Demise in the sand: the horror of the US-Mexico border

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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 die in hostile terrain

Fifteen-year-old Sergio Hernandez Guereca and three teenage friends operated 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 runs between El Paso and Jurez, is only 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 boldnes of the sons operate, in broad daylight in one of the most heavily patrolled places 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 flooded the media, with channels from CNN to Univision presenting 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 get wet. Perhaps they were a diversion for some other intersecting nearby, or had a small package to drop for a smuggler, or, as their families would suggest afterward, were just doing something stupid to get their adrenaline pumping. They were teenage sons, after all.

As soon as they reached the fence on the US side, the latter are forced to retreat. Border patrol agent Jesus Mesa Jr ran in from the north with his handgun already depicted. Sergio and two other sons easily evaded Mesa and jogged back across to the Mexican side. The fourth boy set his hands up and was detained. Watching this, Sergio and his two friends picked up boulders and hurled them at Agent Mesa. The detained son fell to the ground; Agent Mesa dragged him by his shirt collar a few metres towards the Rio Grande, keeping his handgun pointed into Mexico at the sons, who were at least 20 or 30 metres away.

Border patrol agents imprison people traversing into the US in Roma, Texas. Photograph: 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 family in Jurez, described what happened next. It was such a long distance, she said exasperatedly, use her hands to point to either side of the cavernous chapel. The border patrol was here, the boy was there. It was so far apart. How can you 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 pause, followed by another pop. Pedestrians on the bridge gasped and hollered. Idiota, one woman 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 perimeter 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 demises at borders, according to the International Organisation of Migration, and 65 million people displaced by conflict. These tendencies continued in 2016 with Bulgaria and Hungary expanding their fencings, Pakistan building a fencing on its Afghan border, and Britain paying for a wall up Calais to keep migrants away from the road to the channel passageway. 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 signing 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 glistening sea. About half of Mexicos territory was transferred, including large parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. At the time, these arid and sparsely populated lands was currently 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, savage 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 provided 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 just over 3,000 agents. Without the resources or infrastructure to close the border altogether, 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 traverses was cut to almost 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 procure the border.

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

Then 9/11 happened. The assaults and subsequent fear of terrorism were used to justify substantial increases in hire at the border patrol. Resource were focused on densely populated and highly trafficked areas, with the goal of discouraging traverses 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 promptly, it removed some previous requirements, such as passing a polygraph quiz, and drew heavily on veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan they make up 28.8% of agents. The lower criteria, be included with the influx of veterans, altered the atmosphere at the agency, bringing a military ethos to the policing job. 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 expend $18 bn on immigration policing more than it spent on all other federal law enforcement blended, including the FBI ($ 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, estimates key sectors will be worth an astounding $107.3 bn by 2020.

In the past, most migrants detained 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 home thousands of migrants in detention facilities. It was also an acknowledgment that the great majority of migrants at the border were poor employees , not smugglers or criminals. As the staffing increased and migrant detention facilities were privatised, the government began to imprison migrants, charge them with misdemeanors for their first offence and felonies for their second, and then formally deport them. Before 1986 there were rarely more than 20,000 expulsions 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 perimeter infrastructure substantially expanded the enforcement area. This includes nine Predator dronings the largest fleet used in US domestic airspace that patrol the south-western border, hi-tech surveillance systems known as smart perimeters that use sensors and cameras to monitor movement at the border, and ground-penetrating radar designed to detect subterranean tunnels( the border patrol has procured more than 150 since the 1990 s ). There were no federal fences on the border prior to the opening of the short segments built for operations Hold the Line and Gatekeeper, but today, 1,070 km( 670 miles) of the 3,169 km( 1,970 miles) perimeter 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 endeavors still leave two-thirds of the border with Mexico unfenced.

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

Internal affairs chief James Tomsheck alleges his sacking was part of international borders 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 the reporting of abuse between 2009 and 2012 and reports are very rare due to the subordinate posture 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 perimeter security force or a paramilitary homeland security force, told Tomsheck. In response to criticism, the border patrol issued rewritten guidelines in May 2014 that state that agents can use deadly force-out when there is a reasonable faith that the subject of such force-out poses an imminent danger of demise 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 adolescent 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 of the violence that surrounds the USMexico border. The border patrol has recovered more than 6,000 bodies there since the 1990 s, demises 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 intersecting in a city, migrants are making 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 routes interrupted, illegal traffic is likely to be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement. Set another way, the official perimeter patrol strategy was to create conditions that would cause more migrants to succumb in hostile terrain, in order to deter other migrants from stimulating the trip.

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

With the increased enforcement, crossings and migrant deaths in California declined, while those in Arizona surged. The Tucson, Arizona coroners office has assured a twentyfold increase in the number of migrant bodies observed each year since the 1990 s. Migrants do not bring enough 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. Only 12 survived. Leanne Weber and Sharon Pickering of the Monash University criminal justice programme estimate that there are two additional demises for every recovered body, since remains are quickly overshadowed 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 invasion 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 state, privileges are maintained by restricting movement through violence.

Extracted from Violent Perimeters: Refugees and the Right to Move by Reece Jones, published by Verso 16.99. To order a transcript 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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