Crossing the ‘Borderwall’: Projectiles

Depending on your intake of current event news, the wall—existing and potential—between the United States and Mexico has been a staple feature of this administration’s diet. Among other things it’s divisive, unrealistic, and up for debate on how it will be funded, but author Ronald Rael looks at it in a completely unique way: as an architect, as a citizen, and as someone who grew up occupying the borderlands himself. Ciudad Juárez-based journalist Judith Torrea describes his new book as “astonishing and magical: a realm where the absurdity of a wall is transformed from obstructive and negative to an affirmation of shared humanity.”

The below excerpt appears in a section of the book entitled, ‘Recuerdos/Souvenirs’, which proposes unsolicited counterproposals, both tragic and sublime, for the existing wall along the border.

Automobiles carrying people and drugs are not the only things traveling through the air over the wall. During the Middle Ages, with the rise of fortified castles and city walls, the catapult became an essential tool to launch objects and even bodies over protective walls. It was also a time when the cannon became a standard method of breaching walls. With the catapult’s and the cannon’s shared history of launching humans through the air, it is unsurprising that these medieval technologies would resurface in reaction to the anachronistic security barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Among the projectile launchers created to hurdle the wall are catapults, used by drug traffickers to hurl marijuana and other contraband over the borderwall. Packages of marijuana are bulkier than heroin or cocaine and therefore more difficult to smuggle hidden in vehicles or carried by hand. The catapults confiscated by Mexican authorities are built upon trailers that can easily attached to a truck, making them very portable. These “pot-a-pults,” which can be as tall as 9 feet, are constructed with steel and a strong elastic band and can hurl marijuana bales weighing approximately 4.4 pounds each. These borderland trebuchets have been discovered in use along the Arizona-Mexico border near the cities of Naco and Agua Prieta.

More powerful are the cannons used to launch packets of marijuana over the borderwall into Calexico, California, from Mexicali, Mexico. These homemade cannons are fashioned from plastic pipe and makeshift metal tanks containing either compressed air (produced by an automobile engine) or encapsulated compressed carbon dioxide. These cannons have been known to fire thirty-pound canisters of marijuana up to 500 feet. Thirty-three such canisters, fired out of one of these cannons and valued at $42,500, were recently discovered near Yuma, Arizona.

So, have people also been launched over the wall? An episode of the television program MythBusters tested the theory that in addition to drugs, immigrants themselves were becoming human projectiles and being flung two hundred yards across the border into the United States. The show constructed a human-sized slingshot to see if it was possible. The tests involved the launch of a mannequin over a fictional U.S.- Canadian border and used a chain-link fence topped with razor wire to mark the border—a vision clearly inspired by the U.S-Mexico wall. And although the MythBusters team was able to propel the dummy 211 feet, it was concluded that it didn’t seem possible to launch humans accurately enough to ensure their safety.

Although there is no evidence that migrants are being launched over the wall, human cannonball David Smith Sr., who holds the distance record for being shot into the air (201 feet, in 2002), is the first person whose launch by cannon over the U.S.-Mexico borderwall has been documented. Although it is illegal to enter the United States from Mexico except at an official port of entry, U.S. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar granted Smith permission to cross in this unconventional fashion. So, in 2005, with passport in hand (which he waved to the crowd before blasting off from Tijuana, Mexico), he sailed over the wall and landed squarely in a large net awaiting him in San Diego, California.

When Smith was asked why he did it, his reply was simple: “I did it for the money—I get paid!”

Selections from ‘Recuerdos’ were read aloud by the author to UC Press staff earlier this spring (watch a short video from that talk), and we’ll be sharing excerpts here in the coming weeks.

Learn more in recent features on Borderwall as Architecture in The Architectural RecordThe London Review of Books, The New York Times, and a podcast produced by UC Berkeley’s Berkeley News.


Ronald Rael is Associate Professor in the departments of Architecture and Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Earth Architecture, a history of building with earth in the modern era that exemplifies new, creative uses of the oldest building material on the planet. The Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum have recognized his work, and in 2014 his creative practice, Rael San Fratello, was named an Emerging Voice by the Architectural League of New York.