No Wall They Can Build from the Crimethinc website
I make no distinction between “migrants” crossing the border for ‘economic’ reasons and ‘refugees’ crossing the border to ‘flee violence or persecution.’ In my experience, these are arbitrary categories, and most people’s motivations are a combination of both. In many parts of the world, it’s difficult to distinguish between poverty and ‘violence or persecution’ anyway. However, ‘refugee’ does have a definition under both American and international law. Many of the people who cross the border fall within this definition, and the American government has a legal obligation to treat them accordingly. The American government rarely meets this obligation, and has a vested interest in defining all such people as migrants. Because of this, I believe it’s important to bring the term ‘refugee’ into wider use in the United States to refer to people who cross the border, despite the fact that it doesn’t necessarily describe every person.
Like the rest of the Western Hemisphere, the land currently called the United States of America, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras was stolen from its original inhabitants by European colonists through a well-documented orgy of bloodshed, treachery, and genocide of proportions so epic that they are arguably unprecedented in the thousands of often gruesome years of human history preceding them and unsurpassed in the hardly tranquil ones that followed. In progress for over 500 years, this monstrous crime has never been atoned for in any meaningful way, and is still being perpetrated to this day. Everybody knows this, but nobody really likes to think too much about what it means. What it means is this: unless you’re honest enough to admit that you think that might makes right as long as you’re on the winning side, you have to acknowledge that the federal, local, and state governments of these countries, including all their agencies such as Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are illegitimate institutions with no claim to legitimate authority over the territory they currently govern. If anyone has a right to decide who can and cannot pass through North America, it’s the people whose ancestors have inhabited that land since time immemorial, not the descendants or institutions of the ones who colonized it. Most so-called illegal immigrants have a more defensible claim to the continent they’re traversing than most of the hypocrites who condemn and pursue them.
One of the most common reasons to cross the border into the United States is simply to return home – after an ‘illegal’ has been deported, often after living in the US for years. Another factor that pushes people north is the widespread instability and violence throughout much of Mexico and the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala). The last of the three primary factors that push and pull people north over the border is the wage and cost of living differential be-tween the United States, Mexico, and the Northern Triangle – what Greek economist Arghiri Emmanuel refers to as ‘unequal exchange.’
In absolute terms, the cost of living is somewhat lower in Mexico than in the United States, and lower still in the Northern Triangle. However, wages for comparable work are, to a disproportionate degree, much lower in Mexico, and lower still in the Northern Triangle. For example, as of 2016, the federal minimum wage in the United States was $7.25 an hour, with much unskilled to semi-skilled labor paying around $10-15 dollars an hour. In Guatemala, a typical wage for the same labor was anywhere from $0.35 to $1.50 an hour, with many people working precariously in the informal sector and guaranteed no earnings at all. This holds true across the wage spectrum. Regardless of whether we are talking about bricklaying or open-heart surgery, the value of an hour’s work will be much lower if performed in Mexico (or elsewhere in the global south) than if the same labor were performed in the United States (or elsewhere in the global north), and lower still if performed in the Northern Triangle (or elsewhere in the “deep south”).
Furthermore, most imported goods are at least as expensive in Mexico as in the United States, and usually more so; they’re more expensive still in the Northern Triangle. This goes for nearly anything exported from the United States or elsewhere in the global north and imported into Mexico, the Northern Triangle, or elsewhere in the global south: food, cars, construction materials, electronics, books, medicines, and so on.
Many Americans who have traveled across the border will have the impression that things are cheaper in Mexico – dental care is the most well known example. Not exactly. Services such as dental care are cheaper in Mexico. This makes sense; the cost of services reflects the value of wages. Goods are likely to be comparably priced if they’re manufactured in Mexico, and more expensive if they’re not. So, while the absolute cost of living is lower in Mexico than in the United States, and lower still in the Northern Triangle, the cost of living relative to wages is higher in Mexico, and higher still in the Northern Triangle.
In addition to its ruinous impact on American industrial communities, the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 inflicted catastrophic damage on Mexican agricultural communities. In preparation for the agreement, the Mexican government amended its Constitution to allow for the privatization of communally-held campesinoand indigenous ejidoland, undoing a major accomplishment of the Mexican Revolution. NAFTA then permitted heavily-subsidized American agribusiness giants such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland to flood the Mexican market with cheap commodities from the United States, especially corn, rendering farming untenable for millions of Mexican campesinoswho couldn’t hope to compete on such a scale.
This was the background of the Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas. The participants correctly identified so-called ‘free’ trade as an existential threat to Mexican campesinosand indigenous people, predicting that this agreement would mark a deathblow to their way of life if they failed to resist. The Zapatistas rose up in arms on New Year’s Day in 1994, the same day that NAFTA went into effect. Exactly as the Zapatistas predicted, NAFTA drove millions of rural Mexicans, many of whom were already living in desperate poverty, off the land and into Mexican cities, hoping to find work in sweatshops primarily owned by American corporations along the Mexican side of the border and across the border in the United States. A great many Mexicans went to the United States around this time and began to set up lives there. Starting in 1994, internal deportations and border militarization on the American side increased dramatically, intensifying again after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and snowballing ever since. Border militarization has made crossing the border so difficult, expensive, traumatic, and dangerous that if someone makes the commitment to cross the border now, it’s usually to stay for a substantial period of time. Consequently, undocumented people constitute a permanent segment of the US population, a caste without rights totaling at least several million.
