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International Socialist Review Issue 18, June-July 2001

Operation Gatekeeper: Militarizing the Border


We are not criminals or illegals; We are international workers
--message painted on the U.S.-Mexico border wall

We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us
--Popular slogan at the San-Tijuana protest on April 21, 2001

IN THE early evening hours of June 12, 1992, 26-year-old Dario Miranda Valenzuela planned to cross the border into the United States through Southern Arizona. Like many others heading north at various points along the U.S.-Mexico border, Dario was to look for work that evening to take some money back to his family in the border town of Nogales, Mexico. As Dario began to cross the rugged canyon, gunshots rang out in the distance. As he fled from the direction of the shots, two bullets from a high-powered AR-15 rifle struck him in the back. Border Patrol agent Michael Elmer, a veteran of the force, had shot the unarmed Dario as a suspected “drug scout,” even though there was no proof of this other than the fact that Dario was running. As Dario bled to death, Agent Elmer dragged him 50 yards away to hide him until Elmer could return later to “bury the evidence.” Dario soon died from his wounds. While the incident was uncovered and Elmer was brought to trial for his actions, the jury found him not guilty of all charges. They stated that he acted in self-defense in a tense border area “war zone.”1

Alejandro Kassorla, a 23-year-old cane cutter, decided to try to cross the border into the U.S. because he was having trouble supporting his family in Mexico. When he traveled to the U.S. six years before, he had come home with enough money to build a small home for his wife and two children. He got together with his friend Samuel and a married couple, Javier and Elvia, who also wanted to cross. The smugglers they paid to guide them said it would be a short trip through the rugged mountains near San Diego, but in fact the trip usually took three days. After temperatures dropped below freezing on the third day, the smugglers abandoned Alejandro and his group. When Javier and Samuel began to suffer from hypothermia, Alejandro and Elvia went for help. After Alejandro collapsed from hypothermia, Elvia went on. When she finally returned with help, the other three had already frozen to death.2

These two stories capture the impact of “Operation Gatekeeper,” a U.S. government strategy to seal off popular border-crossing points using a combination of new border fences, an increase in border personnel, and the latest military hardware and training. Border policing is carried out with the participation of various military agencies. Operation Gatekeeper has forced migrants from Mexico to cross the border in more remote mountainous areas, where they are subject to extreme heat and cold. While the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) promotes this program as a policy of “prevention through deterrence,” Gatekeeper is, in reality, a death sentence for many immigrants crossing the border and the latest policy directed at controlling the flow of Mexican labor.

Operation Gatekeeper’s deadly toll

“We must not tolerate illegal immigration,” wrote then-President Bill Clinton in 1996. He boasted, “Since 1992, we have increased our Border Patrol by over 35percent; deployed underground sensors, infrared night scopes, and encrypted radios; built miles of new fences; and installed massive amounts of new lighting.”3 Operation Gatekeeper was launched in 1994 by the Clinton administration as part of Clinton’s get-tough policy on illegal immigration. Similar operations were also launched or already existed in other regions along the U.S.-Mexico border. The operation aimed to stop the flow of immigrants by concentrating military and police forces along traditional crossing routes on the border to seal them off. To fund this buildup, the budget for the INS nearly tripled to $4.6 billion annually.4

Originally spanning 66 miles from the Pacific Ocean through San Diego and into the mountains, Operation Gatekeeper has been expanded into Yuma, Arizona. It includes a 73- mile 10-foot-high steel wall. Secondary fences span 52 of those miles, and a triple fence spans the stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Otay Mountains. Similar operations exist along stretches in Arizona and Texas.5 More military hardware, such as Black Hawk helicopters, heat sensors, night-vision telescopes, electronic vision detection devices, and computerized fingerprinting equipment, has also been integrated into border operations. Gatekeeper has also seen a dramatic increase in agents, with nearly 8,500 currently working in the border region.6

The result has not been to curb or reduce immigration, but to create a more deadly situation for migrant workers. A deadly militarized border force at the traditional crossing points has forced the majority of workers to cross through rugged terrain. It has pushed them east, through the Otay Mountains and the desert beyond them. In the Otay Mountains, peaks reach as high as 6,000 feet, with freezing temperatures six months out of the year. In the desert beyond the mountains, temperatures climb as high as 120 degrees with sand dunes that reach 300 feet. It is in this situation that the most egregious effects of Gatekeeper take their toll.

