The bodies have been turning up for years, thousands of them, scattered across the borderlands in the American Southwest. Ever-stricter border enforcement has encouraged migrants to avoid cities like San Diego and El Paso and take their chances at remote desert crossings instead. As they trek across the vast, unfamiliar and scorching terrain, many get disoriented and run out of water, with devastating consequences. So far this year, 94 bodies have been recovered in Arizona alone.

Since 2004, a faith-based coalition called No More Deaths has been leaving gallon jugs of water near common migration routes in a desperate bid to save lives. But in May of this year, just as temperatures in the harsh Sonoran Desert climbed above 100 degrees, the group’s volunteers began to notice that their water bottles were being slashed, destroyed or emptied. With violence from ranchers and vigilantes a constant threat, No More Deaths installed hidden cameras. They were surprised at what they found: Border Patrol agents were purposely, even gleefully, destroying the life-saving jugs of water.

Visible on the tape, which will be broadcast for the first time tonight on the PBS show “Need to Know,” are three Border Patrol agents, two men and a woman, walking along a migrant trail and approaching half a dozen one-gallon jugs of water. The female agent stops in front of the containers and begins to kick them, with force, down a ravine. The bottles crash against rocks, bursting open. She’s smiling. One of the agents watching her smiles as well, seeming to take real pleasure in the spectacle. He says something under his breath, and the word “tonk” is clearly audible. “Tonk,” it turns out, is a bit of derogatory slang used by some Border Patrol agents to refer to undocumented immigrants. One agent told me it’s derived from the sound a flashlight makes when you hit someone over the head — tonk. After destroying the entire water supply, the three agents continue along the path.

(In response to specific questions about these events, Border Patrol officials replied only with a general statement emphasizing that misconduct would not be tolerated and that agents were trained to treat migrants with dignity and respect.)

The event was not an anomaly. A volunteer with No More Deaths had complained several months earlier to Lisa Reed, community liaison for the Tucson Sector Border Patrol, that water was being destroyed by agents. Reed responded then with an email saying, “I am preparing a memo from the Chief to all the agents directing them to leave water alone.” The agents on the tape apparently either never got the memo — or simply ignored it.

This attitude extends into the Border Patrol’s holding facilities.

I met Demetrio, a migrant in his early 20s from Veracruz, Mexico, after he was apprehended by the Border Patrol. At the time of his capture, he’d been lost in the Arizona desert without food or water for three days. When he arrived at the Border Patrol custody facility outside Tucson, he told agents he felt sick and was running a fever. “I asked to see a doctor … and they said no,” Demetrio said. “One of them said, ‘Put him in there and let him die.’” They shoved him into an overcrowded cell. He was vomiting blood and felt so faint he could barely stand. Yet, according to Demetrio, he was not given any food or water for at least six to seven hours.

Border Patrol protocol requires agents to provide detainees with food, drinking water and emergency medical services, to hold them under humane conditions, and to refrain from making degrading remarks, but this is rarely honored in practice, say human rights advocates. Over the past 15 years, reports documenting human rights abuses at the hands of Border Patrol agents have been published by Amnesty International, the ACLU, No More Deaths, even the United Nations. Contrary to their own protocols, Border Patrol agents have been accused of systematically denying food and water to migrants in custody, forcing them into overcrowded cells, stealing their money, confiscating medications, and denying them medical treatment. Migrants have described agents hurling verbal abuse, racial slurs and curses, and inflicting sexual assault, physical violence, even death. At least 14 migrants and border residents have died at the hands of Border Patrol agents over the past two years. These practices appear to be systemic, amounting to what No More Deaths calls “a culture of cruelty.”

The Department of Homeland Security claims that only three complaints were lodged against Border Patrol detention conditions for the entirety of 2010 (the most current data), a year when agents apprehended more than 463,000 individuals. Only 10 complaints were filed for “abuse of authority” that year and 13 for “discrimination.” A request to see a log of those complaints, as well as a record of any disciplinary actions taken by the Border Patrol, was denied; a Freedom of Information Act request filed last month has yet to elicit a response.

So I took a trip to Nogales, Mexico, to visit the Kino Border Initiative, a faith-based migrant-care facility. Sean Carroll, a Jesuit priest, heads the organization and oversees a shelter, a medical clinic and a soup kitchen that feeds up to 100 people each day. “Abuses are happening,” Carroll says. “It’s not every agent. But institutionally, there are problems. Migrants are being abused verbally, physically, sexually. And it violates their human dignity.”

