Press Parrots: The media unethically echoes Border Patrol press releases and ramps up anti-immigrant panic

Recent reporting on the death of Border Patrol agent Rogelio Martinez has shown the power of the Border Patrol to influence politicians and the press to construct and push a narrative to further the interests of the Border Patrol Council (BPC)–the agency’s pro-Trump union. (The Council endorsed Trump for President during the primaries in 2016 and has since the election had Trump’s ear as he formulates border enforcement policy.) Local media’s willingness to publish Border Patrol press releases as though they were news shows the magnitude of the Border Patrol’s ability to create a perfect storm for propaganda.

On November 19, Breitbart Texas, part of the ultra-right wing publication Breitbart, released some chilling news: Border Patrol agent Martinez, Breitbart reported, had been killed while on duty near Van Horn, Texas. Later that day Breitbart published a statement by Border Patrol Council president Brandon Judd, saying that Martinez had been brutally murdered by “illegal aliens” wielding rocks, and Martinez’s partner—later publicly identified as Stephen Garland— were injured in the same way.

“These disgusting acts and complete disregard for human life need to stop immediately,” said Judd in his statement to Breitbart.

The attacks, he said, were a terrifying and object lesson in why the U.S.-Mexico border needed to be further secured.

Photo by Debbie Nathan

As of this writing, it is by no means clear what really happened to agent Martinez, though almost a month has passed since his death. But no matter. Immediately following Breitbart’s story, the claim of a murder by stoning, and the call to secure the border, were picked up in a tweet from Donald Trump.

“Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt,” tweeted the President. “We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!”

The message was reinforced by right-wing politicians throughout Texas. Governor Greg Abbott even offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the attacker or attackers.  

But officials based in and near Van Horn, where the incident occurred, have disputed the Border Patrol union’s and Breitbart’s claims that an attack occurred.  

Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo believes the two agents may have suffered an accident, telling the Dallas Morning News that his office was “radioed to assist in the incident as an injury, not an assault.” Carrillo speculated that Martinez and Garland may have been knocked off of a shoulder on Interstate Highway 10, and fell several feet into a culvert, after being either clipped by the mirror of a passing tractor-trailer truck or blown by wind blasted by the vehicle.  Despite this theory of an accident, which is one of many being considered by the FBI, Breitbart and Republican politicians have dug in their heels.

On Dec. 5, the Albuquerque Journal reported that the FBI is investigating two brothers, both Mexicans, as persons of interest in the case. But given the need for thoroughness in the investigation and the fact that a total of $70,000 in reward money may have increased the likelihood for all sorts of tips to come in, claiming any possibility as the only one is premature.

The Border Patrol union and its supporters’ intransigence is not surprising, especially given the cozy relationships of the people and institutions who were the first to insist on certain murder by “illegal aliens,” instead of a possible tragic accident.   

Breitbart has close ties to the Border Patrol Council, even sponsoring its official podcast, The Green Line. It’s hosted by BPC spokespeople Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent and union official based in McAllen, Texas, and Art del Cueto, also a union leader, in Arizona.

When the BPC endorsed Trump’s candidacy, the union’s spokespeople said that if the country did not increase security at the borders, “American communities will continue to suffer at the hands of gangs, cartels and violent criminals preying on the innocent.” In the episode discussing the endorsement, Trump makes a guest appearance on the show.

After Trump won the Republican nomination for the Presidency, Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon joined Trump’s campaign staff. After the election, Bannon became Chief Strategist in the White House. Months after being sworn into office, Trump’s 2018 proposed budget included $300 million to hire 1,500 more ICE and Border Patrol agents.

Bannon later left his job as Trump’s top advisor and resumed his position as chairman of Breitbart with a renewed promise to go “to war for Trump.” One way he seems to be keeping his promise is by providing fodder for the anti-immigrant administration, via slipshod, biased and sensationalist reporting like Breitbart’s coverage of Border Patrol agent Martinez’ death.

Breitbart has sponsored the Green Line podcast since 2015 when an episode announcing the sponsorship featured Breitbart reporter Brandon Darby as a guest. On the show, Darby cited rock throwing by migrants as a reason that agents ought to be able to defend themselves with greater force and less scrutiny from their superiors and the DOJ.   

