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A War in the Desert

Don't ask if the US-Mexican border will be "militarized." It already is — and it's taking hundreds of lives a year.

Crosses commemorating those who died attempting to cross the border into the United States line a section of the US-Mexico border fence on April 6, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico. Mario Tama / Getty

Summer comes early in Texas. And May in the high desert around the West Texas town of Redford can be scorching. It was there, on a hot day in 1997, that four ghillie-suit-clad Marines shot and killed eighteen-year-old Esequiel Hernández Jr. They had been briefed about “armed lookouts” deployed by an “organized, sophisticated, and dangerous enemy.” They had been warned about Redford, a small border community of less than one hundred that preferred Spanish to English — that it was “not a friendly town” and potentially working with the enemy.

When police and others arrived at the scene a story began to unfold about a young man armed with a World War I–era .22 rifle menacing the marines. The account quickly fell apart. Was Esequiel a goatherd or a drug smuggler? They claimed he was a smuggler, but identified him on the radio before the shooting as a goatherd. Did Esequiel fire one shot or two? The Marines couldn’t agree. An empty casing was found in the gun, but no gunpowder residue was on Esequiel’s hand. They claimed to be in imminent danger, but Esequiel was more than two hundred yards away carrying a weapon with a range of less than one hundred yards. After some initial disagreement, the Marines said that Esequiel was pointing his rifle at them, forcing them to fire. A later autopsy revealed Esequiel could not have been aiming his weapon at them. Their stalking of Esequiel through the desert — a procedural no-no — became “paralleling” in their official statement, whereas Esequiel was described as running a “flanking maneuver.”

Multiple grand juries were held, no indictments were forthcoming. The community was devastated. Rev. Mel Lafollette, a Hernández family friend, told a San Antonio newspaper, “The Marines left their observation post, they stalked him, they came onto private property, and then they killed him.” In an interview with investigators, Clemente Bañuelos, the Marine who shot Esequiel, was more succinct, “I capped the fucker.”

Donald Trump’s recent threats to deploy the military along the US-Mexico border has led to a resurgence of interest in Hernández’s murder. The case is appealing to journalists for obvious reasons. Esequiel was young, still in high school. He was well liked and respected. And most importantly, Esequiel was an American citizen. “I’m telling you,” Redford resident Enrique Madrid told reporters at the time, “the only way they could have botched this up more was if they shot Mother Teresa.”

Unfortunately, the sudden focus on Esequiel’s tragic murder has obscured a larger truth. What happened in the West Texas desert that night twenty years ago is not a warning of what could be if the military is allowed to patrol the border — it was the logical product of a decades-long political project that’s blurred the line between policing and militarization, between law enforcement and war. Hernández’s death is one of thousands, a data point, a bit of grim accounting.

While campaigning for president in April 1976, Gerald Ford declared before a crowd that “the main problem is how to get rid of those 6 to 8 million aliens who are interfering with our economic prosperity.” Ford’s head of the INS, the immigration hawk Leonard Chapman, cynically assured Readers Digest that mass deportations would cut unemployment in half.

The media helped put meat on the bones of this folk devil. “The US is being invaded so silently and surreptitiously that most Americans are not even aware of it,” Time wrote the following year. “No commandos or assault troops have shown more ingenuity and determination in storming a country that tries to keep them out.” Not to be outdone, Jimmy Carter proclaimed the border itself the front line of this new war on immigration, deploying fencing and ground sensors as well as providing the border patrol with helicopters for aerial surveillance. The Vietnam War was coming home, and the US-Mexico border was the new Ho Chi Minh Trail. Trump had yet to even burst onto the national scene.

A Death in El Paso

Last year, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Hernandez v. Mesa, a case that centered on a lawsuit filed by the parents of Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca. In 2010, their fifteen-year-old son and his friends were playing in the concrete culvert that serves as a no-man’s land between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez when a Border Patrol agent grabbed one of Sergio’s friends. Sergio ran back to the Mexican side of the culvert when the agent pulled his firearm and shot Sergio in the head, killing him instantly.

