On Trial: Twenty Years of Economic Terrorism and Border Militarization

(By: Daniel Gutiérrez)

Twenty years ago, the United States enacted two programs nearly simultaneously that completely changed the every day life of many individuals: NAFTA and Operation Gatekeeper. The former lead to massive migration patterns that economically coerced people to move north and the latter was a large step in the militarization of the US-Mexico border. Current immigration debates are limited in scope, as they attempt to solve “the immigration problem” by merely allowing people in and completely ignoring the root reasons of migration.

Meanwhile, the US-Mexico border has undergone a massive militarization process first under the guise of protecting sovereignty and later was reinforced by security concerns brought on by the never-ending wars on drugs and terror. Unless human rights organizations and immigration movements on both sides of the border address such militarization, attacks on the very concept of universal human rights will continue to be ignored. Immigration reform must also address the economic terror produced by NAFTA against both the Mexican and North American working class. The border has hardly produced any fruitful outcomes in either the war on drugs or the war on terror, but simply produces mass misery and terror.

NAFTA, or the Giant Sucking Sound

In 1994, the United States, Canada and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The treaty formalized free-trade between three north american economies, effectively creating an economic block that would promote “free-enterprise” between the three nation-states. It is well known that what resulted was the massive disenfranchisement of the working class on both sides. Then presidential candidate Ross Perot announced to American voters that the contract would result in a “giant sucking sound” as American jobs would move to Mexico. By signing the contract, the working-class of the United States lost the well-paying work that was secured by unions. The American right-wing, with the logic of the “right-to-work”, says that if American labor was more flexible, offshoring labor would have been unnecessary. However, based on the capitalist logic of economic competition, it seems unlikely that US American workers would be able to work for the fifty dollars a week for sixty hours. By 2012, manufacturing wages in Mexico were still only 18% of U.S.

Meanwhile, NAFTA has been lauded by the US government as a great success. As Penny Pritzker, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, likes to celebrate, NAFTA has produced $3 billion dollars a day. But little of this actually trickles down to the working classes of either the United States or Mexico. Despite the fact that the GDP per capita of Mexico rose from 4,048 dollars in 1993 to 10,501 dollars, poverty in Mexico only dropped 1.1%. In the United States, the Economic Policy Institute found that some 700,000 American jobs were lost due to the treaty and the off-shoring that resulted. It should be of no surprise that former industrial cities like Detroit are in shambles, or that Chicago and Baltimore are experiencing a growth in crime in face of a non-existent economy. Quite as a former drug dealer said in a news report, given the lack of jobs and excessive unemployment, illegal economies become the life-blood for the disenfranchised.

Border Militarization, (or How I learned to Hate the Border)

What was not reported in the national media was the effect that would be produced on the Mexican peoples. Quite as the Zapatistas said, the treaty was a death sentence for Mexico’s rural workers (largely indigenous) who would not be able to compete agro-industry of the United States. The economic integration forced rural workers to migrate. By destabilizing the rural economy of Mexico due to economic integration, people began to pack up and leave home. Obvious choices were industrial cities in the north of Mexico, such as Monterrey, Tijuana, and Ciudad Juárez. Therefore, the border region swelled with displaced workers and families. Employment was easily found in the maquiladora industry (location specific factories that make products that are meant for immediate transport over the border).

However, the massive disenfranchisement also created labor-excess (simply put, too many people not enough work). This in turn increased cross-border migration. Border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez had already begun to inflate since the economic restructuring of the 1980’s. But with few options for economic advancement, the United States was increasingly becoming the point of destination due to the starvation that was produced by NAFTA.

Eight months following NAFTA, Operation Gatekeeper was put into motion in San Diego to prevent such migration. The operation was the first great leap in border militarization in southern California. The program followed on the boot-heels of Operation Hold-the-Line, which was installed in El Paso in 1993. Operation Hold-the-Line reduced border apprehensions from 285,000 to 79,000 in the first year. This was a huge step in militarizing the border, as the Border Patrol began to inflate its numbers. The original premise was to curb illegal entry of human beings (that believe it or not, were competing with other human beings for jobs in an economic system based on, believe it or not, competition — a very touchy subject as many were recently, or the in process of being, unemployed) as well as curbing drug imports.

