What Will Come Across the US-Mexican Border in 2016

Thanks to Trump, the cartels, and ISIS, the border became one of the biggest issues of 2015. So what's in store for 2016?

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Jan 5 2016, 7:25pm

US-Mexico border at Tijuana. Image: US Army

This year, rather than writing our own predictions, we decided to have the Motherboard staff interview each other about the future of the topics near and dear to their heart and beats. Behold:

Thanks partly to Americans' renewed fears of terrorism, our borders became one of the biggest issues of 2015. Stoked by ISIS's deadly antics, our own pundit class, and certain political candidates, we've been discussing our border with renewed vigor. Donald Trump is a presidential contender right now, basically, because he said he wants to keep people on one side of that border.

So what should we expect to see coming across it in 2016?

Motherboard features editor Brian A. Anderson has been spending a lot of mental (and IRL) time across that border these days—he's traveled Juarez to document a tragic byproduct of the violence there, he's published stories about the technologies the cartels use to move narcotics across the border, and he works closely with contacts on both sides in his reportage. And he's got another big story on the topic coming up on the topic. Plus, he is just generally a whip-smart journohound, and you should trust him. I do.

So, for our series on 2016 predictions, I dialed up BAA and asked him what we can expect to change across the most-watched border in the world.

Brian Merchant: What will come across the border in 2016?

Brian Anderson: Drugs. Mostly weed, cocaine, heroin, and meth.

And people will cross too. As they always have. Though it is important to note that there are currently more Mexicans leaving than entering the US, according to a recent Pew report. The US-Mexico border generally has seen a fairly steady decrease in the number of illegal crossings each year beginning shortly after 9/11 until now. At the same time, while border crossings are down deaths are up.

What role will the border ultimately play in the 2016 presidential elections?
It will be a hot issue again. But it'll be even more potent this time around, with people like Donald Trump, a frontrunner for the Republican presidential bid, calling for a "temporary ban" on Muslims entering the US ("until we can we figure out what's going on") and for building a Great Wall of America the entire length of the 1,954-mile US-Mexico border—and leaving Mexico with the tab.

The logistics of that sort of border wall are phenomenal, by the way. It's just not going to happen. (As of 2014, only 700 miles of the border had an actual wall, according to the Department of Homeland Security.) Even if it somehow did, someday, go up, is there ever a way of keeping out all the stuff and people coming over and under a border wall, into the US and back the other way too? Not really.

What will Donald Trump say about the border next year that he hasn't already said. What could he possibly bring up to raise the stakes there?
Trump has previously called Mexicans "rapists" and "drug dealers" and I expect that sort of xenophobic rhetoric to ramp up again as we get closer to the election. If we're talking about what he might say that he hasn't already yet, it's probably not beyond him to begin to weave the southern border into discussions about the Syrian crisis, for example that report of five Syrian refugees turning themselves in at the US-Mexico border in November. This will be a way for him to whip up fears of ISIS and "radical Islamic terrorism" (his words).

Fear mongers usually point to the border with two scapegoats in mind: Immigrants and drugs. What kinds of drugs will come across our borders in 2016?
Cartels will place a bigger emphasis on pushing heroin, cocaine, and meth. There is something to be said for the sweeping change in attitude in the US on weed, with states now legalizing cannabis for recreational use, taking some of the market out of the cartels' hands. But Mexican-grown pot will keep coming across too.

In 2014 I stood in the parking lot of the Juarez city morgue, watching cops unload brick after brick of ditch weed from the covered bed of a pick up truck. They'd seized the load that morning. One of the cops lobbed a bail at me, expecting I'd catch it. I did:

Photo: Christopher Gill

I like to think I can more or less recognize bad weed from good weed when I see it, and this stuff was just sad. Ditch weed. Schwag. And to think of how much it would be marked up just a few miles to the north, on American soil; to think, how many people are still dying over this shit?

How difficult would it be to cross the border illegally in 2016? Legally? Is this changing?
It depends who you've got scouting for you, and just how bold you are. That's if you're crossing illegally. One of the things I'm interested in right now is how the rise of cheap, ubiquitous mobile phone tech (think push-to-talk / burner phones) changed the way people and goods move north over the border. Migrants do still cross in groups, with a guide, or coyote, leading on foot. But what's happened recently, in some borderland areas, is remote-guided human smuggling. Burner phones have made it easy for coyotes to guide smaller and smaller groups of migrants from afar, out of harm's way and the arm of the law.

I'll be reporting from the Arizona-Mexico border next month, so I'll keep it at that for now.

Will the way we think about borders change in 2016? Will the technologies we use to monitor it change? How?
Yes. The global refugee crisis will get worse, and with it the scaremongering around porous borders and people with nowhere to go.

The US will try harder and harder to monitor all the dividing lines. The Department of Homeland Security employs over 20,000 agents and 23,000 other personnel. It has a budget of $3.5 billion. As of 2014 there were over 18,000 agents assigned along the Southern border, which is one of, if not the most highly technologized border in the world. It's watched by a small fleet of unarmed Predator drones, 100 manned spy planes, 40 mobile ground surveillance systems, 178 mobile video surveillance systems, 273 remote video surveillance systems, and a whole slew of thermal imaging capabilities. Something like 11,000 ground sensors are buried along the border, listening. (I've heard these sensors are designed primarily to pick up seismic disturbance like foot falls, and aren't always tripped by, say, bicycle tires. But I haven't been able to confirm this.)

A Border Patrol agent in Tucson sector told me recently radar is "the big thing right now." The idea is to be able to quickly focus their efforts on wherever there's movement. It would seem the next step for migrants, coyotes, drug smugglers, or whoever else will attempt to cross the border this year and beyond, would be to figure out a way to defeat radar. And how do you do that? I don't know. But people are creative, especially when their livelihoods—their lives—depend on it.