U.S.-Mexico Border Patrol Abuses Greater Than Abu Ghraib

Friday June 11, 2004

Everyone has heard about the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But how many are aware of even deadlier human rights violations on our southern border? What is happening along our border with Mexico is policy directed from the highest levels of government and blame cannot be shifted to low-level soldiers. Victims have included babies and young children, not terrorists. Those killed have been seeking jobs or family reunification.  

In the apparent hope of deterring border crossings by migrants, Operation Gatekeeper was initiated by the INS in October 1994 to force people from the traditional suburban migration routes in the San Diego area to more inhospitable areas. A wall was constructed beginning at the ocean and stretching 14 miles inland. The number of border patrol agents was increased and military assistance and resources were given to INS. Three similar strategies were initiated by INS with Operation Hold the Line in 1993 in the El Paso, Texas area; Operation Safeguard in 1995 in Arizona and Operation Rio Grande in 1997 in the Brownsville, Texas vicinity.  

As a result of Operation Gatekeeper, the entire northern border of Tijuana became a wall and undocumented workers and their families were forced to try to cross the border by going through the Imperial Desert or to cross over the Otay and Tecate mountains. People have not been deterred from attempting to cross, but they have been forced to risk their lives in the crossing attempt. In one month during the 1996-1997 winter 16 migrants froze to death in the mountains. This is not an aberration. 

Global Exchange documented the deaths of more than 1,500 people trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border between 1994 and 1999. Since many die in remote areas, the bodies of all are not found and the actual numbers may be far greater. Causes of death include: drowning (in the canals, ditches and the Rio Grande), dehydration, heat stroke, hypothermia, traffic accidents and the occasional bullet. The American Friends Service Committee presently estimates that an average of one immigrant a day dies along the border. 

Since 9/11 additional money has been allocated to the southwest border which now has walls, fences, canals, ditches, ground and air sensors, a vast amount of high tech lighting, mobile and fixed infra-red night scope cameras and more vehicles, aircraft and armed personnel patrolling the border than at any previous time.  

The INS is fully cognizant of the dangerous terrain that it is forcing migrants to cross. In one INS document describing the San Diego sector, it states, “The eastern 52 miles of the Sector...is marked by steep mountains, deep canyons, thick brush, and the absence of urban infrastructure and transportation facilities. The steep mountainsides, canyon walls, large boulders, and dense vegetation make travel slow, difficult, and dangerous, and lack of food, water, and transportation compounds the challenges faced by travelers. The eastern portion of the Sector also experiences extreme temperatures, ranging from freezing cold in the winter to searing heat in the summer that can kill the unprepared traveler.” 

In 1999, a petition was filed with the Organization of American States (OAS) by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF) and the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties (ACLU). It asserted that the U.S. violated human rights with its implementation of Operation Gatekeeper. It charged that, “...the United States has organized and implemented its immigration and border control policies in a way that has knowingly and ineluctably led to the deaths of an ever increasing number of immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. to obtain jobs or family reunification. Operation Gatekeeper has steered this flow of immigrants into the harshest, most unforgiving and most dangerous terrain on the California-Mexico border.” 

In November of 1999, Mary Robinson, the then United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, visited the Tijuana/U.S. border. She criticized Gatekeeper when she stated that, “I saw the sense of deflecting people at risk to their lives when they decide to immigrate. I do intend to take this issue up with the authorities of the United States.” But no changes have occurred as a result of appealing to the United Nations or OAS. 

And the dangers at the border are not limited to the environmental elements. There is also a problem with the human element, particularly the Border Patrol agents. 

A 1993 Los Angeles Times investigation of the Border Patrol found that it had hired agents with “dubious pasts, including criminal records and checkered careers with police agencies and the military....During the 1990s agents were prosecuted or disciplined for numerous offenses including unjustified shootings, sexual misconduct, beatings, stealing money from prisoners, drug trafficking, embezzlement, perjury and indecent exposure.”  

Between 1992 and 1997, Human Rights Watch published five highly critical reports about human rights abuses along the border. These reports included “dozens of instances of people shot and killed or injured by the Border patrol; violations of INS firearms policies on use of lethal force, sexual assaults, beatings and other ill-treatment of detainees; a code of silence by which officers refused to testify against colleagues accused of wrongdoing; and virtual impunity for agents, regardless of their actions.” Is the failure to control its own personnel another part of the strategy of deterrence? 

The reason behind Operation Gatekeeper and similar operations was deterrence. It was believed by U.S. government officials that by making the border crossings more difficult, migrants would choose not to make the crossing. But the General Accounting Office has released three reports that call this deterrence rationale into question. As in its two previous reports, its 2001 report concludes, “The extent to which the new strategy has affected overall illegal entry...remains unclear.”  

Operation Gatekeeper has apparently moved migrant crossings from California to Arizona and other areas. Should we continue to sacrifice a life a day on a strategy that is “unclear” in its results or that may just shift the location for the border crossing? Is this the policy of a nation that purports to uphold human rights? 


Kenneth J. Theisen is the communications director at Bay Area Legal Aid. He writes on public-interest law issues.