrol is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country. More than 19,000 officers patrol hundreds of miles along the U.S. border. They’re there to stop. Anyone trying to cross into the country in 2022 agents arrested or sent back over 2 million adults and children.
Speaker 6: Right now, the border control need 2,000 applicants, 2000 agents, and then by next year we need another thousand more. Have bodies by next year where there’ll be stations closed down, so
Erin Siegal McIntyre: That makes it urgent?
Speaker 6: Yes.
Speaker 5: Very urgent.
Al Letson: It’s a politically fraught job. The American people either love or hate the border patrol and their mission and it’s a taxing job. Agents quit at almost twice the rate of other federal law enforcement agencies. The Border Patrol has an especially difficult time recruiting and keeping women on the force. The FBI has 45%. Women police departments nationally have about 12% in the border patrol that number hovers around 5%, and it’s been that way for decades.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Let me ask you too, so I know about border patrol and women is a thing, right? It’s hard to recruit women from what I’ve read?
Speaker 6: It’s hard to recruit females because you got to think about, I’m in North Carolina and they want me to recruit females, but most females are what? They’re not all college students. That means they’re what? Married and most likely have kids, and so you want me to recruit this young lady, old lady, whatever she is, to go join the Border Patrol. It’s hard.
Al Letson: This idea that women just don’t want to do this job is pervasive in the agency, but Erin’s finding it’s far more complicated than that. That part of the why the number of women in the Border Patrol won’t budge is about workplace culture. She even saw a hint of this culture when she stopped another student who’d visited the border patrol’s booth.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Were they making any kind of a pitch to you when you talked to them?
Speaker 7: No, but when I shook his hand, he just said, “I was a very pretty lady. A good looking lady.”
Erin Siegal McIntyre: How did that sit with you?
Speaker 7: It was kind of weird.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Is that when you decided to leave the table?
Speaker 7: Yes.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Thank you so much. Good luck to you.
Al Letson: Today, Erin is looking at the Border Patrol through the eyes of the women who’ve worked there to understand why the agency is struggling to recruit and retain female agents. A quick warning before we start this hour contains descriptions of sexual violence. Erin started her search with the first women ever allowed to become agents.
Ernestine Lopez: Hello?
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Hi, may I speak with Ernestine, please?
Ernestine Lopez: Who’s calling?
Erin Siegal McIntyre: My name is Erin Siegal McIntyre.
Ernestine Lopez was part of the first graduating class at the Border Patrol Academy that included women. For its first 50 years the agency was made up of only men. That changed in the 1970s with the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. There were six women in that class in 1975, and all of them went on to work for the Border Patrol. Everyone except Ernestine.
Ernestine Lopez: How did you hear about me?
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Oh my God. Well, you’re one of the first, if this is the right, Ms. Lopez, Ms. Ernestine Lopez?
Ernestine Lopez: Yeah.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: You made history.
Ernestine Lopez: Well, I was treated very badly. My daughter wants me to write my obituary so that when I pass away, she’ll know what to put in the paper. I was thinking about that last night.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Today, Ernestine, who goes by Tina is 85. She lives in Santa Maria, California, about a mile away from her daughter, Diane.
Ernestine Lopez: Are you recording now? I wanted to show you this just yesterday. I found it
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Turns out that first phone call sent Tina on a mission. She went up to her attic, dug around and found two boxes of photos, newspaper clippings, and stacks of papers,
Ernestine Lopez: And I hit the jackpot and I said, “Oh my goodness.” I kept digging into that box and I found a little newspaper article. San Diego Union Story all crumbled up and old and I showed it to Diane.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Diane picks up the newspaper article and reads the headline.
Diane: Two Assigned to Border Patrol Here, Women Put Careers On The Line.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Until now, Diane knew almost nothing about her mom’s time with the border patrol.
Ernestine Lopez: And I have the letter.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: But today, mother and daughter are side by side on the couch, combing through the documents, fanned around them.
Diane: Now you know what I found interesting about this? I’ve never seen this before, but this morning I read it and they were talking about, remember in the article about ribbing?
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Ribbing? Tina picks up the page and reads it over.
Ernestine Lopez: Oh, I don’t remember saying this, but it says, “Ms. Lopez said there will be some ribbing from male agent trainees.” The men will be giving the woman a hard time. That’s what they meant
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Before the border patrol Tina had worked as a bilingual secretary at a law firm. She’d also been a courthouse interpreter.
