Twenty-First Century Battlefields
This excerpt from Empire of Borders by Todd Miller was originally published in NACLA.
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Although Arriaga, Chiapas, a town of 25,000 people, was 150 miles away from the Guatemalan border, it had the feeling of a border town. Up until the summer of 2014, it thrummed with Central Americans, many of whom would congregate in the train yard that divided Arriaga in two. But in July, it changed dramatically, as if a switch had been flipped. The U.S. border extension had clicked on.
As I sat with Carlos Bartolo Solis in his dark office in the town’s only migrant shelter, he told me that authorities wouldn’t let people board the train, and crowds of people—primarily Central Americans from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—had just vanished from the train yards. When the train blasted its baritone horn and began to chug north, immigration agents in sleek vans, accompanied by the Mexican federal police and sometimes the army, rode along in search of unauthorized people. At night, Solis said, they used blinding spotlights.
Things had changed quickly and suddenly on the Mexico-Guatemala frontier. It was perhaps one of the best places to see the anatomy of U.S. border externalization, how swiftly it could strike, with the force of a superstorm, impacting any human being unfortunate enough to be in its path. The border battle we were seeing played out in Arriaga was what anthropologist Jeff Halper has called a “securocratic war.” In his book War Against the People, he explains its origins: Inequality between countries has skyrocketed in a short period of time. The ratio of per capita GDP between the richest and poorest nations went from a ratio of 22:1 at the beginning of the twentieth century to 267:1 by the year 2000. In this situation, “the experience of the vast majority of people worldwide becomes one of impoverishment, marginality, exploitation, dislocation and violence.”
European-style conventional warfare between nation-states amassing gargantuan armies has become a thing of the past, kept alive only in the imagination of Hollywood. In its place, securocratic wars, waged to protect and secure not individual nations but the international class of wealthy nations, insert themselves into the yawning gaps of global inequalities. Wars on drugs, on terror, on immigrants have created never-ending battlescapes, often along borders. In the summer of 2014, Arriaga had become such a battle zone.
After talking with Solis, I went to the train yard with Jeff Abbott who was lugging his camera. It was a broiling day—a contrast to the cool air of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the high mountains, where we had been the previous day. At a small wooden stand near the train tracks, a teenager selling sodas and snacks told me, when I asked about the border crossers, “They are down there, way down there.” She pointed down at tracks that stretched to the horizon. Central Americans, as she put it, had been her primary clients. What made Arriaga a “border town” was that it was the departure point for one of the most dangerous trains in the world: the notorious La Bestia, “The Beast,” described in brutal detail by Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martínez in his book of the same name. The Beast was a freight train that many undocumented people boarded with hopes of going north, often to the United States. So many terrible things had happened on La Bestia that in Mexico it was known as el tren de la muerte, “the death train,” or el tren de los desaparecidos, “the train of the disappeared.”
Abbott and I walked past the cemetery on the outskirts of town, where the rust-colored rails entered the woods. Once in a while a cool breeze cut through the thick humidity, carrying a faint smell of the nearby Pacific Ocean. We started to see men sitting on the rails, shirts covering their heads to protect them from the sun, their feet in the overgrown grass.
Approximately one month before, in July 2014, the U.S. media rediscovered the U.S. southern border. In one memorable segment, Sean Hannity of Fox News interviewed Texas governor Rick Perry about border dangers on the Rio Grande, which at that point meant an influx of “unaccompanied minors,” mainly from Central America.
Hannity and Perry were dressed in combat helmets and flak jackets, with bullet belts strapped over their chests. To maintain the “war zone” appeal, Hannity’s camera crew, like those of other armed and ready U.S. media delegations, most likely had to avoid filming the screaming, dancing merriment on the party boats from Reynosa in the background. It was difficult, indeed, to capture a security war on film.
