President Obama should ‘walk back’ his March 24 announcement to further militarize the border and instead focus on the prevalence of guns and the violence caused by the illegal drug trade. Border militarization will not end drug cartel violence; putting an end to the source of gun and drug violence might.
In 2008, over 6,000 people died as a result of violence caused by warring drug cartels in northern Mexico. This is just another costly mess that President Obama inherited from the previous administration. It is a mess that allows the new president to respond in one of two ways. First is the way he has already responded, which is to double down on some egregiously bad border control policies enacted by his predecessor. The other response would be one that would prove much more effective, speak truth to power, and advances a social justice agenda that many of his supporters had hoped Obama would follow as president.
On March 24, the Obama Administration announced it would respond to the cartel violence by committing hundreds of millions of dollars for additional law enforcement, surveillance technology, and perhaps also send the national guard to Texas and Arizona as requested by the governors from these two states.
The problem with this response is that it won’t work and that perpetuates an extra-legal approach to immigration and border control. The Bush administration spent multiple billions of dollars during the last eight years militarizing the border with beefed up staffing, military presence, bricks and mortar border walls and virtual border fences. Embedded biometric and rfid technologies in passports and smart drivers licenses don’t work on their own terms as they violate the personal privacy the persons carrying them. During the last several years, the GAO has criticized most of these projects for insufficient management and being replete with technical kinks, and cost overruns. Investigations by civil liberties and human rights organizations point to police-state-like conditions that are created in many border communities. At root these projects were poorly conceived and are incompetently administered. They cropped up profitable opportunities for military contractors eager to domesticate Iraq war technologies. Problem is they compromise constitutional norms of due process and flat out don’t work. The military presence and beefed up border enforcement presence failed to deter undocumented immigrant crossings. Only economic recession managed to accomplish that, temporarily. In the meantime, the border fence has destroyed wildlife, evicted property owners including land grant families; threatened university campuses and public parks; ruined local economies and for what? As DHS Secretary has said, “Show me a 50-foot fence and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder…”
Now the Obama administration might well say the new technology is designed only for the purpose of helping to stem caret related violence, is it is likely that this is their intent. But much of the surveillance technology under consideration is infrastructural and permanent; it will remain along the border long after this crisis subsides. And once the surveillance technology exists, it remains and the federal and local governments will make use of it, directing it against border residents as it has done for many years.
The alternative is not politically popular but does cut to the chase of a problem that border militarization cannot get close to solving. First, close down the 7,000 or so gun shops that dot the border with Mexico that sell guns everyday to folks bringing them down into Mexico for the cartels. Two, surveillance along the border already exists. Use it to track gun purchasers (particularly assault weapons buyers) headed back into Mexico.
Next, consider (drug) legalization alternatives. Hillary Clinton today said that the US assumes its share of responsibility in the current crisis, citing the insatiable demand for drugs coming the the US. Clinton also pegged the availability of assault weapons and spoke of the difficulty of taking of the NRA to reverse the repeal of the assault weapons ban. A surprisingly rational take on the current mess. How to diminish demand for illegal drugs? the lesson from Prohibition is legalization, education and government regulation. The end of prohibition was a horrible thing for organized crime. And gun control and assault weapons bans? Clinton is suggesting at the least that the time has come for this dialogue to get going, and that just perhaps, these two things would be the most dramatic and effective way to stem drug related violence along the border and in our cities as well.