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  Number 345 | Abril 2010
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Latin America

A Look at the Gringo Wall

We saw and heard a lot in our 12 days on the “route of rejection,” at the end of which was the Mexico-United States border, the longest and most crossed in the whole planet. There, the South looks North and penetrates it, while the North rejects and fears the South, building walls. The path to the American way of life is strewn with obstacles and Border Patrol agents of the American way of death are omnipresent. But despite it all, I learned that people on both sides of the border are bitten by the same mosquitoes…

José Luis Rocha

In 1997, Tijuana artist Marcos Ramírez Erre placed a Trojan horse on the border between Tijuana and San Diego, just meters from the migration buildings. The wooden sculpture was over 80 feet tall and had two heads—one facing the USA and the other Mexico. It consisted of a series of wooden planks that allowed a clear view inside the equine belly. The two heads represented the fact that the penetration isn’t unidirectional: the North injects itself into the South, which in turn inoculates the North. The see-through structure suggested an absence of secrets, as everyone knows what is inside the horse, so there’s no danger of cunning nocturnal ambushes. “We already know all of their intentions towards us,” said the sculptor, “and they know ours towards them.”

But this cognitive reciprocity doesn’t erase the monopoly of power. It doesn’t stop one of the two parties from being the effective owner of the border and aiming to do away with the horse or restoring its supposedly original unidirectionality. That’s why the positioning of the statue and its message were so provocative. They highlighted the dissolution of the border on a certain level of reality. On other levels, however, what strikes one is the border’s reinforcement. Globalization is a phenomenon that has multidirectional dynamics. It both opens and closes doors. It clears certain paths, while strewing obstacles across others.

Today’s world:
Some global, others local

Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman highlights this duality when stating that “alongside the emerging planetary dimensions of business, finance, trade and information flow, a ‘localizing’ space-fixing process is set in motion. Between them, the two closely interconnected processes sharply differentiate the existential conditions of whole populations and of various segments of each one of the populations. What appears as globalization for some means localization for others; signaling a new freedom for some, upon many others it descends as an uninvited and cruel fate. Mobility climbs to the rank of the uppermost among the coveted values—and the freedom to move, perpetually a scarce and unequally distributed commodity, fast becomes the main stratifying factor of our late modern or postmodern times.”

Regarding the universalizing value of free mobility, Bauman sees the world divided into the globalized and the localized: “Some of us become fully and truly ‘global’; some are fixed in their ‘locality’—a predicament neither pleasurable nor endurable in the world in which the ‘globals’ set the tone and compose the rules of the life-game. Being local in a globalized world is a sign of social deprivation and degradation.” And he adds that in “the world of the globally mobile, the space has lost its constraining quality and is easily traversed in both its ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ renditions,” while for “the world of the ‘locally tied,’ of those barred from moving and thus bound to bear passively whatever change may be visited upon the locality they are tied to, the real space is fast closing up.”

Some are tourists, others vagabonds

When some of the “localized” find it impossible to put up with the constraints of their territorial circumscription and launch themselves, come hell or high water, into the adventure of crossing borders, they run up against enormous barriers. In terms of mobility, the world once again divides into two categories: tourists and vagabonds.

While the world of tourism and the world of the vagabond coexist, they are diametrically opposed. As Bauman explains, “For the inhabitants of the first world—the increasingly cosmopolitan, extraterritorial world of global businessmen, global culture managers or global academics, state borders are leveled down, as they are dismantled for the world’s commodities, capital and finances. For the inhabitant of the second world, the walls built of immigration controls, of residence laws and of ‘clean streets’ and ‘zero tolerance’ policies, grow taller; the moats separating them from the sites of their desire and of dreamed-of redemption grow deeper, while all bridges prove, at the first attempt to cross them, to be drawbridges. The first travel at will, get much fun from their travel (particularly if traveling first class or using private aircraft), are cajoled or bribed to travel and welcomed with smiles and open arms when they do. The second travel surreptitiously, often illegally, sometimes paying more for the crowded steerage of a stinking unseaworthy boat than others pay for business-class gilded luxuries—and are frowned upon, and, if unlucky, arrested and promptly deported when they arrive.”