Ernestine Lopez: I always liked civil service because it was kind of a job with good future. Even when I was five years old, I remember telling somebody, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a secretary and I’m going to marry a policeman.” That’s what I said.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: She didn’t marry a policeman. The household was her and Diane.
Ernestine Lopez: I raised my daughter from the time she was born and didn’t have any help from her father. He moved out of state and hid himself where he wouldn’t have to pay child support. So I said, “Well, that’s all right.” Because he was a troublemaker.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: By 1974, she was working in an office job at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.
Ernestine Lopez: What happened was one day, these border patrol agents that used to just say hi to me, one of them came over to my desk. He said, “Tina, why don’t you apply for border patrol?” He said, “For the first time in the history of border patrol, they’re hiring women.”
Erin Siegal McIntyre: When she looks up the benefits, the choice is easy. Tina applies, gets into the academy, and starts training.
Ernestine Lopez: I used to say to people, it was like being in the Marines because you had training and jumping over walls, and then you had firearms training and going to the classes. I even had to take Spanish, even though I knew it, and I remember they’re real harsh in the grading.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Some of the instructors aren’t harsh graders, but they want something in return for giving out a good grade.
Ernestine Lopez: One teacher came up to me and one of his classes, I forget which one it was, and he said, “How would you like to get an A in this class?” What he told me.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: She remembers him looking her up and down. The message to her was clear. She could get a good grade by sleeping with him.
Ernestine Lopez: This one teacher would tell the male students, “Oh, you’ll have to go cross the border because there’s some real hot tamales over there.” And so I was insulted. Humiliated.
Diane: Well, you were also Hispanic, so you were embedded in that community and I think you felt very attached to that as well, to that idea.
Ernestine Lopez: That’s what makes me so proud to be the first Latina. That really made me feel good.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: The green uniform, the border Patrol badge. It’s all so close. A few nights before graduation, Tina is getting ready for bed in the barracks.
Ernestine Lopez: I just remembered that my roommate wasn’t in the room that night and I heard this knock on the doors.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: A classmate Tina doesn’t know is standing in the doorway.
Ernestine Lopez: He just kind of stuck his foot in the door and forced his way in, and then I remember he threw me on this cot that I slept on. I was trying to fight him away from me, and then it all happened so fast.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Tina pushes and shoves the man back, but he overpowers her.
Ernestine Lopez: I didn’t even know that it was considered rape. I thought it was attempted rape since he hadn’t used his private parts to assault me, but that was rape.
Diane: How did he leave or did you run out?
Ernestine Lopez: I guess he just left since he wasn’t going to get anywhere further than what he’d done already. When he left, I went to close the door. I looked down the hall and people were out there talking. It crept into my mind that maybe I would get in trouble, that if they see a male coming out of my room, they’re going to think there’s hanky panky going on and that those people down the hall were going to go report me. That’s what I thought, I was going to get in trouble, so I went and reported myself. I went to the chief’s place and I told him that I was assaulted.
Diane: What did you think the chief was supposed to do? What did you expect him to do?
Ernestine Lopez: Oh my God. Well, I expected the chief to protect me. Maybe talk to the male, ask him, “Did you do that? Why did you do that? That’s not right.” I could have had a hearing. He was the chief, so I assumed he would know what to do, not what he did, for sure.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: The morning of graduation day, a deputy finds Tina. She’s told she won’t be attending the ceremony and that her time at the border patrol is over. Tina says the chief’s wife drove her to the airport that day
Ernestine Lopez: I was at the airport waiting for the airplane to send me back to California. I felt really humiliated, embarrassed, and I was thinking to myself, “What am I going to tell my family back home? I come home a failure.”
Diane: It’s unbelievable. All those feelings that you said you felt like you had accomplished so much, your family never got to see you graduate, and I think that’s part of what hurts you.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Back home in California. Tina can’t stop thinking about what happened. She starts a new job as a customs inspector at the San Diego Tijuana border. One day a coworker stops her saying, “Hey, I’ve heard about you.”
Ernestine Lopez: So they must have all been talking about that, and I must have told him that I didn’t graduate and everything, and he said, “Oh,” he said, “you need to go talk to Mr. Garcia.” He said, “He hates the border patrol.”
Erin Siegal McIntyre: From that conversation with Garcia, Tina connects with a lawyer in Los Angeles who thinks she has a strong case against the government. They sue and file a lawsuit for discrimination.
