Correspondence on La Resistencia Investigation

Voices from the Deadly Border

Revolutionary Worker #1119, September 23, 2001, posted at

The RW received the following correspondence from a member of La Resistencia in San Diego.

When 14 migrants from Mexico died in the Arizona desert last May, the established media took notice. But there has been little in the news about the hundreds of other migrants who have been dying on the border--alone or in small groups of two or three. For example, just east of where the 14 died, one survivor and three dead from exposure and dehydration were found on July 3. The press did not even refer to them as migrants.

Since the United States began implementing its "National Strategy" on the border in late 1994, thousands of migrants have died tragically. The Mexican Consulate estimates 100 border-related deaths have occurred in the U.S. every year for the past six years--not counting those still undiscovered. And the U.S. government is finally admitting what activists have known for years. In early August, the General Accounting Office, an investigative branch of Congress, delivered a report that drew two major conclusions about the U.S./Mexico border situation. First, there is little evidence to suggest that the deadly border operations help reduce "illegal" entries into the U.S. Second, the ever-mounting migrant death toll is a direct result of the border crackdown steering migrants into harsh deserts, mountains, and waterways.

The crackdown is in line with the National Strategy developed by the Department of Defense and the U.S. Border Patrol in 1994. Their strategy is based on what the Border Patrol calls "deterrence," which means making crossing the border so painful and deadly that people fear even trying. It calls for the sealing off of major crossing points along the border, including San Diego, Yuma, and El Paso, in order to shift the flow of migrants into terrain that is "less suitable for crossing and more suitable for enforcement." In other words, U.S./Mexico border operations are all part of a larger plan to use the deadly terrain between major crossings as obstacles to "deter" migrants.

The strategy also states that "violence will increase as the effects of the strategy are felt" and predicts that the plan's success will bring a "reduction in criminal aliens" and finally, a new "bracero program" (temporary work program). Such statements show the violent border crackdown and migrant deaths from exposure to heat, cold, and drowning are not accidents of flawed policy or negligent smugglers, but instead, planned elements of the U.S. government strategy. The National Strategy also predicts an increase in demonstrations, protests and political pressure against the border policy, and sees these events as indicators of success.

Border Investigation-June 2001

In the wake of 14 immigrant deaths in the scorching Arizona desert last May, members from the San Diego and Los Angeles Chapters of La Resistencia went on an investigative trip. We traversed areas that, according to congressional statistics, are some of deadliest regions of the border. This article describes what we saw. Even though our trip was in June, recent events (more migrant deaths in desolate areas of the border, stepped-up border enforcement, and the talk of a new bracero program) have prompted us to share our experiences with your readers. (Names of the people we met have been changed.)

San Luis, Arizona/San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora

San Luis, a U.S./Mexico border town, is located about 30 miles south of Yuma. As we talked with locals in a gas station about the border situation, we saw several white buses filled with Mexican migrants pulling in. We were told these buses transport laborers daily (and/or nightly) from Mexico to the acres and acres of green fields surrounding Yuma. Also, those bused receive lower pay than those living on the U.S. side. In neighboring Imperial County, CA, 88% of the total 16,200 agricultural workers commute daily from Mexico (according to San Diego Dialogue, a border think tank). Across the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, we saw industrial parks that had some old maquiladoras (foreign-owned factories) as well as many under construction. The maquilas and buses of migrant farm workers reminded us how the border clampdown allows U.S. business interests to further exploit already disenfranchised Mexican and Central American workers.

Sonoyta, Sonora

About 150 miles east of the Colorado River dividing California and Arizona lies the Mexican border town of Sonoyta. Residents said it used to be a popular crossing, but increasing numbers of U.S. Border Patrol agents have driven migrants into areas where there are no official crossing points. The Mexican authorities are also clamping down. Migrants would definitely stand out here and be targeted by the authorities.

The road between Sonoyta and San Luis Rio Colorado is quite desolate with the exception of two Mexican military checkpoints. Along this road we saw occasional burial crosses and ornaments remembering the dead. We wondered if some were meant for border crossers who had died en route to the U.S. Seated on a raised sidewalk about 100 feet from the U.S./Mexico border were a couple and group of smiling teenagers.

