Amazon is a giant of a company responsible for 39 percent of all U.S. e-commerce and $33.36 billion in income in 2021. The website with the little orange smile seems to do everything, so why not help transport prisoners for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security?
It’s all about diversification.
This report comes to us from a in-depth investigation by the Intercept. Amazon bought nearly 20 percent of a cargo logistics company called ATSG for $131 million in March, 2021. ATSG operates multiple airline subsidiaries, one of which, Omni Air International, moves human beings for the federal government. Specifically troops for the Departments of Defense and “high-risk” individuals for the Department of Homeland Security. Omni Air calls these operations “ICE air,” and what is alleged to happen on these unregulated flights chartered by federal officials is truly appalling.
The Intercept took a thorough look at ICE Air contract documents and spoke to activists who track such flights. This is what they found:
Homeland Security defines these “high-risk” flights as any “scheduled to repatriate individuals who cannot be removed via commercial airlines to locations worldwide, or because of other security concerns or risk factors.” According to ICE Air contract documents reviewed by The Intercept, the definition of “high risk” is so broad as to include virtually anyone, “including, but not limited to, the following: uncommon or long-distance destination, failure to comply with removal proceeding, high profile removal, etc.” The notion that these deportees in some way pose a grave danger has created a pretext, agency critics allege, to beat, demean, and terrify them in the name of homeland security.
ICE Air’s particular reputation for brutality is well earned and thoroughly catalogued. In 2019, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights published a string of reports on the flights, documenting a “long series of indignities and illegalities” stretching back decades. The deportation flight abuse crisis is attributed directly to the opacity of firms like Omni: “Over the past decade, the institutional infrastructure behind these flights has shifted from a government operation run by the US Marshals Service on government planes, to a sprawling, semi-secret network of flights on privately-owned aircraft.”
Longtime ICE Air observers say that Omni flights are known for a degree of inhumanity exceeding its deportation charter rivals, even without the use of a WRAP. Angelina Godoy, director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, has spent years collecting Homeland Security materials documenting deportation flights and cataloguing allegations of abuse. “The reporting of abuses on Omni flights is significantly worse,” Godoy told The Intercept in an interview, citing everything from allegations of physical violence to denied access to bathrooms on 18-hour flights.
That WRAP device is a restraint system sold to law enforcement as a more humane way to render suspects immobile. The Intercept spoke to people who were actually restrained by the WRAP by federal officers, and it definitely sounds more like torture to me.
“My lungs were compressed, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sit up. I was immobilized,” said one. “My body was in so much stress. I shouted, ‘You’re killing me!’ I truly felt I was meeting my death in that moment. Six officers, three on each side, picked me up and carried me onto the plane. They plopped me down, like a load of wood, across a center row of seats.” A third man included in the complaint told Towle that he was placed in a WRAP and left on the tarmac as other prisoners were loaded onto a flight transferring them to their Omni-run deportation. “They attached a cord from a buckle at my chest to a buckle at my feet and they pulled my upper body down so my face was in my knees. I could not breathe well. I was completely immobilized.” He added, “The day I was put in The WRAP by ICE, I wanted to die. I have never felt such horrible pain. It was torture.”
In the year since Amazon bought 19.5 percent of ATSG, Omni Air International has run 21 such flights, according to the Intercept. Amazon retains the option to buy more of ATSG in the future, to the tune of 40 percent with the ability to elect a board member, but activists tracking such flights and abuses are pushing for the mega retailer to disavow Omni or at least acknowledge its role in torture. I wouldn’t hold my breath, considering how Amazon treats its own workforce in the cold light of day, but especially with a single flight costing taxpayers to the tune of $1.8 million. Profits are all that really matter, at the end of the day.
The entire investigation is heartbreaking and well worth your time.