Migration from Mexico to the United States peaked at some point in the mid-2000s and has been tapering off ever since, largely due to the strength of the Mexican economy relative to that of the United States following the housing crash of 2008. Since 2012, the Pew Research Center and various other analysts have reported “net-zero” migration from Mexico to the United States. This is because the American government deports untold thousands of people every year who in fact live in the United States, and most of these people will cross the border again in order to return to their homes and children. It’s hard to say how many; the government is not forthcoming with these statistics. The majority of Mexican citizens that I met in the desert were crossing the border to return home.
What is referred to as the “Mexican Drug War” is usually portrayed in the United States as an ongoing, low-intensity, asymmetric war between the Mexican government on one side and various drug-trafficking cartels on the other, with the government’s principal goals being to put down drug-related violence and ultimately to dismantle the cartels. In fact, the conflict consists of ever-shifting alignments of state and non-state actors competing for control of the fantastically lucrative transportation industry that delivers drugs and undocumented workers to the United States. Calling it a war on drugs is like calling the invasion of Iraq a war on oil. The war is so convoluted and the alliances between cartels and factions of the state shift so rapidly that describing them brings to mind Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: we can pinpoint the positions of the participants, or their properties, but never both at once. The simplest possible version of the story is that there are two unequal centers of gravity – the more massive Sinaloa cartel and the more energetic Zetas cartel, with factions of the Mexican state as well as any number of smaller cartels affiliating with one side or the other as circumstances dictate.
The war began in earnest in 2006, when the administration of then-president Felipe Calderón began to involve state forces directly in a way that they hadn’t been before. It’s raged on interminably ever since, with the violence in some parts of the country claiming over 120,000 lives as of 2016. The places most affected have included Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, the central state of Jalisco, the northeastern states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Nuevo León, and the southern states of Michoacán, Guerrero, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.
The Sinaloa Cartel, based in the northwest and with agrarian roots, is probably the most successful drug-trafficking network that’s ever existed. It’s demonstrated a long-term vision and supple grasp of strategy surpassing those of many national governments, and it overlaps with the government of Mexico to such an extent that it’s just as correct to say that the state is part of Sinaloa as to say that Sinaloa is part of the state. (Some American analysts express concern that Mexico is or may become a “failed state.” They needn’t worry. The Mexican state hasn’t failed – it’s the most successful criminal enterprise the world has ever seen.)
Sinaloa’s boss of all bosses, el jefe de jefes, Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán, is at 5’6” a figure of such epic proportions in the Mexican cosmos that to compare him to Robin Hood or Sauron would be to vastly overstate the stature of either of those characters. This man has (supposedly) escaped from prison twice, once in a laundry basket and once on an underground motorcycle. As of this writing he is (supposedly) in custody, but no Mexican I’ve spoken to is entirely convinced.
Sinaloa portrays itself as the lesser of two evils and claims to fight a cleaner war. It accuses the Zetas of victimizing civilians and committing atrocities. “We are drug traffickers, not murderers,” they say. “We don’t mess with honest people.” This is self-serving and in bad faith, but there is some truth to it. Sinaloa’s basic strategy, elegant in its simplicity, is plata o plomo, silver or lead, the bribe or the bullet. One can’t help mourning the fact that the people at the heart of this project – many of them the children of campesinosand undeniably organizational geniuses – didn’t apply their talents to radical social transformation.
The Zetas cartel is based in the northeast and has its roots in the military. Members of the Mexican Army’s Special Forces Corps (GAFE) founded the organization in the mid-1990s. The founders were among the roughly 500 GAFE personnel that Special Forces groups from the US, Israel, and Guatemala trained in counterinsurgency and commando operations at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, in order to combat Zapatista rebels in Chiapas. Somewhere between 30 and 200 of these soldiers made use of this training by immediately signing on as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, a well-established drug-trafficking organization and at that time the Sinaloa Cartel’s primary rival. Before long, the Zetas became more powerful than the Gulf Cartel itself, eventually turning on their employers and striking out on their own in 2010. The Zetas’ core cadre is a rogue’s gallery of mercenaries and defectors from every branch of the Mexican military and police, as well as more than a few from those of Guatemala and the United States. Armed to the teeth, rolling in cash, expertly trained and utterly without scruples, they’ve introduced a level of brutality into the ecosystem of Mexican organized crime surpassing anything that came before. While Sinaloa has always claimed to avoid civilian casualties, the Zetas go out of their way to incur them at every turn.
The Zetas’ former captain, Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano, a widely known sadist generally regarded as the devil himself by anyone I’ve ever heard mention his name, was supposedly killed in Coahuila in October 2012. However, gunmen stormed the funeral home where his body was being held and whisked it away, never to be seen again. Nobody seems to know quite what to believe.
The Zetas cultivate an image of extreme ruthlessness, and make no pretensions to abide by any kind of ethical code. They promise to fight as dirty as possible, and they deliver. They accuse Sinaloa of rank hypocrisy, of engaging in most of the behavior that it denounces the Zetas for, and of being in collusion with the government. “We are murderers,” they say, “but we aren’t liars.” There is truth to this; in some ways, the Zetas’ honesty is almost refreshing.
