No More Deaths volunteers arrested as group accuses Border Patrol of destroying humanitarian aid

NOGALES — Eight humanitarian aid workers with the advocacy group No More Deaths are facing multiple federal misdemeanor charges, while another volunteer has been charged with harboring undocumented immigrants, a felony.

That ninth volunteer is Scott Daniel Warren, who also teaches environmental studies classes online at Arizona State University. The complaint against Warren states he “has been preliminarily charged with a felony involving alien smuggling.”

Lee Sandusky, a volunteer with No More Deaths’ documentation team and a desert aid worker, stressed that Warren’s arrest and that of the other eight individuals are “completely separate instances.”

When asked to comment, Warren responded Wednesday via e-mail, writing, “At the time being, I am directing all media inquiries to the No More Deaths media team.”

In a statement, an Arizona State spokesperson said Warren “was not acting in his capacity as an ASU employee at the time of the alleged incident, and we have no reason to believe it will impact his ability to fulfill his current duty with the university.”

The complaint says that on Jan. 17, the Border Patrol had been conducting surveillance on a building near Ajo known as “the Barn” when they encountered Warren along with Kristian Perez-Villanueva and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday, two migrants who had crossed undocumented into Arizona.

Warren provided aid, such as food and water, to Perez-Villanueva along with Sacaria-Goday, the complaint said.

Representatives with No More Deaths have called the timing of Warren’s arrest “highly suspicious” but recognize it’s only speculation to connect Warren’s arrest and the recent release by No More Deaths of evidence allegedly implicating Tucson Border Patrol agents in the destruction of humanitarian aid left in the desert for border-crossers.

“Right now, we are just trying to wrap our heads around what the actual legal case is and how best to support Scott,” a No More Deaths representative said.

Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday remain in custody. Authorities released Warren, but his court date has yet to be determined.
The other eight volunteers with No More Deaths are being charged with different federal misdemeanors, including “driving on a wilderness area,” “abandonment of property” and “entering a wildlife refuge without a permit” in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

“The interesting thing about that is that many other people are able to receive permits to drive on those roads,” Sandusky said. “Hunters and recreational hikers are able to receive permits. (Wildlife refuge groups) have blocked humanitarian aid providers from receiving these permits. In addition to this, Border Patrol drives with impunity wherever they please on the wildlife refuge.”

The Tucson Border Patrol deferred comments regarding the arrests to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to respond because the matter is ongoing.

Stephanie Dixon, an agent and spokeswoman with Tucson Border Patrol, said the agency also does what it can to help save lives.

“All of us have the same idea that we don’t want anybody to die or get hurt in the desert. We understand the extreme elements that are out there,” she said. “These agents are out hiking on a daily basis and we succumb to the elements all the time, so we know the necessity for water,”

Warren’s arrest occurred only hours after No More Deaths released evidence in their “Disappeared” report of Tucson Border Patrol allegedly vandalizing humanitarian aid left along the desert from 2012 to 2015.

Members of No More Deaths, a Phoenix and Tucson advocacy group, spoke to the news media about the group's report on the deaths of undocumented border-crossers. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

No More Deaths routinely leaves jugs of water, cans of food and blankets in the desert for crossing migrants. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

Between 2012 and 2015, No More Deaths distributed more than 31,558 1-gallon jugs of water across the mountainous terrain along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

Kate Morgan, abuse documentation coordinator for No More Deaths, and Lee Sandusky, volunteer with No More Deaths’ documentation team and a desert aid worker, cached five water jugs and four cans of pinto beans in a protected spot. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

Kate Morgan hiked farther into the desert to leave humanitarian aid for crossing migrants. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

Lee Sandusky scouted out a shaded, hidden spot to place water jugs and canned beans. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

Lee Sandusky and Kate Morgan both have encountered vandalized caches of humanitarian aid in the southwest Arizona desert. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

A Tucson Border Patrol spokesman said the agency does not condone or encourage the destruction of or tampering with any water or food left for immigrants attempting to cross the border by foot. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

From 2012 to 2015, the advocacy group No More Deaths concluded that 593 crossing migrants died from extreme temperatures and dehydration in the southwest Arizona desert. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

A memorial for migrant crossers who have died in the U.S.-Mexico border within the Tucson sector rests at the top of a mountain. (Photo by Leah Goldberg/Cronkite News)

No More Deaths released evidence Tucson Border Patrol vandalizing humanitarian aid

Stretching for what seems like forever, the U.S.-Mexico border can be both beautiful and deadly.

