Border Repression and Human Rights

photo by Sophie Kazis


When it comes to discussing human rights on the border, it is simplest to say that US border policy is itself essentially one giant human rights abuse. We can look at virtually every abuse that occurs and recognize that at its root lies immigration policies (or the lack of them) and economic destruction backed by border militarization. It is the funneling effect of border militarization that leads to thousands dying in the desert and that turns the borderlands into occupied zones that exist under a kind of martial law. Undocumented workers and their families who are crossing the US-Mexico border in search of jobs are diverted to the harshest and least populated areas of the desert because of intensified border militarization taking place in larger population centers.

With this lesson, Gabe Shivone helps us put the issue in context with his opening article, Death as ‘Deterrence’:  the Desert as a Weapon. That is followed by a short video, Deserted: The Human Rights Crisis on Our Soil, which briefly but powerfully portrays the inhumane effects of border policy. This is followed by two articles, including one by AfGJ’s Chuck Kaufman, and one by Joseph Nevins, regarding the shooting of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez. These articles are followed by a short video by Pan Left’s Brenda Limón, recorded at a memorial for Carlos Lamadrid, yet another teen killed by Border Patrol agents.

We especially want to call your attention to the Further Study and Additional Resources section. The No More Death’s report, A Culture of Cruelty should be front and center of any study of human rights abuses on the border and was included in the “Further Study” section by virtue of its length. The report documents 30,000 incidents where human rights abuses occurred between Fall of 2008 and Spring of 2011. The report is based on interviews of nearly 13,000 persons in the Mexican border towns of Agua Prieta, Naco and Nogales, Sonora.  Also included are relevant reports by Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.  We strongly encourage those who want to best grasp the issue of border repression to read and study these reports.

The photographs and visual material included speak for themselves and bear a powerful and direct testimony to the situation of Border Repression and Human Rights.

In this chapter, you will find:
Death as ‘Deterrence’: the Desert as Weapon, by Gabriel Schivone
Deserted – The Human Rights Crisis on our Soil (video)
It’s Time to Question Border Patrol Use of Deadly Force, by Chuck Kaufman
Men With Guns, Boys with Rocks in a Dangerous Land, by Joseph Nevins
US Border Patrol Shoots and Kills a Teen (video)
Links and Resources

Or, return to the Border Militarization Resource Guide main page.

Gabriel Schivone
Death as ‘Deterrence’: the Desert as Weapon

A March 2010 Congressional Research Service report entitled “Border Security: the Role of the Border Patrol” candidly details government policy goals and strategies in recent history. In 1994, the report explains, the U.S. adopted a “new policy” of militarizing urban border areas in order to reroute and steer anticipated human migration into “geographically harsher,” “more remote and hazardous border regions” (mostly through the Arizona desert), as a way of “deterring” migrants from crossing.

The new “vision” of the deterrence strategy to bring the border “under control” is outlined in a July 1994 Border Patrol planning document entitled “Border Patrol Strategic Plan: 1994 and Beyond”. The perception of the border environment is explicitly used to demonstrate that migrants “crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger.” The document bases the strategy on the “prediction” that migrant “traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.”

Forgoing any subtly, “enforcement,” in this instance, is a euphemism for “mortal danger” as a premeditated method of death by example to deter human beings from crossing unauthorized into the US.

The strategic use of the “hazardous” border environment is not obscured by government officials. Six years after the strategic plan appeared, former Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Doris Meissner, admitted that “we did believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”

On the policy’s fifteenth anniversary, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote in its landmark Oct. 2009 report, “Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Desert,” that at least 6000 people have died in the desert as a “predictable and inhumane” consequence of these so-called “deterrence” strategies, eliciting a continental humanitarian crisis. The month following the release of the ACLU report, the American Public Health Association (APHA) released its own report, “Border Crossing Deaths: A Public Health Crisis Along the U.S.- Mexico Border.” The APHA likewise concluded that the Border Patrol’s policy of “prevention through deterrence” has “resulted in the purposeful displacement and diversion of migrants into more treacherous and dangerous zones to cross…” The APHA echoed the total number of desert deaths cited by the ACLU in its report the previous month, but added that “these statistics are merely the number of known deaths, and do not include those border crossers who have never been found or were reported missing, thereby underestimating the actual number of migrants who have died attempting to cross the border.”

