An excerpt from “Border Patrol Nation,” Chapter 7: “America’s Back Yard.”
The first thing that I want to do when I arrive in Dajabón, one of the Dominican Republic’s border towns with Haiti, is find a good place to eat. After all, it is a five-hour bus ride from the capital of Santo Domingo, through a lush, mountainous landscape with many small towns, all with baseball fields on their edges. As soon as I get off the bus it’s obvious that I’m in borderlands again. There is the roar of a cumbersome green helicopter that will circle the town for hours. A mere three blocks away is Haiti, a nation where more than nine million people earn less than a dollar per day. Between the spot where I step off the bus and Haiti is the Massacre River, representing the border that divides the island of Hispaniola into two countries.
I find a Chinese-Dominican restaurant and take a seat. Before I order, a man enters the restaurant and approaches an empty table where another man has just left. A white paper plate, still with a heap of rice, rests on the table amid a scatter of used plastic ware. The man stares down at the plate for a split second. He carries a blue pole under his arm. The man, who I think must be Haitian, grabs a half-eaten piece of chicken. He eats it with ravenous intensity, small bits of chicken exploding off the bone. It’s as if he hasn’t eaten for days. With his bare hand he grabs a handful of rice and shovels it into his mouth. Overhead, the green helicopter continues to circle. You can feel its propellers ripping through the atmosphere. As always in the borderlands, there is an impression that something is happening and that something is wrong.
The man grabs another handful of rice and stores it in a napkin he finds on the table. He grabs the fried plantains and pops them into his mouth, one by one. Behind the counter, four women casually watch the scene, unfazed, as if this happens every day. The Haitian man grabs a small plastic cup with a pool of red soda in its bottom and gulps it
down in one fluid motion. He then walks out into the street carrying the napkin full of rice in his cupped hands. I have never, I realize, seen such forceful and aggressive hunger.
But then I ask myself: how do I even know he is Haitian? I realize that it’s possible he’s Dominican, or even Haitian-Dominican. There is hunger in the Dominican Republic too, so why should I assume this guy is Haitian? Like the Haitians who come across the 320-kilometer divide between the two countries, many Dominicans choose to leave their country, usually to the United States or Puerto Rico, packed into rickety boats called “yolas.”
Indeed, right there in Dajabón and the larger province you find all the typical characteristics of a migrant-sending region. The home region to Major League Baseball player Rafael Furcal includes chronic poverty, lack of basic services, and hunger. In 2007, a tornado that destroyed part of Dajabón was deemed a “blessing” by local authorities. The government finally came in and “resolved a lot of problems in the community,” according to the newspaper Diario Libre, “including fixing the roads, potable water, food, and other basic services.”
As if epitomizing this local reality, another man then walks into the restaurant. The bottom of his worn brown pants are cut open and shredded, the skin around his chin split open in a wound, slightly discolored. He walks through the restaurant speaking loudly in Spanish, asking people for money. He arrives at a table where two men sit eating their meals. The wounded man points down to the plate, and the eating man, whose fork is already midair for his next bite, stops what he is doing. He slides his plate over.
This is the Dajabón that is in one of the key places in charge of policing the Dominican border with Haiti. And that is why I am here, to learn more about the Dominican Republic’s border police. While Dajabón is more than 1,000 miles from Miami, the U.S. Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security have a presence of sorts there. The U.S. government has helped to fund the Dominican border policing agency and provides it with training. This speaks to Dajabón’s strategic location within something that is larger and more complex than the United States proper but is part of its sphere of interests and influence, and thus equally “vulnerable.” It is the place that the United States has long considered its “backyard.”
Violence of Origins
The first time I see Colonel Juan de Jesús Cruz on the bridge connecting Dajabón and Ouanaminthe, Haiti, I am not sure what he is doing. Cruz is Dajabón’s border chief for the Dominican Republic’s version of the U.S. Border Patrol. Known as CESFRONT (Cuerpo Especializado de Seguridad Fronteriza Terrestre), the Land Border Security Special Forces Unit was first formed in 2006. Cruz clenches a purple umbrella with his right hand in an attempt to fend off the sun on this sweltering day. He is wearing the standard brown camouflage CESFRONT uniform, with black combat boots and a floppy hat. It is market day, as it is every Tuesday and Friday in Dajabón.