The Zetas’ basic strategy is to overturn the board if they can’t win. In a furious push to dislodge Sinaloa from its place at the top of the ladder, the Zetas have transgressed every boundary of acceptable behavior, committing such a catalog of crimes against nature, humanity, and God that it boggles the mind to recount them. In many ways prefiguring the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Zetas came to the same conclusion years earlier and half a world away: it’s possible to build a fearsome army and to make a lot of money by putting guns in people’s hands and giving them license to break every rule. It’s doubtful that such nihilism could ever be part of a project of liberation, but one can’t help mourning the fact that the Zetas didn’t decide to unleash hell on the top of Mexican society rather than on the bottom.
The drug war can be read as an ugly perversion of a conflict that cuts to Mexico’s core: the conflict between campesinos(who gave birth to Sinaloa) and the military (who gave birth to the Zetas). The peculiar twist is that it’s Sinaloa that’s most closely tied to the “loyal” factions of the state, and the Zetas that are most closely tied to the “rogue” factions. Just as many Mexican soldiers are a generation removed from their agrarian roots, most of Sinaloa’s leadership was born in the 1950s while most of the Zetas’ leadership was born in the 1970s, a generation later. There’s an air of patricide to the conflict between the two camps.
The third term in this equation is comprised of Mexico’s many social movements. A great part of the violence in Mexico is actually the repression of social movements masquerading as a drug war – especially in the south, which has long been much poorer than the capital or the north, and where those movements have traditionally been the strongest. Mexico has a rich history of radical struggle and thought. From the Caste War of Yucatán in 1847 to the Revolution and the original Zapatista movement of the 1910s, from the protests and occupations in Mexico City in 1968 to the uprisings in San Salvador Atenco and Oaxaca in 2002 and 2006, from the siege of San Juan Copala in 2010 to the self-defense forces now standing guard over Santa María Ostula and Cherán, from the modern-day Zapatistas firing the first shots in resistance to the global capitalist hegemony of the post-Cold War era more than twenty years ago to the ways that their concepts of autonomy and self-determination have informed contemporary struggles from Oakland to Rojava, Mexicans have contributed immeasurably to the project of liberation.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that the event that usually viewed as the starting point of the drug war – Calderón’s deployment of 6500 Mexican Army soldiers into Michoacán in December of 2006 – took place within two weeks of the suppression of the uprising in Oaxaca in late November.
The war in Mexico is a clash of elemental forces, personified by three groups of people in black masks with guns: Order (Sinaloa), Chaos (the Zetas), and Transformation (the Zapatistas and other associated rebels). It isn’t clear how this war will end, or what will happen when it does, but for now it isn’t surprising that there are many Mexican citizens who cross the border to get away from it. The world is getting smaller, though – this trialectic is playing out similarly in Syria, personified by Assad, ISIS, and the revolutionaries in Rojava. Such conflicts are spreading, and eventually there will be nowhere left to run.
What can be done? Borrowing a couple of points from the late Charles Bowden, I’ll answer as best I can from my vantage point as a solidarity worker in the United States.
The government of the United States bears a great deal of responsibility for the conflagration that’s consumed Mexico over the last ten years. As I described above, by imposing NAFTA, it decimated the Mexican agricultural sector and threw millions of people who were already poor into destitution, thus creating millions of internal and external migrants and refugees, many of whom eventually turned to the cartels rather than starve. The prohibition on the use and sale of street drugs in the United States keeps the prices of these drugs artificially high, creating huge profit margins that are fought over to the south and feeding the multi-billion-dollar drug industry at the center of the conflict. By deporting hundreds of thousands of people and militarizing the border, the US government has created a human trafficking industry closely linked to the drug industry, with billions more dollars at stake. By providing the Mexican government with money, weapons, and military training, it fuels the violence from all sides – these resources invariably go rogue as both state and non-state actors use them to vie for control of these industries, not to mention for the purpose of repressing social movements.
None of this is an accident or a mistake. In fact, the war in Mexico benefits identifiable sectors of society on both sides of the border. Official policy on these matters represents the interests of those sectors, and it isn’t going to change any time soon. If the government of the United States really wanted to hasten the end of the war in Mexico, it could do so by ending deportations, opening the border, legalizing the use and sale of street drugs, and cutting off military aid to the Mexican state. These actions would have other consequences, some of which I will speculate on later. However, they would take most of the oxygen out of the conflict by removing most of the profits and most of the means to fight over them. If this took place, I have full faith that Mexicans would be able to figure out how to sort out the problems of Mexico, as they’ve done in the past. Needless to say, this isn’t going to happen. There is no political will in Washington to take any of these actions, or from the American public outside of a radical fringe. Those of us on that fringe can try to at least shift the grounds of the debate.
Guatemala has been governed by a feudal system since colonization: to this day, the country is dominated by a small group of light-skinned families (known as the “seven families,” the “oligarchy,” or the “deep state”) who have managed power, lording it over the indigenous majority, since their European descendants arrived in the Americas 500 years ago. These families control the military and the vast majority of land and wealth, dividing major monopolies between them. The old elite is linked to coffee, sugar, and banana exports, cattle ranching, mining, and some heavy industry, such as cement production. A newer elite is linked to drug smuggling and human trafficking. Guatemalan political parties align with these competing interests.
