The U.S.-Mexico Border's 150 Miles of Hell
Credit: Photograph by Peter van Agtmael
Some law-enforcement officials, and many conservative politicians, advocate militarizing the border. "We need 6,000 armed soldiers on our border to protect America," Matthew Thomas' boss, Sheriff Paul Babeu, recently said. "Commit the military to this border," former Colorado congressman and 2008 Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo has demanded. "We have a war. We are facing a military on the other side." Texas Governor Rick Perry has said that he considers the border "a war zone as dangerous as Iraq."

It's instructive to imagine what militarizing the border would actually require. Rich Stana, the former director of homeland security for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, has said that a zero-incursion barrier would be "something akin to the inner German border during the Cold War, where very few, if any, could penetrate it without fear of losing one's life." A militarization project would entail blasting and grading a security zone from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, erecting 1,900 miles of double or triple fence along its length, and deploying many thousands of soldiers to man guard towers and patrol the zone. (South Korea, by way of comparison, has more than 250,000 troops stationed along its 150-mile border with North Korea.) The soldiers would be authorized to shoot and kill Mexican citizens. In the meantime, demand for drugs in this country would remain stable. Our coasts and airspace and wide-open 5,500-mile-long border with Canada would welcome pioneering importers.

Sheriff Tony Estrada, Deputy Omar Rodri­guez's boss, does not take militarization seriously. "I always say, 'The border is more secure than it's ever been; it's just not sealed,'" he told me. "It cannot be sealed. You have tourism, you have international commerce. If you want zero everything – mission impossible." He measures border security by the local crime rate, which is low in his county. He understands the suffering of ranchers like David Lowell and Jim Chilton, but his priority is the overall safety of the county.

Unless we're willing to establish a DMZ along the southwestern border, this is the only rational perspective available. The ­Department of Homeland Security has already adopted it. "The specific theory of action [is] to push people out of easy urban places to cross the border and get into the transportation network," the former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Alan Bersin, said last summer. DHS deters and apprehends wherever it can, and it forces traffickers around populous areas. That strategy, of course, will always be problematic for the people living in the traffic's redirected currents, who justifiably feel as though they have accidentally moved out of their own country.