‘Circus is coming to town’: How the El Paso Border Patrol’s 2018 Election Day plan unraveled
In 2018, faced with intense criticism, the El Paso Border Patrol sector scrapped a “crowd control exercise” that was planned next to the Chihuahuita neighborhood on Nov. 6 — Election Day.
The exercise was planned as the Trump administration, trying to maintain Republican control of Congress in midterm elections, warned of a migrant caravan “invasion” that threatened the border. The exercise was scrapped after I wrote stories the night before for the Washington Post and Texas Monthly that raised questions of possible intimidation of Hispanic voters.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, put out a statement on Election Day that said the exercise was postponed “due to inaccurate reporting that caused unneeded confusion in border communities.” The agency refused to specify any inaccuracies.
However, emails I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the exercise was never anything more than a scheme for media attention that drew heavy criticism within the Border Patrol and CBP.
“Essentially BP reached out to El Paso (CBP Office of Field Operations) and would like to run an exercise for media purposes at the (port of entry),” according to an email sent on Nov. 1, five days before the planned exercise, to Randy Howe, the CBP official then in charge of the nation’s ports of entry. The name of the person sending the email was redacted by the government.
Other media began asking questions about the planned crowd control exercise in the early hours of Election Day 2018, in large part because it was planned next to Chihuahuita, a heavily Hispanic neighborhood in South El Paso. And it was taking place in the hometown of Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic Senate candidate taking on Texas Republican Ted Cruz in one of the election’s most high-profile contests.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas said the exercise smacked of voter intimidation because it would deploy numerous militarized forces in a predominantly Hispanic city. Several members of Congress condemned the idea. The Border Patrol aborted the planned exercise shortly before its planned 10 a.m. start.
The crowd control exercise was one of the biggest national stories of that Election Day morning, but faded away within a few hours. However, I was curious how an idea that was tone-deaf at best (one CBP official called it “dumb’) was hatched in the first place. So I filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for emails and other records. CBP simply ignored the request for almost a year, a fairly common though illegal tactic by Department of Homeland Security agencies.
I filed suit in October 2019 after the Trump administration ignored several of my FOIA requests. In February of this year, U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama of El Paso ordered CBP to produce all the materials I was seeking on the crowd control exercise by June 14. The agency recently told the judge it has fulfilled his order and provided me all responsive documents.
The emails I obtained show a sense of urgency by high-ranking El Paso Border Patrol officials to capture media attention on the migrant caravan, in line with Trump’s efforts leading up to the midterm election. They contain no indication that El Paso officials were concerned that the exercise was scheduled for Election Day, or that the crowd-control exercise would be conducted adjacent to a neighborhood. One public affairs officer speculated that national media in town for O’Rourke’s election party might be interested in covering the exercise.
In that November 2018 election, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives but Republicans won additional seats in the Senate. The GOP held the Texas Senate seat as Cruz narrowly defeated O’Rourke.
Trump stopped talking about migrant caravans after the election and no large groups tried to force their way across the El Paso border, the scenario that inspired the Border Patrol crowd-control exercise.
Smoke, horses and “shock and awe”
Before going further, it will be helpful to understand some often confusing roles for border-enforcement agencies. Border Patrol is part of CBP, but CBP also has its own officers who staff ports of entry. The Border Patrol generally works “between the ports,” meaning they work along the border but not on the bridges. Border Patrol agents wear green uniforms, CBP officers wear blue.
A week before the 2018 election, plans took shape for a show of force at the border that would be a joint exercise involving CBP’s Office of Field Operations, which controls the ports of entry, and various Border Patrol entities, including its horse patrol and its helicopter fleet.
CBP officers had been conducting mobile field force exercises at international bridges during Trump’s caravan furor as Election Day 2018 grew closer, but Border Patrol agents hadn’t participated.
The two top El Paso Border Patrol officials — Sector Chief Aaron Hull and Deputy Chief Chris Clem — pushed to have their agents participate with CBP officers in a “mobile field force” exercise at the Paso del Norte Bridge and adjacent areas in South El Paso, according to the emails.
Clem wanted to make sure the event featured smoke and “ponies on the bridge,” the emails show.
