"So instead of reactive, we have become proactive. Letting [migrants] know we're here. As a result, the figures are going down, which is good. In fiscal 1994, we made around 450,000 apprehensions [in San Diego and Imperial Counties]. In 1999, it was around 182,000. In 1994, 20 to 40 agents would apprehend 2000 to 8000 per night, mostly in the Imperial Beach-San Ysidro sector."
In the I.B. sector alone, says Hicks, they have around 380 agents. Hicks says that in fiscal 1994, when Operation Gatekeeper started, the Border Patrol caught 187,000 illegal immigrants between Imperial Beach and San Ysidro -- 41 percent of all apprehensions in the San Diego sector. By 1999, that figure had dropped to just under 16,000, or about 8 percent of all San Diego apprehensions.
Hicks acknowledges the increased efforts at the border meant the bulge moved east. "At Campo, we arrested about 2230 in fiscal 1994. By 1997 it had risen to nearly 86,000. But in the last two years it has started de-escalating. In 1999 the figure was 63,000. Things are just better now. We didn't even have a computer back when I started out at Campo. Also we've tried to work with the community. We've started things like the good-neighbor policy. For instance, following the immigrant deaths out in East County, we created 'Border Star,' known as Borstar, a unit [created around October 1998] whose sole purpose is to rescue people. When these groups come out through East County with a guide, sometimes the guides will leave them in the middle of nowhere. They don't know where they are. The guide will take off at night. If someone falls, the guide's not going to say, 'Oh, let's wait for him.' No, 'Hey, I've got a truck to catch.' He'll leave them there with broken legs or bitten by a rattlesnake, and we're the ones who go looking for them. In 1995, there were 82 migrant deaths. In 1999 it was 29. I would say we're even more of a civilian body now."
But Palafox's colleague Tim Dunn says the whole military-assisted anti-drug campaign is a politically motivated sham.
Dunn is an assistant professor of sociology at Salisbury State University in Maryland and author of The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border. He says the Immigration and Naturalization Service had been anxious to receive military assistance for drug-enforcement help. They saw that emphasizing "drug enforcement" was a ticket to getting more resources from the government. Yet the Border Patrol and National Guard have been building the fence "primarily in immigration areas, not drug-trafficking locales," says Dunn. "[Drugs] being carried across on foot or by vehicle across the land border outside of the ports of entry was pretty minimal. Most of the actual drugs come in through the ports of entry -- upwards of 80 to 85 percent, the DEA estimates. The drug traffic that comes across by foot and drive-throughs in rough terrain is principally marijuana, the least lucrative part of the drug trade, and a small portion."
So why aren't the major military-supported drug-fighting efforts being mounted at the ports of entry? "Business," says Dunn. "You've got all this commercial traffic that wants to get through quick. Customs is searching 10 to 15 percent of everything that comes in. Yes, they're using some new X-ray technology, but that doesn't tell you what's inside; it only catches false compartments. If you're a high-end drug operation, you have your drugs packaged as though they were television sets, auto parts, what have you. That's not going to look any different on an X-ray. X-rays will just catch the smaller end of the trade."
At the same time, both Dunn and Palafox believe migrants have been deliberately squeezed east to make them less visible. "[Gatekeeper] certainly hasn't discouraged them," says Dunn. "Since the time it was implemented, the number [crossing] has gone up from around a million to 1.5 million, between 1993 and 1999.
"So instead of having people running across at the San Ysidro port of entry, where everybody can see them, or at the beach, and the Border Patrol chasing them through the streets, you push them out to the middle of nowhere, and people think the problem's gone. The political perception is that 'Gatekeeper' is a wild success, when at the borderwide level it's not a success at all. Every bit of decrease in numbers crossing in San Diego County has been more than made up for elsewhere. Imperial County is the principal location to [take up the slack]."
It also made things more dangerous for immigrants, Dunn claims. Marines have been used to do clandestine surveillance, manning observation posts or small-unit patrolling. "Imperial County is where the military was much more actively involved in helping the Border Patrol do drug enforcement. Your chances for some kind of violent accidental encounter with a much more hyped-up drug-enforcement effort are greater."
Dunn can't understand why the government has used the Marines only in backcountry areas, between busy ports of entry. "The primary site Marines were used was in San Diego's East County," says Dunn. "Drugs go through out there, but not much. This is absolutely ludicrous. They may be able to say, 'Oh, look, we got 650 pounds of marijuana!' But that's an infinitesimal part of the trade. The low, bullshit end of the trade. Of course, politically, it's easier. If you concentrate [military] resources on the ports of entry, all hell is going to break loose, because the Fortune 500 [companies] want to get their goods through. Time is money. They don't want to wait all day. If it comes down to business versus drug enforcement, guess who wins?"