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.
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 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:
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.
According to the Public Security Ministry’s tweets, between January 1 and August 28, 2023, 320,098 people had migrated through the Darién Gap “headed toward the United States.” The previous single-year record, in 2022, was 248,284. Of this year’s migrants, “190,889 are Venezuelan, 42,414 Ecuadorian, and 35,495 Haitian.”
“Over this weekend” (August 26-27), the Ministry added, “the arrival of 4,910 migrants, the majority Venezuelan, was counted” at reception centers at the end of the Darién Gap’s trails.
Officials from Panama, a middle-income country with a population much smaller than that of metropolitan Washington DC, say they are overwhelmed. Voice of America reported that they are weighing the possibility of “closing” the land border with Colombia—though it is not clear how they would do that in a region of such complex topography, or what they would do with the tens of thousands of worldwide migrants who would then be stranded there.
Panama’s current policy of facilitating buses that (for about $40 per person) take migrants to the Costa Rican border, while far from ideal, at least keeps migrants from seeking clandestine routes across the country beyond the Darién, which would foster a smuggling industry.
Officials like Immigration Service Director Samira Gozaine and, less directly, Security Minister Juan Manuel Pino have criticized Colombia for not doing enough to stem or control the flow into Panama. On the Panamanian side, the National Border Service (SENAFRONT, Panama does not have a military) launched in June what it calls the “Shield Campaign,” a deployment of 1,200 security-force personnel to the Darién. The U.S.-backed operation—SENAFRONT’s Deputy Director mentions “advice, training, and technologies”—had led to the arrest of about 433 people as of mid-July; it purports to be disrupting smugglers rather than the much more complicated task of blocking migrants.
The increased migration flow is evident north of Panama. Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly approved “a motion declaring a State of Emergency for Public Calamity” along its border with Panama, the Tico Times reported. Between 2,000 and 3,000 migrants per day are entering Costa Rica from Panama at the Pan-American Highway’s Paso Canoas border crossing. Many board buses north to Nicaragua immediately, but those who cannot afford the $30 bus fare are stranded there.
Migration is a big political issue in Costa Rica, where nearly 200,000 Nicaraguan citizens have settled since the regime of Daniel Ortega responded to 2018 protests with a crackdown on all vestiges of the country’s democracy.
Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves was in Washington on August 29, where he met and discussed migration cooperation with President Biden at the White House. Biden promised more than $12 million in humanitarian support and “up to $24 million” in security assistance. Costa Rica, which like Panama has no armed forces, is already a significant recipient of U.S. security aid for counter-drug priorities, maritime operations, and cyber-defense (the government suffered a crippling ransomware attack in 2022). An August 25 article at the U.S. Southern Command’s Diálogo website lists over $46.2 million in recent U.S. security assistance initiatives there.
Like Panama and Costa Rica, Honduras allows migrants in transit to board buses across the country (which usually cost $50) after registering with the government. Here, too, migration has hit record levels: 55,059 people registered during the first 27 days of August, 29,868 of them from Venezuela. This already exceeds Honduras’s earlier single-month record, set in July, of 48,953 migrants. Nearly all are arriving in the country’s eastern department of El Paraíso, along the border with Nicaragua (a country where many complain of severe mistreatment). The UN office in Honduras tweeted that “the entry of about 4,000 people per day is registered” there, and some are stranded for lack of bus fare.
Mexico’s government released migration data for the month of July showing that it, too, broke its monthly record for migrant encounters for the second consecutive month, with 72,223, nearly one-third of them (23,202) Venezuelan. Reporting for Voice of San Diego, Sandra Dibble (protagonist of the 2022 Los Angeles Times / San Diego Union-Tribune “Border City” podcast) found Tijuana’s migrant shelter system—the largest of all Mexican border cities—to be full and strained by worsening budget shortfalls.
U.S. federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies set off internal alarms earlier this year, CNN reported on August 29, after a group of asylum seekers from Uzbekistan, released from U.S.-Mexico border custody into the United States, was found to have been brought by a smuggler with possible ties to ISIS, the “Islamic State” terrorist group. A resulting “urgent classified intelligence report was circulated to President Joe Biden’s top Cabinet officials in their morning briefing book,” CNN found.
The network that facilitated the Uzbek asylum-seekers’ arrival, based in Turkey, involves an individual with alleged “loose ties” or sympathies with ISIS, but not membership in the group, NBC News reported. The Uzbek citizens, fleeing a dictatorship with a poor human rights record, are not presumed to have terrorist ties, and were released into the United States, pending immigration court dates, after undergoing CBP screening.
“The FBI is trying to locate about 15 of roughly 120 Uzbek migrants who entered the U.S. through legal border crossings via the network,” Reuters reported. CBP encountered 3,200 Uzbeks at U.S. borders in fiscal 2022, Reuters added, up from less than 700 in 2021.
Of 1,973,092 migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border during the first 10 months of fiscal year 2023, 216 were on the U.S. government’s Terrorist Screening Dataset, or “watchlist.” While these suspected individuals’ nationalities are classified, the Washington Examiner reported in 2022 that most were citizens of Colombia. Two Colombian groups that had been on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list have long since disbanded (the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, in 2006 and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in 2017), but their demobilized members could still be on the U.S. watchlist.