Border patrol

CBP Official Allegedly Said Agents Should 'Beat That Tonk Like a Piñata Until Candy Comes Out'

The 2012 internal affairs report complaint was filed by a use-of-force instructor who warned the advice could lead to lawsuits.


Among the criticisms of the deployment of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers to Portland is that CBP is one of the more problem-ridden federal law enforcement agencies.

CBP, the nation's largest civilian law enforcement agency with roughly 60,000 employees, has higher termination rates than other federal law enforcement agencies, lower recruiting standards, longstanding corruption problems, and a well-documented toxic culture.

Here's another small but notable data point:

A CBP official was referred to internal affairs investigators for allegedly telling a room full of supervisors in 2012 that if Border Patrol agents feel threatened by a migrant, they should "beat that tonk like a piñata until candy comes out."

A CBP use-of-force instructor emailed the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which handles internal affairs for CBP, on Feb. 29, 2012, to report the potential misconduct. The complaint generated an OPR investigation report, recently obtained by Reason through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The instructor wrote that at a supervisors meeting the official, whose name was redacted, said during a discussion on assaults against Border Patrol agents, "you tell all the guys that if they feel threatened, they can beat that tonk like a piñata until candy comes out."

"Tonk" (sometimes spelled "tonc") is a slang CBP term for a migrant. It allegedly refers to the sound of hitting someone on the head with a flashlight, although some Border Patrol defenders claim it is an acronym for "Territory of Origin Not Known." 

Last year, federal court records showed that a Border Patrol agent in Nogales, Texas, accused of hitting a Guatemalan migrant with his truck frequently used the word "tonk," among other descriptors like "mindless murdering savages" and "disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire." The agent, Matthew Bowen, was sentenced to probation for deprivation of rights under color of law.

Rolling Stone, in a story about the case against Bowen, described the history of the term:

A federal court case from 2004, which also centered on accusations of excessive force by the Border Patrol, includes an agent's definition of "tonk" as "the sound heard when a 'wetback' is hit over the head with a flashlight." Josiah Heyman is the chair of the anthropology department at the University of Texas, El Paso. In research on the border, he's heard Border Patrol agents use the term "tonk"  since the early 1990s. "That's their position in the hierarchy," he says of undocumented migrants in relation to Border Patrol agents. "They're hittable people."

The word also popped up in a secret Border Patrol Facebook group, unearthed by ProPublica, that was full of jokes about migrant deaths and vulgar, sexual memes about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.). CBP announced earlier this month that four Border Patrol agents had been fired over their posts on the Facebook group.

A CBP spokesperson told Mother Jones last year that, "there is no clear answer on where the term originated or if it was once considered an acronym, but flatly, it is now considered a derogatory term and CBP does not condone its use."

But the complaint against the CBP official wasn't concerned with the word so much as his encouraging illegal and excessive force against migrants.

"I, being a use of force instructor, told him that I didn't believe that that was within the use of force policy, and I cited the use of force continuum in an attempt to clarify the issue," the instructor's email to OPR said. "I told him that there are indicators that can help determine if someone will become assaultive, like the thousand yard stare, but that in itself does not meet the criteria for aggressive assaultive behavior. He told me that it did and, within the confines of the supervisor meeting taking place, I relented to keep the meeting moving."

"I believe that his statement undermines the use of force policy," the instructor continued, "and could lead our agents into possible litigation if it is his wish that we preach this philosophy to the agents."

Reason filed the FOIA request to see if any CBP internal investigations had ever mentioned the term. (Silly me, I requested internal affairs records between 2012 and 2019, but CBP didn't even have an internal affairs department until 2014—11 years after it was established.)

The OPR report does not say how the case was resolved, or whether the CBP official was disciplined. CBP's public affairs office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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  1. “mindless murdering savages” and “disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire.”

    Considering some of the shit I’ve read on this forum, I’m starting to wonder how many posters here work for CPB.

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    2. I doubt any Republicans work for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

      1. Public Broacsting was an independent media. They aired the illegal covert activities of the CIA in South America, the death squads set up by the US and the torture of dissidents. They were not fabricated lies but the truth about what the CIA was doing on behalf of large American corporate holdings in South America.
        The corporations didn’t like for the Amrican people to know the truth, so when Reagan, a puppet of wall street, came on, he cut off funding followed by a national purge of all Public Radio executives and managers. They were replaced with corporate booth lickers. So in are totally ignorant. Public Radio is controlled by the government, as is all the other media.

        1. Independent, received tax payer money, wasn’t controlled by the government before Reagan cut off funding? How do you reconcile these self evidently contradictory lines of thought? And how do you justify any tax payer money going towards any broadcasting company? You know we have a word for media paid for with government funds? It’s called propaganda.

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    3. I’m starting to wonder how many posters here work for CPB.

      Considering the number of stories I’ve seen running cover for people actually setting federal shit on fire, I’d guess that whatever lines you think you’re seeing are kinda blurry.

      1. I think he was referring to other regular commenters, not the Reason writers.

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  2. If the tonks wanted rights they shouldn’t have been born outside of Trump Country! Libertarianism means we have to support our law enforcement agents who beat tons like a pinata until the candy comes out! Gawd Bless Trump!


    1. “A CBP official was referred to internal affairs investigators for allegedly telling a room full of supervisors in 2012 that if Border Patrol agents feel threatened by a migrant, they should “beat that tonk like a piñata until candy comes out.””

      …who was President?

      1. Trump went back in time and did this!

        1. Man, you’d think he’d have gone back in time and done something more constructive like kill Hitler or Peter Strzok.

          1. Knocking the candy out of Tonks was Obama’s top priority!

        2. He want back in time all the way to when he was a baby, and stayed there.


        1. Did you even read your first post?

        2. Nonsense. It was the Blue Skeeter in the Library with the Candlestick.

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  4. Funny how we are finding out about this Obama-era misconduct just in time for it to make Trump look bad

    1. I wish my sense of humor was still healthy enough to find the amusement in seeing Reason “outing” “problematic” statements…made when Obama was president, long after Obama is out of office.

      This is Reason “journalism”, gentlefolk. At least it fits right in with all the other 2020 “journalism”.

      Fuck Reason.

  5. 60,000 agents, and one of them made a bad joke 8 years ago, so you know the whole operation is corrupt. Problem-riddled doesn’t begin to cover it. We should turn over these functions to the professionals at CHAZ/CHOP

    1. “Here’s another small but notable data point”
      There’s an anecdote, an anecdote I tell you!
      They’re all like that. The proof is in the anecdote
      Keep feeding the click-bait monster

    2. Maybe if we didn’t have this drug war we wouldn’t need 60,000 agents to patrol the border. And you’ve got to admit that there’s a certain amount of self-selection in law enforcement. People generally don’t seek out a job that allows them to beat people to death if they have no desire to beat people to death.

      1. I prefer cops to many other government busybodies. Somebody clamoring for a job with the EPA is a menace to society.

        1. What happens if you get into an argument with some dickhead from the EPA? That’s right. She’ll call the cops who will unquestioningly side with the person on his team, and cheerfully kill you if you fail to obey.

          1. EPA would steal your property, house included. Cops arent nearly as efficient

            1. EPA does it on paper, cops are the muscle who haul you out of your home, or cheerfully kill you if you fail to obey.

              1. Cheerfully huh? Lol.

                1. Well, it is arguably better to be put to death by people that aren’t all grumpy and resentful about it.

          2. They’ll sue you for 10 years. Stop all new building permits, and financially wreck you.

            No biggie for sarcasmic the non authoritarian.

            1. I’m starting to think sarc really wanted to become a cop but got rejected…

          3. The EPA calls the Border Patrol??

          4. What happens if you get into an argument with some dickhead from the EPA? That’s right. She’ll call the cops who will unquestioningly side with the person on his team, and cheerfully kill you if you fail to obey.

            This is borderline incoherent. Have you ever dealt with anyone at the EPA? Have you ever called the cops on someone or had them called on you?

            I agree that ‘fuck with the bull, expect the horns’ sentiment but the idea that the horns and tail are on the same team or that they recognize they are is contrived.

      2. Maybe if we didn’t have this drug war we wouldn’t need 60,000 agents to patrol the border.

        Sure, but then why is Reason talking about a dumb joke from the Obama era instead of the drug war?

        1. This. It’s gallows humor, and inappropriate in today’s era of sensitive policing. Bad idea when defending the unjustified use of force or unlawful deprivation of civil rights lawsuit too.

          But why is it news now?

          1. Oh, I don’t know why now.
            Oh, wait. There is a calendar, let me count the days until the second Tuesday in November.
            AH HA!

        2. Good point. Reason has no grounds to criticize Trump for something Obama did too, right?

          And when Obama was president, and Reason would criticize him, his supporters would say “Bush did it first!”

          Your comment is no different than that of a leftist who was offended when Reason was critical of the guy they voted for.

          1. Reason does not need grounds to criticize Trump.

          2. My comment.

            Your head.

            1. He is drunk/”hacked” again.

          3. It’s a question of priorities, sarcasmic. It’s becoming more and more apparent that the entire Russia collusion investigation was complete bullshit on its face. Which means the outgoing Obama Administration decided to turn the entire national security intelligence apparatus onto the opposing political party’s Presidential campaign, for absolutely no valid reason.

            Instead of talking about that, the editors choose to write a story about a cop being an asshole in a departmental meeting. Eight years ago.

            1. Yep. Exactly that. Aaaand, same as for every other fucking article I’ve read today: Fuck Reason!

              1. Your citation was from 2019, April at that, it is over 15 months old and you completely ignore all the newly declassified information that supports Gray-Jays point and want to stop history in 2019. And your citation doesn’t on any way disprove that the Russia collusion investigation was a complete hoax. Yes Russia did pay some internet trolls but in no way was their any collusion, even the fucking Mueller report admits that. And from recently released declassified memos from the Mueller investigation, they knew with in weeks that the entire collusion angle was bullshit.

                1. Your trying to have a rational conversation with Lying Jeffy again.

                  He deserves nothing but mockery.

                  1. No, just pointing out again his cherry picking only citations that fit his narrative, especially dared ones.

                    1. And how, as in almost every case, his citations actually disprove his thesis )and are often opinion pieces as well).

      3. Yeap. Full Jeff. Just insane, unsupported diatribes at this point while accusing others of arguing dishonestly. Fucking hilarious.

      4. Or if we didn’t have the drug war those 60,000 agents might actually be effective at stopping illegal immigration.

        Right now we have the worst of all possible combinations – drug war, illegal immigration, and an aggressive and violent border enforcement agency that takes its embarrassment at its incompetence and ineffectiveness out on anyone it manages to get its hands on.

      5. Did I miss anyone here supporting the drug war?

    3. There was also another use-of-force complaint eight years before THAT. Let’s look at the totality of this information.

    4. 60,000 employees. It’s actually like 19,500 agents or something like that. I don’t really know if it’s relevant, I just thought the 60k number seemed a bit high, so I looked it up.

    5. It was a mostly peaceful presentation.

    6. “60,000 agents, and one of them made a bad joke 8 years ago, so you know the whole operation is corrupt.”

      Don’t be silly, we know the whole operation is corrupt, just because it’s a government operation.

  6. Reason fully embracing cancel culture.

    1. You fully embraced fascism. Which is worse?

      1. He became a registered Democrat?

      2. Disagreeing with you or Reason is embracing fascism now? You’re a fucking partisan hack, you tribalist piece of shit.

  7. REASON going full SJW now.

  8. if “peaceful protester” then “honorable border patrol”

  9. CBP, the nation’s largest civilian law enforcement agency with roughly 60,000 employees, has higher termination rates than other federal law enforcement agencies, lower recruiting standards, longstanding corruption problems, and a well-documented toxic culture.

    So this paragraph definitely caught my eye, and I want to break it down.

    -higher termination rates: There’s a link to a nice study that backs this up and addresses the shortfalls of its own data collection but still supports that assertion with a reasonable confidence.

    -Lower recruiting standards: I hear this quoted EVERYWHERE, and I don’t know what it means. What are the FBI standards? What are CPB standards?

    -Longstanding corruption problems: link to a very nice Politico article that gives a balanced view. CPB is overstaffed and underfunded and, a year ago, were facing an unprecedented surge of asylum seekers while lacking the facilities to hold them. The article does descend into unsupported anecdotes, but it brings it back. It also notes that many of these issues definitely go back to the Obama administration and this is not a Trump-only issue.

    -Well-documented toxic culture: “toxic culture” is a vague phrase that gets thrown around too often. Remember that infamous Gilette ad that called out “toxic masculinity” showing men doing such horrible things as looking at an attractive woman, or grilling, or watching their boys wrestling on a lawn? Define this term, support it with evidence, or just cut out the phrase. Allegations of sexual harassment is a much clearer phrase and can easily supported with evidence.

    1. “-Lower recruiting standards: I hear this quoted EVERYWHERE, and I don’t know what it means. What are the FBI standards? What are CPB standards?”

      Anecdotally, this is definitely not true in the realm of polygraph testing. The CBP poly (not sure if initial screening or later screening) is supposed to be an infamous bitch to pass, with something like a 2/3 failure rate. Even for people who transfer over with existing clearances, and who’ve been through a polygraph screening before.

      1. I can believe that CPB might have lower standards. Maybe the FBI wants a college degree and CPB allows a high school diploma or equivalency. Or maybe the FBI requires interviewing friends/relatives for a background check which CPB doesn’t do.

        But I don’t know, and I wish people would stop parroting a phrase without ever defining it.

        1. FBI has very high standards (for a certain definition of the term).
          I’m not certain, but I think not just a college degree but a graduate degree is required.

          1. Just looking at the CBP application process, they want either 1 year of post-graduate education, 1 year of equivalent experience in a federal agency, or some combination of the two. They might also lower requirements if your academic achievement in a bachelor’s program was outstanding.

            So I guess it’s lower, but it looks like they’re not eagerly scooping up high-school dropouts, either.

            1. I would also point out that you need a higher quality of personnel to perform subtle spycraft, diplomatic liaisons, analyze satellite imagery, or even review tax documents than you do for a border guard whose job is mostly to make sure that people don’t cross a fence or bridge without permission.

              Border Patrol simply doesn’t require the same level of skills.

  10. Quoting Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and ProPublica? Now that’s balanced journalism.

    1. Very good point. News should be judged not by facts or anything silly like that, but by the politics of the author. Once you know that you don’t need to know anything else.

      1. Rolling Stone and facts aren’t in the same universe. Ketchup.

        1. How do you double circulation for Rolling Stone?

          Buy 5 copies for your mother.

          1. I still have the Joshua Tree U2 cover issue

            1. I have the one with Sarah Michelle Gellar on the cover.

              1. Thanks, was worth googling. God Freddy is a lucky dude.

              2. Sexiest 90s female stars (that have aged well) Sarah, Allyson Hanigan, Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Love Hewitt.

                1. Jennifer Anniston also.
                  Liv Tyler was also pretty damn sexy but hasn’t aged nearly as well.

                2. The even sexier thing about Sarah is just isn’t nearly as crazy as some of the others I can think of.
                  Candace Cameron Burr I think actually got sexier. Melissa Joan Hart also turned into something of a MILF.

                  1. Milla Jovovich, Salma Hayek.

                    1. Salma got sure. Milla yes, do you think she still has her Fifth element costume?

                    2. Maybe a little late for 90s, but move it a decade back and Jessica Alba is a crazy hot mom

                  2. You finished yet there Soldier?

                    1. No, as I age it takes a little longer, which my wife appreciates.

      2. Every one of your posts in this thread were chock full of facts. Lol.

        1. Keep up the personal attacks. It’s all you got.

          sarc didn’t have the facts you wanted. sarc is sanctimonious. sarc is this. sarc is that.

          ad hominem much?

          1. You forgot sarc cries a lot.

      3. One of the facts is that Rolling Stone ran with the ridiculous UVA rape story. At a certain point, their credibility can be rejected.

  11. And YOU repeated the phrase here so we now have all heard it. You caused more damaged feelings than the guy that did it first!

    1. Also, sounds like the dude got at least an official reprimand. Reason did more damage and will get more clicks.

  12. Maybe we could try a never before used concept of using the military to defend the borders?
    Nothing says “don’t enter here” like a line of fixed bayonets behind a mine field.
    Crude, but effective.

    1. “Maybe we could try a never before used concept of using the military to defend the borders?”

      It usually ends badly the other times it’s been tried. See, e.g., the shooting of Esequiel Hernandez, Jr:

      1. It usually ends badly the other times it’s been tried.

        You may disagree with the policy, but the point of deploying military at the border is to say “if you cross this line, you’ll get shot”.

  13. Way to go, CJ! You’re practically a HuffPo “reporter”!!

    And I’m about half-way in my quest to find an article from every regular Reason contributor that makes me never want to visit the site again. It was an easy half-hours’ work. I mean, when editorial puts people on stories like “Rich Man Donates to Politician” or “Somalian honest-to-God Refugee Has a Sad”, it’s not hard to dismiss writers I once thought were good (or okay…ish).

  14. Is reason staffed with the rejects from NYT?

    1. More like NYT wanabees.

    2. Worse. People who can only aspire to being rejected by the NYT.

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  16. Note: The whistle blower didn’t warn higher ups or students that the racist violence is repugnant to most Americans. He advised against the brutal attacks based on the legal problems.

    So, who will protect us from our protectors? Who will arrest a CBP psycho? Oh, wait. That’s not our problem, we’re not “Tonks”. And the German Nazis citizens didn’t care about the Jews, either. What’s the difference? Too many citizens would pretend (just like the Germans) that it’s out of their control. Would you feel safe if that were true?

    1. What racist violence? Tonk refers in this article to those the CBP guy dealt with usually. With the candy coming out reference to a pinata, he meant Latin Americans.

      However, I’ve heard the term used before by LAPD, referring to African-Americans. And in Appalachia, it likely was used when talking about lower class whites. It’s used to dehumanize those groups of people, whose individuals often (in the user’s mind) require going upside their head with a MagLite in order to gain compliance or control. For a CBP guy on the Mexican border, that’s going to be Mexicans or others of Latin descent. But, contrary to the article, the word ‘tonk’ in itself doesn’t have a specific racial meaning. And LOL at the backronym.

      As to the repugnance of violence, police use of force is inherently ugly. I don’t doubt you’d find this officer’s instances of using force to obtain compliance or effect an arrest to be very ugly. But I’m pretty sure you’d think that whether the officer was objectively justified in using force or not.

      Comments like the officer’s make it really hard to give him the benefit of the doubt though, that his conduct was not unduly influenced by racial animus. It’s a stupid thing to say, even if many/most of the officers felt exactly the same way.

    2. That’s not our problem, we’re not “Tonks”.

      We don’t cross borders illegally, don’t commit identity fraud, we don’t trespass, and we don’t threaten law enforcement. So you are correct that it’s not at the top of the list of priorities for most Americans when people who first break the law and then threaten law enforcement get beaten up.

      And the German Nazis citizens didn’t care about the Jews, either.

      It is reprehensible to compare the Nazi genocide of law abiding Jewish German citizens with police enforcement against violent law breakers in the US.

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  18. We can easily reduce the need for CBP by building walls and requiring Real ID for working, voting, banking, taxation, and real-estate transactions. How about it, Reason?

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