The driver of the passenger van pulled onto the shoulder of the road, looked back, and said, “There’s an immigration checkpoint up ahead. Does everyone have their papers?”
We were just north of the Guatemalan border, outside the town of Ciudad Hidalgo in the Mexican state of Chiapas. There were 10 of us in the van: a family of eight from nearby Monte Rico, Guatemala, photojournalist Jeff Abbott, and me. The driver pointed to the road blockade, already in sight. From a backseat, I could see uniformed officials questioning people inside stopped vehicles.
It was a broiling afternoon in August 2014. Dark clouds were building overhead, threatening rain. There was a murmur of hushed conversation among the family members whom I had first seen no more than half an hour before. They had only recently landed on the Mexican side of the Suchiate River on a raft made of gigantic inner tubes and wooden boards and were already aboard the van when Abbott and I crammed in.
They would prove to be a boisterous crew. “Welcome to the family!” a woman who later introduced herself as Sandra said. “At least for this trip to Tapachula!” Much laughter followed. They were going to the wake of a family member in Mexico and, as people had done here forever, they simply crossed the river, avoiding the official entry point less than a mile away. Like so many political borders around the world, the Guatemalan-Mexican divide had been officially demarcated relatively recently — in 1882, to be exact — cutting through regions with strong family, community, and linguistic ties.
The checkpoint just ahead represented a new kind of demarcation line: the United States border arriving 1,000 miles to the south. A month before, in July 2014, when Mexican officials announced a bolstering of their own border in what they called Programa Frontera Sur (the Southern Border Program), the United States immediately applauded that country’s new “strategy for its southern border” in an embassy press release.
Under a multibillion-dollar military aid program known as the Merida Initiative, as that cable made clear, the U.S. was already, in the pre-Donald Trump era, supporting the Mexican government’s border enforcement strategies in significant ways, including enhancing its biometric and other identification systems. Indeed, U.S. help in strengthening Mexico’s southern border already included backscatter X-ray vans and contraband-detection equipment; funds for Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, the Mexican Marines, and the federal police; patrol boats, night-vision and communication equipment, and marine sensors. That country’s interior minister, Miguel Osorio Chong, said, “Who doesn’t have the necessary documents to enter into our territory and enter the United States, we can’t allow them to be in our territory.” It was in its own way a serious admission: Mexico had already functionally been “hired” to protect the U.S. border from 1,000 miles away.
And this was something U.S. officials had already been pushing for years. As Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary and former Customs and Border Protection (CPB) Commissioner Alan Bersin said in 2012, “The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border.” And indeed it was. So don’t just blame Donald Trump for this country’s border fixation.
Creating an Empire of Borders
In a broader sense, in the twenty-first century, the border should no longer be considered just that familiar territory between the U.S. and Mexico (where President Trump now wants to build that “big, fat, beautiful wall” of his) and the Canadian border to the north. Never mind that, as a start, there already is a wall there or rather, as the U.S. border enforcement officials have long described it, a “multi-layered” enforcement zone. If you were to redefine a wall as obstacles meant to blockade, reroute, and in the end stop (as well as incarcerate) people, then, even before Donald Trump, the equivalent of a wall was that expansive 100-mile-deep zone of defenses. These included sophisticated detection technologies of every sort and increasing numbers of armed border personnel supported by unprecedented budgets over the last 25 years.
In those same years, this country’s borders have, in a sense, undergone a kind of expansion not just into southern Mexico (as I witnessed in 2014), but also into parts of Central America and South America, the Caribbean, and other areas of the world. As Bersin put it, there had been a post-9/11 shift to emphasizing the policing not just of the literal U.S. border but of global versions of the same, a massive, if underreported, “paradigm change.” A U.S. border strategy of “prevention through deterrence,” initiated in 1994, that first militarized and then blockaded urban areas on our actual southern border like Brownsville, El Paso, Nogales, and San Diego, would later spread internationally.
The recent focus on Trump’s wall has hidden such global developments that, since 2003, have, for instance, led to 23 Customs and Border Protection attachés being stationed in places like Bogota, Cairo, New Delhi, Panama City, and Rome. In 2004, CBP commissioner Robert Bonner described this as “extending our zone of security where we can… so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense.”
In 2003, the 9/11 Commission Report laid out the thinking behind this clearly indeed: “9/11 has taught us that terrorism against Americans ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against Americans ‘over here.’ In this same sense the American homeland is the planet.”
