This is the first of a series of articles to educate and expose the secret and illegal coverup teams used by the US Border Patrol. This first piece explains how the Critical Incident Teams were developed, how they spread from sector to sector, how they systematically covered up agent use of force violations, how they used the teams to mislead and lie to court officials, judges and even Congress.
In 1987, San Diego Sector Border Patrol Chief Dale Cozart created a new sector unit within the existing Sector Intelligence Unit called the Critical Incident Investigative Team or CIIT, pronounced "sit" among San Diego agents. What was described by the Chief as just another intelligence duty later became the largest and most secret coverup unit ever discovered among law enforcement agencies in the US. This is the story of how it was done and how the agency continues to use them to coverup use of force incidents and crimes committed by agents both on duty and off duty.
Prior to 1987, intelligence in the US Border Patrol consisted of a few hours per shift of tallying up when, where and how migrants who had been apprehended entering the country illegally on the prior shift. This tally also included basic demographics such as age, country of citizenship and sex. Chief Cozart's sudden development of new intel duties for Border Patrol agents was met with anger by the National Border Patrol Council (aka the Union) and they filed a grievance (Case no. 8-CA-80157) with the US Federal Labor Relations Authority. Chief Cozart had failed to notify the Union of the new duties, nor did he allow them to bargain for the agents assigned to this new unit. While the labor board sided with the Union against Chief Cozart, it did not disband the unit.
During the next 35 years, these "intel" units would spread to all 20 Border Patrol sectors and were used to cover up use of force crimes and accidents for agents and the agency. Since its inception, Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams have covered up hundreds of shootings, beatings, assaults and pursuit crashes where agents have intentionally made cars crash causing severe injuries and death. The work of these teams has prevented all but two of these agents from being held accountable by the justice system. Unfortunately, in 2020, former President Donald Trump pardoned the two agents who shot a man in the buttocks as he ran away from them. The agents suspected the man of smuggling drugs, and participated in the coverup of their crimes. One of the pardoned agents, Agent Ignacio Ramos, knew how to clean up the crime scene as he had been a team member of the Critical Incident Team in El Paso. El Paso's coverup team was called the El Paso Sector Evidence Team (SET).
Each sector's Critical Incident Team was individually designed. This is why they have different names. Known names of these teams include Critical Investigative Incident Team (CIIT), Sector Evidence Team (SET), Critical Incident Team (CIT), Evidence Collection Team (ECT), Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) and Cross Border Investigative Unit (CBIU). Additionally, when these units were unavailable, chiefs of sectors used the Sector Intelligence Units and Sector Smuggling Interdiction Groups (SIG) to respond to use of force scenes and provide the same coverup schemes.
For consistency, this series will use the term Critical Incident Team or BPCIT for all Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams so as to not confuse readers.
In the beginning:
What caused San Diego Sector to design and create the first Border Patrol Critical Incident Team is somewhat of an unknown. At the time, the border in San Diego's Imperial Beach was experiencing many robberies of migrants in the canyons just north of the fence. In 1984, the Border Crime Prevention Unit (BCPU) was created by then Chief Alan Eliason to address the crime and violence. Border Patrol agents assigned to the unit worked with members of the San Diego Police Department to find and arrest those bandits harming migrants in the canyons.
The BCPU only lasted from 1984 to 1988 because of the level of violence experienced by agents and the police department. It was not uncommon for them to encounter small groups of bandits working the canyons together who robbed and abused the migrants. Often times, bandits were armed with pistols and sawed off shotguns. In 1986, the BCPU was confronted several times with armed bandits who intentionally set up ambushes for the officers and agents. In the four years that the unit operated, "members of the BCPU were involved in a total of 35 shooting incidents that resulted in three members being shot and wounded themselves." (Pgs: 126-134)
It is my hypothesis that this led to the development of the Critical Incident Teams. With 35 shootings in just four years, San Diego Sector Border Patrol management was looking at dozens of possible criminal and civil cases being filed against agents and the agency. Not only were his agents' careers at stake, but the reputation of the Border Patrol was being tarnished as well. Border rights groups began protesting the violence and shootings committed by the task force unit, and the pressure was on to do something.
Legal authorities for Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams.
In order for a federal law enforcement agency to create a new authority, they must first have that authority given to them by Congress. There is no legal authority granted by Congress for Border Patrol to act as evidence collection teams or to investigate their own use of force incidents.