According to Doris Meisner, former chief of the INS, “We did believe geography would be an ally.”7 She was correct. The policy has resulted in the deaths of more than 600 immigrants in the San Diego–Yuma stretch alone since its inception in 1994. According to a human rights investigation conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union, most of the deaths can be attributed to exposure to freezing temperatures in the mountains during the winter and to the heat of the desert in the Imperial Valley in the summer.8
The deaths don’t just occur along the California-Mexico border. Last May, 14 migrants were found dead after attempting to cross miles of desert in 115-degree heat at a place Border Patrol agents call “The Devil’s Path” near Yuma, Arizona. “Nobody should be surprised by these deaths,” said Claudia Smith, a lawyer for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. “They are an entirely foreseeable consequence of moving the migrant traffic out of the urban areas and into the most remote and dangerous areas.”

Another significant portion of the deaths can be attributed to drowning, as migrants attempt to escape the heat by crossing through the All-American Canal and other border canals and rivers. The New River, one such crossing point, is one of the most polluted rivers in the border region. It is favored because the Border Patrol agents won’t go near it.

The cynical use of this policy becomes clear when it is revealed that the actual blueprint assumes that “most of the ‘influx’ would not be deterred by the ‘mortal dangers’ which came with the new routes.” As one INS supervisor explained in the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1996, “Eventually, we’d like to see them all out in the desert.”9 This complete disregard for the lives of migrant workers is why hundreds are allowed to die crossing the border in California. Staggeringly, more than 1,450 migrant workers have died along the border since 1995 as a result of Operation Gatekeeper and its counterparts in Arizona and Texas. All told, since the launch of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, the number of deaths has increased by 500 percent.10

All of this is fine for Washington. According to Meisner, it would take five more years of operations such as Gatekeeper to assert a “reasonable level of control” along the entire border. If immigration levels stay constant, Meisner can expect at least 2,000 more deaths over this period in California alone.11
While the death toll rises from Operation Gatekeeper, other forms of terror and abuse can be attributed to the Border Patrol and other U.S. agencies. According to a report by Amnesty International that condemns Operation Gatekeeper:

The allegations of ill-treatment Amnesty International collected include people struck with batons, fists and feet, often as punishment for attempting to run away from Border Patrol agents; denial of food, water and blankets for many hours while detained in Border Patrol stations and at Ports of Entry for INS processing; sexual abuse of men and women; denial of medical attention, and abusive, racially derogatory and unprofessional conduct towards the public sometimes resulting in the wrongful deportation of US citizens to Mexico. People who reported that they had been ill-treated included men, women and children, almost exclusively of Latin American descent. They included citizens and legal permanent residents of the USA, and members of Native American First Nations whose tribal lands span the U.S.-Mexico border.12

The brutality and disregard displayed by the Border Patrol has enabled and encouraged racist and vigilante acts against migrants as well.

Ranchers in Arizona and Texas have gone so far as to “hunt” for immigrants. One South Texas landowner was offended when a migrant asked him for water after walking through the brush for days to avoid the Border Patrol. According to subsequent charges, the landowner fired on the man and calmly watched him die. Elsewhere in Texas, numerous other shootings by ranchers have occurred.

