Border Surveillance, the Drug Trade, and Immigrants

Posted on March 26, 2009 by


Credit to Sociological Images for pointing in this direction., watch the fuck out for it and offshoots of its kind. is a minutemen-ran project out of Texas aimed at the surveillance of US borders (The borders down south of course, the ones used to keep brown peoples out). Cameras are placed on private property across sites of “known” crossings and are available online for people to view. The program is a public-private partnership with support from the state of Texas, and fronts as a drug trafficking intervention to ratchet up the noise for anti-immigrant legislation.

From her house in a suburb of Rochester, New York, Andrews spends at least four hours a day watching a site called

There, because of a $2 million grant from the state of Texas, anyone in the world can watch grainy live video scenes of cactuses, desert mountains and the Rio Grande along Texas’ portion of the international border.

When Andrews spots something she deems suspicious — perhaps a fuzzy character moving from right to left across the screen or people wading through the river with what appear to be trash bags atop their heads — she and the site’s 43,000 registered users can send e-mail messages straight to local law enforcement, who then decide whether to act.

In its very own perverse way, this program in its about us section is described as a “community” social network watch to make it seem all Jane Jacobs-y and “community-oriented”, except for the parts where people are:

  • usually within the privatized space of an office, home, or saloon as opposed to the outside public space
  • are going out of their way to look for trouble
  • reducing human beings to mere objects that need to be caught. Note this quote from a commentor on Sociological Images:

Watching the border looks eerily like a video game, where you, the agent, is on a mission to catch the evil wrongdoers trying to sneak into our country. It completely dehumanizes illegal immigrants, where they are objectified and immediately equated to immoral and dangerous (the drugs! the high crime!), since the mere act of moving on some of these cameras means they should be reported immediately.

I think it’s disgusting and stupid both at once. Disgusting for its panoptical objectification of folk, conflation of immigration with the drug trade, and ultimately stupid because it’s not going to stop the drug trade, a lot of money is going to be pissed away, and people from other states like California might get the idea that pissing money away on stupid shit like this is OK.

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So far, with the apparent goal of deterring the drug trade, the effectiveness of the program has been ambiguous at best, if not a complete failure:

Since the site was launched in late November, only four arrests can be attributed to the cameras, said Don Reay, executive director of the sheriffs’ coalition, which runs the project with money from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s office.

All of those arrests were related to marijuana trafficking, he said, with about 2,000 pounds of the drug seized.

Via the El Paso Times:

Perry launched in November 2006, and critics say the numbers show that the surveillance program is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The camera program is designed around politics, not safety,’ said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso.

If you’re a fan of The Wire, this business of setting up cameras, yielding little results, expecting to catch players in the drug trade, is akin to the sargent Herc stealing that camera from his department and putting it on Marlo. Of course you know, Marlo discovers that he’s being watched pretty easily, and steals the camera. Herc, the dumbass that he is, loses his job. That’s how this is. Anybody whose anybody in the criminal world will probably know that there are surveillence points and attempt to transcend those fixed grids.

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So why do people even care to log-in and play “virtual deputy” in the first place?

1) Some say it’s just something to do. From CNN:

Abernethy and Andrews, the two ‘virtual deputies,’ said they would like to see greater transparency in the project. Both said they have e-mailed notes of suspicious activity to law enforcement, but neither has heard whether their alerts were of any help.
‘It’s interesting. You see different things on there, but I just — I don’t know that it’s doing any good,’ said Andrews, the stay-at-home mom. ‘I wonder if it’s a waste of time.’

She said she hopes her work as ‘virtual deputy’ will prevent so many drugs from working their way north from Mexico into New York. She also said the site draws her interest because she’s nosy about what’s going on along Texas’ 1,250-mile international border.

Abernethy said he will continue to watch the cameras because he feels like he’s part of an altruistic group of volunteers. Friends tease him about watching the site, he said. But he sees it as no worse than any other form of quick entertainment — and maybe he can be of some help in the process.

