With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.
Due to a holiday followed by an especially heavy event schedule next week, there will be no Border Update on September 8, 2023.
THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:
The military component of the Texas state government’s controversial border security operation came under heavier scrutiny this week, after an August 26 cross-border shooting incident in El Paso and an August 29 investigation into improper spying on civilian migrants. This component of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) “Operation Lone Star” is a very rare domestic use of military force on U.S. soil with both a long timeframe and rules of engagement permitting use of force against civilians.
Panama is reporting over 70,000 migrants passing through the treacherous Darién Gap region so far in August, a record by far. Data releases from Honduras and Mexico also point to record levels of people in transit. Costa Rica, whose president met with President Biden this week, declared a state of emergency along its border with Panama. Migrants come from dozens of countries, but Venezuela is the predominant nationality.
Alarms went off in parts of the Biden administration earlier this year, CNN reported, after a smuggler who had facilitated some Uzbek asylum seekers’ arrival at the U.S.-Mexico border was alleged to have “links” to ISIS, a group on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations. The migrants themselves, who were released into the United States pending immigration court hearings, are not believed to have terrorist ties.
THE FULL UPDATE:
Shooting, spying incidents deepen controversy about Texas National Guard border deployment
The military component of the Texas state government’s controversial border security operation came under heavier scrutiny this week, after an August 26 shooting incident at the border in El Paso and an August 29 investigation revealing improper spying.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a border and migration hardliner and critic of the Biden administration, expects to spend over $9.5 billion between 2021 and 2025 on a set of border security initiatives he calls “Operation Lone Star” (OLS). These include building segments of border wall with state funds, deploying thousands of police and Texas National Guardsmen to arrest and jail migrants—including asylum seekers—on state charges of “trespassing,” and laying down miles of razor-sharp concertina wire along the Rio Grande, as well as a 1,000-foot wall of buoys in the middle of the river in Eagle Pass.
Since 2021 Abbott has used state funds to send several thousand National Guardsmen to the U.S.-Mexico border, in an unusually large and long mission for a state military force. That deployment has faced past controversies, including poor initial planning that left Texas troops in miserable living conditions and the deaths, in some cases by suicide, of eight assigned guardsmen.
While details about what happened at about 8:50 PM on August 26 remain under wraps, we know that a Texas National Guardsman stationed near the El Paso side of the Paso del Norte bridge fired a shot into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, wounding the leg of a Mexican man on the opposite riverbank.
Mexican authorities identified the victim as Darwin José García, 37, of Veracruz, Mexico. He was treated in a Ciudad Juárez hospital and released. The Juárez newspaper El Diario reported that police said García told them he was planning to cross the river to the United States; the victim told reporters he was “practicing a sport” on the Mexican side.
The circumstances leading the unnamed Texas guardsman to fire their weapon into Mexico remain unclear. The Washington Post, citing a CBP official who had been briefed about the incident, reported that “the Texas Guard member opened fire after three men on the Mexican side of the border started attacking a group of migrants with a knife as the migrants attempted to cross the river.”
The official added that “details are hazy.” If that is what happened—and it is possible, as Mexican criminal groups do use violence to keep migrants from crossing without paying fees—then the guardsman could argue that the action was within the limits of CBP’s use of force policy. That policy permits lethal force if personnel have “a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the LEO [law enforcement officer] or to another person.”
The incident is being investigated by the state government’s Texas Rangers and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is serving as a liaison between Texas and Mexican authorities. At an August 30 meeting with Texas authorities, Mexico’s consul-general in El Paso “reiterated that the Texas National Guard member’s action was inadmissible,” according to a statement.
This is the second time this year that a Texas National Guardsman has fired a weapon at a civilian. On January 13 near McAllen, Spc. Angel Gallegos shot migrant Ricardo Rodríguez Nieto in the shoulder with his pistol, wounding him. The guardsman claimed that the shooting happened during a scuffle, which Rodríguez Nieto and other migrants dispute; Hidalgo County prosecutors nonetheless declined to seek an indictment. In January 2022, a guardsman also fired his rifle in Laredo to disable a vehicle whose driver had reportedly attempted to run over another guardsman.
In the United States, which since the 1870s has placed strict limits on using military personnel for internal law enforcement, it is exceedingly rare for U.S. military personnel to use lethal force against civilians on U.S. soil. (See WOLA’s 2010 report contrasting the U.S. civil-military model at home with the model its aid programs promote in Latin America.)
All U.S. state governors command National Guard units, soldiers who receive training with the regular U.S. military and serve on a part-time basis unless called up for an emergency. National Guardsmen can also be called up for federal government duty, at which point they are no longer at the governor’s command. Many served lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and presidents since George W. Bush have deployed National Guard and active military personnel to the border.
