Border Militarization and Empire: An Interview with Todd Miller

By Will Sarvis, 2018 Border Studies Intern

Tucson-based journalist Todd Miller’s forthcoming book Empire of Borders  will address border imperialism and the expansion of border apparatuses around the world. He has written for the New York Times, TomDispatch, The Nation, Guernica, Al Jazeera English, and NACLA Report on the Americas.

This interview will be featured in the forthcoming chapter of AfGJ’s Border Militarization Resource Guide, “Border Militarization and Empire”.

What is border imperialism?

Everywhere, if you shut your eyes and stand in front of a map and just point at anywhere in the world, you would most likely point to a country where the United States exports its border militarization. That’s how vast it is. There are certain places where it’s more concentrated – the western hemisphere of course – but it’s worldwide across the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe even.

The US is literally exporting its border militarization everywhere. If you look at the border strategy, they have been talking for a while about this multilayered approach to border policing. “They” meaning Washington, Customs and Border Protection, or Department of Homeland Security. Which means that not only is there an international boundary line when many people imagine a border they imagine a wall – but in reality, it is a zone expanding inland into the interior of the United States and at the same time as it is expanding outward. In CBP strategy papers they will say “the border is neither the first or last line of defense.” So the idea of the extending of the US border to “stop people as far from U.S. shores as possible” has become an intrinsic part of the strategy and that is why you can now see these sort of operations going on everywhere, literally worldwide.

How does this idea of stopping people as far away from US shores as possible in the Western Hemisphere differ in Europe, Asia, and Africa?

In the Americas the easiest example is the Mexican border with Guatemala. It’s obviously an extension of the US border, evidenced by the US supply to Mexico of all the border resources and training and whatnot. You can see that they are trying to blockade Central Americans coming north. Again, it’s a layered approach, the layers of borders extending outward in the western hemisphere are aimed to stop people from coming north, and it’s fairly easy to see. It can be seen in the Caribbean as well. There’s a historian at the University of Arizona, Justin Campbell, who calls it “border sets”, a theoretical idea that border can no longer be conceptualized as this singular line.  You cannot understand it in its totality until you understand that it is in a set, and extending in sets, and thus one border sets goes right down [from the US-Mexico border] to the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia. Or through the Caribbean – the whole “third border” as they call it between Venezuela and the United States goes through Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

The US has long considered itself a global policing force. It certainly has a global empire and we can look at many different examples. We can look at lately – lately being the last 20 years or so – in the Middle East. You can look around the world and see where the United States has different interests, economic interests, political interests, or military interests. Those become areas in the eyes of the state, in terms of US national security and “securing its interests”. They become border zones in that logic, and so you can look anywhere in the world and see different border programs.

[The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has] a whole slew of international border programs that usually run through the State Department (DOS) and the Department of Defense (DOD), the only two governmental departments permitted to administer “foreign assistance.” In other words, in order for DHS to execute its international programs, due to restrictions stipulated in the Foreign Assistance Act, it has to go through the DOS and DOD. The Foreign Assistance Act, passed during the Kennedy administration during the 1960s, allows you to elude the rules by saying that only the State Department (and DOD) can participate in foreign affairs. The way to look at the internationalization of border militarization based on the United States is to look through these two departments. There are programs through the State Department that fund massive training programs done by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the parent agency of the US Border Patrol, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which are going to different countries and doing trainings.

For example, we are funneling money into Kenya. Kenya didn’t have a border patrol before 2009 but [now they do] due to US pressure, funding, and all kinds of diagnostics. CBP agents are sent in and they look at “border situations” and say “wow you don’t have that on your border you don’t have this on your border? You need to put a fence here, you need more agents, you need a border patrol, you need more technologies.” They create an environment where if you don’t have a border enforcement apparatus, you are patient who is sick. You have a malady and here is your prescription. So, they go into places like Kenya and they look at the Somali border for example. Kenya itself is a hub for the United States in Africa. It’s a trade hub, it’s a hub in terms of establishing bases for US clout, for establishing US empire really. Billions of dollars have gone into Kenya under the guise of counterterrorism. So, with that comes a lot of money for building up Kenya’s border. You now see a border wall being erected with Somalia, you see border patrol, you see another border being enforced in South Sudan, and you even see a border with Uganda being enforced. You see all this evidence of this rising border policing, which is essentially, a way to keep the world aligned to U.S. interests. You can’t separate these practices from traditional US militarism, traditional places where the US has had its footprint, it goes hand in hand with that. Now the world is shifting in a way where border efforts and border militarization has really, if you look in the past 20 years, taken off. It’s clearly a new way to start looking at geopolitics.

