In mid-March, Reuters reported that Mexico would “restrict movement on its southern border with Guatemala to help contain the spread of COVID-19”. The same article noted that the Joe Biden administration in the United States would be simultaneously sorting the details of a plan to loan Mexico coronavirus vaccines.
According to White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, the simultaneity had nothing to do with a quid pro quo to stanch so-called “illegal immigration” and was instead the result of “multiple layers” of conversations between the US and Mexico.
But there is no time like a pandemic to intensify the crackdown on poor, US-bound migrants. I have been in Mexico since the onset of the health crisis last year, and no effort has been made to “restrict movement” of incoming tourists and other humans of superior value who have arrived by plane – many of them from coronavirus hotspots such as the US itself. Quid pro quo or not, Mexico’s southern border reinforcement apparently did not provide the gringos with sufficient immunity from the migrant threat. On April 12, the Associated Press remarked that the month of March had seen a “record number of unaccompanied children” endeavouring to cross into the US, as well as the highest number of Border Patrol “encounters” with migrants on the US-Mexico border since March of 2001.
In a press briefing on the same day, Psaki revealed additional measures the US had pushed to “increase border security” in the region. Mexico would be maintaining 10,000 troops along its border with Guatemala, while Guatemala had “surged 1,500 police and military personnel” to its own border with Honduras, which had in turn “surged 7,000 police and military to disperse a large contingent of migrants”.
To be sure, the military jargon is no accident. After all, what we have here is a war on migrants – one that Biden has dutifully continued to wage despite his ostensibly more humanitarian approach to human suffering than that of his enthusiastically sadistic predecessor, Donald Trump. And as with arguments on behalf of other forms of imperial war – like when we were led to believe, in 2003, that the effective annihilation of Iraq was somehow in the Iraqis’ own interest – US officials have conducted a surge in criminal illogic.
For example, Tyler Moran, a special assistant to the president on immigration policy, assured MSNBC that the troop deployment agreements with Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras would not only “prevent the traffickers, and the smugglers, and cartels that take advantage of the kids on their way here”, but also “protect those children”.
Of course, it is anyone’s guess as to how “protection” might factor into the arrangement, given the established track record of anti-migrant violence by the security forces of all three countries. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that placing obstacles in the way of migration does not stop desperate people from journeying in the direction of perceived physical and/or economic safety. It simply increases the risk to their lives.
Recently in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca, I spoke with a young man who had previously crossed “illegally” from Mexico into the US, and who described the chilling feeling of coming across human bones in the desert. These rampant deaths are a direct result of the United States’ own frenetic border militarisation schemes, which cast migrants as enemy invaders and force them into more perilous routes entailing greater exposure to the elements.
Meanwhile, no discussion of current border “surges” is complete without an emphasis on the fact that US-backed militarisation in Mexico and Central America is in large part to thank for migration patterns in the first place. In Mexico, for starters, the US spent years – under the pretence of the “war on drugs” – throwing money at notoriously corrupt and abusive security forces and officials, who were often in bed with the cartels themselves.
The resulting bloodbath of violence drove countless Mexicans to migrate north, as did the economic devastation caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 – a war in its own right, the ramifications of which persist to the present day. In Guatemala, the 1954 CIA-orchestrated coup in favour of US corporate interests set the stage for a 36-year civil war in which upwards of 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. The US was up to its ears in complicity in the crimes of Guatemalan government forces, who were responsible for the overwhelming majority of wartime human rights violations.
Efrain Rios Montt, the late US-backed Guatemalan dictator, oversaw a scorched-earth campaign that obliterated hundreds of Indigenous villages – to say nothing of the people therein. The civil war ended in 1996, but the earth does not unscorch itself overnight. In Honduras, too, US-backed militarisation has helped to generate a steady stream of migrants and refugees. The 2009 right-wing coup – the ultimate success of which owed much to US machinations on behalf of the illegitimate regime – ushered in an era of apocalyptic violence and impunity.
In the aftermath of the coup, the Barack Obama administration – featuring Biden as vice president – upped aid to Honduran security forces that were diligently murdering, raping and generally terrorising the domestic population. Now, nearly 12 years later, the same security forces are being “surged” to the border to disband groups of migrants fleeing the landscape of brutality these forces assisted in creating.
And as the US continues to promote military solutions to regional problems caused to no small extent by, well, militaries, one dreams fervently of a surge to disband an empire.