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Paramilitary-Style Tactics in Portland Mirror Decades of Global US Violence

Shocking scenes of paramilitary-style units in the streets of U.S. cities like Portland are all too familiar abroad.

The harrowing scenes of paramilitary-style units in the streets of American cities like Portland has shocked mainstream America, but award-winning independent journalist Todd Miller, who has reported on border security and immigration for over a decade, says it’s a reflection of how the U.S. has operated around the world. We also speak with Cecilia Menjívar, UCLA sociology professor, who says the image of unmarked vans snatching people from the streets “brings back memories to Latin Americans who lived through disappearances of families and friends and co-workers.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. We turn now to the harrowing scenes of paramilitary-style units in the streets of American cities, like Portland, Oregon, where heavily armed federal agents with no agency markings have snatched people off the streets, forced them into unmarked vans. The developments have shocked mainstream America. This is MSNBC host Brian Williams.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Overseas, if we saw these pictures, we’d call it something like a military junta. Under a Mussolini or a Pinochet, we would make nothing of it. It would just be a Wednesday.

AMY GOODMAN: “Just be a Wednesday.” But the violent presence of federal border agents is not unfamiliar to many Black and Brown Americans, especially those who live along the border. The brutality now seen on U.S. streets is also all too recognizable to global communities who have faced the terror of U.S.-trained military forces, sometimes death squads, from Iraq to Kenya to Guatemala. The scene unfolding in Portland, Oregon, has also drawn comparisons to U.S.-backed death squads that terrorized Latin America for decades.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Cecilia Menjívar is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA, where she focuses on state and gender-based violence in Central America and immigration enforcement in the U.S., originally from El Salvador. Also with us, reporter Todd Miller, who has covered border security and immigration for over a decade. He’s the author of Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World, also author of Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Menjívar, let’s begin with you. If you can respond to what’s happening in Portland, Oregon? As you heard Brian Williams say, I mean, this may be familiar to others. He talked about Chile. He talked about Mussolini. But here in America? You know a different picture of this country, and also back to where you came from, in El Salvador, intimately connected to the United States, especially in the 1980s, sadly, through soldiers, often U.S.-trained soldiers, carrying weapons that might come from the United States.

CECILIA MENJÍVAR: Yes. Thank you. Thank you for the questions, because what is happening in Portland, and probably in other cities in the United States, was, as Brian Williams said, the order of the day for most of Latin America during the 1970s and ’80s. And, for instance, the image of an unmarked van taking people from the streets and taking them who knows where, it brings back memories to Latin Americans who lived through disappearances of families and friends and co-workers for a long period of time. So this is something very familiar, very close to Latin Americans throughout the region, because these were strategies of state violence and state control that were implemented throughout the region during the military dictatorships of the ’70s and ’80s.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to bring Todd Miller into the conversation. Toddy, you are the author of a book called Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World. So could you talk about that specific — your subtitle, The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World, and then specifically how the role of the CBP changed after 9/11?

TODD MILLER: Sure. One, in terms of the expansion of the U.S. border around the world, I — even thinking specifically about the specific force that was in Portland and with the BORTAC unit of the U.S. Border Patrol that was pulling people off the streets, over the years, in doing research, I’ve come across them on several occasions.

And one occasion was in Guatemala, and I was going to a military base to meet with a commander of a new Border Patrol force that they were forming there. And my whole purpose of going there was to see how much the United States was behind the creation of that border force. And so, I got there late, but I tried to convince the soldiers at the gate of the military base if I could still meet with the commander. And while I was waiting there, one of the soldiers came up to me and asked me if I was from BORTAC. I went, “What?” And he said, ”BORTAC.” And I couldn’t believe my ears, really. BORTAC, nobody — hardly anyone in the United States even knew who BORTAC was, but here I was, 1,500 miles away from the U.S. southern border, a soldier in Guatemala who knew who BORTAC was. And I got the meeting with the commander, and the commander then verified that BORTAC had been there, the U.S. Border Patrol had done trainings there, that the United States Embassy funding was behind the creation of the new Border Patrol, and this one’s called the Chortí in Guatemala.

And that was just one example of many examples of this expansion of the U.S. border abroad, what they call externalization or the extension of the zone of security, if you want to use the kind of “statespeak” that’s being used. And Guatemala is one example of, to much to my surprise, over a hundred examples in countries all over the world where the U.S. Border Patrol, specifically BORTAC even, are going and doing trainings, sending resources, creating border patrols, teaching other countries how to patrol their borders, and this whole idea of pushing out the U.S. borders, so — according to the mission of stopping people from coming to the United States long before they get to U.S. shores.

And this is something that’s been happening for quite a while. It’s been happening for decades, in many ways. In the 1980s, in fact, you could go back to documents of INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, going to Mexico and saying, “We’ll stop people coming from different countries in Central America from crossing the Mexican border.” And so that’s an example of how far it goes back.

