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date: 24 May 2020

Violence at the US-Mexico Border

Abstract and Keywords

Political discourses on war at the US-Mexico border have material and performative consequences that produce social suffering among migrants. Stated as public policies, the declarations of war against drugs, immigration, and terrorism have legitimized violence at the border, which is carried out by security forces, state institutions, pressure groups, and organized crime. This chapter highlights a) the processes of structuring violence through immigration policy and border control in the southwestern US border, b) the forms of institutional violence carried out against migrants by the agencies of border surveillance and immigration control, and c) some of the effects of the so-called “war against drugs” on the proliferation of criminal violence in northern Mexico, particularly the formation of chains of violence and exploitation against migrants.

Keywords: structural violence, institutional violence, gender violence, criminal organizations, Border Patrol, kidnapping, extortion

Since the 1980s, successive Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States have declared multiple wars along the country’s southwestern border. These are wars in which the named enemies are merchandises or abstractions. During the Reagan administration, the “war on drugs” was the legitimizing slogan for tightening border control. In the 1990s, this was also true of the fight against “illegal immigration.” In the beginning of the twenty-first century, the enemy became an amalgam of terrorism, “radical Islamism,” drugs, and “illegal aliens.”

Unlike other wars undertaken by the United States, these involve very little loss of life by soldiers or security forces. An observer could ask, therefore, “What is the legitimate basis of a decades-long border war without armed conflict?” and, especially, “Why have migrants become the main victims of this war without battles?”

In Mexico, the “war on drugs” had little following among the political class or in the mass media until the presidential administration of Felipe Calderón (2006–2012). In January 2007, that president, dressed in an army uniform and flanked by his Secretary of Defense, declared war. From then on, the enemies have taken the form of drug-trafficking criminal organizations, and the human losses have been incalculable: police and military personnel, politicians, public officials, criminals, and many victims of “collateral damage” in civil society. Migrants have been among the main casualties of this war.

This chapter will not examine the combat between criminal organizations, military and police forces, or the long-standing territorial disputes over the routes for illegal trafficking between the two countries. Rather, it seeks to explain how the political discourses about the border war lead to multiple forms of violence against migrants—that is, the objective here is to delve behind the spectacular and discursive foreground to analyze the layers of violence that affect the life and death of migrants on both sides of the US-Mexico border. This involves analyzing the critical relationships among war, violence, and human mobility. War is here conceptualized as a nonnegotiable conflict (p. 486) or an extreme power relationship, which at the same time constitutes a substratum of all political relations and all institutions (Foucault 1997). Thus, this chapter examines violence as it is produced and structured by discourses and public policies, violence executed through security forces, state institutions, pressure groups, and organized crime.

The questions that will guide this chapter are the following: What are the consequences, for migrants, of the wars declared by the United States and Mexican governments along their common border? How is the violence structured within a given social space by the political-administrative boundary between the two nation-states and by the division between two very unequal economic systems? What are migrants’ experiences of violence, as determined by their unauthorized border crossings and their frequent expulsions?

The chapter is divided into three parts. The first analyzes the creation of mechanisms of social control through declarations of war on the southwestern US border. This will include description of the processes of structuring violence through immigration policy and border control. The second part will examine the forms of institutional violence carried out against migrants by the agencies of border surveillance and immigration control, and will explain the relationship between such violence and the day-to-day verbal, physical, and sexual aggressions on the part of agents of the United States Border Patrol (USBP). The third part will describe some of the effects of the so-called “war against drugs” on the proliferation of criminal violence in northern Mexico, and will finally explain the repercussions of the commodification of migrants’ bodies in the formation of chains of violence and exploitation: kidnappings, human trafficking, sexual violence, and massacres.

The concept of violence covers a broad semantic field of the social sciences. Studies of the sources and consequences of violence, physical aggression, and aggressiveness have been followed by theories of symbolic violence (Bourdieu 1980), structural violence, and institutional violence (Galtung 1975). Those theories analytically link the structures of domination and power relations to forms of direct and indirect aggression against individuals, social groups, or entire peoples. Similarly, they show how deep socioeconomic inequalities, legitimized by sexist, racist, or nativist ideologies, directly impact the physical or psychological integrity of broad social groups.