Legal authority for Border Patrol agents can be found under 6 USC 211. Although this authority allows agents to enforce federal immigration, customs and narcotics laws and to conduct preliminary investigations in these areas, these investigations are limited. The agency’s authorities are listed under the Office of Professional Management 1896 series designation instead of the 1811 series of authorities that agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) holds. This is what limits extensive investigations by Border Patrol agents.
Additionally, Congress limited the agency's authorities through 8 USC 1357 (a)(5)(B). The law further states that Border Patrol arrest powers outside of their authorities are legal only if agents are performing their immigration duties at the time. These limited powers legally prevent Border Patrol from investigating their own use of force incidents. This statement is backed up by testimony from former Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher in the federal court case of Socorro Quintero Perez et al v. Dorian Diaz & US (#13cv1417-WQH-BGS):
“In order to avoid any conflicts of interest, (Border Patrol) was not allowed to investigate incidents of lethal force relating to its own agents while I was serving as Chief. I did not receive or review the investigations by the Office of Inspector General, the FBI, or any other outside law enforcement agencies who investigated instances of lethal force because I did not have investigative authority within (Border Patrol.) For any incident involving use of force, (Border Patrol) would compile a document entitled Critical Incident Investigative Team Report (or CIT Report) but those reports contained no findings made by CBP (or Border Patrol) or actions taken by the CIT team-..." (March 31, 2017)
Federal agencies with authority to investigate Border Patrol include the Department of Homeland Security-Office of Inspector General (DHS-OIG), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), or Customs and Border Protection-Office of Professional Responsibility (CBP-OPR). Cases prior to the development of the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection in 2003 were handled by local and state investigative agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Inspector General. Local and state law enforcement agencies also may investigate if crimes occurred within their area of responsibility.
Selection of training of Border Patrol Critical Incident Team members.
Agents of these secret and illegal teams were personally selected by the chief of each sector. In general, each sector team had one or more Critical Incident Teams consisting of a handful of temporarily detailed agents, a lead or senior agent and a supervisory agent. Above the supervisory agent, command consisted of a selected assistant chief, deputy chief and the chief of the sector. Temporary details to the unit required agents to be trained in identification, collection and preservation of evidence.
My research conducted into these teams has revealed that few agents contributed more to the development of these illegal teams than former Assistant Chief Patrol Agent John Buscaglia. In October of 2021, I discovered his public LinkedIn account which documented how the teams spread from San Diego to other sectors. As the following screenshots show, Buscaglia was instrumental in creating new Critical Incident Teams for the chiefs of other sectors and was responsible for creating the academy training used to teach agents evidence identification, collection and analysis.
It is not known what this training involved or what resources Buscaglia used to train Border Patrol agents in evidence collection, nor is it known if this training used forensic standards or best practices created by actual forensics experts. Whatever they used to create these so called experts in forensics and crimes scene investigations has never been revealed simply because the teams were illegal and the agency refuses to comment. Additionally, these teams are so secret even within the Border Patrol, I know and have interviewed many agents with 20 years in service who had not heard of them simply because they had not been involved in use of force incidents. What can be said is that every agent in a management position was and is aware of these teams.
Critical Incident Teams after Customs and Border Protection is developed.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers, the US government created the Department of Homeland Security(DHS). Within the department, Border Patrol was reorganized underneath Customs and Border Protection (CBP) but remained a separate agency. When exactly CBP became aware of the illegal coverup teams is not known yet, but through my research of purchasing and procurement documents, it is clear to me that CBP knew the BPCITs were illegal. I base this off of how CBP purchases tended to hide training for the BPCITs under their Laboratory and Science Services division (LSS).
These records are listed as CBP-LSS procurements. It is only once you open the files and read the orders that you see that the training for crash scene investigations, funds for latent fingerprint fuming chamber systems, 3D crime scene scanners, evidence processing software and other forensic based purchases were actually for the BPCITs. So far, I have discovered procurements for the BPCITs through CBP dating back to 2006. It appears that CBP moved BPCIT training from the isolated Border Patrol academy to actual forensics accredited studies even though Border Patrol still did not and does not have the authority to conduct these investigations.
Mentions of Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams in Border Patrol documents and media.
It is rare to see any mention of BPCITs in the media, but occasionally, I have found articles where a press information officer accidentally mentioned their existence. As this article demonstrated, these teams confused even their own union attorneys.
