Militarizing the Border Patrol

September 25, 2007

On the evening of September 27, 1998, Border Patrol agents shot and killed a man who was attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border near San Ysidro, California. According to the federal agents at the scene, the victim and two other men ran from the immigration officers on the U.S. side of the border. One of the men was caught, the other ran back to the Mexican side, while the third allegedly charged agents with a rock in his hand and was shot after refusing an order to stop and drop the rock. On the following day, another man was shot and killed in similar circumstances. In both cases, Border Patrol agents claimed that the immigrants had threatened them with rocks––a version that, in the first case, has been contradicted by the testimonies of witnesses at the scene. In August, another migrant was fatally shot in Arizona in circumstances that are also unclear.

This latest round of killings on the U.S.-Mexico border comes on the heels of the widely publicized murder of Ezequicl Hernandez, an 18 year-old high school sophomore who was killed by U.S. Marines in May 1997 while he was herding goats near his Redford, Texas home along border. The Marines responsible for his death were exonerated of all blame because Hernandez fit the profile of a drug runner. In other words, he was a young Hispanic male out and about near the border before dawn.

In recent years, Amnesty International, Americas Watch and other human rights organizations have documented numerous other incidents in which unarmed men, women and children have been fired upon, beaten, sexually abused, deprived of food, water and medical treatment, maimed and killed by Border Patrol agents or federal troops assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border.[1] While immigration authorities attempt to portray this growing violence against both legal and illegal immigrants as well as U.S.-born Latinos as a collection of isolated incidents, evidence suggests that this trend is the product of relatively recent tfansformations within the Border Patrol itself.

Since its founding in 1924, the Border Patrol's purpose has ostensibly been to prevent the entry of unauthorized persons and materials into U.S. territory. Over the last decade, however, its mission has been expanded to preventing the entry of terrorists and drugs into the country. This expansion of institutional objectives has, in turn, led to a dramatic militarization of both its ideology and its policing practices, prompting the direct involvement of the U.S. military in the patrolling of the border. As official concerns shifted towards the protection the national territory from the allegedly foreign threats of terrorism and drugs, federal authorities have increasingly turned towards military strategy as a way to control the influx of "dangerous" peoples into United States.

This perception of an external threat has been fueled by a politically motivated backlash against both legal and illegal immigrants, particularly those of Hispanic origin, as well as U.S.-born Latinos, who through subtle and not-so-subtle forms of symbolic violence have been demonized as an internal threat to the security and well-being of the nation. It is in this context that the alarming militarization of the border and the escalating repression and violence against Latino immigrants, residents and citizens on the border needs to be understood.[2]

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, opinion makers, politicians, and Congress have portrayed the border area and the communifies within it as places "infested" with hordes of drug runners, welfare cheats and foreigners looking for a free ride. The Border Patrol, as an arm of the state, has been charged with keeping "our" country safe from these scourges. Consequently, the institution sees working-class Latino border communities as hostile territory, and Latinos as lesser citizens. Roberto Martinez, director of the Immigration Project of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in San Diego, notes that "the politicians keep saying this is a country of laws. Where are the laws when people like me are arrested and they try to deport us?" His organization is involved in three lawsuits against the police and the Border Patrol for violently breaking into people's homes without search warrants under the pretext of looking for drugs or illegals. "Why aren't they playing by the rules?" says Martinez. "They lump us all together, we are all suspects. We're all illegal immigrants, criminals or drug traffickers."[3]

Martinez's colleague, Maria Jimenez, agrees. "Part of our work is increasing public awareness that we [Chicanos and Latinos] are an abused community," says Jimenez, director of the Immigration Project of AFSC South Texas. "It has gone on so long that we no longer see the abuse. This doesn't happen to other communities. We are U.S citizens being stopped, questioned, detained and sometimes even deported, continually having to reinforce our right to be in this country."[4]

Immigrant rights organizations have established hot lines for those caught in nets of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) who need legal advice or want to voice a complaint. In the Nogales, Arizona INS office, a poster advertising such services had the telephone number blacked out and the words, 1-900 EAT-SHIT, substituted. Although an Americas Watch investigator complained to the head of the station, the defaced poster was still there four months later.[5]

In 1984, elite Border Patrol squads known as Border Patrol Tactical Teams (BORTACS) began receiving special paramilitary training, and by 1989 Congress had authorized 5,000 federal troops for border duty. Fences and walls have gone up as has the number of Border Patrol agents and the institution's budget. In San Diego County, for example, the number of agents patrolling the county's 66-mile strip of border has risen from 890 in 1993 to 2,350 in 1998. While public outrage following the murder of Ezequiel Hernandez led to the removal of combat-ready troops from the border, the military continues to provide assistance to immigration authorities in the areas of aerial reconnaissance, personnel training, engineering and document analysis. Some 600 U.S. Marines and army troops, moreover, are building and upgrading helicopter pads and roads, making them suitable for " enhanced operations."[6] These troops are also involved in the construction of miles of steel and concrete walls that may one day extend from San Diego to Brownsville. The border has been "militarized" with the approval of most citizens, Congress and the President.

