A U.S. Customs and Border Protection board is proposing that four horse-patrol agents be disciplined for engaging in “unprofessional and dangerous behavior” while trying to control a surge of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. in Del Rio, Texas, in September.
The incident received national attention in September after several media outlets and Democratic politicians criticized the actions of the Border Patrol.
Vice News, linking to an Al Jazeera video, tweeted at the time that Border Patrol agents “are whipping Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.” A report in the El Paso Times described a horseback agent as having “swung his whip menacingly” while “charging his horse toward the men in the river.”
Then–White House press secretary Jen Psaki called video of the September 19 encounter “horrible to watch” and condemned the “brutal and inappropriate measures.” Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters compared the Border Patrol agents to slave owners. President Joe Biden weighed in, alleging that “people [are] being strapped,” and declaring that the mounted agents “will pay.” The Border Patrol was ordered to stop using horses in Del Rio.
However, it soon became clear the agents were not carrying whips and were instead spinning or twirling their reins, a common method for controlling and directing a horse. “It’s a training tool, and it’s a training aid if a horse does not want to cooperate with its rider,” George Syer, a retired Border Patrol supervisor and horse patrol coordinator in the Rio Grande Valley, told National Review in September, adding that the “everything is to prevent that horse from making contact with a human being — everything.”
The Customs and Border Protection investigation into the incident “concluded that there is no evidence that any migrants were struck by reins and no evidence that any migrants were forced to return to Mexico or denied entry into the United States.”
But the investigation did find “failures at multiple levels of the agency, a lack of appropriate policies and training, and unprofessional and dangerous behavior by several individual Agents.” Among the investigation’s findings: Agents conducted the operation with authorization from their supervisor, who didn’t obtain additional guidance from higher ups in the chain of command; the agents used an “unmoderated and unrecorded tactical radio frequency” that “contributed to command-and-control deficiencies,” and senior leadership deployed horse-patrol units “without appropriate training, supervision, and coordination,” according to an investigative summary.
The investigation found that the horses involved in the incident were equipped with “split reins,” which can be twirled to guide the horse’s movement. One agent reported twirling the reins “as a distancing tactic,” according to the report. “The Office of Professional Responsibility’s review of Horse Patrol Unit training documents did not reveal any specific guidance on twirling of reins for any purpose,” the reports said.
The investigation found that one Border Patrol agent acted in an unprofessional manner, yelling denigrating comments, including, “Hey! You use your women? This is why your country’s sh**; you use your women for this.” The same agent was also found to have used his horse to narrowly maneuver around a small child on a slanted concrete ramp. The investigation found that several mounted agents used force or a threat of force to drive immigrants back to the Rio Grande River, even though they were within the territorial boundary of the U.S.
The disciplinary process for the four agents is separate from the fact-finding investigation, according to the report. “That process is underway,” it said, and “the results of the discipline process will be made public following its completion.”
Customs and Border Protection commissioner Chris Magnus said in a prepared statement that the report shows there were failures to make good decisions at multiple levels.
“As we focus on what went wrong, it’s important to note that the vast majority of Border Patrol Agents and U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel acted with honor and integrity and provided an unprecedented response to the situation in Del Rio — fulfilling operational and processing needs and going above and beyond to provide humanitarian aid and keep people safe,” he said. “I am grateful and proud of their work.”
The investigation included over 30 interviews with eyewitnesses, agents involved directly and indirectly with the incident, U.S. Border Patrol leadership, and Customs and Border Protection officials, according to the report. Investigators also collected and reviewed video footage and photographic evidence.
“CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility conducts its investigations with integrity and independence, free from outside influence,” the report states. “Its investigation of the horse patrol activity in Del Rio adhered to these standards.”