“Most people out here aren’t being shot or breaking a leg and not being able to walk,” Sandusky said referring to undocumented migrants attempting to enter Arizona. “They run out of water and they can’t continue.”

No More Deaths recently released a three year report with photo, video and interview evidence allegedly showing several Tucson Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs left along desert routes for crossing migrants.

The report details incidents that reportedly occurred between 2012 and 2015. During that time, No More Deaths said they distributed more than 31,558 1-gallon jugs of water across the mountainous terrain of southern Arizona.

During those three years, the report said, 86 percent of their plastic jugs were used for the purposes for which they were intended; however, the rest can’t be accounted for because the jugs were vandalized and slashed 415 times. This totaled 3,586 gallons lost.

“It is not our claim that the U.S. Border Patrol is exclusively responsible for the vandalism of water supplies,” members of No More Deaths said. “We conclude that Border Patrol is responsible for the majority of the destroyed gallons we documented.”

Christopher Sullivan, a Border Patrol agent and spokesman for the agency’s Tucson sector, said authorities do not tolerate this type of behavior.

“Tucson’s sector does not condone or encourage the destruction or tampering with any water or food,” he said. “If it does happen, we want to be made aware of it so therefore we can take the corrective actions against the agents that conduct those activities,” he said.

Sullivan stressed that it would be easier for Border Patrol to punish agents vandalizing humanitarian aid if this information had been brought to them sooner.

“We don’t want a few agents to tarnish what you know most agents do,” Sullivan said. “The few agents that destroy or tamper with water like the aid, that is something that we don’t support and we want to make that clear.”

Wilderness hunters, drug and human traffickers as possible vandals

Before the report came out, Art Del Cueto, president of the Tucson sector for the National Border Patrol Union, said drug smugglers, their scouts and similar groups watch aid workers place supplies in the desert and then retrieve it.

No More Deaths reported an increase in destruction of water jugs during hunting season, but vandalization is consistent when hunting is not permitted.

Group volunteer Lee Sandusky has not seen a Border Patrol agent slash a water jug but has come across “horrible notes left on them” as well as jugs that have been shot.

“I am not sure why the guides or the coyotes would also destroy water they might need,” Sandusky said.

Standing under a bent tree surrounded by boulders and thorn bushes that now protect five water jugs and four cans of SunVista pinto beans, Kate Morgan, abuse document coordinator for No More Deaths, recounted interactions she has had with crossing migrants.

“I have met people who have found our water drop sights and told us, ‘We found it, but it was slashed, it was destroyed. We really needed it, we were really sad to see that,’ ” Morgan said.

“I have also met people who have said, ‘I found your water drop sight. It has been days since I had food and water and it really made a difference to me.’ ”

No More Deaths alleges that certain laws, agencies and presidential administrations have turned this land into a “graveyard for the missing.”

Its report says at least 6,915 bodies have been recovered in the U.S. borderlands from 1998 to 2016. Sandusky also said that within the three years documented in the No More Deaths report, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner received the remains of at least 593 border crossers. A majority of these individuals died from extreme weather conditions and dehydration.

No More Deaths said the high death toll is not coincidental but due to “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a large scale border enforcement policy that began in 1994. “Prevention Through Deterrence” increased all aspects of surveillance, including the border wall, more armed agents, checkpoints and heightened surveillance technology.

The group alleges the program has put the lives of migrant crossers at risk and pushes them into regions where natural water sources are sparse.

Sullivan, the Border Patrol spokesman, said the agency’s intention is not to harm anyone, but agents do have to uphold the law.

“The Border Patrol shares a common goal to preserve human life.” Sullivan said. “We don’t want anyone to die coming across the border. Every agent of the Tucson Border Patrol is trained to become first responders.”

Regardless, groups like No More Deaths say the will continue their humanitarian work as long as people keep trying to cross.

“Like so many border crossers whose lives are lost in this no man’s land between nation states, we know very little of these persons,” Morgan said. “The details of their life, journey and death are not ours to tell. But still we hope to gather in their honor and demand and end that in no small part led to their deaths in this rugged and remote terrain.”