Border Violence Immigration

The El Paso Shooting and the Hidden History of Border Violence

Just one month shy of two years old, Angie was the daughter of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramirez. Óscar’s wife worked at a Chinese fast-food chain, and he worked at a Papa John’s pizza restaurant. They lived in San Martín, El Salvador. Between bills and rent, they could not make ends meet, so Óscar and Angie traveled to Matamoros, Mexico to seek better work on the other side of the Mexico-US border.

They would be found drowned on the bank of the Rio Grande. Óscar’s shirt hung off his swollen torso, wrapped around Angie’s body as a makeshift swaddling band to keep his daughter close to him in the water. An Associated Press photograph of the scene went viral and horrified American viewers—a large majority of whom support legal status for undocumented immigrants in the country.

The deaths of Óscar and Angie were not accidental but premeditated in a twenty-five-year-old document titled, “Border Patrol Strategic Plan 1994 and Beyond.” In the wake of the 1990 recession, the Clinton administration dramatically escalated attacks on immigrant workers—an easy scapegoat for the ruling class pick on. One new policy was the conscious diversion of border crossers from the main urban portals to more dangerous “hostile terrain.” The report freely admitted: “Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger.” This spelled the fate of Óscar, Angie, and thousands of others, as estimated by the Public Health Organization. The 2015 discovery of unmarked mass graves containing bodies disposed of in trash bags confirms the scale of the carnage.

Rio GrandeThe conscious policy to divert border crossers from the main urban portals to more dangerous “hostile terrain” has caused the death of thousands of immigrants. / Asaavedra32 via Wikimedia

Migrants who survive the crossing but find themselves in ICE’s concentration camps must contend with disease and deprivation that are equally as unnatural as the deaths of Óscar and Angie. A sixteen-year-old mother of a two-year-old son explained to reporters: “My baby has not eaten a full meal in fifteen days.” Another mother, also sixteen years of age, said: “My baby was naked outside with no blanket for all four days we were there. We were freezing, [and] my baby couldn’t sleep because the ground was cement with rocks. Every time she moved, the sharp ground would scratch her.”

Carlos Hernández, age 16, became the fifth Guatemalan minor to die in detention since December. In the secret Border Patrol Facebook group, “I’m 10-15,” officers mocked Hernández’s death with comments like “Oh well” and “If he dies, he dies.”

This callousness is consistent with Border Patrol’s history as a state agency. Border Patrol’s earliest precedent can be found in the slave-hunting gangs that patrolled the Texas border and made raids into Mexican soil to capture runaways. Border Patrol was officially formed in 1924, and since many of its recruits hailed from the Texas Rangers, it was common for the first Border Patrolmen to be registered Ku Klux Klan members.

The connection between the Rangers, the KKK, and Border Patrol is documented by historians like Monica Muñoz Martinez, author of The Injustice Never Leaves You. The decade of 1910–20 was one of revolution in Mexico, which radiated to Texas in the Bandit Wars. These years also saw the ascent of monopolist agribusiness in the Southwest, following the lead of the 1902 Newlands Reclamation Act. The burgeoning industry required masses of itinerant, immigrant farm laborers.

This decade also anticipated a wave of racist, anti-immigrant measures that would consolidate in the 1920s, as well as the “second coming” of the Klan. Texas was a battleground for these forces, with the workers and the poor on one side, and chauvinism, monopoly capital, and counterrevolution on the other. The mailed fist of the Texas Rangers lynched an unknown number of Spanish-speaking Texas residents, estimated today to be in the thousands.

The following excerpt from Martinez’s book, quoting an anonymous interviewee, is characteristic of the period:

I’m going to tell you a history of the rinches [Rangers] in 1915 that I saw when I was nine years old. They were following Tomás Garza of Mission, Texas, son of Doña Virginia Garza. The rinches found him in an area known as Peladitas. The rinches grabbed him, tied him to a mesquite tree with a chain, and then they poured fifty gallons of gasoline on him, and they burned him alive. That is what the rinches did in 1915.

Today, such congenital features of Border Patrol remain intact. Collaboration with fascist paramilitary border gangs is routine for the agency, as revealed by the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) scandal in April this year. The New Mexico-based vigilante militia claims to have detained over 3,000 migrants, which it handed over to Border Patrol. The UCP achieved national notoriety when they apprehended several hundred migrants in a video that went viral on the Internet.

Collaboration with fascist paramilitary border gangs is routine for Border Patrol. / U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill

Media attention led to the arrest of the UCP’s leader, Larry Hopkins, on weapons charges, and bomb threats almost derailed his trial. The FBI had monitored the group since 2017, when they investigated Hopkins for assassination threats against leading Democratic Party politicians, and seized illegal weapons from his base. In their 2017 raid, however, no criminal charges were brought against Hopkins, which is consistent with the active collaboration of the state with brownshirt border militias like the UCP. A 2016 exposé by Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer documented additional paramilitary border militias, also actively working with Border Patrol. All of these militias, including the UCP, continue their activities today with impunity—and indeed, active support by the state.

