"Toncs in the barn."
A Border Patrol agent texted that message on Jan. 17, moments before agents, assisted by Pima County sheriff's deputies, swarmed a building in Ajo known as "the Barn" in southwestern Arizona.
The authorities arrested No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren and two immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally, according to court papers.
The term "tonc" is not a well-known, but the text suggest the term is routinely used by Border Patrol agents. But what does "tonc" mean? Is it simply an acronym, as some say?
Or is it a derogatory slur used by Border Patrol agents to refer negatively to immigrants in the country illegally?
Claims of retaliation
Warren is charged with harboring undocumented immigrants after he was arrested along with two immigrants found inside a residence known as the Barn used by the humanitarian group No More Deaths to provide humanitarian assistance.
The arrests took place hours after No More Deaths released a report accusing Border Patrol agents of destroying water jugs left by volunteers in the remote desert in southwestern Arizona. The water jugs are intended to help prevent deaths along a deadly corridor used by migrants who have entered the U.S. illegally. The timing prompted accusations by humanitarian groups that the Border Patrol arrested Warren in retaliation for the report.
Warren earned a doctorate in geography from Arizona State University, where he also works as an adjunct instructor. He wrote his dissertation on Ajo and the surrounding area and now lives in the community. Separate from his ASU job, Warren has served as the volunteer coordinator for No More Deaths' operations in Ajo for several years.
ASU Prof Scott Warren's work with No More Deaths
In addition to placing water jugs in the desert, Warren-led No More Death teams conduct searches for missing migrants in the Ajo area. In June 2017, The Arizona Republicdocumented a No More Deaths search led by Warren on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as part of its Pulitzer-prize winning series exploring the untended consequences and untold stories of President Donald Trump's proposed border wall.
On Jan. 17, Border Patrol agents were conducting surveillance on the Barn when they saw Warren drive up in his car and enter the building, according to a criminal complaint. The agents then saw Warren exit while talking to two people. The two people with Warren matched descriptions given of two lost "illegal aliens," the complaint said.
After their arrest, the two migrants said they learned they could get food and water at the Barn while researching online the best ways to cross the border illegally, the complaint said. After finding their way to the Barn, the migrants said Warren met them outside and gave them food and water for three days, the complaint said.
What does 'tonc' or 'tonk' mean?
It's unclear whether the term "tonc" — which sometimes is also spelled "tonk" — is an official acronym or a derogatory slur for undocumented immigrants.
Border Patrol agent Chris Sullivan, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, which includes Ajo, said the agency could not comment because the term is part of an ongoing court case.
However, the term has been debated unofficially on the internet for years.
According to a self-described retired Border Patrol agent who blogsanonymously under the name "Agent Nowhere Man," the term "Tonk" is an acronym that stands for "Territory of Origin Not Known."
"It is used to describe an individual who has not yet been intensively interviewed by the Border Patrol to determine his or her country of origin," a 2011 blog post says. "As everyone knows, ethnicity is not a reliable indicator of nationality. Just because a person is of obvious Latin extraction it does not necessarily follow that the person is Mexican."
In the same blog, the retired Border Patrol agent insists the term is not derogatory.
"Let me be very clear: 'Tonk' is not a term or racial derision; it is a temporary geographic description," the blogger wrote.
Another person who identified himself as a Border Patrol agent on the online forum Reddit said the term is commonly used, after a reader asked if he ever uses the word "tonk."
"It's a common term. And really it's 'tonc' and it originated from the acronym Temporarily Outside Native Country. Agents just sorta made it mean something else," the agent wrote in a Reddit feature titled, "I Am A … Border Patrol Agent … Ask Me Anything."
In response to another question, however, the agent gives a different answer.
"Read an article online saying border patrol agents nickname illegals 'tonks' because 'that's the sound a maglite flashlight makes when it (hits) the back of their head.' How accurate is this?" the agent is asked.
The agent responds, "we don't carry the big maglites anymore, now we carry smaller 'Stingers' … not tonks anymore, now they're 'tinks'."
Maglite is a brand of flashlight.
Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American Border Studies at the University of El Paso, thinks the latter definition is more accurate based on what he said Border Patrol officers have told him in the past.
"It comes supposedly from the sound of a person´s head being hit by a flashlight," Heyman wrote in an email. "Their explanation. It is derogatory. Implies people against whom one exercises violent force. That is my interpretation but pretty clear."
Heyman doesn't believe the term "tonc" is an acronym that stands for something else.
"I was specifically told by several BP agents that it is the sound of a flashlight hitting a head," Heyman said in a separate email. "I was never told either of those acromyms (or any others). I suspect that those are after-the-fact rationalizations of a disturbing word, but I cannot prove that (I do not directly have evidence). What I do have evidence of is that is was described to me by agents as the sound of a flashlght blow to the head."
Why it matters
Lawyers representing Warren pro bono have filed motions in federal court arguing that Warren's arrest was unconstitutional because Border Patrol agents did not have a warrant to enter the Barn's property, countering the Border Patrol's claim that agents approached Warren as part of a legal "knock and talk." They also argue that evidence based on the migrants' statements should be thrown out for the same reason.
As part of the motion to suppress, Warren's Tucson-based lawyers, Gregory Kuykendall and Amy Knight, submitted copies of text messages exchanged by Border Patrol agents as evidence that the agents went to the Barn for the express purpose of arresting Warren, and therefore needed a warrant. The text messages submitted as evidence are also intended to show the court that Border Patrol agents have a negative bias against undocumented immigrants, which led them to assume the two men they saw in the barn were in the country illegally based on their appearance, not on any actual evidence.
In one series of text messages, an agent identified as Brendan Burns writes, "Toncs at the barn" followed by "Get ready to roll this way all who are available," followed by "Came out of the house."
"10-4," an agent, identified as Albert Ballesteros, responds.
"Scott Warren pointing out terrain to them," Burns writes.
Later, Burns sends a text directed at another agent: "Sandoval make sure those toncs are isolated so we can get good mat wit interviews," using shorthand for material witness interviews.
Follow Daniel González and Rafael Carranza on Twitter @azdangonzalez and @RafaelCarranza