Ernestine Lopez: It took a long time here.
Diane: What’s a long time, Mom?
Ernestine Lopez: From 75 to after 87. That’s a long time.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Tina keeps digging through what’s left in the boxes, telling her daughter about the twists and turns of her case, but she’s getting tired. Diane notices.
Diane: I can tell you need a little bit of sustenance, but I also feel like you’re triggered a little bit by the memories.
Ernestine Lopez: I feel shaky, and after all these bad memories crop up, it still affects me physically. Nervous, shaky.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Diane brings out some snacks.
Diane: Salami and crackers. There’s some cheese.
Ernestine Lopez: And crackers.
Diane: Little heart shaped.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: And Tina picks up right where she left off.
Ernestine Lopez: I came back from the academy and I returned home. I suffered a lot of physical pain, headaches. Even now when Erin first called me on the phone, it brought back bad memories.
Diane: She was having nightmares for a few nights until she realized that perhaps it could be cathartic.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: In 1986, the Border Patrol starts paying out Tina’s settlement in parts. One check is for almost $29,000.
Ernestine Lopez: I think their settlement could have been larger. People sue today for millions of dollars, 3 million, 5 million.
Diane: Mom, when you got your settlement, what did you decide you wanted to do with it?
Ernestine Lopez: I went down to Toyota.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: She cashes the check, stuffs the bills into a suitcase, and goes to the car dealership.
Ernestine Lopez: It was a red Toyota Supra 89, I believe, and it really made me feel good that I could just pay for it and not owe a penny on it. I could always come and get it washed at no charge for paying cash.
Diane: Mom, why do you think it’s important to share your story?
Ernestine Lopez: To stop it from happening to other women. That’s why. I’m even willing to use my own name in this story and recording. Now, you know everything, the whole border patrol story that nobody else knows. I don’t really care to discuss it with them either, but I wanted to share it with you.
Diane: What I found curious, Mom, when you found the documents, you felt vindicated. You were showing proof, “This really did happen to me.”
Ernestine Lopez: They’ll see that everything I’ve told him is true and here’s the proof of it.
Diane: It was nice. It was vindication for you.
Ernestine Lopez: She’s my new lawyer.
Al Letson: Erin called all the surviving members from that first class of women. She learned that like Tina, each one had experienced some degree of sexual harassment ranging from hazing to assault. Within six years, they all had left the Border patrol. When we come back…
Ashley: He wasn’t arrested. They talked to him, I think, and then let him go on his merry way.
Al Letson: How the Border Patrol has handled accusations of misconduct today. That’s next on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX. This is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Speaker 11: They are the strongest naturally occurring substance found on the earth.
Al Letson: In 2021, the Border Patrol produced a recruitment video called Diamond in the Rough.
Speaker 11: They are rare, they are priceless. They are the women who make up the 5% of the United States Border Patrol.
Al Letson: The video has a montage of women in uniform. They’re doing pushups, hiking rough terrain, riding horses, driving boats, racing around on ATVs. The video ends in a fiery explosion with the U.S. Broader patrol logo circled in a ring of flames. A hashtag fearless five lingers on the screen.
It’s hard to imagine another government agency bragging about what others might consider failure. That only around 5% of their workforce are women. But the border patrol turns it into a talking point. That promotional video cast female agents as diamonds to be a part of the Fearless Five is to be rare and formed under pressure.
Ashley: My lifestyle revolves around the border patrol. All of my friends are still in the border patrol
Al Letson: For 12 years. Ashley was one of the fearless 5%. She loved her time as an agent and as for the gender disparity, it didn’t make Ashley feel special, but it also didn’t bother her.
Ashley: Being a female in law enforcement. When you go into this job, it’s not going to be 50% men and 50% females. You should know it’s mainly men, so you can’t go around reporting every male that may make you upset over something.
Al Letson: Our reporting partner this week, Erin Siegal McIntyre found Ashley because she did report something. Ashley’s time at the agency ended in a way she didn’t expect.
Ashley: I didn’t like how it was treated. I didn’t like how the case was handled. I don’t understand why it was treated that way from every agency involved in this investigation.
Al Letson: Generally, the public doesn’t hear about cases like Ashley’s unless information appears in police reports, courtrooms, or the news. Most misconduct allegations and investigations are handled in-house by the border patrol itself.
