Jose Palafox

From San Diego to the Rio Grande Valley, US soldiers are on duty. First it was the "War on Drugs," now they have an additional mission, blocking Mexico's emigrants.
In California's Imperial Valley, soldiers from an antidrug task force hunker over night vision equipment to watch for illegal border crossings. At the San Diego port of entry, National Guards inspect vehicles. In the Arizona desert, heavily-armed Marines, DEA agents, and the Border Patrol conduct joint patrols as training exercises. Inside a nondescript building on an army base near El Paso, military translators, linguists, and analysts decipher intercepted messages and feed the results into massive, interlinked databases. And in night skies across the Southwest, the drone of military reconnaissance aircraft breaks the desert silence. These are scenes from an intensifying campaign being waged on the US-Mexican border. A decade ago, the Reagan administration and an overwrought Congress drafted the US military to help fight the War on Drugs along the border. Now, in a significant break with past policy, which officially limited the military's crime-fighting mission to stopping illegal drugs, the Clinton administration has broadened the Pentagon's role to include suppressing the flow of undocumented immigrants. In January, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) unveiled a new battle plan to double US military and local law enforcement along the border. This plan will build on the formidable joint military-law enforcement infrastructure already in place as part of the Pentagon's antidrug initiatives.

In the San Diego sector alone, some 350 members of Marine and Army units more than double the current National Guard and Pentagon contingent will help monitor electric sensors, staff night-vision scopes, assist with communications and transportation, and conduct aerial surveillance.

While the border region, and especially its Latino population, bears the brunt of this policy, it is but the latest escalation of military involvement in domestic law enforcement.

According to Mary Cheh, a constitutional and national security law specialist at George Washington University School of Law, We can easily become too comfortable with the integration between the Army and law enforcement, she said. It starts slowly and imperceptibly, but before you know it, there's very little difference between [the two]. And that's dangerous.

For immigration rights activist Roberto Martínez, director of the American Friends Service Committee office in San Diego, the concern is less theoretical. The growing military presence at the border is, he said, a low-intensity warfare against immigrants. It's kind of like a war without guns. But then again, the Border Patrol is already armed to the teeth. What are we going to have next, an armed military at the border? In fact, traditional bans on

using the military as police have eroded dramatically in the last decade. Exceptions created expressly for antidrug operations cracked open the door; the Clinton administration is opening it wider still in the politically expedient campaign to thwart unwanted immigrants.


For more than a century, the post-Civil War Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 banned military involvement in domestic law enforcement. But beginning with the Reagan administration, presidential and congressional initiatives, abetted by compliant federal courts, have chipped away at legal protections.

The first breach in the firewall came with the Defense Authorization Act of 1982. To combat contraband both substances and people that law permitted the military to provide equipment, intelligence, and facilities to civilian law enforcement agencies, and help train them. Although the act gave the military a role in enforcing immigration laws as well as contraband, its primary target was the cross-border drug traffic.

Four years later, the breach grew larger. In 1986, the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System, headed by Vice President George Bush and Attorney General Edwin Meese, launched Operation Alliance to foster interagency cooperation and interdict the flow of drugs, weapons, aliens, currency, and other contraband across the Southwest border.

This ongoing joint operation coordinates the activities of at least 15 federal, state, and local agencies, including the INS, FBI, DEA, Coast Guard, Customs Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Marshals' Service, U.S. Attorney's Office, and the Secret Service,

as well as the Department of Defense and the National Guard.

The Defense Authorization Act of 1989, passed as a fulminating George Bush waved bags of crack cocaine at television viewers, expanded and formalized the military's role in drug law enforcement. The act assigned the Pentagon three statutory missions:
to integrate the various US command, control, communications and intelligence (C ) assets to monitor illegal drugs; to enhance the National Guard's role in drug interdiction and enforcement operations; and to serve as the lead agency in detecting and monitoring the transportation of drugs into the US.

The growing military presence
at the border is a "low-intensity
warefare against immigrants."

The military constructs a wall saparating Nogales, Ariz. from Mexico.

Both the House and Senate versions of the act would have given the military the power to arrest drug law violators. These provisions were

killed in conference committee primarily because of opposition from the Pentagon, which hesitated to take on a direct policing mission. Also killed in conference was a House provision that would have required the Defense Department to seal the US-Mexico border.

The 1991 Defense Authorization Act broadened military drug enforcement powers still further. It allowed the Pentagon to establish antidrug operations bases and training facilities and to train federal, state, and local agencies (and foreign governments). With the 1991 act, Congress authorized the military to carry out aerial and ground antidrug reconnaissance near and outside US borders.