In Nogales, we polled a group of about 75 migrants, almost all recent deportees, who had gathered for the 9 a.m. meal. I asked whether any of them had been denied food or water or had been forced into overcrowded cells. Were they physically or verbally abused? Had any of them been denied medical care? In each case, more than 50 people raised their hands. In a single morning, in one town along the border, there seemed to be more instances of abuse than in an entire year of complaints compiled by Homeland Security.

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Doctors of the World and the Red Cross each maintain facilities at strategic locations along the Mexican side of the border to provide medical assistance to migrants. Local staffers from both organizations confirm that migrants are routinely denied medical attention while in the custody of the Border Patrol. They say migrants also have their prescription medication confiscated without any medical evaluation.

According to Norma Quijada Ibarra, a registered nurse with the Kino Border Initiative, “Every day we have someone that has been abused by the Border Patrol. I just saw a patient with a fracture detained for a few days. They didn’t give him any food, or medicine for the pain.”

In two days in Nogales, I heard firsthand accounts of young women being slapped on the rear as they were being searched. Other women said they were kicked and called whores or told they smelled worse than dogs. I listened to accounts of men being crammed into cells so overcrowded no one could sit or lie down. The only way to fit in the cell was to stand, shoulder to shoulder — for three days straight.

If the migrants complained of overcrowding, several of the men told me, the Border Patrol would add more people to the cell. If a migrant complained the cell was too cold, agents would crank up the AC; if detainees complained it was too hot, agents would turn up the heat. I heard numerous accounts of migrants having their personal belongings confiscated and never returned. Migrants told of being deported to Mexico without their cellphones or backpacks — without even their belts and shoelaces. I spoke to three men who told me they each had over $100 in cash and Mexican identification documents among their confiscated personal belongings. Their ID cards were destroyed and their money was never returned. When the men asked for their money back, the agents said, “It’s ours now.” All of these accounts, if true, would constitute serious violations of Border Patrol protocol and of international human rights standards.

Demetrio recounted one devastating incident he witnessed while he was in custody, the details of which were corroborated by another detainee. He saw a young migrant pulled from the cell where they were being held for failing to understand an order shouted at him in English. He was then forced to kneel on bottle caps with his arms extended. “They forced him to stay like that for more than three hours,” Demetrio said. If he lowered his arms from fatigue, agents shouted at him and prodded him to keep them up. Both witnesses say that agents covered surveillance cameras with cracker boxes during the incident — and uncovered them again once they returned the young man to his cell.

One former Border Patrol agent, Ephraim Cruz, also witnessed forms of abuse that he saw as tantamount to torture. Cruz describes agents, at the direction of their commanding officers, forcing detainees to remain in half-squat or “stress positions” until they could no longer stand. He says agents were trying to teach the migrants, “I’m the authority. Get in line. When I say move, you move.”

In his nine years working the border near Tucson, Ariz., and earning the rank of senior agent, Cruz says he frequently saw agents physically abusing detainees and denying food and water to those who were in obvious need. He also saw “individuals being crammed into cells twice beyond the posted capacity. Standing room only. I mean, you couldn’t even lie down on the floor.” This was done, he says, even when empty cells were available nearby. In 2003, he began warning his supervisors of this pattern of abuse. When his spoken complaints didn’t elicit a response, he began to write letters. “I started at the unit level,” Cruz says. “I went to the sector chief, office of inspector general — via phone calls and faxes of those memorandums. Went on to the commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection, who’s over the U.S. Border Patrol Agency. And then felt the need to move on to Congress.” Cruz left the force in 2007 without ever hearing a response.

We contacted Richard A. Barlow, sector chief for the Tucson Border Patrol, for a response to allegations of agent misconduct. He declined to be interviewed, instead issuing this response: “Border Patrol agents are required to treat all those they encounter with respect and dignity. This requirement is consistently addressed in training and consistently reinforced throughout an agent’s career. On a daily basis, agents make every effort to ensure that people in our custody are given food, water, and medical attention as needed. Mistreatment or agent misconduct will not be tolerated in any way. Any agent within our ranks who does not adhere to the highest standards of conduct will be identified and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.”

Customs and Border Patrol in Washington responded in even more general terms: “CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission,” an agency spokesperson said by email. “We do not tolerate abuse within our ranks, and … we are fully committed to protecting the health, safety and human rights of all individuals with whom we interact.”