One of the teens we talked to blamed the U.S. government for the 14 deaths. We could hear the anger in her voice as she said, "They won't let people cross into the U.S. from Sonoyta and this forces people into the desert. People can't survive on the wages they earn in southern Mexico. They have no choice but to go north.... Most of the people coming to the U.S. are just going to the U.S. to work. They aren't drug dealers--they aren't criminals. They do work that people born in the U.S. refuse to: pick crops, clean office buildings, do all the dirty hard work."

Leaning against a nearby building wall was a rancher wearing a brimmed hat, leather belt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots. He explained to us that in the past, Mexicans could cross the border to go to the grocery store, gas station, and laundromat located just on the other side of the wall in Lukeville, a tiny town in Arizona. Now nobody, not even residents of Sonoyta that just want to buy something in the store, are allowed to cross without documents.

Rest Stop

On the way to Sonoyta, we stopped at a truck-stop restaurant. The temperature was well over 100 degrees. The rest stop has no cooling of any kind and no electricity. Every two to three days someone delivers a huge block of ice for the cooler. Under more tolerable weather, this would be a place to sit all day, although it's pretty lonely. Emilio, who was working behind the counter, sadly informed us that we were within a few miles of where the group of 14 dead and 12 survivors had set off north into the U.S. Emilio came north from Nayarit to live with his relatives in the U.S. and arrived at the border a few months back. He was notably saddened by the deaths. The tragedy also convinced him and his relatives he should not risk crossing at that time.

A group of human rights activists had left bottles of water and anti-dehydration salts for migrants in need or potential danger just days before. We learned of several groups leaving water for migrants on the Mexican side, including government agencies and church organizations. We added canned tuna and other supplies with information about La Resistencia to the items left there for migrants.

Outside, Emilio showed us where we could see the border a couple of kilometers away and pointed out the dust clouds being kicked up by the migra in their SUV's. He and his friends who live in an encampment nearby, saw INS helicopters on several occasions. So where were the helicopters and SUV's when these 14 were dying?

Emilio said he used to see men, women, and children, many of whom were indigenous people from southern Mexico, crossing in this area. "They were in an unfamiliar environment, desperate, and unaware of the lethal terrain they were to face," he explained. The fatalities brought both attention and fear to the area, driving people to cross in even more remote areas. He said that parents have stopped taking their children across because of the increased danger. He hoped to see more protest against the border injustices and was enthused to help.

One man who stopped by the restaurant said he once lived in the U.S. but did not like it and so returned to Mexico. His female companion had also worked in the U.S. Her hours were from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., earning $24 per day (a little over $2/hour). She couldn't take it either and also came back. The man's father had been a campesino in southern Mexico but could no longer support himself because of falling crop prices. Unable to compete with foreign-owned agribusiness, which enjoys an unfair advantage of unrestricted and untaxed trade under NAFTA, his father and family had to leave their home to seek a better livelihood in the north.

San Luis Rio Colorado

When we arrived at 3 p.m. it was like walking into an oven as we got out of the car. It might have been 110 degrees. We met a handful of people from Michoacan and Guerrero who had just been deported that morning after a failed attempt to cross. One Chicano from Yuma, who was hanging out with them, asked us if we heard about the Border Patrol dumping out water placed in the desert for migrants by immigrant rights activists. He said that the Border Patrol only claims their "rescue missions" (what the migra calls their heartless round-ups of immigrants crossing the border in the summer) help migrants, but in fact, the government doesn't care and is actually forcing people to their deaths with all this border enforcement.

One young man said that if there were not people like him to go north to work in the fields, the crops would rot. He described his experiences in the U.S., where even going to the store meant risking deportation. He said even other Mexicans might call the migra. That being the case, why would anyone go to the U.S. if they weren't absolutely desperate? Another asked, "Why can't there be a good program designed to bring people there to work?" We told them the U.S. government is exploiting these recent deaths to promote a new bracero program. Like the old bracero program it would only lead to workers being more oppressed and exploited. We were told the Border Patrol in Yuma is particularly nasty to people who are caught more than once trying to cross the border--warning them the next time they will be charged with being "coyotes" (those who "smuggle" migrants across the border for money).

Part of the U.S. border clampdown is to enforce ever more punitive laws against alleged coyotes. Jose Lopez-Ramos, one of the 12 survivors of the incident in which 14 others died, is facing the death penalty. Federal judges in Yuma are giving sentences of twice as many years for smuggling as those in California. On our trip we read a Yuma newspaper which stated that federal immigration officials had declared coyotes or smugglers public enemy #1, shifting blame for the 14 deaths away from the U.S. and its deadly border operations.