Unlike National Guard members, who may be deputized, US military personnel still do not have the power to arrest criminal law violators with very limited exceptions. But after more than a decade of explicit presidential and congressional orders to enlist, the Pentagon is involved in just about every other aspect of drug law enforcement. And while soldiers cannot make arrests, their rules of engagement for border support duties permit them to shoot to kill if they or accompanying law enforcement personnel are endangered.

"JTF-6's relationship
with law enforcement is
one of total integration."

___JTF-6'S Lt. Gen. Geroge Stotser

In the decade since Operation Alliance began, the Pentagon and federal law enforcers have put in place a joint civil-military apparatus that can easily adapt to a new mission on the border. Not only does the military have a working relationship with the Border Patrol, Customs, the FBI and other agencies, its antidrug efforts have already indirectly helped curb the flow of unwanted immigrants. As just one example, when Army engineers build roads along the frontier to help the Border Patrol catch smugglers, those roads also enhance the agency's immigration control mission.


The keystone of the Pentagon's antidrug effort under Operation Alliance is the El Paso-based Joint Task Force 6 (JTF-6). Set up in November 1989 at the Biggs Army Airfield adjacent to Fort Bliss, JTF-6 grew out of President Bush's National Drug Control Drug Strategy.

According to the US Army, from 1990 to 1993, JTF-6 conducted 1,260 antidrug support missions, most of them operational,

National Guardsman helps Customs
inspect truck crossing into US.

i.e., patrols, exercises designed to flood drug smuggling corridors with military personnel, and intelligence support. In a clear sign of the military's rapidly expanding role even before officially taking on immigration, in the first six months of 1995 alone, the number of support requests approved jumped to more than 4,000.

The number of troops involved is substantial. According to Brian Sheridan, head of the Pentagon's Drug Enforcement Policy and Support Office, on any given day approximately 4,600 soldiers are working counter-drug operations. (That number is already increasing as the Pentagon takes on immigration.)

While many are soldiers or National Guards on temporary assignments, including mundane tasks such as motor pool maintenance, several hundred are on permanent Drug War duty. They include 50 Special Forces soldiers who provide year-round training to civilian police agencies. These Special Forces units account for roughly

one-third of JTF-6 antidrug missions.
All told, the Pentagon is spending about $800 million a year to help enforce the drug trafficking laws alone. Its missions, carried out to assist primarily the Border Patrol and Customs the designated lead enforcement agencies on the border fall into several categories:

  • Ground and aerial reconnaissance, including sensors, listening posts, observation posts, ground surveillance radar, and ground patrols.
  • Training in patrol techniques, helicopter insertions and extractions, operations and intelligence, and Advanced Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain.
  • Logistical support, primarily engineering projects such as barrier erection road repair, and range construction.
  • Research to identify and demonstrate technologies combining military and law enforcement applications.

  • Describing the relationship between law enforcement agencies and JTF-6, task force commander Lt. Gen. George Stotser commented: Joint Task Force 6's relationship with law enforcement, in my view, is one of total integration.


    But the operational integration of the US military with civilian law enforcement agencies is only one face of an increasingly militarized frontier. As University of Texas-El Paso border researcher Timothy Dunn noted, militarization also includes law enforcement's increasing reliance on military technology, equipment, and strategies.
    Nowhere has that process advanced further than one the Mexican border. The Pentagon has turned over to the Border Patrol and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies much of the excess equipment used during and after the Vietnam War, including Blackhawk helicopters, heat sensors, night
    vision telescopes and electronic intrusion detection devices.
    The DoD valued such military technology transfers at $260 million in 1995. The Border Patrol has also acquired new stadium-style kleig lights and computerized fingerprinting equipment (IDENT) for use by the hundreds of new agents deployed as part of intensive anti-immigrant programs such as Operation Hold-the-Line (formerly called Operation Blockade) in El Paso and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego.

    Now, thanks to a joint effort by the Justice and Treasury Departments and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Border Patrol also has its own high-tech Border Research and Technology Center near San Diego. There scientists develop new border control techniques and technologies, as well as refining and adapting existing ones. Last year, for example, the center began testing a photo-ID system developed by Hughes Aircraft Company. According to Robert Bach, executive associate commissioner of the INS, The technology came out of the CIA and the Department of Defense. They used it and it was made available to the INS.

    DEA's EL Paso Intelligence Center
    has access to a stunning array of finance,
    political, and criminal intelligence on
    both foreign nationals and US citizens.

    But Pentagon and even CIA involvement in the border campaigns extends beyond equipment. Both the soldiers and the spies are working within an integrated intelligence network, originally planned for the Drug War but now also turning some of its resources to stopping undocumented immigrants.