More rare is to find government documents discussing the teams and their work. Prior to 2014, the Border Patrol's Use of Force Handbook given to agents was designated as law enforcement sensitive. It was only after the brutal killing of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas in 2010 by San Diego Border Patrol agents and CBP officers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry that the agency was forced to give the secret existing 2010 Use of Force Handbook over to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) for evaluation. PERF is considered to be an independent group of law enforcement experts used to evaluate law enforcement agencies around the country. In their February 2013 report, PERF experts singled out the mention of the secret teams in the handbook. They noted that the handbook required agents to notify the BPCITs first before contacting investigative teams outside of the agency. This was their recommendation:
Instead of explaining what the teams were for, Border Patrol management had any mention of the BPCITs removed in their 2014 Use of Force Handbook thereby continuing the secrecy of the coverup teams.
Also in 2014, then Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Gil Kerlikowski announced the creation of the National Use of Force Review Board (NUFRB). This review board intended to assure the public and Congress that the questions that arose from the failed investigations into the Hernandez-Rojas case and many other would then be reviewed by:
"senior leaders from CBP, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement assigned to review use of force incidents resulting in serious physical injury or death, or any incident involving the discharge of a firearm in a non-training setting. The board reviews cases that have completed the investigative process and have been declined for prosecution by either a U.S. Attorney, state or local prosecutor. The board considers the following: Whether use of force is within policy; Whether there is possible misconduct associated with the application of force; and Whether lessons can be learned from the incident in terms of techniques, tactics, policy, training and equipment. Following senior agency leadership concurrence or non-concurrence with the NUFRB’s conclusions, the Commissioner makes the final determination regarding whether the use of force was within policy."
However, Commissioner Kerlikowski also sent an internal directive to Border Patrol stating what was actually happening with the NUFRB. Although it had the appearance of neutrality, it was only to consider the evidence produced by the BPCITs and use those teams to further their so called independent reviews. Congress and the public did not know about Directive 4510-038 in 2014 as it was only recently discovered by the Southern Border Communities Coalition through the Freedom of Information Act. This directive clearly stated that when the NUFRB and their Use of Force Investigative Team was created, the teams were never impartial or independent but corrupted from their inception.
Other than court filings and transcripts that will be discussed in detail in future articles in this series, the only other reference I have been able to find in government forward facing documents in regard to BPCITs is from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division when they refused to bring charges against an agent for killing of Ramses Barron-Torres in 2013. Below is the report and explanation that the Tucson BPCIT was directed by the FBI to investigate and collect evidence even though it was illegal. The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division went further in the footnote shown below to explain the purpose of the BPCITs. This footnote is not only misleading, it is simply not true and in fact gave the family and their attorneys the impression that the BPCITs were legal.
Outing of Critical Incident Teams:
In 2019 when the Southern Border Communities Coalition asked me to review the Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas case, I told them everything I knew about the units. I knew they covered up crimes and had even witnessed it on one occasion as an agent. In that shooting incident, no one was injured fortunately. The Hernandez-Rojas case was well documented by the San Diego Police Department and included all the movements of the San Diego BPCIT. Family attorneys knew the team was a coverup unit, but they did not understand how it worked or how the agency had gotten away with it. There was even doubt as to whether the teams still existed. A few calls to agents still serving in Texas, Arizona and San Diego assured me they did. I then spent the next years and thousands of my own dollars to find and collect court records about the unit and turned all my research over to the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
In October of 2021, Southern Border Communities Coalition sent their complaint to Congress. In January 2022, Congressional members of several congressional committees demanded investigations into the coverup teams. On May 2022, then CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus ordered the elimination of the BPCITs. In August 2022, Commissioner Magnus issued a memorandum stating that Border Patrol agents assigned to the BPCITs would be retained by simply moving them from Border Patrol to CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility. This meant that the same agents responsible for 35 years of secret coverups and obstruction of justice were now legalized under CBP. This memorandum also stated that the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division would investigate the coverup teams prior to them being legalized. This is the same Civil Rights Division that used the illegal BPCITs' investigations to deny cases for 35 years.
Currently, the former illegal and secret teams have been rolled into CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility and are being used as evidence collection teams for current cases. No agent has ever been held accountable for these teams or their actions.
Next in the Critical Incident Team series: what happens when a US citizen dies in Border Patrol custody and no legal investigation is done? I will dive into the case of Steven Keith who died in Border Patrol's Campo, California station without any official investigation.