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The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.


"A Vast and Silent Invasion"

A Border Patrol agent told me a war story. He said, "I was on horse patrol. We caught a group and put them on the ground. There was this old woman, about seventy, who motioned to me. You know, 'Officer, Oficial!'

"I go, 'What.'

"She had a four-year-old boy with her. She says, 'Do you know anybody who wants this kid?'

"I go, 'What?'

"She was Salvadoran. She says, 'My son and daughter-in-law were killed, gunned down. I'm the only family this boy has. I figured I'd come up north, give him to somebody, give him a life. He's a good boy.' She says, 'Why don't youtake him? You live well here.'

"He was a beautiful boy. If I could have stuck him in my pocket and taken him home, I would have raised him up. We can't do that -- it's an impossibility. But I looked back at this old woman, and she was desperate. Like, what's going to become of him?

"That happened nine years ago, and I still think about it today. There are some desperate people who have some desperate reasons to come up here. Good reasons."

The agent was the son of an immigrant, as am I. He took a breath and said, "But so many people want to jump on the bandwagon, and don't have the right reasons for coming here. When I started with the Border Patrol, the majority of the men I apprehended were between twenty-five and fifty. Now this is just a bunch of young ... " He stopped himself. "We still catch men with families, but now you see a lot of juveniles, kids, guys seventeen, eighteen, twenty-one. They don't have any skills. They don't know what it is to work out in the fields. They go to Los Angeles and the big cities. Let's face it, they're young and they've got one-track minds: they just want to have a good time. They want to get a boom box, get some nice clothes, and party. To do that they've got to have money, and the best way to get money is dealing -- prowling cars, dealing dope, getting into the fast lane."

I listened carefully to him. His emotions seemed conflicting. So are those of most Americans: in this nation built on immigration, each new surge has frightened us. As early as 1750, after German farmers settled in Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin worried about their "political immaturity and social incivility," and wrote that "those who come hither are generally the most stupid of their own nation ... not being used to liberty they know not how to make a modest use of it." In Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, published in 1751, he asked, "Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements and, by herding together, establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our own Anglifying them?" Similar fears have surfaced about the French, the Irish, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Greeks, the Poles, and the Italians -- and most recently about Latin Americans. The concerns are not unreasonable. We worry that the immigrants will change us -- and they have.

Of course, history cannot provide the absolute reassurance that some might seek. Each wave of immigration is different, and the current one -- in a time of economic difficulty -- has placed serious burdens on American society. The fact that nativist fears of today are similar to those of the past does not prove that these fears are unfounded. Only the most wild-eyed libertarian would advocate the open-immigration policies that we maintained when travel was difficult and the nation was younger. The truth is that no one knows the consequences of Mexican immigration: it is a movement of the largest scale, immensely complicated, around which various arguments can easily be constructed. The view from San Diego is admittedly unnerving: these newcomers may indeed be the ones we cannot accommodate. Our history, however, suggests otherwise.

Seventy-five thousand Spanish-speaking people remained in the Southwest when the United States acquired this territory after the war with Mexico. In the 1880s Mexican nationals were imported by the thousands, to build railroads and work in mines and factories. Americans worried about the permeability of the border not because of Mexicans but because of Chinese. Excluded by an immigration act in 1882, Asians were walking in the back door. Mexicans were considered preferable to Chinese coolies because in theory they could be sent home when they were no longer needed. Despite the fact that many stayed, raised families, and became citizens, the idea of the Mexican as a temporary worker persisted.

In the 1920s more than half a million Mexicans arrived. Unions lobbied against this competition with limited success: we fear the stranger, but we require cheap labor. The Border Patrol was formed in 1924, and in 1929 unauthorized entry into the United States became a misdemeanor. Throughout the Depression, emigration exceeded immigration and Mexican workers fled the country. During the labor shortages of the Second World War the United States extended a now notorious invitation in the form of what was called the Bracero program. The program reached its peak in the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of seasonal farm workers were imported under the auspices of the federal government. Even then the demand for workers outpaced the program, and great numbers of Mexicans slipped across the border illegally. In 1954 the INS conducted a systematic roundup named Operation Wetback, which resulted in the repatriation of perhaps a million Mexicans. When the Bracero program ended, in 1964, the migrant-labor tradition continued. Mexico's population had swollen, and people needed jobs. Border Patrol apprehensions climbed steeply.

