It’s hard not to assume what ideological track a book is going to take when it repeatedly uses the terms “militarization” and “social control” in its...moreIt’s hard not to assume what ideological track a book is going to take when it repeatedly uses the terms “militarization” and “social control” in its first chapters when referring to the US Border Patrol. And indeed, author Todd Miller comes across as someone with a serious bone to pick as he portrays agents and officers working along our nation’s international borders as soldiers almost akin to Nazi Germany’s Gestapo.
He opens up his new book, titled Border Patrol Nation, by detailing US Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) involvement in providing security for the past dozen or so Super Bowl games. This is not a huge secret; CBP publishes several press releases each year explaining how CBP works in collaboration with state and local police, as well as the Department of Defense, to enforce no-fly zones over the stadiums and conduct security checks of vehicles entering the stadium parking areas. The agency participates only at the request of the federal government, and it brings to the table many resources that the locals don’t have or can’t acquire before the big game.
But because agents are enforcing federal immigration laws in Super Bowl locations like Miami and Phoenix, this somehow characterizes CBP’s role as one of an intrusive and human rights-violating paramilitary organization. Oddly enough, he highlights this unique mission in a way that says, Can you believe you didn’t know about this? Unfortunately for Miller, the fact that few people probably know about CBP’s involvement in Super Bowl security—and the dearth of irate liberal media coverage about it—implies that maybe their actions really aren’t intrusive at all. Considering how long they’ve been doing it, it’s interesting he comes across as the first to “break” this story, even though the media has written about it before.
This is just the start of a book that feels all over the place with regard to Miller’s criticisms of the border security “complex.” This isn’t to say that he doesn’t provide solid information; he interviewed many of the same people I did for Border Insecurity, like Glenn Spencer of American Border Patrol and Bruce Wright at the University of Arizona Tech Park. The interviews themselves and the statistics and descriptions of various aspects of border security, like the virtual border fence and border-related conferences, are accurate enough. He also does a good job of explaining the burgeoning border security industry, including the billions of dollars being spent on research and development of new technology and the growth of small companies seeking a piece of this ever-growing pie.
However, Miller’s liberal ideology frequently gets in the way of what had the potential to be a decent analysis of the expansion of Border Patrol’s presence in the United States. He provides a considerable number of anecdotes from illegal immigrants and residents of the Tohono O’odham Tribal Nation where they claim they were verbally or physically harassed or abused by Border Patrol agents, and the stories are very emotionally intense and convincing. Miller cites reports by the United Nations and human rights organizations that condemn the agency’s alleged excessive use of force, but he doesn’t say if the victims he spoke to ever reported the incidents to other US authorities or filed a formal complaint with CBP.
Despite the picture he paints of the Tribal Nation as being under the thumb of an oppressive border agency, Miller does give a factual account of the high rate of Nation residents involved in drug and human smuggling. When I worked as an intelligence analyst in northern California many years ago, I had already started hearing how the Nation would accept payments from the cartels to move drugs through the impoverished reservation, and how tribal police tended to be uncooperative with other law enforcement agencies. As a Tucson resident, those perceptions definitely persist, and I was disheartened to read about Tohono O’odham youth getting involved with smugglers, as typical this is for a cartel recruiting venture.
Unfortunately, Miller swings back to being ideologically one-sided when he moves into his chapter about the northern border. He writes extensively about Mexican and other minority populations being profiled and targeted by the Border Patrol in Detroit, but doesn’t cite any demographic statistics regarding the estimated population of illegal immigrants in the city. If 80 percent of Detroit’s illegal immigrant population were white and 70 percent of deportees were people of color, then Miller would have a serious point to consider. However, without context, we’re left to base our conclusions on Miller’s assumptions alone.
He also focuses his northern border chapter mostly on illegal immigrants and his view that DHS surveillance is seriously overreaching. But he never once touches upon the insane amount of illicit cross-border trafficking occurring along the St Clair and Detroit rivers, to include illegal drugs and large volumes of cash heading in both directions. The “thumb” area of Michigan is notorious for small single-engine planes loaded with drugs flying across the border outside of national radar coverage, and the response time of CBP boats on the river often isn’t fast enough to tackle the heavy smuggling activity there. Miller mentions none of this in relation to the reason CBP has increased its presence along our northern border.