A hundred years ago, a revolution in Mexico ended the feudal system and laid the groundwork for the foundation of a modern state, for better or for worse. This never happened in Guatemala. The country isn’t governed by people who have the well-being of Guatemalan citizens at heart. In contrast to their counterparts in Mexico, the oligarchs don’t uphold their end of a social contract, and make no real pretensions to do so. What they do do, and have done well for centuries is supply the United States with sugar, bananas, and coffee, and prevents indigenous people from taking over with machine guns, helicopters, and flamethrowers. Instead of a revolution, Guatemala endured an almost unfathomably brutal 36-year civil war that the CIA set in motion in 1954 when it sponsored a coup that overthrew democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz in retribution for his attempts to redistribute land. The immensely powerful American-owned United Fruit Company opposed land reform, and the CIA acted on their behalf. Denied any other route to social change, an assortment of indigenous, campesino, student, union, and leftist groups commenced armed struggle against the state in 1960. The conflict was fueled for decades by the financial and military support that the American government provided to a succession of Guatemalan military regimes. These regimes perpetrated a catalog of massacres, disappearances, torture, and other acts of state terror against the civil society of Guatemala, culminating in the “scorched earth” policy of genocide against the Mayan indigenous population during the rule of Efraín Ríos Montt in the early 1980s. Approximately 200,000 civilians lost their lives during the war; indigenous people suffered disproportionately. Armed conflict ended in December 1996 with the signing of peace accords between the umbrella organization of guerrilla groups (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity or URNG) and the Guatemalan state.
Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans fled to Mexico and the United States during the 1980s. Most had to do so illegally, since the Reagan administration, which was arming and funding the primary perpetrators of the violence, refused to recognize them as refugees under American law. Many of these refugees and their families established lives in the United States, however, and have been there ever since.
Twenty years later, peace may be worse than war. As of 2016, Guatemala has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the Western Hemisphere, the fourth highest in the world. Chronic malnutrition affects 47% of all children, 55% of all people in rural areas, 69% of indigenous people, and 70% of indigenous children. In some villages, that number rises to 90%. This is significantly higher than in Honduras and Nicaragua, both of which are poorer overall than Guatemala. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and the average Guatemalan earns four times more than the average Haitian, but Guatemala’s childhood malnutrition rates are twice as high as Haiti’s. Food insecurity has been found to be the single biggest factor driving migration from the country, according to a recent report published by the International Organization of Migration and the United Nations World Food Program.
We’re talking about a country with extensive economic, political, cultural, and military ties to the United States; which is blessed with fertile soil, plentiful water, a favorable climate, and abundant natural resources; whose markets are overflowing with fruits and vegetables, and which exports well over a billion dollars of food to the north every year.
About 60% of Guatemalans identify as indigenous. Twenty-six different languages are spoken in the country, there are many places where Spanish isn’t the dominant language, and there is a great deal of cultural diversity between the different indigenous groups. Indigenous people make up a more prominent part of Guatemalan society than almost anywhere else in North America. In Mexico, for instance, a substantial part of the population is indigenous as well, but nowhere near as much as in Guatemala, except in some parts of Oaxaca and Chiapas.
Racism is extremely pronounced in every aspect of Guatemalan society. The derogatory terms used by criollos(those of mostly European ancestry) and ladinos(those of mixed European and indigenous ancestry) to refer to indigenas(those of mostly indigenous ancestry, and particularly those who don’t speak Spanish as a first language) carry as much historical weight as do the terms that are used by white people to refer to Black people in the United States. This is true in Mexico as well, but it’s even more pronounced in Guatemala. Most of the worst atrocities of the war were ordered by criollos(who commanded the army), carried out by ladinos(who made up the bulk of the army), and inflicted on indigenas(who made up the bulk of the guerrilla as well as the civilian population).
The peace accords of 1996 mark a complicated watershed in Guatemalan history. For nearly forty years, the guerrillas, most of whom were indigenous Mayans, stood up to a truly ruthless and unprincipled foe backed by the full weight of the American government. The guerrillas didn’t win, but they didn’t entirely lose either, and when they finally laid down their arms it wasn’t without extracting some meaningful concessions from the Guatemalan state. One of the more important of these concessions was Convention 169 of the peace accords, which wrote communal land stewardship into Guatemalan law (a lot of Guatemalan land is owned communally by the indigenous people who occupy it). Under Convention 169, resource extraction issues on communal land have to be decided by communal processes. This means that if a mining company wants to mine for gold on communal land, it can’t simply buy the land; nor can the state just lease it out. A popular assembly of the community involved has to approve the project, and this permission often turns out to be difficult to obtain. This aspect of Guatemalan environmental and indigenous law can provide stronger protection against extractive industries than either Mexican or American law usually does. But it took 36 years of armed struggle to win this concession. Unsurprisingly, these parts of the peace accord have been consistently abrogated by a long succession of venal and corrupt post-war governments, who’ve tried their best to auction off the country to the highest bidder. Nonetheless, indigenous people have power in Guatemala, in a way that’s very different from what one sees in the United States or even most of Mexico. On the day of the World Cup final in 2014, the Guatemalan Congress tried to slip through a piece of legislation called the Monsanto Law, which would have given exclusivity on patented seeds to a handful of transnational companies. Indigenous groups blockaded Congress, refusing to let in food or water or to let anyone out to sleep or use the bathroom until the law was repealed, which it was. It’s very difficult to imagine this happening in Washington, DC or Mexico City.