Erin had to look elsewhere to learn what happens to agents like Ashley that experience misconduct and decide to report it. Erin found her case while looking through more than 70 lawsuits filed by women against the agency. Ashley is a pseudonym. We’re granting her anonymity to protect her privacy. In a quick note, there are details in Ashley’s story that some listeners may find disturbing.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Ever since she was a kid, Ashley wanted a career in law enforcement. So right after college she applied to a few different agencies.
Ashley: I decided I was young and I’d never been to California, so I chose the border patrol.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: She starts work at a duty station in Southern California and ends up in a dream position.
Ashley: I ended up getting selected for the horse patrol and you patrol the field on horseback. You don’t think California gets cold, but it can get cold and we were out patrolling on horseback, on midnights, freezing my ass off, but it was a lot of fun. I learned a lot. I obviously made amazing friends.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Her circle of friends was almost entirely made up of other agents.
Ashley: Most of us were single with no kids, so we would hang out off duty together and a lot of us weren’t from California either, so we didn’t have friends or family and we were getting the same days off Monday, Tuesday because we were new. And I grew to like it after a little while.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Years pass, California begins to feel like home. Ashley applies for a spot on the Critical Incident Investigative Team or the CIIT Team. It’s an in-house unit investigating serious incidents, things like car accidents or deadly use of force. Ashley selected, the new job feels like detective work, nothing like what she was doing before on the horse patrol.
Ashley: I would say it was somewhat of a tight-knit unit, 10-ish agents give or take with two supervisors.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: One supervisor is Armando Gonzalez.
Ashley: So he is this big guy, six-seven, six-eight. At the time he was nice, just a little odd.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Then he starts sending her Facebook messages. It feels like a red flag.
Ashley: It wasn’t nice ass or anything sexual at all. It was just these weird messages like, “How’s your weekend?” First of all, it’s creepy. We’re not friends. It’s honestly none of your business.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: And when she takes time off for vacation, Gonzalez always wants to know where she’s going.
Ashley: So he would occasionally ask for fricking pictures of my trip and absolutely not have I ever sent him a picture? So my next course of action to combat that was block. I blocked his ass because honestly, I’ve never gotten that before. You work in law enforcement, you work with all guys. Some guys can be douchey, assholes, whatever, or say something, no big deal.
But I just got this creepy feeling so much so I confided in my coworkers, and so they just said, “Just make sure you’re never alone with him.”
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Ashley takes their advice and starts avoiding him. It doesn’t really feel like an option to report him. Gonzalez has the power to promote demote or even reassign her.
Ashley: And honestly, should of, would of, could of, what is the command staff going to do? I don’t think there was enough to warrant them moving him. The only recourse I could see was them moving me. And then fast forward to January 9th, 2015, I’m using the bathroom in the CIIT building.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: The bathroom is a single stall, a toilet and a sink. It also doubles as the women’s changing room.
Ashley: Most public bathrooms have drains in the floor. And I looked at the drain and I immediately saw the little pinpoint cameras staring back at me.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: A tiny motion activated camera pointed at the toilet
Ashley: And I immediately freaked out because I knew what it was immediately and I knew who put it there immediately. No doubt in my mind.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Ashley keeps her cool. She walks out of the bathroom past her supervisor who’s sitting right outside. She gets a screwdriver, goes back in, pries the drain open, takes pictures, she takes the motion activated camera, slides it into her pocket and leaves. But once she’s outside…
Ashley: I started like hysterically crying because I knew what it was. I knew what was going to be on there. Who do I report this to?
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Ashley shows another female coworker, and together they call internal affairs.
Ashley: And they’re like, “Yeah, we’ll be down there in a little bit, blah, blah, blah.” And I don’t think they were understanding, honestly, I don’t think they believed that I found a camera and I told them from the get-go that I don’t feel safe and I want to leave. So eventually they said, “Come on down.”
Erin Siegal McIntyre: At the same time, Gonzalez also heads to report the camera to his bosses. He tells them he planted it there on purpose.
Ashley: His story that he gave was that he was investigating drug use of a female agent in our group, and we all know that’s not how you investigate drug use. And he also told another lie that the camera had only been there for a couple days, a week. Well, come to find out, the camera had been there a lot longer than that.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: There were nearly 170 recordings dating back a year and a half.
Ashley: They talked to him, I think, and then they let him go on his merry way.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Gonzalez is put on administrative leave, but it’s paid leave.
Ashley: So he’s sitting at home collecting a paycheck and yeah, I’m back to work in two days.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: A multi-agency team begins investigating Ashley’s claim. It involves local and federal authorities.
