A mask obscures his face, and he wears a noise-canceling tactical headset that would look natural for scouting an Afghan valley for Taliban insurgents.
Photos taken Monday of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents training weeks before a potential arrival of a caravan of Central Americans reveal a southern U.S. border already militarized — even before the arrival of thousands of active-duty soldiers.
There are no indications that the migrants, most of whom are Honduran and include many women and children, pose a threat that would necessitate long- and short-range tactical engagements. But CBP agents have drilled with armored vehicles, riot gear, helicopters and more, photos from the border have shown.
The preparations come amid questions about how much force active-duty soldiers and agents along the border can and should use.
President Trump had suggested that troops should treat rock-throwers as combatants and that rifle fire would be an appropriate response, but he later backtracked on his comments.
Critics have maintained that surplus military gear diverted from the Pentagon to civilian police — items ranging from uniforms to sniper rifles to vehicles designed to absorb strikes from improvised explosive devices — produce an overly aggressive law enforcement posture.
Researchers have found evidence of that. A 2017 study in the journal Research and Politics that focused on four states concluded that there was a relationship between law enforcement that acquired military gear and fatalities from officer-involved shootings.
Democratic societies have moved to draw stark lines between military and police, said Jason Fritz, a former Army officer and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on the militarization of police.
But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq created a high-water mark of billions in available equipment, and subsequent drawdowns from each nation have meant law enforcement entities nationwide have snatched up gear developed for guerrilla warfare and battling conventional armies.
That availability has blurred the line between civilian law enforcement and military units, Fritz said. And there is also a feedback loop with the gear from films, television shows and video games that depict military operations, he told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
“If you put a bunch of gee-whiz stuff on an M4, you go from being a regular cop into a special operator,” Fritz said. “There’s a psychological effect outward and inward.”
Agents wielding military gear in photos belonged to CBP’s Border Patrol Special Operations Group — the agency’s premier tactical response team, which includes units focused on medical assistance and saving lives during disasters such as hurricanes.
CBP did not return a request for comment about which unit was shown training on the Texas-Mexico border.
The Army deployed a large number of photographers to document laying wire to bolster its objective of deterring migrants. Fritz said the CBP training exercise with apparent media access operated in a similar fashion.
“It’s a pretty classic show of force for psychological effect,” Fritz said of the CBP operations.
The appearance of aggression has already led to the cancellation of a CBP drill near El Paso on Tuesday, amid concerns its proximity to a Hispanic neighborhood would suggest voter suppression.
The Obama administration restricted the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which transferred surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies, late in his second term after images of officers atop armored vehicles pointing rifles at protesters in Ferguson, Mo., drew severe criticism.
CBP received nearly $40 million in tactical gear from the Defense Department through 2014, the Marshall Project reported. It is unclear whether tactical gear has been recently acquired from the Pentagon for border operations or whether other equipment has been purchased directly by the Department of Homeland Security.
Photos from Getty Images also showed CBP agents wearing Operational Camouflage Pattern uniforms originally designed for Army use. Green Berets and some Navy SEALs have worn the pattern, which now extends to local police departments.
The agency also operates unmanned drones to combat drug-smuggling activity and helicopters such as the UH-60 Black Hawk for transporting agents, although photos from Getty Images show agents in an helicopter shoulder to shoulder, as troops would sit for tactical insertions.