The bridge is crowded with hundreds of Haitians moving back and forth to and from the crowded binational market area on the Dominican side. Although most of the people come from Haiti’s Ouanaminthe—a city of 100,000 people—the market attracts people from all over Haiti. Many of the Haitian men and women carry heavy, large white bags of rice and salt on their heads, in wheelbarrows, and in large wooden carts. Several times I make the awkward mistake of getting in the path of this constant push across the bridge, and people don’t hesitate to tell me to get out of the way. Almost all are glazed with sweat as they trudge their way forward.
The colonel walks through the crowd, through the murmur of people speaking Kreyol, to the border point where the U.N. soldiers from Uruguay are positioned with their blue hats. The U.N. military presence in Haiti started in 2004 to “restore a secure and stable environment” after the United States helped to orchestrate a coup d’état that ousted then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, one event in a long history of U.S. meddling in Haitian affairs. And now this controversial U.N. presence has stuck, long after the 2010 earthquake. One of the Uruguayan soldiers holds a video-recorder in his hand and pans back and forth in an ambitious attempt to monitor the flow of people walking by. When Colonel Cruz arrives at the point where the blue-hats are standing, he abruptly stops without setting foot in Haiti, as if he were the only one on the bridge respecting the boundary line. Just as abruptly, he turns around and walks back through the wheelbarrows and carts, past a woman balancing five blue barrels on her head.
Colonel Cruz occasionally stops to talk to somebody. Maybe he is interrogating, I’m not sure. I am sitting on the Dominican side of the two-lane bridge that spans the 100-yard width of the river. I sit in a shaded area next to a man in a bright yellow shirt from the Haitian consulate in Dajabón. We watch the constant movement of people under the blue sky that is beginning to build up clouds. I ask the guy from the consulate what he is doing, and he tells me he is there to make sure there isn’t any abuse. I look at him for further explanation. He smiles and tells me that sometimes the military takes money from Haitians. “I try to make sure it doesn’t happen,” he says. The look on his face says that abuses have been going on for a long time. His look also says that some of the abuses have been much worse. As we sit directly above the Massacre River, we can see Haitian kids splashing in the water.
The river is named after the slaughter that imposed the Dominican-Haitian border. In one week in 1937, Dominican forces killed approximately 20,000 people, mostly Haitian, on the orders of U.S.-backed dictator Rafael Trujillo, in what National Public Radio termed the “twentieth century’s least-remembered act of genocide.”
Before 1936, there was no mutually recognized border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In places like Dajabón, there was no clear, defining line separating the two countries. It was true borderlands, a zone where two countries simply smudged into each another.
There were many “rayanos,” people of mixed Dominican and Haitian heritage. Haitians were more and more often filling the area in search of work. Trujillo was worried about a land grab, that these Haitian workers would claim what he increasingly saw as disputed land. Trujillo also was actively repopulating the area with lighter-skinned people from Eastern Europe and Japan, a racist program as poorly disguised as the dictator’s practice of bleaching his skin.
Although the “boundary agreement” of 1936 finally demarcated a clear international divide, this wasn’t enough. The expulsion of Haitians and the massacre—which mostly targeted Haitians but also included dark-skinned Dominicans—were the acts that imposed the Dominican-Haiti border. In a place where there was once uncertainty regarding territory and even social boundaries, now there was not a doubt.
According to Father Regino Martínez, director of the Jesuit organization Solidaridad Fronteriza (Border Solidarity, based in Dajabón), it was at a party in Dajabón on an October evening in 1937 that Trujillo declared, “Está nublado” (it’s cloudy), referring to the precise moment when clouds are their blackest before unloading a torrent of rain. “We have to clear this up,” Trujillo reportedly said at the party, held in a house that has since been converted into a funeral parlor.