Another Pole, journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, observed that the era of globalization shows a strong tendency to erect limes (real and metaphorical), to mark and point out borders and cordons sanitaires, to create apartheid. So for Kapuscinski, there is as much unification as fragmentation, the same desire to reunite as to separate. Walls are erected to create that dual globalized-localized society, to hinder the mobility of the impoverished masses, to reduce them to the condition of vagabonds, illegal people, aliens, sans papiers.

USA and USSR: Both obsessed with
border walls and wiring their empire

The United States is the nation that has invested the most in physical barriers and border controls. Its politicians—be they Republican or Democrat, from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to John McCain and Mike Huckabee—may disagree over the length and height of additional walls, the materials used, the number of border patrol agents and other topics. But all agree that border security must be strengthened and that the border isn’t protected well enough.

Representative Duncan Hunter is a Republican from the San Diego area who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. He is possibly the individual with the greatest responsibility for the border walls and fences, leading some to dub him the “Secretary of Da Fence.” According to US researcher Joseph Nevins, he told Bush administration officials in 2006 that increasing the barriers was a good way of avoiding deaths on the border. “If you can save lives by fencing the desert,” he asked, “why not fence the desert?”

Kapuscinski reminds us that the Soviets were also obsessed with border fences in their time: “Keeping in mind that wherever it is technically possible, these borders were and are marked with thick coils of barbed wire, (I saw such barriers on the border with Poland, China and Iran) and that this wire, because of the dreadful climate, quickly deteriorates and therefore must often be replaced across hundreds, no thousands, of kilometers, one can assume that a significant proportion of the Soviet metallurgical industry is devoted to producing barbed wire…. And it is equally easy to imagine those thousands of commissions and control teams dispatched across the entire territory of the Imperium to make certain everything is properly enclosed, that the fences are high and thick enough, so meticulously entangled and woven that even a mouse cannot squeeze through. It is also easy to imagine telephone calls from officials in Moscow to their subordinates in the field, telephone calls characterized by a constant and vigilant concern expressed in the question ‘Are you all really properly wired in?’ And so instead of building themselves houses and hospitals, instead of repairing the continually failing sewage and electrical systems, people were for years occupied (although fortunately not everyone!) with the internal and external, local and national, wiring of their Imperium.”

The United States is the only surviving empire. Like the Soviet one, and for similar reasons, it is obsessed with walls. The aim is to stop the Trojan horse from entering: stopping enemies it brands as terrorists; keeping at arm’s length those who might alter the ideological cocktail; and keeping its own culture unpolluted. It is obsessed with walls and invests increasing amounts of resources in surveillance, controls and barriers.

This article explains how that will to reject is brought to fruition and detailed on the US-Mexico border. I continue us down the road to rejection, whose other stop-off points I described and analyzed in last month’s issue of envío.

On the world’s longest,
most crossed binational border

The 3,326 kilometers that divide Mexico and the USA form the longest bi-national border in the world and the one with the greatest movement. In one year there are 350 million legal crossings and an unknown number of undocumented ones. Along the border are cities that while divided by a wall, often have an urban continuum. These include Matamoros/Brownsville, Reynosa/McAllen, Nuevo Laredo/Laredo, the first of each pair in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and the second in Texas, USA. Among many other examples are Piedras Negras in Coahuila and Eagle Pass in Texas; Nogales in Sonora and Nogales in Arizona; Mexicali in Baja California and Calexico in California; Tijuana in Baja California and San Diego in California; Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua and El Paso in Texas.

All of these cities have grown rapidly. Between 1980 and 1990, Ciudad Juárez, known in colonial times as El Paso del Norte, jumped from a population of 544,496 to 789,522, while El Paso grew from 425,259 to 515,342. The population of El Paso is now estimated at over 600,000 and that of Ciudad Juárez at 1.3 million. The results of this rapid urbanization have been devastating on the Mexican side, leading to squatter settlements, marginalization, overcrowding and an inability to provide potable water and electricity services to the new settlements that are emerging so chaotically and uncontrollably. On the US side, immigration is growing at an accelerated rate. Since 1980 only 33% of El Paso’s population is Anglo Saxon. In 2008 the city granted permanent residency to 4,746 immigrants and new citizenship to 4,436. From 1999 to 2008, a total of 41,447 new residencies were granted, which is quite a lot for such a small city, more in fact than Kansas City, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Cleveland. But rejection goes hand in hand with formal acceptance. The El Paso Service Processing Center alone had 800 detainees in 2009 and the area around El Paso is dotted with immigrant detention centers. According to some informants, there is a center with a capacity for 2,000 inmates in Chaparral, another with 3,000 beds in Pacos and yet another with 1,500 beds in Sierra Blanca.