In 1975 Leonard Chapman, the commissioner of immigration, warned of "a vast and silent invasion of illegal aliens." Chapman was a general, a former commandant of the Marine Corps. He reported that as many as 12 million aliens had taken up residence, and that most of them were Mexican. In 1978 former CIA Director William Colby asserted that Mexico was a greater threat than the Soviet Union. He predicted that there would be 20 million unauthorized immigrants by the year 2000, and said, not unreasonably, that the only way to stop them was to develop Mexico's economy. Chapman and Colby were alarmists, and their numbers were too high, but no one really knew how many immigrants had gone underground. By 1980, estimates ranged from one million to 6 million. The difference in opinion arose from one crucial Question: Once the migrant workers crossed the border, how long did they stay?

In the fifties and sixties perhaps 90 percent of the Mexican migrants were temporary. They were lone males, cowboys and farm workers who traveled north each year, sent their earnings home, and dreamed perhaps of saving enough money to buy some land in Mexico. For them the north was a cold and soulless place. By the 1970s the profile began to change. The farmers still came, but they were joined by increasing numbers of city dwellers looking for steadier work in manufacturing and the service industries. The city people stayed longer, and melted more easily into the general population. Though most of them probably intended to return to Mexico, many were persuaded to settle by the material benefits, and they began to bring in their families.

There is an old, circular argument about what drives illegal immigration: pressure from the south or suction from the north. The answer is, of course, both, sometimes more one than the other. Mexico's economic troubles in the 1980s -- which reduced real wages by 40 percent -- hit the country's cities hardest, and accelerated the changes already under way. More women and children came across. Technicians, teachers, and graduate students joined the exodus. American bankers were not the only ones who had given up hope for Mexico.

In 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The new law, which recognized that immigration could not be stopped at the border, had two important provisions. The first outlawed the hiring of undocumented workers, closing the largest loophole in immigration law. Henceforth employees had to demonstrate their right to work, and employers had to record this information on a form, called the I-9, for future inspection. This part of the law introduced employer sanctions: it threatened fines and prison sentences for employers who did not comply. Civil libertarians labeled it a government intrusion into the workplace, and fought off the call for a national identity card.

IRCA'S second provision was legalization: it offered amnesty to immigrants who could prove that they had been living in the United States since 1982, and to others who were working in agriculture. Amnesty was not an act of charity but an acceptance of the facts. These people were entrenched, and difficult to identify. Large-scale deportation would have been cruel, and politically unpalatable.

At first the new law seemed to work. Employers fired thousands of people and filled in countless forms. The illegal back-and-forth traffic across the border dropped off. We now know why. Under the amnesty program more than 3 million people emerged from the shadows to claim permanent residence. Three quarters of them were Mexican, and they stayed in the United States while their applications were pending, rather than making the occasional trip to Mexico and back, which had been the usual pattern. Fearing that the traditional arrangement had finally ended, those who did not qualify for amnesty waited on either side of the border for the dust to settle. They need not have worried. A black market in phony documents sprang up to fill the need. It was a perfectly tailored solution -- the kind of spontaneous adaptation that in other circumstances we admire. For a few dollars you could buy a Social Security card, a permanent-residence card, or a birth certificape. At first the counterfeits were crude imitations; by now many are indistinguishable from the real thing. Either way, employers are off the hook, and IRCA has collapsed. Renewed calls for a tamper-proof identity card, this time to be combined with a national employee data base, again raise questions of civil liberties.

The United States accepts more immigrants than any other country. During the 1980s more than 6 million people were granted permanent U.S. residence, a figure exceeded only in the first decade of this century, when some 9 million people were accepted. It is illuminating to weigh these numbers against the total population: from 1901 to 1910 the average annual number of immigrants per thousand U.S. residents was 10.4; in the 1980s it was 2.7. However, these figures apply only to authorized immigration. At the start of the century almost all the immigrants came by ship, and illegal immigration was insignificant. In the 1980s the majority of immigrants came across the southern border. Despite the legalization allowed by IRCA, a large underground population undoubtedly supplemented the official figures.

