Zyklon B on the US Border
By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
Zyklon B came to El Paso in the 1920s. In 1929, for example, a U.S. Public Health Service officer, J.R. Hurley, ordered $25 worth of the material--hydrocyanic acid in pellet form--as a fumigating agent for use at the El Paso delousing station, where Mexicans crossed the border from Juárez. Zyklon, developed by DEGESCH (the German Vermin-combating Corporation) was made in varying strengths, with Zyklon C, D and E representing gradations in potency and price. As Raul Hilberg describes it in The Destruction of the European Jews , " strength E was required for the eradication of specially resistant vermin, such as cockroaches, or for gassings in wooden barracks. The 'normal' preparation, D, was used to exterminate lice, mice, or rats in large, well-built structures containing furniture. Human organisms in gas chambers were killed with Zyklon B." In 1929, DEGESCH divided the world market with an American corporation, Cyanamid, so Hurley presumably got his Zyklon B from the latter.
As David Dorado Romo describes it in his marvelous Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An underground history of El Paso and Juárez : 1893-1923 (available from Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso), Zyklon B had become available in the U.S.A. in the early 1920s when fears of alien infection had been inflamed by the alarums of the eugenicists, most of them from the "progressive" end of the political spectrum. In 1917, the U.S. Congress passed and Wilson--an ardent eugenicist--signed the Immigration Law. The United States Public Health Service simultaneously published its Manual for the Physical Inspection of Aliens.
The Manual had its list of excludables from the U.S. of A., , a ripe representation of the obsessions of the eugenicists: "imbeciles, idiots, feeble-minded person, persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority (homosexuals), vagrants, physical defectives, chronic alcoholics, polygamists, anarchists, persons afflicted with loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases, prostitutes, contracts laborers, all aliens over 16 who cannot read." In that same year U.S. Public Health Service Agents "bathed and deloused" 127,123 Mexicans at the Santa Fe International Bridge between Juárez and El Paso.
Lloyd was right about this. Lea forced health inspectors to descend on Chihuahuita, the Mexican quarter of El Paso, forcing inhabitants suspected of harboring lice to take kerosene and vinegar baths, have their heads shaved and clothes incinerated.
But Lloyd did recommend delousing plants, saying he was willing to "bathe and disinfect all the dirty, lousy people coming into this country from Mexico." The plant was ready for business right when the Immigration Act became law. Soon Mexicans were having their bodies checked, daubed with kerosene where deemed necessary and their clothes fumigated with gasoline, kerosene, sodium cyanide, cyanogens, sulfuric acid and Zyklon B. The El Paso wrote respectfully in 1920, " hydrocyanic acid gas, the most poisonous known, more deadly even than that used on the battlefields of Europe, is employed in the fumigation process."
The use of Zyklon B became habitual. Health officers would spray the immigrants' clothes. Now, Zyklon B, in gaseous form, is fatal when absorbed through the skin in concentrations of over 50 parts ppm. How many Mexicans suffered agonies or died, when they put on those garments? As Romo recently told the El Paso-based journalist Paul Spike, writing for the online UK daily The First Post: "This is a huge black hole in history. Unfortunately, I only have oral histories and other anecdotal evidence about the harmful effects of the noxious chemicals used to disinfect and delouse the Mexican border crossers--including deaths, birth defects, cancer, etc. It may well go into the tens of thousands. It's incredible that absolutely no one, after all these years, has ever attempted to document this."
The use of Zyklon B on the U.S.-Mexican border was a matter of keen interest to the firm of DEGESCH. In 1938, Dr. Gerhard Peters called for its use in German Desinfektionskammern. Romo has tracked down an article Peters wrote in a German pest science journal, Anzeiger für Schädlingskunde, which featured two photographs of El Paso delousing chambers. Peters went on to become the managing director of DEGESCH, which handled the supply of Zyklon B for the Nazi death camps. He was tried and convicted at Nuremberg. Hilberg reports that he got five years, then won a retrial that netted him six years. He was re-tried in 1955 and found not guilty.
In 1918, disease did indeed strike across the border, as Romo points out. Romo quotes a letter from Dr. John Tappan, who had disinfected thousands Mexicans at the border. "10,000 cases in El Paso and the Mexicans died like sheep. Whole families were exterminated. This was "Spanish" flu, which originated in Haskell county, Kansas.