The concept of “structural violence” was originally proposed by Galtung (1975) in his theories regarding peace. The Norwegian sociologist attempted to demonstrate that even in situations in which no declared war exists, latent forms of indirect violence can cause serious damage to people’s lives and integrity. But because such violence is inherent in economic and political structures, compiling a list of victims is impossible, as is pointing to an institution to be held responsible. Rather, institutional violence has been tied directly to the legal framework and the actions of institutional bureaucracies, both public and private (Galtung 1975).

According to Bourdieu (1980), structures of domination produce and reproduce a symbolic violence that is daily, internalized, legitimated, and experienced as natural. The role of the social scientist is to expose or denaturalize this violence—that is, to demonstrate the interests that guide the structuring of violence and power.

(p. 487) This chapter will have recourse to these theories for the purpose of analyzing the continuities among distinct forms of power and violence that provoke the social suffering of migrants in the US-Mexico border area. The principal goal is thus to study the strategies of the United States enforcement agencies, and the strategies of Mexican government in the war against drugs, to understand the political and institutional construction of this violence.

War on the Southwestern Border of the United States

From a sociological perspective, the border is a social construction involving multiple actors such as government agencies, immigrants, politicians, and academics (Rodríguez 1997). Historical processes of cultural and commercial exchange, and of transborder family and social relations, have created historical ties that on some occasions erase the border and on others render it impenetrable. From a distance, for the elites and the national media, the border is a collective imaginary through which notions of belonging and difference, identity and otherness, are configured.

From a geopolitical point of view, the border is constructed along the discursive axis of war. This historical-political discourse has material and performative consequences. The materiality is evident in the enormous military apparatus installed at the boundary of the two countries. The performative aspect consists of practices of surveillance, control, and coercion. The constitutive elements of this discourse of war were created by politicians and enforcement agencies throughout the twentieth century and the early twenty-first. The discourse has designated a series of successive and overlapping enemies, which shift in accord with the relations of national and international forces. These have been drugs, “illegal immigrants,” terrorists, and “radical Islamists.”

War generates a punitive legal framework—or a form of legalized violence (Menjívar and Abrego 2012) against migrants—with the justification of protecting sovereignty, national security, and territorial (or racial) integrity. As Foucault (1997) argued, war does not end where law begins, but rather law is born out of conflict and power relations. The laws relative to migration and border control can be justified only by a state of war. The legal framework gives rise to state of exception along the border: a territory where the legislative and judicial powers are subsumed by the executive power, and where individual freedoms are suspended. The border is thus the continuation of war or the permanent demonstration of victory (Foucault 1997).

In this sense, the border means much more than just the boundary between the two nation-states. It is a broad geographical belt which must function to protect the nation by means of surveillance, containment, detention, and the expulsion of “threatening elements”; it includes extensive networks of migrant detention facilities, roundups along the highways, and inspection of identity documents in the streets. Throughout (p. 488) regions up to 100 miles from the border, surveillance by authorities pervades all social spaces (Heyman 2014). The inhabitants, always suspected of being “illegal aliens”—particularly if they are Hispanic—must be sure to carry their documents on their person at all times. To maintain this state of exception, the institutions must harp on the continual threat from the enemy. This explains the repetition of alarming discourses on “migration crisis,” and on “the border out of control.”

In 1986, very near the end of the Cold War, when communist regimes were on the point of collapse and thus the primary enemy of the Cold War period was evaporating, the Reagan administration characterized “drugs” as a threat to national security and declared a new war in which they were the enemy. It defined the southern border as a major front in that war (Andreas 2000; Dunn 1996). In the mid-1990s, the changes in surveillance and control strategies were justified through a redefinition of the enemy: not just drugs but also “illegal immigration.” Security and police agencies had ideological recourse to the concept of “illegality” and associated it with the southwestern border (Heyman 2014; Rodriguez and Paredes 2014). This notion blended the two discursive elements (drugs and immigration) in the semantic frame that currently legitimizes institutional violence against migrants.1

The peak period of the border war arrived after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That security crisis led to the propagation of new fears and to sharper images of the enemy and of the lines dividing “us” from “the others” in cultural, religious, political, and military terms (Paasi 2011). In this atmosphere of anxiety, President George W. Bush declared a war on terrorism. In the name of security, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 compromised the liberties of US citizens themselves. The newly created Department of Homeland Security took over border control and the fight against various forms of terrorism, drug trafficking, and “illegal immigration.”

