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2: A Bad Scenario

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In the crystal balls of the intelligence agencies the following unhappy future may be flickering.

Just after midnight, June 8, the United States closed its border with Mexico, following three years of intense national debate. Ten thousand new searchlights went on, draining power from the grids serving centers from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. More than 200,000 treasury, immigration, police, and military personnel were in place from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, an average of one hundred guards for each of the two thousand miles of the border. On roads paralleling the border­some of them newly bulldozed dirt tracks­cruise police and sheriffs cars and motorcycles, and military jeeps and armored vehicles. From new helicopter parks, choppers covered assigned sectors.

Roads and rail lines crossing the border were blocked. Air crossings were prohibited, and radar and military aircraft were in place to enforce the ban. Washington said the barriers were up until a new agreement was reached with Mexico on search procedures. Mexico said there would be no accord during the rupture of traffic by the United States.

America began a mammoth wall project, starting at the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and proceeding in both directions from twelve other points: Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, Eagle Pass, Del Río, and El Paso, in Texas; Columbus in New Mexico; Douglas, Nogales, Lukeville, and near Yuma, in Arizona; and Calexico in California. Thus, what the Mexicans at once call La Muralla del Buen Vecino­the Good Neighbor Wall­had twenty-six moving faces. The foundation went six feet below the ground, while bald, brutal concrete was to rise twenty-five feet above the surface. On top of the monstrosity were to be six feet of wire charged with lethal voltage. It was planned to clear and level the ground on both sides of the wall in strips one hundred fifty feet wide, but the details were incomplete because of protests from property owners in the border cities. Only fifty-six gates were planned in the wall. There would be a guard tower fifty feet high at one-mile intervals. The Good Neighbor Wall was one of the largest construction projects in history; for much of the world, it was one of the most obnoxious.(1)

Crowds gathered on both sides of the border, especially near the wall construction sites. Before noon on the first day of construction enough incidents occurred to confirm the predictions of pessimists­bombs, dynamite, bottles of gasoline, fire, rocks, clubs, guns, and knives wrecked hundreds of buildings and killed 112 and injured 1,515 persons. Most of the casualties were in the United States, but some of them were Mexican citizens as well.

Reporters, cameramen, TV technicians and makeup people, cartoonists, editorial pundits, and feature writers had flooded the border areas of the United States and Mexico. An effort to keep media personnel outside wide "security zones" on the American side soon collapsed. The zones were too extensive to police. The reporters were too insistent. Too many bystanders also were invading the zones. Neither civil nor military officials were anxious to prick TV personalities with bayonets. Yet in the end, the media contributed five dead and thirty-six injured, including nationals from eight countries. And when media people were killed and wounded, their employers and followers demanded that the United States arrange its affairs more sensibly.

"Let's be sensible, Mr. President," the majority leader of the Senate said just after noon in the White House Oval Office."

"That always is my aim, senator," the president said frostily.

The senator shrugged. "I might have phrased that better, Mr. President. I meant to say, what are we looking for, of course, is a practical solution to this immigration mess."

The president said sourly, "You know that's what Mexico's president, López Portillo, told us when he visited here in 1977, that we needed a more "sensible,"policy in the Western Hemisphere. Irritating word. Anyway, closing the border and building the wall was supposed to bring Mexico into line on both immigration and petroleum policy. You supported it, senator."

The senator nodded, not apologetically: "I did. Lots of folks were for it. I'm not sure who's for it now. Maybe we made a mistake."

The president said, rather contemptuously, "Possibly. But if you change a policy during the first day's outcry against it. . . ." He did not finish the sentence.

The senator said firmly, "I just wanted you that I was ready for compromise if that is necessary."

Yes, Jim. I know you're up for reelection this fall."

The senator had been a power in national politics for twenty years and knew better than to accept such a sneer without retaliation. "I'll tell you, Walt," he told the president, that sort of tone gets a lot of people's backs up."

The president smiled with effort and said, "I know. I shouldn't have said it, Jim."

At 4:00 P.M., the National Security Council heard a lot about people whose backs were up.