In another situation, a rancher from Arizona would hunt for migrants with his brother and their M-16 rifles as punishment for drinking their water and leaving trash on their land. When asked about this, and the fact that the brothers were inviting tourists to join in the hunts, a Border Patrol officer remarked to the press that they “appreciated the help.”13 Along with violent ranchers, other vigilante groups have set up patrols along the border, including right-wing “citizen” groups, the Ku Klux Klan, and the skinhead group White Aryan Resistance.14

Joint operations with military personnel have also proven deadly for all people in the border region. Joint patrols have been conducted regularly with other government and military agencies. Joint Task Force 6 (JTF-6) is one such strategy. JTF-6 grew out of George Bush Sr.’s National Drug Control Strategy and is used under the Texas version of Gatekeeper, “Operation Alliance.” In one such joint operation, the marines cooperated with the Border Patrol for antidrug missions on the Texas border. In 1997, an 18-year-old U.S. citizen, Ezekiel Hernandez, was shot and killed by marines under suspicious circumstances. Hernandez was riding his horse with his hunting rifle when he was shot, something he did routinely. No charges were brought against the marines, who claimed they fired in self-defense.

The U.S. government justifies the militarization of the border by linking illegal immigration with the war on drugs—a process that began during the Reagan years (see the article on the history of the border in the next issue of the ISR). Joint patrols and the latest military hardware are to aid in this war. But, according to Roberto Martinez of the American Friends Service Committee Border Project, most of the drug trafficking comes through ports of entry with the help of corrupt government agents. “Over the last twenty years, hundreds of customs and border patrol agents have been indicted for taking bribes to allow smugglers to bring over not only people but also drugs, cocaine.”15 One immigration inspector, Jose Olvera, was caught accepting $2,000 to $4,000 bribes to allow the passage of drugs and undocumented migrants.16

Far from drug trafficking, the overwhelming majority of those who cross come to work. According to Martinez, the majority work in factories or in construction. Approximately 10 to 15 percent work in agriculture and food service. Nevertheless, the INS prefers to treat them all as criminals. As Martinez points out, “It’s like the Berlin Wall, when you are desperate and hungry, you are going to find a way across. They killed hundreds of people at the Berlin Wall, and that’s what they are doing here.”17

But in spite of the repression, people continue to cross. They do so for the simple reason that millions face poverty and unemployment in Mexico. Wages in Mexico are one-twelfth what they are in the U.S,18 and they have dropped by 9.5 percent, from $2.10 an hour to $1.90 an hour, since 1994.19 In the same period, the poverty rate in Mexico, measured as those living on $3 a day or less, has gone up by 3 percent to more than half of the population. Millions of Mexicans depend on the remittances of their loved ones working over the border. When NAFTA went into effect in 1994, there were predictions that the resulting prosperity would reduce the number of Mexicans immigrating to the United States. The opposite has happened. The explosion of factories in the maquiladora zone at the border has attracted workers northward. The number of workers in the maquiladoras has grown from 546,433 in 1994, to 1,330,990 by September 2000.20 As many maquila jobs are filled by women (and at very low pay), many of the men often try to make it over the border to find work.

Hundreds of thousands of Mexican peasants have also been made landless since NAFTA went into effect. As part of its preparation for NAFTA, the Mexican government amended Article 27 of the 1917 constitution to allow peasants and indigenous communities to sell communal and ejidal lands. The resulting privatization of land, combined with the devastating effects of cheap corn imports from the U.S. (which increased by 1,397 percent between 1993 and 1999), has driven peasants from the land. Unable to find work in Mexican cities, many make their way north.21

A recent study reveals that Gatekeeper hasn’t stemmed the flow of immigration despite the $6 billion to $9 billion spent for the operation over the last six years. According to Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, Operation Gatekeeper is “a failed policy.”22 While proponents of the policy point to the decline in arrests as a result of “deterrence,” they fail to mention that detentions have increased many-fold east of San Diego, where most of the deaths occur.