The militarization of the border involved two basic aspects linked to the notions of national security put forward from Washington: an increase in the number of military personnel in the southwest and the militarization of the border and immigration control agencies themselves. Thus the USBP went through important institutional changes. With the dissolution of the Immigration and Naturalization Services, which had been under the institutional umbrella of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the USBP became a sub-agency of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which fell within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The new homeland security perspective implied the militarization of its equipment and strategies. Still, we must realize that militarization of the border has been a long-term process. That is, the perspective of national security was part of the work of border surveillance and control before the creation of DHS.

The most visible aspect of the war has been rapid growth of both military infrastructure and staffing levels of the multiple security agencies stationed on the border. Since the 1990s, the institutions dedicated to “protecting the border” have benefited from an extraordinary growth in their budgets, staff, and political power. For example, the number of USBP agents quintupled between 1992 and 2014, while the agency’s budget multiplied tenfold.2 In addition to CBP, the ten other federal agencies belonging to DHS, DOJ, and Defense Department that guard the southwest border also continually (p. 489) increase their staff in the region and compete among themselves to “protect the border” (Isacson and Meyer 2012).

Making a comparison to the wars carried out in Central America during the 1980s, some authors (Dunn 1996; Heyman 2014) use the term “low-intensity warfare” to describe the work carried out by these security agencies. That work includes intense collaboration among units of the army, navy, USBP, and police for the purpose of permanent surveillance of the “targeted population” and repeated acts of coercion or cooptation of the population living in the region. However, the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala were carried out against an armed enemy (the guerrilla fronts) and eventually led to losses in the regular armies of those counties or among US military personnel; the war in Nicaragua likewise confronted an armed enemy (the Sandinista government) and led to losses among the US proxy force (the contras). By contrast, in the border war, no armed confrontations are visible, nor have the army and navy reported any human losses.3 Nevertheless, the “collateral damage” has been considerable. Besides low standards in relation to constitutional guarantees, human rights and academic organizations have reported the deaths of people trying to cross the border without authorization.

Structuring Institutional Violence

As various researchers have pointed out, while the security apparatus on the border has grown steadily since the 1990s, so have the supply of drugs. Undocumented immigration has tripled between 1990 and 2014, from 3.5 million to 11.1 million, despite a slight decline during the economic crisis (2007–2009) and leveling off thereafter (Pew Research Center 2016). In that sense, the strategies of border control and deportations have been spectacular failures. However, if we observe the political-electoral achievements linked to the discourse of border war, as well as the sizable economic benefits that have accrued to the detention-deportation industry, we have to recognize that the war has been productive. The discourse of fear, the warnings on migration crisis, the demonization of the immigrant—or even of the Mexican—and the references to a southwestern US border that is “out of control” have all become defining elements of electoral campaigns, as we could see in the presidential election of 2016. The military strategy has also been very beneficial from the economic point of view for a booming private industrial and commercial sector that participates, through government contracts, in the use of coercion against migrants.

For the migrants, the tightening of surveillance and adoption of punitive laws and policies have meant an increase in social suffering. The need to evade border patrols and border fences has led them to follow much longer routes that cross through very risky terrain, with treacherous mountain topology and climatic extremes (Eschbach et al. 1999). Many migrants suffer dehydration, lack of food, and injury or death from falls. The deaths of migrants trying to cross the border have been attributed to strategies of border control (Massey 2007).

(p. 490) Nonetheless, there is no mechanically causal connection between the authorities’ control strategies and the migrants’ deaths. The number of bodies found by the USBP and by immigrant defense organizations varies from year to year in accord with multiple factors including USBP containment strategies, climatic variations, and actions to aid and seek lost migrants carried out by the Border Patrol itself and by social organizations.4 This wide spectrum of causes allows the bureaucrats to evade their responsibility for the implementation of social policies that threaten migrants’ lives (Rodríguez 2012).