The secretary of state summarized world reaction to the wall. "Communists claim brutality, imperialism, lack of respect for developing nations. So does the noncommunist Third World. The Organization of African States is preparing a statement. The Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States is in session at the request of Mexico. Four organs of the United Nations have issued or are preparing condemnations of our policy."

The president complained. "All those countries control entry by foreigners. The Soviets built quite a wall in Germany."

"Yes, " the secretary said. "We have a statement going out today that includes those points."

"The strong reaction surprised you, too?"

"Yes, Mr. President. The name the Mexicans gave the wall helped dramatize it, and so did the size of the wall."

The president said impatiently, "I know you were against it. So it's too bad we didn't knock off a few feet." He looked at another figure seated at the long table. "Organized labor had no doubts."

The labor secretary was famed for his bluntness. Up from the ranks, he strove for (and overdid) the common touch. "Mr. President," he said, "I've talked to nearly fifty labor leaders, and they say we sure have a right to protect ourselves against cheap foreign labor. They say the issue of closing the border was fully debated, absolutely fully and democratically debated. And they say, also, Mr. President, that Mexico controls its own immigration with an iron fist, but says we can't. They say, "Let's show 'em.' They say we hope our security forces will learn how to control terrorist elements in the border area."

"We all hope that," the president dryly agreed, looking at the secretary of defense.

The secretary of defense had great technical ability and a short way with those he thought his intellectual inferiors. "We know how to do it now, Mr. President, but the guidelines laid down have made it difficult. You can't control mobs, or journalists, with scolding."

"We all agree with that, too," the president said sharply. "And we all know that Mexico is bound to retaliate through its petroleum policy."

He looked at the secretary of state, who shrugged and said, "I don't see that anything has changed. We either give in to pressure or not."

The president said grimly, "We'll give the security forces more authority." He looked around the table and asked harshly, "Is there any dissent?"

So, that night a butter-toned TV newsperson reported, "The administration position is that it's a sensible, legitimate, and necessary policy that must be supported more firmly. Critics say that it means a dictatorship­at least in the border area."

But most Americans did not believe that a dictatorship was in the making. Mostly, they were irritated. They thought that immigration was something each nation should control for itself. Could anyone enter the Soviet Union, take a job from a Russian, get welfare and public medical care? No, and anyone couldn't go to Mexico and do that either. But Mexicans could do it in the United States. And they could riot against American law, as many people, to their irritation, saw on television.

What the media publicized as the first violence was the killing of Patricio Guardiola Ramírez, twenty, a third-year student at the University of Nuevo León in the city of Monterrey, one hundred twenty miles south of the border city of Laredo, Texas. All his life, Patricio, from a middle-class business family, had heard praise or envy of United States' economic achievements and condemnation of its Mexican policies. When, three years before, Washington hardened its views on immigration, Patricio was prepared to be indignant. Student attitudes were at least formally leftist and they were passionately nationalist. Nearly all students disliked gringo investments and branch plants in Mexico and gringo barriers to imports of Mexico's tomatoes , shoes, and other products.

Patricio and forty-three other students drove to Nuevo Laredo, in the state of Tamaulipas, then waded the shallow Rio Grande (called the Rio Bravo in Mexico) three miles east of the center of Laredo, Texas. From there they walked back to where construction had begun on the wall just outside the city. It was one hundred fifty feet from the river, leaving a cleared zone to expose saboteurs coming from Mexico. The lights illuminated a strip more than a quarter-mile square, crowded with earth-moving vehicles, piles of lumber and steel for concrete forms, other building equipment and materials, soldiers and police and their vehicles, media personnel, with television cables snaking in all directions, and several thousand spectators interested enough to stand in a field at 12:43 A. M.

The forty-four students from the University of Nuevo León approached a group of eight or ten U.S. soldiers, who were standing near some big concrete mixing trucks whose fat bodies revolved, leaking a grey-white liquid. The students yelled, "Viva México!" and threw some rocks at the soldiers. Patricio Guardiola Ramírez may have thrown the first stone, but he did not hit anyone. Some other stones broke off four of the teeth of a U.S. Army private named Edgar Prentice Brownlaw, from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. In his rage and pain and fear he shot Patricio Guardiola Ramírez dead. Since Patricio was shot in the head, the television cameras got a perfectly dreadful picture of the young man's face disintegrating.