The darkly euphemistic language of “controlling” (in contrast to stopping) unauthorized immigration is crucial in understanding the enforcement management system of death as a measure of deterrence capacity. A “key assumption” of the 1994 Strategic Plan was that migrant apprehensions “will decrease as Border Patrol increases control of the border.” Having observed the actual consequences of anticipated effects of blunt “control” efforts, the APHA report cited above notes that “despite a nearly 50 percent drop in Border Patrol apprehensions”—as coolly predicted by Border Patrol in 1994—and despite “the recent economic downturn, and a decrease in border crossings, migrant deaths along the border continue to increase” (my emphasis).This morbid trend over the past two decades is acutely evident. According to state medical examiners and human rights groups 14 deaths in the year of the strategy’s fateful onset, 1994, jumped to 90 deaths in 2000, to 145 deaths in 2001, to 163 deaths in 2002. The next year, in one of those rare moments of candor that occasionally crop up from retired government officials, former Tucson Border Patrol sector chief, Ron Sanders, was quoted an article in The Nation magazine on U.S. border militarization policy: “By every measure, the strategy is a failure. All it’s accomplished is killing people….If you had airplanes crashing in this country with the same numbers [of deaths], you’d have everybody after the FAA. But since these people [dying] are Mexicans, no one seems to care.”Hundreds of deaths, year after year, have followed. Some 178 human remains were recovered for the 2012 fiscal year ending in September, 2012, with eight more tolled remains recovered in October.

Trade Inequities Driving the Tides of Out-Migration

But what creates this mass human migration in the first place? What is driving people northward? One of the conclusions of a study released in 2010 by specialists in part from the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars’ Mexico Institute suggests the answer that has long been obvious. The effects of U.S.-imposed trade policies like NAFTA (implemented in 1994) reflect a veritable golden age for U.S. Agribusiness elites.

At other end of lucrative economic policies the human consequences tell a different story. U.S.-imposed, NAFTA product-dumping on Mexico (where exports including numerous staple meats and crops were forced on the Mexican market below the production costs of Mexican farmers) destroyed the Mexican farming sector, which in turn overwhelmed the urban sector with farmers who were newly out-of- work and growing desperate. Meanwhile U.S. industrial jobs disappeared when firms relocated (i.e. outsourced) to Mexico.

“If you look at the human aspects [of Border Patrol work], we are stopping starving people from coming in to work… it is not pretty to look at.”

The predictable result was an economic depression of U.S. workers and Mexican farmers, who suffered the annihilation of roughly 3 million jobs on both sides of the border. Those harshest affected, throughout deep rural Mexico, began migrating to the U.S. mainly to try and provide for their families back home after their local economies were devastated by U.S. policies, with the collaboration of the Mexican government.

The APHA report cited above explains further:

Border enforcement activities also do not address the root causes of migration, which include the growing socioeconomic disparities in sending countries, coupled by the demand for low-skilled, low-wage workers in the United States. Although some unauthorized migrants enter the United States to seek asylum, most enter for economic reasons. Per capita incomes in the United States are 5 to 7 times higher than those of Mexico and most Central and South American countries. Various studies also suggest that the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the related intensified liberalization of the Mexican economy resulted in strengthening migratory pressures. Combined with the resulting intensifying social and infrastructural links between the 2 countries, the research suggests that the rural exodus leads to an increase in migration from Mexico to the United States, a development of which the Clinton Administration was very much aware. In terms of farm labor, for example, a NAFTA-related trade deficit (in favor of the United States) contributed significantly to the loss of an estimated 1.3 million jobs in Mexico’s agricultural sector between 1994 and 2002. Because opportunities for legal entry into the United States to seek employment are limited, people resort to unauthorized attempts to gain entry. Deaths among unauthorized migrants are emerging as a major public health issue that is intertwined with social, economic, and political factors.