In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Dominican American writer Junot Díaz describes Trujillo as a “portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery.” The era of Trujillo (1930–1961) was bookended by two U.S. military interventions and occupations. Trujillo remained in power with U.S. support because he was exactly the type of pliant dictator that the United States knew would protect its “backyard” interests. The Dominican Republic was a place where Washington’s influence was so dominant and thorough that in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson insisted the boundaries of empire that U.S. citizens be appointed to all high posts in the Dominican government’s cabinet. When Trujillo took power, he became the Dominican face of a U.S. empire that was expanding throughout Latin America and the Caribbean at a rapid rate.
Like most borders in the world, the borderline between Haiti and the Dominican Republic was not simply drawn by friendly geographers. In the slaughter of Ocober 1937, Dominican soldiers and civilians armed with bayonets, rifles, and machetes scoured the borderlands in search of black people who could not speak Spanish. If people could say the Spanish word for parsley—perejil—with its difficult-to-pronounce “r” and the “j”—they lived.
Amabelle—one of the main characters in Haitian American novelist Edwidge Danticat’s beautiful novel “Farming of the Bones”—could not pronounce the word when asked by a soldier. She was a servant to rich Dominicans, one of thousands of Haitians in the Dominican Republic’s borderlands in 1937. Only a few blocks from where I sat on the bridge, she was beaten to the edge of death in the center square of Dajabón. Dominican soldiers pried her jaws open and stuffed parsley into her mouth. “My eyes watering, I chewed and swallowed as quickly as I could,” explained Amabelle, “but not nearly as fast as they were forcing the handfulls into my mouth.” Then the crowd attacked. Someone kicked her in the back. Another person smashed her face with a fist-size stone. She crumpled to the ground.
Danticat described Amabelle’s limp, almost lifeless body when the “air vibrated with a twenty-one gun salute.” People stomped their feet, applauded, and hurled rocks at the crumpled, injured bodies of Haitians strewn throughout the plaza while the Dominican national anthem thundered. Shocking as it may seem, this kind of violence often accompanies the imposition of new borders. What happened in 1937 could’ve been anywhere. It could have been the tens of thousands of dead and wounded during the Mexican-American War, strewn in what is now the U.S.-Mexico borderlands with the blood of Manifest Destiny. It could have been the slaughter of 5,000 during the War of 1812, establishing only a small portion of the international boundary between the United States and Canada and the imposition of U.S. territorial claim on Iroquois land.
Geographer James Anderson and sociologist Liam O’Dowd call this the “paradox of origins.” Throughout the world, in the creation of borders there is a “legacy of undemocratic and often violent origins—whether in national conflict, political revolution or the slaughter of native populations.” In these border areas it’s as if only the twenty-one-gun salute matters, not the broken bodies and shattered bones. But the key is that the brutality and violence must then be obliterated from memory. Anderson and O’Dowd call it the “politics of forgetting.” The violent imposition “needs to be played down or concealed for territorial democracy to perform its legitimizing functions.”
In Haiti, however, as in many places, the violent origins of a border cannot be forgotten. It is a “live issue.” The history is in the colonel clenching the umbrella, walking back and forth along the bridge, who still enforces the results of this slaughter. The history here, like the Massacre River that runs below us, is alive.
Border Patrol Nation Book Tour
In fast-paced prose, Miller sounds an alarm as he chronicles the changing landscape. Travelling the country—and beyond—to speak with the people most involved with and impacted by the Border Patrol, he combines these first-hand encounters with careful research to expose a vast and booming industry for high-end technology, weapons, surveillance, and prisons. While politicians and corporations reap substantial profits, the experiences of millions of men, women, and children point to staggering humanitarian consequences. Border Patrol Nation shows us in stark relief how the entire country has become a militarized border zone, with consequences that affect us all.
See Todd Miller in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Washington, D.C. Full dates and details at City Lights.
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