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ON THE BORDER w/KUNG LI

For the next three weeks, Kung Li will be driving along the entire length of the US-Mexico border, from Friendship Park in San Diego, Calif. to Brownsville, Texas. A lifelong southerner, this is Kung Li’s first trip through the border region. 

“Carlos Danger”

by Kung Li

When disgraced ex-Congressman turned mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner needed an alias to carry on his explicit online chats, he needed something that said: OK, so I’m a cartoon…but I’m a bad boy cartoon. And so was born, Carlos Danger.

Last week, Univision’s Satcho Pretto had the unrepentant Weiner on her Despierta América morning show.  Ten minutes into the interview, she finally asked what her viewers really wanted to know. “You picked the pseudo name Carlos Danger,” she said. “Why did you pick a Hispanic name?”

Then, working hard to keep from laughing, Pretto continued, “…and how dangerous were you really?”

It’s a question that’s asked regularly of the U.S.-Mexico border. Just how dangerous is it really?

The Carlos Danger question asked of the US-Mexico border is no laughing matter. While the northern border can apparently be secured by flower pots, proposals for a long, tall, strong fence and a border surge to “secure the border” to the south are based on some combination of fear and loathing. Not much can be done about the loathing in the hearts of nativists, but we can take a closer look at the fear.

So just how dangerous is it really in the border region? It depends on who you are and what you’re doing. Let’s look at the numbers.

Crossing the border without authorization. This is, by every measure, extremely dangerous and getting more dangerous. 463 people died last year on the U.S. side of the border attempting the crossing, a number that does not include unrecovered bodies and those who died on the Mexico side of the border.  A combination of harsher crossing points, longer treks, and a coyote business now controlled by the mafia has resulted in a steady rise in the death rate.

The dangerousness of the crossing has resulted in a small reduction in the number of people making the attempt. A much larger impact of this increased dangerousness, however, has been for people who do make it across to hunker down and remain in the U.S. The high cost of crossing the border – both in terms of cash and risk – has reduced the rate of return migration, with people deciding to stay put in the United States rather than face the uncertainty of re-entering.

Being deported. The Obama administration’s deportation policies put people in serious danger. An investigative reporting trip by Maria Ines Zamudio a few months ago to Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa criticized the U.S. government for selecting highly dangerous receiving cities, knowing the influx of recent deportees will only exacerbate the risks of kidnappings and robberies. The bizarre practice “lateral repatriation” – bussing people a thousand miles along the border in order to dump them in the middle of the night into an unfamiliar area – increases deportations into Mexico’s unstable northeastern area. The combination of lateral repatriation and increased deportation numbers meant that more than 60,000 people were deported to Matamoros, Mexico in 2012. Drug cartels that fund themselves through ransoms collected from kidnapping victims are fighting hard for control of the city.

Living in a U.S. border town. So if Matamoros is so dangerous, doesn’t that make the border towns on the U.S. side dangerous as well? To hear Arizona governor Jan Brewer tell it, it’s murder and mayhem near the southern border. Remember her unsubstantiated claim that people were being beheaded by Mexican drug gangs in the Arizona desert? Complete bunk, but there remains plenty of chatter about “spillover violence” and stories of the Mexican military running amok.

Turns out, the reality is far more placid. El Paso has been the safest large city in the U.S. for three years running, and San Diego has nearly as low a crime rate. Nearly all of the border cities have reported significant decreases in both property and violent crime in recent years.  Living in a U.S. border town, it turns out, is about as safe as you can get.

Working as a Border Patrol agent. Dovetailing with Jan Brewer’s high anxiety about mayhem at the border, you can be forgiven for thinking a job at the Border Patrol must be a continuous shoot-out with heavily armed drug cartels. The numbers tell a somewhat different story – working as a Border Patrol agent is significantly less dangerous than working for other law enforcement agencies.  It is, in fact, less dangerous than working for the postal service. The most recent statistics show that each year, about 2.5 percent of Border Patrol agents are assaulted. This compares to 5 percent of postal workers being assaulted, and 11 percent of police officers being assaulted every year.

The Border Patrol’s reputation as a high-risk job has had deadly consequences. The ACLU reports that since January 2010, Border Patrol agents have killed seventeen people at the southern border. Noneof the sixteen people killed were armed. Rather than change internal policy regarding agents’ use of deadly force, the Border Patrol has instead repeatedly insisted that its agents were in fear of their lives when people threw rocks at them. The official Border Patrol line is that “rocks are weapons and constitute deadly force.”

They are so fearful, in fact, that they shoot teen-agers in the back across the border in Mexico, whether they’re throwing stones or not.  Well worth reading is investigative journalist John Carlos Frey’s extraordinary reporting on these cross-border shootings.

Who knows exactly what Anthony Weiner was thinking when he chose Carlos Danger as his online name. Online, it seemed daring, maybe. In the real world, it just seems ridiculous. When it comes to border policy, we can’t afford ridiculous.

Follow CAMBIO on Twitter @CAMBIOtoday, and Kung Li @KungLiAtl.