Human rights group suing CIA over El Salvador war crimes victimized by suspicious burglary

Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

University of Washington police are investigating after an apparent break-in at the office of a professor who recently sued the CIA.

Angelina Godoy, director of the university’s Center for Human Rights, reported early this week that her desktop computer and a hard drive had been taken from her on-campus office. The burglary came shortly after Godoy and her center sued the CIA for records related to human rights violations in El Salvador.

“While we have backups of this information, what worries us most is not what we have lost but what someone else may have gained,” a spokesperson for the center said Wednesday in a statement. “The files include sensitive details of personal testimonies and pending investigations.”
The break-in came two weeks after the center filed a federal lawsuit against the CIA seeking access to documents related to the Salvadoran wars from 1980 to 1992. The center has filed about 200 document requests under the Freedom of Information Act aimed at several federal intelligence and military agencies.

The documents at issue in the lawsuit relate to Salvadoran Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Perez. The CIA has refused to release the documents, as well as documents related to an American academic who witnessed a massacre purportedly conducted by Ochoa’s troops.
“While we cannot rule out the possibility of this having been an incident of common crime, we are deeply concerned that this breach of information security may increase the vulnerability of Salvadoran human rights defenders with whom we work,” the spokesperson said.

The targeting of Central America-focused solidarity activists and human rights investigators would certainly not be without precedent. During the 1980s the Central American peace movement found itself targeted by the FBI and a privatized network of right-wing spies. At the time it was subject of numerous Congressional hearings and an investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. This campaign of surveillance and intimidation was meticulously documented by Boston Globe reporter Ross Gelbspan in Break-ins, Death Threats and the FBI. Other useful sources include Chapter 10 of Christian Smith’s Resisting Reagan, prepared Congressional testimony from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Chip Berlet’s The Hunt for Red Menace.

Before the Reagan administration entered office, the Heritage Foundation issued a wishlist of desired policies that included draconian measures against left-wing dissidents. It asserted with an alarmist tone that “the threat to the internal security of the Republic is greater today than at any time since World War II.” It directed criticism at “many of the current restrictions on internal security functions” and declared that “it is axiomatic that individual liberties are secondary to the requirement of national security and internal civil order.” The report called upon Reagan to recognize “the reality of subversion” and “the un-American nature of much so-called ‘dissidence.'” Most disturbingly, it demanded the loosening of standards that required suspicion of criminal activity before engaging in “such standard surveillance techniques as wiretapping, mail covers […], informants, and at least occasionally, illegal entries” [emphasis mine]. This was an explicit endorsement of the type of political burglaries that would later plague the Central America movement throughout the rest of the decade.

The main target of the FBI’s investigations into the Central America movement was the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). According to Chip Berlet:

The FBI probe of CISPES involved 52 of the 59 Field Offices of the FBI. Dossiers were compiled on hundreds of other organizations which intersected in some vague way with CISPES during the course of the investigation. […] Among the many groups named in the CISPES FBI files were: Central American Solidarity Committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned, Church of the Brothers, Chicago Interreligious Task Force, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Friends Religious Society, Maryknoll Sisters, National Education Association, Southern Christian Leaderhip Conference, United Steel Workers Union, and the United Auto Workers union. Also named in the files were a number of individual churches, colleges, religious orders, community organizations, women’s groups and political groups.

To get an idea of how zealous certain elements within the FBI were about the investigation, a 10 November 1983 teletype from New Orleans FBI field office declared that:

It is imperative at this time to formulate some plan of attack against CISPES and, specifically, against individuals [redacted] who defiantly display their contempt for the U.S. Government by making speeches and propagandizing their cause while asking for political asylum.

The FBI’s key infiltrator within CISPES, Frank Varelli, would eventually become disenchanted with the investigation and declared before a Congressional hearing on 20 February 1987 that:

I was told the main reason for the concern for CISPES was because it was the largest and most active group opposed to the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America. […] I now realize that the purpose of the FBI’s attention directed towards the CISPES was political and not criminal. The aim of the FBI was to break CISPES for its stand against Reagan’s policy in Central America.

