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Big Government, Big Fence


Time has worn down embossed lettering on the bronze plaque on the 6-ft. obelisk marking the U.S.-Mexico border.

My friend and I had stopped to look at the boundary monument, and were trying to decipher the lettering (English on north side of monument, Spanish on south side) when we hear a vehicle stop. Looking up we saw one of the green-and-white Border Patrol trucks that seem almost as common as cactus and mesquite in southeastern Arizona.

Leaning out her window, a friendly female face framed by an olive Border Patrol cap.

Seeing that we were just two gringos, she smiled, explaining: “I saw some people and came by to take a look.”

She was talking to us through the newly constructed border fence that runs six miles east from the Douglas port-of-entry. The border monument was on the south side of the massive steel border fence that stands, on the average, 18-ft high, making the iron and concrete monument seem puny and all the more dated.

It’s hard, though, to stay friendly on the border which in many areas have become an  occupied zone on the northern side while new border fortifications make the Mexico borderland seem like a prison.

Irritated, I mutter back, “Yes, there are people over here.”

This border monument (No. 84) is one of several that stand along the “Internacional,” the road marks the northern edge of “AP” — as Agua Prieta residents commonly call their town of almost 200,000.

In erecting the border fence, the U.S. government has effectively ceded ground to Mexico.  The old monuments establishing the dividing line between the two nations stand about three feet on the Mexican side of the fence.

East of El Paso, the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo defines the border east to where river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. But west of El Paso there are not natural boundaries marking which side of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts are in which country.

Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 and the Gadsen Treaty of 1853, U.S. territory grew by a third and Mexico ceded its northern territories – as a result of the U.S. conquests in the Mexican-American War and a purchased price of $25 million.

The federal government set about marking the new border in 1853 with a string of stone monuments extending from the Pacific coast to El Paso.

But the iron obelisk my friend and I were looking at was not the original marker but one of 276 stone and metal monuments erected every 8,000 meters or so along the border in 1895-96.

During the last half of the nineteenth century the border boomed with mining, ranching, and the coming of the railroad. With the earlier stone monuments in ruins, the U.S. and Mexican governments in 1892 created the International Boundary Commission (later renamed the International Boundary and Water Commission when water issues became contentious) to survey the border.

This monument was result of that survey work, and its bilingual signage a demonstration of the binational accord (for the most part) over course of the line in the sand separating the two nations.

That was before the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17 engulfed Mexico, and before the birth of a modern Mexican nationalism. Today, the relations between the two governments are generally close – brought together first with the North American Free Trade Agreement and most recently with U.S. support for the Mexican drug war.

Yet never before have the people and land of the United States and Mexico been so divided.

Between the twin cities of Agua Prieta and Douglas, the divide is stark – and sometimes brutal.

Just down from the border monument is an altar dedicated to the memory of Carlos Lamadrid, a 19-year Agua Prieta resident who died on March 21, 2011 while attempting to climb the fence into Mexico. After a high-speed pursuit by the Border Patrol, Lamadrid, who was a U.S. citizen and was enrolled in the nearby Cochise County College, abandoned his truck and was shot four times in the back by a Border Patrol agent atop the old border fence.

The Border Patrol had received a tip that Lamadrid was transporting marijuana – and 48 pounds of the substance were later found in his truck. In an attempt to divert the attention of the pursuing Border Patrol agents, cohorts of Lamadrid on the south side of the fence threw rocks at the agents and their vehicles – and one agent responded by shooting the youth in the back, killing him.

His family has filed a wrongful death suit. Family and friends had erected a similar memorial to Lamadrid on the Douglas side of the borderline on the spot that he fell to the ground from Border Patrol bullets. But they had to remove it late last year to make way for the construction of the new border fence.

Bigger and Vastly More Expensive Fencing

In the past several months the Department of Homeland Security has replaced the 12-ft. high border fence that was erected in 1994 with discarded metal landing mats from the military.

The new fence extends six miles east from the port of entry is a massive structure. It seems impenetrable, with closely spaced steel columns or bollards rising at least 18-ft above the ground and secured by a concrete foundation that is 6-8 ft. deep. Sheer metal plating, approximately 5-ft. high, spans the highest reaches of the fence on its Mexico side, further obstructing potential fence jumpers from scaling the fence.

For the Border Patrol, another advantage of the new border fortification is that agents can now see through the fence to monitor activity on the Mexican side. The new fencing on the Douglas-Agua Prieta border is the same design used last year in Nogales.

Bigger and better, the new fencing costs $4.14 million to construct.

“This fence project is a critical component to enhancing the safety and security of not only Border Patrol agents, but the community as well,” said Tim Sullivan, Patrol Agent in Charge of the Douglas station.

Gustavo Lozano of the Nogales-based Fronteras Desiguales [Unequal Borders], advocates for the rights of border residents, said the new fencing sends a “very hostile message especially here in what we call ‘Ambos Nogales.’”

“We think of the two Nogaleses as very unified, as one community separated by a border. But when our government comes up with crazy and stupid ideas like a bigger fence, it’s clearly sending a message to regular people,” Lozano told the Nogales International newspaper.

Driving back north along the Chiricahua Mountains up to Road Forks intersection on I-10, I saw more than a dozen Border Patrol vehicles and not many private cars. Border security is not just a fortified borderline – complete with new steel fencing, stadium lights, and sensors – but also a U.S. borderland where the Border Patrol seems like an occupying force.

Illegal crossings have dropped dramatically as the number of Border Patrol agents in the adjoining Douglas, Arizona and Lordsburg, New Mexico districts have quadrupled, leaving agents with little to do. On the way north, I was followed two times by Border Patrol vehicles, one driving at night without lights closely behind me.

What the hell is the government doing with our money?

That sounds like a gripe of a right-wing populist. Traveling the border and seeing the massive waste associated with border security certainly makes you feel more sympathetic with the anti-big government right – except that anti-immigrant backlash and retrograde nationalism add up to calls by these same anti-big government rightists for more government spending for border fortifications, drug wars, and immigrant crackdowns.

No doubt, however, that there is something to the anti-big government politics, especially when security – national, homeland, border, etc. – is evoked.

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy and is the author of Border Wars  from MIT Press. See his work at



Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program

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