Resource extraction is a major issue in Guatemala. In the western highland provinces of San Marcos and Huehuetenango, along the border with the Mexican state of Chiapas, there’s a great deal of active mining (primarily gold, silver, and copper), as well as many more locations where transnational corporations are attempting to push licenses for new mining projects through the popular assemblies. Many of the companies involved with mining in Guatemala are Canadian-owned. One of the best-known examples is the Marlin gold mine in San Marcos near the indigenous Mam municipalities of Sipacapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacán, which is owned by a Guatemalan subsidiary of the Canadian company Goldcorp. See the 2005 documentary “Sipakapa No Se Vende” (“Sipakapa Is Not For Sale”), directed by Alvaro Revenga. Guatemala has an extensive history of resistance to resource exploitation, especially in these regions. Both state and private police, as well as military and para-military forces, have jailed and murdered many opponents of mining and other megaprojects there.
Not coincidentally, many of the Guatemalans I have met crossing the border turn out to be coming from these parts of the country – San Marcos and Huehuetenango. I’ve seen evidence firsthand to suggest that mining companies, the drug cartels, and the Guatemalan state have been colluding to cleanse parts of these areas of inhabitants in order to clear the way for megaprojects, drug smuggling, and human trafficking.
The vast majority of the cocaine from South America also passes through the Mexican-Guatemalan border on its way to the United States, along with all undocumented Central American migrants and refugees. As in Mexico, both state and non-state actors compete for control of the drug smuggling and human trafficking industries on the border, and this competition plays out no less violently in Guatemala. Add on top of that the truly frightening levels of murder and violent crime in some parts of the country (much of it an extension of El Salvador’s gang problems – see below) and, long story short, the place is a mess. I’ve met numerous Guatemalans who have told me that the oligarchy has fomented general social violence in order to justify the use of a “strong hand” to quell the chaos: the hand of the Guatemalan military, which was deeply discredited after the war.
On top of all of this, at least speaking from my personal experience, Guatemala is profoundly dysfunctional, in a way that Mexico is not. Teachers and nurses don’t get paid, hospitals don’t have sufficient medicine or equipment, the justice system is a shambles, the government is corrupt on every level, there’s virtually no legal work in much of the country, and the state does even less for people than it does in Mexico. The government won’t even put out forest fires if they’re burning in places where indigenous people live.
None of the issues that led to the internal armed conflict in Guatemala have been resolved. All of the components of a return to war are there, but an entire generation of armed struggle is no walk in the park, and the fatigue is still palpable twenty years later. This is one noticeable difference between Guatemalan and Mexican society. I’ve often heard Mexicans, even those who don’t ascribe to radical politics, say things like “The situation in my country is untenable; maybe we need another revolution.” I’ve often heard Guatemalans, even those who do ascribe to radical politics, say things like “I just hope we can address the problems in my country without having to go to war again.” I fear for what the future holds for my friends there.
That being said, the biggest thing to happen in Guatemala in recent years was probably the widespread protests that brought down the government of the most recent ex-president, Otto Pérez Molina, in September 2015. Pérez Molina was a former army general who personally coordinated massacres in the indigenous area of the “Ixíl Triangle” during the Ríos Montt years. He was elected in 2011 on a remarkably unsubtle platform: “a strong hand” was both his campaign slogan and the symbol of his political party (Partido Patriota). He and most of his administration spent much of their time in office overseeing a corruption scheme that came to be known as “La Linea,” in which the Guatemalan customs agency offered importers greatly reduced tariffs in exchange for kickbacks that were shared among dozens of government officials. When this story went public, massive protests broke out across the country, eventually gaining so much momentum that Pérez Molina, his son-in-law, the then-vice-president Roxana Baldetti, and dozens of other high-ranking officials all ended up not only unemployed but in jail.
Although it’s more than a little perverse that Pérez Molina was finally brought to account for graft rather than for personally coordinating acts of genocide, it was still unprecedented in Guatemala, where it was unheard of for a sitting president and ex-general to be brought down by street protests without massive bloodshed. While this was heartening, most Guatemalans I know believe that part of what happened was that the military and the oligarchy came to see Pérez Molina as an embarrassment, abandoned him, and began to prepare for his successor, Jimmy Morales, the current president and literally an ex-clown. It’s not clear what is going to happen next.
In short, this is why so many people are leaving their old lives in Guatemala: to get away from widespread conditions of poverty and instability.
The Guatemalan guerrilla movement had a largely unrecognized influence on world affairs by directly inspiring the aesthetic of the Mexican Zapatista rebellion and by profoundly informing and prefiguring the rebellion itself. Chiapas directly borders Guatemala, and it is also heavily Mayan. From the ski masks and pseudonyms to the thinking involved, many aspects of the Zapatista movement can be seen as extensions of, reactions to, or lessons learned from the Guatemalan civil war. The Zapatistas deserve tremendous credit for applying these lessons correctly, but it’s worth remembering that the image that they made irresistible was that of something that the Guatemalan guerrillas actually did for nearly forty years. The guerrilla war and all the suffering and sacrifices that its participants endured have been largely forgotten outside of Guatemala, but through the Zapatistas its influence can still be seen across the world today.
El Salvador is smaller than Guatemala, more densely populated, and less indigenous. In marked contrast to Guatemala or even Mexico, the population is nearly entirely ladino. In El Salvador, too, however, there was a brutal civil war from 1979 to 1990 that claimed around 80,000 lives. Once again, the American government backed a succession of military regimes that committed a series of massacres, disappearances, rapes, bombings, torture, collective reprisals, and other atrocities on the public at large. The most infamous single incident was probably the murder of over 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote by the Salvadoran army on December 11, 1981.
