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Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol

Photograph Source: ruperto miller – CC0

It is a simple strategy. First: murder Latinos in the U.S. Second: news of the killings spreads south. Third: fear of violent death paralyzes those hoping to leave Mexico. Terror deters migrants.

It appears this was Patrick Crusius’ logic when he stormed an El Paso Walmart on August 3. His alleged manifesto insists “that the Hispanic population is willing to return to their home countries if given the right incentive. An incentive that myself and many other patriotic Americans will provide.”

But this scheme is not original. It is not some cruel deviation from our core values, some Trump-era warping of our fundamental decency. No: Crusius wielded his gun the way the Border Patrol has used the desert for 25 years.

Because it was a simple strategy the Patrol enacted in 1994. First: shift migrant crossings from established entry points, like San Diego or El Paso, to “hostile terrain” where “mortal danger” awaits. Second: let the desert claim its victims. Third: witness fear of apprehension in, say, El Paso, or dread of a Sonoran Desert death, raise “the ‘cost’ to illegal entrants to the point of deterring repeated attempts.” Latinos would keep out, given the right incentives.

This policy, Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD), was Bill Clinton’s. Sandia National Laboratories, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary, drafted it in 1993 at the White House’s request. When implemented, PTD reckoned migrant deaths one measure of success. This point cannot be overemphasized.

For example, in 1997, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) listed several “Indicators for Measuring the Effectiveness of the Strategy to Deter Illegal Entry Along the Southwest Border.” One indicator: “Deaths of aliens attempting entry.” If the “strategy is successful,” the report elaborated, “deaths may increase.”

Which they did. It was soon obvious this policy was an effective migrant-killer. Its deterrent effect was less apparent. In 2001, the GAO noted that “shifting illegal alien traffic away from urban areas” was successful, but “at a cost to…illegal aliens…. In particular, rather than being deterred from attempting illegal entry, many aliens have instead risked injury and death by trying to cross mountains, deserts, and rivers.”

The Border Patrol guesses some 7,000 have died crossing in recent decades. No More Deaths, the humanitarian group, suggests 8,000. But these figures are likely fractions of the total killed.

Dr. Robin Reineke, a Tucson anthropologist, calls Patrol statistics “completely meaningless,” since they tally only those remains agents encounter, not the bodies police, activists, and ranchers find. Other bodies vanish. Vultures, gorging in wakes of 35, can strip all flesh from a corpse in hours, then scatter bones dozens of feet apart. Because of official count deficiencies, because of the way scavengers disappear the dead, Todd Miller, a reporter on border issues, believes “the actual death toll is triple” the official figure.

Patrick Crusius, in his way, added to this toll. Blame Trump’s rhetoric, rip the Republicans. Sure. There’s something to that. But the killer embraced thinking more mainstream than pundits admit. He followed ideas birthed in a national defense lab, at a Democratic administration’s urging, that made the desert a graveyard and a Walmart a slaughterhouse.

More migrant deaths, more mass shootings are all but assured. There’s no use averting our eyes from this future. And it will remain dark, unless we resist easy answers to the problems we face.

More articles by:

Nick Alexandrov lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com

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