Nogales, Arizona: The Border Patrol’s War Without End

A recent visit to Nogales, Arizona, and to the U.S. Border Patrol station there—the country's largest—brings home the dramatic transformation of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands over the last couple of decades. It also illustrates how U.S. authorities are envisioning and laying the groundwork for a "war" without end against what they construct as an endless supply of threats emanating from the Mexican side of the international divide.
Joseph Nevins 3/21/2012


The U.S. Border Patrol’s annual budget increased by more than a factor of nine between fiscal years 1994 and 2011. In FY 1994, when it began to implement a new national strategy as embodied by various “operations” (such as Hold-the-Line in greater El Paso and Gatekeeper in San Diego and its environs), the agency’s budget was just under $400 million. In FY 2011, it stood at almost $3.6 billion. During the same period, the number of Border Patrol agents grew five-fold, reaching more than 21,000.


While these numbers are impressive in and of themselves, it is tough to get a feel for the dramatic changes they embody without seeing what they look like on the ground—at least for me. I got a small taste of these changes less than two weeks ago when I toured the U.S. Border Patrol station in Nogales, Arizona as part of a group of 30 visitors from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.828 Sign on the Mexican side of the boundary wall in Nogales


Not too long ago, “Ambos Nogales”—Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora—were like twin towns. Through the 1980s, the annual Cinco de Mayo parade would cross from one side of the international boundary to the other. Longtime local residents describe a binational border region characterized by frequent movement back-and-forth. One Nogalense who moved to the Sonoran city in 1990 told me that in the first few years he lived there he used to cross regularly without authorization into the United States to shop or visit friends.834 Man passes crosses into Nogales, AZ in 1998 while BP agents repair fence. Credit: Miriam Davidson.

One need not romanticize life in Ambos Nogales prior to the mid-1990s to conclude that binational life there in 2012 is very different. Today, Nogales, Sonora is a virtual dumping ground for individuals deported from the United States, while the Arizona side of the divided city is home to the largest of the Border Patrol’s 139 stations. 839 Border wall, Nogales, Arizona.Responsible for policing 32 linear miles of the U.S.-Mexico boundary and a total area of 1,100 square miles, the Nogales station currently has approximately 720 agents with a variety of firearms at their disposal—such as M4 rifles, shotguns, and compressed-air-powered guns, which fire plastic pellets that emit pepper dust, in addition to standard-issue pistols carried by all agents—and about 500 patrol vehicles. Contributing to the militarized feel of the area are stadium-style lights along the boundary and a growing number of barriers in the form of 15-20 foot-high walls, ones recently installed to replace a less effective partition.


As do other stations in the Southwest borderlands, Nogales receives significant assistance from various branches of the U.S. military, which cycle though troops to help out with—among other tasks—road building. The Nogales area is especially popular within the Pentagon in this regard as evidenced by a wide swath of land cleared of vegetation along sections of the boundary traversed by dirt roads. As one Border Patrol agent explained, soldiers who specialize in road-building go to the area to train because the local topographic conditions come closest to those found in Afghanistan and Iraq.


There were at least two uniformed U.S. Marines working at the station the morning we visited. They were seated in front of a computer screen in a room filled with video monitors linked to the surveillance towers—fixed and mobile—that now litter the area. 831 Credit: Manuel C. Coppola, Nogales InternationalComplementing these “eyes in the sky” is a blimp-mounted surveillance system with which the Nogales station is experimenting, two of which the Pentagon is now using in Afghanistan. It hovers over the station’s compound at a height of 1,500-2,000 feet, providing a city-sized range of vision around the clock—or at least that’s the hope of its advocates.


While the sheer size of the Nogales station was striking in terms of its human and material resources dedicated to policing the boundary and those who cross it without official authorization, what was perhaps most noteworthy was its public relations apparatus. When our group arrived at the station, six agents were there to greet us, show us around, and document our visit. Among the various community relations efforts they discussed with us were the local Border Patrol Explorer post, participation in the Shop with a Cop program, and visits to primary schools where agents read books to young children.835


The agents who accompanied our group made clear that they see the Border Patrol as carrying out vital functions in defense of national security and public safety, realms they perceive as threatened by, among others, drug and people smugglers who exploit old tunnels or build new ones that cross the boundary. They also position themselves as protectors of the well-being of migrants (in the face of smugglers the agents repeatedly characterized in various ways as inhumane and abusive). While such perspectives are hardly surprising, it is the normalization of hitherto unimaginable levels of Border Patrol policing that they reflect—and the agency’s efforts to curry the favor of the local populace to support them—that is most striking.


It wasn’t too long ago, for example, that many local residents and drivers objected strongly to the Border Patrol checkpoints on roads in southern Arizona. Now, such checkpoints are more numerous and are a seeming fact of life, ones which elicit little protest.


One day prior to visiting Nogales, our group met in Tucson with two representatives of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Like their counterparts in the Border Patrol, they stressed that their jobs are dangerous. “Everything we do,” asserted Richard Crocker, Deputy Special Agent in-Charge for Southern Arizona, “is a calculated risk.” This eventually led Crocker to say, “We can never have enough ICE agents.”836


No doubt, had they been asked, the Border Patrol agents would have largely concurred. Viewed from the Border Patrol station in Nogales, its “twin” across the boundary—and Mexico as a whole—is a source of limitless threats of various types, rather than a dynamic city peopled with human beings who share so much with the “us” supposedly in need of ever-more security.


If what is unfolding in Nogales, Arizona is any indication—and surely it is—the U.S. border “war” as imagined by its proponents within the federal government is one without end.840 Looking into Nogales, Sonora. Credit: All photos by author unless otherwise noted.





For more from the Border Wars blog, visit And now you can follow it on twitter@NACLABorderWars. See also "Undocumented, Not Illegal: Beyond the Rhetoric of Immigration Coverage,by Angelica Rubio in the November/December 2011 NACLA Report; "The Border: Funneling Migrants to Their Doom," by Óscar Martínez, in the September/October 2011 NACLA Report; and the May/June 2007 NACLA ReportOf Migrants & Minutemen.

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