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Holding the Line

Did Ephraim Cruz take a hit for alleging Border Patrol abuse?

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Down on the Arizona-Mexico line, whistleblowers must blow extra hard. That's apparently the only way to overcome a cacophony of illicit traffic, obstinate bureaucracy and the Border Patrol's ludicrous mission of catching and deporting illegal immigrants, only to catch and deport them all over again.

Even amid that din, Ephraim Cruz has raised a ruckus. And for his trouble, says the veteran Border Patrol agent, he now faces a federal indictment.

It started in March 2004, when Cruz complained in a memo to supervisors that detainees in the roomy new Douglas BP station were being shoehorned into very overcrowded cells--even when other nearby cells remained empty. He claimed that immigrants--including pregnant women, children and the elderly--sometimes weren't fed for up to 20 hours. Cruz said that searches of immigrants were haphazard: He snapped Polaroids of detainees displaying their overlooked watches, belts and makeup kits. Knives and guns have been found in cells, he says, placing both detainees and agents at risk.

According to Cruz--and despite much-heralded post-Sept. 11 security measures--screening for non-Mexican detainees remains poor. And agents routinely release unaccompanied minors "to anybody who claims that they are this person's father, uncle or guardian," he says. "It's a regular practice."

He also alleges direct physical abuse of detainees, including the use of the notorious and painful "chair," in which people are forced into a chair-like position, with their backs pressed against the wall for long periods of time.

Potent charges, to be sure. But when Cruz raised these humanitarian concerns with his superiors, he was ignored or chastised. Earlier and shining evaluations of his work suddenly turned into scathing critiques, presented in "counseling" reports from supervisor Michael Hyatt. "Mike Hyatt decides to be the first one to lean on me," Cruz says. In several reports, "I was rated minimally satisfactory by Mr. Hyatt. But if you read the previous supervisors' assessments, the two don't jibe."

So Cruz began writing to senators and representatives, "a lot of heavyweights in Congress," he says, "totaling about 170 people in both houses." Responses were mixed; Rep. Raul Grijalva called for an outside investigation. Rep. Jim Kolbe's office "told me there was nothing they could do to help," says Cruz. Sen. Jon Kyl pledged to explore the issue, but today, his letter to Cruz just draws dust.

And that's all before the other shoe dropped: In July, Cruz was indicted for allegedly smuggling an undocumented alien across the border at Douglas. If convicted, he could face $500,000 in fines and 14 years in jail.

Like Cruz's allegations, details behind his indictment don't exactly cast the Border Patrol in a rosy light. The charges date from Jan. 22, when Cruz worked until about 1 a.m., and then drove across the border into Agua Prieta for a beer. He and another agent were returning at around 4 a.m. when they saw Maria De Socorro Terrazas-Orozco and a friend walking north to the port of entry. Cruz stopped to give her a ride, and they all crossed the border without fanfare.

Hell broke loose a day later, however, when Terrazas-Orozco charged her former boyfriend, José Ruiz, with assault. It so happens that Ruiz is also a Border Patrol agent. Not surprisingly, during the Douglas Police Department's investigation, Ephraim Cruz's name popped up.

So did the fact that Maria De Socorro Terrazas-Orozco was an undocumented alien. But that was a surprise, says Cruz. "She's dated several agents, and she hangs out socially in agents' homes, including supervisors," he says. "All these factors led me to believe I was simply giving a ride to someone (I thought) was a fellow resident of Douglas."

Regardless, the agency retrieved his name from the Douglas PD. Then came the July indictment. Cruz calls it a setup. "I wouldn't bring someone across (the border) for lust nor money," he says. "There's no evidence that I knew she was illegal and disregarded that fact. But as you can imagine, the Border Patrol is very chapped, and they've been waiting for me to somehow mess up. Now they've forced this through the system."

Although the indictment raises a host of new questions, there are few answers coming from the Border Patrol. Spokesman Jose Garza won't comment on the indictment, or specific allegations made by Cruz. Michael Hyatt didn't return a phone call from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment.

Likewise, the U.S. Attorney's office won't discuss the pending case. However, allegations made by Cruz are being investigated by the Office of Inspector General, says spokeswoman Tamara Faulkner in Washington, D.C. The OIG is part of the Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol's parent agency.

Garza does deny security lapses or improperly deporting non-Mexican detainees to Mexico. He also says that detainees are not mistreated at the Douglas station. "All the cells are set for a certain number of people, and we adhere to that. Do we deal with big numbers? Yeah, sometimes we do. But we have a general holding cell, and from there, (detainees) are distributed to the cells that they need to be in."

Garza adds that unaccompanied minors are either turned over to the Mexican consulate or Arizona's Child Protective Services division. Children can also be released to aunts, uncles or other relatives, he says, "once they provide us with the proper documentation."

Either way, the DHS investigation continues. And Ephraim Cruz is scheduled to go to trial this week, though rescheduling is likely. Until then, he remains on unpaid leave. In the meantime, he says he won't take any plea deals--and will continue pressing his concerns. "I'll go to jail over this if I have to."

He says the Border Patrol remains more interested in hounding detractors than cleaning up their act. "They want you to be in lockstep, in conformity," he says. "And if you're not, you get shot off the saddle."

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