Guest post by Amarela Varela Huerta. Amarela is a Lecturer/researcher, Autonomous University of Mexico City. This is the fifth post of the Border Criminologies’ themed series ‘The Changing Dynamics of Transnational Borders and Boundaries’, organised by Cristina and Giulia. 

As described by Central American migrants who coined the term, Mexico has become a ‘vertical border’ between the United States and Central America. Through immigration enforcement and border securitization policies promoted by both the U.S. and Mexican governments, the entirety of Mexican territory has been converted into a vertical border crossing for thousands of migrants and refugees from Central America who transit through Mexico on their way to the United States. These policies have been put in place to prevent Central American migrants and asylum-seekers from reaching their intended destination and ostensibly to deter future undocumented immigration from the region.

This post offers snapshots of the research that I have conducted in Mexico over the past 6 years focusing on the violence experienced by migrants in transit in Mexico, ranging from extortion by state and corporate officials to kidnapping, exploitation, and enforced labor by transnational criminal groups. Additionally, I have studied the causes of the exodus of Central American migrants, which may be summarized as arising from both state and patriarchal violence.

Here, I seek to elaborate on the refined institutional, social, and cultural racism and ferocious violence that migrants face at all stages of this highly regulated process of crossing borders: whether they are in transit; in detention or in a deportation process; returnees; or asylum-seekers trapped in the limbo of waiting. Here, I will employ the concept of ‘basurización’ (disposability) in order to refer to the production of abject subjectivities by the state and market through laws, public policies, and cultural (re)presentations. By framing migrants as ‘illegal’ persons, for example, these structures of power function to strip away their human dignity and their rights under the law, thus rendering migrants ‘disposable’.

The creation of a disposable class of people trapped in a state of exception translates into public policies known as necropolitics: juvenicidio (the killing of youth), femicide (the killing of women), and ecocide (the destruction of the environment). Necropolitical regimes such as these are understood and defined by the theoretical framework of South African philosopher Achille Mbembe, who drawing on Michel Foucault, argues that capitalism exercised through biopolitics (bio/life, politics/governance) is what governs life, whereas necropolitical regimes also govern through death. While I do not have the space to discuss each of these concepts in detail, together these form the theoretical foundation through which we may understand the intersection between a variety of complex social phenomena and migration.

We can observe these necropolitical intersections in the pursuit of economic development in the south of Mexico and throughout Central America through natural resource extraction and megaprojects. Large-scale mining operations in the region have led to ecocide and the forced displacement of indigenous communities. Governments and individual officials receive personal economic benefit from these projects, which displace Indigenous communities and provide the impetus for migration. Another illustrative example of the politics of death at work in the management of migration relates to the American asylum system which denies protection to those fleeing persecution from corrupt state officials who are involved in organized crime in the region. These denials fail to account for the unacceptable state of democracy in Mexico and Central America, themselves close trading partners of the US, and the lack of protection that citizens are provided by these governments (for more, see Estévez).  

Mexico, a vertical border

After the signing of economic liberalization treaties in Central America from the 1990s through to the 2000s, 400-500,000 persons per year attempt to traverse Mexico by land, sea, air or even underground in order to enter the United States. This includes a significant number of migrant children travelling either with other family members or unaccompanied - through the world’s most crossed, monitored and militarized border, which divides Latin America from North America. These migrants are mainly Central American citizens fleeing precarious economic conditions, insecurity, extortion and violence. Before they reach the US –Mexico border, migrants have to overcome many types of institutional violence, especially at the hands of the Mexican police and military. They are also left to fend for themselves against the criminal networks of narcos and human traffickers.

In addition to the dangers and paralegal vulnerabilities faced by migrants in transit, migration is managed by the Mexican state from a perspective that privileges national security, rather than the security and safety of the people, and that therefore prioritizes a judicial approach. Mexican immigration legislation was updated in 2012 to harmonize with U.S. national security interests. This legislation frames migration and migrants as a national security threat that must be “fought” using the same legal battery as the U.S. legal immigration framework. These policies criminalize migrants who cross Mexican territory without papers and effectively restrict the right to asylum of those who claim they are escaping neoliberalized violence performed by private armies and gangs in Central America.

As shown in the graph below, Mexico is a territory with various migrant routes. Migrants who cross the countryside are forced to pay a toll of extortion and violence, mostly to public officials such as immigration agents, police (local, state and federal) as well as the military. The structural violence faced by migrants while in transit is made possible by the combination of three legal logics: i) the externalization of the US border regime; ii) the securitization of the US border regime; and iii) the “state of emergency” imposed by the reordering of land management pacts between cartels and government officials in Mexico (these are special laws arising from the drug war).

“Map of Risks: The National Commission of Human Rights specified in their Special Report on Cases of Kidnapping of Migrants in Mexico the sites in which migrants run the risk of becoming victims of organized crime.” Source: (National Commission for Human Rights CNDH)

The most visible aspect of this perverse trinity that affects the bodies of thousands of migrants in Mexico is the Southern Border Plan, a governmental program that combines an anti-drug security discourse with the fight against human trafficking and illegal migration. The Mexican government implemented the plan in 2014 in response to political pressure by the U.S. government following the arrival of an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. southern border. The plan focuses on enforcement operations, specifically the detection, detention, and deportation of undocumented migrants along the Mexico-Guatemala border in order to regulate Central American migration, and is part of a long genealogy of the neoliberalization of the region. While the plan is couched in terms of the ‘protection’ of migrants, its effects can better be described as a ‘hunt for migrants’. As a result, migrants are pushed into more clandestine spaces as they attempt to cross the country, forcing them to cross treacherous territory and leaving them more vulnerable to organized crime

As a result of the Southern Border Plan, in 2015 alone Mexico almost doubled the number of migrants detained (up 83% from 31,642 to 57,892) and deported (up 79% from 28,736 to 51,565) compared to the previous year according to official statistics. During the same period (2014-15), Mexican authorities only granted asylum to 21-27% of requests. Although the laws and regulations that seek to manage and control undocumented migration are carefully varnished with a human rights discourse, they are based upon the global logic of the securitization of borders.

What are the effects of these necropolitical governmental policies? Since 2006, the so-called ‘war on drugs’ in Mexico resulted in 100-150 thousand deaths. Arising from a combination of the existing threats due to the ongoing drug war and the increased securitization of migrant transit routes, Mexico now represents the most violent and dangerous country in the world for transit migrants. Indeed, more than 20,000 kidnappings of migrants are recorded per year and there is an estimated 72,000 to 120,000 missing migrants in total. Various NGOs affirm that mainly due to the intensification of the securitization and externalization of border control, between 2006 to 2015, thousands of corpses of migrants have been found in mass graves in municipal cemeteries and in clandestine graves around the country, with thousands of additional unidentified bodies remaining in public morgues.

The collective labor of researchers and journalists and my own conversations with migrants and their family members over the years, highlight that despite being confronted with this necropolitical scenario, thousands of migrants in transit decide to continue on their journey through Mexico so long as their bodies can sustain them. Although it may seem absurd to embark on such a grim and dangerous path, community, family, and survivor networks have created a web of mutual support and aid to facilitate the exodus of migrants and asylum seekers from the terrors that they face in their home countries in Central America. Unfortunately, despite fleeing violence and hardship, Central American migrants are met by another war that is being waged against them in Mexico.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Varela Huerta, A. (2018) Migrants Trapped in the Mexican Vertical Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/06/migrants-trapped (Accessed [date]).