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Post-September 11 at the Border

I sit, facing north, on a wall outside of Roman's penthouse. About two miles away, on the other side of the border, I see the familiar green and white trucks of the United States Border Patrol on a hill.
Gilbert Rosas

Issue #60, April 2002

September 16, 2001

El deciseis Mexicanos call it. The sixteenth of September celebrates Mexican independence from colonial Spain. In honor of this holiday, I am at what Roman calls his "penthouse": two cinder block shacks with sheet metal roofs and holes for windows and doors perched on a hill in a colonia (neighborhood) of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Since 1995, Roman has been one of my primary informants, and a close friend, who, along with many of our mutual friends, I increasingly see as family.

Beto turns the dial of the circa 1970s television. All are devoted to news of the September 11 tragedy. Franco cooks a doritos, tuna, and hamburger casserole, which he learned to make while imprisoned in Arizona for his repeated attempts at unauthorized entry to the United States.

Roman speaks English better than I do Spanish. He learned the language when he went to school in Washington before his father's naturalization status was revoked because he was alleged to have sold cocaine, a charge that Roman denies. A collection of transnational experiences has supplied Roman with cultural knowledge to supplment his linguistic skills: frequent incarcerations in the US, life at the border and in several U.S. cities, as well as the consumption of television, movies, and music. Roman gestures at the television images of Ground Zero. Despite being thousands of miles away from the border and separated by the jagged edges of the post-NAFTA border, New York is a center of our conversation.

"They know who has done it. Right?"
"They say," I reply.
Osama Bin Laden materializes on the screen.
"He looks like the devil," says Beto, whose nickname is Chamuco, a term for the devil.
Roman: "That fucker ... He's a mother fucker."
"Why?" I interrupt.
"I'll kick his man ... That fucker killed fifty of my paisanos ...fifty Mexicans ...They worked in the two towers."

I struggle to formulate an argument. I begin explaining about US support for Israel, about its unquenchable thirst for oil, about US imperialism, about how with the collapse of the USSR there is no country to check US influence. I move to immigration, and the militarization of the US-Mexico border. Out of the corner of my eye, I see New York firefighters digging frantically in the collapsed buildings. In the ash gray remains of the structures, I believe that I can make out a limp hand here, a dismembered leg there. And the dust — human dust — cakes passersby.

Roman intervenes: "They worked in cleaning. Janitors. That what I heard. I'll go to war. Hell, I'll go to war and kick Bin Laden's ass. I'll kill the fucker."
Flaco jumps into the conversation. "He killed illegals." He refers to undocumented workers living in New York, an emerging center for Mexican immigration.

Consider that less than five years ago, these same young men preyed upon the undocumented. For much of the 1990s, they extorted money and valuables from immigrants in the moisture and filth of an international sewer system. They demanded payment from immigrants attempting to subvert US-Mexico border controls through their 'hood, Barrio Libre (the Free 'Hood), an amorphous, anarchic space that stretched from the bowels of the border to Tucson, El Paso, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In their repeated movements through the sewer, back and forth between Mexico and the United States, that is back and forth through their 'hood, they found freedom, expressing it in a charged idiom of Barrio Libre: "Somos Libre" (We're Free).

Yet, over a span of a few years, everyday life at the border changed. On the eve of NAFTA, which increased the flow of commercial goods, the US military attempted to decrease the flow of humans, raising a wall severing Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. They used Vietnam-era metal sheets, artifacts of a previous war. Similarly in Operation Hold-the-Line, Border Patrol agents embodied the international boundary, making a human wall for a twenty-mile stretch in the El Paso area. Under Operation Gatekeeper, one-time gaping holes in the San Diego-Tijuana border region were repaired and intense militarized forms of surveillance were implemented. As the El Paso and San Diego corridors grew dangerous, siphoning immigrants to Arizona, Operation Safeguard commenced. A Mexican police force, Grupo Beta, began patrolling the Mexican side of the border. And, the U.S. military's anti-narcotic efforts at the border, including training the Border Patrol and local authorities in military techniques, frequently overlapped into the Border Patrol's anti-immigration activities. Recently, sensors and an alarm system, which commands people in Spanish to return to Mexico, were installed in the tunnels. Roberto Martinez, an immigrant rights activists, attributes the deaths of approximately 2,000 immigrants to the proliferation of border controls over the past ten years, many more times the 191 who died crossing the Berlin Wall in its 40-year history.

Immigration Picture!

Intense militarized forms of surveillance sculpt everyday life at the border. Immigrant-hunting ranchers in Arizona, the Border Patrol, the Mexican authorities, and Barrio Libre practice violence as a natural part of social life. Indeed, as a long-time border resident and in my research on border violence, in which I parallel the development of Barrio Libre to militarized immigration controls at the post-NAFTA border, I have documented this endemic violence, exemplified by the Mexican authorities forcing one young man in Barrio Libre to rape another. Similarly, on a recent television news show, a US government official, based in Tucson said that he receives at least one criminal complaint against the Border Patrol per day. It seems that the immigration authorities and their counterparts in Mexico mimic the tactics of Barrio Libre, having become "gangs" in their own right, fighting for control of territory, and deploying extra-legal tactics. Of course, a notable difference is that the authorities have legal authorization sanctifying their actions and their territorial claims.