By 1989 the number of illegal crossings had again begun to increase, and it may by now have ascended to pre-IRCA levels. The INS estimates that the resident population of undocumented immigrants has climbed back to 4 million. Some scholars disagree, placing the number closer to 2 million. Once again no one really knows. Surveys indicate, however, that the trends of the 1970s have continued: in California, Arizona, and Texas no more than 15 percent of Mexican immigrants are now believed to work in agriculture. Nationwide, families are reuniting around the men legalized by IRCA. The mutual-aid networks are well developed. The pull runs deep through Mexico. There is a widespread belief that the United States will again grant amnesty.

Some observers believe that we should wait, allow the border to function as a safety valve for Mexico, let Salinas turn the Mexican economy around, and give free trade an opportunity to work. They say Mexicans prefer Mexico, and will stay there if they have hope for the future. The lesson of Tijuana, however, seems to be that economic development (most of which will take place along the border) may actually increase the flow of immigrants. As greater numbers of workers are drawn to northern Mexico and as their material expectations increase, the United States may appear not less but more desirable. Despite the Bush Administration's denials, true free-traders must in their hearts accept this, the human influx, as part of the package. The argument goes, Let the market function; the clandestine workers help us, and when we no longer need them, they will no longer come.

Increasing numbers of Americans disagree, and the anti-immigrant cause has made for strange coalitions. On the left, labor unionists and advocates for the poor are frightened of competition of any kind from Mexico; on the right, groups with thinly veiled racist agendas blame Mexicans for everything from water shortages to the decay of American values to suburban sprawl. Sensing a winning issue, California's Governor Pete Wilson articulates the more mainstream objections: he blames immigrants for his state's budget difficulties and for problems with the schools, hospitals, and community services. It is an old pattern: where society hurts, anti-immigrant sentiment grows.

The resentment has been magnified by a sense that we have lost control. Inevitably, there are calls to seal the border. This could be done, but only with enormous manpower -- for instance, with a large-scale deployment of the U.S. armed forces and the creation of free-fire zones. It would not require much killing: the Soviets sealed their borders for decades without an excessive expenditure of ammunition. The simple fact that there existed a systematic policy of shooting illegal immigrants would deter most Mexicans. But adopting such a policy is not a choice most Americans would make. And, of course, there would be no question of free trade.

The middle course, which we follow now, is untidy, and many people consider it unsatisfactory. Faced with such widespread lawlessness, they argue, if we cannot seal the border, we must at least toughen it.

And Roberto Martìnez asks, At what price?

Clients and Victims

Roberto Martìnez is a Chicano activist and one of the Border Patrol's strongest critics. He works in San Diego for the American Friends Service Committee and monitors civil-rights violations along the border. Martínez does not smile often or laugh easily. He asked me not to call him Hispanic, and explained that he is mestizo. (In the barrio you can buy T-shirts with the word "Hispanic" crossed out, as in a no-smoking sign.) There is no mistaking Martínez's Indian blood. At fifty-five, he is a stocky man with heavy jowls, copper skin, and a large, flat face. His hair is jet black. He dresses stodgily in a shirt and tie, wears thick glasses, and complains that his vision is changing so fast his optometrist can't keep up. His key chain reads WORLD'S GREATEST GRANDPA. He speaks gently, and pursues his work with a single-mindedness that can make him seem distracted.

I asked him a political question, about free trade and the changes in Mexico, and he apologized: "I haven't given it much thought. I'm so busy here, you see." By "here" he meant his downtown office -- a small, well-lit room, with none of the clutter of a movement headquarters. Martínez does not advertise, or go looking for trouble. He sits at his desk with a telephone and a computer, and trouble finds him. In San Diego and Tijuana it is a matter of common knowledge that you have no recourse if you are beaten by the Mexican authorities; but if you are beaten by the Americans, or if your rights are trampled on, you can turn to Roberto Martínez. He is not a lawyer but a witness, who came up from the streets. He will not be intimidated. He initiates lawsuits. He complains, agitates, publicizes. He is persistent. The agents of law enforcement scorn him. They are dedicated men and women in a difficult situation, and Martínez reins them in. The fact that he can is one difference between Mexico and the United States. In this peculiar way Martínez is an American patriot.