Can you talk about the various forms of border militarization the US exports around the world?

There are just so many different ways. Each place Washington goes in and does something different. You can look at different case studies, you can go to Turkey and [US officials] will look at the Turkey-Syria border and there will be one set of prescriptions. They will look at Turkey and say, “Should we use the Container Security Initiative?” – which is more of a Customs program. They say, “We need to do training around what kind of things can be shipped from Turkey to the United States or one of our allies.” That would for be a bomb or something like that. Depending on the place and the situation the prescription will change. For instance, do they need nuclear radiation detectors because there is some sort of nuclear weapon or chemical weapon threat, according to their logic?

The idea of extreme vetting is probably a good way to look at it. Trump comes along and says we are going to do extreme vetting for different countries, these seven Muslim majority countries. Well lo and behold, if you look at what has been developed over the years, not just when Trump was elected, there is a whole system of extreme vetting that has been implemented through a multitude of programs that go overseas in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, everywhere. This is in a sense extreme vetting, but what does that mean? There are all kinds of airport vetting of people or products coming to the United States. Some airports have pre-clearance sites and Customs and Border Protection are there. Other places have undercover CBP agents working who are able to look at all the lists of people going to the United States, who can pull you over and interrogate you, but they can only offer recommendations to an airline saying you cannot get on a flight.

So you have these airport operations; then you have the Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS), which is a State Department program. Through that program they fund CBP trainings around the world. They have been in 60 or 70 countries. They will go in and look at the both the customs control aspect and border security related issues. This program is funded by the State Department. The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) is essentially the international drug war arm of the US government, which is again run through the State Department. So, the INL has training centers in El Salvador, Botswana, and Bangkok. Those are places where you have agents in the international program from CBP, ICE, and DHS go and do massive trainings around the world. INL brings in a lot of resources like weapons and vehicles. For example, Guatemala’s border patrol is thoroughly funded by the INL. Every single thing they have down to the bullets in their guns come from the INL. It has this guise of diplomacy by virtue of being under the State Department, which it technically is, but you can really see a lot of the outward push of the US border going through the INL.

Can you talk specifically about how the wars of drugs and terror have played into this expansion?

Take for example the INL. They are all about the war on drugs. Through that justification comes all these resources, money and whatnot, that funnel into the creation of new border patrol and border guards. They claim their mission will be to stop drugs, but in reality they are border patrol. If you have a Guatemalan or Honduran border patrol, most likely they are coming across undocumented people coming up from the South, and just like the border patrol here they are using drugs as a prime justification to stop people. This justification is a distorted one, as we can see from our border patrol. Most of the illicit drugs come across through the ports of entry, but the way that it is rhetorically justified is “we need these people guarding between the ports of entry”.

It’s the same thing internationally – you always need your boogeyman. You always need something to “sell your project,” and we use drugs and terrorism. You say terrorism and everyone’s minds just go away and they say “yeah of course we need that”. Again it’s like the US border, there’s not been one incident of anyone ever crossing the US border who is considered a terrorist according to the US government definition. Yet that is the reason why the US border apparatus has been able to get so much money, why its budgets have increased 13-fold. It’s because of the post 9/11 counterterrorism priority mission of the US Customs and Border Protection. Although there is absolutely no evidence of it at all, it flips the switch for budgets, and money pours in. This money obviously goes to the border itself, but all these [international] expansions come from that money as well. Terrorism as a central argument is a sure shot to get huge budgets, and that’s exactly what they’ve been getting. Every single new incident of terrorism worldwide, according to the US government’s definition of it, is going to justify more and more money into these budgets.

Can you talk specifically about Mexico’s Southern Border?