But the programs really shifted post-9/11. There was really a huge emphasis put on this extension of the border. And you could really see where the core of this comes from, from the 9/11 Commission Report. In the 9/11 Commission Report, there is one quote in particular that’s really revealing, and it says, “The American homeland is the planet,” so the idea that the American homeland is everywhere, and thus there’s the underlying logic of this expansion of the United States going to over a hundred countries and using the same units that are now found in Portland, Oregon, or possibly in Chicago today or in other cities around the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: What gives these federal agents, Todd Miller, and law enforcement agencies so much power? You’ve got Portland, Oregon, which falls within 100 miles of the border with Canada. You’ve called about — you’ve talked about these Constitution-free zones and how it relates to border security, both the north, the south. But now Trump is saying he’s sending it to, well, many cities where there are Democratic mayors, particularly women and women of color who are mayors.

TODD MILLER: Yes. So, the BORTAC unit is — they’re essentially U.S. Border Patrol agents. And U.S. Border Patrol agents, as you just mentioned, Amy, they work in what are known the 100-mile zones, or, as the ACLU put, Constitution-free zones. So, if one can imagine, you know, the contours of the United States — right? — along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, the 5,000-mile U.S.-Canada border, along the coasts, and if you imagine a band, like an orange band or something like that, along the contours, that is covering a huge chunk of the U.S. population. Two hundred million people are covered in what is known as the Constitution-free zone, where the U.S. Border Patrol works with extraconstitutional powers. And in that sense, on the southern border, the idea of the U.S. Border Patrol agents snatching people off the streets or snatching people in the desert or snatching people in the various checkpoints that they can put up in these 100-mile zones happens every day, happens all the time. In a sense, it’s like the extension of that border into places like Portland or Chicago, but, as you mentioned, fit within the Constitution-free zone or the border jurisdiction. And Portland, close to the Canadian border and also along the coast — so, along the coastlines, that’s also in those sorts of jurisdictions.

And then, when you look at BORTAC, which is, you know, the special forces unit of the U.S. Border Patrol, the ones that are doing the paramilitary-style tactics, they are the Border Patrol on top of the Border Patrol — right? — in terms of being militarized, weaponized. They were formed in 1984 to quell uprisings in detention centers for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And then they had a presence in 1992 in Los Angeles, when there was unrest after the Rodney King incident. And it goes on and on. There’s a long history of BORTAC being involved in unrest, and it seems to be part of their purpose.

And so, as Border Patrol has expanded in astronomical fashion over the last 25 years particularly — 4,000 to 21,000 agents — the expansion of BORTAC then happens, as well. And so, in a way, it’s a surprise — in a way, it’s quite a surprise, like the clip from Brian Williams. And then, in a way, it’s not a surprise at all to see that BORTAC is being a part of being put in places where they’re — where, you know, from — Washington might view as unrest — right? — but it’s really people protesting, that they’re going to be showing up in Chicago, that they’re going to be showing up in New York, in places that are in the 100-mile zones.

And I want to — as people are quite aware of, there was an announcement in March that BORTAC, or this Border Patrol unit, was going to join forces with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in ICE, to do a show of force in the sanctuary cities — right? — the sanctuary cities, to then go after undocumented people in cities, the same cities that we’re seeing them being deployed right now. So, in a way, it’s going hand in hand now with what was announced in March, with what’s been going on actually for years now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Cecilia Menjívar, if you could also talk about the state violence that’s been deployed against immigrant communities along the border, and also what’s been happening in detention centers, where disappearances are routine often?

CECILIA MENJÍVAR: Right, yes. My research has focused not at the border — excuse me — away from the border. But I was doing — I was doing quite a bit of research in Arizona, in Maricopa County, during the time when the sheriff of Maricopa County used many similar techniques to terrorize the Latino population specifically. And at that time, I was interviewing Central American immigrants in the area who pointed me in this direction. They brought up to my attention the similarities between what they had lived during the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador and what they were living in Phoenix during the reign of terror that the sheriff created in Phoenix, for instance. And so, it was their experiences that brought to my attention the similarities between technologies of state violence and state terror used during the civil wars in Latin America and what immigrant — Latino immigrants, specifically, were living in cities in the United States, specifically, for instance, Phoenix, where that concentrated.

And in relation to detention centers and disappearances in detention centers, what happens to immigrants who are sent to detention facilities is that they are sent to very remote places. They often lose contact with their families. Their families don’t know where they are. I have had immigrants calling me, asking me to help them locate their family members, because they don’t know where they are held, being held. And so, this again brings back memories to when, in their home countries, they would go search for families who had been taken from their homes at night or from their places of work to be disappeared. And so, the same thing was happening here in — is happening here in the United States, with 638 detention facilities throughout the country. Each state has at least two detention facilities dedicated to hold immigrants in detention. And so, the parallels are so strong and so vivid that immigrants who have lived through both can very quickly point that out to one’s attention.

AMY GOODMAN: I can only think — Professor Menjívar, I can only think about the words of Archbishop Romero as he did his last homily, broadcast throughout El Salvador. March 24th, 1980, he was gunned down by a U.S.-backed death squad, and he was saying the words to the soldiers of El Salvador, “I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression!” Professor Cecilia Menjívar, professor of sociology at University of California, Los Angeles, and Todd Miller, author of a number of books, award-winning journalist, including Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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