The army officers commanding the area efficiently buttoned things up. The forty-three surviving students were escorted to the International bridge. A funeral home in Laredo carried the body of Patricio Guardiola Ramírez to a funeral home in Nuevo Laredo. Private Brownlaw was hustled out of the area and never was interviewed or punished.

The news came to the million residents of the twin cities of Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas. Over two-thirds of those people live in Mexico, and many of them cross daily over a bridge to work and shop in El Paso. Smaller numbers of Americans go to Ciudad Juárez to buy handcrafted furniture, rugs, jewelry, wrought iron, glass, and ceramics. Servicemen from the big American air and army bases nearby also go to the bars, nightclubs, and whorehouses of Juárez.

Mexicans who went to the bridge in the early morning of June 8 found the gates closed and guarded by soldiers. A big sign said


A crowd built up at the Mexican end of the bridge. It was noisy but orderly, mostly made up of ordinary citizens who wanted to go to El Paso, as they did every day. A handful of nationalists and agitators shouted slogans, but few people paid attention. That was going to change.

It was going to change because in El Paso a man named Harry Crane thought the death of Patricio Guardiola Ramírez presented him with an opportunity. There were 3,472 other U.S. citizens who thought that the Mexican student's death must offer an opportunity, but few of them could decide what the opportunity was. Crane was in no doubt: It was an excuse for violence that would bring American institutions into disrepute, for Crane belonged to a tiny group, The Clarifiers, that rages against the impurity of human society.

Crane and his colleagues paid a Mexican who was illegally in El Paso to go back across the border into Ciudad Juárez with Crane. The Mexican carried a portable loudspeaker in a suitcase, while Crane had two Molotov cocktails in a paper shopping bag marked in big letters

Oak Street Shopping Center, Air Conditioned

There were about 10,000 people now at the Mexican end of the international bridge, mostly quiet, smoking, buying tacos, roasted corn, and flavored waters from vendors. The Mexican army lieutenant in command of the squad of fifteen soldiers behind the flimsy gates at the entrance to the bridge was relaxed. He knew that the police and army had rounded up every known troublemaker in the Ciudad Juárez area. He knew the crowd would go home as soon as it was convinced that it could not get across the river.

Harry Crane and his hired hand made their way to the front of the crowd at the gate. At 9:32 A.M. that morning of June 8, the hired hand took the portable loudspeaker out of his suitcase and began screaming:

A La Muralla! A La Muralla! A La Muralla!
To The Wall! To The Wall! To The Wall!

That was a cry that not only referred to the new Good Neighbor Wall but to all walls against which so many men had been executed throughout history. It had been a popular slogan during Castro's revolution in Cuba.

The crowd surged forward against the gate at the entrance to the bridge. The army lieutenant talked rapidly into a telephone. As the gates bulged under the crowd's pressure, the lieutenant slammed down the phone and ordered his men to the sides of the bridge. The shouting crowd pushed down the gate and flowed across the bridge toward the heavy barricade at the American end, where a loudspeaker bellowed:

Alto Ahí! Detengase! Sí No, Disparamos!
Stop there! Halt! If Not, We will Shoot!

Harry Crane ran out ahead of the crowd, which began to slow its advance. He gripped a Molotov cocktail with a burning fuse. Behind him, reluctantly and far behind, came his hired hand with the shopping bag containing the other gasoline bomb. Crane ran close to the barricade at the United States end of the bridge and threw the bottle of gasoline. It burst in a sheet of flame between two soldiers, and their screams could be heard for a quarter of a mile.

A U.S. Army captain shouted Fire! and a burst of carbine and machine pistol fire continued for nearly fifteen seconds, until a lieutenant colonel got his Cease Fire! heard and obeyed.

By then, as a later count showed, 32 Mexicans were dead on the bridge and 117 wounded. The Mexican dead included the man carrying the shopping bag. Also dead was Harry Crane.

By 10:30 A.M. the president of the United States knew that the fingerprints of the man who threw the bomb were those of Harry G. Crane, member of the anarchistic Clarifiers. The Mexican ambassador was informed. He phoned Mexico City.