Yet we’re all bitten by the same mosquitoes

One of our most inspired companions in El Paso, Maryknoll lay missionary West Cosgrove, told us a great truth: “We’re all bitten by the same mosquitoes in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.” So why does this thing about the border get everyone so wound up? The problem is that border cities are asymmetric twins with ambivalent relations, which range between unreciprocated favors and the most rampant parasitism. Like all twins, there’s always a dominant and a submissive twin in these binary cities. This asymmetry gives a new angle to the words of Porfirio Díaz: “Poor Mexico: so far from God and so close to the United States.”

At the time, Porfirio Díaz could barely discern the approaching contempt, which has not always existed. In 1900, there were no border markers. Coyotes and guides weren’t needed to get immigrants across with the aid of subterfuge. In fact, there were no immigration controls and therefore no undocumented people. The railway between Mexico City and El Paso transferred hundreds of thousands of migrants from its opening in 1884 until the first controls started to turn it into a severe bottleneck. Many migrants simply boarded the train to go from the area surrounding El Paso to their working destinations.

The disorder of the Mexican revolution produced a change in border control practices. The Americans wanted to impose order by demanding vaccination, a bath and disinfection. Legislation of 1917 added a literacy test and a US$8 tax per head. During that year 127,173 Mexicans were washed and fumigated on the bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez alone. They had to strip naked, have their clothes sterilized in a steam dryer, be fumigated with hydrocyanic acid and remain naked while customs inspectors checked their head, armpit, facial and genital hair for lice. Those found to be infested had to shave their heads and bodies and apply a mixture of kerosene and vinegar to their bodies.

Visas, which came to be a classic device, emerged in 1924: at the time they cost $10. It was probably during that time that the US authorities started to label Mexicans as “aliens.” From early times, when Mexican cities began to be seen as places to obtain sexual pleasure and illicit substances, the border took on the function of separating the pure bodies from the impure ones, and the virtuous from the sinful.

West Cosgrove showed us the different kinds of borders built in El Paso. There are metal walls, galvanized steel chain link fences, wire fences with barbed wire and also enormous slabs painted white, with spaces between them through which anyone could pass quite easily. But at all points there are floodlights, sensors and cameras. The border patrol doesn’t let its guard down.

El Paso-Ciudad Juárez is the only border point with both a land and water border. It’s here that the Río Grande begins to act as the border. The chain-link cyclone fence attracts the most people. From the Mexican side, a flock of red-cheeked kids dressed Tex-Mex style came up to the fence to visit us. They looked like they were jailed in Mexico, staring all day at that near but unattainable North. Or was it the gringos imprisoned in their American way of death?

The militarization of the border:
“Not enough bullets to stop them”

In addition to the walls, there are continuous patrols. This is the human eye that tracks and reduces the Trojan horse, rather than feeding it. During a fleeting 15-minute visit to an apparently desolate border point, we were accompanied by three consecutive patrol vehicles and could make out a monitoring helicopter.

Rubén García, another of our most incisive guides in El Paso, explained that this border repression and militarization is nothing new under the inclement migration authorities’ sun. It didn’t start with September 11, 2001. Actually, 9/11 only gave it more ideological justification, another reason to tighten the border screws. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s own statistics reveal just how much the terrorist threats have been overblown: between 2004 and 2006 that institution presented just 12 accusations of terrorism, which accounted for 0.0015% of the 814,073 foreigners tried in the immigration courts.

The military history of the border strip corroborates the theory of increased border surveillance prior to 9/11. Although between 1952 and 1954 it was said in Washington’s power circles that immigration from Mexico had reached a critical point, the border control could only hire 200 men. And as late as 1980 the border patrol budget was around $78 million, less than the Baltimore police budget and much less than that of the Philadelphia police.

