Four Border Patrol agents involved in an aggressive confrontation with Haitian migrants last year near Del Rio, Texas, were referred for discipline and are on administrative duties after a months-long investigation, senior US Customs and Border Protection officials said Friday.
The incident garnered national attention last September when photos surfaced of agents on horseback swinging long reins near migrants who had crossed the border where around 15,000 migrants had amassed under the Del Rio international bridge.
In a 511-page report released Friday from CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, officials said they found no evidence that Border Patrol agents struck migrants with their reins but said there was an “unnecessary use of force.”
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in September harshly condemned the actions that was caught on video. One video captured an officer’s horse nearly charging into one of the migrants, who fell back and into the water. That video showed the officers at the water’s edge, twirling the long reins as migrants crossed the border at the US shoreline of the Rio Grande.
“It’s horrible what you saw,” Biden said at the time, adding, “I promise you: those people will pay… There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences.”
Friday, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus acknowledged “failures to make good decisions” at several levels of the agency.
“The report showed there were failures to make good decisions at multiple levels of the organization,” Magnus said in a statement. “Failures to maintain command and control over Horse Patrol Units, lack of appropriate policies and training, and the overall chaotic nature of the situation at Del Rio at the time contributed to the incident. Several agents engaged in unprofessional or dangerous behavior, including one instance in which an agent used denigrating and offensive language.”
One Border Patrol agent “acted in an unprofessional manner by yelling comments related to a migrant’s national origin and sex, stating in part, ‘Hey! You use your women? This is why your country’s shit, you use your women for this,’” the report states.
The same officer also “acted in an unsafe manner by pursuing the individual he had yelled at along the river’s edge forcing his horse to narrowly maneuver around a small child on a slanted concrete ramp.”
The case was also referred to the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, as standard procedure, officials said Friday. The US Attorney’s Office has declined to prosecute.
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stressed the misconduct of agents doesn’t reflect on all of the US Border Patrol.
“The misconduct of several individuals does not reflect the brave and distinguished service of the Agents of the United States Border Patrol,” he said. “The organizational failures of policy, procedures, and training that the investigation identified were a disservice to the Agents and the public they serve.”
Overflow of migrants at Del Rio
Since the beginning of the Biden administration, officials have grappled with a growing number of arrivals at the US-Mexico border amid mass migration in the Western hemisphere. Within a span of days last September, the administration was caught by surprise, when thousands of migrants – primarily Haitians – amassed in Del Rio.
CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility – which is charged with investigating alleged misconduct of CBP employees – released the results of its investigation Friday. The office reviewed videos and photographs and interviewed witnesses, employees and CBP leadership, according to senior agency officials.
Magnus told reporters Friday that investigators also tried to reach the migrants involved in the incident, which proved difficult, but discussions are ongoing with attorneys who are representing the migrants in a lawsuit.
The report focuses on September 19 when, over the course of about 30 minutes, Border Patrol agents on horseback and troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety tried to disperse a large group of migrants gathered by the Rio Grande.
During that time, there was about a 15-minute period when authorities tried to stop the flow of migrants, resulting in the confrontation between agents and migrants, senior CBP officials told reporters Friday. Senior officials said an agent acted in an unprofessional manner by yelling comments and using profanity.
A horse patrol unit from another Border Patrol station in Texas had been deployed a day prior to assist, according to officials who said those agents had not worked together on horseback for some time. The investigation found that the horse patrol unit on scene acted at the request of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which, findings show, was in conflict with the Border Patrol’s objectives. The agents received approval from their supervisor, who did not get additional guidance from leadership.
The officials recognized Friday the unprecedented circumstances facing Border Patrol last September, noting that arrival of thousands of people in a remote area of the Texas-Mexico border posed operational challenges.
Migrants, as a result, were permitted to cross back and forth to Mexico to obtain water and food as agents tried to process people. Some of those migrants crossing the river for necessities were involved in the September 19 incident.
Although migrants were “well within the territorial boundary of the United States,” the report states, mounted agents “used force or the threat of force to drive migrants back into the Rio Grande River” despite the fact they were not threatening the agents. “Instead, they were attempting to enter or return to the United States, some carrying tickets previously issued by the USBP and many with food for their families.”
The investigation found no evidence that any migrant was eventually denied entry into the United States or struck with horse reins.
“There is no evidence that BPAs involved in this incident struck, intentionally or otherwise, any migrant with their reins,” CBP found. “The horses involved in this incident were equipped with split reins which can be twirled by the rider to guide the horse’s movements. One BPA involved in this incident also reported twirling these split reins as a distancing tactic.”
Magnus, who lamented how long the investigation took to complete, said CBP is already revising policies regarding use of horse patrol units and strengthening command and control during large-scale operations.
CBP had also referred the incident to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, which declined to investigate last year.
This story has been updated with additional details.