In this presidential election year, much of the focus has been on national security, and one idea that has come up repeatedly is that walls can be built along the United States border with Mexico to keep contraband and people from crossing illegally.
This suggestion ignores the fact that powerful and basic economic forces make it simply impossible to hermetically seal the U.S.-Mexico border.
Walls and Fences
Constructing border walls and fences to provide national security is an age-old concept. The Athenians built "long walls," such as one running to Piraeus, as military fortifications. Chinese emperors built the Great Wall to help protect against Mongol invasion. The Romans erected Hadrian's Wall to guard settlements in modern England from marauding Picts and other tribes. And the Berlin Wall was erected almost overnight — though not so much to keep people out of the Communist territory east of the wall as to keep people in.
The idea of barrier walls along the U.S.-Mexico border is likewise not a new idea. Along some parts of the border, there have been fences for decades. The U.S. government constructed enhanced border fences in urban areas in the 1990s — many made using surplus metal runway mats from the Vietnam War.
Modern construction techniques in border fencing began to appear in 1995, when a three-tier design was created at Sandia National Laboratories. In this design, the layer closest to the foreign country is a substantial metal wall — using the runway mats in some areas. A well-lighted open area separates that layer from a 5-meter (15-foot) metal mesh fence (designed to keep out pedestrians) that is about 46 meters farther in. The open area, with an access road for Border Patrol agents, is blanketed with an array of technologies — heavy video coverage, thermal imaging and embedded sensors that detect metals, heat and movement. In regions prone to heavy cross traffic, there is a third, low fence in from the mesh structure.
In 2006, the Secure Fence Act extended existing border fences, but even with the extensions, there are still gaps of hundreds of kilometers along the nearly 3,200-kilometer border. Legislation to fund fence-building in these areas has been proposed on several occasions but has not been approved because of serious doubts about the effectiveness of fences in actually deterring illegal border crossings. If one visits areas that have had fences for decades such as San Diego, California; Nogales, Arizona; or El Paso and Brownsville, Texas, it is plainly evident that the fences have not stemmed the flow of contraband or of people. There is a powerful reason for this: money.
In the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville famously coined the phrase "it's the economy, stupid" in his efforts to focus the campaign on what he believed was the race's most crucial issue. I'd like to do the same here. I would argue that when considering the flow of contraband and people across the U.S.-Mexico border, the prime factor influencing that flow is economics. Other factors such as international relations, customs and immigration regulations, national and state laws, and law enforcement tactics and strategy pale by comparison — it's the economics, stupid.
As long as smugglers are able to make huge quantities of money hauling drugs and people north and guns and bulk cash south, they will be impossible to stop. Barriers may redirect the flow, but the powerful law of supply and demand will ensure that no matter what barriers are put into place, creative smugglers will find ways to circumvent them. Besides shifting the flow to areas that are not fenced, smugglers have also simply cut holes in the fence to pass through in sectors where there are barriers. They also use ladders and vehicle ramps to scale the fence, dig tunnels to pass under it and employ a variety of means — as complex as ultralight aircraft and catapults and as simple as tossing items by hand — to pass or launch contraband over the fence.
This creativity is driven by the economic law of supply and demand. As we've previously discussed, a kilo of cocaine that sells for $2,200 in the jungles of Colombia can be sold for upwards of $60,000 on the streets of New York. Mexican drug traffickers have to buy cocaine from South American producers, and sometimes Central American middlemen, lowering its profit margin some, but other classes of drugs offer even higher profit margins. A kilo of methamphetamine that might cost $300 to $500 to synthesize in Mexico can sell for $20,000 in the United States, and a kilo of Mexican heroin that costs $5,000 to produce can sell wholesale for $80,000 and can retail for as much as $300,000 north of the border. With the ability to parlay a $5,000 investment into $300,000, it is little wonder that there has been such an increase in the amount of Mexican heroin smuggled into the United States. High profit margins also explain why Mexican drug gangs are directly involved in retailing U.S. heroin rather than in selling the drug to retail distributors as they tend to do with cocaine.
As long as smugglers are able to make huge quantities of money hauling drugs and people north and guns and bulk cash south, they will be impossible to stop.
The principle of supply and demand also applies to firearms flowing south over the border. Guns legally purchased in the United States can be sold for three- to five-times their purchase price in Mexico. This has given rise to an entire cottage industry of gun smuggling from the United States into Mexico. Though there has been a lot of focus on semi-automatic assault rifles that are shipped to Mexico where they are modified for fully automatic fire, cheap .380-caliber and .22-caliber weapons are among the guns most commonly traced back to the United States.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Despite a variety of methods used to sneak contraband over, under and through the walls, the vast majority of high-value narcotics is smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border at legal points of entry, camouflaged among the legitimate goods and people that cross every day. The U.S. border with Mexico is the most heavily trafficked land border in the world, and some $1.45 billion in legal trade crosses it every day. This translates into some 6 million cars, 440,000 trucks and 3.3 million pedestrians crossing the border from Mexico into the United States every month. The flow of goods and people crossing by train, bus, air and sea adds even more volume, all which must be checked for contraband.
The value of the flow of illicit goods through points of entry has been clearly demonstrated by the pitched battles that Mexican criminal organizations have waged to control land crossings. It is no accident that we have seen brutal cartel wars break out for control of lucrative border crossing cities such as Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas; Tijuana, Baja California; and Juarez, Chihuahua. Smugglers are continually developing imaginative and innovative methods to hide narcotics shipments in goods and vehicles and even on people crossing the border. They are engaged in a perpetual game of cat and mouse with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. But when this game becomes too difficult, Mexican smugglers have frequently found it necessary to stack the deck in their favor. They accomplish this through corruption.
Indeed, as border security has tightened and as the flow of narcotics has been impeded, the number of U.S. border enforcement officers arrested on charges of corruption has increased notably. This is a logical outcome in the progression of enforcement. As the obstacles posed by border enforcement have become more daunting, people have become the weak link in border security. In some ways, people become like tunnels under the border wall — merely another channel employed by traffickers to help their goods get past the border and to market. This corruption has affected every level of U.S. law enforcement: local, state and federal. It has ensnared county sheriffs and high-ranking federal agents. It also figures into human smuggling. As it becomes harder for people to cross the border, there is more pressure to obtain illicit border crossing cards, visas and passports.
Now, all of this is not to say that efforts to stem the flow of narcotics and other contraband should fatalistically be abandoned. This is also not a call for totally open borders. Indeed, efforts should be made to reduce the flow of contraband and undocumented immigrants to the extent possible. However these efforts should be taken with the understanding that because of powerful economic factors, illegal flows can never be absolutely stopped. Indeed, the only thing that could truly end the supply of drugs, guns and immigrants is a lack of demand. But as long as Americans are willing to pay for illegal drugs and provide jobs to workers without documentation, inexorable economic forces will continue to fuel illegal cross-border activity.
The next time you hear someone discussing how a border wall can seal off the flow of drugs and migrants, remind them: "It's the economics, stupid."