As the eighties advanced, certain people raised the alarm. Former CIA director William Colby stated that unauthorized Mexican immigration would represent a greater threat to the United States in the future than the Soviet Union. “The most obvious threat,” he warned, “is the fact that... there are going to be 120 million Mexicans by the end of the century…. [The Border Patrol] will not have enough bullets to stop them.”

Figures from the “American way of death”

On top of the revitalization of the Cold War during the Reagan administration came a heated war against undocumented immigrants. As Michael T. Klare and Peter Kornbluh observed, a low-intensity war turned into all-out war. In his seminal work, The militarization of the US-Mexico border 1978-1992, Timothy J. Dunn reveals the US government’s growing investment in border control during the eighties. Between 1978 and 1992, the border patrol team increased from 2,580 to 4,948 members, while its funds rose from $78 million to $326 million. The funds for capture and deportation increased by over $120 million, from $35 million to $159 million. In percentile terms, the number of patrol members rose by around 92%, border patrol funds by 317% and deportation funds by 355%.

But this wasn’t even remotely matched by growth in effectiveness, as there were only 38% more captures, 11% more expulsions, 76% fewer detentions and 78% fewer detainees in the immigrant detention centers. The inefficiency is also perceptible in the average time detainees are held, which rose from 2.7 to 26.3 days, for an 874% increase. This figure actually reached 114 days, if we add those prior to and following the removal order.

Between 1992 and 2005, the number of Border Patrol agents doubled, reaching around 11,000, with 9,633 on the southern border and only 1,031 on the northern one. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 authorized the contracting of 2,000 new agents every year for the next five fiscal years, so we can assume there has been a sustained increase from the passage of that act to the present day. In the decade from 1995 to 2005, a 125% increase in Border Patrol members was registered. It had previously taken over 40 years (1941-1985) to obtain an even smaller increase of 111%.

The militarization, the Patriotic Act and a green light for abuses have led to the violation of fundamental rights. “Once alienated,” stated the brilliant writer Gore Vidal, “an ‘unalienable right’ is apt to be forever lost, in which case we are no longer the last best hope of earth but merely a seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line by SWAT teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated.” The “American way of life” has become a foolishly imitated “American way of death,” of control and rejection.

The North-South crossing,
from full color to gray

On the second day of our visit to the border, we crossed the fearful barrier. Going from the US side (El Paso) to the Mexican side (Ciudad Juárez) is smooth and easy. To leave the American dream one walks through a tunnel of cyclone fencing that is open on the street side and closed on the Río Grande side.

We walked with hundreds of people who cross the border every day to visit relatives or reach their place of work. Many of those going in our direction are top executives from the maquiladora assembly plants for re-export located in Mexico, who live among the comforts of the North. Nothing stops their flow. Neither Mexicans nor Americans demand documents. The Mexican government charges the modest fee of seven Mexican pesos to enter the territory under its control. People pay and go through in a single action. And that’s all there is to it. Such ease is a surprising contrast to the severity of the airport controls. We were received on the Mexican side by a swarm of soldiers. There are soldiers and policemen on every street corner in Ciudad Juárez, all with their finger on the trigger in a lethal version of the Boy Scout motto, “Always ready.” Infected by their ominous presence, Ciudad Juárez has become one of the most militarized territories in the world. The bayonets and rifles rob local inhabitants of their sweet dreams—both American and Mexican ones.

On the gringo side, we wondered what the border transfiguration would be like. Would we go from full color to sepia, like in the film Traffic? Something similar did happen. On the other side we found no big buildings or impeccable little houses, like the ones Mattel produces for its Barbies. Suddenly the whole emblematic panorama of the Third World emerged before us: sewage in the streets; almost uninterrupted rows of houses built from debris; ruined buildings brazenly testifying to the fact that for the people of Ciudad Juárez all past times were better. The wounds inflicted by time and its elements revealed the defective bowels of the construction: porous, displaced bricks and twisted and rusting beams. Even air and the climate seem more polluted and inclement.