Miller is a good writer; that’s definitely not the underlying problem with Border Patrol Nation. His stories are engaging and the reading is easy. However, structurally there is little to no flow, and he doesn’t make any direct points or specifically state the main thesis of the book until the last few pages. Even then, his argument is that “according to today’s Homeland Security regime all but the all but the elite and all-powerful few should be monitored as a potential threat.” He states both implicitly and explicitly throughout the book that the existence and expansion of the Border Patrol is equivalent to an imperialistic and racist attempt to divide the American people in the “have and have-nots” and the “global North and global South.”
Furthermore, Miller wonders how our government can spend so much money on border security while looking away from the economy, poverty, and homelessness. He offers little to nothing by way of a solution, other than the generic “resistance.” He talks about a cyclist who lay down under a Border Patrol vehicle to protest the apprehension of an illegal immigrant. But his entire book merely sends the general message that “the Border Patrol is evil” without seriously acknowledging that violent drug smugglers and criminals are crossing our borders illegally every day, attacking US law enforcement on a regular basis, and raping and assaulting on US soil the very illegal immigrants he champions.
Ultimately, Border Patrol Nation comes across as a call for open borders, paints the US Border Patrol as an agency filled with agents who have little regard for human and civil rights of both US and “non-citizens,” and offers no alternative to securing our borders from those who mean to do us harm other than protest or civil resistance. Miller’s pleasant writing style and expertise is overshadowed by his very clear bias, and he will turn off a lot of readers who could learn a lot from his work simply because he’s writing for an audience that shares his liberal viewpoint.(less)
I was very excited to get started on this book for several different reasons. First, it was written by two colleagues of mine, professor and TCO exper...moreI was very excited to get started on this book for several different reasons. First, it was written by two colleagues of mine, professor and TCO expert Dr. George Grayson from the College of William & Mary, and journalist and author of This Is For The Mara Salvatrucha, Sam Logan. I've read most of the material written by both authors, so I knew it would contain a lot of good information.
Second, this is the first authoritative book ever written solely about Los Zetas, the most vicious, bloodthirsty, and ambitious TCO in Mexico. Of course, much has been written about Los Zetas over the years, but never this much, and never in this much detail.
It's obvious from the start that Grayson and Logan have done their homework. There's plenty of history about how Los Zetas were first recruited in the late 1990s, and joined the Gulf cartel as Osiel Cárdenas Guillen's private army. The authors cover how Los Zetas are organized, financed, armed, and trained, and these sections contain information that is a researcher's dream. The Executioner's Men also discusses the expansion of Los Zetas into Central America, as well as their operations in the United States - of particular interest and importance to my work.
One of my favorite parts is the chapter on Dual Sovereignty - how Los Zetas (and other TCOs in general) are operating as a state parallel to the Mexican state. The chart (one of many helpful charts and tables) in that chapter that outlines side by side all the state functions that both execute is quite eye-opening.
The book does have some down sides. First, it's not a page-turner; but then again, I don't think it's designed to be. I really hated it when my own book was criticized for things I never intended to do with it, because I believe a book should be reviewed with its purpose in mind. That being said, it's a great source of information for anyone who needs a solid source to cite for research. Unfortunately, that's the result of the book containing an overload of facts, figures, and names - my second dislike.
For anyone who has read Grayson's Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?, this should come as no surprise. I'm familiar enough with both authors' work to know who wrote what sections. Logan's narrative is awesome, and I highly recommend you check out his first work on MS-13; it's really good, and a great inside look at how the world's most dangerous gang operates. I just wish Logan's narrative sections had been interspersed throughout this book more frequently to break up the deluge of narco names and stories of arrests and killings.
