Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.
Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.
She was taken to a fluorescent-lit, windowless room inside the port of entry office. Two female officers entered and announced that they were going to search her for drugs. They patted her down again, but found nothing. At that point, Sandoval assumed they would release her, but instead they told her they were going to conduct a strip search. The officers put on latex gloves, picked up flashlights, and asked Sandoval to remove her clothes and bend over so they could look for signs of drugs in her vagina and her rectum.
By the time they finished, Sandoval had been detained for more than two hours in the stifling room. Her passport and cell phone had been confiscated; her husband and children had no idea where she was. Sandoval begged to be released. “I was shaking and I was in tears,” she told me. Saying nothing, the officers put her in handcuffs and led her to a patrol car waiting outside. They left the international bridge and drove north into Texas. Frightened, Sandoval asked the officers if they had a warrant for her arrest. “We don’t need a warrant,” one of them replied.
Read the full article in the October 2018 issue of Harper’s, on newsstands now.
This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.