In late 2018, staffers and volunteers for the nonprofit organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras in Tijuana, Mexico experienced unusual — and disturbing — scrutiny from law enforcement on both sides of the United States–Mexico border.
As part of its broader mission to provide humanitarian assistance to immigrants, Pueblo Sin Fronteras has organized caravans of asylum-seekers traveling from Central American countries to the U.S. border. But when its activists and aid workers in Tijuana tried to enter the U.S. in 2018, they were taken to interrogation rooms and questioned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. They were asked about their work with the organization, and then about their families, education, and political leanings.
The hard questioning happened, activists say, after police in Tijuana and elsewhere in Mexico surveilled Pueblo Sin Fronteras members as they assisted thousands of people trying to enter the U.S. through the southern border. Earlier in 2018, a Pueblo Sin Fronteras organizer was arrested in southern Mexico while participating in a caravan. Another organizer received an explicit threat in November 2018 that he and others were being targeted for assassination.
The Pueblo Sin Fronteras organizers are not alone. In recent years, university researchers, lawyers, journalists, and activists from Texas to California who document or assist asylum seekers have also been harassed by U.S. and Mexican officials in response to record numbers of asylum seekers from Central America and other parts of Latin America.
In the spring of 2019, Alex Mensing, a volunteer organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, received a clue as to why he and his colleagues had become targets, not just of extra border scrutiny, but of rumors and threats in Mexico: Mensing and most of his Pueblo Sin Fronteras colleagues were on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security list of people subject to close surveillance.
The list was first reported by San Diego’s KNSD-TV. It included activists and lawyers, as well as a New York pastor who ministers to immigrants, among other individuals. But Mensing suspected something worse: that the list and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence behind it had been shared with the department’s counterparts in Mexico. A DHS internal investigation later bore out his suspicions.
A palabra review of two internal investigations of the controversial monitoring, as well as court records and administrative complaints, found a rebuke by a federal watchdog that said CBP had “improperly shared the sensitive information of U.S. citizens with Mexico.” And a former DHS official told palabra that CBP officers do not have proper supervision when it comes to using the information they collect.
Mexico is a dangerous place for journalists and activists. For decades, its government has illegally surveilled political rivals, rights workers, and journalists. Intelligence reports have even been leaked to organized crime networks. In a headline-grabbing scandal, Mexico’s government was found to have used Pegasus spy software to turn the cellphones of people close to current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and prominent journalists into espionage devices. So far this year, 12 journalists have been killed in Mexico. Human rights workers are also frequently targeted for assassination.
“There’s enormous impunity here,” said Rodrigo Abeja, a Pueblo Sin Fronteras organizer in Mexico who said he’s faced retaliation from both the U.S. and Mexican governments. “A difference between (the two countries) is that defenders of human rights here can actually lose their lives.”
That risk increases when the U.S. government draws attention to activists or others by accusing them of crimes or asking the Mexican government to collect information on them, Mensing said.
“The U.S. kind of expressing displeasure with a particular person is like the green light” for Mexican officials to act against them, Mensing said.
HIGH PROFILE, HIGH SCRUTINY
When the unusual CBP monitoring began, the asylum caravans had already attracted unwelcome scrutiny in Mexico.
For more than a decade, immigrants traversing Mexico have organized small, informal caravans as a way to raise awareness and for safety in numbers against extortion and kidnapping. In doing so, organizers interrupted the flow of money that usually went to smuggling organizations — the violent gangs that had come to control migration routes and charge migrants money for access and subject them to theft and extortion. Corrupt government officials also claimed a piece of the action and looked the other way.
But in 2018, as the caravans became larger and better organized and the administration of former President Donald Trump ratcheted up inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric, official scrutiny increased.
U.S. law allows people to make asylum claims, whether they have presented themselves at a port of entry or entered the U.S. illegally. As the number of Central Americans claiming asylum at the border increased over the last decade, DHS has looked for ways to deter people who the agency says are unlikely to be granted asylum.
Reports from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) — the official DHS watchdog — make clear the extent to which federal immigrational officials had become fixated on migrant caravans: In October 2018, CBP set up an emergency operations center in San Diego. Agents there placed so-called “lookouts” on 51 U.S. citizens who the agents believed were connected to the caravans by entering their names into a database. CBP’s Tactical Terrorism Response Team ended up questioning 39 people, some of them multiple times, as they reentered the U.S. The emergency operations center also maintained regular communication with immigration and intelligence officials in Mexico. “Target profiles” of people the agents believed were associated with the caravan were drawn up.