Often the human effects of a system of oppression are observed most keenly not only by the victims and the violated but by the system’s agents who directly carry out policy on the ground. In an interview with a Border Patrol agent in 1978—around the beginning of the modern build-up of US border enforcement militarization—the effects of trade policies like NAFTA were articulated at their most basic level, long before such policies reached record extremes in the coming decades: “If you look at the human aspects [of Border Patrol work], we are stopping starving people from coming in to work… it is not pretty to look at.” Another agent remarked in 2007, “We’re fortunate enough to live in a country where there are lots of opportunities. And most of the people who we run into out here want to make that dream happen. Unfortunately, it’s our job to stop that dream. That’s what we do on an everyday basis.”

So rolls a vicious cycle: economic violence first shakes to the bone Mexican and other Global Southern communities and sends people migrating for their lives across the relatively rich borders of the U.S. At this time a second wave of political violence is inflicted on them in which the “mortal danger” of “geographically remote,” “harsh” and “hazardous” conditions of the AZ-Sonora desert are predictably turned into deadly weapons of U.S. border enforcement policy. To top it off, undocumented people face a social death among U.S. civil society and the violence of an incarceration system, to which we now turn.

An Industry of Incarceration and Misery Profiteering

The rolling cycle of profit over people doesn’t end with forced migration and mass desert death. A violent industry of incarceration and abuse absorbs especially undocumented people who may survive a weaponized desert—or lie low in communities throughout the U.S., many in which they’ve lived nearly their whole lives—but not escape the clutches of a predatory immigration enforcement system, now on fire with the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment of the AZ variety. In its March 2009 report, Jailed Without Justice, Amnesty International (AI) focused on the “human rights violations associated with the dramatic increase in the use of detention by the United States as an immigration enforcement mechanism.” AI reported that U.S. immigration detention had tripled in just over a decade, noting a likely increase “at the expense of the United States’ human rights obligations.” Amnesty observed that “Tens of thousands of people sit locked up in a broken and cruel system of detention with no right to even a hearing to determine if their detention is warranted.”Not surprising, such a system doesn’t fail to produce policy-practice rationales eerily reminiscent of the national police force of a totalitarian state. AI quotes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Former Executive director of the ICE Office of State and Local Coordination: “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we [ICE] can make him disappear.”

The “dramatic increase” in detention to accommodate the tripling number of human beings disappeared by the state called for the contracting of 350 state and county jails across the U.S., Amnesty reported. Sixty-seven percent of detainees were held in these facilities, AI wrote, while the remaining people were held in immigration detention facilities and private prisons.

With the explosion of anti-immigrant legislation searing Arizona and the nation, the important difference in the years following Amnesty’s ominous report is that its findings are now likely relegated to the realm of understatement. In October 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) issued a whistleblower report on the incarceration industry riding the wave of detention increases reported by Amnesty in 2009. Corporate reports of private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) demonstrated the belief held by executives that “immigrant detention is their next big market,” according to NPR, which reviewed the reports. In 2009, CCA “wrote that they expect to bring in ‘a significant portion of our revenues’” from the results of ICE apprehensions.

NPR noted having spent several months analyzing hundreds of pages of legislative campaign finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records. They revealed an industrial partnership of state- corporate representatives behind the drafting of anti-immigrant legislation—in particular notorious SB 1070, or the “Show Me Your Papers” law signed in April 2010, which criminalized undocumented people in the State of Arizona.

These conditions are only cemented further after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2012 upholding of SB 1070’s provision requiring local police officers to carry out immigration law through enacting “reasonable suspicion”.

