Content warning: This article discusses rape culture and sexual assault.
I was once just like you. When I joined the Border Patrol in June of 1995, I was looking to serve my country and experience what it was to be a federal law enforcement officer. I went through the same academy as you did, took the same tests as you did, served on the same border as you do today. I hiked and patrolled the same dangerous terrain as you. I may be older than you, but I once knew what it was to be a woman in that green uniform just as you do now. I did it with honor much as you are trying to do today. After all, that’s the Border Patrol motto right? Honor First.
Some of you are just like me and discovered quickly in the academies that Honor First is not what the agency pretends it means. Others have had just glimpses of this hypocrisy, and have not yet experienced the full lie of the motto. Maybe you think it won’t happen to you. Maybe you think you are smarter than all the rest. Maybe you think that you are tougher than the others.
You are not.
The agency you joined has a robust and systemic rape culture. You may not even be able to see it yet. It took me decades to fully understand it. This was partly because the things that happened to me and to my fellow female agents were so crazy that we often did not even tell each other. We feared we would not be believed. We doubted ourselves. We thought that surely the entire agency could not be like this. If we could just get out to our duty stations or off of this damn detail, then it would all go away, then we would never have to see him again.
But that’s not how the Border Patrol works.
As you likely know by now, there is no such thing as female camaraderie in the Border Patrol. There are so few of us it is difficult to create that. It is also impossible when you are not sure if you can trust one another. Some of us act like the male agents and join in on the harassment just thankful it is not us being targeted in that moment. Some of us feel that since we had to go through it, that we somehow owe nothing to the women coming behind us. Some of us don’t want to talk about it because it makes us feel like less of an agent to admit that we could not protect ourselves. Some of us think it’s all just part of Border Patrol hazing that women have to go through.
When I was raped in the academy by a fellow classmate, I did not want to report it. I felt ashamed. How could I be an agent if I couldn’t even protect myself? If I couldn’t fight off a man twice my size? I just wanted it to go away, but it didn’t. The next class day, everyone knew what had happened. It was also evident from the busted lip and black eye I had.
None of my instructors said a word. My physical training instructors forced me to fight my rapist in defensive tactics the next day. They all knew and did this on purpose to teach me the Border Patrol lesson: that female agents either “play ball” or they will be forced to do so. This second assault was done at the hands of my instructors with all of my male classmates watching. Once in the locker room, my rapist threw his arms into the air and yelled, “That will teach that bitch to never say no to me!” He was rewarded with high fives. One male classmate came and told me what he said. Only one.
This forced me to report it. I went to my male physical training instructors and told them what happened. They discouraged me from filing criminal charges just as they had all the other women, saying that it would bring unwanted attention to the agency. They suggested I file an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint). I refused because I had seen this happen with other women. When they filed complaints, the agency offered to recycle them through another class and the women never returned. I did not want to stop my training. I could not. I needed that job just as you do. Besides, I had not done anything wrong.
Ultimately, I told them that I would of course fight anyone they told me to, but I would not fight my assaulter again. They agreed. Only then they started the rumors that I had filed a “fake allegation” because I was having trouble in physical training. That was the number one excuse they gave; “women file false allegations because they cannot hang with the training.” I’m sure you all are familiar with this lie. Not only did I not file, my allegation was not false and I did pass my physical training with better times than some of the men and I did it while standing next to the man who had beaten me and sexually assaulted me. Yet, this allegation that I somehow did not pass my physical tests stuck with me throughout my career.
I was ostracized at the academy by everyone but my one female classmate who made it through with me. Back in those days, they did not let any more than two of us graduate at a time. Karen (now deceased) had seen what happened to me. So, when my law instructor asked her out, she went out with him. In the beginning, I judged her just as the men did, as one of the women who slept her way through the academy. The guys called these female agents “fuckbags” back then. The truth was that Karen was just surviving.
Karen could have passed any of the tests the Border Patrol threw at us. She was an ass kicker to say the least. As she explained it, she had an abusive husband and three young boys. The Border Patrol was her last chance to make something of herself so that she could leave her marriage and provide for her sons. She did not want to go my route, and when my instructor asked her out, she saw that as a way to ensure her job and keep herself safe. Yes, she could have passed all those tests without screwing an instructor, but she knew (we all knew) she would have failed on her verbal Spanish exams had she not agreed to.
She chose to survive, to pay the toll, to “play ball.” She knew that our only choice as women in the Patrol was to give it willingly or have it taken violently. When she started dating my instructor, that marked her or branded her. It told the other male agents to leave her alone, that she was spoken for. That was how she and many other of us survived. It is still how many of you survive today.
When I got to my duty station in Campo California, agents at the academy had already called ahead and warned them that I was trouble. They again lied and said I filed a false allegation and that they should get rid of me on my Spanish exams. Back then we had to go through six months of post-academy training. I was the only woman at my station as the other two, who were married to agents, were on detail to sector. My first journeyman wrote on my evaluation: “Her facial expressions gives me the impression she does not like me. Not recommended for retention.”
A supervisor called me in to his office and asked me about it, and then he asked what had happened in the academy. I had to tell my story again. He admitted to me that agents had called the station to tell him the rumors. At the same time, a Black male classmate of mine was also having a hard time with his journeyman calling him the N-word. This supervisor offered to have us trained by two older agents who both promised to give us a fair shot at passing our exams. We had no choice.