At noon the president of Mexico released the text of a protest his ambassador to Washington was to was to deliver simultaneously to the president of the United States:

The government of Mexico protests in the strongest terms:

1. The interruption of traffic between its territory and that of the United States of North America by a unilateral action of the government of the latter.
2. The construction of a wall of such exaggerated characteristics as to suggest that the attitude of the United State toward the United Mexican States is one of profound mistrust and lack of cordiality.
3. The killing early today by United States troops of Patricio Guardiola Ramírez, a Mexican citizen and a student guilty of nothing more reprehensible than throwing a rock.
4. The slaughter of Mexican citizens on the international bridge between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso by United States military action far in excess of what was required to handle disturbed conditions there, conditions aggravated by the criminal activities of a United States citizen.

At 12:15 P.m. the United States ambassador in Mexico was informed that the Mexican Congress insisted on revising the terms under which United States capital­possibly $3 billion worth­operated in Mexico.

At 12:30 the Mexican government announced that all United States citizens residing in Mexico--twenty thousand or so--were required to apply for new identity cards and supply new information about their economic affairs and their ties with institutions in the United States, especially the federal government and its intelligence agencies.

At 12:38, at the medical faculty buildings of the University of Guadalajara, riots began against U.S. students there--some twelve hundred of them. Nearly eighty were injured; most suffered property damage. Mexican troops put all American students under protective custody in a warehouse. Some 90 percent of the students left Mexico in the next few days.

At 1:00 P.M. the Mexican government announced agreement with the USSR and Cuba for negotiation of new economic ties to emphasize minerals, industrial goods, and petroleum products. Moscow hinted that the Soviet oil on which Cuba depended might be replaced by supplies from Mexico.

That same morning of June 8 a decision was taken by another of the 3,473 United States citizens who saw the death of Patricio Guardiola Ramírez as an opportunity. Billy Joe Pope of Nogales, Arizona, decided that Ramírez's death justified assassination of the president of the United States for not being tough enough with "greasers," as Billy Joe called Mexicans, though not to their faces. Mexicans were responsible, Billy Joe knew, for his failures in school, at work, and with women. He didn't go to his job as cook in a restaurant that day because he had to plan the assassination. He did that in great and loving detail until, at 2:30 P.m., his TV set informed him that the governor of Arizona had arrived in Nogales to be sure that calm had been restored at the border. The TV screen showed the governor chatting with a crowd at a border station. Many people in the crowd obviously were of Latin or Indian extraction. Billy Joe abruptly decided that the governor was as much a Mexican-lover as the president.

He rushed down to the border station, only a few blocks from his rented downtown room. It proved simple to walk up to the governor and shoot him twice in the stomach.

The media in the United States wallowed in fear and recrimination. Spokesmen of every interest group and point of view issued statements, often critical of the administration, though calling for national solidarity in perilous--if mismanaged--times. The president of the United States watched TV for fifteen minutes, alternately enraged at what he considered excessive Mexican pressure, and yet fearful of what was happening to his own political position.

And so attending a National Security Council meeting at four that afternoon he found it a mess. All present were as irritated and fearful as the president. Partisans of moderation and advocates of a "policy of national strength" were equally firm-and deaf. The president finally decided in favor of a show of national strength.

Thus, appearing on national prime time TV, the president began, "Fellow Americans, I have issued orders that security on our border with Mexico be strengthened. I say to you that attacks on United States armed personnel will not be tolerated." He also asked American citizens to rally in defense of their right to set internal policy, reminding them that border and immigration policy had been decided over several years after the fullest debate.

The president hoped that recent events and, his own reactions had increased rather than diminished his support, but he had no idea if that was the case. His friends assured him all was well, his foes hinted at impeachment, and network pundits pointed out that more than one ass had inhabited the White House.

The TV networks interviewed John Whipple, mayor of El Paso, at 8:00 P.M. that night.

Q: Mr. Mayor, as you have heard, there has been violence all along the border. Do you suppose the causes are the same everywhere?

A: Yes.

Q: What are those causes, Mr. Mayor?