We stopped for a moment and looked back. An immense wooden cross, riddled with enormous iron nails is positioned between the two access ways between Mexico and the USA. Each nail has a name hanging from it, representing one of the many women murdered in Ciudad Juárez by organized crime. Some were cut into pieces, while many are still listed as disappeared.

The most violent city in the world

The high quota of human lives claimed by organized crime is not exclusive to Ciudad Juárez. But while other Mexican cities are also affected, Ciudad Juárez is unquestionably the most violent territory in the world.

According to the Human Rights Center that operates within the Jesús Obrero parish, there has been a vertiginous rise in cases of first-degree murder: 186 in 2003, 227 in 2005, 300 in 2007, 1,607 in 2008 and 2,658 in 2009, a rate of 191 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants. It’s a silent genocide. These figures are triple those for El Salvador or Colombia, considered by many to be the most violent countries in Latin America.

Why is there so much violence precisely on the border? The Juárez and Sinaloa cartels are disputing control of this fragment of the border, where Benito Juárez took refuge during the Second French Intervention; the town was named for him in 1888, thanks to Porfirio Díaz. The Sinaloa cartel has a presence in 80 US cities and 15 Latin American countries. The organizations of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (Sinaloa) and the those of Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez) are fighting over Ciudad Juárez while three gangs—the Aztecas, linked with the Juarez cartel, and the Mexicles and Artistas Asesinos, both linked with Sinaloa—support the respective cartels and extort money from small and medium business¬people. Over 10,600 businesses have been forced to close due to threats from the cartels’ satellite gangs.

The Juárez cartel has been protected by the Army. In his book Los capos, Mexican journalist Ricardo Ravello, who specializes in drug traffickers, observes that “with [President] Ernesto Zedillo the Juárez cartel, under the leadership of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, was the least hit... Amado was able to weave complicities even within the top military spheres. This is borne out not only by his link with General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebello, but also by the visits to the National Defense Secretary by his public relations person and man of confidence, Eduardo González Quitarte, to get an agreement allowing Carrillo Fuentes to operate the drug trafficking business without being persecuted.” Even during the government of Carlos Salinas, Federal Judicial Police Chief Adrián Carrera Fuentes “put a good part of the corporation at the service of drug trafficking and overprotected the Juárez cartel.”

The more soldiers,
the more drugs and crime

Why do the cartels want control of the border region? The way Ravello sees it, “According to official data, the south of Texas is the most important drug reception and distribution point in the United States… In 2004, a total of 25 tons of cocaine were seized in the region, which is the equivalent of the amount confiscated in Mexico during the same period.” Cocaine, whose magnet is in the North, increases in value with every kilometer it advances towards its goal: a kilo of cocaine that sells for $1,750 in Colombia can cost up to $6,000 in Central America.

The militarization did nothing more than heighten the danger. According to Ravello, “behind a shipment of cocaine, marihuana or any other alkaloid, there has always been a punctual and servile military and police presence that makes it possible for the load to reach its final destination: the great consumer market of the United Sates. The drug barons pay out millions of dollars for their services in order to obtain the protection they need. Top police and military chiefs and public officials have served as links in the broad chain of protection built up by the powerful drug traffickers.” Ergo: the more soldiers, the more business and the more murders.

Where there’s a lot of money, there are many disputes. Divisions and fights among cartels are the order of the day. What’s happening in Ciudad Juárez is the reflection of a war raging across the Americas: the Golf-Zetas cartel is disputing the Sinaloa cartel’s dominion over 43 US cities and 10 countries. But the asymmetry of the twin cities is again apparent here. The dead are on the Mexican side. In the twin city on the American side are the Wells Fargo and Chase buildings with their 90- and 76-foot towers, next to the Bank of America. The banks have enormous branches in an area where neither the population volume nor the economic activity justifies such financial sector development. Cocaine on the outside, dollars on the inside. Any guesses what might be going on?

Internet Border Patrol

We turned back to reenter the United States. There are no controls on the Mexican side; they just asked us for a three-peso exit fee. At this border point the United States of Mexico leaves migratory and customs controls in the hands of the US Department of Homeland Security, which explains the omnipresence of the Border Patrol and its control of everything.