In El Salvador, even more so than in Guatemala, it’s probable that the coalition of guerrilla groups (the Faribundo Martí National Liberation Front or FMLN) would have succeeded in overthrowing the Salvadoran government were it not for US intervention. As much as a quarter of the entire country fled the war during the 1980s, mostly to the United States, again often with assistance from the Sanctuary movement. The war formally ended with the signing of a peace agreement in 1992; about two million Salvadorans now live in the United States – roughly a fifth of the entire population.
El Salvador is noticeably more well off than either Guatemala or Honduras, if less so than Mexico. Three to five billion dollars in remittances pour in yearly from Salvadoran workers in the United States – perhaps a fifth of the total GDP. One can find separate bins for trash, compost, and recycling in many municipal parks, there are fewer stray dogs, and generally speaking it looks like a grittier version of the United States rather than a different world entirely. Also, in 2009, the FMLN was elected to power for the first time since the end of the war, and for a while behaved themselves somewhat better than the right-wing governments in Guatemala and Honduras. So it could be tempting to view El Salvador as a regional success story.
However, this is where the story gets complicated. Various Salvadoran street gangs formed in refugee communities in Los Angeles during and after the war, at first based at least in part on a legitimate need to carve out some place for Salvadorans in the not-very-welcoming atmosphere of riot-era LA. The most prominent of these gangs became Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M18). Thousands of members of both groups were eventually deported back to El Salvador, where they began to fight each other for territory.
It’s incorrect to understand MS-13 and M18 as monolithic organizations. Rather, they’re franchised and dispersed networks consisting of numerous cliques and factions. That being said, the gangs exert tremendous influence over daily life in much of El Salvador; in many places, they possess power comparable to that of the state. Gang members are the sole or primary breadwinners in many poor and working-class Salvadoran households, and in many neighborhoods the gangs function as the sole employer and de factopolice. There are numerous downsides to this system, the most serious being that the three-sided conflict between MS-13, M18, and the government has made El Salvador one of the most violent places on the planet outside of an active warzone.
In March 2012, a truce was negotiated between the three parties, negotiated by former FMLN rebel and congressman Raul Mijango, the Minister of Public Security and Justice David Munguía Payés, and Monsignor Fabio Colindres, a bishop of the Catholic Church. Although it’s not clear exactly how this transpired, it appears that the government agreed to a variety of concessions, including the repeal of the Gang Prohibition Act, the return of the army to its barracks, the end of police operations in territory controlled by the gangs, the repeal of a law which provided benefits in exchange for information about people with criminal ties, and a series of improvements in prisoners’ quality of life. In exchange for this, it appears that the mostly-imprisoned leadership of MS-13 and M18 agreed to a cessation of hostilities between themselves and with the state. Practically overnight, homicides dropped from fourteen a day to five. The truce held at least in part for nearly three years, and by most accounts I’ve heard the country was pretty livable for a while. We saw the results on the border immediately, where we met far fewer Salvadorans crossing the desert during that time. However, by 2015, the truce had completely broken down, for complicated reasons involving intransigence and duplicity on all sides – including that of the US government, which was never remotely excited about the arrangement, presumably being of the opinion that a stable and prosperous El Salvador governed by the FMLN and aligned with Venezuela and the South American “Pink Tide” wasn’t actually a desirable outcome. Violence spiraled out of control in 2015, reaching levels not seen since the worst of the civil war or almost anywhere else in the world outside of Syria, Iraq, and the Central African Republic. Under serious domestic pressure to restore some semblance of order, the FMLN resorted to tactics borrowed from its enemies during the war: night raids, mass imprisonment, and collective punishment. When this happened, the gangs responded with a vigorous and concerted campaign of assassinations of police and soldiers, as well as car bombings targeting police stations and other government installations – a tactic rarely if ever seen even in the most unstable parts of Mexico.
The Salvadoran government and press, in turn, have begun to use a language of “terrorism” and existential “warfare” against “enemy combatants” when speaking about the conflict. Various Salvadorans have told me that it is not impossible that some of the bombings may be false-flag actions designed to justify “social cleansing.” One shudders to think what may happen when the right gets back into power.
Unsurprisingly, in 2015 we saw a surge in the numbers of Salvadorans crossing the desert, nearly all wanting to get away from the mayhem consuming their country.
At the risk of being repetitive, it’s worth driving home how much responsibility the government of the United States bears in creating this mess. First, it bankrolled the Salvadoran right wing in its war on the better half of its own society. Then, it deported thousands of dead-broke survivors of this war back to a country the size of Massachusetts that it had just destroyed. Most recently, it undermined the efforts of the FMLN and the gangs to come to a workable compromise. After all this, it was unlikely that anything could have happened except for El Salvador to go up in flames.
I’ve spent much less time in Honduras than Mexico, Guatemala, or El Salvador.
At the risk of lapsing into extreme informality, I’ll say this: when standing on the Salvadoran or Nicaraguan side of the border holding a piece of refuse, one can say, “Hmm, where should I put this empty water bottle? Ah, perhaps in that trash can!” On the Honduran side, it’s more like “Well, I guess I’ll just throw it on the ground, which is what absolutely everybody else is doing, since there’s no other option. And look at that army guy with a huge assault rifle! And that other one! And those other ones!”
