• Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Brian Bilbray has no doubts: It's time to send in the troops. All along the border. "We need to send a very clear message, almost in the tone of John Kennedy, when he said, 'We are willing to make any sacrifice, fight any foe, help any friend...to [secure our border].' San Diegans live in the largest military complex in the entire world. We have more military installations than any other community. And [yet] those resources are not being made available officially for securing our border. My attitude is that the resources of the United States should be placed at the disposal of defending the people of the United States from drugs just as much as we have defended other countries."

This year Representative Bilbray (R-Imperial Beach) has once again supported Representative James Traficant (D-Ohio) in his perennial campaign. Traficant wants to persuade Congress to authorize 10,000 troops to guard the borders. "I think everybody's sitting around and saying, 'What's a nice way to handle the chaos and the carnage that's happening at our border?' " charges Bilbray. "There's no nice way of handling it! We've had border agents shot at, killed. We have a crisis down there."

Bilbray's not alone -- at least among Republicans. Bob Dole promised he'd make the military the lead anti-drug agency on the border, if necessary. Presidential candidate Lamar Alexander proposed creating a fifth branch of the military to focus on border control. Former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger envisaged 60,000 U.S. troops deployed on the Southwest border in his coauthored book, The Next War. In April, Pat Buchanan warned San Diego that last century's pattern of "mass immigration followed by insurrection, independence and annexation" could be repeated right here. "We may forget this history; Mexico remembers....Mexican irredentism is alive and well."

Bilbray says the military is already involved. "Unofficially they are helping. There's a lot of surveillance [and] observation. Those detection technologies are directly...off their shelf. The line between the military mission and drug interdiction has slowly evaporated. But nobody wants to talk about it publicly. I think we should not only talk about it publicly, but we should proclaim it, so we send the message to the drug smugglers that the force of the American people is going to be used to defend the American people."

This attitude scares José Palafox. The San Diego graduate student is writing his Ph.D. dissertation on the dangers of militarizing the border. He points out that the post-Civil War "Posse Comitatis Act" of 1878 prohibits the military from being involved in domestic policing matters and makes it clear troops should be used only beyond national boundaries. The implication -- that the military should never be a weapon used by politicians against their own people -- has so resonated with the public that the separation of the military and civilian law-enforcement has become as sacred a tenet of American life as the separation of church and state.

Recently, Palafox walked the border bridge across I-5. He was looking for anything new, such as the police checkpoint for southbound traffic. He notices the National Guardsmen manning the passport checkpoint for buses entering the United States. On the way down the western side, he stops and points out two gray trucks with thick posts sticking up. "Llamas," he says. The long-necked "llama scope," he explains, extends from the truck bed. It's a military-financed and supplied heat-seeking night scope that makes clumps of migrants or smugglers appear as if they had a spotlight on them, even in the dark.

"Here's the problem," says Palafox, half of whose family still lives in Tijuana. "There is a correlation between the rise in human-rights abuses of migrants on the border and the rise of a more militarized border-patrol force. Not just the deployment of troops and training of Border Patrol by the military, but the actual use of that military ideology and strategy. It's all a result of Washington's 'War on Drugs' concept. If you go with the Border Patrol and you start to see the immigrants at night through the [llama scopes], you can't tell who is the drug smuggler and who is an undocumented immigrant. When the military has trained [the Border Patrol] to see a dot as a target, as the adversary, it becomes pretty dangerous to have that sort of outlook. When you start blurring the line [between soldier and civilian police force], it's not good. I'm worried to see more of the military thinktanks and strategy getting involved with border enforcement. And this is happening in a context where there is already such a large militarization of law enforcement in general in our inner cities. The military are not [thinking] Miranda rights; they're trained to kill. A perfect example was the high school student who was shot to death by the Marines in Redford, Texas, two years ago. Similar incidents can happen, as more migrants are forced into nonurbanized areas where Marines are."

The INS agents who extracted Elián González from his relatives' home are a perfect example, Palafox says. "They illustrate the blurring of the difference between military and civil policing," he says. "And that's exactly what's happening on the border."

The Border Patrol says it's happy to receive increased resources as well as instruction and equipment from military technical groups. In the past six years, manpower in the San Diego sector has gone from 900 to 2100, says senior patrol agent Tom Hicks. "When I worked at Campo there were usually 5 of us on a shift. Now it's 35 to 40 people. Plus now we have a lot more equipment. Up to ten choppers. Two of those are equipped with FLARE, the [heat-sensing] forward-looking infrared system. We have night-vision goggles. We have 60 scopes, also infrared heat-sensing, deployed along the border. One type's a 'tank-scope.' It's got a turret in the back of the vehicle. It swings 360 degrees. Then we have tripod-mounted scopes as well as the 'llamascope,' which extends up like a pole on the back of a pickup. They're extremely effective. So we're much more mobile. We can react to the 'traffic.' And we have sensors out there, up from 450 to 1200. Magnetic ones to detect drive-throughs, seismic ones that register movement over ground, and ones that signal when their infrared beams are broken.

"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?"

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader

Close