MCALLEN, Tex. — The Border Patrol agent, she remembers, was calm when he tied her to the tree and put silver duct tape over her mouth. He said very little.
She was a 14-year-old undocumented immigrant who had just crossed the Rio Grande, traveling with a teenage friend and the friend’s mother from Honduras. They had hoped to surrender to the Border Patrol and stay in the United States.
But instead of taking them in for processing, the agent, Esteban Manzanares, had driven them to an isolated, wooded area 16 miles outside the border city of McAllen, Tex. There he sexually assaulted the friend and viciously attacked her and her mother, twisting their necks, slashing their wrists and leaving them, finally, to bleed in the brush. Then he led the 14-year-old girl to the tree.
“I only asked him why he was doing this,” she recalled. “Why me? He would only say that he had been thinking about it for days. He had been thinking about this for days.”
The Border Patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, with nearly twice the staff of the F.B.I. Through the years, a small number of officers have succumbed to temptation and reached for a share of the millions of dollars generated in the smuggling of drugs, weapons and people across the southwest border. But a civil suit stemming from the March 2014 attack near McAllen, now making its way through the courts, is shedding light on a more sinister kind of corruption. Over the past four years, at least 10 people in South Texas have been victims of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping or rape — all, according to prosecutors and officials, at the hands of Border Patrol agents who suddenly and violently snapped.
In April, Ronald Anthony Burgos Aviles, 29, an agent in the sprawling 116-county Laredo sector, was charged with stabbing and killing his girlfriend and their 1-year-old son. Then, in September, another Laredo sector agent, Juan David Ortiz, 35, admitted to investigators that he went on a 12-day killing spree, fatally shooting four people working as prostitutes and trying to abduct a fifth.
As a result of a civil suit filed by the three women attacked by Mr. Manzanares, the Border Patrol has been forced to answer questions about its hiring practices, its ability to weed out disturbed agents, and whether there is adequate supervision of officers.
Sworn testimony and other documents filed in that case, as well as lengthy interviews the three women gave to The New York Times, provide an unusual window into a case that otherwise might have had little scrutiny. Mr. Manzanares never went to trial, because he fatally shot himself as soon as federal investigators discovered his crime and closed in to stop him.
The case goes beyond any one Border Patrol administration: President Trump has given the agency substantial reinforcements and a wider mission, but the attack on the Honduran women occurred during President Barack Obama’s presidency. Critics say the very nature of Border Patrol agents’ work — dealing with vulnerable, powerless people, often alone on the nation’s little-traveled frontiers — makes it easy for troubled agents to go unnoticed.
In September, Judge Randy Crane of the Federal District Court in McAllen, Tex., dismissed claims of negligent hiring and supervision of Mr. Manzanares filed by the two women who were the victims of his initial attack. The judge concluded that supervisors had not been alerted to any problem in the agent’s background and had no reason to know that anything was amiss. But he allowed claims filed by the 14-year-old girl, now 18, whose ordeal had gone on well into the night — and might have been prevented if Mr. Manzanares’s actions had been detected earlier — to proceed.
The case will drag out for months, however. Judge Crane suggested recently that he was prepared to allow appeals of some of his previous rulings to proceed before the case goes to trial.
Lawyers for the three women presented evidence that Mr. Manzanares’s supervisors failed to notice or intervene when the agent ignored his duties for hours, and failed to thoroughly inspect his truck when he returned at the end of his shift. If they had, the evidence showed, they would have seen it contained used duct tape, blood and discarded restraints.
Mr. Manzanares, a father of two, had no major disciplinary infractions during his six years with the agency, which he joined in 2008 after serving with the United States Army in Afghanistan and working as a jailer for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department. But according to court documents, he appeared to have become a pedophile, and one of the issues in the lawsuit has been whether the Border Patrol should have conducted the kind of employee reviews that would have brought that to light.
In late 2013 and early 2014, he was in the midst of a divorce, living in an apartment in the border city of Mission with his two dogs. Even among his neighbors — more than two dozen of his Border Patrol colleagues lived in the same gated complex — Mr. Manzanares largely kept to himself.
His rampage that day might never have been discovered had the older woman left for dead after the initial attack not come across a Customs and Border Protection officer as she emerged from the brush.
She was still bleeding, and clearly terrified.
The man who did this to her and her daughter, she told the officer, was “dressed just like you.”
‘I Tried to Be Strong’
The woman, M.G., still has trouble sleeping. (All three women, interviewed in January, asked to be identified only by their initials.) When she dreams, the border agent returns to her in her nightmares. When she wakes, she stares and rubs at the scars on both of her wrists, not so much neat slices as pale, jagged, random dashes. “Last night, I dreamed all of it, from the moment that we crossed the river,” she said. “Every time I dream it, I live through it again. Sometimes I’d like to block my mind and think this didn’t happen, but this did happen.”
M.G. showing the scars on her wrists.CreditCaitlin O'Hara for The New York Times
It had been a coincidence that the three women had crossed the river together.
All three were from the same small town in northern Honduras and were neighbors and friends. J.E., the girl who had been tied to the tree, had been trying to join her parents, who were already in the United States. M.G. and her daughter were on their own journey to America. The three of them stayed at the same hotel in Guatemala and decided to travel the rest of the way together.
They crossed the Rio Grande on a raft early that morning as their smuggler directed it to the other side. They had been on a dirt road for only a matter of minutes when Mr. Manzanares pulled up in his Border Patrol vehicle.
“When I saw him, I said, ‘Thank God,’” M.G. said.