Of course, I’d prefer to see the garbage collected by decentralized networks of friends than by the state, but it does seem to be the worst of both worlds when the state clearly exists, has the capacity to place huge numbers of American-made M-16s in the hands of god-knows-who, but also demonstrates no interest whatsoever in providing the most basic health, sanitation, education, social welfare, or waste management services to the population. That, in a nutshell, is modern Honduras. Combining the poverty of Nicaragua, the dysfunction of Guatemala, and the violence of El Salvador, but lacking the recent legacy of at-least- partially-successful efforts to address the country’s problems through armed struggle that characterizes all three of those places, Honduras is currently a case study in everything bad in this part of the world.
There was a 1950s-style coup in Honduras in 2009 backed by the government of the United States, and things appear to have been unremittingly messed up ever since. We’ve met an enormous number of Hondurans crossing the border in the years since the coup, out of all proportion to the size of the country. In 2012, for instance, less than half of the people that I met on the border came from Mexico, Guatemala, or El Salvador, and more than half came from Honduras, despite the fact that Mexico alone has a population sixteen times the size of Honduras. We heard different versions of the same story from countless people: grinding poverty, chronic hunger and malnutrition, widespread violence and insecurity (much of it an extension of El Salvador’s gang problems), a rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic, appalling levels of violence against women and LGBTQ people, assassinations of environmentalists, union organizers, and human rights advocates, and a lack of the most basic services or opportunities.
Let me emphasize this one more time. If Honduras is in shambles, it is not because Hondurans are any less resourceful or decent than anyone else, or even because its rulers are any more wretched and callous. It’s because the structure of the North American economy has made any other outcome impossible.
Based on my own experiences and my discussions with countless travelers, permit me to hazard a rough overview of the journey from south to north. The trip to the border plays out very differently depending on how much money a person has and whether the person is Mexican or Central American. Let’s start with Central Americans.
Citizens of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua can circulate freely inside each of these four countries (the “CA-4”), so Salvadorans and Hondurans can travel through Guatemala to the Mexican border without any particular issues other than paying for transportation. The Mexican border, however, is another matter. Citizens of the CA-4 can’t just walk up to the Mexican border and cross it without issue, nor can they circulate inside Mexico without risk of deportation if they don’t have the relevant visa. There are legal means for Central Americans to enter and pass through Mexico on the way to the United States, all which come at a price – essentially a series of bribes – that some can pay and others can’t. I’ll start by describing what people do when they cannot enter Mexico legally.
Mexico’s heavily forested southern border is well policed, but it’s relatively porous, and the authorities policing it are fantastically corrupt. Central Americans have several options for crossing it and then crossing Mexico itself. The worst and most deservedly notorious way to get to the United States is via La Bestia(The Beast), the Mexican freight trains. I have heard an astonishing array of horror stories about this trip; it’s fair to say that for many people, crossing Mexico is an even more harrowing ordeal than crossing the border into the United States.
There are two main train lines running from southern Mexico into La Lecheria, the main transfer point in Mexico City for all traffic coming from the south and going north. One of these lines starts in the city of Tenosique in Tabasco, the other in Arriaga in Chiapas. So Central Americans who can’t afford any other option have to cross the Mexican border on foot and walk to one of these cities – no small distance. Every step of the way, they run the risk of robbery, rape, kidnapping, assault, extortion, deportation, arrest, and murder at the hands of the police, the military, any number of different gangs and cartels, and God knows who else; they also risk exhaustion and exposure. Common departure points in Guatemala include parts of the provinces of San Marcos and Huehuetenango (en route to Arriaga), and parts of the Parque Nacional Sierra del Lacandón and Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre in the northern Petén (en route to Tenosique). There are shelters and solidarity projects in both cities, and from either location it’s possible to get on a northbound train.
Running the gauntlet across Mexico on La Bestia may be the most deadly method of travel in the entire Western Hemisphere. All of the above risks are magnified on the trains, along with the danger of death and dismemberment from falling off the freight cars, which are often incredibly overcrowded. There are other shelters and solidarity projects along both rail lines, as well as in Mexico City and aroundLa Lecheriaitself. These projects range from established campaigns to the daily efforts of individuals and families that live along the tracks and toss food and water onto the trains as they roll by.
There are two main ways to go north from La Lecheria, both fraught with all the perils described above, including an ever-increasing risk of arrest and deportation as one proceeds further north. The first route, toward the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, proceeds up to San Luis Potosí and then to Nuevo Laredo or Reynosa in Tamaulipas. The second, toward the southern Arizona desert, is through Guadalajara and then up the Pacific coast to Altar or Caborca in Sonora. These are probably the two most important destination points for migrants and refugees along the entire border: Reynosa and Altar. Both routes have advantages and disadvantages; the problem is that ultimately both options are terrible. The advantages of the northeastern route to Reynosa are that it’s a much shorter trip on the train and that the terrain is somewhat less deadly on the American side. It’s also closer to the eastern and mid-western parts of the United States. The disadvantage is that most of this territory is controlled by the Zetas cartel. This route is notorious for the first San Fernando Massacre of August 2010, in which the Zetas murdered 72 Central American migrants and refugees in the municipality of San Fernando just south of Matamoros in Tamaulipas, and then the second San Fernando Massacre of April 2011, in which the Zetas hijacked numerous passenger buses on Mexican Federal Highway 101 in the same small town, kidnapping, torturing, and murdering 193 people. In southern Arizona, we saw a surge in the numbers of Central Americans crossing the desert that lasted for about two years after the San Fernando massacres, as thousands of people understandably decided that the northeastern route wasn’t worth the risk.
