The Border Patrol has struggled for years to recruit more women and help them advance through the agency’s ranks, which have long been dominated by men. Only about 5 percent of the nation’s nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents are women, and it was not until 2017 that a woman was named the Border Patrol’s acting chief, a first in the agency’s nearly century-long history.
A little-noticed court case unfolding in Arizona is casting into stark relief the challenges women face, even now: A senior agent, who is the husband of one of the agency’s highest-ranking and most respected female agents, has been charged with sexually assaulting a junior female agent.
The senior agent, Gus Zamora, 51, who retired in the aftermath of the investigation, was arrested in Tucson and charged with assaulting a female agent who was his friend and colleague. Mr. Zamora is married to Gloria Chavez, a veteran agent who has been a mentor and inspiration to the agency’s female officers and who has one of the Border Patrol’s highest-profile assignments — she was recently appointed as interim chief of the El Paso region, asked to take over a troubled sector that had received national scrutiny for the overcrowded and filthy conditions of its facilities.
The case, now in pretrial hearings in Tucson, is at the center of what has become a quiet #MeToo moment for the nation’s border-security force.
It has raised questions about how the Border Patrol treats female agents and how it responds to allegations of sexual assault. Although Mr. Zamora was arrested and then indicted in July on sexual assault and kidnapping charges, the Border Patrol has yet to take any official action in the case.
Border Patrol officials allowed Mr. Zamora to retire after his arrest and indictment. And the top Border Patrol agent in the Tucson sector — Roy Villareal, who was the new chief patrol agent in the region and the female agent’s supervising officer — was with Mr. Zamora and the female agent earlier on the night of the reported assault, according to police reports, but told the authorities he saw nothing inappropriate in their interactions.
The female agent, identified in court documents by her initials of R.W., had planned to meet with Mr. Zamora that evening in May for dinner. R.W. told the police that she had considered Mr. Zamora a kind of mentor. He was more than 10 years older than her, had more seniority with the agency and had climbed the ranks to become an assistant chief in the nearby Yuma sector. But shortly before they met at a restaurant in Tucson, she said, he had sent her a provocative text message.
He asked her, she told the authorities, if she had “dressed up” for him. It was one in a series of flirtations and advances he had made to her over a period of years that she said she had rebuffed or ignored. But on this night after dinner in Tucson, he went too far, she claimed in court documents. R.W. said Mr. Zamora bought round after round of tequila shots, took her back to his hotel room and sexually assaulted her.
R.W. reported being assaulted to the police on May 25, two days after the encounter. Six weeks later, in July, Mr. Zamora was indicted by a Pima County grand jury in Tucson on three counts of felony sexual assault and one felony count of kidnapping. He retired from the Border Patrol on July 31, 21 days after his arrest. A pretrial hearing in the case is scheduled Monday in Arizona Superior Court in Tucson.
R.W. and her lawyer did not respond to interview requests. A spokeswoman for the Pima County prosecutor, Barbara LaWall, said the office does not comment on pending cases.
Brad Roach, a lawyer for Mr. Zamora, said in a statement that his client “has pleaded ‘Not Guilty’ to these accusations. He looks forward to proving his innocence at trial.”
Mr. Zamora denied to Tucson police detectives that he forced himself on R.W., telling them that he and R.W. were both drunk, both participated in the sexual activity and that she had initiated it.
In a statement, the Border Patrol's parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, defended its handling of the case and said it “holds its employees accountable and expects the entire work force to adhere to the agency’s standards of conduct.”
The agency said its Office of Professional Responsibility was first made aware of the matter in June, after Mr. Zamora reported being contacted by the Tucson Police Department. The office started an investigation, notified the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and began cooperating with the Tucson police, the agency said.
At the conclusion of the criminal investigation, the department will “ensure all allegations of misconduct by any C.B.P. employee involved are thoroughly investigated for appropriate action by the agency,” the statement read.
The case comes at a crucial time for the Border Patrol.
The agency has been mired in a morale and public-relations crisis as it carries out the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown on the southern border. Agents have been accused of mistreating migrants and making vulgar postings in a private Facebook group for former and current agents. Other agents have been accused of more extreme misconduct, including murder and rape. Two days before the alleged sexual assault of R.W., Tucson police arrested another Border Patrol agent, Steven Charles Holmes, 33. The police accused Mr. Holmes of sexually assaulting multiple women over seven years, though they were not fellow agents.
