A Border Patrol agent accused of hitting a migrant with his truck called migrants “subhuman” and “mindless murdering savages,” federal prosecutors said.
In December 2017, Border Patrol Agent Matthew Bowen, 39, reportedly struck a Guatemalan man with his vehicle and then lied about it in a report. Bowen was indicted last year for violating the civil rights of the individual and falsifying records.
According to court documents, Bowen spotted a man, later identified as 23-year-old Antolin Lopez Aguilar, who appeared to have jumped a border fence near the Mariposa Port of Entry. As Lopez Aguilar ran away, Bowen “accelerated aggressively” and struck him twice in the back with the front grille of his truck, said another Border Patrol agent on the scene.
Lopez Aguilar fell to the ground, the truck tires landing mere inches from his face. He was taken to a hospital in Nogales, Arizona, with abrasions on his hand and knees, and spent the next 30 days in prison for crossing the border illegally.
An agent who reviewed the incident on tape said he had “never seen anything like that before.”
The Arizona Daily Star reported Sunday that prosecutors filed text messages between Bowen and other agents. In the text messages, Bowen claimed he gave Lopez Aguilar a “little push” with the bumper. “I wonder how they expect us to apprehend wild ass runners who don’t want to be apprehended,” Bowen wrote.
The majority of the exchanges put into the court record were between Bowen and agent Lonnie Ray Swartz, who in 2012 shot and killed a 16-year-old unarmed migrant teen through the border fence. A jury in Tuscon found Swartz to be not guilty of second degree murder and could not come to a verdict on the lesser charges of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. After a 2017 incident involving migrants throwing rocks, Bowen sent Swartz a text message calling the rock throwers “mindless murdering savages.”
Two weeks before the incident with Lopez Aguilar in Nogales, Bowen texted Swartz that he was frustrated with Border Patrol and thought about quitting.
“This is a failed agency,” Bowen texted. “Its sad bc BP does really important work but we are treated like shit, prosecuted for doing what it takes to arrest these savages and not given appropriate resources to fully do our job.”
Bowen said if he left he would miss “the chase of hunting down shitbags with your crew, defeating somebody who thought they were faster than you.”
Other messages revealed the extent to which Bowen holds a dangerous bias against any immigrant who presents themselves at the border.
In December 2017, a couple of weeks after Bowen had hit the migrant, an unidentified person asked Bowen, “Did you gas hiscorpse (sic) or just use regular peanut oil while tazing?? For a frying effect.”
Bowen responded, “Guats are best made crispy with an olive oil from their native pais,” using the Spanish word for “country.”
In text messages, Bowen refers to the migrants he apprehends as “disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire” and pleaded to the president, “PLEASE let us take the gloves off trump!”
Several messages from Bowen referred to migrants as “toncs” — also spelled “tonks” — a term used by agents to describe border-crossers. The origins are unclear, but as The Arizona Republic reported, some claim it is an acronym for “Territory of Origin Not Known” or “Temporarily Outside Native Country.” Other people who have interacted with Border Patrol agents argue it actually refers to the sound a flashlight makes on the back of a migrant’s head.
“I was specifically told by several BP agents that it is the sound of a flashlight hitting a head,” Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American Border Studies at the University of El Paso, told the newspaper in an email. “I was never told either of those acromyms (or any others). I suspect that those are after-the-fact rationalizations of a disturbing word, but I cannot prove that (I do not directly have evidence). What I do have evidence of is that is [what] was described to me by agents as the sound of a flashlight blow to the head.”
Defense attorney Sean Chapman has argued that a jury should not be allowed to see the texts because this language is “commonplace throughout the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, that it is part of the agency’s culture, and therefore says nothing about Mr. Bowen’s mind-set.”
This aggressive interaction between Bowen and a migrant at the border was not an isolated incident. Both Bowen’s colleagues and migrants who have had direct interactions with Bowen in his capacity as a Border Patrol agent have reported instances of abuse. In many cases, Bowen received little-to-no punishment. He was finally suspended indefinitely without pay in 2018, after his indictment.
According to prosecutors, in January 2012, Bowen allegedly searched a car without probable cause and threw the occupant to the ground before handcuffing him, causing injuries. No disciplinary action was taken. Three years later, a fellow Border Patrol agent said Bowen employed excessive force, tackling a migrant who had stopped running, resulting in a busted lip. Bowen received an oral admonishment in response. One month later, a migrant claimed Bowen pulled him up from the ground by his handcuffs, resulting in wrist abrasions. A few months after that, an agent anonymously reported Bowen bragged about how hard he had taken down another juvenile migrant that sustained injuries of a busted lip. In October 2015, Bowen allegedly transported a handcuffed migrant on the front of an All-Terrain Vehicle and intentionally slammed on the brakes, causing him to launch forward and injure himself.
That a Border Patrol agent would harbor such disdain against migrants is unsurprising, given the documented history of abuse perpetrated from the agency’s employees. In 2018, No More Deaths, a humanitarian group that provides supplies for migrants in the desert, released a report showing footage taken between 2010 and 2017 that shows agents intentionally kicking over water jugs. About eight hours after the report and video were published, Border Patrol agents arrested No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren. Warren faces two misdemeanor charges for operating a vehicle in a wildlife refuge and for abandonment of property because he and other volunteers left a gallon of water, canned beans, blankets, and other supplies near a rancher station. He also faces felony charges stemming from the January 2018 arrest for harboring migrants at the organization’s checkpoint near Ajo, Arizona.