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Xiao Hua Yang for ProPublica

A Group of Agents Rose Through the Ranks to Lead the Border Patrol. They’re Leaving It in Crisis.

How several agents from a small outpost in Arizona, including recently retired chief Carla Provost, climbed to the top of the Border Patrol, then one by one retired, leaving corruption, misconduct and a toxic culture in their wake.

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On a Saturday evening in late September, Deputy Chief Scott Luck gathered with family and friends in the crystal-chandeliered ballroom of the Trump National Golf Club, nestled along the shores of the Potomac River in Virginia, to celebrate his retirement after 33 years in the U.S. Border Patrol.

The party was adorned with a who’s who in Border Patrol leadership, past and present. There was the unmistakable figure of Luck’s boss, Chief Carla Provost, tall and broad with her trademark fringe of brown bangs, and her longtime friend Andrea Zortman, who helps oversee foreign operations for the agency. A full contingent of retired former chiefs-turned-consultants were on hand, too, including David Aguilar, 64, who’d headed the Border Patrol as well as its parent, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Michael Fisher, 55, who’d succeeded Aguilar as Border Patrol chief. Rowdy Adams, 59, another retired senior-level CBP official, also attended the celebration.

The guests had kicked in $75 apiece to cover food and a gift for the send-off, but hovering over the party was a mix of weariness and defiance: It wasn’t just the end of Luck’s career, it was the end of an era at the agency — their era. And the widespread critiques currently pummeling the embattled patrol and its more than 19,600 agents would be, implicitly, their legacy.

Unbeknownst to most outsiders, almost all of the immigration honchos at Luck’s party that night were longtime colleagues who’d served as young agents in the remote border town of Douglas, Arizona, when the Border Patrol was just a small, backwater agency.

The group, called “the Douglas mafia” by some agents, began climbing the ranks together after the 9/11 attacks as the Border Patrol nearly tripled in size and budget. They’d ridden two decades of escalating political polarization over immigration to the top of the agency. They brought with them an entrenched us-against-them defiance that they’d fostered in the Arizona desert, when, feeling maligned and misunderstood, they’d forged their own way.

For better or worse, they’d had a hand in shaping virtually every aspect of the agency’s leadership and culture.

But the feeling in the room that night, said some in attendance, was relief that many of them would not be around to lead it much longer. Provost, 50, who’d started as a naive 25-year-old from a rural Kansas police force, had been planning her exit from Washington for months. Sandi Goldhamer, 56, her longtime partner who’d also gotten her start in Douglas, was already at their new home in Texas. Goldhamer had retired quietly last spring as associate chief in charge of national policy after her role in the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which resulted in thousands of children being separated from their families with no plan to reunify them.

The two women, along with Zortman, 46, had risen to the top despite the agency’s infamous lack of female agents, the least of any federal law enforcement agency.

The group had overseen or witnessed crises in the past — including lawsuits over excessive use of force and revelations of corruption within the patrol’s own ranks. But the last three years, catalyzed by ever-harsher Trump administration policies, had thrust the insular agency into unprecedented turmoil. The arrival of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers at the border had forced agents into new roles, for which they had little training. A series of high-profile scandals had focused scalding attention on the agency: Children died in its custody. Reporters uncovered a racist, misogynist private Facebook page with some 9,500 current and former Border Patrol members, including, at one point, Provost. Misconduct charges rose and a longtime agent was even prosecuted as a serial killer.

The Border Patrol they’d guided was experiencing not just a crisis of confidence among legislators and the public, but from within.

Some senior agents said they can’t help but blame the current state of the Border Patrol on the Douglas agents for fostering a culture that favored loyalty over competency. “I still believe in our mission. But we need restructuring, we need change,” said one longtime senior agent from Texas, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to speak to the media. “It’s a group following each other on their coattails with the same ideas, because everyone thinks the same way. And a lot of people skipping rank based on who they know, not on their experience.”

The agent said he’d worked with many of the leaders of the group at Border Patrol’s Washington, D.C., headquarters over the years, and the experience had led him to conclude that many of the agency’s problems were self-inflicted. “We grew too fast,” he said. “And there are people in leadership who are not performing at the levels they should.”