The NPR report quotes Wayne Calabrese, President of another major private prison corporation, the GEO Group: “I can only believe the opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what’s happening. Those people coming across the border and getting caught are going to have to be detained and that for me…[means]…there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do.”

Of course, there are other kinds of violence involving illegal drugs and gang warfare in border regions as well. Take, for instance, the U.S. teens who were murdered in Juarez in February when they were inadvertently caught in the crossfire of a gang war. While the event was widely reported nationally, nowhere mentioned was the fact that most of the guns that enable and are a part of this sort of violence are provided by Arizona and the U.S.—a fact even readily admitted by the Obama administration. Or that the principal demand for illegal drugs originates here in the states as a multi-billion-dollar industry. But instead of dealing with the problem of illegal drugs by decriminalization and dealing with drug addiction by increasing social programs of education, prevention and treatment, the Obama Administration continues to apply increased enforcement measures in the so-called “war on drugs,” which only make these huge problems dangerously worse. Leading border scholar, Timothy Dunn, calls this sort of violence—of the drug, immigration, and terror wars all converging—“a perfect storm”. Because now each of these ideologically charged topics are joined and used as an excuse by state and federal authorities to aggrandize enforcement resources, largely benefiting big business, and exacerbate issues that should rather be dealt with in economic and social terms.

The Human Rights Crisis on the Border

A 4-minute video by Dana Variano and Ishita Srivastava for Breakthrough. “Deserted” calls viewers to recognize the deaths on the border as a human rights crisis.

Chuck Kaufman
It’s Time to Question Border Patrol’s Use of Deadly Forc

October 18, 2012

On October 10, a US Border Patrol agent shot through the border fence into an urban neighborhood in the Mexican city of Nogales and shot to death a 16-year-old Mexican citizen. The Border Patrol has claimed that the boy was “throwing rocks” and that the officer “feared for his life.” On Oct. 18, I crossed the border into Nogales and asked a resident to lead me to the site of the youth’s death. The man who took me there told me that the boy was shot nine times and showed me the bullet pocked wall of the building where he died.

I stood on the rose petal covered site where the young boy spent the last moments of his life. I looked across the two-lane street and parking lane to the 30-foot-high embankment topped by the 20-foot- high metal border fence. I thought, “How could a boy throw a rock that height and distance and have the rock be a threat to a US Border Patrol agent close enough to the fence to see him?” The answer, of course, is that he couldn’t. I doubt I could clear the fence with a baseball, but even if I could, it would sail well beyond the fence before touching ground. (I’d have to use a baseball because there were no rocks anywhere within sight.) I have no doubt that there are places where Border Patrol agents could be hit by a rock thrown across the border, but the spot I stood that morning in Nogales is not one of them.

The rose petals mark the place where José Antonio Elena Rodríguez was shot 9 times by the US Border Patrol from where they stood behind the bars of the 20 foot border fence in the US to where he stood three blocks from his home in Mexico. On the wall you can see bullet holes and specks of blood where still on the ground.

My dentist, who was the reason for my Nogales trip, said he knows the parents of the boy who was killed. I gave him the contact information for Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, the Southern Arizona immigrant rights group that I volunteer with in my free time. ( While standing on the spot where José Antonio Elena Rodríguez bled to death from multiple wounds, I could clearly see a set of cameras posted on the US fence and pointed directly at me. I can only conclude that the US government has a videotape of the deadly incident which should be released.

“While no one expects that Mexico will retaliate militarily, it is that serious of an incident.”

There have been far too many cases of US Border Patrol agents killing Mexicans and US citizens on both sides of the border. Just recently a Border Patrol agent was killed when he and other US agents got into a deadly firefight with each other on a dark night in rugged territory where they were investigating a tripped sensor which could have been tripped by a person or an animal. The deaths are the result of Border Patrol “rules of engagement” that allow agents to fire their weapons in too many circumstances where deadly force is not necessary. Shooting across the border at an alleged rock throwing child is certainly one of those times when the agent has a host of response choices that fall short of the use of deadly force.