While large quantities of illegal drugs do come across the U.S.-Mexico border, a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent has noted that 70 to 85% of the total comes in through legal ports of entry in large transport trucks that are exempt from inspection as part of the NAFTA agreements––an exemption that is currently under review.[7] Of all the drugs that enter the country, the quantity that is carried by drug smugglers who cross the border on foot in remote areas is negligible. As for terrorists, very few of them are of Latin American origin.

A large majority of people who cross the border are neither drug runners nor terrorists, but people seeking work and a better life amidst global economic restructuring. Once they cross the border, workers are channeled into low-wage labor markets as agricultural or sweat-shop workers, gardeners or day laborers-jobs that are largely scorned by U.S. Citizens. Immigrant workers pick fruits and vegetables in Florida and California, slaughter and pluck chickens in Georgia, sew dresses in New York sweat shops, and clean office buildings and the houses of middle-class families everywhere. They are underpaid and exploited by employers who often call the Border Patrol in order to avoid paying them. The INS, in effect, enforces labor management, now more efficiently than ever.

While many studies indicate that migrants contribute more to the economy than they take from it, public sentiment against them has reached frenzied proportions. Consequently, it is becoming more dangerous than ever for workers to cross the border. A 1997 University of Houston study has documented the deaths of 1,200 migrants between 1993 and 1996. Researchers, moreover, believe that the actual number of fatalities may be touch higher. Many border crossers have died as a result of heat stroke and dehydration produced by extreme desert temperatures. Others have drowned in the Rio Bravo, or have been hit by cars, in some instances while being chased by the Border Patrol or military operatives. Up through August 1998, at least 100 corpses had been found along the U.S. side of the border. The discovery of five dessicated corpses in mid-August unleashed a rash of new signs warning about the dangers of crossing the desert. This official gesture, however, obscures an official policy to force border-crossing migrants towards the most dangerous terrains through the strategic construction of walls and checkpoints.

In late 1998, a Congressional hill to put an additional 10,000 soldiers on the border was voted down in the Senate, and by then, most of the combat-ready troops had been withdrawn. While this may seem paradoxical, it is imperative to recognize that the Army left behind a highly militarized and greatly enhanced Border Patrol, well-trained in low-intensity conflict (LIC) strategies. The institutionalization of these strategies within the Border Patrol, in effect make large numbers of troops unnecessary.[8] LIC involves small numbers of specially trained troops with specific missions that consciously incorporate civilians as collaborators. These strategies were first used extensively by the U.S. military in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. Their objective was to establish and maintain social control over targeted civilian groups in order to further foreign policy aims-to counter Communism and secure the global expansion of capitalism and liberal democracy.

Counterinsurgency, anti-terrorism, and peace-keeping-all LIC missions-are based on the premise that it is the enemy within that poses the greatest threat to the national security of any country. In the United States, illegal aliens, immigrant-rights groups, welfare recipients and any persons or organizations perceived as subversive to the liberal capitalist order have been cast as internal enemies of the United Statesthreats to "our" ways of life, "our" social institutions and even to the viability of "our" language. If the "enemy" is everywhere, the system needs a military that is capable of intervening in all aspects of domestic politics and social policy in the name of national security. A classic counterinsurgency technique—one taught by the U.S. Army to generations of military officers from Latin America at special institutions like the School of the Americas at Fort Beating, Georgia—is to enlist the domestic police force into military and paramilitary operations. The televised images of Riverside County Sheriff deputies chasing down a truckload of suspected undocumented workers in 1996 and beating unarmed men and women with truncheons poignantly revealed LIC strategies in action.

The overtly coercive methods of counterinsurgency and anti-terrorism tactics are matched by other seemingly more benign measures through which military forces throw their support behind the most conservative social and political forces. California's infamous Proposition 487, for example, attempted to enlist health care workers, teachers and social-service agencies in reporting the presence of undocumented workers. Similar strategies were widely utilized during the counterinsurgency wars both in Southeast Asia and Central America. Although teachers and medical personnel have largely refused to cooperate, other public-sector workers risk their jobs by not following the program.

A Chicano intake officer at a correctional institution in California stated in an intemiew that he is expected to immediately notify the INS if he suspects that an inmate he is processing is undocumented. Unsurprisingly, most inmates that come under suspicion are either Spanish-speaking or Asian. The same officer stated that Irish, Polish and Italian construction workers who are illegally in the country look on while Border Patrol agents take away their Spanish-speaking coleagues.[9] Although individuals not of Latin American origin comprise 60% of undocumented workers in the United States, 90% of all persons detained as illegals are Mexican. By incorporating civilians and local law enforcement agencies into their campaigns, the Border Patrol trains them to participate in the hierarchical categorization of individuals and communities that fuels the institution's policies.