Faced with the deaths during unauthorized border crossings and the enormous power imbalance between the two countries, some authors resort to the concept of “structural violence” (Nevins 2008). But this concept can hide institutions’ political and ethical responsibility. For example, in a report for the International Organization for Migrations (IOM), Brian and Laczko (2014) suggest that the deaths of migrants in the southwest US border can be explained by structural violence, while deaths during their crossing through Mexico are due mainly to direct physical violence from criminal gangs. In the case of deaths provoked by exposure to environmental dangers, it would be difficult—according to these authors—to identify a victim and a perpetrator. The causal factors would have to be found in analysis of socioeconomic structures and legal frameworks established over the long term.

If we accept this explanation, the effect is to dilute the notion of institutional responsibility. The mass media and US government immigration authorities frequently suggest that the smugglers of migrants are the ones responsible for their deaths. Some even blame the migrants themselves for attempting such dangerous journeys and putting their lives at risk. But the decisions made by individuals—such as the choice to migrate and the selection of a route—fall within a framework of public policies designed, implemented, and evaluated by institutional actors. The deaths of migrants do not occur only under the passive observation of the government. There is often an express choice to let migrants die as a dissuasive check on human mobility.5

Dehumanizing the migrants and viewing their deaths as “collateral damage” form part of an ideology that permeates coercive bureaucracies not only in their large-scale strategies around immigration and border control but also in their day-to-day interactions with the migrants (Rodríguez and Paredes 2014). Thus there is a continuity between the violence contained in the security strategies and apparatus, and other, everyday forms of physical, verbal, and psychological violence committed by institutional agents against the migrants. In other words, to understand the processes of structuring violence it is important to analyze the relationships between the macropolitical context determined by the declarations of war, the institutional violence, and what Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois (2004) call “the everyday small atrocities.” These range from threats, multiple forms of humiliation, and verbal devaluation of the migrants to sexual abuse, rape physical aggression, and murder.6 Far from indicating an intrinsic evil in USBP agents, the actions of the individuals are embedded in violent institutional practices whose objective is to inflict social suffering. This institutional (p. 491) violence is, simultaneously, informed by the militarization of the border and the discourses of war.

The military and national security discourse is also based on notions of masculinity that explain not only the fact the USBP is ninety-five percent male, but also the repeated reports of sexual abuse and rape of migrants and even of the few female agents (Maril 2016; Staudt 2009). As feminist academics have pointed out on many occasions, sexual violence is not about sex but rather about power (Falcón 2001). Sexual violence should be explained, therefore, as a gendered effect of military ideology. It is a result of the extreme power imbalance between agents and migrants and the discretional power of the former.

The institutional structures provoke systematic processes of disempowerment of migrants connected to detention, processing, and expulsion. The conditions in CBP detention centers entail physical and emotional stress. After being apprehended, migrants may spend hours or days in overcrowded conditions. The detention centers are kept at such low temperatures that the detainees refer to them as hieleras (coolers). As many studies have pointed out, the migrant detainees are not given sufficient food and water and are frequently denied basic services of hygiene and health care.

In the immigration courts along the border, particularly since the beginning of Operation Streamline (2005), trials for “illegal entry” seem like a mockery of judicial proceedings, involving the systemic violation of due process. Migrants without any criminal history, and sometimes without any previous history of migration, are processed en masse in front of immigration judges in what appears to be simply a staged exercise in humiliation. Handcuffed, in leg shackles, and with chains around their waists, dozens of accused persons are paraded all at once before a single judge, without lawyers or with very minimal defense. Almost all of them plead guilty, one by one, without having time or conditions to understand what the accusation means. In spite of suits against Operation Streamline filed in federal court by civil rights organizations, DOJ and DHS have modified only minimal aspects of the show, like the number of migrants presented simultaneously before the judge (Lydgate 2010).