Many people we met on our trip seemed initially swayed by parallel propaganda efforts in Mexico. It didn't take much effort on our part however, to expose to people the hand of the U.S. government and its border policy as the real cause of the border deaths. At an eatery we talked to a student from Mexico City who came to San Luis to work so that he could continue to pay for school. He said both governments are to blame for the border deaths and injustice. He said more people have died at our border than at the Berlin Wall.


Next we headed to Algodones, a border town on the west bank of the Colorado River in Baja, California. The All American Canal, where so many have drowned trying to cross the border, flows out of the Colorado River a mile north of here. We talked with a small group of male migrants that had just been deported the night before but intended to try crossing again. They seemed a little downcast, saying in previous years they had successfully crossed into the U.S. in Algodones, but this year there had been an increase in patrol officers, vehicles, and cameras being used for surveillance in the area.

As we crossed over to the U.S. side into Andrade, CA we ran into a lot more migra than we have seen in this area previously. We encountered many Border Patrol vehicles on the surrounding roads and in the open spaces. As dusk settled in and we drove west on Freeway 8 we saw la migra on the banks of the All American Canal and on freeway off-ramps near the sand dunes. It appears to us that the INS is concentrating on making the stretch between Mexicali and Algodones impassable, which will only push more people into the Arizona desert.

Despite the growing protests over these rising border deaths, the U.S. government is not backing down from its National Strategy. They are stepping up the border clampdown. Their response is more enforcement and more punishment for those crossing or helping others to cross. Since our trip we've read about the promises of Mexican President Vicente Fox to help the U.S. cut down on border crossing deaths by enforcing Mexico's northern border, thus preventing people from crossing into the U.S. We already know the Mexican government is helping the U.S. to cut down migration by carrying out a campaign against those crossing into Mexico through Guatemala.

Jose's Story

On the way back to San Diego, we ran into Jose from Sinaloa at a rest stop. He told us his harrowing story. Jose, his sister, her boyfriend, and another woman from their rural village crossed near Campo. They walked for six hours before getting to Freeway 8. There they hid and waited for three days for their ride. The migra passed by frequently but they stayed hidden. They had no food, but refilled their water jugs from the emergency radiator water faucets on Freeway 8. After three days and no ride, his group came out of hiding and sat on the freeway so the migra could pick them up. They were hungry and getting dehydrated and were going to turn themselves in. Fortunately, their ride came along before the migra did. When their ride stopped at the rest area, Jose went to the rest room and was left behind.

Jose was so hungry and thirsty when we ran into him he gulped down the water we gave him and gobbled up the few chips we had. The last time he had been in the U.S. was in 1994. He crossed in Tijuana without the services of a coyote. After arriving in Tijuana this time and taking one look at the border, he and his three companions headed east to Tecate where they made arrangements for a ride. The trip would cost them $1,600 each. This included the airfare to Oregon once they arrived in L.A. Jose was worried about his sister and the others. Would the coyote charge her an extra $1,600 for his fare too? $1,600 is a lot of money for many poor U.S. citizens, and we could only imagine what it meant to Jose and his family. He said that in his rural town one couldn't make more than $10/day if they were lucky. We heard similar stories throughout our trip from people trying to cross about how wages ($1/hr max in most places) are below subsistence.

Jose is 32, with two young kids and a wife in his village. His mother cried when he left because she was worried he'd die like the 14 in the Arizona desert. This wasn't the Sonora desert, but dozens of people have lost their lives in this area from high-speed chases or hypothermia. On June 20, 19-year-old Carlota De La Cruz died from dehydration and heat exhaustion after walking hours in this area without water. When she died in her father's arms, they were 1/8 of a mile from a fire station where there was plenty of water.

We were constantly watching our backs while we were with Jose. The rest area is around three miles from an INS checkpoint and the area was still crawling with migra. There are also snitches living in that area who would turn Jose in if given the chance. As we parted company with our new friend, we wondered if Jose would make it safely north. He would have to get through at least one more migra checkpoint in San Clemente before getting to the L.A .airport, where he could also get seized. Sal said, "Man, I felt like we were just reliving a scene from Nazi Germany!" The rest of us seconded that.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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