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A Return on Our Investment

Border Externalization in “America’s Backyard” under the Biden Administration

September 7, 2023

This piece was published in collaboration with The Border Chronicle.

In April, President Biden’s administration announced that it was going to open migration-processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala. These would form part of new deterrence measures established in anticipation of the end of the pandemic-era Title 42. The administration feared what the media was hyping, that with their rapid expulsion policy expiring, it would face, in the words of Rep. Tony Gonzales, “hordes” attempting to migrate to the United States. While the media focused on additional enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico international boundary, the Biden administration emphasized preventing the passage of migrants from South and Central America to the United States, continuing Washington’s project of externalizing the U.S. border regime in this hemisphere and globally.

The White House’s announcement broadcast its new centers with an air of benevolence. “This program,” it declared, “will facilitate access to lawful pathways to the United States and other countries, family reunification, and access to temporary work visas.” It would, moreover, “humanely reduce irregular migration.” “Humane” border and immigration policy has been a staple term used by the Biden administration since the president’s inauguration, presumably to differentiate his administration from Donald Trump’s.

Rhetoric aside, we have to see how the Safe Mobility Offices (as they have been named) fit into the process of U.S. border militarization and enforcement and its extension into Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond. This “pushing out of the border,” as U.S. officials like to phrase it—and the deterrence strategy that accompanies it—has been a pillar of U.S. bipartisan border strategy since 9/11.

As Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas put it on April 27, migration “is a hemispheric challenge that demands hemispheric solutions. Working with our neighbors in the region, we can and will reduce the number of migrants who reach our southern border. The Regional Processing Centers announced today will be a critical addition to the programs and processes DHS has in place for qualifying individuals to obtain authorization to enter the United States before arriving at our border” or else face consequences.

By “the programs and processes DHS has in place,” Mayorkas presumably means those that administer asylum requests in safe third countries. The administration requires that people make these requests as they head north to the United States and that they use the glitchy CBP One app to make appointments. Despite these new requirements, Biden’s measures are part of a decades-long process in which the U.S. has pressured, trained, and sent equipment to countries to fortify their borders. All this is designed, as former Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner Robert Bonner put it in 2004, to extend “our zone of security where we can do so, beyond our physical borders—so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense.”

The administration claims that the Safety Mobility Offices will facilitate “lawful migration,” but experts have already said that they have not done any good for migrants yet. In reality, they are bureaucratic obstacles to mobility and are better considered as another “investment” in U.S. border fortification—akin to building a wall or putting up a surveillance tower. What’s more, the deployment is in a region that the United States has considered its “backyard” for 200 years—since the Monroe Doctrine—a place where there has been countless U.S. military interventions and economic impositions that have long favored U.S. corporations and local oligarchies. The extended border, in many ways, is the 21st-century intervention.

Safety Mobility Offices are bureaucratic obstacles to mobility and are better considered as another “investment” in U.S. border fortification—akin to building a wall or putting up a surveillance tower.

I first heard that term “investment” used to describe U.S. border extension in 2017, when I interviewed officials at the CBP’s International Affairs Office in Washington, DC. I was there as part of the research for my 2019 book Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border around the World. I met with three officials—two dressed in forest green U.S. Border Patrol uniforms, and one in a suit and tie—to learn about Washington’s project of border extension.

They told me that U.S. international operations had increased “exponentially” since 9/11. Coyly using the rhetoric of investment, one official said they were “trying to open new [CBP attaché offices], but it’s always trying to find the place where there is more bang for our buck.” Since 2003, the U.S. has opened 25 such offices around the world, the newest ones in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador this year.

This sort of rapid international expansion they explained confirmed my research and experience. I had seen this U.S. extension firsthand at several borders around the world. I had been to the Mexico-Guatemalan border and seen the gauntlet of checkpoints, partially funded by the Merida Initiative, that confronted migrants heading north on any road.

In the Dominican Republic, I interviewed the commander of its U.S.-trained and financed border guard while he interrogated a group of detained Haitian men. I rode along in a truck with the U.S.-financed Honduran border patrol while they told me that they had just arrested several Dominicans and Ecuadorans at a checkpoint.

Beyond the Western Hemisphere, I had been to borders in Jordan, where a major general told me the U.S. financed a surveillance system along the Syrian border. In the Philippines, a Coast Guard commander showed me a high-tech command and control center in Manila Bay built by the Raytheon corporation and financed by the United States.

At the International Affairs Office, the officials told me, “The leadership understands that the U.S. border does not start at the U.S. border.” They talked about their global advisory programs and the “large U.S. presence throughout Central America.”

And then suddenly there was a slight yet revealing disagreement between two of the officials. The civilian official said that there was “a large effort to capacity-build the Central American partner … in terms of gifts of equipment, gifts of vehicles, trainings, and even personnel we have in the country.”

A visible look of disbelief crossed the face of the uniformed agent sitting next to him. “Gifts?” he said. “They are not gifts.” He paused, and then said something that cut right through all the rhetoric of benevolence. “We, in fact, expect a return on our investment.”

The formation of the Kaibiles, a special forces unit of the Guatemalan military, was an investment to preserve a multitude of economic and military status quos.