“BP plans to make this interesting to excess,” one CBP official, whose name was redacted, said in a Nov. 1 email.
A CBP official forwarded a summary of the exercise plan to other officials in a Nov. 2 email. The subject line said, “Circus is coming to town.”
In a Nov. 1 email, a patrol agent in charge said Clem “wanted a kind of shock and awe show of force” in the exercise. The agent, whose name was redacted, acknowledged that the exercise could have little effect on migrants seeking to come to the United States, but could serve another purpose.
“Not sure it’s going to deter anyone at this point in their journey but it sure will rile up the local advocacy groups,” the agent said.
CBP rejected plans to deploy smoke and horses on the bridges, but the Border Patrol continued plans to use them along the river levee area west of the bridge, which is adjacent to Chihuahuita. The exercise also called for helicopters to be used.
A Border Patrol official, whose name was redacted, said the smoke was meant to mimic CS, a tear gas. The email made clear the use of smoke was for media cameras.
“It is simulated CS and it is for the media. You will be famous. Wear gas masks. This is coming from the top,” said the email to another agent, whose name also is redacted.
Another Border Patrol email on Nov. 1 stressed: “Make sure the media are there. Especially (Mexican) media.” The author’s name was redacted.
Just before 5 p.m. Nov. 5, the Border Patrol sent out a news release announcing “a crowd control exercise at the railroad crossing west of the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry on Tuesday, November 6, 2018. The exercise will include participants and assets from the United States Border Patrol.”
After getting the press release, I started asking the Border Patrol and CBP why they were conducting a heavily militarized exercise next to an almost exclusively Hispanic neighborhood on the morning of Election Day. The only response I got was from a CBP spokesperson who said, “The international rail bridge is not a neighborhood.” I pointed out that it was adjacent to a neighborhood of several hundred people, but got no further response.
The ACLU and members of Congress were quick to respond with concerns, however, and the Washington Post and Texas Monthly started publishing the stories the evening of Nov. 5. That caught the attention of CBP and Border Patrol leaders in Washington as the sun rose on Nov. 6, Election Day.
Responding to questions from Brian Hastings, then the Border Patrol’s chief of law-enforcement operations, Clem said in an email the morning of Nov. 6 that the El Paso sector was just following orders.
“EPT did what we thought we were told to do ie …. Joint, coordinated, proactive planning and exercises,” Clem said in a Nov. 6 email to Brian Hastings, then the Border Patrol’s chief of law-enforcement operations.
By then, other CBP officials — whose names and titles are redacted in the released emails — were weighing in. One called the planned exercise “dumb.” Another said: “Horrible horrible idea on its face.” Another said: “Strongly hope this is canceled and BP apologizes. Ugh.”
Several officials were particularly critical of the El Paso Border Patrol’s decision to send a press release announcing the training exercise.
“Normally these are not done publicly, but for whatever reason these two chiefs (apparently referring to Hull and Clem) believe they need to ‘display our training.’ Bad optics,” said one CBP official, whose name was redacted.
In Clem’s email to Hastings he wrote: “The media advisory is (standard operating procedure) in EPT due to the close relationship we have with the area media. We have done these type(s) of advisories during previous (tactical training) exercises or anytime we do large scale exercises and think questions will come up.”
Shortly before the exercise was to start at 10 a.m., the Border Patrol sent a press release saying it was cancelled. Agents who had gathered near Chihuahuita started packing up their gear; some agents notified arriving journalists that the exercise was off.
Later that afternoon, CBP headquarters in Washington put out a statement to other media saying that my reporting was false and vowing to “continue training exercises in the following days, as necessary to ensure border security and the safety of the American people, the traveling public, CBP personnel and the communities in which we serve.”
On Nov. 8, two days after the election, the El Paso Border Patrol put out a press release announcing that the crowd control exercise would take place the following morning, in the same area as previously planned.
“For safety purposes, this training exercise will be closed to the public and media representatives,” the press release concluded.
Cover photo: A Border Patrol armored vehicle drove through Chihuahuita on Nov. 9, 2018, the day the agency conducted a crowd control exercise it had originally planned to conduct on Election Day, three days earlier. (Julián Aguilar/El Paso Matters)