Carly Greenfield is a third year International Relations student with an interest in non-wartime violence, gender theory, and organized crime, especially in Latin America .
Four weeks ago, United States Border Patrol agent Rogelio Martinez died in the Big Bend, Texas area of the United States (US)-Mexico border. His partner was critically injured in the incident. Border patrol deaths are rare compared to other law enforcement bodies— the last murder of an on-duty agent was in 2010, making this case national news. The cause of death remains murky: while the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott (R), has called it a murder, others remain unsure of the circumstances surrounding Agent Martinez’ death. The agents were allegedly ambushed by a group of migrants crossing the border illegally and were then attacked with rocks. This storyline, however, becomes complicated by the fact that Agent Martinez’ body was found with both his gun and his wallet and his wounds may indicate a fall. Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo has said it could have been an accident, meaning weeks later, the cause of death remains unknown. While we still await a clearer narrative, the death has already revealed the importance of the US southern border across many fronts. The border plays the two-fold role of both being a material manifestation of US-Mexican collaboration and being a striking physical divide between the two countries. It is also an area that sees constant movement and exchange in its own local space and at the national level. All of these factors complicate the border, the role of the US Border Patrol, and the reactions and actions taken following the death of Agent Martinez.
The border plays a key role in the Conservative imagination. State and federal Republicans visualize the border as an impenetrable and controllable line that separates the United States from Mexico. This is seen through the constant calls for increased funding to both the Border Patrol and to the structural border— currently made up of fences, walls, sensors, checkpoints, and the like. The view of ‘Fortress America’ separates the national conversation from the daily interactions seen on the ground. Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R), for instance, tweeted this statement:
“This is a stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses to the safety of our communities and those charged with defending them. We are grateful for the courage and sacrifice of our border agents who have dedicated their lives to keeping us safe. I remain fully committed to working with the Border Patrol to provide them with all the resources they need to safeguard our nation.”
This view of border communities as separate from one another furthers the conservative narrative of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and denies the major links in the region that exist below the state level. With 10% of the US population having Mexican roots, and the border being former Mexican territory, heritage in the area crisscrosses the border. More than 14 million people crossed the border in just El Paso in the first six months of 2017 alone. But still, the Border Patrol is a strong image of a force protecting our border and our people from them. It began as a makeshift group patrolling the Southern border— this is important in understanding its politicization. While the agents now patrol both the Northern and Southern border, the Southern border has always been the primary target. This partition is emphasized even though the Southern border features many cities that are only bifurcated by the border itself. President Trump’s rhetoric has furthered this division. Following Agent Martinez’ death, he tweeted:
“Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt. We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!”
Although information about the situation was not yet available, it was already assumed that a non-American took part in the assault and that a wall would have prevented Agent Martinez’ death. The Border Patrol’s labor union quickly stated that they believed the agents were attacked with rocks by ‘illegal aliens’ or members of drug cartels. This shows the language around the border to be that of a hard, controlled space. President Trump has automatically assumed that the violence is from the outside and not an internal occurrence. This stands in contrast to how the governments of both Mexico and the US communicate behind closed doors, where the conversations around border violence and security churn constantly in a collaborative effort. President Trump, instead, has positioned himself as a protector of the American people against those of Mexico, summoning false images of both a monolithic American population and Mexican one, respectively. This rhetoric has strained his relationship with the US’ Southern neighbor, along with marking a massive shift in tone from former presidents.
Agent Martinez’ death, and its quick politicization, is evidence of President Trump’s departure from previous administrations’ policies towards Mexico and also makes the background bureaucratic work between the two countries more difficult. While the current administration uses heavy language when discussing the border, government agencies continue to operate behind the scenes in close collaboration. The border, especially in the last decade, has been a place of communication on an institutional level. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a department formed in 2002 under President W. Bush’s watch, has its closest foreign partnerships with Mexico. The department, which brought together formerly separate agencies, is the third biggest in the US and comprises major components such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the US Coast Guard (USCG), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All of these components communicate daily with the Government of Mexico (GOM), with one of the first occurrences following Agent Martinez’ death was a call from Mexico to see if the possible killer was a Mexican national. More so, following the Merida Initiative in 2006, the US has contributed millions of dollars to better securitize Mexico and work in close collaboration to fight transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) based in the region. This has led to extradition agreements, initiatives such as the Border Violence and Prevention Council (BVPC), law enforcement training, and re-integration plans for deported Mexican nationals.
Charting further back, the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 raised trade between the two countries and led to many US companies building their factories on the Mexican side of the Southern border. The raised purchasing power of local Mexicans and the cheaper goods on the Mexican side then saw high levels of civilian crossings for consumer purchases. These numbers continue to be high for both work and pleasure purposes. As of 2016, 81% of Mexican exports went to the United States. Most of these go through the border— again emphasizing the importance of the border in economic and security terms.
The border is a complex region due to its institutional and local significance. It is the main port of entry for illicit drugs into the US, but also serves as a main entry-point for Mexican products. Its population oftentimes straddles the border, living on both sides and sharing heritage with both sides. There is also the complication of indigenous lands and populations— creating yet another structural difficulty for American administrations.
This is why Trump’s rhetoric can have serious repercussions for the border and for both countries’ politics. As Mexico heads into an election year, anti-Mexican sentiments from the sitting US president fuel anti-American sentiments in Mexico. It makes collaboration more difficult as it is hard to keep the day-to-day work of bureaucrats separate from the hyperbolic speech at the national level. Even President Trump has admitted this— in a phone call to Mexican President Peña Nieto in August, he said that the wall was a large political problem but hardly the focus of the US-Mexican relationship. For President Peña Nieto and his party, the answer is not so clear: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), will have a hard time defending close relations with the US when President Trump speaks so brashly and uses the wall as a symbol to pander to his supporters. The impact of the President is far reaching. Illegal crossing arrests are at their lowest in years, with many saying this is due to President Trump’s hard language. This may not show the whole picture, however; fear of arrest could simply be pushing migrants to try and reach further into the interior of the US, fueling the smuggling business around the border. When the layers of local and state interaction are added, as both the US and Mexico have federalist systems, it is plain to see why the border is a region that should be treated with attention to detail and an understanding of its history. The death of Agent Martinez’, however, tells a different story, and is another example of this administration’s one-dimensional approach and the future of the border.