Capital’s Border Disorder

Against the Current, No. 94, September/October 2001

José Palafox

WHEN JULIAN AMBROSE Malaga left his small village in Chamizal, Veracruz, Mexico, he had hopes of reaching North Carolina in order to find work. Having recently married at 24, Julian was soon expecting to be a father.

About four weeks ago, Julian and thirteen other Mexican migrants perished while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border near Yuma, Arizona desert. Another thirteen severely dehydrated immigrants survived the ordeal. The migrants that survived the 114-degree temperature had been lost in the desert for more than a week. The coroners said that the survivors were so dehydrated that they appeared to be mummified.

The inhospitable desert where the migrants died sharply contrasts to the beautiful state of Veracruz, from where most of the migrants came. Rich in resources, the state of Veracuz produces coffee, tobacco, sugar, oil, and its coastline produces much of the region’s seafood. Declining coffee prices and a struggling oil industry, however, have forced many to leave their homes and travel north in search of work.

“I cried when he told me he was leaving,” Jose Hernandez, Julian’s 18-year-old cousin told the New York Times. “But he said he was going to be the first one to start making life better for all of us. After a while, we started to believe him.” (5/28/01)

Julian told his dad that, as soon as he found work, he would send the family money to help out with things. Julian’s dad said the following about his son: “He promised me that he would always behave with respect, and that he would make me proud.”

According to immigration authorities, those responsible for these deaths were the coyotes, or people smugglers. In the aftermath of the desert fatalities, Johnny Williams, the Western regional director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) promised that he would do “everything humanly possible to bring those responsible [for the Arizona deaths] to justice.” (San Diego Union-Times, 5/31/01)

On cue, most of the major media printed the Border Patrol’s version of the story: It was the professional smugglers who took people into these dangerous areas and left them for dead.

Surely, there are some who have and do take part in the killing of migrants in search of a fast buck. But Williams and the INS do not need to go to the U.S.-Mexico border to find “those responsible,” for the killer is within.

In the early/mid 1990s, as part of the Clinton administration’s “National Strategy” to reduce unauthorized crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. Border Patrol embarked on a series of operations that channeled migrants away from urbanized areas, and into areas like the mountains and the desert where it would be harder to cross.

This was a very conscious plan developed by those at the highest level of government. In one of its reports on one operation near the San Diego border, the INS and the Border Patrol claimed that “[t]he operation [Operation Gatekeeper] sought to make crossings into Imperial Valley [a regular crossing point for would-be migrants] so difficult that aliens would be forced to areas east of the city, in more remote, mountainous terrain where it is harder to cross and where the Border Patrol has a distinct tactical advantage.” (Operation Gatekeeper: Two Years of Progress, October 1996, 4)

So just what is this “tactical advantage” that the Border Patrol is talking about? Well, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. What I want to discuss here today is threefold:

1) What do we mean by the “militarization,” specifically as it applies to the U.S.-Mexico border? What have been the effects of this militarization on migrants? What is the connection between the Border Patrol’s Operation Gatekeeper — launch in 1994 — and the North American Free Trade Agreement, that same year?

2) How does the opening of borders to trade and commerce while simultaneously closing it to the movement of people — as is evident in the U.S.-Mexico model — reflect the changing role of boundaries in a global economy? That is to say, how are nation-states negotiating their borders within the increasingly international character of capital?

While I focus primarily on the U.S.-Mexico border, I should mention that this is a process that is not just limited to the U.S.-Mexico border. This phenomenon of boundary enforcement within the regional economic integration of economies is happening in places like South Africa/Mozambique, Germany/Poland and Spain/ Morocco and other places, leading to a process that sociologist Anthony Richmond calls “global apartheid.”

3) Finally, what are folks doing to resist the militarization of the border? What lessons can we learn from the 1980s Sanctuary Movement (and the Underground Railroad of the mid-1800s for that matter) for today’s New Underground Railroad? And I will briefly discuss what came out of the recent organizing efforts against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that culminated in our historic San Diego/Tijuana border demonstration on April 21st of this year.