A run down of the type of tactics used against CISPES and similar organizations can be found in CCR’s testimony before the US House’s Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, mentioned earlier. Examples of their findings include:

  • “The FBI questioned over one hundred U.S. persons after they visited Nicaragua. Agents also contacted scores of others involved in dissent from Administration Central American policies.”
  • “Customs agents are taking a special interest in returnees from Central America: copying and seizing personal written materials, and subjecting such travelers to unnecessary questioning and verbal abuse”
  • “An abnormally large percentage of individuals who travel to Central America, and the legal political organizations involved in Central American dissent, have been audited by the IRS”
  • “The data on more than 58 burglaries directed against groups and individuals dissenting from administration Central American policies, indicate that the purpose of the burglaries is to gather intelligence, intimidate and disrupt groups involved in lawfully protected First Amendment activities.”

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this campaign of domestic repression to this very day remains the burglaries. Organizations such as the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Amnesty International, Sojourners, Nicaragua Solidarity Network and Witness for Peace all were victimized by suspicious break-ins at some point or another in which files (sometimes containing confidential membership information) were rifled through or stolen outright. It is still generally unknown who was responsible for these burglaries and to what extent the FBI was involved or knew what was going on. According to the CCR testimony, the evidence has occasionally pointed in the direction of private right-wing groups:

Ross Gelbspan’s article in the Boston Globe of January 18, 1987, quoted an unnamed source, who is an expert on right wing paramilitary groups, and a CIA consultant, as saying that the break-ins could well be financed by a number of well-endowed right-wing organizations. We know that a number of right-wing groups collect intelligence data. For example, the Western Goals Foundation was given secret computer intelligence files stolen from the Los Angeles police department’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division. Western Goals used the material to create files on as many as 6,000 people.

Information has surfaced on a possible Western Goals-NSC connection. The head of the Western Goals is Carl Russell Channell, and until 1984, retired Army Major General Singlaub was a member of the foundation’s advisory board. The Corvill (Mass.) Sun reported on December 14, 1986, that Channell had received funds from Oliver North. Robert White, whose offices were burglarized, speculated that the break-in at his office might be the work of anti-communist vigilantes: “There’s a whole private network that’s been built up…to reinforce what Oliver North has been doing.”

A detailed list of suspicious incidents targeting left-wing activists in the US throughout the 1980s can be found here. It includes numerous cases of death threats, intimidation and arson.

Probably the most serious incident occurred on 7 July 1987. A young Salvadoran woman who volunteered for CISPES in Los Angeles named Yanira Corea was abducted by three men who threw her into the back of a van and tortured and interrogated her for the next six hours. They cut the Spanish acronym for “death squad” into the palms of her hands, cut open the skin on her neck and raped her with a foreign object. She was questioned about other members of CISPES and her union organizer brother in El Salvador. Injuries backing up her story were subsequently confirmed by an LAPD officer and a local doctor who examined her.


Donald Trump’s ethnic cleansing proposal and the ongoing rise of First World chauvinism

This is a terrifying time in American history. While the US has always been an imperial power that has thrived on land theft and slavery domestically and exploitation and plunder globally, the general (white) population views it as a country that has historically been put upon. According to this view, the US is a shining city on a hill that is constantly under attack internally from subversive elements posing as social reformers and externally from multilateral institutions and NGOs posing as peace makers. The reality is that both of these internal and external “enemies” have generally been utterly benign or even helpful to the US imperial project. Many domestic social reformers have been utterly co-opted by elements of the US ruling class such as George Soros’ Open Society Institute and numerous other multi-billion dollar foundations. Internationally, the UN has served to legitimize US imperialism from the Korean War to the Persian Gulf War.

In the US, the chauvinist white right does not see it this way. Their perception of the US and the world it resides in is almost the polar opposite of reality. For example, the IMF has sometimes been viewed by this crowd as a project of international do-gooders which sends hard earned US tax dollars to hostile Third World nations, sometimes as part of a shadowy scheme to enact global socialism. The reality of the IMF’s role in impoverishing the Third World and enriching the First World through extortionate debt policies and neo-liberal structural adjustment is never acknowledged. So it is today, that American oligarch and presidential candidate Donald Trump derides NAFTA as a kind of handout to Mexicom rather than the exploitative arrangement between the ruling classes of the US and Mexico that it is.