But they slowly began to worry as they sat on metal benches in the back of the truck. M.G. thought there was something strange about the way the man was breathing. At first, she tried not to show her fear to the girls.
“I pretended,” she said. “I tried to be strong.”
When her husband had come to the United States, he had been lost in the desert for three days. “He told me that the only thing that he did was to pray Psalm 91 many times, and he told me that’s how God had saved him and protected him,” she said. So the three of them prayed Psalm 91 as Mr. Manzanares drove.
Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers.
“We prayed it many times, many times, many times,” M.G. said.
Mr. Manzanares made a series of stops with them. J.E. recalled that he told them to get on their knees so he could put plastic restraints on their wrists. On one of the last stops, M.G.’s daughter, N.C., watched Mr. Manzanares force her mother out of the back of the truck and lead her into the woods.
“I was crying, telling him to leave my mom alone,” said N.C., who is now 18.
M.G., now 40, recalled hearing her daughter’s screams as he led her away. “I was begging him to kill me but not kill my daughter, and my daughter was screaming there where she was, ‘Come kill me, don’t harm my mother.’”
He threw M.G. down, twisted her neck and cut her wrists. “I felt I was losing consciousness, but every time my daughter screamed, I didn’t want to go,” she said.
He returned to the truck for N.C. She said she had only one thing on her mind: “I was only thinking about finding my mother.” Mr. Manzanares took N.C. out into the woods, twisted her neck, molested her, took pictures of her, cut her wrist and then covered her with dirt and brush, as she pretended to be dead.
He went back to the vehicle again and drove J.E. to a stand of trees at the edge of a field. She said she steeled herself, in part, by keeping her mind blank, “as if nothing were happening.”
It is unclear how many hours she was handcuffed to the tree. According to interviews with the victims and court documents, Mr. Manzanares left his Border Patrol station at the end of his shift at a few minutes before 6 p.m. He changed out of his uniform into a shirt and sweatpants and then returned to the field in his own pickup. He took J.E. from the tree and drove her to his apartment. J.E. recalled that she still had duct tape over her mouth when he carried her over his shoulder to the apartment, and that she made eye contact with a woman standing in the complex.
“She didn’t do anything,” J.E. said. “Why didn’t she do anything?”
Inside his apartment, Mr. Manzanares used shoelaces to tie her hands and feet to the bed. Then he took pictures of her, naked, with his phone.
“He behaved like he had done it before,” she said. He began talking about things that did not make sense, telling her a drug cartel was coming to kill her. She did not believe him, but “in that moment, it felt like my life was over.”
She asked him one thing: If he had any daughters, would he like it “if someone did the same thing that he was doing to me, to them.”
He sexually assaulted her three times that night, while she remained tied to a bunk bed in a bedroom. F.B.I. agents and Mission police officers, meanwhile, having identified the agent based in part on M.G.’s report, were closing in.
It was shortly before 1 a.m. and J.E. was trying to fall asleep when she heard loud knocking on the apartment door. Then she heard a single gunshot. Officers eventually forced open the door, untied her and kept her wrapped in a blanket as they put her in an ambulance.
Mr. Manzanares had shot and killed himself with a .40-caliber pistol while seated at his dining room table. On the table, officers found a two-page suicide note. “I am sorry for what I have done,” he wrote, explaining that he had been troubled since coming back from Afghanistan. “I am a monster.”
“He behaved like he had done it before,” said J.E., 18.CreditCaitlin O'Hara for The New York Times
No Questions Asked
The three women now live far from the South Texas border, in southwestern Virginia. All three were granted permission to remain in the United States on so-called U visas, issued to victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes.
Officials with Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that they cannot comment on the pending lawsuit, but that they take allegations of misconduct seriously. “C.B.P. has a work force of dedicated men and women who are among the finest civil servants in the world, who carry out their duties with the utmost professionalism, efficiency, honor and distinction,” the statement read. “C.B.P. acts decisively and appropriately to address any misconduct.”
But agency officials revealed in their response to the women’s lawsuit that they had no procedure in place for supervising agents in the field. No policy, they noted, required supervisors to make verbal or physical contact with agents during a shift.
Mr. Manzanares had so much autonomy that day that he even briefly drove his victims into and out of his Border Patrol station in McAllen, but no one questioned his actions.
Sensors set up in the borderlands alert Border Patrol to suspicious activity and movements in the brush, and though Mr. Manzanares failed to respond to the majority of sensor activity in his zone that day, none of his superiors took any steps to find out why.
Government officials defended the criminal background checks performed on Mr. Manzanares. In court documents, they said that two background investigations — one in 2007 before he officially started working as an agent, and another during his employment in 2013 — turned up nothing.
Today, all Border Patrol applicants who pass background checks are required to also take a polygraph test, but Mr. Manzanares never took one, because the requirement did not apply to employees hired before 2012. One Customs and Border Protection official testified that if Mr. Manzanares had been given a polygraph exam, it probably would have revealed that he appeared to be a pedophile.
Now, the agency is likely to face similar questions about Mr. Ortiz in Laredo. The authorities are continuing to examine whether any government equipment and weapons were used in the assaults he is accused of, and whether his supervisors were aware of any unusual behavior.
“These individuals who are supposed to be protectors were predators, both of them,” Christine Poarch, a lawyer who represents Mr. Manzanares’s three victims, said of the Ortiz and Manzanares cases. “They preyed on vulnerable populations.”
Mitchell Ferman contributed reporting from McAllen, Tex.