A Nogales Border Patrol agent called the people he apprehends “disgusting subhuman s--- unworthy of being kindling for a fire” and asked the president to “PLEASE let us take the gloves off trump!,” federal prosecutors said in court documents.
The statements were made in a text message sent by Agent Matthew Bowen, 39, who is accused of knocking down a Guatemalan man with his Border Patrol vehicle on Dec. 3, 2017, and then lying in a report about the incident, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson.
Prosecutors Lori Price and Monica Ryan are asking a judge to allow some of Bowen’s text messages to be used as evidence of his “great disdain” for the people he apprehends, which could shed light on his state of mind when he hit the man with his truck.
If a jury were to see the texts, defense lawyer Sean Chapman wrote that he would argue certain terms are “commonplace throughout the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, that it is part of the agency’s culture, and therefore says nothing about Mr. Bowen’s mind-set.”
The language in Bowen’s text messages, some of which “could be perceived as racist or offensive,” would not help a jury determine “whether he, on this occasion, set out to use excessive force to apprehend the alleged victim,” Chapman wrote.
Among the examples the prosecutors cite is an exchange on Dec. 18, 2017, in which an unidentified person asked Bowen: “Did you gas hiscorpse (sic) or just use regular peanut oil while tazing?? For a frying effect.”
Bowen responded, “Guats are best made crispy with an olive oil from their native pais,” using a derogatory term for Guatemalan citizens and the Spanish word for country, pais.
Bowen sent numerous text messages to agent Lonnie Ray Swartz, who was acquitted last year of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. Swartz was accused of shooting through the border fence in Nogales in 2012 and killing 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in Mexico during an alleged rock-throwing incident.
After a rock-throwing incident in November 2017, Bowen sent Swartz a text message calling the rock throwers “mindless murdering savages.”
In several text messages, Bowen references “tonks,” a derogatory term for border-crossing migrants. The origins of the term are unclear, but it sometimes is connected to the sound of a flashlight hitting the back of someone’s head. In another explanation, it is an acronym for “temporarily outside native country.”
The term “toncs” also appeared in text messages sent among Border Patrol agents as they planned to raid a humanitarian aid station in Ajo in January 2018, as the Star reported May 8, 2018.
The agents arrested two men who crossed the border illegally and Scott Warren, a No More Deaths volunteer who was accused of illegally harboring the men by giving them food and shelter. Warren is scheduled to stand trial later this month in Tucson’s federal court.
A federal grand jury indicted Bowen, a 10-year veteran of the Border Patrol, on May 30, 2018, on charges of depriving the Guatemalan man of his civil rights under color of law and falsifying records, the Arizona Daily Star reported June 5, 2018.
The following is a narrative of the events that led to Bowen’s indictment, based on a sworn affidavit filed by a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.
Around 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2017, a CBP camera operator in Nogales saw a man who appeared to have just jumped the border fence near the Mariposa Port of Entry, the special agent wrote.
The camera operator followed the man, identified as Antolin Lopez Aguilar, a 23-year-old Guatemalan, as he ran toward a gas station about 100 yards north of the port of entry. Lopez entered an open lot behind the gas station where semitrailers were parked.
Three Border Patrol agents arrived at the lot minutes later. One agent got out of his truck and spotted Lopez hiding under a semitrailer. The agent told him to come out and surrender, but Lopez ran back toward the port of entry.
As Lopez ran away, Bowen quickly turned his truck and “accelerated aggressively into a position behind the running Lopez Aguilar — this maneuver put the front grille of the (truck) directly behind Lopez Aguilar,” the special agent wrote.
As Lopez ran, Bowen “followed closely behind him, striking Lopez Aguilar twice” with the front of the truck.
With the first contact, Lopez “reached back while running and used his hands to ‘push off’ of the hood” of the truck. Seconds later, Bowen accelerated the truck “directly into the back of Lopez Aguilar’s body, knocking Lopez Aguilar to the ground.”
The tires of the truck “came to a full stop within inches of running Lopez-Aguilar over where he lay on the ground,” the special agent wrote.
