Interview with Timothy Dunn 2/5/99

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The Week Online spoke with Timothy Dunn, author of "The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992: Low Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home," University of Texas Press, 1996.

WOL: Is it accurate to say that the Pentagon has effectively ended their border drug patrols?

Dunn: I don't know if they've ended them, but they've set themselves a much higher threshold to meet in determining whether or not they will do them. They haven't said that they won't do them, but they have said they will have to get the permission of the Secretary of Defense or one of his deputies. It's going to take something pretty extraordinary for them to decide that it's worthy of the Secretary's attention. We might do it, but we probably won't, I think that's what they're saying. So in practical terms, it probably won't happen. But they're leaving the door open that they can, and they won't have to notify anybody or tell anybody.

WOL: To what extent does this new policy address the border drug policy problem?

Dunn: Well, I think it affects the most obvious and the most clearly dangerous parts of the posting of armed troops along the border. The other parts of the relationship, the institutional relationship between the military and law enforcement communities, is not affected. And as you may recall from my book, I noted that Joint Task Force 6, the military unit that coordinates all the military support for anti-drug efforts of the various police bodies, they provide a vast array of types of assistance. They have 19 different types of missions, and only four or five involve the use of ground troops. So all of those other types of assistance are left on the table, things like engineering and construction support, building the border walls that have been put up in Arizona and California, road building so the Border Patrol can get in certain areas more easily.

Besides that, more serious types of militarization left are training and intelligence support. In training, they're allowed to teach everything from first aid and map reading and rifle marksmanship, which sounds pretty modest, to things like suspect interrogations and the use of pyrotechnics and booby traps -- you know, some really gruesome stuff that law enforcement has no business in the world getting involved with. And you can imagine, in suspect interrogations, law enforcement at least has to wave at the Constitution. Military, in their operations abroad, do not. And all the allegations that have been lodged about training of torturers, and so forth, at the military's School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, involve that kind of stuff, suspect interrogation.

So that's a very dangerous area to be getting involved with in law enforcement and the military, and that's on the books, we can do that for you. And all sorts of other stuff included, like raid planning, which is reminiscent of Waco, and all those kinds of things. So again, the law enforcement people have no business planning a raid to look like a military program, and the military certainly can't help plan a police raid, because that's not what they do.

WOL: What about the Border Patrol? Is there a danger of another incident as occurred in Redford, but involving, say, Border Patrol or other civilian agencies, that have become more similar to the military in the way they function?

Dunn: Well, had the Border Patrol been out there instead of the military unit that was out there when that shooting occurred of Esequiel Hernandez out in Redford, I don't think the Border Patrol agents would have shot at him. Like the military guys responded, you know, dramatically, overreached and misread the situation, and Border Patrol agents are less likely to do that. In fact, earlier that year, some Border Patrol agents were in the area when Hernandez was firing his rifle. Worrying that they could get hit by a stray bullet, they drove over and told him to knock it off. He didn't know they were there. So, the situation was resolved without the use of force; that's the positive side.

On the down side, the Border Patrol has a long record of very questionable shootings along the border of people whom they viewed as threatening, and it's very questionable in certain instances whether there was a significant threat, or any threat at all. Going back to 1992, in the most famous case, a Border Patrol agent using the civilian equivalent of an M-16, an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, out on a drug patrol near Nogales, Arizona, shot a Mexican, undocumented border crosser in the back, as he was running back toward the border to get away. And the guy was unarmed, and he had no drugs on him. There are a lot of incidents like that. In fact, there've been a couple in these last six to nine months in California and Arizona, where undocumented immigrants were shot by the Border Patrol.

WOL: So how do things need to change?

Dunn: Ultimately, the relationship between the Border Patrol and the military, or the military and civilian policing bodies generally, needs to just end. Because it's a dangerous relationship. You shouldn't have the police being trained by the military and starting to act more like the military, which can still happen under current guidelines. And you shouldn't have the military getting involved in domestic police matters. That's wholly inappropriate on both sides, and ultimately it's a threat to democracy.

We should return to the status quo before the early 1980s, when this new law was passed that allowed military collaboration with the police. You did not see military collaboration with the police on a regular, ongoing basis. Failing that, they ought to at least keep the relationship limited to the less militaristic end of the continuum.

WOL: Is there anything you'd like to add in conclusion?

Dunn: Well, I don't want to downplay the significance of this decision. Getting these border missions to go through the Secretary or his deputy is very significant. That's about as close as we can get to them saying, we're not going to do this, without them saying that. It is unfortunately just up to them, at their bureaucratic discretion. There's not a strong public control over it, or even public input into it, and that's unfortunate; that makes it less secure. But it is nonetheless a very significant change. And it should not have taken the loss of this boy's life to make that change. You don't have to be a genius to see that the use of ground troops along the border, people who have no clue about what's going on out there and are heavily armed, it didn't take a genius to see that could lead to some kind of human rights catastrophe. Any common sense could have judged the same thing, and sure enough, that's what happened. And it shouldn't have taken the loss of that boy's life for this to happen.

WOL: Common sense is not the hallmark of our national drug policy.

Dunn: Not in the least, no. [laughter]

WOL: Thank you for your time.

(Purchase "Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border" online from, and DRCNet will earn 15%! Just go to to see more about the book and get us credit if you decide to buy a copy.)

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Issue #77, 2/5/99 Fungus Funding | Clinton's New Drug Control Strategy Repeats Mistakes of the Past | Interview with Timothy Dunn | Needle Exchange Controversy in Australia | Memorial | Event Info | First Prisoner Released Under Michigan 650 Lifer Law Reform | Increased Penalties, Prison Sentences Don't Deter Drug Use, ABA Study Finds
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