Let us be perfectly clear about this: Trump does not give a fig about combating the worst ravages of neo-liberal globalism. He is a First World chauvinist who wants us to scapegoat NAFTA’s refugees rather than NAFTA itself. His popularity is a testament to the power of both liberal propaganda portraying the US as a benevolent force in the world and right-wing hate-mongering. The American right’s position is that the US should say “no more Mr. Nice Guy” and embrace ultra-nationalism without apology. Trump also views the Iraq War as a mistake, but mostly because we did not overtly seize its oilm.

The view is that everything would be much better if the US would stop being so damn generous. Obviously, this takes liberal assumptions about the US being generous at face value. This is why liberals share some of the blame for the rise of Trump and his brand of nationalism. They have helped to create a false narrative in which America only wants what’s best for the world and only creates suffering through unintentional blunders (usually only when a Republican is in office).

Let us take a look at Trump’s immigration proposalm (if it can even be called that). He calls on Mexico to pay for a massive barrier on its border with the US to stop the flow of unauthorized immigrants. This willingly ignores the fact that Mexico is already doing a lot of the heavy-lifting in stopping the flow of desperate refugees northwardsm, at great cost to itself and the humanitarian needs of those it detains. It also assumes that Obama has been willingly slacking off on detaining and deporting immigrants, which on its face is totally laughable.

Perhaps even more ominously, Trump calls for an end to birthright citizenship. Put together with his recent statementm that all undocumented immigrants and their (potentially US-born) children “have to go,” one can reasonably describe Trump’s proposal as an incitement to ethnic cleansing. Deporting all undocumented immigrants is bad enough. Americans don’t realize that many of them came to the US under desperate circumstances created by US imperialism and have endured massive amounts of exploitation and mistreatment as a direct result of their undocumented status. Many of them contributed greatly to America’s wealth and at the very least deserve a path to citizenship if not some form of reparation for underpaid wages. US policies towards Mexico and Central America are at the root of much of the unauthorized immigration into the US so it clearly has a moral responsibility to take into account the well-being the refugees it created.

Trump’s policies go even further than this. It would lead to a scenario in which people who were born in America and worked and lived in America for their entire existence would face detention and deportation. There is a clear example of this type of policy in the Dominican Republic at this very moment. In the DR, a 2013 court ruling “denied children of Haitian migrants their birth certificates, identity documents, and stripped them of their nationalitym.” Over the past couple months, the DR has engaged in a massive campaign of deportationsm of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent which has resulted in a predictable humanitarian crisism. Some US commentators have labeled this (correctly) a form of ethnic cleansingm. If the US were to start detaining and deporting US-born residents as “illegal immigrants” on a massive scale similar to what the DR is doing right now, or what the US itself did in the 1950sm, it should also be described as ethnic cleansing. What other phrase would be more accurate?

I’m sure some will tell me that using a phrase associated with some of the worst crimes against humanity in history to describe a “mere immigration enforcement” operation is beyond the pale. But what is actually beyond the pale is that Trump’s proposal for ethnic cleansing is so popular among the US population. It is an abomination that 6,000 human beings have suffered agonizing deaths while attempting to get into the US over the past two decades. Compounding this injury is the insult that the US is perceived as “coddling” undocumented immigrants when the opposite is the truth. A liberal reluctance to describe the Vietnam War as a campaign of mass murderm has opened space for right-wing revisionists to proclaim that the US military was too “soft” in that war and that the rules of engagement somehow hampered an easy victory. Let us not have the same hesitation. Ethnic cleansing is not a matter of “reasonable policy debate,” it is a war crime and should be discussed as such.