He keeps photo albums of his clients, men and women with battered faces, bruised bodies, broken bones, gunshot wounds. Their stories pour from his lips:

-- This one was caught just after he came over the fence. He ran, and they chased him down.

-- This one was sixteen. He picked up a rock, and they shot him in the gut.

-- They caught him at a checkpoint and tried to get him to sign a voluntary return. He refused and said he wanted a hearing before an immigration judge. So they took him in the back room and beat him until he signed.

-- They assaulted her sexually in front of her husband and child. They called it a body search and spread-eagled her on the ground. Her husband sobbed, "Tolerate it; you will have your day."

Martínez can sound obsessed. His problem is that the stories quickly become repetitive, and the public is unsympathetic. Local television stations and newspapers have grown reluctant to cover his press conferences, not because they doubt him but because they have heard it all before. The Border Patrol dismisses him with a shrug: "Martínez again, with another one of his unsubstantiated allegations." And the victims themselves are reluctant to testify. They come from countries where police abuse is the norm, and they don't want trouble. They broke the law by crossing the border. The protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution do not impress them. They want to get on with their lives.

Early one evening, at dusk, Martínez took me for a ride along the boundary fence. He said, "The Border Patrol is the most uncontrolled, unsupervised, and undisciplined law-enforcement agency in the country. They think they are above the law. They think they can get away with anything."

I prodded him. "But would they want to?"

He answered, "They have a gang mentality, a turf thing, and they act on each other. They have a code of silence, a code of revenge. They will always cover up."

We parked by an abandoned quarry and watched the first large groups running north. A Border Patrol van cruised by us. Martínez looked tense. "I don't come here much anymore," he said. "Especially once the sun's gone down. My wife worries."

"About crime?" I asked, not understanding.

He shook his head, and checked the rearview mirror. "About the Border Patrol. They recognize me. Some of them would like nothing better than to catch me alone out here."

"There are two of us tonight."

"They come to my house, you know. They blow their horns. They stop across the street and videotape me. They park transport vans there and load them with people. They come into my driveway."

We drove north in silence. I watched his face in profile, lit for a moment by an oncoming car. His expression was heavy. In blackness he said, "You don't run, you don't argue, and you don't refuse to sign. You don't assert yourself. You do whatever they say. Even if you are a citizen, you have no rights."

Martìnez is a fifth-generation Mexican-American. He grew up in the barrios at the heart of San Diego. His family was poor, but owned the large Victorian house where Martínez lives today. As a boy he worked in the fields, traveling with his parents to the labor camps of the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys. He was harassed on buses in Los Angeles by soldiers who said, "Hey, you must be one of those pachucos." He remembers the zoot-suit riots of the 1940s, the raids and repatriations of the 1950s, and the constant threat of being deported. "I had no relatives in Mexico. I didn't speak much Spanish. They might as well have sent me to China." When he was fourteen, and still in school, he began to wash dishes in downtown restaurants. The jobs rarely lasted long; before payday someone would call the Border Patrol and have the kitchen staff hauled away. The police were worse. They would pull up beside him on the street, shove him against a wall, point a gun to his head, handcuff him, and take him to jail. It was a weekly routine. They had composite drawings of thieves, and all Mexicans looked the same. Martínez was never formally charged. At school he was put into "adjustment classes," where he did not adjust. A counselor advised him not to graduate, and explained, "We need laborers."

I asked how he had felt as a child. He said, "I thought they must be doing this to everyone. It must be normal."