Border Patrol is also the name of an Internet game whose home page bears the game’s name in green, white and red capital letters: the colors of the Mexican flag. The player has a series of previously defined projectiles to wipe out his or her enemies, who include an armed and fierce-looking bearded man with an enormous cartridge belt across his chest labeled “Mexican nationalist”; a drug trafficker sporting a Mexican sombrero and three-day stubble and flanked by marihuana leaves; and a Latino couple with two children, the large woman identified as “breeder.” It is an interactive game in which the player aims and fires at the three stereotypes crossing the border; according to the home page, “There is one simple objective to this game, keep them out… at any cost!” The game was created in 2002 and widely disseminated in 2006 in reaction to the marches for immigrant rights that year.

Annunciation House shelter:
The first to take in the undocumented

The Annunciation House shelter for undocumented immigrants was founded 32 years ago by Rubén García to help the poor who are most vulnerable to society’s inclemency, which is much harsher than nature’s. In 1978, none of the shelters for homeless immigrants opened their doors to undocumented immigrants, but Annunciation House became a place that welcomed people without either a home or papers. As Rubén García explained, “We asked ourselves who God would identify with here in El Paso. And we answered: with those who can’t even find a patch of floor. The first to come were Nicaraguans. Many were high-ranking officers from the National Guard who had fled with nothing. It was also our lot to welcome hundreds of Salvadorans fleeing the repression in their country. We had up to 115 people at a time. For a while we were forced to apply a policy of not accepting Mexicans. We prioritized Central Americans because they were undocumented both here and in Mexico. And a funny thing happened: the Central Americans were telling the migration authorities they were Mexicans so they would only be deported to Mexico, while the Mexicans were telling us they were Central Americans so we’d take them in.”

Although there are no laws giving shelters immunity from roundups, Annunciation House has never been the object of one. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a policy of not intervening in the work of such places.

Why did they have to shoot?

The federal government provides five months’ training and a starting salary of around $40,000 a year to young patrol members with a secondary education. Some rise up through the ranks and can end up earning $70,000 a year, which is much more than many university teachers earn. Perhaps spurred on by such a stimulus, the patrol members fanatically fulfill their obligations, playing real-life Border Patrol.

At 8:30 am on February 22, 2003, some teenagers staying at Annunciation House were taking out the trash when a Border Patrol vehicle pulled up and several officers got out and immediately started interrogating them. Among the boys was Juan Patricio Peraza, a very nervous 19-year-old from Mexicali, who made a break for it when the patrol members were momentarily distracted. On catching up with him, one agent hit him on the head with his truncheon, which should only be used for hitting a person’s legs. Juan Patricio got angry, pushed the agent and set off running again, arming himself with a metal pipe he found along the way. Another agent cornered him and aimed his pistol at him for a moment. But then he backed off and holstered the gun. “Maybe he thought it wasn’t worth killing a person in that situation,” assumed Rubén García.

By backing off, the agent allowed Juan Patricio to run off again but he cornered him once more in a street adjacent to the shelter. Rubén García explains that several witnesses saw the agents positioned in a semi-circle, brandishing their pistols, with Juan Patricio in the center, balancing the pipe on his shoulder. He was talking to one of the agents when another patrol member drove up and got out of his vehicle. At that moment, Juan Patricio turned around and agent Vernon Billings shot him twice: once in the arm and once in the stomach. The patrol members say they pursued Juan Patricio after he ran away and that he hit one officer with a ladder and threatened the others with the metal tube. The witnesses said they didn’t understand why the patrol members had to shoot him. There were eight of them. García also questioned why they had to open fire, adding, “You have to look at the environment we’re creating that is turning people into threats. You hire all these agents and you give them guns and load them with hollow-tip bullets and you are going to have this happen,”

Juan Patricio’s parents sued the US government, but the Border Patrol turned up at the police station and threatened to deport the eight witnesses who had gone to testify, all of whom were staying at Annunciation House. At the beginning, they didn’t even allow the human rights lawyers that Annunciation House had contacted to interview their clients. This extremely flawed process culminated on July 29, 2008, when Judge Richard Mesa issued a verdict stating that Billings’ actions were justified and Peraza’s tragic death was therefore not the result of negligent behavior. Some media and lawyers maintained that there had been basic violations of Border Patrol policy and investigative procedures by turning a shelter for the homeless into the object of surveillance and control, failing to check out the basic details of the situation before applying deadly force, removing witnesses before they could be interviewed by the El Paso Police Department, and not bothering to gather information at the scene of the crime.