Released documents show thinking behind censorship by US occupation in Iraq

During the first months of the US occupation of Iraq, it was occasionally reported that the US occupation authorities had given itself the right to ban media outlets and seize newspapers it accused of inciting violence against US troops and of promoting the Iraqi Baath Party. According to Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Order 14, signed by CPA leader L. Paul Bremer on 10 June 2003:

Media organizations are prohibited from broadcasting or publishing original, re-broadcast, re-printed or syndicated material that:

a) incites violence against any individual or group, including racial, ethnic or religious groups and women;
b) incites civil disorder, rioting or damage to property;
c) incites violence against Coalition Forces or CPA personnel;
d) advocates alterations to Iraq’s borders by violent means;
e) advocates the return to power fo the Iraqi Ba’ath Party or makes statements that purport to be on behalf of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party.

A newly released PDF (mirrored here) posted on the Defense Department’s FOI site alongside other documents relating to the US occupation of Iraq reveals the US media strategy for Iraq. There are a couple of pages I found to be particularly interesting. They relate to the March 2004 closing of the Shia news weekly Al Hawza, which was associated with the nationalist, anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

On pages 68 and 69 of the PDF, there is a “draft letter” by Bremer addressed to Al Hawza‘s chairman:

This action is based upon my determination that Al-Hawzah has printed numerous articles that have falsely claimed wrongdoing by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Coalition Forces and that the repeated nature of these false articles demonstrates intent to cause public unrest and to incite violence against Coalition Forces and CPA personnel in violation of CPA Order Number 14, as evidenced by the facts set forth below.

On February 26, in an article on “Terrorist Operations in Iraq that Targeted Iraqi Army Volunteer Centers,” Al-Hawzah claimed that the February 10 explosion in Al-Iskandariyah was triggered by a missile “launched by an Apache helicopter” and not by a car bomb, “as the US Forces announced.” In fact, the report is false; no U.S. forces attacked the building.

In the same issue, an article entitled “Bremer in the Footsteps of Saddam” stated that the Coalition is “pursuing a policy of starving the Iraqi people to make them preoccupied with procuring their daily bread” so that they do not have “the chance to demand their political and individual freedoms.” Again, this report is false. The Coalition has undertaken unprecedented efforts to feed and care for the people of Iraq, restore and improve the country’s infrastructure, and lay a foundation of political, economic, and individual freedom hitherto only dreamt about in Iraq.

Al-Hawzah’s false articles about the CPA and Coalition Forces are not of recent origin. As long ago as August 7, 2003, the paper charged that the U.S. “did not come just to overthrow Saddam or take oil,” but also “to destroy the whole cultural, moral, and humanitarian structure of the Iraqi people’s civilization.” Again, on August 21 of last year, Al-Hawzah decried a Coalition incursion into Baghdad’s Al-Sadr City, charging: “The U.S. administration has not ceased fighting Islam and its symbols wherever they may be. Last Wednesday’s incident has proven its insistence on its despicable crimes.” Again, the claims are totally baseless.

Bremer’s defense of the CPA’s reconstruction efforts is rather hilarious considering all of the accounts of corruption and malfeasance in mainstream Western publications and the numerous reports of the US government’s own Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The only factually incorrect claim made by Al-Hawzah that Bremer objects to is its allegation that the 10 Feburary 2004 explosion was caused by US forces. Bremer’s other examples of purported falsehoods are standard anti-imperialist claims that appear to be backed up by the US’ documented efforts to forcibly liberalize Iraq’s economy and open up its oil fields to foreign (mainly Western) companies and investors.

On page 15 of the PDF there are two emails from US diplomat Richard Jones that show his thinking on the matter.

Here is one sent on 9 March 2004:

This rag belongs to Muqtada; I’m tempted to say we should go for stronger measures, but I hope that by the end of 30 days we’ll have taken other measures against him anyway. What do you think?