He dropped out of school and got a factory job. He married, had five children, enrolled in night school, and eventually graduated from college with a degree in technical design. He rose through the ranks at work, and became an engineer. He bought a house in a white middle-class suburb called Santee, and moved his family out of the barrio. It was another American success story, but with a catch. The day before Martínez arrived in Santee, someone broke into the house and carved anti-Mexican slogans on the walls. Across the street a black family fled after a cross was burned on their lawn. Martínez stuck it out. Other Mexican-Americans arrived, and tensions grew. The Youth Klan Corps began recruiting in the schools, and racial fights broke out. Children were hurt. The police and school officials supported the Anglos. There were illegal raids and illegal arrests. At first politely, and then with insistence, Martínez fought back. He helped pursue a few successful lawsuits against the police, and developed a reputation. Mexican-Americans and immigrants began seeking him out, and the calls came from all over San Diego County. In 1977 Martínez quit his job as an engineer and went to work full time as a community organizer. Two years later he moved back to the barrio, because he believed that living there would make him a more credible witness.

The barrio has changed: it is rougher and its population is more transient. When Martínez was a boy, English was heard on the streets; now only Spanish is heard. Many of the new residents are first-generation immigrants, but only some have come illegally. The tight weave of the city poses a problem for the Border Patrol. Can immigration status be guessed by the dirt on a man's shoes, by the color of a woman's lips? Inevitably, agents misjudge. Americans are detained, and sometimes sent to Mexico.

In INS terminology a raid came to be called a sweep, then a survey. Martínez tells what happens when surveys go wrong: a family is torn apart; a girl is rounded up on her way to school and sent to Mexico; there are beatings, suicides, unexplained deaths in jail. A third of Martínez's clients are Americans. He no longer makes much of a distinction between resident and alien, between barrio and border. One night, as he drove me through the neighborhoods, he said, "They hit this place hard, day after day. They give no one the benefit of the doubt. They bust into people's houses without warrants. They rip up legitimate documents. They use German shepherds and stun guns, undercover agents and assault teams. They fly helicopters overhead. Now they want rubber bullets." He was talking not only about the Border Patrol but also about the police. The agencies work closely together. Until Martínez put a stop to it, in nearby National City even the dogcatcher wore a gun and hunted immigrants.

The barrio is the other war zone -- sprawling districts of vacant lots, old wooden houses, razor wire, and barred liquor stores. The streets are quiet; the sense of siege is undeniable. It is a land of knife wounds and drive-by shootings. Gang graffiti covers unpainted walls. Addicts and drunks wander the sidewalks. Martínez said sadly, "Drugs have sapped Chicano pride." And alcohol, too. The young men who loitered on corners watched us sullenly. Martínez seemed nervous. "Roll up your window and lock your door; a white man's not safe, even with me. They'll drag you out of the car. They'll kill you just for looking." He took me to see a school, but the street was blocked by squad cars. A body lay face down in the gutter, swept by flashing lights.

Using All Your Senses

One Saturday evening I went out with the Border Patrol in San Ysidro. I signed a liability release, but there was no danger -- this was the Cook's tour of the combat zone. My guide was one of the supervisors, an affable Puerto Rican from Manhattan named Norbert Gomez. He spoke with a New York accent, and had a habit of asking open-ended questions:

"An alien sees me, what's the first thing that goes through his mind?"

I forget the exact answer, but it was something like "friendship" or "respect." Gomez saw the world in his image. He had the swagger and self-confidence of the streets.

Gomez wanted to show me the boundary before sunset. We drove east along the fence in a standard-issue Bronco, the back caged to hold prisoners. Looking down into Mexico from a small rise, Gomez swept his hand and said, "Tijuana, Tee Jay, The Quick Fix." He asked me to roll up my window. "They throw rocks," he said. "Those are some bad coloniasover there. We find dead bodies hung out on the fence here."

He told me how he was raised: "Grow up. Go to the Army. Get out. Get a job. Vote. Be a good person." He wanted to be a cop in New York but became one in San Diego, and then transferred to the Border Patrol. "I'm a happy man," he said, and, still driving, grabbed a sandwich from the boxed dinner on his lap. "I got a beautiful wife. Gorgeous. A knockout. Used to be a model."