The right policies are evidently in place — if they were only enforced. We traveled to a rural mountain village high in the Sierra Madre in Sonora, Mexico, to track down one of the rare deportees who tried to file a formal complaint against the Border Patrol, which she did under the name Jane Doe. Doe, 27, was caught by the Border Patrol in 2009 when she was on a passenger bus that was stopped at a checkpoint near Las Cruces, N.M. Doe could produce only false residency documents and was escorted off the bus to a holding cell. That’s where Doe says she was sexually assaulted.

As Doe recalls, she was in the cell by herself when a Border Patrol agent entered and said he would have to search her. “This is when he put his hands under my blouse,” she says, her voice trembling. As she describes it, the agent grabbed her from behind, pushed her up against a wall, and aggressively groped her chest. “He had me — my back was facing him, and he…” She begins to weep. “So he was hugging me, and he had his hands under my blouse.” As he grabbed her violently from head to toe, he whispered words in English she couldn’t understand except one word, “Baby,” which he said over and over. She thought she was about to get raped. Photos taken shortly after the attack show long, deep scratches and red abrasions across her chest.

After the incident, Doe was deported to Juarez. But the sexual assault haunted her. She fell into a deep depression and sought counseling. Her therapist urged her to file a complaint against the agent, to help her recovery, and she eventually returned to a Border Patrol facility in El Paso, Texas, to look at a photo lineup and file the necessary paperwork. According to Tania Chozet, her ACLU attorney at the time, Doe was taken into a private room by two female Border Patrol agents wearing reflective sunglasses who harshly interrogated about the reason for her visit. They asked her the same questions again and again, warned her not to lie, patted her down, and searched her clothing and shoes. “When Ms. Doe finally emerged,” Chozet says, “tears were streaming down her face.”

By then, Jane Doe was too upset to proceed. She briefly looked at the photo lineup but couldn’t even focus on the faces. She failed to recognize her assailant and decided not to proceed with charges. “I can’t think of any other reason why they would have been so menacing, if they weren’t trying to intimidate her,” Chozet says. “My guess is that they were hoping that she would feel threatened enough to drop her complaint.”

Edward Rheinheimer is an Arizona Republican, an elected attorney in one of the most conservative counties in the United States. When, in 2007, he asked the federal government for help prosecuting an agent for killing a migrant, he learned just how difficult it can be to achieve accountability when it comes to Border Patrol abuse. Rheinheimer strongly suspected that the agent in question was lying to investigators, as his testimony openly contradicted the forensic evidence. “I called the U.S. attorney in Tucson and asked for assistance in helping us prosecute the case,” says Rheinheimer.

The U.S. attorney got back to him about a week later, Rheinheimer recalls: “These were his exact words: ‘Are you out of your mind?’” Months earlier, the Department of Justice had successfully prosecuted two Border Patrol agents, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, for shooting a marijuana smuggler in the back. But the political backlash was significant, souring relations between the Department of Justice and the Border Patrol. “At no time did anyone from the U.S. attorney’s office ever indicate to me that the reason they didn’t get involved was because they didn’t think this was an appropriate prosecution,” Rheinheimer says. DOJ, he was told, simply could not afford to prosecute another Border Patrol killing.

But the DOJ did order a U.S. attorney to prosecute another Border Patrol agent in 2005 — Ephraim Cruz.

“I found myself on the receiving end of felony charges being brought against me,” says Cruz, the Border Patrol whistle-blower, “accused of smuggling an illegal into the country.”

Just months after he filed the complaints regarding detainee abuse by fellow agents, Cruz gave the girlfriend of a fellow agent a ride across the border. “I was driving my vehicle. I had another agent in the car with me,” he recalls. “We saw her, we recognized her, offered her a ride. Came through the port of entry. Legally inspected, legally admitted.” When it was later discovered that the woman was an undocumented immigrant, Cruz was suspended without pay and prosecuted. He was ultimately exonerated, and during the course of his trial agents testified under oath that he had been targeted for retribution.

Cruz went two years without pay. He was labeled a traitor, asked repeatedly, “What side are you on?” and told he would never get his job back. He finally resigned in 2007, never having been questioned by Border Patrol authorities about the abuses he reported.

Just last week, news broke that a federal grand jury had been convened in the case of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, who was killed by Border Patrol agents in 2010. The agents involved in that killing, too, enjoyed impunity until surreptitious video of the event was broadcast on PBS’s “Need to Know” in April, showing that Hernandez had been beaten and shot with a stun gun while handcuffed and prone on the ground. The Border Patrol is the largest police force in the United States. But it lacks oversight, transparency and accountability.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.