Robert Martinez argues that tightening controls at certain parts of the border simply means that people try to cross in different places:

Operation Gatekeeper is not only causing one of the worst human rights tragedies in border history, but it’s totally ineffective in stopping the flow of people in crossing the border. All they are doing is moving them from San Ysidro and Otay to East County and Imperial Valley and into Arizona where the number of apprehensions has quadrupled. The same number of people are crossing—just in another area. They are touting the success of Operation Gatekeeper because they’ve reduced the number of apprehensions in this area, but it’s very deceptive. It’s a bubble effect, you squeeze here and they pop up over there.23

While it is impossible to know exactly how many migrant workers cross the border in a given year, the statistics bear out what Martinez argues. INS officials claim a 30 percent apprehension rate, with a record 1,643,679 apprehensions in the year 2000.24 While apprehensions in San Diego have declined from 450,152 in 1994, to 151,681 in 2000, the number of apprehensions east of San Diego has increased 761 percent in El Centro, 351 percent in Arizona, and 55 percent in Texas. All told, there had been a 57 percent increase in the number of apprehensions along the Southwest border as of December 2000, giving lie to the claim that Operation Gatekeeper has been successful in curbing border crossings.25 Even the INS estimates that the number of people entering the U.S. illegally (55 percent of them from Mexico) each year has remained steady at about 275,000—in spite of the billions spent in the last seven years to stop illegal immigration.26
Anti-immigrant policies like Operation Gatekeeper are not designed to prevent immigration so much as to terrorize immigrants and to prove that something is being done to stop immigration. As pointed out by Debbie Nathan in a recent NACLA report, there are comparisons to be drawn between U.S. paramilitaries on the border and the U.S.-supported right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia.27 Both are fighting a war against civilian populations under the auspices of the drug war. In Colombia, the war will do nothing to curtail the drug trade, nor is it designed to; instead, it sows terror against a population to prevent support for a popular guerrilla movement and to keep profits flowing for oil and weapons manufacturers. On the border, Gatekeeper will do nothing to stop immigration, nor is it really designed to, but it is in place to sow terror among immigrant workers. The anti-immigrant policies of which Gatekeeper is a part aim to keep immigrants divided from other workers, to keep them without rights or recourse against their abuse and exploitation, and, consequently, to inhibit their ability to form unions.


Fortunately, there are signs of growing resistance to border repression and killing. For example, activists in California last year conducted a 12-mile march through the Mexicali desert to protest the increasing number of migrants who have died from cold and heat while attempting to cross the border into California. The protesters hung empty water jugs from the Mexicali border fence, each with the name of someone who had died of heat stroke since the start of Gatekeeper. “The point of all this is to show solidarity,” said Claudia Smith.28

Along Arizona’s border, activists from the group Humane Borders, many of them veterans of the Central American solidarity movement, have adapted their tactics to support and harbor migrants crossing over. Activities of the group range from setting up food and water stations at crossing points in the desert to providing transportation to shelters that are out of the reach of the INS or homes. Disgustingly, the INS is using Cold War tactics to break up this network and to terrorize the activists.

Not only have they ratcheted up the fine to $250,000 and 10 years in jail for harboring an undocumented immigrant, but the INS recently infiltrated the network with spies to identify and aggressively prosecute the human rights activists. Despite the intimidation, activists vow to continue to defy the law. According to Clara, a border resident drawn into the network by what she sees as a moral travesty, “Our government is creating a problem here that does not need to be created…. I’m going to do what I think I should do.”29

