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Is the US-Mexico Border Turning into a War Zone?

How surveillance cameras, drones, and armored helicopters are fueling immigration reform's military industrial complex.

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 12:31 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

The first thing I did at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix this March was climb the brown "explosion-resistant" tower, 30 feet high and 10 feet wide, directly in the center of the spacious room that holds this annual trade show. From a platform where, assumedly, a border guard would stand, you could take in the constellation of small booths offering the surveillance industry's finest products, including a staggering multitude of ways to monitor, chase, capture, or even kill people, thanks to modernistic arrays of cameras and sensors, up-armored jeeps, the latest in guns, and even surveillance balloons.

Although at the time, headlines in the Southwest emphasized potential cuts to future border-security budgets thanks to Congress's "sequester," the vast Phoenix Convention Center hall—where the defense and security industries strut their stuff for law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—told quite a different story. Clearly, the expanding global industry of border security wasn't about to go anywhere.  It was as if the milling crowds of business people, government officials, and Border Patrol agents sensed that they were about to be truly in the money thanks to "immigration reform," no matter what version of it did or didn't pass Congress. And it looks like they were absolutely right.

All around me in that tower were poster-sized fiery photos demonstrating ways it could help thwart massive attacks and fireball-style explosions. A border like the one just over 100 miles away between the United States and Mexico, it seemed to say, was not so much a place that divided people in situations of unprecedented global inequality, but a site of constant war-like danger.

Below me were booths as far as the eye could see surrounded by Disneyesque fake desert shrubbery, barbed wire, sand bags, and desert camouflage. Throw in the products on display and you could almost believe that you were wandering through a militarized border zone with a Hollywood flair.

To an awed potential customer, a salesman in a suit and tie demonstrated a mini-drone that fits in your hand like a Frisbee. It seemed to catch the technological fetishism that makes Expo the extravaganza it is. Later I asked him what such a drone would be used for. "To see what's over the next hill," he replied.

Until you visit the yearly Expo, it's easy enough to forget that the US borderlands are today ground zero for the rise, growth, and spread of a domestic surveillance state. On June 27th, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Along with the claim that it offers a path to citizenship to millions of the undocumented living in the United States (with many stringent requirements), in its more than 1,000 pages it promises to build the largest border-policing and surveillance apparatus ever seen in the United States. The result, Senator John McCain proudly said, will be the "most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall."

This "border surge," a phrase coined by Senator Chuck Schumer, is also a surveillance surge. The Senate bill provides for the hiring of almost 19,000 new Border Patrol agents, the building of 700 additional miles of walls, fences, and barriers, and an investment of billions of dollars in the latest surveillance technologies, including drones.

In this, the bill only continues in a post-9/11 tradition in which our southern divide has become an on-the-ground laboratory for the development of a surveillance state whose mission is already moving well beyond those borderlands. Calling this "immigration reform" is like calling the National Security Agency's expanding global surveillance system a domestic telecommunications upgrade. It's really all about the country that the United States is becoming—one of the police and the policed.

Low-Intensity War Zone
The $46 billion border security price tag in the immigration reform bill will simply expand on what has already been built. After all, $100 billion was spent on border "enforcement" in the first decade after 9/11. To that must be added the annual $18 billion budget for border and immigration enforcement, money that outpaces the combined budgets of all other federal law enforcement agencies.  In fact, since Operation Blockade in the 1990s, the US-Mexico border has gone through so many surges that a time when simple chain link fences separated two friendly countries is now unimaginable.

To witness the widespread presence of Department of Homeland Security agents on the southern border, just visit that international boundary 100 miles south of Border Security Expo. Approximately 700 miles of walls, fences, and barriers already cut off the two countries at its major urban crossings and many rural ones as well. Emplaced everywhere are cameras that can follow you—or your body heat—day or night. Overhead, as in Afghanistan, a Predator B drone may hover. You can't hear its incessant buzzing only because it flies so high, nor can you see the crew in charge of flying it and analyzing your movements from possibly hundreds of miles away.

