We read plenty about the US-Mexico border. We read plenty about immigration, national security and the “war on drugs”. But it rarely comes from someone who spent three decades working the borderland beat; a region where, according to author and former US border agent David Ramirez, “the reality has very little to do with policy.”
El Paso native Ramirez, who recently published his first book Beneath the Same Sky, a memoir of his 27 years in border enforcement, passionately defends the hard work and commitment of US border agents. But he also feels that Washington policymakers are very distant from the reality on the ground.
“When we get there [into law enforcement] we think we’re gonna change the world or we’re gonna stop drug-smuggling or we’re gonna stop illegal immigration,” he told me in an interview from his home in New York. “As the years go on, you see the reality of it. Life has a way of educating you.”
Beneath the Same Sky began life with Ramirez jotting down memories and taking stock of his career before he was encouraged by friends to turn it into a memoir. In a series of vignettes from the 1980s through the 2000s, he describes his experiences on the border, including his encounters with illegal immigrants, people-smugglers and drug-traffickers.
“It was like a journal, if you will, and then I just worked on it to get the book,” he explains. “I didn’t start out with the intention of writing about good guy-bad guy stuff – ‘law enforcement always gets its man’. I included things we’d done, our agency had done and had accomplished. But I also had the luxury of looking back at it 28 or 30 years later, so these are my unvarnished sentiments on a lot of this.”
Ramirez worked as a Border Patrol agent in Presidio, as an assistant special agent with the Department of Homeland Security, and as assistant attaché in Mexico City for Immigration and Customs
Enforcement, before retiring in 2009 at age 50.
“The situation of border enforcement has intensified but in a way we’re still working it the way we have for decades,” he told me. “The approach is the same; the approach is interdict at the border. You can intensify the manpower but there’s no real change and no real thought put into the economic or social factors.”
“The reality is that policymakers are not in tune with the times, with what’s happening on the border, or they just disregard the point of the view of the people actually on the border,” he says.
Ramirez grew up and worked the beat in El Paso, as well as in Ciudad Juárez where he worked undercover alongside Mexican agents. In recent years, Juárez has become the most violent battleground between the country’s so-called “drug cartels”.
“What I feel is that El Paso and Juárez have always been the complex definition of border life,” Ramirez explains. “El Paso is calm on the surface but there’s a brutal undercurrent. As for Juárez, here’s always been smuggling and violence in the area but before it was more structured. Now there’s chaos and bloodshed.
“At the end of the day, all the drugs that flow through Juárez go to El Paso. They’re not fighting just to get them into Juárez; they’re fighting to get them into the US. For the most part, El Paso is just a transit city. They’re not fighting for routes or warehousing issues.”
Ramirez is personally against the legalization of drugs but admits that the “war” waged by the US and Mexican governments is a failure and that something needs to change.
“For example, look at the so-called ‘spill-over violence’,” he says. “That’s a fashionable term now, but it’s been happening in Chicago, Detroit, New York etc for decades.
“You would have to turn off the magnet of the United States,” he explains. “If Americans didn’t want the drugs, they could line drugs up along the border, and nobody would buy them. It’s that magnet, it’s that draw.
“Likewise, if immigration is slowing up, it all has to do with jobs. If people can’t find jobs, they’re not gonna be here. They want to go back to their families and their culture and their way of life. But if there’s that job waiting for them, they’re gonna come.”
In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of undocumented immigrants being killed by border agents. Ramirez stresses that most agents are simply trying to protect themselves and that the border region has grown much more dangerous than it was in the 1980s when he was cutting his teeth.
“Before, immigrants were crossing by themselves, venturing out on their own,” he says. “Now they’re crossed by organized crime groups. That’s a new phenomenon in the last 5-7 years. When border agents approach difficult and stressful situations, their primary concern is their safety. Once a border agent has that situation under control, that’s when the human element surfaces.”
Ramirez stops short of saying that border agents grow jaded as they see the same problems day-in day-out as a result of US government policy.
“When you go into this profession, you can’t see it as a losing battle”, he insists. “You’ve already lost if you go in with that attitude. You take an oath and you’re gonna do what’s good for our country. As time goes on, you see ways of doing things differently and some of the things we’re doing now are not working. It’s like we’re going around in circles more than anything else.”
Ramirez also writes openly of the fact that corruption among law enforcement officials is not a problem exclusive to Mexico.
“Corruption is an issue for both countries,” he says. “Of course, a very simplistic way of looking at it is, say, a Mexican police officer is making $300 per month; you can bribe him with $1000 per month. If inspectors in our port of entry are making $60,000 a year, you can bribe them with $10,000 per month. Corruption is an issue anywhere – it’s a matter of how much money you put on the table. It’s part of the [drug] cartels’ business venture.
Ramirez says he’s received a lot of positive feedback about the book from former colleagues.
“The general response was that they were glad I published it”, he says. “They were glad that our point of view and our perspective of that world was exposed or put into writing.
“I don’t want to get too philosophical, but we’re all human beings,” he adds. “We live ‘beneath the same sky’. That’s the point I wanted to make.”