Ashley: One of them decided to tell me, “Oh, don’t worry, the camera angle is bad.” I don’t know if he was trying to comfort me, but that’s not what you fucking say to someone who’s obviously traumatized. That should have been foresight into how this whole investigation and case was handled.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: It takes three weeks before law enforcement searches his house. Later, Gonzalez admitted that he used that time to destroy evidence, like hard drives and other recordings.
The Border Patrol doesn’t release a lot of information about these kinds of things when agents harm each other or anyone else. It’s parent agency does. Customs and Border Protection or CBP publishes an annual report. It includes some information about misconduct and internal border patrol investigations, but the data is often limited and it doesn’t say much specific to the border patrol.
So it was a big deal when last spring there was a leak. It was a draft report based on a survey of federal employees. The focus was sexual misconduct at work. Almost 11,000 people from CBP answered that includes border patrol employees, though it doesn’t specify how many. The survey shows nearly 3,600 employees reported experiencing some form of sexual misconduct from jokes to assault, and most employees who did have those experiences chose not to report it. 80% of them.
And it’s not just rank and file agents who’ve been accused of abusing colleagues. Higher ups in the border patrol have too.
Speaker 12: A top border patrol official resigned after allegedly pressuring female employees for sex.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: That senior official is Tony Barker. He left quietly in the fall of 2022 after at least four female coworkers accused him of sexual misconduct. He denies everything. Before his surprise resignation Barker was number three in the patrol, widely considered to have a chance at the top spot as chief.
Speaker 13: So now what a lot of these women want to know is how far this investigation could go. Will it end simply because he left or could this turn into something bigger?
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Some cases surface after an agent’s name gets mentioned somewhere public like in a police report or in a court case.
Speaker 14: A border patrol agent who works here in Tucson says she was sexually assaulted by a colleague.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: In May 2019, Senior Agent Gus Zamora was accused of raping a younger female agent after a night of heavy drinking. Zamora was indicted on sexual assault and kidnapping charges, and he abruptly retired. He’s pleaded not guilty, and his criminal trial is ongoing.
Over the last two years, I’ve spoken to dozens of agents and read through hundreds of documents like police reports and court cases. Together they paint a picture of a workplace where sexual pranks and harassment are common.
When I asked one agent who’d been in the patrol for 20 years, “Is sexual harassment common at work?” She just laughed saying, “It’s just a culture.”
I’ve filed dozens of requests for records from the agency to better understand this culture. Many were ignored or denied until I sued them. I received some records in the fall of 2022, most from the past 15 years, but a lot was missing. The records I got back didn’t say whether investigations were launched or if any conclusion or discipline happened.
As for Ashley, what happened to her and others who used that bathroom made headlines.
Speaker 15: Former border patrol supervisor Armando Gonzalez, is serving 21 months in federal prison. After he admitted he hid a camera in the floor drain of the women’s bathroom at work.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: He pled guilty to one count of making a false statement to a federal officer for the lie about the drug investigation. And he also pled guilty to seven counts of video voyeurism. Despite the conviction, Ashley says she heard through coworkers that Gonzalez was never fired and instead retired with benefits. But I can’t confirm that because neither Gonzalez nor the border patrol would talk to me about it.
Ashley and another female agent would go on to file a civil suit against Gonzalez and a judge found him responsible for extreme emotional distress. In 2019, Ashley and her co-defendant were each awarded almost $6 million.
Ashley: I have not seen a penny from that, but who know if I’ll ever see a dime of that because apparently I can’t go after his retirement. He’s very protected, I guess.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: But Ashley’s still trying. She’s gone after his house and tried to garnish his wages. So far, nothing’s worked. After finding the camera, Ashley stayed in the border patrol for a few more years.
Ashley: The other supervisor that was still on the unit, I felt safe with him and I felt safe with my coworkers. Everyone was super understanding. Other females in my office were also on the tape, it wasn’t just me going through everything, so I felt safe in my little bubble.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: But the entire time she was actively applying for other jobs. She left in 2018 taking a position with the Department of Homeland Security.
Ashley: I think it was my very last day. You have to go, turn in your gun, turn in your badge, turn in your creds, turn in your vest, turn in everything in. I just wanted to be done and I wanted the new chapter to begin.
Besides everything that happened with a camera, I just want to say my time in the border Patrol was great. I made amazing friends, I learned a lot, but that was my last day just turning in all my equipment and driving out the front door and going home.