The collective humiliation that results from these processes comes close to psychological torture, as it is called in testimony by migrants and reports of human rights groups.7 The conditions of detention, processing, and expulsion thus intentionally create disempowerment, an effect defined as diminution or elimination of the capacity of agency or resistance.

It is in this context of institutional violence that other common aggressions carried out by USBP should be understood. For example, using data from the Migrant Border Crossing Study (MBCS), Slack et al (2016) find that at least 20 percent of migrants detained by US immigration authorities were insulted while in custody, and at least 10 percent were physically attacked. Furthermore, the verbal abuse is significantly more frequent for women than for men. Other important data found by the MBCS researchers are the systematic denial of food (44.5 percent), and denial of medical attention when the migrants declare they need it (37.3 percent). The findings show that use of physical and verbal violence is systematic and is an intrinsic part of the strategy of social control.

(p. 492) The War on Drugs, the expansion of Criminal Organizations, and the Commodification of Migrants

The fundamental differences between the military apparatus and security strategies on the two sides of the border show that the effects of the discourse of war depend very much on the legal and political context from which that discourse emerges. In Mexico, the phrases “illegal immigration” and “migration crisis” did not resonate within the political institutions. Likewise, the “war against drugs” had little capacity to mobilize or convoke the political class, at least until 2007. It was a discourse utilized primarily in the international sphere, with the goal of obtaining economic or political benefits in relation to the United States.

Since the 1980s, through speeches, formal accords, and direct forms of collaboration between enforcement agencies of the two countries, every Mexican administration has committed itself to the US fight against drugs. Also, every Mexican president has defined drug trafficking as a risk to national security. Nonetheless, in domestic politics, the Mexican emphasis was on sovereignty, understood as territorial integrity in the face of possible interference by the United States. Calderón was the first president not only to abandon this discourse of concern about US interference, but also to demand greater US government involvement in the war on drugs in Mexico (Fondevila and Quintana-Navarrete 2015).

Thus in March 2007, two months after his declaration of war on the drug trafficking organizations, Calderón began negotiations in Mérida (Yucatán) with the administration of then-president George W. Bush, leading to the signing of what became known as the Mérida Initiative. This initiative implied much closer collaboration and massive US government financing of Mexican government security agencies, including the National Migration Institute (Spanish initials INM). Calderón carried out military operations in cities along the northern border, but extensive rural areas near the borderline remained unchanged insofar as security apparatus is concerned.

Vast territories near the borderline have limited communication systems; across thousands of square miles of northern Mexico, transportation routes are limited to dirt roads on which state agents are rarely seen. In the regions where unauthorized border crossings are common, the criminal organization or gangs of assailants tend to patrol the border so as to extort money both from the smugglers and from the Mexican or Central American migrants trying to cross without papers.

The security operations of the Mexican war on drugs take place mostly in certain cities along the northern border and in narcotics-producing regions in west and south. The majority of migration control operations are carried out in the southern part of the country. However, it is worth noting that some roadblocks set up by the INM and the Mexican army are situated close to the country’s northern border in order to control (p. 493) the movement of merchandise and people from south to north, as Mexican authorities want to prevent them from “abandoning” the country.8 This “emigration” control could signify intense collaboration between migration authorities in Mexico and the United States, or the active participation of the Mexican authorities in the criminal extortion systems.

Given the existence of such roadblocks and detention centers through Mexico, some human rights and academic organizations speak of a “vertical border” (Ruiz 2006), meaning one that traverses the country on a north-south axis. As revealed by interviews with migrants who reach Mexico’s northern cities, those who have sufficient economic resources to undertake the journey eventually succeed in crossing this vertical border by paying bribes at the roadblocks. It can also happen that they are detained and deported in spite of paying the so-called “quota.”9

Many highway roadblocks have double or triple institutional representation (federal police, armed forces, and migration control agents). Others have been installed by the criminal organizations with the goal of detecting, extorting, or kidnapping migrants. That is, the system of surveillance and control seems to be shared between illegal private corporations and public security institutions.