Provost, Goldhamer, Zortman, Luck and Aguilar all declined or did not respond to requests for interviews for this article, as did the Border Patrol.

“I feel like we’re leaving a terrible legacy for those who follow,” the senior agent said. Soon he, like so many others in leadership, would retire, leaving a gap that he believes the agency is ill-equipped to fill. Lately, as the patrol lurches from one crisis to another, the agent said he’s tried to figure out how everything had gone “sideways,” adding, “I’ve been asking myself, ‘Where did we go wrong?’”

In the beginning, they were just a bunch of young, mostly novice agents shunted off to a small outpost two hours southeast of Tucson, Arizona. But the ill-equipped border station in Douglas was on the verge of becoming the largest, and busiest, in the nation.

In July of 2000, Rowdy Adams was sent to Douglas station as the patrol agent in charge to help oversee its rapid expansion. “I’d never dealt with anything that complex or that big,” recalled Adams, whose spiky, once-blonde hair is now streaked with gray. When he arrived, agents were working out of trailers because they’d run out of places to put everyone. “They had a station built for 40 people, and we had something in the neighborhood of 450 or 500 agents,” he said. “I mean, it was crazy, but we made do with what we had.”

Up until the 1990s, the Border Patrol had been little more than a congressional afterthought, with fewer than 4,000 agents nationwide. Then, the North American Free Trade Agreement passed, which, coupled with a crippling peso devaluation in Mexico, helped spur a mass migration of workers north. The number of apprehended border crossers was nearly a million in 1994 and kept rising. Congress responded by passing the restrictive Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and doubling down on more border fencing and agents.

The Border Patrol had already been experimenting with extended enforcement operations in San Diego and El Paso, Texas — flooding those areas with armed agents — which reduced traffic, but just like in a game of whack-a-mole, the crossers would surface somewhere else. By 2000, that somewhere else was Douglas, a sleepy borough of 14,000 inhabitants bordering the much larger Agua Prieta, Sonora.

Two men cross the U.S.-Mexico border from Agua Prieta, in the Mexican state of Sonora, to Douglas, Arizona. (David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images)

Back then, most migrants were single men from Mexico looking for work. They were processed quickly then sent back across the line, said former agent Kevin Smith, who spent his entire career in Douglas and retired there in 2014. “We were making 1,000 apprehensions a day and not even catching 10%,” he said. “We were so overwhelmed.”

The border town had already gained an outsized infamy after Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who would later lead the Sinaloa Cartel, built his first cross-border drug tunnel there, a 270-foot long engineering marvel that included a hidden door under a hydraulic-lifted pool table. In the ensuing years, a wave of investigations and arrests of U.S. border agents with ties to drug traffickers and human smugglers fed the town’s notoriety. By 1996, the Los Angeles Times noted that Douglas was known as “the most corrupt town on the 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border.”

The resources opened up by Congress continued to pour into Douglas anyway. A new station was built on 29 acres of seized property, at a cost of $23 million. By 2003, Douglas station was the largest in the nation, with 550 permanent agents and an additional 100 on rotation from other parts of the country. It had grown so big, so fast that there was little managerial oversight, Adams said. His primary task at the time, he said, was to hire more supervisors and get the organization under control, “to make sure that people were doing what they were supposed to be doing.”

Provost had landed at Douglas in 1995, one of a handful of women in a notoriously macho culture.

“I’d like to say we had maybe 6-7% women at Douglas station,” Adams said. “It’s a tough gig. We’re in remote locations. And if you want to have a family, and all that, it’s going to have an impact.”

Provost, athletic and with a can-do Midwestern pragmatism, was determined to make her mark, recalled Michael Fisher, who first met Provost in Douglas and rose through the ranks as her superior.

Fisher’s first encounter with Provost came late one night while he and a tactical team, clad in black and with their faces covered in black grease paint, were tracking a group of migrants in the desert east of Douglas. “We heard a sound, and all of a sudden I saw this person go by on a bicycle,” Fisher said. “We thought it was a scout or something, so we started running and got into position and flashed our lights and announced that we were Border Patrol agents.”

The bicyclist, Fisher said, doubled back, and he was surprised to see a woman in a Border Patrol uniform on a mountain bike. He said he asked what she was doing in the desert alone in the middle of the night.

