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How the US Militarized the Haiti-Dominican Republic Border

As part of the Global War on Terror, the US has exported its border patrol model to the Caribbean.

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 5:40 PM EST

By 2009, the new force had already received training, funding, and resources from a number of US agencies, including the Border Patrol itself. Somehow, it seems that what the US consulate calls "strong borders" between the Dominican Republic and the hemisphere's poorest country has become an integral part of a terror-obsessed world.

When I met with Colonel Orlando Jerez, a CESFRONT commander, in the border guard agency's headquarters in the Dominican capital Santo Domingo, I noticed that on his desk he had a US Border Patrol model car, a replica of the one that agency sponsored on the NASCAR circuit from 2006 to 2008 in an attempt to recruit new agents. Along the side of the shiny box that held it was this mission statement: "We are the guardians of the nation's borders, we are America's frontlines."

When I asked Jerez whether CESFRONT had a relationship with our Border Patrol, he replied without a second's hesitation, "Of course, they have an office in the US embassy."

Jerez is not alone. Washington's global boundary-building, its promotion of those strong borders, and its urge to preempt "terrorism against American interests 'over there,'" as the 9/11 commission report put it, are spreading fast. For example, the Central American Regional Security Initiative, a $496 million US counter-drug plan launched in 2008, identifies "border security deficiencies" among Central American countries as a key problem to be dealt with ASAP. So the US Border Patrol has gone to Guatemala and Honduras to help train new units of border guards.

As in Central America, border patrolling's most vibrant markets are in places that Washington sees as far too chaotic, yet where its economic and political interests reside. For six years now, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has sent its agents, clad in brown jumpsuits, to Iraq's borderlands to assist that government in the creation of a force to police its "porous" borders (where chaos has indeed been endemic since the 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of the country). US boundary-building efforts began there in 2004 with an operation labeled "Phantom Linebacker" in which 15,000 border guards were trained to patrol in—as the name of the operation indicates—the spirit of American football.

In 2012, agent Adrian Long told Frontline, the CBP's in-house magazine, that his agency trains Iraqis "in Border Patrol techniques like cutting sign, doing drags, setting up checkpoints and patrols." Long was repeating the same lingo so often heard on the US-Mexican border, where agents "cut sign" to track people by their trail marks and do "drags" to smooth out dirt roads so they can more easily see the footprints of any "border intruders." In Afghanistan, Border Patrol agents are similarly training forces to police that country's 3,436 miles of frontiers. In 2012, during one training session, an Afghan policeman even turned his gun on two CBP agents in an "insider attack," killing them and seriously injuring a third.

Around soccer's World Cup, which South Africa hosted in 2010, CBP assisted that government in creating a Customs and Border Control Unit tasked with "securing South Africa's borders while facilitating the movement of goods and people," according to CBP's Africa and Middle East branch country manager for South Africa Tasha Reid Hippolyte. South Africa has even brought its military special forces into the border patrolling process. Near the Zimbabwean border, its militarized guards were using a triple barrier of razor wire and electric fencing that can be set to offer shocks ranging from mild to deadly in their efforts to stop border crossers. Such equipment had not been used in that country since the apartheid-era.

In many cases, the US is also training border forces in the use of sophisticated surveillance systems, drones, and the construction of fences and barriers of various kinds, largely in attempts to clamp down on the movement of people between poorer and richer countries. More than 15,000 foreign participants in more than 100 countries have taken part in CBP training sessions since October 2002. It is little wonder, then, that an L-3 Communications sales rep would shrug off the constraints of a shrinking domestic national security budget.

Meanwhile, US borders are functionally being stretched in all sorts of complex ways, even across the waters. As Michael Schmidt wrote in the New York Times in 2012, for example, "An ocean away from the United States, travelers flying out of the international airport here on the west coast of Ireland are confronting one of the newest lines of defense in the war on terrorism: the United States border." There, at Shannon International Airport, Department of Homeland Security officials set up the equivalent of a prescreening border checkpoint for air travelers.

Whether it is in your airports or, as in Haiti's case, in the international waters around your country, the US border is on its way to scrutinize you, to make sure that you are not a threat to the "homeland." If you don't meet Washington's criteria for whatever reason, you will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, from entering the United States, or even in many cases from travelling anywhere at all.

CBP attachés are now detailed to US embassies in Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, and Canada, among many other countries. According to an agency publication, Customs and Border Protection Today, they have been tasked with the mission of keeping "terrorists and their weapons from our shores," as well as providing technical assistance, "fostering secure trade practices, and strengthening border authority principles." The anonymous writer then typically, if floridly, describes "our country's border" as "the armor of the body politic; it protects the systems and infrastructures that function within. Knives pierce armor and can jeopardize the body—so we sheath them; keep them at bay; and demand accountability from those who use them."

As CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner put it in 2004, the US is "extending our zone of security, where we can do so, beyond our physical borders—so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense."

Perhaps this is why few here batted an eye when, in 2012, Assistant Secretary of International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer for the Department of Homeland Security Alan Bersin flatly declared, "The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border."

On the Edge of Empire

As dusk falls and the rainstorm ends, I walk along the river's edge where those Dominican border patrol agents are still sitting, staring into Haiti. Considering that US forces occupied the Dominican Republic and Haiti numerous times in the previous century, it's easy to imagine why Washington's border chieftains consider this sad, impoverished spot part of our "backyard." Not far from where I'm walking is the Codevi industrial free trade zone that straddles the border. There, Haitian workers churn out jeans mainly for Levi Strauss and the North American market, earning less than three dollars a day.

I approach one of the CESFRONT guards in his desert camouflage uniform. He's sitting with his assault rifle between his legs. He looks beyond bored—no surprise since being suspicious of people who happen to be on the other side of a border can be deadly tedious work.

Diaz, as his name patch identifies him, tells me that his shift, which runs from 6 p.m. to midnight, is normally eventless because Haitians rarely cross here. When I explain where I'm from, he wants to know what the US-Mexico border looks like. I tell him about the fencing, the sensors, the cameras, and the agents everywhere you look. I ask if he has ever met agents of the US Border Patrol.

"Of course!" he says in Spanish, "there have been training sessions."

Then I ask if terrorists are crossing this border, which is the reason the US consulate in Santo Domingo gives for supporting the creation of CESFRONT.

Diaz looks at me as if I'm nuts before offering an emphatic "No!"

No surprise there either. CESFRONT, like similar outfits proliferating globally, isn't really about terrorism. It's all about Haiti, one of the poorest countries on the planet. It is a response to fears of the mass movement of desperate, often hungry, people in the US sphere of dominance. It is the manifestation of a new vision of global geopolitics in which human beings in need are to be corralled, their free movement criminalized, and their labor exploited.

With this in mind, the experimental border control technologies being tested along the US-Mexican boundary line and the border-industrial complex that has grown up around it are heading abroad in a major way. If Congress finally passes a new multi-billion dollar border-policing package, its effects will be felt not only along US borders, but also at the edges of its empire.

Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, has researched and written about US-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog "Border Wars," among other places. His first book, Border Patrol Nation, will be published in spring 2014 for the Open Media Series of City Lights Books. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones's They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars—The Untold Story. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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