Those 21st-century federal border missions have restricted guardsmen to duties (“support for CBP”) and rules of engagement that seek to minimize potential contact with civilians. The Biden administration has sent 2,500 National Guard personnel border-wide in a federal support role, but they are rarely in view. (Biden augmented this force with an additional deployment of 1,500 regular military personnel in May, in preparation for the end of the Title 42 pandemic border policy; that force is to be drawn down by the end of August.)
The Operation Lone Star National Guard mission is different because it was ordered by Gov. Abbott, and is funded entirely with Texas’s state budget. That places the guardsmen under the governor’s command, authorized by a different section of the U.S. Code. Abbott has taken the unusual step of authorizing them to detain civilians, and otherwise to be in situations that may involve use of force against them.
Texas National Guardsmen wear uniforms, use weapons, and receive training—including combat training—identical to what the regular U.S. armed forces wear, use, and receive. For a military force to carry out a domestic mission this long in duration, and with such a high probability of hostile interactions with civilians, is highly unusual in the modern United States.
The civil-military risks were underscored on August 29, when two reporters who have covered Operation Lone Star’s military component since 2021, Davis Winkie of Military Times and James Barragán of the Texas Tribune, revealed that members of a Texas National Guard intelligence unit had “secretly infiltrated invite-only WhatsApp group chats filled with migrants and smugglers.”
This activity violated rules against domestic U.S. military spying on civilians, and against state governments running their own espionage operations. Those rules have been in place for decades for a reason, Winkie and Barragán explained: “Defense Department personnel ran massive domestic intelligence operations during the Vietnam War that targeted Americans based solely on how they legally exercised their First Amendment rights.”
The allegations, deeply detailed in the journalists’ report, assert that First Lieutenant Emmanuel Pierre, a guardsman of Haitian descent, infiltrated private WhatsApp groups used by Haitian migrants starting in 2021, when large numbers of Haitian asylum seekers began arriving at the Texas border.
Pierre’s digital spying was overseen by Maj. Dezi Rios, Operation Lone Star’s deputy intelligence director at the time who, when named to the position in October 2021, “had resigned from the San Antonio Police Department that same month after his involvement in a third road rage incident in four years led to misdemeanor criminal charges.” Rios claimed that he voiced concerns about the WhatsApp operation to superiors, but was rebuffed.
At least four Texas National Guard intelligence officers “have faced interim administrative discipline” for the WhatsApp operation and for improperly sharing classified FBI intelligence with colleagues.
The report claims that Operation Lone Star commanders “demanded military-style intelligence from their intelligence personnel.” One service member put it: “Everyone [in charge] wanted to pretend it was like Iraq in 2003… They wanted to do Army stuff, even though this is [legally] not Army stuff.”
“Such intelligence work is essentially unheard of for National Guard members on state active duty,” the Military Times and Texas Tribune report explained, noting that it sets a troubling precedent. “You give intel soldiers enough tools—we’re violating many constitutional rights very quickly,” an unnamed service member told the reporters. “If they’re willing to compromise their integrity over something like that,” one National Guard source said, “who knows where they’ll stop?
In other Operation Lone Star news from the past week:
- Oklahoma, one of about 15 Republican-led states to send National Guardsmen to Texas to support Operation Lone Star, ended up paying $825,000, or $550 per person per day, for a 30-day deployment of 50 personnel, according to the Oklahoman.
- A Border Report dispatch from Eagle Pass, Texas recalled that the controversial buoys and concertina wire that Operation Lone Star has placed along the town’s riverfront have done nothing to deter migrants seeking to turn themselves in and request asylum.
- A petition circulated by Faithful America, a Christian social justice group, accused Gov. Abbott, who is Catholic, of taking “neither Catholic social teaching nor the Gospels’ instructions to welcome the stranger seriously” with his management of OLS. The document has over 10,000 signatures, Newsweek reported.
From the Darién Gap to Mexico, migration levels break records
As August draws to a close, reports from countries south of the U.S.-Mexico border point to migration reaching unprecedented levels.
(On the evening of August 31, as this Update neared publication, the Washington Post published preliminary estimates pointing to 177,000 Border Patrol migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border in August, including a record 91,000 family unit members. Measured in migrant encounters, that would make August about 77 percent busier than June, and the 16th busiest month of the Biden administration.)
Panama’s Public Security Ministry tweeted that as of August 28, 68,340 people had migrated in August through the Darién Gap, a roadless region of treacherous primary jungle straddling Panama’s border with Colombia. That number of migrants—which has since grown beyond 72,000 in August—vastly exceeds Panama’s earlier single-month record of 59,773 (October 2022).
The Darién Gap was considered an impenetrable barrier between North and South America until migration increased in the mid-2010s and vastly expanded in 2021. Scores of migrants die each year there of drownings, disease, wild animals, and criminal attacks, and many more are injured, robbed, or sexually assaulted.