The Border Patrol has long had a problem recruiting women. Some female former agents have accused male colleagues of sexual harassment and assault, and have said the agency has failed to address the problem.
“There’s not a single woman in the Border Patrol who has either not been sexually assaulted, outright raped or at the very least sexually harassed,” said Jenn Budd, who was a Border Patrol agent from 1995 to 2001.
The woman now leading the Border Patrol, Carla L. Provost, who was named acting chief in 2017 and permanent chief in 2018, has also been ensnared in the scandal over the Facebook group, which featured jokes about migrant deaths and an obscene image of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic lawmaker from New York who has been critical of the agency’s treatment of migrants. In July, Ms. Provost acknowledged to a House subcommittee that she was a member of the Facebook group but said she did not see the offensive posts until ProPublica reported on them.
Homeland Security officials said Ms. Provost was expected to step down from the post and retire in the coming months, the latest in a series of departures of top-level immigration officials in the continuing chaos over border policy in the Trump administration.
Mr. Zamora and Ms. Chavez have been married for more than 20 years. While her husband has been dealing with his case, Ms. Chavez has been busy revamping the El Paso sector following the highly publicized departure of its former chief, Aaron Hull. In 2010, she became only the second woman in Border Patrol history to be named a chief patrol agent and took command of the Spokane sector at the United States-Canadian border.
R.W., who remains with the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, had known Mr. Zamora for years.
He had asked her to meet on various occasions in Tucson, and had once invited her to his hotel room, she told the police. She had turned him down, she said, telling him she just wanted to be friends, but he persisted in communicating and flirting with her.
Mr. Zamora lived in El Centro, Calif., where his wife had been the sector chief, but worked in Yuma. That day in May, he had traveled from Yuma to Tucson on a Border Patrol work trip with two other agents. Mr. Zamora would often “make up reasons, such as a need to speak with someone, to justify the work trips” to Tucson to see her, R.W. told the police.
At the Trident Grill II restaurant that night, Mr. Zamora placed his hand on her left thigh, and she sat up stiffly and moved away, she said in police reports.
Mr. Villareal, the chief patrol agent in the Tucson sector, is listed as a witness by the police. He and Mr. Zamora have been friends for about 20 years, according to court documents. Mr. Villareal told the police that Mr. Zamora invited him to the restaurant. He said that he stayed a short time, drank one beer but did not finish it and that he did not think Mr. Zamora and R.W. were intoxicated when he left.
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to questions addressed to Mr. Villareal and to Ms. Chavez, Mr. Zamora’s wife.
R.W. told the police she had three glasses of wine, a mixed drink and about five shots of tequila, and their waitress told investigators that Mr. Zamora appeared to be urging R.W. to drink more.
R.W. and Mr. Zamora took an Uber to his hotel. During his interview with detectives, Mr. Zamora said he had offered to give her a ride home but she said she did not want to be alone and asked to go back to his hotel.
Shortly before midnight, video surveillance footage from the hotel showed Mr. Zamora holding R.W.’s arm as they approached, according to a police summary of the video. R.W. fell to her knees as he released his grip on her to get his hotel key card. He grabbed hold of her arm again as they walked inside.
R.W. said in police reports that she had been too intoxicated to recall leaving the restaurant and that she had blacked out in Mr. Zamora’s hotel room. She remembered waking up at times on the bed in his hotel room, but told the police she did not feel she was able to give her consent for sex. A rape kit, which preserves DNA evidence left by an attacker, was submitted to the Tucson police crime lab for testing but the results have not been made public.
After the alleged sexual assault, the Tucson police recorded a phone call R.W. made to Mr. Zamora. In a summary of the call, detectives wrote that when R.W. told Mr. Zamora the sex was not consensual, “he told her to not go there and that it wasn’t like that.” He told her that sex “was never on his mind. They had too many shots,” the police summary stated. Before the call ended, R.W. told him that “she thinks he was way out of line and he responded that he thinks they were both way out of line.”
When a detective told Mr. Zamora at the end of his interview with the police that R.W. was not in a condition to consent, Mr. Zamora “said that he knows, but he wasn’t in a state to consent either.”