From The Green Line Facebok page

That was two years ago. Now, just after the death of Border Patrol agent Martinez in Texas in November,  it was Darby, along with reporter Ildefonso Ortiz (who is McAllen based and used to work at the McAllen Monitor), who broke the story of agent Martinez being “attacked.”

In Breitbart’s first report on the 19th of November, the publication cited an unnamed but “trusted CBP official” in Texas who told the publication about the “attack.” Given the close relationship between Breitbart and BPC spokesperson and Green Line host Chris Cabrera, it seems likely that Cabrera was Breitbart’s source for the “attack” claim. (Cabrera did not return repeated calls and messages  asking to interview him about the matter. ) Cabrera was later quoted in various reports about the incident about how the agents were attacked with rocks.

The podcast’s episode #185 “An Empty Seat at the Table” drones on and on about an “attack.” The show was recorded about two days after agent Martinez’s death, but not broadcast until Nov. 29, when the national media was already reporting growing doubts about the “stoning” story. Even so, the Green Line sticks to the narrative of homicidal rock throwing, with Cabrera calling Border Patrol agents “mountain goats” who hardly ever fall — which is why agent Martinez and his partner, according to Cabrera, must surely have been attacked.

Green Line co-host Art del Cueto, meanwhile, trashes authorities’ and the media’s reporting of the incident as a possible accident, saying that officials who couldn’t quickly and definitively figure out how the agents died were incompetent. For Del Cueto, the careful, often tedious work of real investigating is a sign not of a good job, but of a bad one, done by wimps.

“In order to be a leader, you have to make difficult decisions sometimes,” says Cueto on the podcast. “If you have to survey everyone and their mother before you talk or say something, you’re not a leader. You’re just a puppet.”

On Episode #185, Cueto and Cabrera also take turns fuming against law enforcement agencies unwilling to prosecute border crossers who “attack agents,” as they put it. Cueto uses anecdotes of agents he knows who are on light duty after being assaulted, and claims that their attackers were freed and are now “eating tacos and drinking Corona.” He continues to opine that the Border Patrol and federal prosecutors need to let agents use more force on migrants.

“The U.S. Attorneys need to ‘grow a set,’” Cabrera intones. “And say, ‘You know what? You lay a finger on our agents, you’re gonna feel it. None of this ‘What did the agent do to you?’. . .You’re going to jail and you probably got a little beat up for it.”

Cabrera and Cueto’s prescription for state-sanctioned violence extends not only to migrants but to protesters of Bannon, and to immigrants’ rights supporters. The hosts claim to be fine with “peaceful protests”, but assembling without a permit means that law enforcement must make arrests, or officers can’t  get upset when Cabrera “beats the crap” out of protesters.

The Green Line’s hosts’ easy talk of committing extrajudicial violence against people they dislike comes straight out of a cheesy war movie. Indeed, cheesy-war rules at the Green Line. The show’s theme starts musically with the grand, patriotic tune “Pomp and Circumstance,” and then shatters into frenetically paced, metal guitar, a theme befitting an Xbox game for 12-year-old boys fantasizing enemy mayhem and a Rambo response. But The Green Line hawks combat items to adult listeners. There is “Black Rifle Coffee,” whose touted effects sound oddly similar to those of uncontrolled adrenaline, or meth. Tactical wardrobe from HAIX such as boots, as well as hatchets and other sharp implements from Gerber Knives, are promoted throughout the show and sometimes given away as prizes to the audience.

Deceased Border Patrol agent Martinez’ partner Garland, who was with Martinez and injured during the incident, reportedly can’t remember how it happened. But on the Green Line, Cabrera, Del Cueto, and the BPC do the “remembering” for Garland—and for the rest of us. They want reporters to take their suspicions and supposed “insider-knowledge” as fact.

Some of the media did just that during the first two days after Agent Martinez’s death. The Associated Press, for instance, interviewed Cabrera and quoted him and his “migrant stoning attack” theory, without explaining that Cabrera is closely connected to Breitbart and that on the Green Line he and Cueto have boasted about their meetings with Trump and his administration.