Al Letson: Up next, a different perspective on discipline in the Border Patrol.
Kevin Warner: I did not do anything illegal or immoral. I did something with a bunch of friends that we’re all probably a little embarrassed about, but everyone was consensual adults and I didn’t deserve to lose my job over that. I was an outstanding agent.
Al Letson: Coming up on Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This week we’re with investigative reporter Erin Siegal McIntyre. She’s been looking at allegations of sexual misconduct in the border patrol between agents.
When these incidents are reported, it’s often unclear what the agency does next. Sometimes even to those being investigated. That was the case with former Border Patrol agent Kevin Warner. When he was stationed in Arizona, people there had already heard of him.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Did agents already knew what had happened with your class?
Kevin Warner: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was surprised how much they knew about it and how much they didn’t say. There was a general caution, just lik, “Be careful around those guys.”
Al Letson: This was in the spring of 2004. Kevin loved his job. He felt he was good at it, but about seven months in, he and other members of his class from the academy were abruptly fired.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: What was the reason you were given?
Kevin Warner: Oh, just none. Just due to the party.
Al Letson: The party. It happened about a week before graduation, and it’s at the heart of a sexual misconduct case involving about a dozen agents. A note, this story has details of sexual violence. Kevin explains to Erin what happened.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Kevin and his classmates had made it through training and passed their finals, but now no one could agree where to celebrate.
Kevin Warner: We were kind of fighting about it, bickering about it, and our instructor offered us, he said, “Why don’t you guys just come to my house and you guys can have just have a party there?”
Erin Siegal McIntyre: It’s against the rules for instructors and students to hang out, but Kevin says it still happened. The night of the party there were multiple instructors there.
Kevin Warner: Everybody brought tons of alcohol, so if you didn’t bring any, there was plenty. So we get together, we start drinking beers, and then we would be doing shots later on, and then we’d all be passing out and we’d all be very hung up hungover the next day. That was the plan.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: How did the game get started?
The game was a sex game called Smiles. That night, it was played in a room full of people by 12 men, including Kevin, and one young woman who was also a student.
Kevin Warner: Next thing I knew, there was 12 of us, I believe, all around the table with our pants down, and our classmate was underneath the table randomly giving oral sex to people, playing the game of Smiles. I was pretty inebriated when we played the game. I remember everybody being pretty wasted.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: All of a sudden, you guys are in the middle of playing this game. Where’s the instructor? What’s he doing? Does he know?
Kevin Warner: He’s right there. He’s at the head of the table.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: He played?
Kevin Warner: Oh, yeah. He was all about it.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Were you surprised that he was at the table with you guys? Or did that seem like?
Kevin Warner: It’d been odd if he wasn’t there. Someone would’ve went and got him.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Kevin claims that the female student volunteered to play the game and that it stopped when she wanted it to stop.
Kevin Warner: It was over in a millisecond because everybody felt the tension and then she said something and the instant she said something, everyone was ready to go. Boom. Chairs came out, everyone gets up, pants up, everyone’s gone. Nothing happened kind of thing.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: The party continues and so does the drinking. The next morning Kevin’s nursing a hangover when he learned someone reported the party and everyone could be in trouble. Rumors are flying through the dorms. Kevin hears people saying that the young woman at the center of the Smiles game was later raped. That it happened multiple times that night by different men, including an instructor.
The Border Patrol starts interviewing members of the class and for a tense few days, no one knows what’s going to happen, but a week later, the class graduates as planned. The new agents start working on the border, and then seven months later, before they’re off probation, Kevin says around a dozen of them are called in one by one. They’re fired, including the young woman.
Kevin Warner: I did not do anything illegal or immoral. I did something with a bunch of friends that we’re all probably a little embarrassed about, but everyone was consensual adults and I didn’t deserve to lose my job over that. I was an outstanding agent, so my record speaks for itself.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Kevin’s termination letter from the Board of Patrol says, “When interviewed by agents, you withheld information. You were evasive and you demonstrated a lack of candor.” But Kevin says he was honest when he was questioned, he freely admitted to playing the Smiles game, and he’s always maintained that he didn’t do anything wrong or assault anyone. He blames the instructors for the whole situation, especially the guy who hosted the party.