It is time to say “no more” to US law enforcement initiated border killings. This must stop with the death of Jose Antonio. No more can we allow these deaths to be swept under the rug without serious investigation and without holding the killers accountable for their actions. It is a serious international incident for a country’s uniformed officers to fire into another country. It is even more serious when that violation of international law results in the death of citizens of that country. Turkey and Syria are on the verge of war right now due to just that kind of incident. While no one expects that Mexico will retaliate militarily, it is that serious of an incident. We have to demand that our public officials conduct a full, independent and transparent investigation of Rodriguez’ killing and a top-to-bottom review of Border Patrol policies regarding use of deadly force.

Chuck Kaufman is the AfGJ’s National Co-Coordinator.

Joseph Nevins
Men With Guns, Boys With Rocks in a Dangerous Land

Originally published in NACLA Border Wars
October 17, 2012

It was in the early hours of October 2 that a ground sensor alarm went off near Naco, Arizona, in an area suspected to be a drug-smuggling corridor. U.S. Border Patrol agents responded, shots were fired, and Agent Nicholas Ivie, 30, was soon dead.

A little more than a week later, late on the night of October 10, Border Patrol agents responded to a report of two alleged narcotics smugglers near the boundary wall that divides Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Sonora. As in the Naco incident, shots were fired, and someone was killed. In this case, the victim was José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, a 16- year old youth.

In both cases, the killers were Border Patrol agents (unidentified as of this writing). Where they differ is that the first case was a mistake, one involving “friendly fire”; the second incident was not. According to the Border Patrol’s one, brief official statement on the Nogales incident (see below), an agent shot the young man after being assaulted by rocks thrown from the Mexican side of the boundary.

Although the investigation into José Antonio Elena Rodríguez’s death is ongoing on both sides of the international divide, what seems very clear is that the shooting was easily avoidable. That it happened also highlights the urgent need to de-escalate the multifaceted “war” in the borderlands and to demilitarize the region.

Whether or not José Antonio Elena Rodríguez’s was the intended target of the Border Patrol’s hail of bullets—with several hitting him (according to one report, seven struck him in the back) and upwards of 12 striking the building he was beside—is not known. The lawyer representing the Rodriguez family in this case surmises that José Antonio might have simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, that he was on his way to the nearby convenience store where his older brother worked to help him close his shift.

Regardless, it stretches credulity that the young man could have posed a threat to Border Patrol agents. José Antonio Elena Rodríguez was on a street in downtown Nogales that runs along Mexico’s northern boundary when he was shot, at least 50 feet away (in terms of on-the- ground distance) from the agents. Moreover, the agents were 15-20 feet or so above the street, standing on a cliff behind a 20-25-foot- high wall.

Because the wall is porous—it is composed of vertical steel bars with gaps of 5-6 inches between them—rocks could have passed through in theory if thrown from a position directly across from the agents. Nonetheless, a combination of desert brush along the lower reaches of the barrier (see the photo), the distance, and the narrowness of the gaps would have made it extremely difficult to succeed at striking the agents. But even if rocks were passing through, the agents, if they felt threatened, could have moved laterally and taken advantage of the protection afforded by the steel bars and the changed angle.

The agent (or agents) who fired upon José Antonio Elena Rodríguez would have had to have been standing right along the wall to shoot between the steel bars. As such, the Border Patrol would not have been threatened by rocks flying over it. Had they been, the agents could have simply retreated as the suspected drug smugglers were long gone, having already scaled the barrier and back in Mexican territory.

That the agents did not evade the alleged threats and, instead, responded with deadly force is indicative of what has become an institutional way of life for the U.S. Border Patrol—and the “homeland security” apparatus in the borderlands more broadly. It is also illustrative of a pervasive worldview among federal authorities that casts the U.S.-Mexico border region as dangerous, and inherently so— as if the alleged dangers had nothing to do with the militarized infrastructure and practices of exclusion implemented by Washington.