Some of the profiles were of organizers with Pueblo Sin Fronteras. Journalists covering the situation in Tijuana and lawyers helping would-be asylum seekers were also targeted. At times, CBP officials involved in the response shared information in WhatsApp groups, “some of which contained up to hundreds of U.S. and Mexican officials,” according to the OIG reports. CBP’s fixation on the caravans only increased after a November 2018 incident in which immigrants protesting the U.S.’s refusal to hear their asylum claims tried to rush the border and were turned away with tear gas. Afterward, CBP officers asked Mexican officials to collect information about reporters on the scene, who they claimed tried to help immigrants enter the U.S.
The reports paint a picture of haphazard decision-making by CBP officials that often violated agency policy, including sharing sensitive information with Mexican officials without permission from supervisors and manufacturing reasons for Mexico to deny entry to U.S. citizens. The OIG investigators found that agents were often unaware of the policies when they placed “lookouts” on U.S. citizens who were not suspected of committing crimes.
Other people ended up on the “lookouts” list simply because they were connected via social media “to a person whom CBP suspected of planning violence at the border.” And the internal review found that journalists who were ostensibly put on the list because they had information about illegal border crossings were detained but never questioned about those incidents.
For people working with and chronicling the caravan, the greatest risk came from the casual way CBP officials shared information with Mexico, often making unsubstantiated claims about people they believed to be associated with the caravan.
The OIG found that four CBP officials on eight different occasions “improperly” shared with Mexican counterparts the personal identification of people they associated with the caravans, often via unencrypted messages, and in violation of various CBP policies. Some CBP officials later deleted their communications and claimed they hadn’t shared information with Mexican officials.
In January 2019, a CBP official gave a PowerPoint presentation to Mexican officials titled “Migrant Caravan FY-2019 Suspected Organizers, Coordinators, Instigators and Media,” the same presentation KNSD-TV in San Diego would report on two months later.
According to the federal internal investigation, the presentation included “pictures, names, dates of birth, countries of citizenship, and other information about dozens of Americans and foreign nationals.” The agent sent a copy of the PowerPoint to a Mexican immigration official but deleted the WhatsApp messages before investigators could review them. According to the OIG report, the CBP official told his Mexican counterparts that the people on the list “were inciting violence and instigating mass incursions.” He later told investigators “that being on the PowerPoint ‘doesn’t mean you’re a bad or a good guy … [it just] means you were ‘associated’ with the migrant caravan.”
After initially denying he’d given the PowerPoint presentation or sent it to the Mexican intelligence official, the CBP officer finally admitted to investigators what he had done. CBP didn’t respond to palabra’s questions about whether anyone involved in sharing information with Mexico and deleting communications had been disciplined for violating agency policy.
Screen grabs of the presentation, attached to a court filing by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), show photos of journalists, lawyers, organizers, and people CBP identified as “instigators.” According to the presentation, CBP had put red Xs over the faces of people on the list who had been deported by Mexico and at least one person had been arrested by the Mexican government. Mexico later refused to grant visas to some of the journalists on the list.
A month earlier, a CBP official emailed “an unencrypted list of 24 migrant caravan ‘organizers/instigators’ … to a Mexican immigration official” and asked that they be denied entry to Mexico. Later, when investigators interviewed the official, who like others in the report was not named, he initially denied sending the email. When shown it, “he could not recall what the concerns were or why they prompted him to ask Mexico to deny entry to those individuals.”
“ … Our interviews with (the official) and the two other CBP officials indicate the first reason he provided to Mexico to support the request — that the 24 individuals probably did not have proper travel documents — was not genuine,” the inspectors wrote.
A supervisor at the emergency operations center later told the inspectors that the request was improper and should have been routed through the U.S. State Department, but emails the investigators found show that the supervisor knew about the request to Mexico.
In early 2019, another CBP official sent information about six U.S. citizens to the Yahoo email address of a Mexican intelligence official. The OIG investigators found inconsistencies in his statements as well: The official “told us he sent the email so the Mexican official could provide information to prevent ‘a very serious’ threat from occurring,” they wrote. But, according to the report, the email actually mentioned a past event and the official deleted WhatsApp messages about the request.