The United States has been putting pressure on Mexico to bolster its southern border for quite some time. You can look at the last 20 years and see various efforts, including one called Plan Sur right before the September 11, 2001. The whole idea of the George W. Bush administration was to pressure Mexico to build up its border, but in exchange the US would pass comprehensive immigration reform that would benefit Mexicans living in the United States. That was all in the conversation before September 11, 2001, then that happened, and everything, according to the narrative, “got blown out of the water”. I’m skeptical about the whole immigration reform narrative and that it would have ever happened, but that was the narrative – that it would have happened under the George W. Bush but then it was “blown out of the water”.

When you look at the last 5 years particularly, you are seeing a massive effort not only of US assistance but of US pressure for Mexico to bolster its southern border. Where you can look to and see where the funds are being funneled is the Mérida Initiative, which is an agreement between the US and Mexico, a “counter-narcotic military assistance agreement” as they put it. In my opinion it is not really an agreement, so much as it is a mechanism through which the US can assert itself in Mexico, especially in a military sense, and that’s exactly what has been happening on Mexico’s southern border.

This is particularly clear when focusing on the summer of 2014, when there was a lot attention to the unaccompanied minors arriving at the US Mexico border. During all this US media attention, Mexico announced the Programa Sur in the July of 2014. That program consolidated or solidified what had been going on with the bolstering of Mexico’s southern border. The third pillar of the Mérida Initiative is a “21st century border” and through this pillar is where you see all these resources being transferred to Mexico; monies for trainings of local police, immigration agents, and the military. Now I believe that there are CBP agents permanently working on the Mexico Guatemala divide. Even before that, Alan Bersin, who was the former US border czar under Bill Clinton and who then worked under the Obama administration in DHS international affairs, said that the US border is no longer the Southern border with Mexico, it is now the border between Chiapas and Guatemala. So that’s a US official actually saying that – basically an assertion that the US extension of its border has happened.

So you have all these resources and trainings going down there and lo and behold, 2015 comes around, and Mexico for the first time ever is deporting more Central Americans than the United States. It really is “effective” in that sense from their logic. And that has been the same –  2015, 2016, and 2017 all show Mexico surpassing the United States in deportations of Central Americans. By those numbers alone you can see how this border has become another layer of US border. That’s what it is. Mexico would not have done that without that pressure, and they couldn’t have done it without US finance. The whole border enforcement apparatus is accompanied by apparatuses of incarceration. The CBP agents on the ground at Tapachula are working in the immigration station but they access to one of the biggest detention centers. This is where people first started to get wind of these CBP agents going in and doing interrogations of people who were detained in the Tapachula detention center.

Can you explain how the exportation of border militarization fits into the larger mechanism of US imperialism?

One of the ways that I look it in my forthcoming book, is by looking at the School of the Americas. You can look at Guatemala for example. When I first went to the Guatemala border patrol, it was to this base called Zacapa, right on the Honduran border. Zacapa is also one of these places where pretty major counterinsurgency operations happened in the armed conflicts in Guatemala. The United States instigated a coup in 1954 (through the CIA), and then soon thereafter Green Berets went in and trained special forces in Guatemala. This elite army subjugated uprisings going on all over the country during the 36-year civil war in which more than 90% of atrocities were committed by the army, whose counterinsurgency design was very much influenced by the United States, who had all kinds of interest in Guatemala. You are looking at US business interests, for example the United Food Company, and strategic interests and everything else.

What does that mean as we head into the 21st century? What does that mean in terms of how the power elite are looking at the 21st century before us? In terms of how certain sectors want to maintain privilege, if you think of the corporate sector they always maintain their expansion and growth. And then you add on the environmental catastrophes. What is being predicted is upheavals of people. If you look in the documents you can see a fear in the elite spheres. There is a fear of people who are going to be displaced in massive numbers. The idea is that you have a world under control instead of really addressing the issues of vast inequalities in the world or climate change, for example by stopping the fossil fuel industry. When you refuse to look into the root causes of problems, the other solution is the military option. That’s the only way to keep the global power hegemony that we have. The border apparatus is part and parcel with this world, especially in a world that is already seeing more migration, which is only expected to grow.