Operation Gatekeeper and “Illegality”

In his groundbreaking book The Militarization of the U.S-Mexico Border 1978-1992 (1996), Timothy Dunn convincingly demonstrates how immigration and drug enforcement policies and practices in the 1980s and 1990s led to the militarization of the border.

Scholars of border militarization have pointed that when we talk about “militarization of the border,” this does not only encompass the deployment of military troops (e.g. JTF-6, National Guard etc.) on the U.S.-Mexico, but the whole integration of military forces with civilian law enforcement. Hence Dunn refers to “militarization” as “the use of military rhetoric and ideology, as well as military tactics, strategy, technology, equipment, and forces.” (3)

Central to this is the implementation of certain aspects of Pentagon’s Low Intensity-Conflict (LIC) Doctrine. Briefly, LIC was derived from 1960s counterinsurgency doctrine (especially in Vietnam), and was further developed in the 1980s by the U.S. military to meet a wide range of perceived “National Security” threats in the Third World, especially in Central America.

According to Dunn, the essence of LIC is about “maintaining social control over targeted civilian populations through broad range of measures (many not obviously coercive) via the coordinated efforts of police, paramilitary, and military forces.” To help us in better grasping LIC, I’ll give you the U.S. Army’s official definition of LIC (1986 Report in Dunn, 20):

“Low-intensity conflict is a limited politico-military struggle to achieve political, social, economic, or psychological objectives . . . [LIC] is generally confined to a geographic area and it is often characterized by constraints on the weaponry, tactics, and level of violence.”

I should note that, in obtaining “secret” INS documents, we learned that among the theoretical architects for U.S.-Mexico border militarization was/is the Pentagon’s Center for Low Intensity Conflict. Other military think tanks involved in border enforcement policy include the Sandia National Laboratories, which in 1993 produced a “border security” study (at $600,000) for the INS.

The study recommended the construction of a triple fence in the San Diego/Tijuana border region (which is now almost complete). Other think tanks include the Border Research and Technology Center (which tests CIA equipment for INS/BP use).

As part of this “National Strategy” to reduce unauthorized crossings, Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego/Tijuana border region has brought in more Border Patrol agents (e.g. 1000 before 1994, 2200 after 1994). Nationally, this “deterrence strategy” includes:

* More BP agents (Immigration Reform Act of 1996) required Congress to have 10,000 agents by FY 2001.

* More money given to the INS (last FY $4.3 billion), more than DEA and FBI!

* Military technology given to BP (e.g. infra-red telescopes, heat sensors, ground sensors, new computer systems to track people, surveillance cameras, helicopters etc.).

* Construction of new fences (military landing mat, in some cases “triple fencing”).

So while it is much harder for migrants to cross without inspection in light of the new enforcement measures, many still try to cross, sometimes at a high cost to their own lives. But determination to want to cross is still there: “If you build higher fences, we’ll build higher ladders.”

According to the University of Houston, close to 1,600 lives were lost trying to cross all along the U.S.-Mexico border from 1993 to 2000, a period of intensified border policing. According to Nestor Rodriguez, a co-author of the study, “It’s the equivalent of a large plane load of people crashing every year. But, they do not all die at once, so these deaths are like invisible, silent deaths.” (New York Times, 8/24/97)

The (Re)production of “Global Apartheid”

In the early stages of my research on the militarization of border in the context of NAFTA, I actually thought that it was a “contradiction” and quite “hypocritical” (I actually wrote this in my first published article as an undergrad in 1995) for the United States, Mexico and Canada to embrace neoliberal “free trade” agreements like NAFTA while at the same time the United States militarized its southern border with Mexico.

Here was the leader of the so-called “free world” encouraging Mexico to liberalize its economy, knowing — even by its own statistics — that this would only encourage internal and out-migration as people were displaced from their lands. This was even more the case when the peso collapsed in 1995 and, in order for Mexico to receive the $50 billion dollars it got from the U.S. Treasury and Wall Street, Mexico was forced to enact harsh austerity measures virtually guaranteeing more emigration.

In a sense, one could argue that U.S. policy set the house on fire and locked the doors to keep people from leaving.