Within a week or so after Martinez’s death, the tide in the media started to turn away from the Green Line and the union’s take on what happened. But a week is a long time. And during that time, much of the press acted as it, unfortunately, has done with border incidents reported in the past.

As part of their regular communications strategy, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) distributed a press release stating that they had captured members of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, or MS-13, at the Texas-Mexico border. The McAllen Monitor, in the Rio Grande Valley, echoed the CPB release without so much as a follow-up or any further reporting to provide proper context for the story. If they had, they would have reported that MS-13 is blowback from U.S. economic and immigration policies that affected Salvadorans in the 1980s, both in the U.S. and in El Salvador. MS-13’s brush with U.S. immigration officials is not an isolated incident, but reporting it as such, with information only coming from Customs and Border Patrol,  has become habitual for the newspaper.

Art by Josue Ramirez for Neta

Not surprisingly, the Border Patrol has a coordinated communications department to churn out press releases. The press is not supposed to reprint press releases. They’re supposed to use them as a jumping-off point for their own reporting. It’s unprofessional and unethical to take a government press release at face value, especially when it comes from an agency as controversial as the Border Patrol.

But such lazy reporting has become common for the newspaper as well as local broadcasting networks like Channel 4. Summarizing press releases without adding context is a problem, say immigrants’ rights activists, because, particularly in this age of Trump, the practice bolsters the moral-panic narrative that migrants are inherently dangerous.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric along with legislation has ramped up this last year, Raul Alonzo, member of the Corpus Christi Immigration Coalition told Neta. According to the activist panic narratives about immigrants are dangerous, especially because “so many of our neighbors, our friends—the average folks who make up our community—may be undocumented.”

Alonzo said that the Coalition, based in the Coastal Bend area, has seen how anti-immigrant narratives help create propaganda to bolster Trump’s dog-whistle, xenophobic arguments that the Rio Grande Valley and the US, in general, need to ramp up militarization to keep immigrants criminalized and border agents safe.

“Associating communities of color with crime has long been a tactic by those in power to fearmonger and pass repressive legislation. We’re definitely seeing the same thing happening today,” said Alonzo.

When dealing with media outlets that merely echo what they’re told by CBP and the Border Patrol Council, caution and context are sorely needed. In October, the Intercept exposed how ICE’s communication’s department pushes stories of its arrests of criminals, to justify ICE’s mega-raids that have swept up immigrants whose only “crime” was entering the country without documents.  

When asked about the Monitor’s protocol on deciding when to further investigate into press releases, editor Carlos Sanchez said that the decision whether or not to further report depends on how egregious the incident is that the press release is describing. If the incident seems routine, Sanchez said, a press release by law enforcement is sufficient.

“Once it hits the court system, we’ll look at the magnitude of the crime,” Sanchez told Neta in a phone call.” He said that his newspaper’s staff and budget are too small to report on every press release received. “I don’t know if I would necessarily expend resources digging deeper into individual press releases unless that particular case justified such (a need),” Sanchez said. “I would argue that all press releases are self-serving, which is why we don’t simply act as stenographers. We will get the information and we’ll publish it, and if it’s information about simple arrests, that’s the end of it.”

While arrests may seem routine for Sanchez and other reporters who are regularly immersed in law enforcement activity, readers, and viewers who see daily news of arrests may get the impression that their communities are under siege by mayhem and crime.

“One of the most fundamental duties we have as reporters is to verify, verify, verify information, and then verify some more,” said Alfredo Corchado, a Dallas Morning News reporter who was one of the first on the scene to report on Martinez’ death in Van Horn. “I cannot think of a situation where we give any institution a free pass and not double check, vet the information for readers, viewers, listeners.” That sort of practice, Corchado said, is “not how accountability journalism works.”  

Border crossings were at a record low this year, which the head of DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, credits to Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda.  When BPC leaders Cabrera and Cueto assert on their show that authorities, the media, and the public should take their union’s word for what happens at the border, they are complaining about a problem which, by their own standard, has already been solved. The media acts as a mouthpiece for the Border Patrol’s communications department. As the news on Rogelio Martinez’ tragic death in Van Horn shows us, the practice is unethical at best, and at worst politically harmful.   

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Debbie Nathan contributed editing to this story.

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