The National Guard Border Fix

The August 1 deployment of 1200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border further ignites skepticism about the Obama administration's stated claim that there would be a shift away from militarization in the U.S. anti-narcotic strategy. While in March Washington stressed that new strategies were needed to fight drug trafficking, which would include expanding our border focus beyond interdiction of contraband to include "building stronger communities," troops are lining up on the U.S.-Mexican border once again, and U.S. aid under the Merida Initiative continues to flow to Mexico for seemingly the same-old militarized approach.

Juanita Darling

In a deployment that reinforces the administration’s militarization and interdiction anti-narcotics strategy, despite stated U.S. commitments to change this strategy, National Guard units from southwestern states have been called up and are being trained to provide backup support to the Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexican border. Homeland Security’s rationale for the call-up is that additional military presence will allow Border Patrol agents to more effectively pursue drug and arms smugglers. A bill President Obama signed in August provides funding for 1,500 new Border Patrol agents to replace the Guard units within a year. The second National Guard deployment to the border in two years mirrors Mexico’s own U.S.-backed military effort to fight drug traffickers. The United States has supported Mexico’s strategy with an estimated $1.3 billion in law enforcement and military aid, including three Blackhawk and five Bell helicopters.

Like previous U.S.-backed anti-narcotics strategies, such as Plan Colombia, the agreement has focused on interdiction in drug-producing and transit countries, with an emphasis on arming police and bringing in troops in those countries to fight drug traffickers.

Yet, both Mexican and U.S. officials have acknowledged that under this military approach, drug trafficking persists, and violence related to the illicit drug trade has dramatically increased. This is underscored by the 28,000 drug-related deaths in Mexico since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006. The State Department seems to realize that militarization alone cannot effectively combat the multiple problems associated with trafficking. Roberta S. Jacobson, deputy assistant secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs, recently told a House subcommittee that the U.S. administration was moving toward a new strategy of supporting “stronger democratic institutions in Mexico . . . expanding our border focus beyond interdiction of contraband to include facilitation of legitimate trade and travel, and [cooperating] in building stronger communities.”

According to U.S. officials, one aspect of the “new strategy” is the creation of a ”twenty-first-century border” that can “stop the flow of drugs and human trafficking to the north, and guns and cash to the south,” said Jacobson. Attributes include interior check points and modern technology, but not troops.

Other aspects of the new strategy include “reforms to sustain rule of law and respect for human rights” and “build[ing] strong and resilient communities.”

However, U.S. State Department travel warnings issued in July about the violence in Mexico specifically approve of Mexico’s “extensive effort to combat drug-trafficking organizations” and military troop deployment in relation to increased violence. And the lion’s share of the $331 million in aid the United States has agreed to provide for Mexico in 2011— $300 million — has been classified as “Foreign Military Financing” and “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement.”

The deployment of 1200 National Guard troops announced by President Obama in May gives further mixed signals to whether the U.S. administration is genuine in the stated shift of its anti-narcotic strategy. According to a joint follow-up statement by the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, the troops would be sent to all four states on the Mexican border for one year starting on August 1, until new Border Patrol guards can be recruited and trained.

The National Guard “will serve in law enforcement support roles consistent with the Administration's view that border security is a law enforcement challenge,” Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau said in a prepared statement. This year’s contingent is about one-fifth the size of the 2006-2008 National Guard deployment.

Previously National Guard troops participated in flare truck operations to illuminate the desert night and prevent unauthorized crossings; controlling cameras and other visual equipment to monitor the border; and simple foot patrols to show their presence. They have not been involved in direct law enforcement.

But there is considerable disagreement over whether the “new strategy” is all that new. “Proposals to deploy the National Guard are ill-conceived and motivated by electoral politics rather than border realities,” a dozen organizations representing border communities wrote to President Obama in May. “We consider the deployment of the National Guard an affront to border communities and oppose the militarization of our region.” As cartel-related violence rises in Mexico, and the demand for illicit drugs remains high in the United States — and as the U.S. drug war is increasingly conflated with U.S. immigration policy — we are clearly a long way from a quick fix along the border.

Juanita Darling is a NACLA Research Associate.

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