After a long history of supporting anti-immigration policies, the AFL-CIO’s executive council passed a resolution in support of immigrant workers in early 2000. The vote reflects a growing recognition that immigrant workers are a growing part of the labor movement. “Immigrant workers get exploited by employers who make them work long hours for low pay,” said Roger Rivera, an organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 428 in San Jose. “But when the workers stand up for decent conditions and want to organize a union, they’re not protected by law. That’s not right.”30 The AFL-CIO resolution calls for the repeal of employer sanctions, for a general amnesty for millions of undocumented workers, and for a program to educate immigrant workers about their rights. This represents a tremendous step forward.
To back up its new policy, the AFL-CIO held a series of mass rallies—in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Atlanta—for immigrant rights. The largest, held in June 2000 in Los Angeles, drew 20,000 people. Immigrant workers testified about how employers threatened to fire or deport them when they tried to organize. “Looking for a better future for our families is not illegal,” said Seattle construction worker José Angel Juarez at the Los Angeles rally. Workers chanted, “Aquí estamos y no nos vamos!” (We are here to stay, and we are not leaving!) “Time after time,” said AFL-CIO vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson at the Los Angeles rally, “we see employers try to divide us from our sisters and brothers. They try to pit immigrants against nonimmigrants, documented against undocumented, and try to drive down the wages and working conditions of all.”31

The AFL-CIO’s new position puts its official policy at odds with the Democratic Party. Clinton’s 1996 immigration bill, for example, allows the INS to bar someone from reentering the U.S. permanently if they have previously spent an aggregate of a year or more in the U.S. without documents. California Democrats Governor Gray Davis and Senator Dianne Feinstein have been tripping over each other trying to be hawks on border policy. While Davis has been a firm supporter of Gatekeeper, Feinstein has tried to outdo the right in her stance on immigrants. In a recent trip to San Diego, Feinstein howled about how understaffed and unprepared border agents are to deal with the threat of “drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants.” Taking a page out of Reagan’s playbook, she blurred the lines between ordinary people crossing the border and Mexican drug cartels. In calling for more agents, guns, and helicopters, Feinstein blurted out, “[T]hese are…vicious cartels…. I don’t want them in this country, I don’t want them corrupting our people.”32 Unions need to break with the pro-corporate, anti-immigrant policies of the Democrats. For his part, George W. Bush is following in Clinton’s footsteps: He recently called for more funding and several hundred new agents for the Border Patrol.

Capitalism needs immigration controls

Immigration policy in the U.S. has been closely related to economic swings, with greater or lesser restrictions related to the demand for labor. A migratory labor pool is essential to capitalism when economic growth produces a demand for workers that can’t be satisfied by the existing workforce. But, the more “controllable” the workforce, the better. That’s why immigration restrictions are never eliminated. Denying migrant workers the rights of citizenship makes them more vulnerable to arrest, deportation, and separation from their families. Migrant workers are also more likely to work the lowest-paying jobs with minimal or nonexistent safety standards in sweatshop-like garment factories, agriculture, construction, and food service. Fear of deportation deters them from organizing for better conditions. That is why NAFTA opened the border to trade and investment but kept it closed for workers.

Immigration bashing is also used ideologically to try to turn U.S.-born workers against immigrant workers rather than seeing them as allies. This also explains why anti-immigrant policy has become a permanent feature under capitalism, even though the system is dependent upon workers of different countries. Such differentiation between workers on the basis of citizenship and nationality aids employers and politicians, who are more than willing to blame immigrants for the failings of the system or to call the INS in order to break a union drive. But anti-immigrant policies, such as California’s Proposition 187, designed to deny immigrants basic human rights to education and social services, has also helped in turn to open the door to more far-right hatemongers like Patrick Buchanan.

The bosses and politicians have historically exploited national and cultural divisions in the U.S. to weaken working-class unity. This legacy has stifled the labor movement in this country and ensures that we live in the most unequal of the advanced industrialized countries. Immigrant bashing and harsh laws against undocumented workers, therefore, hurt not only the workers directly affected, but all workers, because, to repeat an old labor movement refrain, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

We need to build a fighting movement to unite workers in this country, regardless of nationality or legal status. This is an essential ingredient for building the cross-border solidarity necessary to oppose corporate globalization. The growing continent-wide fightback against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) shows the potential of a new international movement of workers in the Americas. A historic binational protest on April 21, in solidarity with the anti-FTAA protest in Quebec, showed the way forward. More than 2,500 students, activists, and workers on both sides of the border came together to fight for the rights of workers, immigrants, and the indigenous, and for the environment (see the report in this issue). This protest showed the first steps in internationalizing our struggle against the bosses and a new mood of resistance to Operation Gatekeeper. The protest produced a binational network that will focus on supporting our common struggles on both sides of the border.