Fourteen years later, retired General John Kelly endorsed just such a strategy at his confirmation hearing as Department of Homeland Security secretary. “Border security,” he assured the senators, “cannot be attempted as an endless series of ‘goal line stands’ on the one-foot line at the ports of entry or along the thousands of miles of border between this country and Mexico… I believe the defense of the Southwest border starts 1,500 miles to the south in Peru.”
As it happened, even Kelly was understating just how far the U.S. border already extended into the world.
How the U.S. Border Arrived in the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and Jordan
When I first began to research the exporting of the U.S. border, I didn’t faintly know the extent of it, though I would, in the end, visit the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Kenya, and the Philippines, among other places.
In 2015, while waiting at the front gate of the Zacapa military base in Guatemala — I had an interview scheduled with the commander of that country’s new border force known as the Chorti — a soldier asked me if I was from BORTAC. “What?” I replied, certain I hadn’t heard him correctly. He then repeated the word more slowly, as if perhaps he had pronounced it incorrectly.
I wouldn’t have been alone in my surprise. Most people in the United States had never heard of BORTAC. After many years of researching the U.S. border, however, I now know quite a bit about that “Border Patrol Tactical Unit” that performs SWAT-style operations along the U.S. borderlands. As it happens, it also does training missions abroad. Indeed, as I would soon find out from Colonel Obed Lopez, the Chorti commander, its members had visited his military base during a three-month-long training session also involving the U.S. National Guard, Special Forces units, and police that, as he put it, “they used in cities.” They had provided instruction in “weapons, tactics, ground movements and agility training, first aid,” Colonel Lopez told me.
In fact, on its international missions, BORTAC often works as part of a larger Customs and Border Protection team. As one CBP trainer told me, they would “travel and see the border operations in various countries and make an assessment of their border security, and make recommendations on what could be done to improve their security.” Like doctors of border policing, the CBP team would analyze the situation, then offer a diagnosis and prescription, including recommendations for funding, training, assistance, and equipment from Washington.
The Dominican Republic was the first place where, in 2012, I saw the results of such U.S. training and funding. Border guards from CESFRONT, an enforcement unit formed in 2007, were by then stationed along that country’s border with Haiti. Holding assault rifles, they stood behind barricades on the banks of the grimly named Massacre River, looking like rudimentary replicas of the U.S. Border Patrol in Nogales. As Haitians bathed in the river, they remained there for hours and hours, ensuring that no unauthorized people tried to cross from one of the poorest places on the planet because, of course, wherever you go, the border story turns out to be about how the rich and powerful deal with the poor and marginalized.
Between the State Department and the Department of Defense there are now more than 100 programs that the Department of Homeland Security uses to finance such border programs globally. Among the most prominent are those run by the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and the Export Control and Border Security Related Program (EXBS). The INL works in 71 countries, EXBS in 60, including every country in North Africa and every island state in the South Pacific. With these two outfits alone, you could stand in front of a world map, point anywhere, and the likelihood is that you’d find a U.S. program funneling funds, resources, and border training there.
In other words, when it comes to borders, U.S. operations aren’t limited either to the Western hemisphere or even to countries with land borders. In the Philippines in 2015, for example, the U.S. dedicated $20 million to the construction of the National Coastal Watch Center, an “action that underscores the U.S. commitment to helping the Philippines manage and secure its maritime domain,” according to the American embassy there. After all, as that year’s Pentagon “Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy” stressed, the United States has “enduring economic and security interests” in that region where it puts a “premium on maintaining peace and security.” In that spirit, it doled out the lucrative contract to build that Watch Center to Raytheon. (Yes, in building a global border regime, there’s money to be made.)
That company also landed a big contract to build what journalist William Arkin described as the “Great Wall of Jordan.” According to a document it produced in 2016, “Border Security and Critical Infrastructure Protection,” this meant a 287-mile “security system” on Jordan’s borders with Syria and Iraq, including high-tech cameras, ground radars, “quick reaction” team vehicles, command and control centers, and “passive barrier fencing.” In that same document, Raytheon took credit for “deployed solutions” globally covering more than 10,000 kilometers of land and maritime borders in more than 24 countries, while training more than 9,000 security force members in “surveillance system operations, maintenance, and border security operations.”
And all this just scratches the surface when it comes to the sums of money involved. In Jordan alone in 2015, for instance, $385 million in such funding went into the Jordanian military to support border policing and “counter-terrorism” efforts, including 26,000 rifles and machine guns, three million rounds of small-arms ammunition, 5,000 night-vision devices, and eight UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. As U.S. Ambassador Alice Wells said the next year, the helicopters would “provide Jordan with another tool for safeguarding its frontiers.” In discussing “the sheer number of incursions the Border Guards thwart, almost nightly,” however, she made no mention of the massive refugee crises — in Syria and Iraq — significantly provoked by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq; nor did she mention U.S. geopolitical interests in the region of the sort former Pentagon senior policy adviser Eric Edelman described to the Senate Armed Services Committee in December 2017: “U.S. policy makers have considered access to the region’s energy resources vital for the U.S. allies in Europe, and ultimately for the United States itself.”
