At first, I thought I had inadvertently entered an active war zone. I was on a lonely two-lane road in southern New Mexico heading for El Paso, Texas. Off to the side of the road, hardly concealed behind some desert shrubs, I suddenly noticed what seemed to be a tank. For a second, I thought I might be seeing an apparition. When I stopped to take a picture, a soldier wearing a camouflage helmet emerged from the top of the Stryker, a 19-ton, eight-wheeled combat vehicle that was regularly used in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He looked my way and I offered a pathetic wave. To my relief, he waved back, then settled behind what seemed to be a large surveillance display mounted atop the vehicle. With high-tech binoculars, he began to monitor the mountainous desert that stretched toward Mexico, 20 miles away, as if the enemy might appear at any moment.
That was in 2012 and, though I had already been reporting on the militarization of the US-Mexican border for years, I had never seen anything like it. Barack Obama was still president, and it would be another six years before Donald Trump announced, with much fanfare, that he was essentially going to declare war at the border and send in the National Guard. (“We really haven’t done that before,” Trump told the media on April 3, “or certainly not very much before.”)
Operation Nimbus II, as the 2012 mission was called, involved 500 soldiers from Fort Bliss and Fort Hood and was a typical Joint Task Force North (JTF-N) operation. Those troops were officially there to provide the US Border Patrol with “intelligence and surveillance.” Since JTF-N was tasked with supporting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the border, its motto was “protecting the Homeland.” However, it was also deeply involved in training soldiers for overseas military operations in ongoing American wars in the Greater Middle East.
Only weeks before, 40 Alaskan-based Army airborne engineers had parachuted into nearby Fort Huachuca as if they were part of an invasion force landing in southern Arizona. That border operation (despite the dramatic arrival, all they did was begin constructing a road) “mirrors the type of mission the 40 soldiers might conduct if they were deployed to Afghanistan,” JTF-N “project organizers” told the Nogales International. As JTF-N spokesman Armando Carrasco put it, “This will prepare them for future deployments, especially in the areas of current contingency operations.”
So seeing combat vehicles on the border shouldn’t have surprised me, even then. A “war” against immigrants had been declared long before Trump signed the memo to deploy 2,000 to 4,000 National Guard troops to the border. Indeed, there has been a continuous military presence there since 1989 and the Pentagon has played a crucial role in the historic expansion of the US border-security apparatus ever since.