There are precedents in the area for this kind of abuse and impunity, including harassment by the Border Patrol at the Bowie High School in 1992, and the murder of Ezequiel Hernández in 1997 by Marines patrolling the border near Radford, Texas.

The three burials of Juan Patricio Peraza

Juan Patricio’s uncle, Sylvestre Peraza, who lives in San Francisco, was furious about the decision. “There is no justice,” he said. “Tell me, don’t those agents have the training and experience to disarm a teenager who’s only carrying a pipe? I would tell authorities that it’s an embarrassment to have agents like this in this country. There’s no justice for an undocumented person. There will never be justice for an undocumented person. Over 20 witnesses saw what happened and they still let that agent free without finding any fault in what he did.”

Juan Patricio was subjected to three burials: the physical one; the burial of his rights, which weren’t ratified by the justice system; and a moral burial, because rejection of undocumented people fuels spontaneous and formal initia¬tives that trample their rights. “Governments seem to forget that when men, women and children migrate, they don’t leave their rights at home,” remarked Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

Juan Patricio Peraza is remembered as an easygoing young man who liked to joke and made people laugh with his imitations of Cantinflas. He wanted to get a job in the United States to send money home to his parents. But instead of work, the United States shot him in the middle of the street one morning. He was killed for wanting to work in a place where he wasn’t born, which some consider a capital offence. But Juan Patricio’s memory has been kept alive in the community of El Paso and at the Border Network for Human Rights, which in 2003 organized a 20-mile march from Anthony to downtown El Paso to honor his memory and demand accountability from the Border Patrol. The Border Network for Human Rights has also been sending delegations to Washington DC each year to educate elected officials about the realities of border life and the need for immigration reform.

Death in the desert:
the six stages of hyperthermia

Many “vagabonds” are punished in other ways for wanting to work and live in a place other than where they were born. The dead of the border region between Mexico and the United States have been increasing, reaching 350 a year between 1995 and 2006 and passing the 500 mark more recently. The desert of Imperial Valley in California alone takes a minimum of 50 lives a year.

Hyperthermia (excessive body heat) and lack of water and food are the main causes of death. According to Nevins, hyperthermia is a terrible death; it “passes through six stages, the first two being heat stress and heat fatigue. Heat syncope, the next one, results in a fever, and, simultaneously, colder skin. The afflicted person’s face begins to pale and she or he becomes somewhat dizzy. Heat cramps follow and lead to tightening and aching muscles so painful it can make the person double over in pain. Heat exhaustion results in greatly heightened fever, severe headaches, nausea and vomiting; the victim’s skin is cold, shivering might occur, and fainting or cardiac arrest might result. Heat stroke, the final stage, causes the body to become so hot that migrants often strip off their clothes to get free of the extreme discomfort; finally the body’s organs and muscles essentially collapse, resulting in death in many cases. As one passes through these stages, disorientation increases, undermining the ability to take remedial action.”

Given that the controls and rejections have been globalized, the deaths—and their motivations and causes—are also homogenized on Asian, African and European borders and in the seas of the south, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The Human Rights Association of Andalusia stated in its report on “Human Rights on the Southern Border 2009” that 109 immigrants lost their lives or disappeared that year just trying to reach the Andalusian coast. In the Mediterranean as a whole, there were 168 victims, most of them from sub-Saharan and northern Africa. A total of 342 deaths/disappearances were registered the previous year.

So why risk so much? Is it worth choosing death when you can’t choose what life you’re going to live? In the words of one migrant about to cross the same desert where his friend’s body had been found a day earlier: “Our needs are greater than our fears.”

The three plagues threatening the world

US Federal immigration authorities focus on the problem from a different angle. They are satisfied with denouncing the coyotes or chalking the problem up to the migrants’ own imprudence. Johnny Williams, who was the western regional director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of coyotes. “Alien smugglers,” he said, “present one of the greatest dangers facing illegal border crossers and must be brought to justice.” So what should we do with traffickers in walls?