In other words, the emerging U.S. global border system can be conceptualized in two ways: there are our territorial borders, of course, but increasingly there is a global empire of borders meant to promote Washington’s geopolitical, economic, and military interests, no matter who is in office.
Keeping the Poor in Line
Such efforts will ultimately contribute to a vast global border and immigration system. In total, there are already more than 70 border walls on this planet, tens of thousands of border agents, and billions of dollars of high-tech surveillance equipment in place along borders that separate the Global North from the Global South. Militarized borders are almost never about one country’s security or protection. They represent, instead, global partnerships that pit transnational elites against the world’s most vulnerable people.
Scholar and activist Harsha Walia explains it this way: “Border controls are most severely deployed by those Western regimes that create mass displacement… and are most severely deployed against those whose very recourse to migration results from the ravages of capital and military occupations.” In the years to come, this will increasingly include millions displaced by the impact of the global climate crisis that will disturb the lives of the world’s least developed countries at a rate predicted to be five times higher than the global average.
As journalist John Washington put it, borders have become “globalization’s bouncers.” Borderlands historian Guadalupe Castillo explains it this way: “The nation-state has become the policeman for the corporate world,” creating borders to “clear the landscape for those… for whom borders don’t exist”; that is, the “1 percent.” The power of that one percent can go wherever it pleases, extracting natural wealth and fossil fuels, while destroying livelihoods and the living earth. Borders aren’t for them, but for those who find themselves unable to make ends meet and so are vulnerable to every threat.
Chiapas, where our van idled 200 yards from that checkpoint so long ago, was an example of this. One of the richest places in Mexico in terms of natural resources — water, petroleum, mineral wealth, natural gas, coffee — it remains one of the poorest for its people. During my stay there, everyone was talking about the border operativos and sensed that the increased fortification of their border was the result of direct orders from Washington. (And keep in mind that this was years before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office and such developments became front-page news.)
In 2017, at the Border Security Expo, I listened to Tony Crowder, commander of Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine Operations, confirm the suspicions of those inhabitants of Chiapas by saying that the U.S. had gone into Mexico and “built technology” giving that country’s officials more “domain awareness capability.” He added, “We coordinated with them directly in their country with as many as 600 to 800 tactical responses in a year’s time… sharing domain awareness with them.” Later, explaining to me his agency’s intense and constant coordination with Mexico, a CBP official said, “I bet you there are fifteen phone calls going on with Mexico at this very moment.”
That same year, as U.S. Northern Command head General Lori Robinson pointed out, “to support the Government of Mexico’s Southern Border Strategy to improve security on their border with Guatemala and Belize,” her command had ensured “the timely delivery of a record Foreign Military Sales of over a billion dollars in UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles.” And now, two years later, Mexico’s newly formed National Guard patrols that southern frontier in force, essentially at the behest of Donald Trump.
At that checkpoint so long ago, the driver suddenly turned the van around and we headed back toward the border with Guatemala. I assumed that the family, which had suddenly gone silent, would just miss that wake. I figured that the driver had decided to skip the checkpoint so that the family wouldn’t be pulled out, handcuffed, incarcerated, and formally expelled from the country like so many others.
Then he suddenly made a surprise right turn and we were on a dirt road, parallel to the main road, heading the other way. Above us, purple clouds were moving fast over the landscape and there was the smell of rain. We were clearly evading the checkpoint.
Sandra suddenly gave us a smile. “We don’t have papers!” she exclaimed. Then she laughed, a sound so joyful that her mother, a blanket over her shoulders, burst into laughter, too, just as the sky burst with rain.
I still wonder how many similar moments have happened in the five years since or will happen in the years to come around the world. This is the nature of a global border system. When the state, including the American imperial state, puts up barriers, people figure out ways to get around them. It matters little whether it’s the Jordanian-Syrian divide, the waters between the Philippines and Malaysia, or the southern border of the United States. Even with the billions and billions of dollars spent, the new technologies, the smart walls (and dumb ones), the checkpoints and biometric ID devices, borders can always be subverted with some grassroots organizing, a little luck, and a joyful spirit.
This essay first appeared on TomDispatch.