At the same time, the border's underlying violence inflects the Barrio Libre formation. Barrio Libre increasingly licenses substance abuse, what I understand as a form of self-directed violence, rather than the transgression of the border. Absent the transnational connotation, the youth increasingly find liberation in other, more problematic practices: the consumption of heroin, crack, marijuana, and, the poor man's high, metallic spray paint, especially gold spray paint. Ironically, oro or gold refers to the American dollar in border Spanish.

I return to my post-September 11th conversation with the youth.

Roman: "Look at the people. Look at them"

The gravity of the pain — men and women crying, people praying, firefighters clawing through the rubble, — momentarily silences us.

Suddenly, Roman recalls one of his numerous incarcerations in the Nogales, Arizona youth penitentiary. It was during Operation Desert Storm. "A guard over there (he points north) told me that I could fight for the US. They would give me papers, and pay me. And I would have all the women I wanted ...

I shudder thinking of the implications, betraying my insider cool.

The booty of war can also be found here at the post-NAFTA border. As bodies are increasingly contained in Mexico, the thumping pulse of border discotheques echoes through the streets of Nogales, Juarez, Tijuana, and other Mexican border communities. Over the past eight years, I have noted in Nogales, Sonora an increasing number of strip clubs. Young people, having come to the border from the interior of Mexico and hoping to make it in the United States find their efforts thwarted. Meanwhile, the twin industrial plants, augmented by NAFTA, what some have referred to as a sort of safety net for frustrated immigrants, do not pay enough, nor do they offer enough work. Unlike the majority of young men of Barrio Libre, who are now incarcerated either in the US or Mexico, many of the young women, in addition to working in the service sector of the Nogales, Sonoran economy, prostitute themselves. Moreover, allegations linger that a US authority took pornographic images of immigrant youth in the 1990s. And, I have been told stories of Border Patrol and other US authorities having relations with the teenage girls of Barrio Libre.

September 21, 2001

I walk through a colonia of Nogales, Sonora with two of the young men. A police car cruises toward us. The two men, frequently subject to police harassment, tense.

"What are you doing?" the officers demand of the youth.
Suddenly, the officers scrutinize me. Reaching for his holster, the one in the passenger seat says "He's Arab."
I blurt out: "I'm a US citizen."

After explaining most of my research, and showing my passport, they leave us. Now more than ever, my deep color, shaved head, and goatee provoke suspicion south of the border.

Reflecting on this scene, Roman comments: "Had you not had your passport ...they would have taken you to jail and beaten you so hard you would have wished you were dead ..."

November 25, 2001

I sit, facing north, on a wall outside of Roman's penthouse. About two miles away, on the other side of the border, I see the familiar green and white trucks of the United States Border Patrol on a hill. The odds are now over 40% that the agents inside the vehicle are Hispanic. About a mile to my west sits a surveillance tower, which I know has a video camera atop it that has probably filmed me numerous times since 1994. Today as I crossed into Nogales Sonora, I passed three Arizona National Guardsmen, and three border patrol agents, aside from the several US customs agents and Nogales police officers.

Roman's wife, Ofelia, washes his, her and their two infants' clothing, alternating between the two pails, one of clean and one of dirty water. Roman dusts the dirt patio, clearing debris. Felix, Roman's and Ofelia's five year old, plays with a torn Mickey Mouse coloring book, which has already been colored.

It has been a little over a week since the nonprofit that provided minimal services to the youth, which I once directed and that served as a base for my research, shut down. For the past year, Roman had been an employee. He remarks that his place is the new Mi Nuevo Hogar (My New House), which I used as a pseudonym for the now-defunct organization.

Roman tells me that he went to look for job this week. But, like every year, he says that the maquiladoras, multinational assembly plants tending to locate along the border, do not hire in December. I comment that the United States seems to be in a recession, since the September 11th tragedy, and that I been told that several maquiladoras were closing in Nogales.

I turn hearing a mechanical roar, and glance down from my perch. Two Mexican military jeeps and a truck full of soldiers pass us. Roman encourages me to take a photograph. I resist, recalling an incident from years ago when I took a photo of Mexican police arresting several potential immigrants attempting to climb over the wall separating Nogales, Sonora from Nogales, Arizona, despite the Mexican constitution's guarantee of free movement. I was threatened, questioned, and then released with a stern warning not to photograph the activities of the authorities. Now, I rarely do.

The soldiers in the jeep look our way. Are they staring at the young men or me? I slowly dismount from the fence and walk out of view.

Then, I hope.

Gilbert Rosas has served as the executive director of a small nonprofit corporation in Mexico that provided services to the subjects of his ongoing research project. Currently, he is on fellowship as a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.

Copyright © 2002 by Gilbert Rosas. All rights reserved.