Kapuscinski gave his own assessment of the traffickers, designers and ideologues of fences, separations and rejection: “Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world. The first is the plague of nationalism. The second is the plague of racism. The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism. All three share one trait, a common denominator—an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality. Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only its sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail. He doesn’t want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit that he is right, join the cause. Otherwise you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist, for you count only if you are a tool, an instrument, a weapon. There are no people—there is only the cause. A mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only—its enemy. Thinking about our enemy sustains us, allows us to exist. That is why the enemy is always present, is always with us.”

The Department of Homeland Security is a child of that monothematic culture based on the identification and persecution of enemies. Like the Inquisition, the Gestapo or the executioners and snitches of the Terror that followed the French Revolution, it is always hunting for enemies. It sees them everywhere, in every traveler and his or her luggage or clothes. Anything arouses its panic and triggers its hypersensitive alarm bells: turbans, medicines, cheese, cold meats, wrapped presents, half-wrapped presents, nail clippers, bottles, shampoo… anything could be used as a lethal weapon.

The Department of Homeland Security is like one of those machines that take on a life of their own once their starter motor has been activated, and they can always find fuel nearby. It is fed by prejudices, the ambivalence of politicians, panic and paranoia, the religion of conspiracy and the dynamic of capital. It is an automatic and exorbitant guillotine that feeds off rationalizations, administrative zeal, regulations, judges, sensors and conceptions about legality, at the same time as it exploits the persistent or occasional bad humor of the Border Patrols, their inferiority complexes and poorly concealed sadism, the inevitably discretional nature of the human condition, and “Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, (…) the law’s delay, the insolence of office.” It’s a machine that recycles everything to ensure its own continuation.

This machinery is at the service of what photographer David Bacon identified as a will not so much to stop immigration as to define the subordinated status of a certain kind of human beings. Thus, migrants who successfully cross the border have to deal with the humiliations and insecurity associated with their condition as “aliens” or “illegals.”

“I’m off to the North,
with no passport, on foot…”

When in his Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck investigated the increasing mobility of many Americans and its implications of uprootedness, one of the people he talked to asked him point-blank: “Who’s got permanence? Factory closes down, you move on. Good times and things opening up, you move on where it’s better. You got roots you sit and starve. You take the pioneers in the history books. They were movers. Take up land, sell it, move on. I read in a book how Lincoln’s family came to Illinois on a raft. They had some barrels of whisky for a bank account. How many kids in America stay in the place where they were born, if they can get out?”

Like the person Steinbeck was talking to 50 years ago, Bauman finds a lot of sense in moving “in search of life.” For Bauman, the desire of the hungry to move to where there’s abundant food is what we should expect from rational human beings; letting them act in line with their desires is the correct and moral attitude, in accordance with conscience. He argues that it’s difficult—without feeling guilty—to deny the poor and hungry the right to go where food is plentiful, and virtually impossible to present rational and convincing arguments for migration being an irrational decision. He concludes that the challenge is a terrible one: it’s about denying one’s neighbor the right to the freedom of movement exalted as the greatest achievement of the globalized world, the guarantee of its growing prosperity…

For that reason, many men and women feel that their vision of the world is well reflected in the song “Pa’l norte” by the group Calle 13: Today I’m off to the North/ with no passport/ with no transport/ on foot, by my legs/ but it doesn’t matter, this man is hydrating/ through what my pupils portray/ I’ve got a couple of landscapes in my backpack/ I’ve got chlorophyll vitamins/ I’ve got a rosary that watches over me… Through the desert, with my feet on the grill/ We’re going beneath the earth, like squirrels/ I’m going to cross the wall/ I’m an intruder/ with the identity of a recluse/ and that’s why I turn into a diver/ and dive below the earth/ so the guards can’t see me and the dogs can’t smell me/ Grandma, don’t worry/ I’ve got the Guadelupe Virgin hanging from my neck…”

Despite so much suffering, so many borders, the Trojan horse is on the move. Despite it all, it’s moving, and continues doing so in both directions.


José Luis Rocha is a researcher with the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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