As you walk, perhaps you step on implanted sensors, creating a beeping noise in some distant monitoring room.  Meanwhile, green-striped Border Patrol vehicles rush by constantly. On the US-Mexican border, there are already more than 18,500 agents (and approximately 2,300 more on the Canadian border). In counterterrorism mode, they are paid to be suspicious of everything and everybody. Some Homeland Security vehicles sport trailers carrying All Terrain Vehicles. Some have mounted surveillance cameras, others cages to detain captured migrants. Some borderlanders like Mike Wilson of the Tucson-based Border Action Network, a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation (a Native American people and the original inhabitants of the Arizona borderlands), call the border security operatives an "occupying army."

Checkpoints—normally located 20-50 miles from the international boundary—serve as a second layer of border enforcement. Stopped at one of them, you will be interrogated by armed agents in green, most likely with drug-sniffing dogs. If you are near the international divide, it's hard to avoid such checkpoints where you will be asked about your citizenship—and much more if anything you say or do, or simply the way you look, raises suspicions. Even outside of the checkpoints, agents of the Department of Homeland Security can pull you over for any reason—without probable cause or a warrant—and do what is termed a "routine search." As a US Border Patrol agent told journalist Margaret Regan, within a hundred miles of the international divide, "there's an asterisk on the Constitution."

Off-road forward operating bases offer further evidence of the battlefield atmosphere being created near the border. Such outposts became commonplace during the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they were meant to house US soldiers deployed into remote areas. On the border, there are high-tech yet rudimentary camps that serve the same purpose. They also signal how agents of the Department of Homeland Security are "gaining, maintaining, and expanding" into rural areas traversed by migrants and used by smugglers, though to this point never crossed by a known international terrorist.

These rural areas, especially in Arizona, are riddled with migrant causalities. More than 6,000 "remains" have been recovered since the mid-1990s, deaths not for the most part from bullets but from exposure. The US borderlands, according to sociologist Timothy Dunn, started to become a militarized zone as early as the 1970s—in part, in response to the Pentagon's low-intensity conflict doctrine. With Congressional immigration reform, if it passes the House of Representatives, it may very well become a full-fledged war zone.

Since the 1990s, the strategy of the Border Patrol has been termed "prevention by deterrence" and has been focused on concentrating agents and surveillance technologies in urban areas, once the traditional migrant routes. The idea was to funnel migrant flows into areas too dangerous and desolate to cross like the triple-degree-temperature desert in Arizona.  Deadly yes; impossible to cross, no. Although unauthorized border-crossings have slowed down in recent years, tens of thousands continue to cross into the United States annually from Mexico and Central America, thanks in part to the continued havoc of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which left more two million Mexican farmers unemployed.  

I met Adira, a 21-year-old from Oaxaca, Mexico, in early June. She told me a story all too common in Arizona. As she described her experience, I realized that I was talking to somebody who had probably died and been brought back to life. We were only a few blocks from the border. Homeland Security had formally deported her only days before. Still reliving the trauma of her experience, she stared down, her face colorless, as she talked.

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I had heard the basics of her story so many times before: to avoid the militarized surveillance apparatus, she and her companions walked for at least five days through the southern Arizona desert with little—and then no—water or food. By the fourth day, the mountains began to talk to her, so she told me, and she suspected she was coming to the end of her young life. After she couldn't walk any more, the guide dragged her, telling her constantly: "We just have to make it to the next point."

When they reached a road on the American side of the border, she remembers convulsing four times (just as she remembers blood bursting spontaneously from the noses of her companions). And then she remembers no more. She woke up in a hospital. There were scars on her chest. Medics must have used a machine, she thought, to shock her back to life. She found out later that somebody had lit a fire to attract the Border Patrol. She's lucky not to be among those remains regularly found out in that desert.

In other words, each further tightening of the border is a death sentence passed on yet more Latin Americans. According to a statement by a group of Tucson organizations, including No More Deaths and the Coalición de Derechos Humanos, the border build-up in the immigration reform bill promises more of the same: "Make no mistake: this bill will lead to more deaths on the border."

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