An American border agent had fired into Mexico, killing a teenage boy.

Initially, the Border Patrol followed the now-familiar script. They claimed that Sergio was involved in human smuggling across the border. (He wasn’t.) They claimed Sergio was throwing rocks at the officer. (A cell-phone video released shortly after the shooting revealed that to be a lie too.) No charges were ever pursued against Officer Jesus Mesa for Sergio’s murder.

The Obama administration put forward the defense — now picked up by the Trump administration — that Mexican citizens were not subject to constitutional protections. They could be killed on Mexican soil by agents of the American state. “What made a border case different from the US military launching a drone strike in Iraq from a plane piloted in Nevada?” the Washington Post wrote, summing up the Supreme Court’s doubts regarding Sergio’s right to life under American law. “If the Court permitted Sergio’s parents to sue, then couldn’t victims of the drone strike also sue the US government?” Ultimately, the Court punted the case back to the Fifth Circuit, which had already ruled against Sergio’s family.

As the Supreme Court’s reasoning revealed, the US-Mexico border has long been seen as something more akin to a war zone than an international boundary. And in war zones, people are killed without consequence.

In the week before Sergio’s murder, forty-two-year-old Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was beaten and tasered to death by Border Patrol agents at the San Ysidro border crossing just outside of San Diego. Border Patrol claimed the man died of a heart attack; charges were never filed against the agents involved. Two years after Sergio’s murder, sixteen-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez was murdered by an American Border Patrol agent while José was on the Mexican side of the Arizona-Mexico border. Border Patrol claimed the youth was throwing rocks; it turns out he was actually purchasing a hot dog from a street vendor. That same year, a Border Patrol agent in Laredo, TX fired from his boat on the Rio Grande into a park in Nuevo Laredo killing Guillermo Arévalo Pedroza, a father celebrating his daughter’s birthday. Similar examples abound.

“A Place Where Law is Respected”

While campaigning in 1984, Ronald Reagan declared, “The simple truth is that we’ve lost control of our borders, and no nation can do that and survive.” The obvious dog whistle was meant to play on fears of a declining white majority in the United States, solidifying the connection between the economy, racial anxiety, and the border. His solution? Militarize the border. Under his watch the size of the Border Patrol doubled, and its purview expanded to include drug enforcement. Under his successor, George HW Bush, Dick Cheney set up Joint Task Force 6 — later renamed Joint Task Force North — a partnership between the military and Border Patrol. Created by the “National Defense Authorization Act of 1990,” the now infamous 1033 program allowed for the transfer of weapons from the military to law enforcement, Border Patrol included.

Clinton joined in the game as well. “In 1992,” the 1996 Democratic platform hyperventilated, “our border might as well not have existed.… Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.” The platform then celebrated its standard-bearer’s hawkishness: “President [Bill] Clinton is making our border a place where the law is respected and illegal immigrants are turned away.” Indeed they were. Beginning in 1993, Clinton launched a series of operations designed to fortify the urban areas on the US-Mexico border. Border cities were flooded with weapons, money, and police in order to shut down these strategic choke points.

The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center triggered a stream of still more money and guns. Armed with assault rifles, Stryker armored personnel carriers, Blackhawk helicopters, and drones, the Border Patrol increasingly resembled the military and National Guard members with whom they worked. More fortification was paired with increased interior enforcement. Mass deportations became a way to remove the enemy in our midst, a suspected fifth column. Clinton became the first president to deport 100,000 people in a single year. George W. Bush raised the bar to 300,000. And Barack Obama blew it away with 400,000.