“Well, what are you doing here?” the agent shot back, Fisher remembered.

“I told her we were tracking the group,” Fisher said. “And she said: ‘Like hell you are. That’s my group.’ And then she rode off into the desert. And I was like, ‘Wow, who was that?’”

Later, he would find out it was Provost, a supervisor on the Border Patrol’s recently created bike unit. “I was impressed,” he said. “She stood her ground.”

Carla Provost being sworn in as chief of the U.S. Border Patrol on July 31, 2018. (Tim Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Goldhamer, originally from Tallahassee, Florida, was also determined to succeed in the testosterone-filled workplace. Petite, with long brown hair that she wore in a tight bun, Goldhamer stood out because she was always one of the first to volunteer, Adams said. “She just did what she needed to do. Even if it was the shit job for the evening, she would take that and embrace it without complaint,” he said.

By the early aughts, apprehensions at Douglas were up to 2,400 a day, according to Adams. The station was praised for being one of the first to implement new biometric technology linking its IDENT fingerprint database with other law enforcement databases to screen people for criminal backgrounds. But the Border Patrol was not screening its own agents thoroughly enough. The station had grown too fast, with too few checks and balances in place, to weed out the bad actors within its own ranks. “I’d love to take credit for picking nothing but rock stars,” Adams said of the agents he’d promoted at the time. “But it didn’t always turn out that way.”

In those early years in Douglas, Adams and others said, the agents, including those who would come to be the Douglas mafia, saw firsthand many of the problems that would plague the agency in coming years.

One night in late September 2000, Goldhamer noticed an acting supervisor named Dennis Johnson talking with a Salvadoran woman they’d just apprehended. With several people to process for the return to Mexico, Goldhamer lost sight of them, according to court records. Johnson drove the handcuffed woman into the desert and sexually assaulted her. Then he took her to another port of entry at Naco, 25 miles west of Douglas, and sent her back to Mexico. The assault was only discovered because the woman made a complaint to a Mexican customs agent who then reported it to his U.S. counterpart, the court records show.

Adams, as patrol agent in charge, said he took the call that night from the agent in Naco. He needed to quickly piece together what had happened. Goldhamer helped him identify Johnson’s patrol vehicle. “We quietly seized the vehicle and did the DNA samples,” he said, “and that’s what wound up getting him convicted.” Goldhamer later testified at Johnson’s trial. Johnson’s attorney argued that the woman had initiated oral sex and then made up a the story to stay in the United States, but a jury found him guilty of sexual assault and kidnapping.

But Johnson’s trial was a rare occurrence, then and now.

In 2001, the Justice Department’s inspector general opened an investigation into a sprawling kickback scheme in which numerous agents detailed to Douglas from other stations were furnished with falsified receipts from supervisors, who’d rented them rooms in their homes, or from hotel managers or apartment landlords. Agents claimed the $55-a-day housing allowance when they’d actually paid much less, pocketing the difference. Some also received gym memberships and cash incentives.

In its final report in 2002, the inspector general said it found “troubling practices” on the part of several agents. The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to prosecute, and the cases were referred to internal affairs at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (then the parent agency of Border Patrol) for disciplinary action.

Nearly a year later no action had been taken. In 2003, the Border Patrol was rolled into U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The independent federal Office of Special Counsel, advocating for two agents from Douglas who had alerted investigators to the scheme, released a scathing report. The agents, Larry Davenport and Willie Forester, had alleged that David Aguilar — then chief of the Tucson sector — had been aware of the kickbacks but didn’t intervene. Davenport said he also reported his concerns to Adams and other supervisors but was told to “mind his own business.”

Davenport, according to the Federal Times, was told by Adams and another supervisor that “if he wanted to move up in the Border Patrol … he had to get along.” Neither Davenport nor Forester could be reached for comment.

The Office of Special Counsel was incensed. “Owing to the sheer numbers involved, it stretches credulity that 45 employees at a single Border Patrol station engaged in a kickback and fraud scheme for a number of years … without the knowledge of management,” the report noted, according to the Arizona Daily Star in 2005. By not investigating or disciplining senior leadership, the office wrote in a letter to then-President George W. Bush, “there is a real risk of creating the appearance of a whitewash.”