In a rare but insightful speech by Alan Bersin, the former “Border Czar” during the Clinton administration outlined the “twin purposes” of border militarization in the context of NAFTA. He stated in 1995, “Our border is intended to accomplish twin purposes: On the one hand, it is intended to facilitate trade in order to bring our nation the significant benefits of international commerce and industry. At the same time, it is geared to constrain and regulate the free movement of people and goods in order to block the entry of illegal migrants and unlawful merchandise.” (See my article in Covert Action Quarterly, Spring 1996, 19)

This is an important point because inasmuch as most discourse over “globalization” (from right to left) assumes that borders are becoming “irrelevant” in a global economy. Some have even talked about a “borderless economy” and others have gone as far as to proclaim the “end of the nation-state.” This — at least in the U.S.-Mexico model — is clearly not the case.

In fact, what we are seeing is that “along rich — poor divides[,] globalization can be consistent with the reinforcement of state borders” (Peter Andreas and Timothy Snyder, The Wall around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in North America and Europe [2000], vii). In their excellent edited volume, Andreas and Snyder cleverly call for “bringing borders back in” to our examination of international politics (or, if you will, imperialism! — let’s call it what it is), especially as it regards to the states’ attempt to regulate the transnational movement of people. (2)

Having a good understanding of imperialist globalization (especially U.S. imperialism in Mexico) is crucial if we want to understand why people like Julian Malaga made the decision to come to the U.S. in search of a better life. People make choices — or as Marx reminds us — people make choices, they make history, but sometimes under circumstances not of their choosing.

Veracruz, the home state of Julian Malaga and the other migrants who perished recently, reflects how U.S. hegemony has shaped, molded, and remolded the overall Mexican economy. For example, many peasants in places like Veracruz and Chiapas used to grow corn and beans but, over the years, many have switched to growing coffee.

This was because the Mexican government and other international financial institutions would no longer give them money for growing food crops that are not profitable on the world market).

As an illustration of how poor countries are put to the mercy of the world market in order to pay their debt, Mexico embarked on promoting cash crops like coffee. But in 1990, the price of coffee on the world market tumbled. Many peasants in Veracruz and Chiapas were ruined and now they had less to eat. To summarize this part, this is because Mexico is inside the capitalist world system (and not that certain Transnational Corporations are inside Mexico as certain anti-globalization groups would have you believe).

And so the question still remains: Who really killed Julian Ambrose Malaga? I think it would be safe to say that is the same unequal global structure of production that has downsized workers in the United States, that has deindustrialized our cities, that has consolidated into bigger and bigger monopoly corporations while leaving millions without hope.

In our global economy where about 350 people control over half of the world’s resources (UNDP report stats, 2000), we must ask: “Who is really living off of whom?”

Resistance: The New Underground Railroad

The question of “who is living off of whom” is important and critical one. It encourages us as internationalists to link the local and the global. Groups like the Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers in the San Diego/Tijuana border region are working to build the binational organizing that poor and working people need.

I should note that it was pretty inspiring to see “downsized” workers from Detroit meet with workers in the Tijuana maquilas who now have “their jobs.” These are the folks that the powers that be in this country want us to think of as “our enemies.”

The recent meetings in Quebec to implement the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) brought together the technocrats of the world, but also helped facilitate new cross-border organizing as evident in the historic April 21 demonstration in the San Diego/Tijuana area this year. Other border groups such as Citizens for Border Solutions (CBS) in places like Bisbee, Arizona, have connected free-market liberalization policies like NAFTA in their educational events.

But education is but one component of this border group; CBS also provides services to migrants in need. Along with other border groups like Humane Borders and Southwest Alliance to Resist Militarization (SWARM), these groups have gone out to put water in the desert where migrants cross, and have challenged the INS by placing body bags in front of the U.S. Federal Building in Tucson, Arizona to protest the U.S. government’s role in pushing migrants into dangerous areas.

Like a modern day Underground Railroad, the actions of these border activist remind us that, sometimes human life is more important than laws and that people have a right to survive regardless of legal status.

As the lyrics to a famous Latin American folk song put it: “Between your village and mine, there is a dot and a line. The line says: there is no entrance, and on the dot, this road is closed . . . Because these things do not exist, they have been drawn so that your hunger and mine remain always separated.”

from ATC 94 (September/October 2001)