Geologists on the impossible logistics of the 1,000-mile Great Wall of Trump

Donald Trump has issued an executive order calling for a 1,000-mile-long wall on the US-Mexican border. The order allows for six months to survey all 1,000 miles before the groundbreaking.

Smithsonian magazine consulted a panel of expert geologists on the logistics of such a wall and came away with the impression that Donald Trump has no idea what this involves, and will end up with an expensive, useless disaster.

Take surveying: field geophysicist Mika McKinnon has been working on a three-mile stretch of pipeline, which is now in its fifth year of surveying. The terrain that Trump wants to cover with his wall includes hydrophilic clay soil (which swells and moves, shattering foundations), sand, and regions where the bedrock is thousands of feet down.

A "megastructure" like a 1,000-mile wall is substantially different from a single dwelling or even a skyscraper: each section depends on the integrity of the adjacent one. Heterogenous soil conditions (including acidic soil that dissolves rebar and other materials) mean that each section has to be built differently, but must still adapt to soil and weather and seismic conditions in lockstep with its neighbor.

These are just the first-order difficulties with the wall. China's Great Wall took 2,000 years to build (and didn't keep the barbarians out).
Dirt can also eat up the wall’s support system. Soils that are naturally acidic or have high chloride levels can rapidly degrade iron-rich metals, says McKinnon. These soils could “corrode any, say, nice big metal rebar that you're putting in there to stabilize your foundation,” she says. Other soils have a high amount of sulfates, a compound found in the common mineral gypsum that breaks down both metals and concrete. Sulfate-rich soils are common in what’s known as the Trans-Pecos soils along the border in the southwestern arm of Texas.

Upkeep of such a lengthy structure is challenging. And even if such a wall can be erected, the size of budget necessary to keep it standing remains unclear.

“You're going to encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of soils along [such a lengthy] linear pathway,” says Clendenin. (In fact, there are over 1,300 kinds of soil in Texas alone.) And many of those soils aren’t going to be the right type to build on top of. At that point, would-be wall-builders have two options: Spend more time and money excavating the existing soils and replacing them with better dirt—or avoid the region altogether.

One thing they can’t always avoid, though, are regions at risk of earthquakes and floods. Rivers run along a sizeable portion of the U.S.-Mexico border, which can create a very real danger of flood. Building adjacent to rivers can also present unexpected legal issues: A 1970 treaty necessitates that the fence be set back from the Rio Grande river, which delineates the Texas-Mexico border. Because of this, the current fence crosscuts Texas landowner’s property and has gaps to allow landowners to pass.

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What's behind the Great Wall of America?

On the Tuesday after Donald Trump's January inauguration as president of the United States, journalist Jonathan Katz tweeted in reference to the unfolding spectacle: "First they came for the Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, poor people, intellectuals and scientists, and then it was Wednesday."

The days continue to progress in similar fashion. On the one hand, there's been the rapidly evolving horror of the Muslim ban. And on the Latino front, it seems that not even Mexicans in Mexico proper may be safe from Trump's reach.

According to the Associated Press, Trump recently informed Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto that "you have a bunch of bad hombres down there" whose bad behaviour is not being properly addressed: "I think your military is scared. Our military isn't, so I just might send them down to take care of it."

Nothing like a casual threat of invasion to keep folks on their toes.

One finds oneself wondering whether a new and improved border wall might not be a fine idea indeed - but as a defensive measure against US incursions.

Extensions of ego

As Trump tells it, the "big, beautiful wall" he has ordered constructed along the US-Mexico border will keep out Mexican migrants, to whom he has previously referred in characteristic antiracist eloquence as drug dealers and "rapists".

Fox News has reported that construction of the wall alone could cost up to $20bn.

The project has met with opposition even from within Trump's own party - not on account of any ethical considerations, obviously, but rather owing to concerns over the cost and likely ineffectiveness of the migrant-stopping ploy.

Trump himself has made a show of insisting that Mexico foot the bill for the monstrosity, retroactively if need be.

In a recent dispatch for Fortune magazine titled "Trump Doesn't Really Care If Mexico Pays for the Wall", the Center for International Policy's Laura Carlsen explores possible motives for Trump's determined humiliation of the southern neighbour despite "not appear[ing] to actually expect Mexico to directly pay for the wall".