A Tragedy in San Antonio

José Rodríguez had spent most of his life in the United States. For twenty years he worked in construction in North Carolina, where he and his wife raised five children. In 2016 he was deported by ICE. One of 240,255 immigrants expelled that year, José was only a number, a nameless part of a statistic proudly presented to President Obama by the Department of Homeland Security. However, in Palo Alto, Mexico José was still a father and a husband, and his pay in Mexico was not providing for his family. “He didn’t want to go to the United States,” José’s wife, Patricia Briones, told the Guardian, “but the economic situation is so dire here.” In July 2017, José made his way to Nuevo Laredo, where he paid coyotes to smuggle him across the border.

After crossing the Rio Grande on a raft, José was loaded into a tractor trailer with dozens of immigrants to be transported from Laredo to San Antonio. “After an hour I heard … people crying and asking for water,” fellow passenger Adan Lara Vega later told the AP. “I, too, was sweating and people were despairing. That’s when I lost consciousness.” Temperatures reached 100 degrees that day, and the trailer had no refrigeration or ventilation. “Some cried, screamed, and hammered on the walls,” Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the San Antonio-based immigrant rights group RAICES, told the Guardian. “Others lost consciousness and hallucinated when they came round, believing they were dead.”

When the truck reached its destination, a Walmart parking lot on San Antonio’s south side, eight passengers, including José Rodríguez, were already dead; two more would later perish at the hospital. The hammer came down quickly on the driver of the truck. Media outlets took turns condemning the “callous indifference” of smugglers. But what they missed was the border ecosystem that had been created by US policy which produces such “callous indifference.” “As we improve our enforcement, we increase the smuggling of aliens that occurs,” INS chief Doris Meissner admitted in 1996.

The economic forces that have destabilized Mexico and Central America continue to push migrants north, propelling them into a collision with the militarized border. These forces guarantee that many migrants, like José Rodríguez, will take extreme risks to find greater economic security.

In the 1990s and 2000s, fortifying urban areas on the border did not slow immigration, but rather pushed it into the desert. The strategy, a 1996 INS report on operations in Arizona notes, was to “redirect illegal crossings away from urban areas near the Nogales port of entry to open areas that the Border Patrol can easily control.”

Migrants were forced into some of the most difficult and dangerous terrain in the country — often with lethal results. From 1997 to 2001, 76 percent of all deaths on the border were attributed to environmental causes — heat exposure, dehydration, hypothermia, and drowning being the leading causes. An analysis by the Arizona Daily Star, revealed that the risk of dying for migrants in the state increased seventeen times between 1998 and 2009. During a particularly hot July in 2010, the Pima County morgue had to bring in a refrigerated truck to handle the fifty-nine immigrant bodies recovered in the desert. All told, between 1994 and 2009, the ACLU found that at least 5,600 people perished while trying to cross the border.

Border Patrol practices exacerbate already dangerous conditions. Agents routinely destroy lifesaving water jugs left in the desert for migrants. “Dusting” — in which border guards use a low-flying helicopter to scatter groups of migrants — causes migrants to get lost in the desert, severely injured, and worse. When search parties are formed to find lost migrants, they report agents withholding critical information. All of this amounts to what an Arizona immigrants’ rights group, No More Deaths, calls a “culture of cruelty” among the Border Patrol. Like in Iraq or Afghanistan, human life simply has no value on the US-Mexico border.

A Culture of Cruelty

There are many ways to lose your life in the one-hundred-mile border zone that extends north of the US-Mexico line. You can freeze in the mountainous area around Big Bend in West Texas. Die of exposure in the Sonoran Desert. Drown in the All American Canal just outside of Calexico. Suffocate in a box truck in San Antonio. Get shot by a Marine sniper while herding goats on your family’s ranch. Be shot by Border Patrol for “throwing rocks” in Ciudad Juarez. Or be tasered and beaten to death by Border Patrol in San Diego.

Many choose to present border militarization as a process that is constantly “becoming” but is never quite “here.” The truth is that Trump’s threat to send soldiers to the border is a natural escalation of the last forty years of bipartisan policy. The US-Mexico border already is militarized — and it’s taking hundreds of lives a year.