Customs and Border Protection agents stationed in Central America detained and removed hundreds of Honduran migrants, acting as law enforcement on foreign soil, according to a new Senate report.
The officers were in Guatemala – funded by the State Department – to train their local counterparts and provide “mentoring, advising, and capacity-building.” Instead, they took charge on the ground and returned migrants themselves.
In January, they helped Guatemalan police round up Hondurans traveling on foot in a caravan, shuttled them into unmarked vehicles (also funded by the U.S.) and sent them back to the Honduran border, according to a new report from Democratic members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee called “DHS Run Amok?”
The report exposes the reach of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and includes the accusation that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials tried to cover up their misuse of government funds.
Agents not only put migrants at risk but also violated State Department rules by "operating in an entirely improvised manner,” according to the document. Rules for the use of these State Department funds prohibit agents abroad from carrying out direct actions.
"These are sovereign countries, and you’re not supposed to be carrying out arrests and kicking in doors in another country," said Adam Isacson, the director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank also known as WOLA.
United States agents acting like police on Latin American soil not only challenges the sovereignty of those countries, which have their own immigration and security agencies, but effectively moves the U.S / Mexico border, and the hardline immigration agenda of U.S. President Donald Trump, further south.
“Once you operate outside the norms and rules of your institution, then whose hands are we left in?” said Ursula Roldán, a migration researcher and the director of the Institute for Research on Global and Territorial Dynamics at the Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City. “There’s nobody watching over, or controlling, what you do.”
With presidential elections in the United States fast approaching for November, there is a stark split between members of Congress who oppose Trump’s controversial policies, which have brought refugee admissions to a historic low, and those who believe he has protected a vulnerable America.
CBP agents, who operate under the purview of DHS, have in recent years been sent to Central America to train local police and border officials on blocking irregular immigration, busting smugglers, using canines, detecting narcotics, and collecting biometric data.
Funding for these measures has come from broad aid packages for the region, and increased in reaction to a surge in undocumented immigration in recent years, made visible by migrant caravans traversing the region on their way north to the United States.
The agents appeared in news stories in January and Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf released a statement that month indicating that the assistance of “dozens of personnel on the ground” to local officials had “led to hundreds of individuals being stopped, apprehended and sent back to their home countries.”
But the agents came under fire because they took direct part in and paid for the actions, instead of directing their counterparts on the best strategy to use. The new Senate report states, for the first time, that those actions were an illegal use of government funds and that "DHS had lied to the State Department in order to cover up its role."
“It’s not only a matter of immigration policy, but of who has the political power in Central America,” said Yolanda González, a researcher at ERIC-SJ, a Jesuit-run human rights center in Honduras. “It’s even more obvious that Guatemala has turned into a more effective wall than Mexico.”
A spokesperson for the presidential office of Guatemala said that their government would be looking into the events mentioned in the Senate report.
The Trump administration has been pressuring Mexico and other nations in the region to stop migrants from reaching the U.S./Mexico border, and it has largely succeeded. Mexico deployed its National Guard last year under threats of U.S. tariffs, and used those troops to stop the remainder of January’s caravan. Guatemala used both police and military to stop another in October.
The caravans, which have each had a few thousand members since the major ones started in 2018, are not the main method of migration in the region - most migrants move in smaller groups or pay to be smuggled. But the caravans are among the most visible forms of human migration in the region, and have come under particular scrutiny and from Trump and his administration.
Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan, speaking today during the agency’s fiscal year update, said: “Our partnerships with the government of Mexico and our Northern Triangle partners has never been stronger.”
The action of driving migrants back to borders in Central America fits with other measures taken by the Trump administration. Since March it has expelled over 147,000 people almost immediately after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Previously, it had sent nearly 1,000 Salvadorans and Hondurans to Guatemala as part of a safe-third-country agreement that prevented them from seeking asylum in the U.S., but allowed them to request it in Guatemala.
As COVID lockdowns around the region start to wane, immigration promises to resume in earnest.
‘After the pandemic ceases, we will face the same influx of illegal migration that we confronted in 2019. In fact we’re anticipating it’s likely to be worse due to the deteriorating and worsening economic conditions, not only in Mexico but in the entire Western Hemisphere,” said Morgan.
CBP, he said, would need all the tools possible to protect the nation.
Cover: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents instruct Guatemalan border police on arrest techniques on August 28, 2019 in Guatemala. As a new part of the Trump administration's efforts to stem the flow of immigrants from Central America, the U.S. government deployed 43 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents to Guatemala as advisors. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.