The OIG also raised concerns because they found the third official had sent “pictures of several caravan associates’ drivers’ licenses” from his personal Gmail account to his official CBP account. He offered a convoluted explanation, claiming that the Mexican intelligence official had given him the information on a USB drive, which CBP policy said he could not use on a work computer. So he downloaded the images to his personal computer, then emailed them to his official account. “Even assuming that this is true, (the official) could not explain why the Mexican official provided these photographs to him in the first place,” the inspector general wrote. “Regardless of the reasons, these emails violated DHS policy.” Just days earlier, according to an ACLU lawsuit, police officers in Mexico had photographed the IDs of U.S.-based journalists covering the caravan in Tijuana.
The ACLU is representing five targeted journalists in a lawsuit, saying their livelihoods have been affected by the surveillance and Mexico’s refusal to allow them entry, apparently at the behest of the U.S. A New York pastor who appeared on the CBP PowerPoint has also filed a lawsuit, saying she’s been subjected to surveillance by the U.S. government that has negatively impacted her ministry.
On one occasion, the CBP officer who violated the email policy and denied sending information about U.S. citizens to the Mexican intelligence official also sent an email to colleagues celebrating that Mexico “started to reject the entry of people assisting the caravan in Tijuana…. Now, we just need to figure out how to [make] them do the same with the Hondos and Guats…”
“CBP may restrict Americans’ rights to travel internationally in certain circumstances, but CBP could not articulate any genuine basis for sending this request and in fact later admitted that the reasons provided to Mexico were not true,” the inspector general wrote of CBP’s request to have 14 U.S. citizens denied entry into Mexico.
“The U.S. government shouldn’t be doing this, it shouldn’t be asking another country to deny U.S. journalists entry (because) the things those journalists are reporting on are embarrassing to the U.S. government,” said Esha Bhandari, deputy director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “I think what we’ve seen is a pattern of both using journalists … as unwilling informants, both forcing them to give information that they’d seen on the ground in Mexico, but also giving information to the Mexican government. Clearly several of them had alerts placed on them by the Mexican government. That could have been to deny entry because of some retaliatory purpose.”
In another report this year about CBP’s decision to revoke trusted traveler status for three people agents thought to be connected to the caravans, the Office of the Inspector General issued a harsh assessment of how agents were reaching these decisions. While the report states that investigators couldn’t find evidence the revocations were retaliatory, the watchdog found that CBP wasn’t diligent in its intelligence gathering.
The information agents relied on is redacted in the report. But the OIG indicated that publicly available information suggested “these connections might relate to advocacy work and not nefarious activities.”
“You have lawyers and journalists who have very legitimate reasons … for going down there to provide constitutionally protected activity, providing legal counsel and reporting,” John Sandweg, the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Obama administration, said in an interview with palabra. “There probably was additional information available to (CBP) that should have alleviated their concerns. There was a lack of standards in place over at CBP about when to put lookouts in place.”
Abeja, the Pueblo Sin Fronteras organizer in Mexico, offered a more direct criticism. Abeja said that the U.S. canceled his visa in 2018 and that he’s since been repeatedly questioned by Mexican immigration authorities. He said the activity uncovered in the OIG reports is part of “a binational strategy to harass, disturb, and persecute human rights defenders.”
Later in 2019, the ACLU documented an incident along the Texas-Mexico border in which CBP arranged to have a University of Texas professor and two students detained by Mexican officials. The researchers had accompanied a minor to an international crossing so that the child could request asylum, according to a complaint the ACLU filed with CBP. Customs agents stopped them in the middle of the bridge — the international border is in the middle of the Rio Grande, but border inspection stations are usually on the river’s edge — and wouldn’t let them enter the U.S. According to the complaint, after one agent made a call on his radio, Mexican police showed up and held the professor and her students for an hour. After intervention by the ACLU and a member of the United States Congress, Mexican officials returned the three individuals to the crossing and they were allowed to enter.
Mexico has a long and problematic track record of human rights abuses and leaks to organized crime networks. Federal and local officials have been caught spying on journalists, activists, and political rivals. Earlier this year, a businessman in Tijuana admitted to selling spy equipment to governments in Mexico. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported one of his company’s clients was the state government of Baja California, where Tijuana is located.