One consequence of the military strategy has been an extraordinary rise in homicides tied to organized crime. During the Calderón administration, the “war” cost more than 120,000 lives (Guerrero Gutierrez 2015). Under Peña Nieto (since December 2012) it has continued as endemic violence, a normalized everyday phenomenon. At the beginning of this war, the areas most affected by the violence were the cities on the northern border. In particular, Ciudad Juárez (in the state of Chihuahua) accounted for more than half of all homicides tied to organized crime between 2006 and 2011. It became the most dangerous city in the world, reaching 216 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010 (Ríos 2013).

Forced disappearances, kidnappings, and sexual violence against migrants have remained hidden underneath this wave of death. Considered non-citizens, lacking in political value, the kidnapped, raped, and murdered migrants went practically unnoticed until the massacre at San Fernando (Tamaulipas state) in August 2010, in spite of several previous reports about such massive violations of human rights.

A form of violence inherent in militarization and war has been gender-based violence, particular sexual violence and femicide. Since the 1990s, Ciudad Juárez has been famous for its hundreds of murders of young women and even girls, sexually tortured before being killed and dropped in vacant lots. As feminist analyses have shown, systematic sexual torture and murder became part of the narratives of power and impunity in Mexico (Segato 2013; Wright 2011). In a detailed discourse analysis of the statements of government officials and the justice system, statements issued with the goal of devaluing the victims as “loose women,” Melissa Wright demonstrates that “the gendering of public space as a principal mechanism of necropolitics” is at the heart of the war against drugs (Wright 2011, 719).

Often, gender-based violence is the main factor pushing migrant women and LGBTIQ people out of their places of origin. Subsequently, these forms of violence (p. 494) accompany them throughout their journeys, particularly in border regions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR 2015) reports, for instance, the systematic practice of migrant women being held for days or weeks by coyotes (smugglers) in border cities, where they suffer a variety of forms of sexual abuse or violence.

Violence against migrants and, at the extreme, rapes, murders, and massacres, can be analyzed as “collateral damage” in the combat between security agencies and criminal organizations, or within their ranks, over control of the routes of traffic in illicit merchandise and migrants. Territorial control allows for systems of extortion that yield enormous benefits to public and private agents. Controlling the routes of transport and the border crossing, criminal organizations and security agencies can require smugglers to pay them large sums of money, and can regulate the frequency and route of crossing and the number of migrants who can travel in a group. When the smugglers fail to pay the extortion or break any of the rules, or when they leave a group of migrants to their fate, the migrants may be kidnapped and turned over to the networks of human trafficking, or they may be massacred (Martínez 2014). Thus, the earnings extracted from unauthorized migration are based not only on extortion, but also on a whole chain of exploitation that includes robbery, assault, sexual violation, kidnapping, detention in safe houses, and trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation or forced labor for criminal organizations.

Such commercial exploitation of human mobility by corporations or by the migrants’ states of origin, transit, and destination is not new. Studies of the “migration industry” have already described them in depth (Castles and Miller 1998; Hernández-León 2013). According to these scholars, this industry is a heterogeneous economic field of legal and illegal activities that facilitate or simply profit from human mobility. The field is made up of very diverse actors, including the emigrants themselves. Many services can occasionally be offered without monetary cost through migratory networks; that is, is they depend on the social capital that the migrants have.

Without denying that these services continue to be offered in Mexico—although under much more restrictive political conditions than in the past—the extreme violence in the chains of exploitation requires thinking about the emergence of a criminal market parallel to the migration industry. The actors in this market do not only profit from human mobility but from the commercialization or commodification of the migrants themselves, of their sexuality and their potential labor power.

Since 2008, human rights organizations have denounced thousands of large-scale kidnappings of migrants by organization such as the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, with frequent participation by police (CNDH 2009). Sometimes the collaboration of security agencies is direct, while at other times the police take care of surveilling the territory and protecting the criminals. In some municipalities of northeastern Mexico, the criminal organizations function in association with local police departments, such that there is a sort of embeddedness between institutional power and criminal power.10