Walter and I laid in the snow night after night for months waiting on drug smugglers to cross. We used to spoon each other to stay warm because we did not have enough money to buy all the cool gear yet. One night he whispered to me, “They are trying to kill us.” I quietly laughed even though I thought he might have been right. We survived though, and we graduated. I don’t know if Walter continued to have trouble with other agents. As for me, I had hoped that now that I was a real agent, that I would be accepted or at least left alone. I imagine that may be what you’re thinking too. You’re likely thinking, “Okay, I’ve proved myself. I’m an agent now.” You may have times where the harassment comes and goes, but it is always there and will often come back in the most unusual ways even many years down the line.
It didn’t take long for the rumors to start that I had slept with that supervisor to pass my trainee status. Never mind that I didn't. Never mind that Walter was not accused of doing the same thing. Never mind that I never dated an agent. Never mind that I passed the tests like they all did. Never mind that I was gay. Every promotion I received, every detail, every move I made was judged to be because I had supposedly slept with this one supervisor.
After a few years, I had grown accustomed to the rumors and learned to ignore them. I either stayed to myself or hung with a handful of other agents who knew the truth and did not agree or participate in the rape culture. Little by little, I started to notice that new trainees were not following my orders. They were refusing to back me up in the field and not answering the radio when I called for help.
Eventually I was told that two married agents who were Campo post academy instructors had been telling new trainees that I had filed false allegations in the academy to graduate and then slept with this supervisor to get my job. They told their classes that they were maintaining a file on me and that they should help them by reporting any problems with me. I was sick and tired of this juvenile nonsense. I had no idea why they were doing this other than that I was told that the female agent was jealous because she’d heard the guys saying that I was a good tracker and that they were somehow good friends with my rapist.
I filed an EEOC on both of them asking only that they stop their attacks, apologize and tell the trainees that they had lied. I never asked for any kind of compensation. Although the investigation was found to be in my favor, the agency decided that since neither was a supervisor to me, their actions did not constitute a threat to my promotion ability and nothing happened. I say nothing in that no action was taken on the part of the agency. Things did happen. They just happened to me.
I was crossing the street from our station parking lot to the station compound. It was about one or two in the morning and I had just finished working and needed to turn my truck keys in. A trainee was leaving the compound in an old Bronco and waved for me to cross. I waved back and before I got to the other side, he gunned it and ran me over. I suffered soft tissue damage to my right foot and knee and my left arm. When he got out of the truck and ran over to me, he knelt down and said quietly, “You need to keep your mouth shut.” Now, I had become a snitch.
As usual, it was his word against mine and even though I was senior to him, they deemed it an accident. He never apologized. Never said a word to me afterwards. He never even had a day off. My car was then vandalized by these agents with magic markers and slashed tires.
And it just continued.
I was strong enough to get through that academy. Strong enough to work the Campo mountains. I was a good agent contrary to what some of the male agents say about me today in their private groups. (Yes, I see you.) I was not a slug or a station rat. Yet, today it continues. Art del Cueto, vice president of the union, actually used the Border Patrol podcast to call me out by name. He said that he did not believe that I was sexually assaulted at the academy, that I was a liar. This caused his listeners to harass me and send me threatening letters.
So, here’s my point. Many of you have had similar incidents happen to you. They are not necessarily the same, but they are similar. One type of assault or harassment or another has occurred to most of us. You all often contact me to talk. You tell me about how these incidents keep happening, about how they call your stations and spread rumors about you all, how they try and fire you, how they beat you a little harder in defensive tactics, how you were drugged and raped, how you were harassed, how they rated you and made betting games based on who got you in bed, how they how other women were not there for you, how when you get brave enough to file a complaint the union represents your abuser as well as you which is a conflict of interests, how the union or OPR or OIG or EEO take forever to decide your case, how your fellow agents look the other way, how the ones you thought were good were not, how they offered you a settlement but that you must sign a non-disclosure agreement to get it, how they tell you that because of privacy rules, you will likely never know the outcome of the investigation, how his privacy is more important than your pain, how his career kept going, how they just moved him to another station…
Do you hear me?
I let you all down by not coming forward long ago. I want you to understand this has been going on since the first women entered the Patrol in 1975. We have all let you down. I want you to know that the agency uses the systems set up to investigate these crimes and incidents to hide the rape culture that you suffer from. I want you to see that the The Fierce Five Percent campaign is all they are willing to do to address their rape culture. They think that if they elevate you on a pedestal, give you a cool name and put you in a video, then you will just keep quiet and keep “playing ball.” I want you to know that by staying quiet and not demanding changes, you are helping to perpetuate the culture just as I did.
Those of you who have risen in rank owe it to those behind you to demand better. You owe it to others to bring this rape culture into the sunlight. There is a clear pattern and practice within the agency of denying female agents their rights, their justice. You are not harming the agency by staying quiet. They are harming the agency by shutting your mouth, by refusing to clean up their act and by continuing this ridiculous idea that only five percent of women are tough enough to be agents.
I will still listen to you. You can find me on Twitter and Facebook. You can send me private messages. I will continue to be here for you. I will stand beside you if you ever come out with the truth, but know this: it will not get any better or go away. Your rank and how well you do your job does not matter. You are part of the Border Patrol’s rape culture. Honor First does not exist in a condoned and encouraged rape culture.
What are we going to do to change it?