José Antonio Elena Rodríguez is the second Mexican teenager shot by the U.S. Border Patrol in Nogales, Arizona, in less than two years. In January 2011, an agent fired into Mexico, killing Ramses Barron, 17, also allegedly for throwing rocks. According to the Los Angeles Times, at least 15 individuals—including unarmed and non-resisting migrants in federal custody—have died at the hands of U.S. border authorities since 2010.

Such levels of state violence—and impunity for such—are what typically characterize war zones and territories under occupation. In this regard, it is hardly a coincidence that occupied Palestine is also a place where alleged rock throwers are sometimes fired upon—in this case by the Israeli military—and killed.

Both Nicholas Ivie and José Antonio Elena Rodríguez died in the effort to stymie drug smuggling, as part of the “war on drugs,” one component of the multifaceted conflict waged by Washington in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Their deaths and the shootings that caused them are tragic reminders that the “war” is actually not against narcotics, so much as it is against people—those actually involved in the illicit drug trade, those imagined to be, and those who just happen to be in the way of those charged with waging the war. And in the case of the borderlands—effectively defined by U.S. authorities as one of the epicenters of the militarized battle against drug trafficking—it is a war of sorts against the region and the communities within.

There is only one way out of the dead end that is multifaceted war (on drugs, crime, unauthorized migrants, and “terror”) in the borderlands: put an end to the hostilities, beginning with a program of gradual de- escalation and demilitarization.

Just this week, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government of the Philippines signed a peace deal, ending decades of war. Meanwhile, in Oslo, Norway, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government are set to begin peace talks today in relation to their more than 50-year conflict. That the parties to such seemingly intractable wars have shown a willingness to negotiate with the goal of achieving just and peaceful coexistence provides hope that things can and will be far different someday in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Special thanks to Murphy Woodhouse for generously sharing his analysis and on-the-ground research.

Statement from the Tucson Sector Communications Division, United States Border Patrol
(emailed to the author on Oct. 15, 2012):

“On October 10, 2012, U.S. Border Patrol agents in Nogales, Ariz., responded to reports of two suspected narcotics smugglers near West International Street and Hereford Drive at approx. 11:30 PM MT. Preliminary reports indicate that the agents observed the smugglers drop narcotics load on the U.S. side of the international boundary and flee back to Mexico. Subjects at the scene then began assaulting the agents with rocks. After verbal commands from agents to cease were ignored, one agent then discharged his service firearm. One of the subjects appeared to have been hit. Agents notified the Government of Mexico (GOM) and secured the scene. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is fully cooperating with the FBI-led investigation.”

Oct. 17, 2012

The Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) has learned that the U.S. government’s Office of the Inspector General will conduct an investigation of various cases of brutality or use of excessive force by agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the parent agency of the Border Patrol. The SBCC press release revealing the probe is available here.

Also available on the SBCC website is an annotated list of individuals killed or brutalized by CBP agents since the beginning of 2010. Finally, Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee, a member organization of the SBCC, has written a very helpful analysis of the growing number of cases involving excessive and deadly use-of- force by CBP agents, with a focus on the most recent cases, including that of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez. His analysis is available here.

Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Among his books are Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights/Open Media, 2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010). For more from the Border Wars blog, visit

Pan Left Collective
US Border Patrol Shoots and Kills a Teen

In 2011, US Border Patrol agents shot and killed 19-year-old US citizen Carlos Lamadrid at the border fence at Douglas, Arizona. 4-minute-video by Brenda Limon for Pan Left video collective.


No More Deaths issued a 2011 report, “A Culture of Cruelty:  Abuse and Impunity in Short-term U.S. Border Patrol Custody” and it is absolutely necessary reading.

ACLU issued the “Statement on Human Rights Violations on the United States-Mexico Border” on October 25, 2012.

Amnesty International issued a report on March 28, 2012. “In Hostile Terrain:  Human Rights Violations in Immigration in the US Southwest-Amnesty International”