Mexico has been named one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. This year, journalists are being killed in Mexico at a rate of one every 15 days, said Leopoldo Maldonado, the regional director of Article 19, an international press freedom group. And while journalists are often targeted by organized crime, Article 19 in 2014 found that nearly half of the aggressions reported against journalists in Mexico, which includes threats, abitrary arrests, and assassinations, were by public officials. Maldonado said espionage, illegal monitoring, and intimidation sometimes accompany threats and attacks. By asking Mexico to monitor journalists, CBP potentially put them at risk, he said.
“To encourage espionage and the collection of information and monitoring of activists and journalists opens the door for a wide range of criminal acts and violations of human rights,” Maldonado said.
He noted that the State Department, to some degree, recognizes Mexico’s shortcomings when it comes to human rights and provides funding to strengthen civil society and promote an independent press. CBP’s actions “seriously endangered groups that the U.S. government itself has recognized as at risk,” Maldonado added.
Mexico’s government also has a long history of leaks to organized crime leaders. In 2011, after a special organized crime unit within the Mexican government leaked information from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Zetas drug cartel retaliated against a group of informants with a multi-day rampage in Piedras Negras and surrounding towns that left hundreds dead. Earlier this year, a former commander from that unit was sentenced to 10 years in prison for taking bribes from drug traffickers. At the local level, particularly on the border, government and organized crime are often so deeply intertwined to the point of being indistinguishable.
Records obtained by advocates and immigration lawyers through a Freedom of Information Act request show CBP in 2019 coordinated closely with Mexican officials in an effort to disperse a caravan in Piedras Negras. Police in that border city have been involved in disappearances and extrajudicial executions.
CBP didn’t respond to questions submitted by palabra. In a letter responding to the inspector general, officials said they would provide new training and guidance on placing alerts on travelers and sharing information with foreign governments. In court, lawyers for the government have said that the journalists who were targeted for questioning and eventually denied entry into Mexico were merely being subject to “a process to which any international traveler may be referred at any border at any time.” However, some of the government’s arguments, including that Mexican authorities were responsible for the alerts placed on the journalists’ passports, appear to be contradicted by the OIG report.
Mensing said that by suggesting to Mexican officials that activists, journalists, and lawyers were criminals, CBP put targets on their backs. He noted that organizers from Mexico and Central America faced even worse retaliation from the Mexican government than the U.S. citizens who were targeted by CBP. Some were arrested, beaten, and deported, he said.
“The U.S. weaponizes that,” Mensing said. “There’s this unspoken understanding; you tell the Mexican government about something and law enforcement just doesn’t work the same way. I think the DHS agents know that there’s a risk, and they just don’t talk about it. It’s a tool that they use.”
As recently as last year, government officials and members of civil society in Baja California have blamed Pueblo Sin Fronteras for a large refugee camp that cropped up in Tijuana, and accused the organization of inciting violence. Mensing said the rhetoric, which echoes claims made by U.S. officials, stemmed from the portrait the U.S. painted of his organization.
MASSIVE DATA FILES
Underlying all of this is CBP’s and DHS’s massive data collection program. The agency collects biometric data and license plate information from international crossings and interior Border Patrol checkpoints, files from personal electronic devices, social media, and cell phone location data purchased from private companies, among other information. It also has access to the databases of other federal agencies.
“The bigger picture problem with this is CBP and federal authorities treating the border as an opportunity for dragnet surveillance, forcing people to become informants,” said Bhandari, the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project deputy director.
Sandweg, the former ICE official, said he believes the CBP’s ability to collect information at the border and question travelers is “critically important” to national security. But now as a private attorney, he represents clients who have been denied visas or had them revoked and must go through an expensive and opaque process trying to figure out why. Sandweg said that when journalists and lawyers are targeted, it draws attention from agency watchdogs and members of Congress. But, he pointed out, “This kind of thing happens every day.”
There’s a lack of accountability when it comes to placing alerts on travelers and ensuring they’re removed when no longer necessary, Sandweg said, adding a warning for CBP.
“One of the things CBP needs to be careful about is … they have great discretion to conduct warrantless searches at the border,” Sandweg said. “Stories like this can undermine that authority. The courts start believing this isn’t a tool that’s reserved only for those who are high risk travelers or have a criminal history … you start seeing it’s lawyers and journalists who are only doing their jobs who are getting secondaried 12 times, that’s the kind of thing that gets courts to start eroding the authorities CBP relies on today to stop terrorist from entering the country.”