It’s almost impossible not to be aware of the growing militarization of the US-Mexico border, despite the blasé attitude of most newspaper and television reporting. Even the awestruck accounts of the coming of drones to the US include notes about surveillance of ordinary citizens and privacy concerns expressed by civil liberties organizations. Everyone who drives from a border location east, west or north will pass through checkpoints – and in recent years a bristling array of cameras confronts you as you approach (or simply pass nearby, going towards the border rather than away). Difficult not to notice! What is all this about? Should we care?
The Border Patrol has been setting up checkpoints for many years, even pre-dating the “Security Above All, Nothing But Security” policy unleashed after 9/11. It instituted a hard-line policy on border crossing in the early 90s, aimed at both illegal immigrants as well as drug smugglers. Checkpoints proliferated along the southern US border. Curiously, no checkpoints were set up elsewhere, although researchers have shown that a substantial percentage of unauthorized/undocumented/illegal immigrants in the US are not Mexicans, and often have entered on valid visas and then never bothered to leave. The 9/11 terrorists all entered the US at other entry points with legal visas.
But only the southern border region is encumbered with these travel interruptions, where you must state your citizenship before being allowed to drive on to the outlet mall or whatever nefarious purpose you have for being out on the road. You may in fact be stopped anywhere along the border by Border Patrol officers; for example, in the Big Bend area of Texas you may be told you have a “dirty car.” Now these checkpoints – and many points in between – are being festooned with LPRs, License Plate Readers.
Some are just cameras, but others are devices that automatically capture license-plate numbers and the geographic location of everyone who passes by, plus the date and time. DEA spokespersons have insisted that the purpose is only to capture suspects whose license plate numbers are known, in order to arrest or build criminal cases.
Unfortunately we know that once technology is available, it is used, and its use expands. The gorilla in the room (which we do not have the space to discuss here), is the National Security Agency, once so secret that it could only be referred to as the NSA, or, jokingly – “No Such Agency. ” The NSA ‘s ability to intercept and store every single electronic transaction of every single US citizen has grown exponentially. It is currently building a gigantic operations base in the desert in Utah, after which the ability of any person in the US to have any private exchange will be completely gone. At that point we are totally dependent upon the good will of the NSA and those who think they control it.
The LPR program is a similar, smaller scale issue. Once you have these devices in place – many, and someday no doubt all, have the ability to read the faces of those in the vehicles – your every movement along the border will be a matter for security or police files.
Meantime, here come the drones. Following 9/11 and the ramped-up focus on the dangers of terrorists entering the country, along with an increased emphasis on drug interdiction at the border, the Department of Homeland Security embarked on the Secure Border Initiative. Under the SBI both the northern and southern borders were to be protected by a network of fences, vehicle barriers, surveillance towers and airborne sensors, all linked by command centers; Boeing was to oversee the entire project. Failures occurred from the outset, as, for example, the surveillance equipment was unable to differentiate between cows wandering in the desert and visa-less immigrants attempting to cross it. 16-foot fences led to the production of 17-ft ladders. Doors were cut in the fences. The medieval technology of the catapult found new uses. (Governor Rick Perry in Texas created his own surveillance program in 2009, allocating millions to border sheriff offices to set up on-line cameras along the border and called on Texans to monitor them and report. This program also produced few, if any, results.)
Eventually the SBI was terminated after nearly $800 million in expenditures – but DHS and Congress did not give up. And so, in the summer of 2010, Congress allocated $600 million more for border security, including pilotless drones. That led to a new program unveiled in 2012 to be used on the US-Mexico border employing a new wide-area surveillance camera, the Kestrel. It was first tested in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Truly the war is coming home to the US.
Unarmed surveillance drones were already used extensively along the Mexican and Canadian borders. Judging by a bill passed in February authorizing nationwide deployment, Congress apparently believes that they are successful, despite little supporting evidence. It is only a matter of time before these domestic drones will be armed, following the logic that they are more effective against criminals (terrorists) than “boots on the ground” and eliminate the chance of any US casualties. El Paso’s representative and former Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Silvestre Reyes suggested as much in an interview in 2011 discussing how to deal with the drug cartels in Mexico.
Those of us who live in the border region might think that the drones are only used to watch movements across the national frontier – but in fact you may well be a target. Mark Mazzetti reported in the New York Times in July 2012 that a group of reporters being shown the drone training program at Holloman Air Force base in Alamogordo, NM, suddenly realized that the drones were actually following cars on the nearby highway (Routes 70 and 54). The officer in charge asserted this was simply for “training” and hustled everyone away from the screens.
Years ago I lived in Argentina, and visited the wonderful Iguazu Falls area on the border with Brazil. (This is actually a triple-barreled border, La Triple Frontera, as Paraguay also touches both countries in this area; the US has been actively prompting aggressive border control there against alleged drug traffickers and Muslim terrorists, but that’s another story.) In the thick woods of this sub-tropical region grows a kind of vine called a strangler fig. They are an astonishing sight, as they wrap around trees and eventually strangle the tree – but by that time the vine has grown so tall and strong that it no longer needs the tree to stay upright. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to think of Homeland Security as the strangler fig; and the tree – well, you decide. —Marshall Carter-Tripp