Death in the sands: the horror of the US-Mexico border

Donald Trump has pledged to build a beautiful wall but Americas frontier with Mexico is already aggressively defended by the drones and fencings of the US border patrol. Its a strategy that is causing ever more migrants to succumb in hostile terrain

Fifteen-year-old Sergio Hernandez Guereca and three teenage friends ran across the percolate of water in the concrete riverbed that is the Rio Grande, which marks the USMexico border, on a cloudy, hot June day in 2010. The river, which operates between El Paso and Jurez, is merely centimetres deep and 15 metres wide at the border, because the US diverts most of the water into a canal before it reaches Mexico. The audacity of the sons operate, in broad daylight in one of the most heavily patrolled spots along the border, roused bored pedestrians inching along the Paso del Norte Bridge towards the checkpoint. Several turned on their phone cameras to record the brazen act. The videos and the searing images of the aftermath momentarily inundated the media, with channels from CNN to Univision indicating the footage.

Exactly what Sergio and his friends had in intellect is unclear. Even at their young ages, they had to know that an agent would arrive within seconds of their shoes getting wet. Maybe they were a diversion for some other traversing nearby, or had a small package to drop for a smuggler, or, as their families would suggest later, were just doing something stupid to get their adrenaline pumping. They were teenage boys, after all.

As soon as they reached the fencing on the US side, the latter are forced to retreat. Border patrol agent Jesus Mesa Jr ran in from the north with his gun already described. Sergio and two other boys easily scaped Mesa and jogged back across to the Mexican side. The fourth son put his hands up and was imprisoned. Insuring this, Sergio and his two friends picked up rocks and threw them at Agent Mesa. The detained boy fell to the ground; Agent Mesa dragged him by his shirt collar a few metres toward the Rio Grande, maintaining his handgun pointed into Mexico at the boys, who were at least 20 or 30 metres away.

Border patrol agents imprison people intersecting into the US in Roma, Texas. Photo: John Moore/ Getty Images

Sitting in an empty Catholic church in El Paso a few months later, Mara Luisa( not her real name ), a sprightly and energetic 80 -year-old woman who resides in El Paso but regularly travellings across the bridge to visit household in Jurez, described what happened next. It was such a long distance, she said exasperatedly, using her hands to point to either side of the cavernous chapel. The border patrol was here, the son was there. It was so far apart. How are you able compare a man who has been trained to kill and this young son, with boulders?

Agent Mesa fired twice across the border into Mexico. Pop, pop. Then a brief intermission, followed by another pop. Pedestrians on the bridge gasped and hollered. Idiota, one girl told. Sergio staggered a few metres and fell beside the pylon of a railway bridge. In the photos, the pool of blood around the meander in Sergios head is dried and congealed on the concrete riverbed.

The USMexico border that took the life of Sergio Guereca is a microcosm of a global change, its increased militarisation not in response to a military menace but focused entirely on preventing the movement of civilians.

In 1989 there were 15 border walls globally; today there are 70. Last year, countries as diverse as Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia announced or began work on new perimeter walls. There were a record 5,604 deaths at borders, according to the International Organisation of Migration, and 65 million people displaced by conflict. These trends continued in 2016 with Bulgaria and Hungary expanding their fencings, Pakistan building a fence on its Afghan border, and Britain paying for a wall in Calais to keep migrants away from the road to the channel tunnel. Border walls are also a central question in the US presidential campaign, with Donald Trump proposing to build a beautiful wall on the remaining 1,300 miles of the US-Mexico border that are not yet fenced.

A policeman on lookout at the Hungary- Serbia border fence … in 1989 there were 15 perimeter walls globally; today there are 70. Photograph: Laszlo Balogh/ Reuters

The current route of the frontier was established in 1848 and 1853 with the signature of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase at the end of the MexicanAmerican war. The expansionary war inaugurated the idea that the Anglo-Saxon people of America had a manifest destiny to expand the US across the continent, from ocean to shining ocean. About half of Mexicos territory was transferred, including large sections of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. At the time, these arids and sparsely populated lands were still not firmly under the control of the Mexican state. They included a population of 200,000 Native Americans( or, as the treaty refers to them, barbarian tribes ), and 100,000 former Mexican citizens, 90% of whom decided to become US citizens; the remainder relocated to the Mexican side of the new border.