When asked about the investigation, Adams said it was an “awful lot of noise from the Office of Special Counsel and they never proved anything.” The allegations were brought about by “two individuals who were uncomfortable with the changes being made, in which they were being held accountable,” Adams said. Davenport and Forester eventually left the agency.

By 2006, migratory traffic on the border was starting to shift again. This time moving west toward the California state line. “Douglas was starting to cool down,” Provost remembered in an official CBP biography published last year. “I had 11 1/2 years there, and Yuma was the hot spot.”

She applied for a move to Yuma and was promoted to assistant chief patrol agent. Goldhamer followed Provost and became a supervisor. Zortman, who had worked in media relations for the Border Patrol in Douglas, also made the leap to Yuma.

With a mandate from Bush to add 6,000 more agents by the end of his presidency, the Border Patrol embarked on a hiring spree. But, as had happened in Douglas, the rush to hire so many new agents led to problems. By mid-2007, the average level of experience for a Border Patrol agent was just four to five years, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, and in some units less than 18 months. The agency didn’t have a “uniform field training program,” the report said, so that new agents could “become proficient in the safe, effective, and ethical performance of their duties.” This created a patchwork of rules and regulations that differed from sector to sector.

“At the time, there was such a need they would take almost anyone with a passing score to promote,” said one senior agent in California, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to speak with the media.

Adams, who had been promoted to headquarters in Washington by this time, agreed that the rapid influx of new agents had some negative consequences. “We were promoting people in those days before they were really ready for the job,” he said.

The senior agents from California and Texas said that during the Border Patrol’s buildup in the Bush years, too many with connections to leadership were promoted with little supervision, or consequences for wrongdoing.

It was during this time that Zortman became an acting field operations supervisor in Yuma and was given oversight over several other agents. In the spring of 2009, one of them was Julia Monsivais, a 24-year-old former college softball star who was just months away from finishing her two-year probationary period and achieving her dream of becoming a Border Patrol agent.

Shortly after Zortman became Monsivais’ boss, the young agent, who was gay, told a colleague that Zortman had asked her out on a date while they were on patrol. “Julia told me she turned her down,” said the colleague, who has since left the patrol and asked to remain anonymous because he fears retaliation. “And from that day on she was targeted. She’d be written up for any little thing. I remember once she’d missed a belt loop on her pants and she was reprimanded for it.”

Over the next two months, Monsivais was written up and reprimanded numerous times, according to the former agent and her roommate at the time, Jamie McGalliard, a close friend who worked at a local high school. When Monsivais “denied those passes from Zortman,” McGalliard said, “that’s when a lot of the stuff really started to come into play, you know, getting written up and things like that. It was just continuous harassment from that same supervisor.”

Monsivais documented the harassment in a notebook, McGalliard said, and reached out numerous times to other supervisors, asking them to intervene. “She went through the proper chain of command. She called the right people, but nobody did anything to help her,” she said.

On the night of July 17, 2009, Monsivais received a phone call while they were out together at a bar, then told McGalliard and her other roommates that “Zortman did me in.” After arriving home, she shot and killed herself with her service weapon, said McGalliard, who later found her body.

Margret Monsivais said her sister believed that she was about to be fired because of the numerous write-ups she’d received.

“My daughter was a Type A personality,” said her father, Mark Monsivais. “She was national softball champion for a reason. She was very competitive and took losing very hard. She’d wanted to be in law enforcement since she was in middle school. And this was her dream.”

A collage of Julia Monsivais with her friends, family and fellow Border Patrol agents. (Courtesy of the Monsivais family)

Mark Monsivais said he asked Border Patrol leadership to provide his daughter’s personnel records and investigate her suicide. When he got no response, Monsivais said he turned to the union, but it was also unable to obtain her personnel file. “It was us against the Border Patrol,” he said. “And Zortman was protected. I don’t know why but she was.”

After Monsivais’ suicide, Zortman was promoted to a supervisory agent, overseeing the field training of new recruits. Union officials wrote a letter to the chief of the Yuma sector that September, objecting to Zortman’s promotion, particularly her oversight of new recruits. “Currently there is still an investigation on incidents that occurred in the last few months,” the letter said. “The local feels this assignment is not in the best interest of the service, nor the local.”

