During the three years that I traveled with undocumented migrants who pass through Mexico as stowaways aboard cargo trains, I tried to place blame for the terrible things these people experience on their journey—the many kidnappings perpetrated by organized crime groups that have realized nobody protects these travelers; the hundreds of rapes against women; the thousands of arms, legs, and lives severed by the steel of the train’s wheels. The situation along the border is a humanitarian crisis, and the blame should be placed throughout the whole of the continent: on the countries of origin unable to guarantee their inhabitants decent living conditions so as not to flee the poverty, the violence, the unemployment; on a transit country, Mexico, that for decades has turned a blind eye to the massacres of migrants in its territory; and last, on the final link, the destination country. But to what extent is the United States to blame for the brutality committed against these travelers?
I didn’t fully understand the answer to that question until I saw a map of the entire border between Mexico and the United States. Since the 1990s, with the inception of the Border Patrol’s Operations Gatekeeper and Hold the Line—measures designed to crack down on unauthorized migration—and more recently culminating in Operation Jump Start, the United States has outlined a protective system that, if not expressly intended to kill, certainly facilitates death, so to speak.
During several months in 2009, I studied the border in person. Until then, I had seen it only on maps. I arrived in Tijuana many times with the same plan: to cover the border from west to east, from Tijuana to Matamoros, from San Diego to Brownsville. I wanted to answer one question: To what spaces does the wall relegate the undocumented migrant? Town by town, city by city, I visited the crossing points left by the barrier. It is a panorama of death.
The United States has designed a sieve that does not discriminate on the basis of nationality. Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans, Asians, anyone who aspires to filter through by land will have to confront the map of horror scarred by the wall’s bars, fences, sensors, and cameras.
I began to understand when at the start of my journey I saw Epifanio, a Mexican migrant peering through the fence’s bars on the beach in Tijuana. His gaze scanned San Diego, where his family lives and where he hoped to reach. I sat down to talk with him and I asked him his plan. His initial plan, he told me, had been to find out how things worked on the border. So for three months he asked around, always asking the same thing: Where is there a safe place to cross? Epifanio wasn’t asking where he could cross effortlessly, where there would be no risk of being detained by the Border Patrol. Rather, when he asked about that “safe place,” he meant a place where drug traffickers wouldn’t abduct him, where there would be no desert bandits, or where the treacherous landscape would not push him to the brink of death.
People told him places like that don’t exist; they once existed, but that was a long time ago. Those places, with names like El Cañon Zapata or El Águila, all located near Tijuana, were crossing points that demanded exertion, requiring five, eight, 10 hours of walking to avoid detection and to reach a city or highway from which to enter the United States. But they weren’t places of death nor of abduction nor rape. He was told that those safe places had disappeared, that the wall had exterminated them.
Years ago, before the initiatives to strengthen border security, undocumented migrants who entered the United States through the outskirts of San Diego faced grueling treks, but that was all. The Border Patrol posed the only serious risk to their success, deporting migrants or, in the case of repeat offenders, detaining them for several months. But then the wall, understood as a compendium of technology, human effort, and fortification, began its work.
I asked Epifanio what his new plan was. That very night, he explained, he would cross over at a site close to Tecate, Tijuana’s neighboring city. I asked if he had investigated the difficulties involved in crossing there. Of course he had. That’s why, I suppose, he gazed nostalgically through the fence on the beach in Tijuana. He answered that he would have to walk three times farther than the distance traveled by migrants before the construction of the wall in Tijuana. Epifanio planned to hike five nights to reach San Diego and embrace his family. He told me that his guide had warned him that the place where they would cross was infested with bandits, men with ski masks armed with rifles and shotguns who obstruct the passage of migrant groups, stripping them of their belongings and even raping the women. That wasn’t all. The guide had warned him that the route was also used by drug traffickers and that Epifanio and his fellow migrants would face serious problems.
During that trip I discovered precisely what form those “serious problems” could take. When I was in Altar, a small town on the border between Mexico and Arizona, drug traffickers belonging to the Sinaloa cartel abducted almost 300 undocumented migrants who, in different groups, had attempted to make their way through the desert using routes operated by the drug smugglers, who despise such intrusions because they attract the attention of the Border Patrol and force them, on certain occasions, to lose their shipments. They were kidnapped as punishment for having trespassed. The town’s priest negotiated with the traffickers, securing the return of 180 of the most severely injured migrants. Their ankles had been broken with baseball bats—a symbolic punishment for a migrant. The fate of the remaining 120 migrants is still unknown.
