Bowie High School, the high school adjacent to the border that serves low-income El Paso students was targeted by Border Patrol agents in 1992. It had been going on for years, but few complained out of fear. The Border Patrol has been in the news recently as its tactical units have been used to quell protest violence across the country. In particular, the BORTAC team, based in El Paso has been criticized for its tactics. Former Border Patrol agents have accused the Border Patrol of having a culture of racism. Stories of Border Patrol abuse is a frequent discussion in border town homes and in the news media.

In 1992, the Border Patrol was accused of systematically abusing Bowie students and staff. “Reports of a gun being pulled on a football coach, of school property damaged by speeding vehicles and students harassed and even physically abused,” by Border Patrol agents made headlines. Five Bowie students, a school coach and a secretary, all U.S. citizens, had had enough and filed a federal lawsuit against the border agents. The suit demanded that Border Patrol agents stop “illegally stopping and detaining Bowie students, teachers and staff.” According to the suit, Bowie was being singled out by the Border Patrol because the student population was almost 100 percent Hispanic. [Frank Trejo, “high school is alleging Border Patrol harassment,” The Dallas Morning News, December 22, 1992]

In an affidavit filed in federal court, Benjamin Murillo, the then-Bowie High School varsity football team coach said that on November 9, 1991, a Border Patrol agent pulled him over and two Bowie junior varsity team members and order him out of the car at gun point. Murillo wasn’t released until other Bowie coaches vouched for his American citizenship.

Soon after the Bowie coach came out, other instances of Border Patrol abuse at Bowie High School were also reported. The then-Border Patrol chief, Dale Musegades told the Bowie principal, Paul Strelzin, that the Border Patrol “is a federal agency” and that its agents “could do what” they wanted at Bowie. Strelzin told the El Paso Times that one time he caught two border patrol agents using binoculars “ogling” the Bowie flag girls. [David Crowder, “Bowie High – the Border Patrol meets The Strelz,” El Paso Times, August 23, 1992]

Seven File Federal Suit Against Border Patrol

Seven Bowie students and staff filed a class-action lawsuit against the Border Patrol for systematic harassment.

In federal court, Border Patrol chief Dale Musegades, told the judge that the “Border Patrol’s getting flooded with reports of allegedly abusive agents at Bowie High School, but the complaints only stated recently.” Benjamin Murillo, the Bowie coach held at gun point, told the judge that things changed in the last two years: “we’ve become the enemy” to the Border Patrol. One student testified that an agent told him “you better stop before we beat you up so bad you won’t be able to move,” while the student was being interrogated for 45 minutes about his citizenship. When the Border Patrol chief, Musegades was confronted by Bowie High School students after the court hearing he told the students “all you have to do is answer their questions.” [Joe Olvera, “Chief: Bowie complaints are recent,” El Paso Times, October 24, 1992]

The judge in the federal case said in his preliminary injunction that “the overriding reason (the plaintiffs) have been, or will be in the future, stopped, questioned, detained, frisked, arrested, searched, and physically and verbally abused by (Border Patrol agents) is of their mere appearance of being from Hispanic descent.” [Benjamin Keck, “Judge warns Border Patrol near Bowie,” El Paso Times, December 4, 1992]

Border Patrol Agrees To Stop Harassing Bowie Students and Staff

On February 17, 1994, the Border Patrol settled the Bowie federal lawsuit by agreeing to “not to detain people just because they look Hispanic.” Under the settlement agreement, the El Paso sector of the Border Patrol agreed to “maintain a policy of retraining from violation of Fourth Amendment rights.” The settlement agreement also prohibited Border Patrol agents from detaining or questioning individuals’ right to be in the United States, “unless the agent has a reasonable suspicion, based on specific articulable facts involving more than the mere appearance of the person being of Hispanic descent, that the individual is either illegally in the United States or is guilty of committing an offense against the immigration laws of the United States.” The Border Patrol also agreed to various other limits including taking allegations of abuse seriously. [Legal Notice published in the El Paso Times on February 11, 1994]

El Paso’s Racist Leadership and Fake News

Although the Border Patrol has a history of racism among its ranks, its operations in El Paso were tolerated for years by an El Paso leadership of White leaders who allowed it to happen. Then KTSM station manager, Richard Pearson, articulates this attitude the best. In 1993, the KTSM radio program PM El Paso held a radio talk-in show with then-Border Patrol Deputy Chief, Steve Williams. The topic of the show were the Bowie-Border Patrol controversies. The moderator of the show was Richard Pearson.

Pearson held a “secret word” contest for a free dinner. The “secret word” was “la migra”. When the Border Patrol deputy chief was asked by a caller why it has failed to remedy abuse complaints, Pearson chimed in arguing that the complaints were “created strictly by the media,” alluding that there were no valid complaints. Pearson said on the radio show that “people came out of the words,” because the El Paso Times “offered them a soapbox.” [Debbie Nathan, “Media should be watchdog of government, not its blind defender,” El Paso Times, May 23, 1993]

Debbie Nathan goes on to explain that while she worked at the El Paso Times in the “mid-1980s,” there was one city editor who advised the reporters to “disregard” complaints about Border Patrol abuse because it was “illegal aliens” complaining and they were “unreliable”. [Debbie Nathan, “Media should be watchdog of government, not its blind defender,” El Paso Times, May 23, 1993]

El Paso, today, is home to the Border Patrol BORTAC tactical unit that is being used across the country using unmarked vehicles and men in uniforms without federal insignia to arbitrarily detain U.S. citizens.

The Border Patrol continues to operate with impunity across the nation.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...