Beyond the ever-present possibility that the American head of state is merely "acting irrationally" and "wield[ing] executive power as an extension of his personal ego," Carlsen detects a variety of other potential explanations.

These range from the pursuit of increased leverage in a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the encouragement of an enhanced Mexican security crackdown on Central American migrants entering from Guatemala, to the likelihood that Trump wants to "keep Mexico-bashing in the news and mobilise his base of supporters for further measures against migrants and Mexican trade and investment".

The 'security' business

Trump's ego is, no doubt, a pre-eminent contender on the contemporary world stage - an arrangement reinforced by the fact that he presides over a disproportionate percentage of the earth's wealth.

But there are plenty of other entities that stand to turn a handsome profit from his policy of unabashed xenophobia.

These include but are certainly not limited to those in the business of border "security" - itself a misleading term designed to market the US-Mexico frontier as a de facto war zone as well as an existential battlefield in which American "greatness" is at stake.

The false advertising routine provides a convenient excuse for lucrative militarisation schemes.

You won't hear any complaints from drone manufacturers, for example, with regard to what boils down to a war on Mexican dignity - and the dignity of other refugees and non-elite migrants.

Age of irony

Meanwhile, it seems border walls have become an industry in their own right.

In one of the great ironies that have come to typify the current era, the Financial Times reported on inauguration day that "the biggest corporate winner" of Trump's border fortification venture "may well be a Mexican cement manufacturer": Cemex, whose shares had just "hit an eight-and-a-half-year high".

This is the same Cemex, incidentally, that - as the popular Electronic Intifada website has documented - has been complicit in the construction of Israel's apartheid wall as well as illegal mining activity on occupied Palestinian land.

When it comes to the profitability of exclusion, of course, the Israelis are masters of the trade - a position underscored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's notorious tweet of 28 January: "President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea."

The tweet occasioned some backpedalling from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who endeavoured to imply that Netanyahu wasn't really talking about Mexico.

In the meantime, Bloomberg News has noted in the most sanitised language possible that Magal Security Systems, the "Israeli company that fenced in Gaza" (ie, helped convert the Palestinian territory into the "world's largest open-air prison"), is angling for a hand in the Mexico wall.

One of the ultimate functions of heavily fortified borders is to rally populations against a perceived enemy and thus redirect attention from national shortcomings and unsavoury behaviour - which in the case of the US happens to entail the wanton violation of other people's borders, both militarily and economically.

If only we could look in a mirror rather than at a wall, that might indeed be a "big, beautiful" thing.


Trump’s ‘Great Wall’ and the ‘Drug War’

Attention deficit disorder isn’t usually a welcome presidential attribute, but Mexicans can be thankful that Donald Trump has temporarily shifted his focus away from their country to start fights instead with Iran, the European Union, China, California and the U.S. news media.

The last time Trump addressed Mexico, right after the election, the peso fell 17 percent. Within days of his inauguration, Trump demanded that Mexico pay for a border wall, prompting cancellation of his planned summit meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

As former Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan lamented, “it took only one week of bilateral engagement between the new U.S. administration and Mexico to throw the relationship into a tailspin.” That relationship would be better if Trump had stuck to the view he expressed in November 2015: “I don’t care about Mexico, honestly. I really don’t care about Mexico.”

Someday soon, however, Trump will rediscover his interest in Mexico, and relations will likely suffer again. But Mexico need not take his abuse lying down. As the buyer of more than a quarter trillion dollars in U.S. exports — the second-largest market in the world for U.S. goods — Mexico has some leverage if Trump tries to play rough with tariffs and trade.

And if Trump persists in sending a bill to Mexico City for his wall, Pena should seriously consider sending a bill in return to Washington to pay for the U.S. drug war.

High Cost to Mexico

For years now, Mexico has paid an extraordinarily high price in lives and social disruption for Washington’s insistence that North America’s drug problem be tackled south of the border, where the drugs are grown and transported, rather than primarily in clinics and halfway houses at home to treat the medical and psychological issues of users.