Defense of the border moved to center stage following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. From 2002 to 2012, the number of Border Patrol agents doubled due to the threat of terrorism. However, the rapid expansion has also lead to very questionable findings. Recently, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the Border Patrol has hired thousands of agents without a polygraph exam that was only recently made mandatory for applicants. This is something that should cause a deal of apprehension (to say the least) as hundreds of new applicants under the new polygraph requirement have admitted to kidnap and ransom, child molestation, and rape. The absurdity is that these same applicants who admitted to such nefarious charges passed all the previous stages. That leaves literally thousands of Border Patrol agents that were hired without the polygraph unaccounted for.

The potential of shady personalities further reveals itself in recent events of border killings. The brutal murder of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas by multiple Customs and Border Protection agents is only one sad account. There have even been multiple accounts of Border Patrol agents violating international law by shooting into Mexico, including cases where people picnicking in Mexico have been shot. Despite more “protection”, what resulted from the massive growth of border forces was not a reduction of any amount of “illegal” human beings (as there are roughly 11.7 million today) or drugs (as the cost of a single gram of cocaine is 74% cheaper now than it was 30 years ago). In fact, for all the fear of foreigners, four out of five people arrested for narcotics at the border are actually US citizens. Not to mention that despite all the spending in the southwest border, there has yet to be any news of “terrorists” being apprehended. The only tangible result has been a much more violent, much more militarized border.

Despite these self-defeating results, in terms of human loss, the border has produced the deaths of thousands of human beings. Regardless of increased efforts by the United States government to scare people from crossing the border, the number of deaths along the border only increases, as migrants are forced into more dangerous scenarios to make it across. Without addressing the economic roots of migration (i.e. disenfranchisement through free-market fundamentalism), the need to cross to the United States will always be greater than starving. Hence, due to the increased vulnerability created by the border patrol, migrants now have to rely on criminalized networks of smugglers.

Furthermore, due to the massive vulnerability of working class people south of the border  produced by NAFTA, migrants are increasingly becoming victims of growing trends of kidnapping and human trafficking. Mexican news are overwhelmed by accounts of traveling migrants who were kidnapped along migrant routes, such as a case in which 165 people were liberated in a single operation conducted by the Mexican military. If the border were as free for the people as it was for the money that cross it, such horrors would be avoided.

But rather, the logic perpetuates itself, as the Border Patrol agents, ICE agents, and Customs Agents demand more money to combat new criminal trends that they themselves helped create. By illegalizing the free movement of people across the border, they have opened new markets for smugglers. By creating this market, they have also created markets for human traffickers and kidnappers to pray on the vulnerable who easily fall into their hands thinking they are simply guides or smugglers. Despite such a dreadful track record, the government has found that the Customs and Border Protection branch of Homeland Security is so necessary that they have increased their funds by $110 million.

What is to be Done?

Currently, reform programs regarding the border are highly limited in scope. It will produce rights befitting any human being (namely, the ability to file for work and be allowed to stay with ones family and not live in fear of being expelled from one’s home). However, there has been little debate regarding the actual border itself or the root source of migration. The border has cost the life of thousands of human beings, and countless more that are currently being shot by border patrolling individuals, or kidnapped by others, or put into slavery by others. If any reform will be made that will be long lasting, it must also take into account not only the border itself, but the economic program that created the displacement of human beings to begin with. However, this would take a movement that is transnational in scope, taking note of any economy not only directly involved in trade, but those that are competing as well.

Given the record of both NAFTA and the border’s militarization, we must question if such spending is legitimate, let alone question the track record against human rights. Which brings us to the border’s very necessity. As debates rage whether or not the massive surveillance programs of the NSA are not only constitutional but effective, the world must endure barriers and surveillance produced by the United States in other facets of life that fall out of mainstream debate. The question becomes if the NSA surveillance programs are on the chopping block due to inefficiency and scant results (if any), shouldn’t NAFTA and the border militarization be considered as well?

2 thoughts on “On Trial: Twenty Years of Economic Terrorism and Border Militarization

  1. Pingback: Students Protest NAFTA Celebration at UCSD |

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