Here is another sent on 10 March 2004:

I’m totally convinced we should hit them as hard as we can. But the stress is on the “we.” I think we should simply shut them down ourselves rather than wait for the GC [Iraqi Governing Council] which may be hesitant to appear so blatantly and publicly on our side. It’ll just make them seem more like our lackeys and open them to attack from other similarly scurrilous newspapers. Plus, us moving against MAS’ paper will send a good strong signal that we may move more aggressively against him …

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accuses Donetsk leader of incitement without naming names or sources

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 4 July 2014 (mirrored here):

Following the end of the ceasefire on 30 June in Ukraine, the UN human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine has reported numerous cases of death of people in Donetsk and Luhansk who are caught in the middle of the ongoing security operations, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay warned on Friday. […] Pillay said she was particularly disturbed by a message on the website of one leader of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, which states that underage children and women are legitimate targets and that the goal is to ‘immerse them in horror’. “Such blatant incitement to violence is utterly reprehensible and a clear violation of international human rights law,” she said.

I personally find it curious that Pillay refused to give us the name of the leader responsible or the web site this message was posted on. I suppose I am not one to judge since I don’t know Ukrainian or Russian. If anyone reading this post could clear this mystery up it would be greatly appreciated.

Hersh: Obama wanted a “monster strike” against Syria’s infrastructure, military and civilian

Seymour Hersh has a new article on Syria which alleges that the 21 August 2013 Ghouta gas attack was a Turkish-backed false flag operation designed to goad the US into launching air strikes against the Assad regime. While most of the attention will be undoubtedly be paid to the incredible allegations against Erdoğan’s regime in Turkey, I want to focus on a different subject mentioned only briefly in the article.

In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.

The Obama administration actually rejected joint chiefs of staff recommendations for Syrian air strikes because they were not “painful” enough. They also wanted to bomb civilian targets such electrical grids and oil and gas depots. As if the sadism that often underlies “humanitarian intervention” was not blatant enough, this seals the deal.


Abuses by Border Patrol agents declared “systematic”

A report (Martínez, Slack & Heyman 2013) published by the Immigration Policy Center has concluded that the mistreatment of unauthorized border crossers while in US custody is a “systematic practice.” The authors base this conclusion upon a survey of “1,110 randomly selected, recently repatriated migrants surveyed in six Mexican cities between 2009 and 2012” in which 11% of respondents asserted that they were physically abused and 23% claimed some form of verbal abuse. The report also raises questions about the US Border Patrol’s use-of-force policies and their potential role in at least 20 killings of Mexicans nationals and Mexican-Americans by US law enforcement near the border from 2010 through 2013. Six of those killed were actually standing on Mexican soil.

Common forms of physical abuse reportedly received by the respondents include: pushing, pulling, punching, kicking, placement in painful “stress” positions and handcuffing in a painful manner, (Ibid, 4). The study also notes the racist nature of much of the verbal abuse, with respondents claiming to have heard statements such as “fucking wetback,” “dirty little Mexican woman, let’s see if you cross again after this!” and “Mexican pieces of shit” directed at them and other border crossers (Ibid, 6).

The findings are found to be consistent with previous studies done by academics and activist groups (Ibid, 2). A previous report from the activist and humanitarian group No More Deaths (2011) found similar rates of physical and verbal abuse. It also discovered widespread inhuman conditions of confinement, unsafe transportation processes and a lack of provision of medical treatment, potable water and sufficient food. Particularly sadistic methods of physical abuse uncovered by No More Deaths include “agents shoving people in custody into cacti,” “agents running people over with vehicles or horses” and “forcing people to remove shoes and walk in the desert” (Ibid, 25).

In an investigative report for the Washington Monthly (Frey 2013), the phenomenon of Border Patrol agents firing live ammunition onto Mexican soil and killing Mexican citizens is examined in great detail. It is noted that the US often diplomatically condemns other governments for using live ammunition against rock-throwers and unarmed crowds. This makes the Border Patrol’s utilization of lethal force against “threatening” targets on the sovereign territory even more perplexing.The Border Patrol refuses to disclose data on the use of firearms by their agents and any type of internal disciplinary actions taken. Additionally, Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher explicitly asserted that his agency would not revisit its use-of-force policies and adopt non-lethal weapons, such as bean bag guns and pepper launchers, against rock-throwers. As he put it in an interview with the Associated Press, “just to say that you shouldn’t shoot at rock-throwers or vehicles for us, in our environment, was very problematic and could potentially put Border Patrol agents in danger” (Martínez, Slack & Heyman 2013, 2).


