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Border Control Sweeps Migrant Atrocities into the Desert and Out of the American Conscience

A gun-toting, foul-mouthed, lethal-force-authorized U.S. Border Patrol, a President who’s rally cry is fear-mongering xenophobia, a plan for a $5 billion, thirty foot tall border wall, and a 16-year-old boy who died as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agents force-fed him liquid meth.  The news coverage on U.S.-Mexico border violence that does gain national attention reads like a horror novel, and it only touches the surface of the brutality migrants endure. Indeed, invisibility shrouds much of the systemic violence intended to keep migrants out: Through a carefully orchestrated strategy entitled “Prevention Through Deterrence”, the U.S. government has for decades concealed its complicity in the deaths and disappearances of thousands of migrants at the border.

In 1994, the United States Customs and Border Protection Agency implemented a ‘Prevention Through Deterrence’ strategy. Prevention Through Deterrence refers to the techniques used by American Border Patrol agents to make border crossing as difficult, dangerous, and as expensive as possible, ultimately aiming to discourage migrants from attempting the crossing at all. This means that much of the violence along the border became “invisible” violence.

Prevention Through Deterrence strategies shift the blame for violence and death from culpable Border Patrol agents to something as benign as the natural harshness of the landscape of the border, in effect rendering both the violence and its victims invisible. Whether literally, in the form of death and disappearance on the desert, or figuratively, as victims of violence are unlikely to speak out against the institution that sanctioned said violence, these stories remain largely unknown. The reality of Prevention Through Deterrence tactics go much further than the Customs and Border Protection Agency claims they do and have resulted in an escalation of deaths and disappearances. This is an unacceptable case of state-sanctioned bloodshed on the U.S.-Mexico border, and these accounts cannot go unheard any longer.  

The primary Prevention Through Deterrence strategy is the systematic placement of border fence sections and agents. By placing official points of entry in specific areas where terrain is less rugged, migrants are forced to attempt entry elsewhere, mainly across the most dangerous parts of the border. In between the legal entry points, Border Patrol agents are deployed to police the remote desert regions, looking to apprehend border crossers. Border Patrol agents employ a chase and scatter technique, actively pursuing migrants with dogs, horses, ATVs, helicopters, and SUVs.

Arizona advocacy groups No More Deaths and Coalición de Derechos Humanos have been tracking and investigating the disappearances and deaths near the border. They have reported that, based off of a survey of 58 border crossers and 544 cases from the Missing Migrant Crisis Line, 47 of the 58 migrants surveyed had been chased, often at night, by Border Patrol agents. While Border Patrol agents have night-vision gear, migrants do not. As a result, 40.9% of the active pursuits reported resulted in injuries due to the natural wilderness. Beyond those injuries, migrants have also been victim to beatings, dog attacks, tasers, vehicle assaults, and the use of lethal force. The active chase of a group of border crossers routinely results in the scattering of the group–especially when members are elderly, injured, or sick. Border Patrol chase and scatter strategies force people away from one another and away from crucial resources. Many migrants end up lost, disoriented, and alone without water or food. This leaves them at the mercy of the natural landscape, which is purposely unforgiving.

Even worse, efforts by humanitarian aid groups to provide resources to migrants are sabotaged by Border Patrol agents, taking Prevention Through Deterrence a step further. No More Deaths’ second Disappeared Report found that “at least 3,586 gallon-jugs of water were destroyed in an approximately 800-square mile desert corridor near Arivaca, Arizona” between 2012 and 2015. These jugs of water were slashed intentionally, in acts of vandalism. Using Geographic Information System analysis and first-hand accounts from migrants, No More Deaths has ascertained that Customs and Border Protection agents are the most likely responsible party, based on restricted access to the areas in which resources were destroyed. Additionally, photos and videos document specific instances in which Border Patrol agents have poured out and slashed water jugs left by humanitarian groups. The geographic analysis, which also took into account the physical difficulty of the terrain, found that resources are most often vandalized in rugged areas, increasing the potential lethality of the act.

The Border Patrol’s Prevention Through Deterrence strategy has resulted in state-sanctioned migrant disappearances and deaths. This violence does not get the attention it deserves as the media continues to cover flashier forms of violence, like the proposed border wall. While Trump wraps up media pundits in discussions of the specifications of the wall construction, government shutdowns, and Congressional tension, real stories of migrant death remain unheard. CBP estimates that at least 6,000 migrants had died between the 1990s and 2016 and even that immense number is likely a gross undercount.  An investigation by Arizona Republic and the USA Today Network found that the reason for this undercount is that CBP counts only those bodies found by its agents–and not those found by local law enforcement, humanitarian groups, or community members. In New Mexico, Arizona, and California, “the investigation found migrant deaths exceeded the official count by 25 percent to nearly 300 percent. Record keeping in Texas was so haphazard that the true number of deaths there couldn’t be counted.”

A desert is an unforgiving place, and a human body can be skeletized by animal scavengers in a number of days. Once remains and personal items are separated, it can be impossible to identify a body, and families are left with no information about their loved ones’ whereabouts. According to University of Michigan Professor Jason De Leon, the leader of a team researching the disappearance of migrants, “it happens in the middle of nowhere by design… This is one part of a larger system to make things incredibly brutal and violent for migrants.” The Border Patrol’s Prevention Through Deterrence approach weaponizes the desert landscape, erasing the agency of responsible officers.

There is no denying that the visible acts of violence at the U.S.-Mexico border are appalling, but advocates for justice at the border must be aware of the invisible violence: the desert acts as a proxy for violence between Border Patrol agents and migrants who are willing to risk death to flee unsafe conditions at home. Prevention Through Deterrence strategies are far more insidious than CBP leads the public to believe, leaving thousands of families with little to no information regarding their missing brothers, sisters, daughters, and fathers. By placing the blame for deaths and disappearances on the natural condition of the desert, the Customs and Border Protection Agency removes its own hand from the violence, effectively erasing the experiences of border crossers and enabling the systemic violence to continue unchecked. It is time to expose these unacceptable practices and demand justice from our American institutions.

Photo: “Border Patrol Helicopter