    The centerpiece of coordinated border intelligence operations is the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC, like JTF-6, based at Biggs Army Airfield). Managed by the DEA, EPIC's primary mission is to provide tactical intelligence to 15 federal agencies, including all the usual suspects. It employs

    some 300 people, including Defense Department personnel,FBI agents, and other federal law enforcers seconded to the DEA. In addition to human talent generally linguists, analysts, and translators JTF-6 supports EPIC by providing raw intelligence gathered by the Defense Department worldwide, analysis, and organizational instruction.

    But as the clearinghouse for drug intelligence, EPIC by no means relies on the Pentagon alone. In addition to the fruits of military intelligence-gathering, FBI investigative files, Treasury Department Financial Crimes Enforcement Center (FinCEN) reports, CIA and NSA drug-related intelligence, and reports from state and local law enforcement agencies all flow into its databases. In conjunction with the FBI, the DEA has also created a master database, NADDIS-X.21 All told,

    Coming and going. Three Border Patrol agents mend fence as man crosses
    from Mexico into Nogales, Ariz.
    EPIC has access to a stunning array of financial, political, and criminal intelligence on both foreign nationals and US citizens.

    EPIC has become the model for a burgeoning drug intelligence complex, including the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), with an unknown number of personnel, the CIA's Counternarcotic Center, and the Defense Intelligence Agency's Counterdrug Intelligence Center, both with around 200 employees. Additional drug intelligence units are scattered among regional task forces and at the Army's Southern Command in Panama, and within Treasury, Justice, and Customs.

    Even before the official announcement of the Pentagon's immigration mission, the drug intelligence network showed distinct signs of mission creep. EPIC, JTF-6, and Operation Alliance have all staked out positions on controlling the flow of immigrants, and EPIC has for several years maintained files on groups that smuggle undocumented immigrants.

    Similarly, in 1993, drug war policy-makers turned to a Defense Department research institution, the Sandia National Laboratory at Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for advice on border enforcement strategies. Chosen for its expertise in physical security, the Sandia lab's recommendations included the construction of a triple-layer fence along the border. The INS has also consulted with the Pentagon's Center for Low-Intensity Conflict in drawing up deployment plans for

    Border Patrol agents along the border and for advice on how best to enhance immigration enforcement efforts with surveillance equipment. Such cooperation between the military and federal civilian law enforcement is part of a broader effort by the US government to create a coordinated border enforcement apparatus. In its latest effort, the Clinton administration last October moved to centralize all border policy in the office of a Border Czar.


    Federal officials have long complained that rivalries and turf wars among border enforcement agencies hampered their ability to crack down on drug trafficking and illegal immigration. INS Commissioner Doris Meissner explained, You have four states, and a series of federal agencies. We need to look at the border as one entity.

    Responding to such concerns, Attorney General Janet Reno last October announced the appointment of San Diego US Attorney Alan Bersin as the first Special Representative for Southwest Border Issues, or Border Czar. His office will coordinate multi-agency projects, such as using the FBI to target immigrant smuggling as organized crime, and reorganizing Customs Service and INS inspections. Bersin will report directly to Reno, and he will serve as her representative in discussions with the Mexican government on drugs, immigration, and other bilateral border issues.

    Bersin has already moved on one important front. His office is coordinating a federal, state and local drug crackdown in Imperial County, California, that, if successful, could become a prototype for counterdrug efforts elsewhere along the border.

    This operation, the Valley Project, involves 17 different agencies including the Army, California National Guard, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and will have its own intelligence command center (similar to the DEA's EPIC).

    But the Valley Project could also become a prototype for trouble. The project follows stepped-up efforts to block illegal entries further west near San Diego. Accordingly, says border researcher Dunn, would-be border-crossers will be forced into the middle of a major drug enforcement operation. The Border Patrol is quite consciously pushing them to remote, difficult terrain where antidrug efforts are concentrated and they're willing to use a higher level of coercion, observes Dunn. This is very dangerous; this is where they [the Border Patrol] could make deadly mistakes.

    Bersin will also represent the attorney general in discussions with the Mexican government on immigration, drug control, and other binational issues. There is plenty to discuss. Mexican officials are caught between the need to placate their primary trading partner and largest creditor and the need to at least pay lip service to Mexicans' well-founded complaints about ill-treatment at the hands of US border enforcement officials.

    In one instance where Mexico's economic crunch tipped the scales in favor of US priorities, last February Mexican officials agreed to expand Grupo Beta (Mexico's border police unit in Tijuana) to include Nogales and Matamoros. The announcement came a week before the two countries reached final agreement on the $20 billion US bailout of the Mexican economy.Hat in hand, Mexican President Zedillo dutifully expressed his commitment to greater collaboration

    with the US government on immigration issues.

    While Grupo Beta is barred by Mexican law from enforcing US border laws its original purpose was to protect emigrants from criminal activity the Mexican government is under strong pressure to use it to discourage emigration. In an indication that the pressure is working, Grupo Beta units have recently been used to prevent massed groups from rushing US ports of entry.

    Aside from international diplomacy, bureaucratic wrangling, and whipping up public support, Border Czar Bersin must also deal with the fallout from increasingly stringent border enforcement. As federal prosecutors target undocumented immigrants, the nation's already overcrowded local jails and federal prisons cannot absorb the flow of immigrant detainees. Here, too, the military has a role to play.


    In a new tactic unveiled in San Diego's Operation Gatekeeper, federal attorneys stepped up prosecutions of immigration- related crimes, and of immigrants with criminal records. As a result, there were 1,039 prosecutions for felonious entry into the United States in 1995 alone, equaling the total for the previous nine years. But that may be just the beginning.

    ARepublican Congressional Task Force on Immigration Reform, appointed by Newt Gingrich and chaired by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), recently proposed a three strikes law for undocumented border crossers. It would require the Border Patrol to hold for prosecution any undocumented immigrant guilty of violating the same immigration law more than once. Under current law, undocumented persons are usually detained only until they agree to voluntary departure.

    According to a San Diego Union-Tribune editorial which projected the impact of the proposal, in the San Diego sector alone close to 15,000 undocumented immigrants are apprehended each week. If 20 percent of those are repeaters, the three-strikes rule would mean adding about 3,000 offenders a week to our already severely overcrowded jails.

    The Congress is taking steps to address these concerns. Legislation now pending in the Senate, the Immigration in the National Interest Act shepherded by Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), would allow closed military bases to be used as detention centers for undocumented immigrants.

    The Clinton administration has similarly addressed the looming prisoner overflow and fears that Mexico's economic crisis would wash north even more undocumented people. Last year, top immigration policy-makers practiced an enhanced border control plan,

    that includes using military bases as detention centers. In joint exercises held in Orlando, Florida; Nogales, Arizona; and McAllen, Texas, INS and military personnel set up holding areas on military bases and practiced rounding up and detaining prisoners (actually role-playing soldiers and agents).

    This contingency plan is in effect an extension of Operation Distant Shores, which directed the military-run camps used to detain Cuban and Haitian refugees in Panama and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Now, Mexico has been added to the list of Distant Shores' potential source countries, and the military will take over management of detention centers from the INS in the event of a Mexican immigration emergency.

    This is a prudent military plan to handle a mission already placed on the military, which is to handle immigration when the numbers overwhelm civil authorities,

    commented a US Army officer involved in the exercise. Immigration emergency or not, Border Czar Bersin has already received Navy agreement to provide detention space for immigrant inmates at the Miramar Naval Air Station outside San Diego.


    US policymakers want it both ways. In their wholehearted embrace of free trade, they have consistently followed economic policies that both create the conditions for mass immigration and make the illicit drug trade an economically attractive option for dispossessed Mexicans. The NAFTA agreements and the Mexican bailout are only the sharpest and most recent examples. Economic dislocations from NAFTA are anticipated to generate significant numbers of new migrants. And after the peso collapse, in return for US dollars and loan guarantees, the US Treasury demanded that Mexico enact harsh neoliberal austerity measures virtually guaranteed to drive even more Mexicans across the border.

    INS guard inspects passengers at checkpoint
    several miles north of the border.

    At the same time, the US wants open borders only for the flow of capital and legitimate commerce. In a global economy in which factories and capital flit across boundaries in the blink of an eye, people seem to be the only factor of production undeserving of free transit. Instead, immigration is to be limited and controlled.

    Border Czar Bersin provides the official line: Our border is intended to accomplish twin purposes: On the one hand, it is intended to facilitate trade in order to bring our nation the significant benefits of international commerce and industry. At the same time, it is geared to constrain and regulate the free movement of people and goods in order to block the entry of illegal migrants and unlawful merchandise. To blunt the contradictions inherent in these twin purposes, the US must militarize the border to protect free trade Yankee style.
    The consequences are both immediate and potentially

    far-reaching. For immigrants from the south, and for Latinos in general, the results are already manifest in an increasing hostility, manufactured in part by officials eager to whip up support for their solution to the problem.

    Roberto Martínez, who has documented many abuses along the border, points out that as the government continues to lump together undocumented immigrants, drugs, crime, and terrorism to justify increased enforcement and militarization, attitudes toward immigrants will not only not change but will continue translating into open hostility and violence.

    More broadly, enlisting the military in law enforcement first limited to drugs, now adding immigration, and next? is an inauspicious omen. Faced with a self-inflicted rising tide of disorder, and not just on the border, the only response the state appears capable of shaping relies on a larger and better-integrated military-police apparatus.


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