In the years after the war, the border was marked on maps but not inevitably on the ground. It was not until the 1890 s that the border was marked with boundary stones. The US did not create a border patrol agency until 1924, the same year Congress passed sweeping restrictions on Asian and southern European immigration.

In the early days the border patrol was small and underfunded. There were initially 450 agents, who their own horses and uniforms. Most were stationed at the Canada border, where Asian migrants were more likely to cross. Over the years, the mission shifted to patrolling the Mexico border, but as recently as 1990 it was a small force of simply over 3,000 agents. Without the resources or infrastructure to close the border totally, the border patrol allowed migrants to intersect before incarcerating them on the US side. They were then usually released back to Mexico without charges.

In the mid-1 990 s, in response to criticism of its methods, the border patrol enforced a new deterrence approach. Operation Hold the Line in El Paso and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego fenced critical segments of the border and deployed hundreds of agents. The number of crossings was cut to nearly zero in the immediate areas of the deployments, each less than 15 km( a little over nine miles) long. Migrants and smugglers simply relocated to another section. Nevertheless, the localised success demonstrated that fences and larger deployments could secure the border.

US border patrol trainees on the firing scope … an influx of war veterans has brought a military ethos to the policing task. Photograph: Jeff Topping/ Reuters

Then 9/11 happened. The assaults and subsequent anxiety of terrorism were used to justify significant increases in hire at the border patrol. Resources were focused on densely populated and highly trafficked areas, with the goal of discouraging intersects by forcing migrants into remote and dangerous deserts. By 2010 the border patrol had more than 20,000 agents. In order to hire such a large number of agents speedily, it removed some previous requirements, such as passing a polygraph quiz, and described heavily on veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan they make up 28.8% of agents. The lower standards, combined with the influx of veterans, altered the atmosphere at the agency, bringing a military ethos to the policing undertaking. Closely related to the funding increases was the emergence of a homeland security industry in which military suppliers repurposed weapons, surveillance technologies and vehicles for use inside the US.

In 2012 the American government spent $18 bn on immigration policing more than it spent on all other federal law enforcement blended, including the FBI ($ 8bn ), the Drug Enforcement Administration ($ 2.88 bn ), the Secret Service ($ 1bn ), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ($ 1bn ). Homeland Security Research, an industry analysis firm, calculates the sector will be worth an astounding $107.3 bn by 2020.

In the past, most migrants imprisoned at the border were quickly processed and voluntarily repatriated to Mexico, often within a few hours of being caught. This was convenient for the border patrol, which had neither the staff to process paperwork nor the space to house thousands of migrants in detention facilities. It was also an acknowledgment that the vast majority of migrants at the border were poor employees , not smugglers or crooks. As the staffing increased and migrant detention facilities were privatised, the government began to incarcerate migrants, charge them with misdemeanours for their first offence and misdemeanours for their second, and then formally deport them. Before 1986 there were rarely more than 20,000 deportations a year; by the mid-2 000 s, the number was 400,000 a year. The number of migrants in detention facilities increased from 85,000 in 1995 to 440,000 in 2013. Astonishingly, more people have been deported from the US during the Obama presidency than during any previous administration.

The full force of modern military technology is being directed towards migrant workers looking for better opportunities … family members touch through the border fence in San Diego, California. Photograph: John Moore/ Getty Images

Meanwhile, new border infrastructure substantially expanded the enforcement area. This includes nine Predator dronings the largest fleet being implemented in US domestic airspace that patrol the south-western perimeter, hi-tech surveillance systems known as smart perimeters that use sensors and cameras to monitor motion at the border, and ground-penetrating radar designed to detect subterranean passageways( the border patrol has seen more than 150 since the 1990 s ). There were no federal fences on the border prior to the opening of the short sections built for operations Hold the Line and Gatekeeper, but today, 1,070 km( 670 miles) of the 3,169 km( 1,970 miles) border are fenced against pedestrians or vehicles. The metal mesh pedestrian barrier is 6. 4m( 21 ft) high and extends 1.8 m( 6ft) into the ground. These attempts still leave two-thirds of the border with Mexico unfenced.