Bowen jumped out of his truck and handcuffed Lopez. The other two agents arrived seconds later. Bowen handed over Lopez, who still had gravel on his face, to the two agents and drove away.
Lopez was taken to a Nogales hospital with abrasions to his right hand and both knees. He was sentenced the next day to 30 days in federal prison for crossing the border illegally, court records show. The judge recommended he receive medical care as soon as possible.
One of the agents viewed a video of the incident later that day and said he had “never seen anything like that before,” the special agent wrote.
“A little push”
Bowen also is accused of filing a false report about striking Lopez with the Ford F-150 Border Patrol truck.
In a text message to Swartz the day after the incident, Bowen said he gave the man “just a little push with a ford bumper.”
Three days after the incident, Bowen sent a text message to another agent saying if he had tackled the man he still would be doing paperwork.
“I wonder how they expect us to apprehend wild ass runners who don’t want to be apprehended,” Bowen wrote.
After Bowen learned he was being investigated, he sent a memo to the chief patrol agent that offered a different account, prosecutors said.
In the memo, Bowen said he was unfamiliar with the acceleration power of that particular truck and he was trying to get close enough to more easily detain Lopez. He also said he wasn’t sure if the truck struck Lopez.
Prosecutors quoted Bowen stating in the report “in the future, I will adjust my tactics so that accidents like this do not occur.”
Bowen started working as an agent in 2008 and was placed on indefinite suspension without pay in June 2018 after his indictment, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector said in response to an inquiry from the Star.
Prosecutors filed a motion saying if Bowen decided to testify, they intended to cite previous accusations that he used unnecessary force while making arrests.
In January 2012, the occupant of a car said Bowen searched the car without probable cause and “caused him injuries when he pulled him from the car, threw him to the ground, and handcuffed him,” prosecutors wrote.
Chapman responded that the occupant refused to get out of the car. The driver argued with Bowen and “gave him ‘attitude.’” Bowen then forced him out of the car and onto the ground. No disciplinary action was taken.
In March 2015, an agent said Bowen used unnecessary force when he “tackled the alien to the ground after the alien had stopped running, resulting in an injury to the alien, specifically, a busted lip,” prosecutors wrote.
Chapman said Bowen tackled the person after a group scattered in the desert. The “busted lip” happened when Bowen tackled him from behind and he hit the ground. Bowen received an oral admonishment from his supervisor.
In April 2015, a migrant said Bowen “pulled the alien up from the ground by his handcuffs after the alien tripped and fell while walking down a hill, resulting in an injury to the alien, specifically, abrasions on his wrists,” prosecutors wrote.
Chapman said Bowen was verbally reprimanded by his supervisor.
In September 2015, an agent anonymously reported that a juvenile migrant “was bleeding from his lip and Matthew Bowen bragged about how hard he took the juvenile down,” prosecutors wrote.
Chapman said “numerous interviews failed to corroborate the allegation of excessive force.”
In October 2015, a migrant said Bowen “transported the alien, while handcuffed, on the front of an All-Terrain Vehicle, and intentionally slammed on the brakes, causing the alien to launch forward and injure himself,” prosecutors wrote.
Chapman said officials interviewed witnesses, and the allegation was determined to be not sustained.
Two weeks before the incident with the Ford F-150 in Nogales, Bowen texted to Swartz that he was fed up with the Border Patrol and planned to quit.
“This is a failed agency,” Bowen texted. “Its sad bc BP does really important work but we are treated like s---, prosecuted for doing what it takes to arrest these savages and not given appropriate resources to fully do our job.”
Bowen said he would miss certain parts of the job, such as “the chase of hunting down s---bags with your crew, defeating somebody who thought they were faster than you.”
The Tucson Sector did not address a question about whether the language Bowen used in text messages was common or accepted among agents, but said agents are “held to the highest standards, and any action of misconduct within our ranks will not be tolerated.”
Chapman declined to comment.
Bowen’s trial is scheduled to start Aug. 13 before Judge Cindy K. Jorgenson.
Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or email@example.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar