A little-known system of "forward operating bases" run by the U.S. Border Patrol along the Southwest border with Mexico suffers from a host of “security issues, safety and health concerns, and inadequate living conditions," according to a heavily redacted February 8 audit report released by the inspector general's office of the Department of Homeland Security.
"We identified security issues, such as inoperable security cameras, as well as an ongoing challenge to provide safe drinking water. In addition, we determined that CBP is not performing all required Forward Operating Base inspections or adequately documenting maintenance and repairs."
The outposts in question are described in the report as "permanent facilities established in forward or remote locations to sustain Border Patrol operations. The primary function of these facilities is to give the Border Patrol a tactical advantage by reducing response time to threats or actionable intelligence."
A total of 15 bases are "in various locations including on CBP-owned land, private land, national parks, and a Native American reservation. Eleven [forward bases] are located on the southwest border and four are located on the northern U.S. border.
But, according to the report, "at the time of our review, 3 of 11 [forward bases] on the southwest border were not operational."
The facilities are "staffed by Border Patrol agents on temporary duty assignments from their permanent duty station. Typically, agents are assigned to a [base] for 7 days, during which they reside at the [base] and deploy to their assigned duties, usually working an 8-hour shift each day."
The names of specific locations of the units are redacted in the report, though a response to the audit's findings, by Customs and Border Protection chief accountability officer Sean Mildrew, refers to the San Diego and Yuma sectors as scheduled for computer upgrades beginning this coming December.
Three of the forward bases, near El Centro, Tucson, and Houlton, served as pilot sites for the upgrades in April 2015, the response says.
"Forward Operating Bases are a critical facet of U.S. Border Patrol operations which give the Border Patrol a tactical advantage by providing close support in areas that are remote and otherwise difficult to patrol; reducing the amount of time and fuel required to drive to and from the border area; and providing a sustained enforcement presence and deterrence posture in the border area."
Despite their importance, many of the bases were found to be in bad condition, according to the report.
At one venue, space was said to be unreasonably cramped: "Off-duty agents eat meals next to any off-duty agents exercising. At other bases visited, the exercise equipment was in a room separate from the eating area."
At another, air conditioning was inadequate.
"A Tucson Sector official said the air conditioning units are not built to handle the temperatures for that area; they can handle temperatures in the 90s, but not 100 degrees and above."
Proper sanitary procedures also were an issue.
"One Tucson Sector official informed us [redacted] is cleaned daily because of heavy agent use, but during our April 2015 site visit, we observed unclean areas indoors. We also heard complaints about the facility’s cleanliness from 7 of the 14 Border Patrol agents we interviewed."
In some cases, the bases were found to be less than secure.
"[Redacted] has a manual gate rather than the controlled-access electronic gate stipulated by these standards," says the audit. "Of the 14 employees we interviewed, 10 noted that the manual gate is repeatedly left open. In fact, when we visited in April 2015, the gate was open."
At another unidentified forward base, "well water is not safe, making the task of supplying water to the [base] more challenging. According to one Tucson Sector official, CBP currently pays a contractor about $2,000 per week to deliver water via truck to the [base]."
Just getting to one remote station, the audit says, "is treacherous because the primary access road to the [base] is unsafe and deteriorating. Large portions of the road have washed away completely; other parts are impassible because of craters in the road."
Video surveillance cameras were also discovered to be problematic.
"For example, a [closed-circuit TV] camera at [redacted] broke in August 2014 after a Border Patrol agent backed his car into the pole it was mounted on. A work order was submitted that same month, but as of the time of our April 2015 site visit, the camera had not been repaired."
At another forward base, "all but two security cameras have been inoperable since August 2014, when they were struck by lightning.'
In another case, "recordings are stored on a network video recorder rather than a digital video recorder. CBP intends to upgrade the camera recording system and install a new digital video recorder by the third quarter of FY 2016."
Says the audit, "Because of their proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, it is essential that [forward bases] are equipped with proper, functioning surveillance equipment to maintain awareness and monitor the [base] grounds and perimeter."
Adds the report, "Locks, guard patrols, fixed guard posts, alarms, [closed circuit television] or a combination of these must protect the gates. In these remote border areas, adequate physical perimeter protection is integral to the security of the facility and its occupants."
One forward base was found in such poor condition that the report suggests it may have to be closed. Customs and Border Patrol officials said they planned to repair cameras and fix fences and gates by September of this year.
The auditors also called for more amenities for those serving in the remote stations.
"During our interviews of Border Patrol personnel, agents expressed the need for cell phone coverage and access to the internet for personal use. These agents said that providing cell phone boosters or internet connectivity at the [forward bases] would improve their morale by allowing them to communicate with friends and family when off duty."