On July 7, during the U.S. media firestorm, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced his “Programa Frontera Sur,” a border operation Mexico had been building for years, with massive U.S. support and encouragement. With great fanfare and assiduous media coverage inside Mexico, the U.S. southern neighbor enacted “enforcement belts,” extending from its Guatemala border hundreds of miles into the Mexican interior, following the model of the U.S.’s “multilayered” border policing strategy. The government ordered 2000 soldiers and 400 police officers to the border zone, reinforcing its gauntlet of military, police, and especially immigration agents— stopping buses, vans, cars, and trucks at numerous checkpoints along the 150-mile route from Tapachula to Arriaga, among other places. “Subordination is part of the relationship Mexico has with the United States,” Miguel Ángel Paz from the Mexican immigration rights organization Voces Mesoamericanas told me, explaining how Mexico, whose citizens were policed with considerable rigor in the United States, could agree to build up its border enforcement apparatus with assistance from their neighbor to the north. Yet this securocratic war, blockading “terrorists” and “drug runners” and “smugglers”—which Perry, Hannity, and others have claimed is essential—was in the end a war against the poor.
Toward the outskirts of Arriaga, Abbott and I began seeing the encampments. They reminded me of camps I’d seen in the U.S. desert borderlands—except in Arizona, the people were usually absent, fled, their existence only visible in the remnants left behind: cardboard mattresses, black plastic water jugs, electrolyte bottles, clothes, backpacks. Once I found a child’s backpack, small and pink, with an image of a smiling Goofy. In Arriaga, the people were still there. Maybe it was because the operations of Programa Frontera Sur were so recent.
They sat in groups near the train tracks and were obviously unsure what to make of Abbott and me. Similar changes had followed the dramatic strategy shifts in U.S.-Mexico border operations in the 1990s. When Operation Blockade began in El Paso in September 1992, for example, the transformation came overnight. Suddenly, U.S. Border Patrol agents were stationed side by side by side directly on the borderline, reinforced by buzzing helicopters, stopping all movement from Ciudad Juarez. It didn’t take people long—people, often undocumented, who had been working in El Paso for years in a number of vocations—to learn to circumvent the apparatus by going to the deserts on the outskirts of town and creating new routes into the United States.
Operation Blockade turned to Hold-the-Line. Operations Gatekeeper, Safeguard, and Rio Grande Valley spread along the 2,000 mile border, sealing off traditional crossing places, urban zones such as San Diego, El Centro, Yuma, Nogales, Douglas, El Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville, the foundational strategy of today’s U.S. border-policing apparatus. This period also saw the first major U.S. border wall construction project, which came long before Donald Trump figured in the political scene. In 1999, I witnessed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructing a wall of rusty landing mats (from the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars) between Douglas and Agua Prieta. The border crossers were not there; they had moved to the fringes, the deserts, far away from the surveillance gaze, in areas that were more isolated, desolate, and dangerous.
Similarly, the impact of the sudden policy shift of 2014 would not be found on the Rio Grande where Hannity and Perry “patrolled” in an armored boat, but rather in the hidden fringes of the Mexico-Guatemala border, in a place like Arriaga, 1,000 miles to the south. Arriaga’s outskirts, where Abbott and I walked that day, would not make it onto the cable news cycle, would not be broadcast into a million homes, would in many ways simply not exist, not merit a thought, not affect perception, not become a political issue, not impact the known status quo.
While Hannity and Perry fought their cinematic battle, the real border war was elsewhere. They were reporting from the wrong place. Beside the train tracks a rotund man wearing a white T-shirt and jeans was waiting for the train. Gerardo was with a group of approximately ten other men and boys who looked as if they’d been sitting on their flattened squares of cardboard for a couple of days, in the shade of the green, shrubby trees. They were from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the very countries from which more than 60,000 kids had arrived that year in the United States. The younger ones in the group wore expressions of bewilderment that seemed to ask: How on earth did we arrive at this place, so far from home, yet so far from our destination? Father Alejandro Solalinde, a priest who ran a migrant shelter in nearby Ixtepec, Oaxaca, calls this obscure Mexican borderlands region a “cemetery for the nameless.”