The militarisation of the border has resulted in far too many narratives similar to that of Sergio Guerecas killing. From 2010 to 2015, US border patrol agents shoot and killed 33 people. These killings became an issue in the summer of 2014 with the firing of domestic affairs chief James Tomsheck. The perimeter patrol stated that it fired Tomsheck for not investigating killings, but Tomsheck alleged his sacking was part of a cover-up.

Internal affairs chief James Tomsheck alleges his sacking was part of a border killings cover-up.
Photograph: Alex Brandon/ AP

In an interview with National Public Radio, Tomsheck stated that he believed 25% of the fatal shootings were suspicious: Some persons in leadership positions in the border patrol were either fabricating or distorting information to give the outward appearance that it was an appropriate use of lethal force when in fact it was not. Similarly, a 2014 report by the American Immigration Council found that of 809 reports of abuse between 2009 and 2012 and reports are very rare due to the subordinate position of many migrants no action was taken in 97% of cases.

In media interviews, Tomsheck blamed the culture of the border patrol; its agents thought of themselves as part of the military. The phrase was frequently used a paramilitary border security force or a paramilitary homeland security force, said Tomsheck. In response to criticism, the border patrol issued revised guidelines in May 2014 that state that agents can use deadly force-out when there is a reasonable notion that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical trauma to the officer/ agent or to another person.

In April 2015, the fifth district US court of appeals ruled against a civil suit by Sergio Guerecas parents because a Mexican citizen standing in Mexico has no standing in a US court. The Guereca family attorney, Marion Reilly, summed up the ruling : So the court has ruled that it was appropriate for the agent to kill an unarmed teenager based on his nationality dont kill him if he is a US citizen, but fire away if he is a Mexican.

Unfortunately, direct violence, including killings by the border patrol and on the Mexican side, as cartels work to solidify control over profitable smuggling routes, does not even scratch the surface area of the violence that surrounds the USMexico border. The perimeter patrol has recovered more than 6,000 bodies there since the 1990 s, deaths attributable to the construction of the border wall and the massive perimeter patrol presence. Migrants are funnelled to more dangerous and remote locations, just like migrants at the edges of the EU. Instead of traversing in a city, migrants are building the arduous journey through the deserts of Arizona, hiking 50 or more kilometres through arid and desolate terrain. According to the first National Border Patrol Strategy document, released in 1994, that was the goal: The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling roads disrupted, illegal traffic is likely to be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for intersecting and more suited for enforcement. Set another way, the official border patrol strategy was to create conditions that would cause more migrants to die in hostile terrain, in order to deter other migrants from constructing the trip.

An agent scans the US-Mexico border at Sunland Park, New Mexico … many thousands of migrants have succumbed in hostile terrain. Photograph: John Moore/ Getty Images

With the increased enforcement, intersects and migrant deaths in California declined, while those in Arizona surged. The Tucson, Arizona coroners office has find a twentyfold increased number of the number of migrant bodies discovered per year since the 1990 s. Migrants do not bring sufficient food and water, often because smugglers, who do not want to be slowed down by the extra weight, tell them the trip-up is not very far. The harrowing outcome is documented in volumes such as The Devils Highway by Lus Alberto Urrea, which tells the story of 26 migrants who attempted to enter the US through the Arizona desert in May 2001. Merely 12 survived. Leanne Weber and Sharon Pickering of the Monash University criminal justice programme estimate that there are two additional deaths for every recovered body, since remains are quickly obliterated by shifting sands.

In line with the worldwide trend, this military build-up has not been directed towards an existential threat to sovereignty, such as an intrusion by a neighbouring army. Instead, the full force of modern military technology is oriented toward smugglers profiting from different regulations on either side of the border, and migrant workers looking for better possibilities. The US border patrol operates as if it is part of the military; the actual US military plays a significant role in internal policing at the border. In the emerging security country, privileges are maintained by restricting motion through violence.

Extracted from Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move by Reece Jones, published by Verso 16.99. To order a copy for 13.93, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p on online orders over 10. A 1.99 charge applies to telephone orders.

Reece Jones will be speaking at Sutton House, London E9 on Monday 10 October with Daniel Trilling and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi and at the Frontline Club, London W2, on Tuesday 11 October.

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