Kevin Warner: We trusted him and he invited us. There’s a certain level of, he has much more culpability than the rest of us. So I have no problem hanging that on his head. So if he’s running around free, if he suffered no consequences from that, that’s obviously not right because the rest of us have suffered severe consequences.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: The LinkedIn profile of the instructor who hosted says he stayed in the patrol until 2008, more than four years later. He declined to be interviewed. I also reached out to the young woman involved and she never responded. I spoke to one of her classmates who wasn’t there that night, but saw her right after, and she says that nothing that evening was consensual.
In 2019, Newsweek magazine published a story about the game, the alleged rapes, and the Border Patrol’s response. The patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection didn’t comment. Their story focused on James Tomsheck, a former head of Internal Affairs. He’d reviewed a report on the incident.
James Tomsheck: This was the first time in my 40 years in law enforcement that I had ever seen an incident of egregious sexual misconduct at this level in any law enforcement organization.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Tomsheck says, “According to the report, border Patrol leadership knew about the rape allegations and that multiple instructors had allegedly been involved.” He says, “The agency didn’t pursue the case beyond that report because the victim didn’t cooperate.”,
James Tomsheck: I came to understand that this incident was consistent with misconduct within the Border Patrol.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: It’s unclear if the agency views this kind of incident as part of a larger cultural issue. I repeatedly requested and was repeatedly denied, an interview with the current head of the Border Patrol. So I turn to someone who used to run the agency.
When we first get on the Zoom call, I immediately notice Mark Morgan’s background, tiny American flags and all kinds of law enforcement memorabilia, including a pair of boots.
Mark Morgan: There’s a pair of cowboy boots that has the board patrol seal embossed on it. I was actually given that as well when I was chief of the Border Patrol.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Morgan was chief under President Obama and then appointed Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection for the Trump administration. He knows how misconduct is handled.
The Smiles game and the alleged rapes in 2003 were before Morgan’s time, but the Newsweek piece came out during his tenure. So I asked him about how the aftermath was handled.
Mark Morgan: I don’t know about this specific incident that you’re referring to. I don’t know the details. What I would say is that so many things have changed within law enforcement agencies. There are so many checks and balances now. I won’t say impossible because I usually don’t use that word, but it’s darned close to commit a violation and just sweep it under the carpet.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: I’ve heard a lot of women talk about difficult experiences in the patrol ranging from harassment to outright sexual assault and rape. I would love to understand more about your awareness of sexual misconduct in the workforce?
Mark Morgan: Yeah, so those are some pretty harsh accusations. I’m not aware of those accusations, Erin. I’m not. I have heard that they’ve been made, but to date I’m not aware of anything that has been substantiated about any of the horrific things you just talked about. I would say that it’s very important that we differentiate between 25, 30 years ago and today.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: I found a case that reminded me a lot of what happened to Tina Lopez 50 years ago. But this was from 2019, roughly two months after Morgan took over as commissioner. It was another alleged rape at the academy, reported in the middle of the night to a 9-1-1 dispatch operator in Artesia, New Mexico.
Christina: Regional Dispatch. This is Christina, may I help you?
Speaker 20: Hi, Christina. I’m the supervisor with Border Patrol out here at [inaudible]. Do you guys by chance have a designated rape investigator?
Erin Siegal McIntyre: A female student had reported being raped by an instructor in her dorm room. I pulled police records and spoke to a source who was there with her that night.
Speaker 20: I’m going to need to have an officer come out because I need her to talk to an officer and tell him that she doesn’t want to file charges if that’s…
Christina: Would it help if it’s a female officer? We do have a couple female officers on.
Speaker 20: That possibly would be better, yes.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: When a local police detective shows up, the young woman is standing in a parking lot surrounded by agents. They’re asking questions and she isn’t saying much, but she does say she doesn’t want to press charges. The detective goes to her dorm room to collect evidence, bagging bedsheets, underwear, and a black dress.
Police records quote the student as saying, “He’s an agent, no one will believe me over him.” They also show that the young woman quit abruptly. She left the next day and she didn’t cooperate any further with the investigation. The Artesia police closed the case.
What is the responsibility of the border Patrol given that local law enforcement can’t move, victim is out of the picture at this point, and what do you do with that instructor [inaudible]?
Mark Morgan: So that’s a good question. Now, if the criminal investigation ceases, if it’s put in a cold status, then what should happen is the agency should still go forward with their administrative process.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: So that means the agency should continue their internal investigation, whether or not the victim cooperates?