Bottom line, if you do any work or research related to Mexico's drug war, this needs to be in your book collection. I read it with my page marker Post-Its because I knew I'd come across information I could use in my writing post haste. It's not light summer reading to take to the beach, but again, remember - it's not designed to be. The Executioner's Men is an immensely valuable source of solid information on Los Zetas, and anyone who seeks to know more about this brutal organization should crack this book open sooner rather than later.(less)
Being an analyst who follows the drug war in Mexico on a daily basis, I was really interested in this book to learn more about the drugs themselves, r...moreBeing an analyst who follows the drug war in Mexico on a daily basis, I was really interested in this book to learn more about the drugs themselves, rather than just how they were being transported into the United States. SO many of the assumptions I had and things I "knew" about drugs and drug addiction were turned on their heads by the time I finished reading this! I'm still on the fence about whether we, as a country, would benefit more from maintaining current drug policy (or at least a smarter version of it) or ending all drug prohibition; there are just so many unknowns, and it's a very complex issue that can't be easily predicted. But what this book does is provide all of us - and hopefully several US policy makers - with solid information we can all use to be smarter about how we approach drug trafficking, drug addiction, and drug policy.(less)
I've really been looking forward to reading this relatively short and new contribution to the growing body of published work on the drug war. Many of...moreI've really been looking forward to reading this relatively short and new contribution to the growing body of published work on the drug war. Many of my colleagues have read it and said it was great, so my expectations going into it were pretty high...just so you know.
Gibler starts the book off a la Saving Private Ryan, with lots of back-to-back stories of gruesome narco deaths and explanations about the silences that follow them. I particularly like how he details the story of a photographer who snapped shots of a man in police, then Navy, custody one day, only to be taking photos of his body on the side of the road the next day.
But then the first chapter started to meander, and I picked up on a couple of things that bugged me. First, Gibler touches upon how the illegality of drugs fuels the violence - true enough. He says, "Legalization would put the traffickers as they exist today out of business." However, he then spends several pages describing how cartels have branched out into kidnapping, extortion, oil theft, etc., which somewhat contradicts his stance on legalization. He even acknowledges that statistics regarding the estimated values of cartel drug profits are only guesses, and sometimes wild ones, so it's tough to see how he reconciles these things.
I was happy that he touched upon the extent of cartel money laundering and how much money gets injected into the Mexican economy by the drug trade. However, Gibler drops a bomb here; he quoted a reporter from London's The Observer who said, "Drug money worth billions of dollars kept the financial system afloat at the height of the global crisis." The reporter got this info from a man at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and Gibler ticks off some theoretical statistics about how this is possible. But he stops the discussion after only a couple of paragraphs. I mean, if true, this is huge news! Why would he not lend more space towards expanding on something that explosive?
In his discussion about cartels' expansion into other trades, I was disturbed that Gibler used the term "human trafficking" instead of "human smuggling." I'm used to amateurs getting the two confused and using the terms interchangeably, but I would never expect someone with Gibler's experience to make this error. As a reminder, human trafficking is when people are involuntarily taken from one country to another to work as sex slaves or essentially indentured servants. Human smuggling is when people voluntarily pay someone to get them to, then safely across, a border into another country. Mexican cartels, contrary to the verbiage Gibler uses, are involved in human smuggling, and to varying extents of involvement depending on the cartel.
All that being said, Gibler does a fabulous job of explaining how the cartels operate with such impunity. He also beautifully illustrates the myth the Mexican government keeps trying to feed its people like castor oil: that almost everyone killed in the drug war must have been involved or deserved it somehow. I love this passage:
"And this is what they tell us: if you are found dead, shot through the face, wrapped in a soiled blanket, and left on some desolate roadside, then you are somehow to blame. You must have been into something bad to end up like that. Surely you were a drug dealer, a drug trafficker, or an official on the take. The very fact of your execution is the judgment against you, the determination of your guilt."