We drove to the sparsely populated desert on the outskirts of the cities. The fence ended and the boundary was marked by a steel cable strung between low posts. The cable was meant to prevent cars from driving across, but it had been cut. Ahead a family walked along the track, followed by two black mongrels.

Gomez said, "Their intention is not to enter the U.S. but to walk their dogs."

We turned back toward the port of entry and came upon two small boys.

Gomez motioned them over and gave them the remainder of his meal. We drove on, and he shuffled through a stack of papers. In 1990 in this sector alone, Gomez said, the Border Patrol apprehended 472,323 aliens. The monthly average was 39,360. In 1991 the average was more than 45,000.

"You mean apprehensions, not people," I said.

He waved away the difference. "If you want action, this job's better than the E ticket at Disneyland." He got back to the numbers. Seized: 8,500 pounds of marijuana, 681 pounds of cocaine, eighty-seven weapons, 861 vehicles. OTMs this month: 228 Salvadorans, seventy-five Guatemalans, forty-five Hondurans, eight Chinese.

"Chinese?" I asked. Still?

"Chinese, Rumanians, Brazilians, Africans, Russians, Pakistanis. Mexico is an open visa. You never know what's coming over the fence."

NIGHT fell, black and cold, and we drove into the badlands east of the port of entry. Gomez had deployed twenty-three men there, guarding three miles of boundary. At the top of a hill we stood with a two-man team working an infrared scope. They were laconic country boys in camouflage jackets. They radioed the other agents and directed them to their quarry: below you, ten yards west, behind the rock, hiding in the grass. I looked through the scope into a bright greenish landscape of gullies and bushes, and watched the phosphorescent figures moving north. I thought, in Vietnam we would have called in air strikes, and we didn't win there either.

Gomez grew more intense as the night wore on. In a dark canyon we walked away from the Bronco. He switched off his flashlight, and we stood in silence. He whispered, "You're an agent out here alone. What do you see?"

"Nothing."

The bushes rustled. He whispered, "Animal or alien?"

l didn't answer.

He nudged me, "What about your nose?"

I hesitated.

He said, "Did you know you can actually smell the presence of aliens?"

"I never thought about it."

He switched on the light. "You see, out here a Border Patrol agent has to use all his senses."

But in San Ysidro the job seemed like fishing in an overstocked pond. The agents were hauling in would-be immigrants by the dozen. As a demonstration, Gomez called over the helicopter, which lit up a group for us. Two did not run. Gomez greeted them, frisked them, and ushered them gently into the back of the Bronco. They were men in their thirties, with wild hair and soiled clothes, as if they had traveled far. They seemed stunned, but not afraid. Gomez wrinkled his nose. "Whew, these guys are ripe."

We drove them out of the hills. I felt uncomfortable, as if I were feeding on their misfortune. I asked them how they were, and they said okay. They said they would try again later in the night. For my benefit Gomez asked, "Who do you like better, the migraor the Mexican police?" They said the migra-- the U.S. immigration police -- and I did not doubt them.

In a busy parking lot by the port of entry we handed them over to the transport units, and then we turned and watched at least a hundred more people cresting the hill above us. The helicopter clattered furiously, stabbing the line with its light. Border Patrol trucks churning dust fanned out to meet the onslaught. Through the confusion, apparently unaware, walked groups of college students going south to drink in Tijuana. Gomez smiled at three pretty girls and said, "You take care over there," and they giggled.

We met another agent, an immaculate man with a starched uniform and a narrow, pale face. He spoke about San Ysidro. "Your basic lower-middle class. It's not a bad neighborhood per se; it's just that it has its trouble with the alien traffic." His pronunciation was careful. He told me he had a master's degree in sociology. "We hear a lot of complaints -- your beatings, your civil-rights cases, what have you. When you deal with this volume of custodial arrests, you just have to figure on that. It does not get me excited."

But Gomez worried about it. We drove back out into the desert and parked, and he said, "The Border Patrol this, the Border Patrol that. There's people who think all we do is beat on Mexicans. Did you know that we get only one allegation for every seventeen thousand arrests?"