The massacres of migrants in northern Mexico reveal the disposable nature of the migrant, the extreme of his or her reification. The first massacre to become public took place in August 2010 in San Fernando (Tamaulipas), eighty-five miles from the border.11 (p. 495) The next year, forty-seven common graves containing 193 bodies were found in the same municipality. Other such massacres followed, much less publicized in the Mexican media and practically ignored internationally. In May 2012, forty-nine migrants were massacred and dismembered in Cadereyta (Nuevo León), fifty-four miles from the border; in June 2015, an unknown number of Central Americans were pursued and killed by a heavily armed group in Caborca (Sonora), forty-three miles from the border.12 These extreme aggressions against migrants appear to conflict with functional and structural interpretation of violence as a source of profit. Felbab Brown (2014, 12) describes this criminal market as “not a particularly effective business model, but one that is, again, characteristic of the ‘disintegration’ of Mexico’s criminal market toward greater violence and ‘chaos.’ ” However, the data produced by human rights organizations in Mexico seem to show, on the contrary, that this criminal business model has been particularly profitable in economic terms. For example, in their Special Report on Kidnappings of Migrants in 2011, the National Human Rights Commission (a Mexican government body, Spanish initial CNDH) estimated that the annual abduction of 20,000 migrants, with an average ransom price of $3000 each, implied annual revenue of $60 million for criminal organizations (CNDH 2011).

All violence, even that where the instrumental function is dominant—like extortion, kidnapping, and trafficking in human bodies—includes an expressive dimension (Segato 2013). Underneath the surface of this extortionist or destructive violence can be found a violence that constructs power relations and institutions. Massacres, gang rapes, and mutilation can be analyzed in terms of the construction of power relations, masculinities, complicities, and forms of oppression. In analyzing the multiple killings of women in Ciudad Juárez and their sexual connotations, Rita Segato (2013, 25) states that “the victim is the refuse of the process, a disposable piece,” while the privileged conversationalists in those acts of extreme violence are other powerful men, the peer group of the murderers. The massacre of migrants could also be decoded as messages between criminal organizations, written on the land.


On the American/Mexican border, several forms of violence coexist and are reinforced. There is political or legal violence, directed specifically and intentionally against migrants who cross the border without authorization. In a context in which migration law and criminal law coincide, enforcement of the former leads to processes of criminalization that result in subjection, humiliation, and exclusion of migrants (Menjívar and Abrego 2012). The absence of individual guarantees in detention centers, and the mass trials of migrants led in chains before a judge and required to plead guilty, demonstrate the transformation of the “illegal immigrant” into the main enemy of the border war. The enormous military infrastructure on the southwestern border of the United State reinforces this legal violence.

(p. 496) On the other side of the boundary, daily physical and psychological violence carried out by state agents against the migrants, or the serious and generalized violation of human rights in northern Mexico, should be seen in the framework of impunity guaranteed and legitimized by the discourse of war. In this context, human security is subordinated to or subsumed within the notion of national security. The systemization and impunity with which the aggressions occur—including that of sexual assault—seem to indicate that they form part of institutional strategies of coercive control. That is, they cannot be analyzed simply as “defects in the system,” but rather constitute a mechanism of coercion used deliberately to maintain an extremely unequal power relationship.

Factors of gender intervene in the violence suffered by migrants in a crucial way. Feminists have analyzed sexual violence as a weapon of war in situations of conflict and extensive militarization (Falcón 2001). For criminal organizations or for state agencies, sexual violation and aggression are ways of demonstrating their territorial control through control of bodies. At the same time, gang rape or more subtle and everyday forms of abuse are instruments to demoralize or humiliate groups of migrants. 13

On the Mexican side of the border, the migrants are booty for state agencies and criminal bands. In a historical process of embeddedness between the state and organized crime, migrants’ bodies have become lucrative merchandise among the many commodities that circulate legally or illegally along the routes controlled by criminal organizations. Thus migrants’ vulnerability derives from a combination of restrictive migration policies and territorial control on the part of state agencies and criminal networks. The commodification of migrants’ bodies should also be understood in the context of a neoliberal ethic—that is, of social elites’ broad justification and acceptance of profit at all costs, the penetration of mercantile logic into every social crevice.