Today, Zortman is an assistant chief in charge of foreign operations in Washington, D.C., and in the highest levels of Border Patrol leadership. Still close friends with Provost, Zortman helped organize the Border Patrol chief’s retirement party in January.

Zortman and the Border Patrol declined to answer questions about Monsivais.

“What happened in Yuma with Julia’s death, there should have been some discipline coming out of that,” said a longtime agent who worked with Zortman in Yuma. “She was never held accountable, which was a big mistake.”

The former agent, a combat veteran, who worked alongside Monsivais said he resigned not long after her death. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “The agency is like a jellyfish with no spine. We’re talking people who went from working at a 7-11 or a gas station and who now have a gun and think of the immigrants as animals and can’t wait to shoot somebody. For me, Julia’s suicide was the tipping point.”

Agents trace the rise in agencywide influence of the Douglas group to David Aguilar’s move in 2004 from Arizona to Washington, D.C. Aguilar was made chief of the Border Patrol and was appointed acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2011. As Aguilar moved up, so did some of the agents who worked with him.

A South Texas native, Aguilar is a gifted orator and savvy political operator who, some agents say, valued loyalty above all else when he ran the Border Patrol. “As long as you had loyalty to him,” the senior agent from California said. “He would take that over competency.”

David Aguilar, former head of the Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at a White House border security briefing on May 16, 2006. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Adams, one of those who followed Aguilar to Washington, had a slightly different view. “You always value loyalty because when you pick folks for a job you want to make sure that they’re not going to make an independent decision, something that you didn’t know about.” But, he added, “I don’t think loyalty above all else even begins to describe David.”

After Border Patrol was folded into CBP, its leadership was consolidated in Washington, D.C., and expanded fourfold to more than 200 senior positions, Fisher said. “Many of us in the field had worked with David, and we agreed to come up and help get this new, larger organization off the ground,” he said. “It was just a huge undertaking. We had to build a new headquarters and develop a new organizational structure, then try to figure out how to work within CBP and DHS.”

When Aguilar moved to CBP, Fisher took over as chief of the Border Patrol. Adams became a senior adviser for CBP operations despite his previous role helping to manage a multibillion-dollar project to build a “virtual border wall,” made up of radar and surveillance towers and ground sensors. Plagued by delays and technological errors, the project, awarded to Boeing, was scrapped by Congress in 2011 after spending $1 billion on 53 miles of virtual fencing in Arizona.

By 2012, it was clear that the Border Patrol had other serious problems. Excessive use of force and corruption were on the rise. An investigation by the Arizona Republic into use of force at the agency found that agents had killed at least 42 people — 13 of them U.S. citizens — since 2005. “In none of the 42 deaths is any agent or officer publicly known to have faced consequences — not from the Border Patrol, not from Customs and Border Protection or Homeland Security, not from the Department of Justice, and not, ultimately, from criminal or civil courts,” the paper wrote.

Under pressure from Congress, Aguilar requested that the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement think tank, examine the Border Patrol’s use-of-force policies. PERF looked at 67 cases of lethal force and found instances where agents shot at vehicles and unarmed suspects that were not an immediate threat. Their findings were unequivocal: “Too many cases do not appear to meet the test of objective reasonableness with regard to the use of deadly force.”

Instead of releasing the critical PERF report, CBP fought to keep it secret, even from Congress, releasing only a summary after legislators and civil rights groups demanded to see the full report. Unlike other law enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol also refused to make its use-of-force policies or the names of its agents involved in fatal shooting investigations public, saying the information was “law enforcement sensitive.”

James Tomsheck, who served as assistant commissioner for internal affairs at CBP from 2006 to 2014, said Aguilar saw the Border Patrol as a military organization, often comparing it to the Marines, and surrounded himself with people who wouldn’t challenge his views. “He believed that use of force was not restrained in the same way that use of force is restrained by domestic law enforcement as defined by the Constitution, and that the Border Patrol should function under different rules of engagement at the border.”

Further angering reformers, Fisher rejected some of the PERF report’s key recommendations, including that agents not use lethal force against unarmed drivers or rock throwers, practices that had long been criticized. Border Patrol agents had shot and killed several people, some of them across the border in Mexico, for instance, alleging that they had thrown rocks at agents over the border wall.