Still, To Die in Mexico is an uneven read for me. Gibler provides some good background information on the drug war that's invaluable for context. But these sections are interspersed with politically charged statements and opinions that could be a turn-off for many readers. For example, he supports Michelle Alexander's statement, "Reagan's drug war consolidated the racist underpinnings of prohibition into a new racial caste system." Later, he writes, "Thirty years later mass incarceration through drug laws has become the new Jim Crow caste system of racial discrimination in the United States." I understand what he means, but I totally disagree with his approach; the last time I checked, illegal drug use in the US was still voluntary, and heroin will kill a black man as easily as a white man. He provides no compelling evidence that the US government is willfully using prohibition as a means of "social control" (he brings up that term) to propagate racism, although that's what he implies. Hey, I just wanted to learn more about Mexico's drug war from a different perspective, not get hammered with a social agenda!
The unevenness continues with a solid mention of La Santa Muerte and a conversation with renowned anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz. But then Gibler casually throws in that Los Zetas studied counterinsurgency strategies in the US and adopted al-Qa'ida's tactics of recording beheadings and posting them on YouTube. First, the US Army has run all the names of known Zetas through their student databases, and there have been no matches; the "fact" that Zetas trained at Ft Bragg or Ft Benning is only a (false) rumor. Also, there has never been any confirmation that Los Zetas are intentionally imitating al-Qa'ida's techniques; this has always been pure speculation, but Gibler presents both as facts. This bugs me.
Fortunately, the second chapter flows into a familiar rhythm of solid journalistic narrative. I enjoyed reading about his visits with Mexican journalists and ride-alongs with photographers to various crime scenes. Gibler is able to give the reader an "I was there" feeling without actually having to personally live through the horror like he did. But even in the midst of this great flow, the reader can find errors of fact that lead Gibler to make some bad conclusions. For example, he mentions the expansive arrests of dozens mayors, police and other officials that President Felipe Calderon initiated in May 2009. Gibler writes every single person arrested belonged to the PRD, one of the opposition parties to Calderon's own PAN. He then says the arrests took place six weeks before the Mexican mid-term elections, implying the arrests were a political ploy by Calderon. The problem is that the people arrested came from all different political parties: the PRI, the PRD, and Calderon's PAN (as reported by Reuters, the Associated Press, etc.)
The narratives in the third chapter are pretty thrilling, especially one of a confrontation between journalists and cartel members in Reynosa. Much of the rest of the book focuses repeatedly on two main themes: the lives of and threats to journalists working in Mexico, and the general agreement by Mexican citizens that the cartels run the show across the country. Over and over, the reporters Gibler talks to say the same thing: they can't report the war accurately, and there are unspoken rules to follow and lines not to cross if they want to stay alive. Gibler delves into Ciudad Juarez and the hundreds of maquiladoras on the city's outskirts in the fourth chapter, and how it all interconnects in the drug war.
Unfortunately, as Gibler wraps up the book in the final chapter, he goes political again. It's one thing to propose solutions to decreasing the violence and making the situation more manageable. But Gibler aggressivly stands on his soapbox to say "the drug war is a proxy for racism, militarization, social control, and access to the truckloads of cash that illegality makes possible." These are strong statements, and he has every right to say them. I disagree with him on several counts, which makes these sections so difficult to read, but there are many people out there who'd tell Gibler he was preaching to the choir.
All in all, for me, To Die in Mexico was a mixed bag. I loved the narratives and all the stories of people he interviewed. He's a good writer, and has a knack for bringing to life these conversations and situations for the reader. However, I was really bothered by the factual inaccuracies in several places, and those were just the ones I caught, having written my own book on this subject. This, of course, leads me to wonder what else in the book I'm accepting as face value that might not be accurate because I'm not personally familiar with the incident or topic. I also didn't like that he injected so much political vitriol in the first chapter; I was honestly tempted to just stop reading right there. The only thing that kept me going was knowing there was some great writing on the other side of that. Gibler might have been better served by saving all of it for the end so that readers have a chance to fully ingest all the information he provides before getting an earful of his opinion, and potentially getting turned off by it. I'd say, 3 1/2 out of 5 stars for being solidly written, but diverging too many times into too many directions, several factual inaccuracies, and breaking up good narrative with political invective at the wrong moments.(less)