Hard Line
Life and Death on
The U.S. - Mexico Border

Ken Ellingwood
The newest Mexican-American war began in 1994 and is still going on. It's not an official war between the United States of Mexico and the United States of America. Rather, it's a war being between several dozen United States Congressmen and the poorest of poor Mexican laborers. Or more specifically, Congressmen Hunter, Rohrabacher, Tancredo, and Deal vs. hapless Mexican men, women, and children trying to make it over the border without dying.

The official death tally in this unending war is around one a day --- 4,000 dead in ten years. The unofficial tally is probably closer to 25,000. Or as one coroner, working out of Yuma, stated in Hard Line, if the Mexicans who had died in the desert all rose up today, their sheer numbers would beat the population of New York City.

Each year, hundreds from Mexico City, Sinaloa, Oaxaca, Vera Cruz and Chiapas expire in the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Years ago, mothers, fathers, and children went easily back and forth through San Diego, Yuma, Ciudad Juárez, Brownsville. But since the declaration of war --- called, with a certain bitter irony, "Operation Gatekeeper" --- Mexicans have been driven to take on the mountains outside of San Diego, and on into the deserts of eastern California and Arizona.

Here they die, not like flies, but like beasts of burden: freezing to death in the mountains at night, in the snow and the cold; sometimes drowning in the deep irrigation canals of Southeaster California. Or, literally, cooked to death in the summer Sonoran desert, temperatures raging above 120°.

What do these soldiers of poverty look like after they have succumbed? According to Hard Line,

    Their skin had been burned to a furious, stop-sign red by the sun. The extreme loss of body moisture had peeled back their lips, giving them a sickly grin, and left darkened pits where they eyes should have been. All Dave Phagan [an INS agent] could think of was documentary films about the survivors of the Holocaust. These men had the same sunken look, "like skin draped over a skeleton."

The warriors are not armed with guns or bayonets. They are usually armed with black clothes (to prevent being seen at night), a package of tortillas, and a gallon or two of water ... which is never enough.

The American soldiers, are slowly, and ironically, being turned into the saviors. As Claudia Smith of the Rural Legal Assistance Foundation stated, "The terrible irony that underlies this is first putting migrants in mortal danger and then asking for credit when you rescue them." Thus INS agents, in their Ford Broncos, tracking across the wasteland, end up as uneasy angels, saving lives of those they are supposed to be pursuing.

One chapter of Hard Line tells of the Yuma disaster, where, in the early summer of 2001, thirty Mexicans died of heat prostration. The unveiling of the disaster brought pious protestations from those who had created this war; the bodies of the Mexicans --- mostly unidentified --- lie today in a Potter's Field just outside of Yuma.

Hard Line is not perfect. The author spends too much time with the American armed forces in their four-wheel drives and not enough time with the victims. He would have benefited by crossing over the mountains and deserts with the men, women and children --- suffering their agonies, sharing in their hardships. But by the very nature of this grisly war --- fomented by jingoistic congressmen to destroy the destitute and the needy --- is dramatic enough to carry the story line.

--- Carlos Amantea
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