The spirit of Chiapas and the spirit of Seattle converged on the border. It showed most concretely what our tasks are on this side of the border. Workers must see immigrants as their allies and fight the racist immigrant-bashing policies of the bosses that keep us divided. We must start by not recognizing their borders and by taking the fight for immigrant rights into every workplace. Together, we have a world to win.

JUSTIN AKERS is a member of the International Socialist Organization in San Diego.

1 Timothy J. Dunn, The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978–1992: Low-Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home, Center for Mexican American Studies Border and Migration Studies Series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), pp. 87–88.
2 “Morning Edition,” National Public Radio, April 19, 1999.
3 Bill Clinton on immigration, available on the Web site at
4 Joe Cantlupe, “Arrests up since 1994 crackdown at border: County effort fails to deter illegal flow,” San Diego Union-Tribune, February 20, 2001.
5 It is known as “Operation Safeguard” in Arizona and “Operation Rio Grande” in Texas.
6 Statistics taken from “Operation Gatekeeper Fact Sheet,” California Rural Legal Assistance Fund (CRLAF), available on their Border Project Web site at
7 Debbie Nathan, “Border geography and vigilantes,” NACLA Report on the Americas, September-October 2000, p. 5.
8 American Civil Liberties Union, “UN human rights panel asked to investigate migrant deaths on U.S. border,” press release, April 14, 1999, available at on the San Diego ACLU Web site at
9 Quoted in Claudia E. Smith, “Operation Gatekeeper resolves nothing,”
op-ed, available at
10 CRLAF statistics, available at
11 CRLAF statistics, available at
12 Amnesty International, “Human rights concerns in the border region with Mexico,” report, May 20, 1998, available on their Web site at
13 Nathan, “Border geography and vigilantes.”
14 Tom Barry, Harry Browne, and Beth Sims, Crossing the Line: Immigrants, Economic Integration, and Drug Enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico Border (Albuquerque: Inter-Hemispheric Resource Center Press, 1994), p. 42
15 Jose Palafox, “Militarizing the border,” Covert Action Quarterly, Spring 1996, available at
16 Marisa Taylor, “Border agent accused of taking bribes,” San Diego Union-Tribune, September 26, 2000.
17 Roberto Martinez, “U.S. Border Patrol in S. California developing deadly but ineffective Operation Gatekeeper,” interview, In Motion Magazine, December 1999.
18 Global Exchange, “Tear down the wall: Global Exchange statement
on U.S.-Mexico border migration,” August 8, 2000, available at
19 Sarah Anderson, “Seven years under NAFTA,” Institute for Policy Studies, January 2001, available at
20 Anderson, “Seven years under NAFTA.”
21 Anderson, “Seven years under NAFTA.”
22 Cantlupe, “Arrests up since 1994.”
23 Martinez, “U.S. Border Patrol.”
24 Cantlupe, “Arrests up since 1994.”
25 “Apprehension statistics for the Southwest border,” chart, available on CRLAF’s Border Project Web site at
26 Cantlupe, “Arrests up since 1994.”
27 Nathan, “Border geography and vigilantes.”
28 Leonel Sanchez, “Migrant-rights advocates plan desert walk to protest deaths,” San Diego Union-Tribune, September 2, 2000.
29 Tim Vanderpool, “Arizona’s underground railroad,” The Progressive, March 2001.
30 “AFL-CIO adopts new immigration policy,” media release, March 17, 2000, available on the California Labor Federation Web site at
31 AFL-CIO, “20,000 mobilize for immigrant workers’ rights,” available at
32 Marisa Taylor, “Feinstein calls for more staff, technology to control border: She says she aims to ease the burden,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 18, 2001.

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