Michael Fisher, who succeeded Aguilar as Border Patrol chief, testifying at a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 27, 2013. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In an interview, Fisher said adopting less lethal methods would have endangered his agents. “I’ve known agents who have almost died from being rocked along the border,” he said. “And I think it was completely ridiculous that they wanted that prohibition.”

Rampant corruption was another growing problem. Ronald Hosko, a retired FBI assistant director for the criminal investigative division, told Reveal in 2014 that, in briefings, CBP leaders estimated a corruption rate of 20% or higher among their employees. “Shocked by that ‘integrity gap,’” the outlet wrote, “the FBI adjusted its priorities to focus its anti-corruption efforts on federal employees, with an emphasis on border agents and officers.”

By the time Aguilar retired in 2013, the Border Patrol was reeling from a growing number of fatal shootings and headline-grabbing corruption busts.

“Aguilar didn’t have to work to develop the insular culture. He just had to carry on and let it be,” said Christopher Montoya, a retired Border Patrol agent who worked in Douglas for several years. Montoya, now a master’s student in Latin American studies at the University of Arizona, has published essays critical of his former agency. “Could the Tucson police chief get away with some of the stuff the Border Patrol does? Of course not,” he said. “But the Border Patrol doesn’t work like that. We like to wash our dirty laundry at home.”

By 2014, amid mounting criticism from both congressional leaders and advocates, the Border Patrol could no longer avoid the calls for reform. The Obama administration appointed Gil Kerlikowske, a former police chief, as CBP commissioner with a mandate to clean up the agency. One of his first moves was to release the PERF report and a revised use-of-force policy handbook.

The move created two camps: Border Patrol loyalists, including Adams and Fisher, who believed the agency was being unfairly targeted. And professional law enforcement groups, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and PERF as well as members of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, who believed the patrol needed to adopt standardized rules of enforcement in line with other domestic law enforcement agencies. “There was a lot of politics and gamesmanship going on, and not a lot of love for the Border Patrol, if you will,” Adams said.

Traditional law enforcement practices, Adams said, “don’t really translate when you’re out in the middle of the desert between Douglas and the New Mexico state line and don’t have the ability to reach a cellphone or grab the radio and radio something in. You may not have backup coming for several hours, much less a two-minute response time.”

A panel of law enforcement experts was convened to help “restore public confidence through more transparency.” The Homeland Security Advisory Panel, headed by New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton and Karen Tandy, a former administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration, found that the CBP’s internal affairs department had just 218 investigators for 60,000 employees — 44,000 of them in law enforcement. And those investigators were only qualified to conduct administrative investigations, not criminal ones.

“No chief of police of a major police department could be held accountable for the conduct of his personnel if he had no internal affairs capacity and could not investigate corruption and other serious misconduct within his organization’s ranks,” the panel wrote in its preliminary report. The panel made 53 recommendations, including boosting the number of internal affairs investigators by 350 and revising use-of-force policies to avoid lethal encounters.

In the summer of 2015, Provost left her post as chief patrol agent for the El Centro sector and moved to headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she was appointed by Kerlikowske to oversee the reforms as CBP’s deputy assistant commissioner in the Office of Professional Responsibility. Part of her job was to work on a new, less lethal use-of-force policy.

A month after her arrival, Fisher announced his departure as Border Patrol chief amidst an internal affairs investigation into the alleged misuse of government funds to carry on an extramarital affair with a subordinate. According to Fisher, it was a “poison-pen accusation made to the commissioner’s office that wasn’t true. But I cooperated fully with the investigation.” Fisher was ultimately found not to have used government funds inappropriately but said he elected to retire. Several other high-level officials were also investigated for extramarital affairs with subordinates and other misconduct, and chose to retire.

By 2016, and for the first time in its more than 90-year history, the agency was on its way to reform and some transparency, adopting many of the changes proposed by the panel of experts and significantly reducing its lethal encounters.

But then President Donald Trump was elected, thrusting new powers and responsibilities on the agency, but also fresh controversy. Members of the Douglas group took on key new roles as one top border security official after another was appointed, then vanquished by Trump.