Gerardo—from Chimaltenango, Guatemala, where he worked as a butcher—was anxious to talk. He told me he was going to Miami to see his two kids. He had been trying to get through the 150-mile gauntlet from the Guatemalan border to Arriaga since early July, and had already been deported from Mexico three times in one month. “This is my fourth attempt,” he said. His eyes followed the rails, as if trying to deduce his future. The tracks seemed to go off endlessly in the coastal shrubbery. How could a trip to Miami, which for many in the United States would be as easy as hopping on a plane, be so difficult for Gerardo? I could still smell the sea in the air, but even the ocean seemed far away. The rest of the group listened as he spoke.
These men were a part of a record number of people in the world displaced and on the move and living outside their country of origin. The 244 million recorded by the United Nations in 2015 was up from 232 million in 2013, 173 million in 2000, and 152 million in 1990. In the past 15 years, according to these totals, the number of people traveling across borders without papers has increased by 41 percent. And since many cross-border migrants are undocumented and unauthorized, and thus difficult to count, these totals are certainly low. If you couple the counts of international migrants with the internally displaced, about 763 million, then there are close to a billion people on the move worldwide. One in seven people. In 2016 the United Nations recorded its highest number ever for people forcibly displaced from their homes: 65.6 million. “This equates to one person becoming displaced every three seconds—less than the time it takes to read this sentence,” the United Nations High Commission on Refugees wrote. According to geographer Joseph Nevins, even these figures are conservative:
The UNHCR’s notion of “forcibly” is limited by the international refugee regime, one that defines a refugee as someone fleeing political persecution or physical violence. Per this logic, those fleeing deprivation, insecurity, and poverty of the everyday, “normal” sort—normal in terms of reigning political-economic conditions within their home country—are mere migrants.
Their true numbers, Nevins concluded, are “considerably higher than the UN agency estimates.” Gerardo seemed to fit this category.
Another potential “black swan,” to use the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s own term, is the impact of environmental breakdown in the world. The numbers put out by agencies and organizations regarding the future displacement of people caused by climate change are in live debate and range between 150 million and 1 billion by 2050. According to one report, these displacements will be “staggering,” without an antecedent in human history. Already disasters are displacing “three to ten times more people than conflict and war worldwide,” according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The other rising number—a reality assuredly known to Gerardo’s group—is of deaths and disappearances of people on the move. In 2016, according to the International Organization on Migration’s official count, 7,763 people were killed crossing borders, a 47 percent increase from 2015. And since 1996, the IOM estimates, more than 60,000 people have died or gone missing while crossing borders. It must be stressed that, again because of the clandestine nature of this travel, the statistics can at best be estimations, as the IOM makes quite clear. In Mexico, the migrant dead aren’t even counted by the government. The Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, an activist group led by family members of people who disappeared migrating, estimates that more than 70,000 people have gone missing in Mexico en route to the United States. The organization calls what is going on a “migrant holocaust.”
This reality is what Gerardo and the others faced that day. To get through southern Mexico, some walked around the checkpoints. Others took public transportation, but would get off right before the border, detouring through gorgeous green mountains, sometimes crested with low clouds, always accompanied by an intense, well-justified fear of being targeted by robbers or police. If immigration agents caught a person like Gerardo, they’d whisk him off to the gigantic deportation center in Tapachula, where he’d be detained and, if he were a “person of interest,” possibly questioned by a U.S. CBP agent stationed right there on the sweltering Mexico-Guatemala divide. In 2015, for the first time, Mexico would deport more Central Americans than the United States.
Todd Miller is the author of Border Patrol Nation and Storming the Wall, which was awarded the 2018 Izzy Award for investigative journalism. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, TomDispatch, Mother Jones, The Nation, Al Jazeera English, and Salon.