Successive administrations, starting with President Nixon, have demanded ever-tougher border controls, aerial-spraying programs, and DEA-backed anti-“cartel” operations in Mexico. All those efforts and sacrifices have been for naught. U.S. residents currently export up to $29 billion in cash to Mexican traffickers each year to buy marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin.

Forcing that trade underground has taken a terrible toll on Mexico in terms of violence, corruption and social upheaval. Since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón ordered his military to join the “war” on drug traffickers, Mexico has lost about 200,000 lives and 30,000 more have disappeared, dwarfing the civilian death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq over that period.

The majority of those killed and disappeared were victims of criminal organizations, but human rights organizations also report soaring rates of human rights violations, including torture and killing, committed by security forces.

The 2016 Global Peace Index, prepared by the Institute for Economics and Peace, estimates the total cost of violence in Mexico at $273 billion, or 14 percent of GDP, with no end in sight. Direct fiscal costs of fighting the war on crime were about $32 billion in 2015 alone. Yet the United States has contributed only about $2.5 billion since fiscal 2008 to Mexico’s drug war, under the so-called “Merida Initiative.”

Mexico’s pain shows no signs of easing. The New York Times reported in December that Mexico suffered more than 17,000 homicides in the first 10 months of last year, the highest total since 2012.

“The relapse in security has unnerved Mexico and led many to wonder whether the country is on the brink of a bloody, all-out war between criminal groups,” it said.

Time for an Alternative

In his last phone call with Mexican President Pena, Trump reportedly complained, “You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with. We are willing to help with that big-league, but they have to be knocked out and you have not done a good job knocking them out.”

According to one disputed account, Trump threatened to send U.S. troops south of the border if Mexico doesn’t do more to stop the drug problem.

Pena can continue to do Washington’s bidding, ensuring his political demise, or he can challenge Trump by asking why Mexico should fight North America’s drug war on its own soil and at its own expense. If he goes the latter route, he’ll have plenty of good company.

Former heads of state from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, along with other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, have called for “normalization” of drugs — eliminating black markets and incentives for violence by legalizing individual possession and cultivation of drugs while instituting public health regulations. They note that such programs have succeeded admirably in Portugal and the Netherlands at reducing both the criminal and public health costs of drug abuse.

“The harms created through implementing punitive drug laws cannot be overstated when it comes to both their severity and scope,” the former heads of state assert in their 2016 report, “Advancing Drug Policy Reform.”

“Thus, we need new approaches that uphold the principles of human dignity, the right to privacy and the rule of law, and recognize that people will always use drugs. In order to uphold these principles all penalties — both criminal and civil — must be abolished for the possession of drugs for personal use.”

Change in Attitudes


Support for decriminalization is growing in Mexico, where the Supreme Court in 2015 approved growing and smoking marijuana for personal use. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox now advocates legalizing all drugs over a transition period of up to a decade.

Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister, recently opined, “Mexico should take advantage of California’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana. Regardless of Mr. Trump’s victory, the approval of the proposition in the United States’ most populous state makes Mexico’s war on drugs ridiculous. What is the purpose of sending Mexican soldiers to burn fields, search trucks and look for narco-tunnels if, once our marijuana makes it into California, it can be sold at the local 7-Eleven?”

Critics rightly point out that what works in the Netherlands won’t necessarily solve Mexico’s problems. Its powerful drug gangs have diversified into a host of other violent criminal enterprises. They control territory, intimidate or corrupt law enforcement, and kill with impunity.

Legalizing drug sales won’t end their criminal ways, but it could erode their profits and let police focus on universally despised crimes with direct victims — murder, kidnapping, extortion and the like.

As Mexican journalist José Luis Pardo Veiras remarked last year, “Decriminalizing drug use will not fix a deeply rooted problem in this country, but it will allow Mexicans to differentiate between drugs and the war on drugs, between drug users and drug traffickers. This is the first step in acknowledging that a different approach is possible.”

As for Trump, let him build his wall and see if that keeps out all the drugs. If not, maybe by then Mexico will be able to offer some useful advice on how to fight the drug problem not with guns, but with more enlightened policies.

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