Deploying tear gas at the border is not a new tactic

Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid members of the press, at the top of a riverbank at the Mexico-U.S. border after a group of migrants pushed past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

The images of migrants fleeing tear gas and pepper spray deployed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has caused public outrage and allegations of human rights abuses along the U.S.-Mexico border, but the crowd-control tactics are not new.

According to government data obtained by Sinclair Broadcast Group, tear gas and pepper spray were used dozens of times by both the Obama and Trump administrations to control crowds at the border.

On average, the Obama administration deployed pepper spray, or Pava Capsaicin, at a higher rate than the Trump administration, including using it 151 times in 2013. The data show that CBP used pepper spray 441 times between 2012 and 2018 and 99 times in 2017 and 2018.

In the past two years, the Trump administration has deployed tear gas 47 times. It was used 79 times during the last four years of the Obama administration. During 2012 and 2013 it was used a total of 53 times.

The overall number of times CBP resorted to some form of physical force were also higher during multiple years of the Obama administration. According to CBP data, firearms and "less-than-lethal" force were used 1,213 times in 2013 and 1,020 times in 2014. Those numbers were slightly down under the Trump administration with force being used 996 times in 2017.

Human rights organizations delivered a swift rebuke to the Trump administration over its tactics at the border. Amnesty International USA issued a statement calling the use of tear gas against families and children was "horrific" and "a new low for this administration." The American Civil Liberties Union described the administration's actions at the border "outrageous and inhumane."

Reports also emerged questioning why the United States employed tear gas, also known as 2-chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS), suggesting it was a violation of international prohibitions on chemical weapons.

Numerous organizations and medical professionals have raised concerns about the safety of 2-chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile, particularly when used improperly to control crowds. However, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has approved it as a method of riot control. Under U.S. and international law, tear gas is only considered a chemical weapon when used as a weapon of war.

The events surrounding Sunday's deployment are still somewhat sketchy and are under review by officials and nongovernmental institutions.

A CBP spokesperson said Tuesday that the agency is taking the latest incident at the border "very seriously" and regularly reviews all matters involving the use of force.

According to CBP's official account, on Sunday, over 1,000 people associated with the Central American migrant caravan attempted to cross into the United States illegally. The group reportedly ignored instructions from both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies and breached sections of the border fence in San Diego between legal ports of entry.

"The group immediately started throwing rocks and debris at our agents," Rodney Scott, the U.S. Border Patrol Chief of the San Diego Sector, said in an interview with CNN. Four agents were struck by rocks but were not hurt and some vehicles were damaged. U.S. authorities arrested 42 individuals involved in border clashes and Mexican authorities arrested more than 90.

Agents deployed tear gas "as a response to the assaults and to defuse this dangerous situation," a CBP spokesperson wrote in a statement to Sinclair Broadcast Group.

The statement continued, "We have seen the use of violence by members of this so-called caravan who have attacked law enforcement personnel in Guatemala, Mexico and now the U.S. CBP will consider using all approved and available resources to protect travelers, caravan members and our agents and officers."

Mexico’s foreign ministry reportedly sent a diplomatic note to the U.S. government on Monday demanding "a full investigation" into the incident over the weekend which could have international legal implications. Reuters reported that the Mexican government formally requested the inquiry "into what it described as non-lethal weapons directed toward Mexican territory."

Members of the Trump administration defended CBP's handling of the clashes at the border and pointed to the use of similar tactics under the previous administration. In a statement, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen noted, "The accepted use of nonlethal force (also used by the Obama Administration in 2013) prevented further injury to agents and a mass illegal rush across the border."

On Nov. 24, 2013, at virtually the same location as the Sunday clashes near the San Ysidro port of entry, CBP agents fired pepper balls at a group of approximately 100 people tried to illegally rush across the border. The crowd hurled rocks and bottles at Border Patrol agents who retaliated by firing pepper balls at them and followed up by employing other "intermediate use-of-force devices" to disperse the crowd.

"The policies we acted under to launch the tear gas, to disperse this crowd, that was an Obama-era policy we were operating under," National Border Patrol Council’s president Brandon Judd said in an interview with The Daily Caller. "Yet you don't hear the mainstream media talking about that."

President Donald Trump has been sharply criticized both for deploying the tactics and for comments in response to images of women and children fleeing tear gas. The president told reporters earlier this week that tear gas is "safe" and argued that parents should not have brought their children into situations they knew could turn violent or where tear gas could be used.

Reports featured accounts of mothers and children coughing and choking on the gas and suffering severe eye irritation and discomfort.

Previous presidents have also been criticized for both lethal and non-lethal use of force at the border. The George W. Bush administration was criticized in 2007 for firing tear gas and pepper-spray weapons into Mexico. CBP adopted the tactic at the time to deter what they described as a rising number of attacks on Border Patrol agents by individuals hurling stones and other projectiles.

In 2007, CBP reported nearly 1,000 attacks on agents across the U.S.-Mexico border. More recently, the number of assaults on CBP officers surged to 1,089 in 2010. It has since declined to 856 in 2017 with the majority of incidents involving individuals throwing projectiles or unarmed physical assault, according to a recent report by the DHS Office of the Inspector General.

President Barack Obama was also criticized for how his administration handled clashes at the border. Though a more significant issue at the time was the excessive use of force and lethal force by Customs and Border Protection officers. In 2013, members of Congress demanded transparency from the agency after 19 individuals died in encounters with CBP agents and officers over just three years.

On one occasion in 2010, a Mexican teenager was killed by a Border Patrol agent who shot multiple times through the border fence. The 15-year-old Sergio Hernández Güereca was reportedly part of a group of individuals throwing rocks at officials. The boy's family sued the U.S. government and the lawsuit was dismissed earlier this year.

CBP issued new guidelines during the Obama administration to improve training and provide agents with alternative weapons or equipment to help them defuse dangerous situations without resorting to lethal force. The agency also committed to increased transparency regarding incidents involving lethal or non-lethal force.

There have been at least 81 people killed by CBP personnel, both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, since 2010, according to data gathered by the Southern Border Communities Coalition. That includes alleged criminals and alleged innocent bystanders.

When considering the proportionality of using tear gas and pepper spray to deter rock-throwers or individuals breaching barriers at the border, CPB officials have continually asserted their agents' right to self-defense.

CBP officers and agents regularly face dangers enforcing the border. Since 2003, there have been 40 Customs and Border Patrol agents killed in the line of duty.

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