Santino William Legan and Patrick Crusius, the terrorists behind the Gilroy Garlic Festival and El Paso massacres, respectively, would have found themselves at home with these men if they had decided to join a group like the UCP. Their politics are identical. Legan stated on social media: “Read Might is Right by [white supremacist] Ragnar Redbeard. Why overcrowd towns and pave more open space to make room for hordes of mestizos and Silicon Valley white twats?” Crusius published a sprawling manifesto on the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” inspired by the Christchurch shooter, Brenton Tarrant. He drove over 600 miles from his home in Dallas to El Paso to, as he told the police, kill as many Mexicans as he could.

Crusius murdered twenty-two people, but this number falls short of the death toll in the 1916 El Paso jailhouse fire. As historian David Dorado Romo documents in his book Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893–1923, border crossers in cities like El Paso were once subject to a “delousing” protocol in which they were stripped nude and doused in gasoline, sulfuric acid, kerosene, sodium cyanide, coal oil, and other toxic chemicals, including even Zyklon B, before they were allowed in. This was a daily ordeal for most crossers, who lived on one side of the border and worked on the other. The motivation behind “delousing” lay in eugenicist and white-supremacist theories as well as the fears of the ruling class in the face of revolutionary events unfolding south of the border.

On March 5, 1916, prisoners in the El Paso jail were burned alive after someone lit a match during the “delousing” bath. In Romo’s words: “The floors of the steel cells were so hot that it burned off the soles of their feet … Twenty-seven prisoners were dead. Nineteen were Mexican, one was African-American, and the rest were either homeless Anglos or unidentified.”

The death toll from Crusius’s terrorist attack is also matched by the Texas Rangers’ repression of the Salinero Revolt. The Salinero Revolt was fought against the annexationist and white supremacist capitalists of El Paso who sought to wrest control of the salt mines from the native population.

Rule by terror is the bleak and menacing legacy of the US capitalist state and its theft-by-conquest of half of Mexico’s territory. The history of the border is gory and grim, but it is not exclusively dismal. In many instances, the flame of class struggle illuminated the social contradictions beneath the surface of the borderlands and pointed a way out of this century-and-a-half-old nightmare. Such was the brilliance of Carmelita Torres, the 17-year-old maid from Juárez, known in the Anglo press as “an auburn-haired Amazon.”

Carmelita led what would be known as the Bath Riots. On January 28, 1917, she refused the offer of a “delousing” bath and galvanized another thirty women to join her. The rebellion swelled to two hundred female immigrant workers, and then several thousand, determined to put an end to the “delousing” and the sexual abuse that often accompanied it. They marched to the “delousing” center and blocked the door, throwing every object they could find at the building and its officials. Romo describes the events in his book:

The protesters laid down on the tracks in front of the trolley cars to prevent them from moving. When the streetcars were immobilized, the women wrenched the motor controllers from the hands of the motormen. One of the motormen tried to run back to the American side of the bridge. Three or four female rioters clung to him while he tried to escape. They pummeled him with all their might and gave him a black eye. Another motorman preferred to hide from the Mexican women by running into a Chinese restaurant on Avenida Juárez.

Carrancista General Francisco Murguía showed up with his death troops to quell the female riot. Murguía’s cavalry, known as “el escuadrón de la muerte,” [the squadron of death] was rather intimidating. They wore insignia bearing a skull and crossbones and were known for taking no prisoners. The cavalrymen drew their sabers and pointed them at the crowd. But the women were not frightened. They jeered, hooted, and attacked the soldiers. “The soldiers were powerless,” the El Paso Herald reported.

As can be seen from the above, there are two histories of the borderlands. One is a history of annexations, filibusters like the Glanton Gang, the Texas and Arizona Rangers, Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton, and the likes of Larry Hopkins, Santino William Legan, and Patrick Crusius. The other history belongs to the workers and the poor of the region, as represented by Carmelita Torres, Lucy Parsons, Emma Tenayuca, the Magón brothers, Las Gorras Blancas, Humberto Silex, and all those who fought for a class solution by harnessing the power of working-class unity. Óscar and Angie are martyrs in this long history of struggle. Their tragic end is a grisly reminder of the human cost of capitalism’s survival long past its rightful expiration date. However, we are confident that the example of the 1917 Bath Riots will be repeated on an even higher level in the years to come—and that an almighty comeuppance is in store for the ruling class and its aiders and abettors on both sides of the border.

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