The Border Patrol also has taken to sponsoring Explorer Scout groups in Texas. Teenagers are given uniforms complete with Border Patrol badges and are allowed to accompany agents on patrol. The idea is to teach the Scouts to be "good" Americans, to build the prestige of the INS and to undermine the work of grassroots, largely Latino community organizations that oppose the militarization of the Border Patrol, support immigrant rights, or have other agendas that are officially defined as anti-American, anti-family or "leftist." Recall the anti-gay stance taken by the Boy Scouts in mid-1998. The Border Patrol also sponsors a soccer league in the Laredo area, which gives it a benign visibility that masks its more sinister mission. Such activities are explicitly intended to draw civilian collaborators into the state's fight against the enemy within-undocumented workers and their children, monolingual Spanish speakers, welfare recipients, the poor and the homeless.

So-called peacekeeping operations are also part of LIC. The way this mission has been adopted by the Border Patrol was clearly illustrated by the role the institution played in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Four hundred members of the specially trained BORTAC squads were deployed in Latino neighborhoods, where they joined local and regional officers. These agents arrested over 1,000 suspected illegal immigrants, whether or not they were accused of any criminal offense. These arrests accounted for 10% of all arrests made during the disturbances. More than 700 of the 1,000 individuals detained were immediately deported, without any charges brought against them and without due process. These events were widely publicized and presumably approved by the general public, which was led to believe that "illegals" were heavily implicated in looting and burning.

States that purport to be liberal democracies do not typically or openly exercise power through naked and unmediated violence. Rather, they attempt to create the illusion that there is a social consensus about what is and is not legitimate, and thus about what should and should not be suppressed. In order to understand how social consensus is manufactured and how certain sectors of the population consent to the repression of other sectors of society, the ways in which the state promotes conformity need to be examined.

Typically, a state is defined as a set of institutions that exercises power and authority over a bounded territory in the service of the public interest. The state, however, is also composed of cultural and political forms, representations, practices, specific technologies and organizations which define the public interest and make socially constructed identities appear as natural within a given hierarchy of power. There is nothing natural about identities. They arise only in opposition to other, often more powerful social positions. Within such hierarchies of power, different genders, national origins and skin colors are ascribed unequal value. The production and reproduction of domination and subordination very often rests on the ability of the dominant groups who control the state apparatus to deploy strategies of symbolic violence against subordinate populations. In this context, symbolic violence usually precedes and almost always accompanies manifestations of physical violence.

By symbolic violence I refer to a set of myths that depicts certain groups of people as less than human subjects who deserve their subordinate position in society and/or as superhuman beings who are capable of subverting a given social order. Essential to myth is the process through which the collective imagination is immunized by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil in order to protect it against the risk of generalized subversion. A handful of Mexican drug runners of illegal migrants who take the jobs of citizens or a few foreign-born terrorists are sufficient to inoculate a shaky social order with evil. This justifies raids on Latino neighborhoods, discrimination and mistreatment of Spanish speakers and the killing of suspected drug runners. Such inoculations are crucial because they become part of socially accepted notions of common sense—a kind of social knowledge of the "everyone knows" variety. These enter public discourse and help build popular consensus around who and what is suspect, who and what ought to be repressed, what constitutes difference and how the state ought to control it. Thus, even when accused of human rights violations and brought to trial, Border Patrol agents are rarely convicted, since juries seem more inclined to believe Border Patrol officers than Mexicans or "aliens."

The deployment of these modes of symbolic violence have laid the groundwork for the implementation of LIC strategies along the U.S.- Mexico border. While the immediate foreign policy goals of the Cold War are no longer in place, the military tactics developed during that period have been reterritorialized within the United States in order to ensure the orderly reproduction and expansion of U.S. capitalist hegemony. Today, these strategies are being utilized against legal and illegal immigrants as well as U.S.-born Latinos in order to regulate labor flows and create a suitable scapegoat on which to blame this country's social and economic problems-a strategy which requires the implicit agreement and cooperation of ordinary people who take myths at face value and do not question the projects through which the state defends the brutal hierarchies of the social order over which it exercises its authority.

Carol Nagengast is a human rights activist who has worked with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on many issues, including human rights on the U.S. -Mexican border. She teaches anthropology at the University of New Mexico.

1.See From San Diego to Brownsville. Human Rights Violations on the USA-Mexico Border. (Washington, Amnesty International, May 20, 1998); Crossing the Border- Human Rights Abuses along the U.S. Border with Mexico Per5istArnid A Climate of Immunity (New York: Human Rights Watch, April 1995); Brutality Unchecked. Human Rights Abuses Along the U.S, Border With Mexico ~New York: Human Rights Watch, May 1992).
2.See Timothy Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border. 7978-7992 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).
3."Immigration and Human Rights on the U.S. Mexico Border: Interview with Roberto Martinez," Motion Magazine, (as it appears on the Internet, July, 1997 )
4.Quoted in Motion Magazine (as it appears on the Internet; in.d.
5.See Americas Watch, Crossing the Border.
6.Dallas Motoring Star, November 20, 1997.
7.An independent task force led by the INS Customs Service, reports that NAFTA is directly linked to the increase in illegal drug traffic across the U.S.-Mexico border. See Dallas Morning Star, May 11, 1998.
8.This section draws on material that appears in Timothy Dunn, The Militarization of the US. -Mexico Border.
9.Authors personal interview with R.P. Flores, August 3, 1998.

Tags: US immigration, US-Mexico border, militarization, border patrol, violence

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.