A few months before meeting these officials, I saw this vehicle “investment” with my own eyes when I visited the Guatemala’s newly formed, U.S.-funded border patrol called the Chorti at the Zacapa military base near the Honduras border. Officials there, including a U.S. military adviser, gave me a demonstration of how they could quickly deploy a checkpoint using the “gifted” J8 armored Jeeps from the United States. Other “gifts” they had recently received from the United States include 30 GPS maps of Central America, 50 tactical backpacks, 188 bulletproof vests, 15 cameras, 29 pairs of night-vision binoculars, 135 bulletproof helmets, 40 rifles, 230 rifle-cleaning kits, 42 machine-gun cleaning kits, 40 first aid kits, seven heavy-duty Ford F450 trucks, 29 Toyota Hilux pickups, and, of course, 42 of the J8 Jeeps.

While I watched them mount weapons on these Jeeps, I rode in the back of another vehicle with the Chorti’s military commander. His name patch said Moran, and he wore the maroon beret of the Kaibiles, a special forces unit of the Guatemalan military. I was astonished: the Kaibiles had been trained by U.S. Green Berets in the 1960s in the wake of the 1954 CIA-instigated coup and were part of the violent military dictatorship that followed.

In front of me, as part of the demonstration, Moran was pretending to coordinate the checkpoint deployment with another commander on his phone. During the country’s civil war, which ended in 1996, the Kaibiles were notoriously brutal. So much so that the United Nations Truth Commission report released in the late 1990s called them “killing machines.” Now they were commanding Guatemala’s new border force.

But it’s unsurprising that the Kaibiles have transformed from counterinsurgency force to border patrol. It is a logical extension of their function as gendarmes of the U.S. empire. The Guatemalan military dictatorship, which created the Kaibiles, overthrew former president Jacobo Arbenz after the threatened to redistribute the Boston-based United Fruit Company’s fallow land. The formation of the Kaibiles, in this sense, was an investment to preserve a multitude of economic and military status quos.

Both that coup and the Kaibiles’ new incarnation as border guards fits into the long history of U.S. dominion over Latin America. Journalist Juan Gonzalez describes this and connects it to displacement and migration in his book Harvest of Empire: “U.S. economic and political domination” across the Western Hemisphere, he argues, has spurred a “torrent” of migration from places that “our soldiers and businessmen had already penetrated, cowed, and transformed.”

As we rumbled along at the end of the checkpoint demonstration, Moran told me that “the olive green was respected in Guatemala.” He said, “I know this because I am a student of history.” His presence as a Kaibil certainly brought that history to the present.

Entire countries have become the U.S. Border Patrol’s newest hires, and the Biden administration seems to be banking on this investment.

During the April 27 press conference with DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “We’re also working with partners in the hemisphere to accept repatriation flights, increase security forces along migration routes, provide more assistance to migrants and refugees.” This sounded as if the administration were embarking on something innovative, but none of this was new. The administration was simply following a process that has been in the works for decades, a part of U.S. border strategy that remains central yet obscure, and, ultimately, as Gonzalez argues in Harvest of Empire, connected to centuries of U.S. economic policy, military intervention, and political bullying in Latin America.

When Blinken mentioned security forces, he focused on Panama, particularly the dangerous Darién Gap in the Colombian borderlands, through which 300,000 people have traversed so far this year, coming from places all across the world, including Asia and Africa. This border, nearly 3,000 miles away from the U.S. international boundary, is becoming a focus and a crucial part of this expansive version of the U.S. southern frontier.

At that same press conference, Mayorkas revealed that “two weeks ago we reached a trilateral agreement with Colombia and Panama to attack the smugglers who falsely coax people into the treacherous terrain of the Darien. We initiated a 60-day coordinated campaign with Panama and Colombia to prevent the incredibly dangerous humanitarian situation of migrants traversing the Darién jungle. We have made more than 10,000 smuggling arrests since April of last year and seized more than $47 million in smugglers’ illegal property and finances.” According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Panamanian government has agreed to put 1,200 border agents, police, and naval officers in the Darién Gap as part of this enforcement plan launched in June.

“The United States has a close relationship with the Panamanian border service,” anthropologist Caitlyn Yates told Melissa del Bosque in an interview with The Border Chronicle.

She explained that one part of this international collaboration was a “biometrics review”:

So what that looks like in practice is that certain nationalities, not all nationalities, that cross the Darién Gap must undergo a biometric review. This has been happening for several years, and what it looks like for the individuals moving through is basically their IDs are taken—so passports, drivers licenses, national IDs. That information is input into a system. And then fingerprints, retina scans, and photographs are taken of the individuals. That information is then run through international, and then U.S. law enforcement databases.

In other words, like Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and southern Mexico, Panama’s Darién Gap has become a part of the U.S. border. Entire countries have become the U.S. Border Patrol’s newest hires, and the Biden administration seems to be banking on this investment. The return? For people crossing these borders—some will cross up to 14 to get to the United States—hardship, suffering, violence, and sometimes death. For Washington, however, it is the newest face in Latin America and the Caribbean of the U.S. hegemony and intervention encoded in the Monroe Doctrine.



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