‘It’s no different than watching ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ reruns,’ he said. ‘It’s just something to do.’

Apparently it’s an easy form of consumption: entertainment, mixed with half-assed volunteerism and a squeeze of imagined community patriotism. Just what the doctor ordered in recession-age, terrorist-fearing America.

2) Some people, probably old with overactive imaginations, are concerned for their safety. They cite the drug wars of Mexico “spilling over.” From the Guardian:

But Bob Parker, a retired US coastguard captain who spends up to eight hours a day at his computer looking into Mexico, says it is important to keep eyes on the border. ‘It’s wild country out there with all the drugs violence,’ he said. ‘It’s just a question of time before that comes here.’

Interesting that they think imagine they’ll bring the violence here, as if violence is some kind of contagion to be spread. They ignore the fact they might be trying to get away from something else.

It reminds me of this video, via the Angry Asian Man.

Also interesting, US citizens seem to die all the time because of drugs and gangs WITHIN the US borders and WITHIN certain boundaries in the metropolitan areas, but obviously that’s not a concern these surveillence interviewees bring up. If people were really interested in stopping the drug trade, that’s a whole other beast. Stopping the drug trade is what you call a “TRANS-national” problem.

Drug traffickers probably have sophisticated, covert, and powerful networks of accomplishing whatever is they want. How many of them will go thru the business risk of smuggling it through some random guy on two legs running for his life? They adapt and they’ll fly completely above, below, and through any of the rag-tag cameras stationed at very specific spots, and the dumbass surveillance networks attached to those cameras.

The New York Times recently featured two articles about the big business, the networks and, sophistication of Mexico’s marijuana trade.

And Take Two.

Despite huge enforcement actions on both sides of the Southwest border, the Mexican marijuana trade is more robust — and brazen — than ever, law enforcement officials say. Mexican drug cartels routinely transported industrial-size loads of marijuana in 2008, excavating new tunnels and adopting tactics like ramp-assisted smuggling to get their cargoes across undetected.

But these are not the only new tactics: the cartels are also increasingly planting marijuana crops inside the United States in a major strategy shift to avoid the border altogether, officials said.

Der Spiegel talks about how some cartels are using paramilitary technology to get their stuff done:

With their ability to move drugs comes the ability to move money, the ability to move weapons, the ability to move terrorists, weapons of mass destruction. The drug cartels are constantly adapting — which creates things like the semi-submersibles that we are facing today.”

Subtopia mentions this tidbit about the extent of their power:

Well, the cartels have full-on engineering companies at their disposal armed to the teeth with the latest equipment and weapons, not to mention their own militaries vying for control of Mexico’s sovereignty right now. The fence is all the invitation a good old-fashioned tunnel needs.

The SocProf then talks about the challenge of fighting cartels:

Fighting organized crime has never been easy. Crime families and cartels were always somewhat global in that they often involved diasporas in destination countries with roots back in their countries of origin.

Just as the dichotomy of mobile capital versus flexible labor considerably favors capital, the dichotomy of mobile networks versus national and bureaucratic law enforcement greatly favors criminal networks.

The drug trade is everywhere already, just that it’s really easy to pass the blame off on immigrants or pretty much any other marginalized unvoiced group, particularly ones who are trying to escape the beheadings, the statements, and turmoil in certain areas of Mexico. With their public and generalized, yet faceless, voiceless, and nameless visibility, immigrants are simply always the best conduit upon to blame old problems.

The really “dangerous” people controlling the networks of drug trades are probably not the ones that are running for their lives over the border. One of the Kingpins of Mexico was named by Forbes as one of the richest men in the world, you think he’s fucking crossing the border? They have established far-reaching networks, which means they can be anywhere and still make whatever they want to happen happen. They are in charge of big business; they’re probably out to ensure the security of their own business, and they’d probably not do it over now-known publicly surveilled areas.

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Next post on immigrants, I’d like to explore a broader question of why people even bother caring about borders and patriotism in the first place. Why history and memories inform their beliefs?

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