Martínez, Daniel E., Jeremy Slack, and Josiah Heyman. 2013. Bordering on Criminal: The Routine Abuse of Migrants in the Removal System – Part I: Migrant Mistreatment While in U.S. Custody. Washington, DC: Immigration Policy Center, December.

No More Deaths. 2011. A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term U.S. Border Patrol Custody. Tucson, AZ.

Frey, John Carlos. 2013. “Over the line: Why are U.S. Border Patrol agents shooting into Mexico and killing innocent civilians?” Washington Monthly, May/June.

The utter inhumanity of America’s immigration system and the case for civil disobedience, part 1

Few arenas of public policy encapsulate American society’s cruelest and most shameful impulses as that of immigration.


There is no denying it any longer: the current draconian regime of immigration management in the US is one of the most sadistic enterprises this nation has ever undertaken. It is responsible for massive death, impoverishment, hyper-exploitation and unspeakable human misery. It has torn apart families and put children behind bars. It has led desperate travelers to untimely and agonizing deaths under the desert sun. It has empowered a security apparatus that has little regard for civil liberties or human rights with bloated budgets and expanded authority. In the name of “immigration enforcement” and “border security” America has once again created a behemoth that robs the dignity of millions of the most vulnerable human beings. Instead of addressing some of the root causes of unauthorized immigration the US has, once again, decided to confront a problem head on with massive criminalization and militarization. The consequences are tragic but predictable.

The business of putting human beings into cages and kicking them out of the country for their lack of bureaucratic approval may be perceived as a basic and legitimate function for any national government in today’s supposedly globalized world. It is also true that undocumented immigrants are in the country illegally. However, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “any law that degrades human personality is unjust” and “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” US immigration law is broken at best and an immoral atrocity at worst. Since the 1990’s, it has refused to take into account the unique circumstances that led millions of migrants to make the dangerous trek through the southwestern border without authorization. It also operates on the principle that goods and capital are legally entitled to maximum freedom of movement through national borders while human beings can remain hindered by quotas and red tape. Whether intended or not, this has led to the creation of an international form of apartheid.

The Wider Context: Neo-liberalism & Inadequate Legal Avenues

The fact is that the influx of desperate Mexican peasants is largely a result of neo-liberal reforms the US encouraged Mexico to undertake through IMF and World Bank conditionalities in the 1980’s as well as the signing of NAFTA in 1993. Reduced Mexican state support for agriculture as well as the flooding of the country with heavily subsidized US agricultural goods (especially corn) pushed millions of farmers off of their traditional lands and would later result in massive food insecurity when international prices shot back up. This may sound like “Blame America First” bilge at first, but the basic premise of peasant displacement is acknowledged by leading anti-immigration crusader Mark Krikorian, whose only lament is that “neither country did anything meaningful to make sure that the excess Mexican peasantry moved to Mexico’s cities instead of ours.”

As to the question of why displaced Mexicans did not immigrate to the US legally, the simple answer is that they were not allowed. The US has in place a per country cap for green cards that puts populous countries like Mexico at a great disadvantage. Also, green cards based on employment are heavily geared towards high-skilled workers. Out of the 140,000 green cards granted annually for employment reasons, only 5,000 are reserved for low-skilled workers. Put together with the high demand for low-wage labor from farms, slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, illegal immigration was heavily incentivized. That’s not to say there were not significant, often deadly, barriers in the way for individuals coming across the Mexican border.

The Monstrosity of Border Security and the US-Mexico Death Trap

“To put this death toll in perspective, the fortified US border with Mexico has been more than 10 times deadlier to migrants from Mexico during the past nine years than the Berlin Wall was to East Germans throughout its 28-year existence.”

