Photo by US Border Patrol
While researching his book The Politics of Borders, Matthew Longo visited the border between Mexico and the United States. In Nogales, smugglers dig so many tunnels, the guards fear the town will collapse.
By Vincent Bongers “The most upsetting thing I saw was the detention centre where illegal Mexican immigrants were held after they’d been caught at the border with America. The things I saw there were really disturbing. The authorities collect prisoners’ biometric data – it’s an obsessive quest for data, while the prisoners refuse to have their fingerprints taken and scrape the fingers on the concrete to remove the skin. You can see the traces on the wall.”
In his book The Politics of Borders, Matthew Longo, an American political scientist, describes how border control has evolved since the attacks on 11 September 2001.
“When I began back in 2007, borders and migration had far less focus and I had to fight for my research”, recalls Longo, who has recently taken a position at Leiden University.
“Because Trump has been making so much noise about his wall for a while now, I’ve actually benefited from this president. Of course, I feel very bad about it. His wall is a political circus. It’s just one big joke that he’s investigating so-called prototypes. Border control is a gigantic operation. Nobody in the security industry believes that you can solve the problems related to terrorism, drugs trafficking or migration with concrete and steel. All this talk about that stupid wall is superficial and senseless.”
Longo visited a hotspot on the 3,145-kilometre border between America and Mexico. “I wanted to go where the action is. There’s a town in the state of Arizona called Nogales, which borders on a Mexican town with the same name. There’s a fence with broad, rusty bars between the two. I was astonished, because I had been expecting an enormous concrete wall. That barrier didn’t do anything: you could easily stick a parcel of cocaine through it.
“The border guards told me they didn’t have a concrete wall because then they can watch the other side of the border. They can keep an eye on the Mexican kids who throw stones at them without a control centre full of monitors, although they use all sorts of surveillance tech too.”
But smuggling people and goods is done underground in Nogales: it’s full of tunnels that lead under the border. “The whole town will drop a metre one of these days”, Longo heard from a former head of the Border Patrol, which has discovered more than a hundred tunnels.
Nonetheless, border control is now a huge industry. “Every year, there’s a large trade fair near to Nogales, where they show off high-tech detection equipment: tunnel robots, fancy drones with hyper-sensitive cameras, small airships with advanced radar systems, motion sensors and seismographs.”
The technology is not always reliable, however. “Sometimes, the equipment gives off false signals and the border police rush out with loads of troops for a herd of stampeding cows – this can get quite expensive, obviously.”
According to Longo, it’s a game of cat and mouse. Sometimes, as the guards crawl through the narrow, underground corridors, they can smell cigarette smoke or hear the voices of smugglers as they run off. “A Border Patrol officer compared it to Whack-A-Mole: every time you hit the mole that pops its head up, another mole pops its head up somewhere else. There’s no let-up.”
Meanwhile, the other side keeps on trying out new tactics too. “Smugglers build increasingly better tunnels, with lights, air conditioning and sensors. They use drones too, which are getting cheaper and cheaper, to fly the cocaine to the other side of the border. They used to make them themselves by putting wings on lawn-mower engines. They could deliver a hundred kilos of drugs in one go with those things.”
Trump, and some European countries, are building new barriers, which are ineffective, says Longo; it would make more sense for countries to work together instead. “A single sovereign state cannot control a border anymore – if it ever could. In fact, in Nogales, Mexicans and Americans work together more and more often. They coordinate patrols and go on missions together. And, more importantly, they share lots and lots of information. It’s becoming increasingly harder to tell where the United States end and Mexico begins.”
After all, stopping goods and people is only dealing with the symptoms. “The underlying problem is the demand for drugs. In addition, the American economy depends rather a lot on migrants, both legal and illegal. We can spew our anger at Mexico, but that country must deal with migrants from Central America. Everything’s interrelated.”
Hours of answering silly questions
“When I travel by plane, there’s often trouble at Customs”, says political scientist Matthew Longo, who became interested in border politics after some personal experiences.
“Before the 9/11 attacks, American security at airports was very poor and often completely lacking at ports. Even in the nineties, the idea of full-body scans was ridiculous, which is hard to imagine now.
“I’ve just about seen everything. I’ve spent hours answering silly questions; they’ve taken my papers away. They have a file on me that gets me into difficulty when I least expect it.
“I’ve even been escorted off a plane by the authorities. When I came back from Yemen with my wife, we were both questioned, separately. She said we had flown home via Cairo. I didn’t mention Egypt, so we were both questioned for another two hours because of that tiny discrepancy.
Longo realises that we live in a world in which terrorism is a reality. “Security is necessary, but it’s essential to keep an eye on what security staff do and why they do it. The control zones grow ever larger, which is putting pressure on our civil rights. I don’t like the fact that we are watched more and more often.”
Matthew Longo, The Politics of Borders. Sovereignty, Security, and the Citizen after 9/11.
Cambridge University Press
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