Undocumented migrants don’t invade drug-trafficking routes because they’re defiant. Nor do they attempt to pass through these danger zones because they’re reckless. They do it because they’re left with no other option. They do it because this is the new border delineated by the wall. They do it because the wall has transformed the border into a series of funnels, of shared routes through which all must pass. Although the wall may serve to deter a large number of migrants from attempting to illegally enter the United States, it has certainly been unable to prevent it altogether. Migrants continue trying to cross despite the increasing hazardousness of the endeavor.
The wall, now in its most effective form, helps to contain a small portion of the migrant flow. That would be its success for whoever wanted to see it. However, it would be myopic not to recognize the consequences of this “success”: the death of dozens, hundreds of undocumented migrants. Deaths in the desert, where you have to walk much farther to arrive at your destination; deaths at the hands of narco-traffickers, who don’t want to share the few remaining routes left behind by the wall; deaths at the hands of bandits who now know much better than before where the migrants will cross, where to launch their robberies and rapes.
During my different journeys across the border, I found dozens of stories like Epifanio’s, stories of Central Americans and Mexicans who traveled the length of the border asking for advice in search of a safe place to cross. Dozens of stories of men and women who after a few days, weeks, or months gave up and confronted the reality that the wall has created, and entered the funnels, between narcos and bandits.
I saw the same reality in every one of the towns I visited. The wall hurried along from west to east, devouring everything in its path. The migrants tried to cross in El Sásabe, a small town lost between the Altar and Arizona deserts, but U.S. officials came in and constructed their wall. Between Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, between San Diego and El Paso, I traveled through every crossing point, every town, city, or village where the migrants cross, and the reality was the same: The migrants are victimized by the narcotrafficker and bandits, the owners of these routes they are forced onto.
Evidence that the border is consciously designed this way can be found when we look at where the wall has not been built. Of the nine sectors into which the Border Patrol partitions the border, there’s only one where there are no plans to build even a foot of fortification or to install even one high-tech security camera: the Marfa Sector, the most extensive of the nine, which spans more than 300 miles of border between New Mexico and Chihuahua. One day, if the construction of the wall continues as planned, Marfa will be the only place where that fatal obstacle doesn’t exist, and that’s not good news.
Marfa is a desert region situated between the most uninhabited zones of the most sparsely populated states on the border. On the U.S. side, there are no cities within close reach to stock up on food or water. A migrant guide once told me that to reach a highway or a village, you had to walk 10 to 15 nights. The decision of where to put the wall and where not to seems to be a kind of selective exercise: If someone is able to cross through Marfa, it’s because they’re vigorous, strong, resilient. That is to say, someone who can pick a lot of tomatoes each day. The rest—pregnant women, children, and older adults—are ill suited for the perils of Marfa. For them, for those unwilling to pass the test of strength, are reserved the routes of the drug traffickers and bandits.
Those who support the border wall will say what they want. They will argue that every country has the right to protect its borders. They will continue insisting that it is a matter of preventing the entry of terrorists, regardless of whether evidence proves otherwise. They will argue that they don’t incite migration, that they’re trying to discourage it, that they even engage in collaborative programs with the various migrant origin countries. And all this will be true, but no excuse. U.S. legislators know, or should know, that the construction of border protection with Mexico, security measures, and the free spaces that they have deliberately planned to leave untouched constitute an infrastructure that leads to more deaths, more cases of rape, and more abductions. The migrants will continue coming. The wall will continue growing, and U.S. leaders who support these measures will continue to be those responsible for forcing all these people into the hands of drug traffickers and criminals.
Many other U.S. interventions could serve as grounds for protest. Perhaps the United States encourages Mexican controls against Central American migrants at its southern border. Perhaps U.S. economic aid to Mexico has been given in exchange for heightened Mexican vigilance of migrants who attempt to enter the United States through the country’s northern border. This is debatable. However, the fact that the physical layout of the U.S.-Mexico border promotes the death of migrants—this is not a matter of debate. It is simply a fact.
Óscar Martínez is a Salvadoran journalist for the digital newspaper El Faro (elfaro.net) and author of Los migrantes que no importan (Icaria, 2010). Translated from the Spanish by Dennis Stinchcomb.