Professor Wayne Cornelius, 2005 (when death toll was 2,978)

It is incredibly difficult to deny the sadism and cruelty underlying the US’ border security strategy. Since the early 1990s, more than 6,000 unauthorized border-crossers have lost their lives attempting to get into the US from Mexico. There is little doubt that draconian border security policy plays an enormous role in making this death toll possible. Since the early 1990s, the US Border Patrol has engaged in a policy of “prevention through deterrence.” By positioning a heavy Border Patrol presence on stretches of the border close to urban areas, this has encouraged undocumented travelers to attempt to enter the US through inhospitable and dangerous terrains. This is known as the “funnel effect.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the genesis of today’s border security strategy took place the same year NAFTA was signed. In September 1993, Operation Blockade (later renamed “Operation Hold the Line”) positioned some 400 Border Patrol agents along a twenty-mile line of the southern border between El Paso and Juárez. The initiative was the brainchild of Silvestre Reyes, who was head of Border Patrol operations for the El Paso sector at the time. The popularity of this measure eventually lead to the strategy being replicated in the San Diego border sector with Operation Gatekeeper being launched in September 1994. Reyes, for his part, took advantage of his reputation as a successful enforcer against illegal immigration to win a seat in the House of Representatives for Texas’ 16th Congressional district, where he became a “major player” in the “military/homeland security complex.” As the ACLU puts it, this was the moment that “death was inserted into border security strategy” (p. 21).

In 2000, INS commissioner Doris Meissner confirmed that utilizing the deadly terrain of the southwestern US was part of  the official strategy. She informed the Arizona Republic that her agency was convinced “geography would be an ally to us” and that “it was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle, once people realized what it’s like” (p. 5).

In a 2002 hearing before the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights, UC San Diego Professor Wayne Cornelius declared that the massive enforcement actions taken in ‘securing’ the US-Mexican border “constituted the most obvious, the most acute, and the most systemic violation of human rights occurring on U.S. soil today.”

In the summer of 2006, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) declared the problem to be a “humanitarian crisis” and requested a GAO report on the matter. The report asserted that:

Increased enforcement efforts in the San Diego and El Paso sectors that began in 1994 ultimately resulted in the redirection of migrant flows to eastern California and the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. […] Studies of migrant deaths along the southwest border at the time concluded that, while migrants had always faced danger crossing the border and many died before INS began the Southwest Border Strategy, following the implementation of the strategy, there was an increase in border-crossing deaths resulting from exposure to either extreme heat or cold” (p. 8-9).

The actual deaths are predictably nothing short of excruciating. The GAO report states that “many migrants suffer severe dehydration and heat exhaustion as a result of attempting to cross the desert where temperatures can exceed 115 degrees in the summer” (p. 9). Evelyn Nieves describes it this way:

The deaths are full of suffering. People have suffocated in airless trucks, died in vehicle crashes, been struck by lightening or drowned. Most often, though, they are felled by heatstroke or dehydration. Some carry no identification and, in a tragic irony, end up where they wanted to be, in the United States—but in anonymous pauper’s graves (Quoted on p. 31).

The bodies continue to be discovered to this very day. In FY 2012, at least 171 migrants died while attempting to get in through the southern Arizona desert.


In the second part of this series, I will explain the plight of undocumented immigrants who made it past the border death trap and are living in the shadows in the US. It will examine their exploitation by unscrupulous businesses and how their undocumented status impedes their labor rights. It will also delve into the massive detention and deportation complex as well as the perverse role played by private corrections companies.


Bacon, David. 2012. “How US Policies Fueled Mexico’s Great Migration.” Nation, Janaury 23.

Jimenez, Maria. 2009. Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the US-Mexico Border. American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Mexican National Commission of Human Rights.

Martínez, Daniel E. and Robin Reineke. 2013. “New Report Shows that Migrant Deaths Remain High in Arizona.” Border Wars. June 4.

No More Deaths. 2008. Crossing the Line: Human Rights Abuses of Migrants in Short-Term Custody on the Arizona/Sonora Border. Tucson.

No More Deaths. 2011. A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term US Border Patrol Custody. Tucson.

Unnamed No More Deaths participant. 2011. “Designed to Kill: Border Policy & How to Change It.” 21 June.

US Government Accountability Office. 2006. Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995; Border Patrol’s Efforts to Prevent Deaths Have Not Been Fully Evaluated.