In spite of the fences, the security apparatus, and the multiple forms of violence looming over potential migrants, hundreds of thousands of people cross the border without authorization each year. Many of them succeed in entering their intended destination, the United States, thanks largely to their networks of trust and mutual aid, or to structural support from the migration industry. On the one hand, these migrants find themselves subject to high-vigilance, security-obsessed systems that carry out institutional violence. On the other hand, through their own social networks and collective practices, the migrants carry out multiple forms of resistance and reconfigure the territories of migration.

Although this chapter has focused on the political forces that construct and institutionalize the violence, migrants as social agents generate forms of adaptation or strategies of resistance; mobilize family, social, and community resources in order to enter labor markets; reproduce collective identities and defend their rights. If we have analyzed here the geopolitical and military context that constrains their mobility or increases the risks of migration, we still need to analyze the creative processes and the constant reinvention of the means and methods of movement and settlement.

Translated from the Spanish by Dick Cluster


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Further Reading

Menjívar, C., and D. Kanstroom, eds. 2014. Constructing Immigrant ‘Illegality’: Critiques, Experiences, and Responses. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Staudt, K., T. Payan, and A. Kruszewski, eds. 2009. Human Rights along the US-Mexico Border. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.Find this resource:


(1.) The book edited by Cecilia Menjívar and Daniel Kanstroom (2014) on the construction of illegality allows us to understand the diversity of meanings and the historical-political construction of the notion of “illegal immigration.”

(2.) The number of agents grew from the 3,555 in 1992 to 18,611 in 2014, while the budget rose from $326 million to $3.642 billion.

(3.) The border patrol reports thirty-one deaths “in the line of duty” in the past ten years. See US Customs and Border Protection, last published March 26, 2018.

(4.) For example, in one particularly hot year in southern Texas (2012), the total reached 471 bodies, and the level stayed high at 451 in 2013. Yet the total in 2014 was 251. See USBP (2017)

(5.) In the case of deaths in the Mediterranean—which reached more that 5000 in 2015 and again in 2016—some European governments have expressly refused to cooperate with rescue missions, arguing that these incite other migrants to undertake the journey (De Lucas 2015).

(6.) According to former Border Patrol’s head of internal affairs, James F. Tomsheck, between 2010 and August 2014 twenty-eight unarmed migrants have died at the hands of US Customs and Border Protection, and not one agent has faced criminal charges in the killings. (Bogado 2014)

 Three important cases are those of Anastasio Hernández, murdered in San Ysidro in 2010, Sergio Hernández in Ciudad Juárez in 2010, and José Antonio Elena in Nogales in 2012. The first was brutally attacked by several border patrol agents in San Ysidro during the deportation process. The agents continued beating him and tasering him, even when he was lying motionless on the ground. Sergio and José Antonio, both minors, were murdered by border patrol agents from US territory even when they were in Mexican soil. Neither of the two was armed or presented any threat.

(7.) The 1984 United Nations convention against torture defines it as “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” inflicted intentionally by agents of public order.

(8.) For instance, near the city of Reynosa (just across the border from McAllen) a Colef study (París et al. 2015) found two INM roadblocks devoted to extortion or detention of Central American migrants headed for the United States.

(9.) Fieldwork by the author in Ciudad Juárez, Nogales, Mexicali, and Tijuana, 2015–2016.

(10.) Some studies estimate that seven out of every ten kidnappings involve the participation of police (Felbab-Brown 2014).

(11.) Investigations by journalists and human rights organizations have revealed that some of the direct perpetrators were municipal police. See Más de 72,

(12.) In this last case, Mexican authorities seem to have outdone their capacity for looking the other way. Testimony by some surviving migrants gave clear indications of another massacre. These survivors told how the group took off running and some of its members fell under a hail of bullets, though the survivors, as they fled, could not see how many died. On June 9, CNDH began an investigation into “the probable execution of three Central American migrants” in Caborca and interviewed the thirteen survivors detained in the migration-control station in Hermosillo, Sonora (CNDH 2015). Meanwhile, a group of social organizations demanded further investigation of the events and protection for the victims. In spite of this, authorities deported the thirteen survivors to their countries of origin.

(13.) Many testimonies show that, when whole groups of migrants are attacked, the assailants often require the women to undress.