News & Politics

Masked Protesters 'Occupy' Border Patrol Museum in El Paso, Deface Fallen Agent Memorial

Dozens of protesters reportedly “occupied and reclaimed” the privately owned U.S. Border Patrol Museum near El Paso, Texas, over the weekend, harassing employees and visitors and defacing the museum’s fallen agent memorial.

Museum director David Ham told the Washington Examiner that his staff and guests worried for their safety when “about 50 rowdy protesters entered the facility, defaced property, and refused to leave the grounds.”

Protesters from the group Tornillo: The Occupation, assembled Saturday afternoon in the museum’s parking lot, where many of them proceeded to cover their faces with bandannas and masks. Then, holding signs and banners, they started singing and marching into the museum, which is a nonprofit run by volunteers.

“You guys need to leave, the cops are on their way,” a flustered museum employee told the group.

The agitators proceeded to place over 100 posters and stickers on exhibits throughout the museum while the museum’s staff and visitors were ushered into the gift shop for safe refuge until the police came.

A woman holding a bullhorn bellowed that the facility was celebrating the genocide of migrant families, “and that’s not okay!”

“We have a right to be here and share our own stories,” the woman said before handing the bullhorn over to another activist. Later, the woman said, “A lot of these Border Patrol agents are murderers. That’s what they are.”

As they were leaving the facility, the agitators chanted, “Say it loud, say it clear, Border Patrol kills!” and “f*ck your walls, f*ck your borders, we won’t take your f*cking orders!”

“We reclaimed their false narrative,” one of the protesters explained once outside the facility. “There shouldn’t be a museum for genocide.”

“That was really intimidating to our staff, plus their kind of aggressive attitude,” a museum official who is a 31-year veteran of the Border Patrol told the Examiner.

Ham, who was not at the museum at the time of the incident, said he got a call from an “upset” staff member.

“We have cameras, and we saw them gathering in the parking lot. We saw them come in the museum, and she had called 911. I was able to watch the cameras on my cellphone. They came in after putting masks on,” Ham told the Examiner in a phone call Monday.

“They proceeded to set up a bunch of signs and just went all over the museum. They of course had an agenda, they were chanting and singing songs, and then a couple of them got on a bullhorn,” Ham said. “We had visitors in the museum. They started talking and kind of harassing them. Of course the staff was asking them to leave, and they wouldn’t leave.”

Ham said his staff led non-protesting visitors to the back of the gift shop, so they could hide until police arrived on the scene.

According to the group’s Facebook page, the goal of the occupation was to expose “the true violence of borders and border patrol” following the deaths of two Guatemalan children who died after being taken into custody by federal agents near the U.S.-Mexico border in December.

Protesters plastered dozens of images on pictures, glass, painted walls, mannequins, and vehicles throughout the building. They also posted the pictures on the faces of Border Patrol agents who died in the line of duty.

The pictures showed three children, including Jakelin Caal. The 7-year-old died hours after illegally entering the United States near Antelope Wells, N.M., and an autopsy cited sepsis, a blood condition she would have had prior to being taken into custody, as the reason for her death.

Ham said the pictures had an adhesive on the back of them that was stronger than normal tape.

“It’s very hard to remove. They [staff] tried to remove some and they tear off. We’ve got antique cars, old Border Patrol vehicles, and an aircraft. We’re kind of worried it’s going to peel the paint off,” said Ham. “I know it’s peeled the paint off some of our walls.”
Ham said police are investigating the incident and an insurance adjuster will visit the museum Monday to estimate the amount of damage the group caused.

Military police from Fort Bliss ended up responding to the staff’s 911 calls because of the remoteness of the museum’s location. They detained all of the protesters once they had left the museum, and took down their information, according to the Examiner.

“BREAKING: Military police have blockaded our people at the Border Patrol Museum after our Nonviolent action to tell the true story of violence behind borders and those who patrol them. … After demanding everyone’s IDs, collecting personal information, and looking for warrants and immigration status, the military police have let our people go from the Border Patrol Museum parking lot,” a group member wrote on Facebook.

In a Facebook post later on Saturday, Ham vowed to go after the protesters.

“Today a group of protesters invaded the Border Patrol Museum and defaced all of our exhibits including our sacred Memorial Room. Efforts to prosecute them will be pursued once damage is assessed. This angers me greatly,” the museum director wrote.

One of the protest organizers, Elizabeth Vega, was previously involved in demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.

Vega told El Paso television station KVIA that the museum protest “was an act of civil disobedience done because we believe there is a humanitarian crisis and human rights violations being perpetuated by a corrupt and broken immigration system.”

She denied vandalism accusations but admitted the group did plaster sticky pictures of Caal and other children on various items inside the Border Patrol museum.

A U.S. Border Patrol Museum employee who confronted the unwelcome group estimates there were about 50 people. The employee, who has asked not to be identified for her protection, said she feels the invasion and vandalism were politically motivated.

“The Border Patrol Museum has been here for a long time,”  El Pasoan Luie Saldanha told KFOX 14. “Everyone should respect the place,” added Maria Saldanha.

One of the museum’s employees told News4SA that the protesters seemed to “come out of nowhere” and took over the facility quickly.

“They were everywhere,” said the employee. “You couldn’t see their faces, they had a lot of posters. They were marching, they were singing, they were being loud.”

This employee said the protest lasted about 30 minutes: “We weren’t physically assaulted, but we were just verbally assaulted and harassed,” she said.

“The visitors saw it and they took cover in our gift shop in the very, very back,” said the employee. She added that the harassment left her and others “feeling threatened and afraid.”

“The museum is there to educate them,” said the employee. “We have nothing to do with what’s going on out there.”