I had heard the number already from Roberto Martìnez, who believes it says more about the stoicism of the immigrants than about the conduct of the Border Patrol. I didn't know how to answer Gomez without seeming accusatory.

He read my silence anyway, and asked, "What's an agent to do, not defend himself? Put yourself in our position. You're out here doing your job, you apprehend some aliens, a fight ensues, someone picks up a rock. A rock can kill you. It can render you unconscious. It can take your eye out. It's a missile, just like a bullet. People will say, how can you put a gun up against a rock? Well, let me throw a rock at you. I'll put a gun in your hand, and you tell me when you're ready to shoot."

Tucson: The Air War

IN Southern Arizona, I counted ten federal agencies out trying to distinguish drug smugglers from ordinary citizens. They use linked computers, data bases, and all the power of modern law. In this they are helped by city police, county sheriffs, and state troopers. At the ports of entry National Guardsmen search vehicles. In remote deserts the Army conducts large training exercises designed in part to intimidate. The Pentagon's Joint Task Force Six treads a fine line of involvement in civil affairs, distributing military hardware and advice to the various police forces. The Army Corps of Engineers builds access roads; the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines contribute when they can. Nonetheless, the drugs keep coming. Florida is old history: nationwide, most of the marijuana, half the cocaine, and a third of the heroin are now smuggled in from Mexico. No one knows how much gets through, but it amounts to enough for millions of Americans. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 12.8 percent of Americans used illegal drugs in 1991 -- down one half of one percent from 1990. Even the most hard-nosed drug warriors admit that demand draws the traffic, and only lack of demand will stop it. In the meantime, they have orders to fight the problem at the border.

It is a big operation. Officially the federal government allotted $11.7 billion this year to fight drugs, 70 percent of which went to law enforcement. The real expenditure was higher, hidden in more obscure budgets and intentions. I was told that one Border Patrol chief had recently ordered his agents not to worry anymore about catching aliens, to go out and catch drug runners. The man needed to produce drug seizures to please Washington. The search for progress is the guiding principle of endless battle: in Vietnam we counted enemy corpses; here we count pounds. You might think there would be plenty of pounds to go around, but the seizures are rare, and the agencies squabble incessantly over money and reputations. In the desert their trackers track one another. A coordinating effort called Operation Alliance looks better in name than in fact. Were it not for a bookkeeping system that allows everyone involved in a seizure to claim credit simultaneously, the competing agencies might resort to sabotage.

The bookkeeping system has another benefit. It generates "attaboy letters" for the agents of the air division of the U.S. Customs Service. In Tucson, I talked to a pilot who had just received his first one. He laughed and said, "I was three hundred miles away, but I happened to be in the air when someone got busted." After four more letters, he said, he would get an ace patch for his flight suit. I presumed he meant his blue jeans -- like most of the pilots, he looked a little street-worn. He said he wasn't holding his breath waiting for the next bust: in three years with Customs he had not yet seen action. That is one problem with the job. To the extent that your efforts succeed, you won't find many airplanes to chase. It is hard on a young man. An older pilot heard him complaining and commented, "It's like anything anymore." He did not seem to mind.

Air-traffic-control radar is designed to follow legitimate flights, not to detect low-altitude intruders. Until recently a smuggler willing to fly a few hundred feet off the ground could come across the Mexican border unseen. Customs relied on a loose network of informants to call in suspicious airplanes. It did not work. When I lived in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, I sometimes heard the smugglers come over at night, flying blacked-out airplanes. I remember the distinctive rumble of a DC-3, and its silhouette cruising the valley in the light of the moon. My job as an air-taxi pilot gave me an excuse to fly low, and occasionally to cross the border without a flight plan. Never once was I questioned. But it's like anything anymore: times have changed, and Customs has erected yet another fence. This one is electronic, and takes the form of six tethered balloons carrying military radars that peer at every inch of the border.

  • Read the conclusion of Langewiesche's two-part article on the U.S.-Mexican border, from the June, 1992, issue of The Atlantic.


    The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.

    Copyright © 1992 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; May 1992; The Border; Volume 269, No. 5; pages 53 - 92.

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