Mark Morgan: That’s the process that should happen. But again, that administrative process, they’re not going to tell you about that. They’re not going to give you names and they’re not going to tell you who received what punishment and they shouldn’t because that’s a privacy issue with respect to that individual agent as well.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: I found the instructor accused of rape in Artesia. He’s listed as an agent on border patrol websites and in news coverage. I can’t verify if he was found to have done anything wrong or if he was disciplined for anything. And while secrecy might be good for privacy, legal scholars say it’s not the best way to combat an issue like sexual misconduct in the workplace. Having extremely low numbers of women on the job doesn’t help either.
Mark Morgan: I think it’s fair to say it’s a male-dominated world. I think the concerns of how if you report, “Hey, I think I was being harassed.” Especially, look, when you’re in a close-knit environment, that cohesive environment is important. It is. And so anything that could be detrimental to that cohesiveness could be perceived as, “Hey, I’m going to be hesitant to do X, Y, Z.”
Erin Siegal McIntyre: But it doesn’t have to be that way. Experts say 30% is a magic number, a threshold at which cultural change can happen. Studies about women in policing found that they’re better at diffusing conflict, less likely to use excessive force, and more skilled at addressing sex crimes.
This past fall, the border patrol’s parent agency signed it up for something new, the 30 by 30 campaign. It’s a pledge to raise the numbers of women in law enforcement agencies to 30% by the year 2030.
Mark Morgan: I’ve been in meetings at the highest levels where we’re asking the same questions you are, why is it that we have these low numbers?
Erin Siegal McIntyre: He goes on to list challenges of the job, like the long hours agents work often alone, and how difficult it can be to find things like nightlife or even a grocery store if you’re stationed in a remote place. And when it comes to women specifically, his key takeaway seems to be that the job just isn’t that appealing.
Mark Morgan: I think that’s an honest discussion to have before we chastises an agency. Do more male look towards a job that is dirty, hard, arduous environment, does that gravitate more towards the interest of males or does that gravitate more towards the interest of females? I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Morgan also points to pregnancy as a reason women might not want to become border patrol agents.
Mark Morgan: They’re not going to be able to run the side of a mountain when they’re seven months pregnant and they shouldn’t.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Morgan points to all kinds of factors that are external to the agency. He doesn’t mention its workplace culture or women’s experiences in it, and neither does the Border Patrol’s media relations office.
When I sent a list of questions to the agency, they ignored almost all of them. Instead, they sent back a statement saying that they don’t tolerate misconduct and cooperate fully with any criminal or administrative investigations
Just to finish the 5% number that’s been the number for a very long time in the patrol. You attribute that to simply the nature of the job and not the actual culture of the workplace. Is that fair to say?
Mark Morgan: No, it’s not fair. I would say broadly, I don’t know. I think there’s a multitude of reasons that go into that and not all of them fall with under the purview of the agency. I don’t think the agency can change societal norms about this.
What I am comfortable of saying is that I don’t think there’s a female right now that says, “Oh, I’m not going to join because of the culture.” They don’t know the culture. They don’t know it.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: Over the last 50 years, the presence of women inside the border patrol has been a constant. They’ve served in positions ranging from rank and file line agents to chief of the entire patrol. But the agency stands apart from others in law enforcement and from others in government. The fearless 5% are still just about 5%.
That 5% number should it change? Does it need to change? Is it an issue?
Mark Morgan: So I’m glad you asked that question and my first answer is, I don’t know.
Erin Siegal McIntyre: But maybe that answer isn’t a surprise. It’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t think it’s a problem.
Al Letson: That story was from Erin Siegal McIntyre, an investigative journalist and photographer. It’s a part of a long-term project she’s working on about the history and experiences of women in the Border patrol.
Our lead producer for this week’s show was Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, with help from [inaudible], Jenny Casas, and Kate Howard edited the show. Aura Bogado contributed reporting. Aura is currently on leave as a Carnegie Fellow working on a book project.
Nikki Frick is our fact-checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel, our production manager, Steven Rascón.
Score and sound, designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Our post-production team this week includes Kathryn Styer Martine. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Taki Telonidis and Brett Meyers. Our theme music is by Camrado Lightning.
Support for Erin Siegal McIntyre’s work was provided by the International Women’s Media Fund, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and the Harnish Foundation. Special thanks to Ruth Ann Harnish, Deborah Golden, and the Gumshoe Group for their legal support of Erin’s work.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva & David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T.MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Helman Foundation.
Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

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