A: A lot of impractical theorists tried to solve a complex social, economic, international problem too abruptly and without proper attention to fact and to the opinions of those who know the facts best--that is, the people who live in the border area.

Q: You do agree, I suppose, Mayor Whipple, that immigration policy is a national, not a local, problem?

A: Putting a twenty-five-foot wall through our town makes it more important to us than to Boston or Buffalo.

Q: Of course, the wall hasn't been started inside El Paso.

A: No, and I hope it won't be.

But when the president sent another 100,000 troops to the border area, including more than 8,000 to El Paso, Mayor Whipple went on the air to ask that his constituents receive the troops quietly as fellow citizens going about their duty, even if that duty Included clearing a strip through El Paso.

One hundred and fifty-three professors, churchmen, artists, and writers took an ad in the New York Times deploring the administration's arrogance, the influence of military men outside their proper sphere, and the role played in American foreign policy by profit-motivated energy corporations.

The president of Mexico, by June 15, was short of sleep, short of temper, and short of solutions. At 11:00 P.M. he was conferring with a small group of advisers at Los Pinos, his residence in Chapultepec Park.

"I hope," he observed testily, "that no one else will inform me that world opinion is on our side. Unfortunately, the United States on its side has economic strength and military power He nodded at the minister of government--an old friend and a man known for his hardheadedness and lack of interest in ideological considerations.

"The possibility," the minister said, "of cutting off the flow of petroleum and natural gas to the United States has again been considered, and decided in the negative. The president directs me to announce that there will be no further discussion of that issue."

The president nodded curtly and said, "We will again communicate to the world press, the United States, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and other agencies our firm desire for a negotiated compromise. We will emphasize violent and unilateral United States actions and play down the possibility of further retaliation by Mexico."He shrugged."We will try it for a while.. The United States is very near and other powers very far."

Unable to contain his indignation, the minister of labor cried, "It's a surrender!"

"It's sensible,"' the president said flatly.

"It's statesmanlike," declared the minister of government.

"It's final,"' said the president.

At 1:33 A.M., July 19, the president of the United States was sleepy, angry, and frustrated. He looked without admiration at the seventeen advisers who had been at the long table in the White House for three hours.

"To sum up our deliberations," the president said acidly, "the Mexicans have outmaneuvered us. Or, we made a mistake and they pounced on it. Unhandsome of them." He stood up and said bluntly, "Construction of the wall will cease at once."

An opposition senator shouted, "It's a surrender!"

"Oh, for the love of Christ!" the president snarled, and stalked from the room.

The world saw excellent TV shots of the abortive Good Neighbor Wall, beginning in the surf of the Gulf of Mexico and marching starkly inland for 4.76 miles to its full height of twenty-five feet, then another 1.69 miles at only fifteen feet high, and .34 miles that only reach ten feet. Pieces like that were strung over the 2,000 miles of the border, iron reinforcing rods sticking up from the uncompleted sections, the great cranes standing idle, mountains of supplies under tied-down tarps.

"With the wall mess out of the way," said the president, "we should be able to handle the problem."

The Senate majority leader nodded. "Yes, Mr. President. Think we should knock down the parts that were built?"

"Later, I would say, when it's lost most of its news value." The president shook his head. "Most of us thought the wall was a necessary part of the solution--if we really wanted a solution."

"Yes, I know, Walt," the senator agreed gloomily. "The reaction surprised all of us."

"You know, Jim, I still think there's a lot of support for cutting immigration, including Mexican."

"Well, sure, Mr. President. That's why we voted for the wall. It'll be tougher without it."

The president nodded emphatically, "We don't want two or three hundred thousand troops on the border all the time."

The senator said sarcastically, "Maybe we should take the Mexican suggestion: make Mexico rich and then people won't want to leave."

"How many votes can you round up for that, Jim?"

"Maybe not even my own."

"Then maybe there's no solution."

The senator said firmly, "Sure there is, Mr. President; it's the pricing we need to get straight."

"Yeah," the president said, without enthusiasm. "The price of oil. For the first time I'm glad it's my second term."

1. See chapter 6 for all and fence schemes in the 1970s.

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