Protecting Civil and Human Rights

Leadership Crisis at Customs and Border Protection

A pattern of high-level misconduct has enveloped Customs and Border Protection, but will the public ever know what happened?

Collage of an immigrant family standing in front of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and five obscured Customs and Border Protection officials on the other side.

(Illustration: Ren Velez / POGO)

In under two years, six current and former leaders of the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, Customs and Border Protection, have been placed under investigation by internal affairs for misconduct — and the public may never learn what investigators find. Given the massive power of the agency and the expansive number of people the agency encounters, this is a shocking accountability gap. Politicians cannot continue to throw money and resources at the agency without addressing its long-standing impunity.  

The Border Patrol, one of Customs and Border Protection’s largest divisions, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. But one of the main events — a gala in El Paso, Texas, that several of the agency’s contractors paid up to $100,000 each to sponsor — was canceled at the last minute. According to Border Patrol sources, the cancellation was related to an investigation by Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility into two high level Border Patrol officials, Chief Jason Owens and Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Gloria Chavez, and their contacts with two businessmen: Mexican tequila manufacturer Francisco Javier González and Texas customs broker Eduardo Garza.

NBC News reported that the office was investigating whether Owens and Chavez properly disclosed their contacts with González and Garza, or improperly accepted anything of value from them. One Border Patrol source told NBC News that the allegations were “embarrassing”; a separate source who attended the trip to Jalisco told the Washington Examiner that “Jason will be cleared for all of this. The trip was approved, documented, and personal leave taken. … We paid for everything. We have receipts for everything.”

In any case, this is only the latest — and not the most serious — in a string of Office of Professional Responsibility investigations into Border Patrol and CBP leadership. 

In October 2022, Tony Barker, then the third-ranking official in Border Patrol, retired after the office began an investigation into allegations that he had pressured multiple female employees for sex. In February 2024 Joel Martinez, the second-ranking official in Border Patrol, retired after having been suspended and placed under investigation for similar allegations of sexual misconduct. Barker said in a statement to the press that “The allegations that I pressured any woman for sexual favors or victimized them are entirely and unequivocally false.” Martinez has not commented publicly. (Neither Barker nor Martinez responded to POGO’s request for comment.) 

The same month that Martinez stepped down, the head of the Border Patrol Academy, Ryan Landrum, was also reportedly placed on administrative leave due to a misconduct investigation conducted by the Office of Professional Responsibility. CBP did not provide further details about the nature of the misconduct.

The office began investigating CBP’s head of medical services, Dr. Alexander Eastman, after whistleblowers alleged misconduct and mismanagement by Eastman. The whistleblowers’ allegations include improper and unnecessary procurement of fentanyl, mismanaging CBP contracts, defending contractors’ failure to properly diagnose and treat a child’s burn, using sexually suggestive language that creates a hostile work environment, and consuming alcohol while in possession of a CBP-issued gun. Eastman didn’t respond to a POGO request for comment.

The [CBP] office almost never releases the results of its investigations into use of force, employee arrests, or allegations of misconduct, except in aggregate statistical reports that come out over a year later.

Asked for comment on the status of these cases, a CBP spokesperson replied with the following statement: “Maintaining the public’s trust is vital to our mission. CBP does not tolerate misconduct within our ranks. When we discover any alleged or potential misconduct, we immediately refer it for investigation and cooperate fully with any criminal or administrative investigations. This is the case whether the alleged misconduct occurs on or off duty. Investigations are conducted thoroughly and with proper oversight, ensuring that appropriate action can be taken if and as needed. Consistent with our commitment to transparency, we make reports public whenever possible within legal and privacy constraints.”

Unfortunately, we may never know more than that — part of a pattern of a lack of transparency and accountability from CBP. The office almost never releases the results of its investigations into use of force, employee arrests, or allegations of misconduct, except in aggregate statistical reports that come out over a year later. Final outcomes of individual investigations are only released to the public in rare cases when agency leadership chooses to make them public (as they did with the investigation into the treatment of Haitian migrants near Del Rio, Texas), or when Congress demands it (as with the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s 2021 investigation into violent, offensive Facebook posts by Border Patrol agents and the agency’s response). Individuals who file complaints with the office about mistreatment by CBP sometimes have their cases closed without being interviewed, or never hear back at all. 

To be fair to the Office of Professional Responsibility, the internal affairs office has been understaffed for years. The office recently began a hiring surge, but it coincided with an expansion of the office’s responsibilities and a high rate of attrition. In cases of shootings, fatal vehicle pursuits, and other deaths resulting from CBP enforcement, the office became responsible for responding to the scene, collecting evidence, investigating, and releasing summaries of the incident and relevant body camera footage to the public. 

Those videos and press releases are a real step forward from a chronically opaque agency, but they do not provide answers — let alone anything resembling accountability — to families whose loved ones died in CBP custody or at CBP’s hands. An edited video and a press release are not the same as a full investigation. The family of Raymond Mattia, a Tohono O’odham man whom Border Patrol agents shot nine times in front of his home although he attempted to comply with their instructions, has been unable get non-public details about why he was killed or view unedited body camera footage from the shooting. They are suing. The family of Anadith Danay Reyes Álvarez, an eight-year-old who died in Border Patrol detention a year ago after contractors ignored her mother’s pleas for medical aid, recently had to file a lawsuit in an attempt to get access to copies of her medical records from her time in CBP custody. 

Those videos and press releases are a real step forward from a chronically opaque agency, but they do not provide answers — let alone anything resembling accountability.

The families’ distrust of open-ended and opaque investigations is justified. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, more than half of the Office of Professional Responsibility’s new recruits in its southwest border offices come directly from the Border Patrol, which may threaten their independence in investigating former coworkers. Moreover, the office’s training and policies “do not address how [investigators] should identify potential impairments to their independence and the steps they should take to address them.” The office also lacks statutory independence from CBP leadership, which could permit leadership to influence the outcome of investigations or make the office reluctant to criticize high-ranking officials.

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general does have more independence and routinely makes its investigations public, so is technically a mechanism of oversight and accountability, but the current inspector general, Joseph Cuffari, has been more likely to cover up misconduct than to investigate it. 

Without effective oversight from internal affairs or the inspector general, only Congress and the executive branch have the authority to address CBP’s chronic problems and current leadership crisis. The White House could appoint and the Senate could confirm a permanent commissioner of CBP and a truly independent inspector general. Congress could hold hearings into chronic issues like sexual harassment and misconduct, require disclosures of important investigations, and condition the agency’s funding on improving its record. Unfortunately, at the moment, the two parties are too busy arguing over who is tougher on the border and who can give more resources to the Border Patrol to demand accountability from its leaders. And agency leadership has years of experience using a perpetual “border crisis” to avoid answering questions and making serious reforms. We all deserve better. 

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