Provost became acting chief of the Border Patrol in April 2017, after Ron Vitiello, a favorite of the Border Patrol union, left after three months to lead CBP. Scott Luck, who’d once been Provost’s supervisor in Douglas, took second-in-command as acting deputy chief. Goldhamer, who had followed Provost to Washington, was promoted to associate chief and placed in charge of national policy overseeing unaccompanied children, and other programs.

President Donald Trump and Provost in a meeting on March 13, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

One senior agent in a supervisory role, who asked to remain unnamed because he fears retaliation, said Goldhamer sought the promotion, “then this disaster hit.” The Trump administration launched its zero-tolerance policy. Under pressure, the agent said, Goldhamer, and others, botched the execution of the policy. Headquarters ordered agents to prosecute every adult who came across the border, but it didn’t provide a standard operating procedure, as was typical when a major policy change was announced. “We were given the order on Cinco de Mayo — I kid you not,” the agent said. “There was no SOP in place, outlining how we would do the reunifications, outlining a process of how we should proceed.”

Goldhamer also seemed unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Flores agreement, which defines conditions under which children can be held in immigration detention, he said, and allows for a waiver that can be filed after 72 hours if there are “exceptional circumstances.”

“She didn’t have a clue,” he said. “They were more concerned about the number of people who had been prosecuted. It was a total mess.” Goldhamer and CBP did not respond to requests for comment.

An audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general later found that CBP “adopted various ad hoc methods to record and track family separations” that “led to widespread errors.” Because there was no adequate database in place to track separated children and adults, agents had to resort to creating their own Excel spreadsheets, which were often riddled with errors. “They could not determine how many children in Border Patrol custody were separated from parents at any given time,” the audit said.

Even more damning, the inspector general discovered that the Border Patrol had conducted a test run of zero tolerance in 2017 in El Paso, separating close to 280 families. After the pilot, agents in El Paso detailed for Border Patrol leaders a number of problems that had prevented them from keeping track of separated families — most notably difficulties communicating and keeping uniform records with other government agencies charged with caring for the children. Despite the problems, the Border Patrol’s leadership went ahead with the separations the following year.

“The way I see it,” said the supervisor, “the basic foundation of our job is to take care of people, and if we can’t do that, we can’t do anything else.”

Today, yearly bonuses are being offered to keep many longtime agents from leaving the agency, he said, which is smaller now than it was under Obama because of attrition. The longtime agent said he had hoped that Provost, who became chief in August 2018 — the first woman to lead the agency — would chart a different course. But when it was discovered that she was part of a private Facebook group rife with racist and misogynistic posts that attacked both Latino Congress members and migrants alike, it was clear, he said, that Provost was too steeped in the agency’s culture to challenge the status quo.

In testimony before Congress, Provost said that she’d joined the secret group in 2017 to keep tabs on her workforce, but that she was on Facebook “very, very rarely” and was unaware of the offensive nature of the posts until they came out in the media last summer.

With Provost’s retirement, the influence of the Douglas agents is coming to an end. Provost and others of her generation oversaw a rapid, unprecedented expansion from which the agency is still suffering repercussions, agents said. Yet even with Provost gone, the Border Patrol’s entrenched culture endures. Her replacement, Rodney Scott, was also a member of the same secret Facebook group. Scott has not commented publicly on his membership and in late January, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, requested any documents linking Scott to the secret page. Like Provost, the new chief got his start in the Border Patrol in the ’90s but spent much of his career in California.

Others in top leadership are retiring, or are too mired in scandal to lead the agency, which is facing an unknown future when Scott leaves. He is the fourth chief in three years under the Trump administration. “It’s a scary time organizationally,” Adams said. Recently there was a nationwide meeting with the Border Patrol chiefs from each sector, he said. “People were sort of looking around the room going: ‘Holy Moses, who’s the next guy? He’s retiring. This guy wants nothing to do with headquarters. She’s in trouble.’ You know just looking around at one another and realizing that the bench just wasn’t as deep as they’d thought.”

Correction, March 17, 2021: This story originally mischaracterized that the number of apprehended border crossers “spiked” in 1994, because the number of such crossers was higher in the immediately preceding years.

Melissa del Bosque

Melissa del Bosque was a contributing reporter at ProPublica.

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