The advantage of the northwestern route to Altar is that this territory is controlled lock, stock, and barrel by the Sinaloa cartel, who have a reputation for being more businesslike, if nothing else. It’s also closer to the western parts of the United States. The disadvantages are that it is a much longer trip on the train, and it means crossing the border into the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, which has been swallowing people alive by the thousands.
Backing up, there are also many Central Americans who don’t have to take the train. Central Americans who can afford to do so can pay through the cartel system to arrange for any combination of a guide through the Mexican border, passage through Mexico to the American border (most commonly to Reynosa or Altar, although there are other destinations, notably Sonoyta and Mexicali), and a guide through the American border to the other side. The disadvantage to this approach is that it can cost upwards of $10,000 with no guarantee of success. Not everyone has this money, and it represents a major expenditure to nearly all who do. It also means putting one’s life completely in the hands of the cartel system, which entails real dangers of kidnapping, extortion, rape, and so on. Nevertheless, such arrangements are common.
Then there is the possibility of risking the buses in Mexico. I have met people who did this successfully, or were able to bribe their way out of trouble when discovered. The problem is that the Mexican immigration authorities inspect northbound buses at points throughout Mexico, especially near the Guatemalan and American borders. Even I can usually tell Mexicans and Central Americans apart by overhearing a snippet of conversation, and the Mexican authorities are adept at it. Without even checking for papers, they can usually trip up most people with a couple of questions and demands, such as “How much do you weigh?” (Guatemalans think in pounds, Mexicans in kilograms) or “Recite for me the Grito de Dolores!” (virtually all Mexicans can do so, just as virtually anyone who grew up in the United States could rattle off the Pledge of Allegiance if forced to, whereas most people who grew up elsewhere could not), or through any number of other tricks. People who look indigenous invariably attract more attention. If discovered on buses, the risk of abuse at the hands of the authorities is tremendous.
Next, sometimes Central Americans can get the papers needed to cross Mexico legally. This involves jumping through numerous bureaucratic hoops, all of which are designed to separate travelers from as much money as possible, and all of which are applied in a way that systematically disfavors indigenous people. That said, there are occasions when the Mexican authorities seem to throw up their hands and essentially say “To hell with it, here are your papers, get through here as quickly as possible and you’re the Americans’ problem.” This was happening especially frequently for a period from late 2013 to early 2014, around the time that the American press started reporting on the Central American “unaccompanied minors crisis,” described below.
It’s not impossible for Central Americans to get papers to enter the United States legally, but the process is exceptionally onerous. For context, any American can enter Guatemala free of charge, without a visa. US citizens can stay in the CA-4 for 90 days, and must then leave for two days by crossing the border into Chiapas, Belize, or Costa Rica before returning for another 90 days. This can be repeated forever. There are American ex-pats around Lake Atitlán who have been doing this for decades. While it’s theoretically possible for an American to be turned back by Guatemalan immigration, I’ve only ever heard of this happening to people who got involved in Guatemalan politics, or to people who failed to obey the “90/2” rule. Otherwise, even axe murderers are welcome.
For a Guatemalan to apply for a visa to visit the United States, the fee is $160, paid to the American government. This fee isn’t returned if the visa’s denied, but the Guatemalan is welcome to try (and to pay) again. Applying for the visa means first getting a passport, which costs $160, paid to the Guatemalan government. Without fail, this must be accompanied by a bribe, paid to someone at the passport office. The bribe has to be larger if the Guatemalan is indigenous – probably about $160 more. The visa application must be filled out online, and in English. It’s also timed. It probably goes without saying that most Guatemalans don’t simultaneously have $500 to burn, speedy internet access, and the ability to fill out a form in English. There’s a cottage industry of people who fill out these forms for a hefty fee. Despite all this, every business day at the American embassy in Guatemala City, up to a thousand people wait in line for a hearing with a consular official. The hearing lasts three to five minutes. The most important thing is to demonstrate “binding economic ties” to Guatemala – chiefly, property ownership. If the visa is granted, it doesn’t give the Guatemalan permission to enter the United States. It gives permission to present oneself legally at an American port of entry. The final decision is then made by the Customs and Border Protection agent working the port. This agent can deny the Guatemalan entry without cause, and there is no legal redress if they choose to do so. The process is equally onerous for other Central Americans, somewhat less so for Mexicans. Only a very dense person would miss the point that this system is rigged to filter out poor people.
To wrap this up, Mexicans can travel freely in Mexico without any particular issue other than paying for transportation. That said, many of the poorest Mexicans also ride the trains, on which they are subject to all the same dangers and hardships as Central Americans, aside from the threat of deportation. Most other Mexicans traveling to the United States ride buses to Altar, Reynosa, or one of the other well-known departure points along the border.
Toward the end of 2013, we started getting calls from bus stations in Arizona, asking us to help them assist Central American women and minors who had been dropped off by Border Patrol. These women and children all had basically the same story to tell: they had been apprehended in the desert, detained, processed, given notices to appear in immigration court some months ahead, driven to the bus station, and told to be on their way. This was the “unaccompanied minors crisis.”
This isn’t normal behavior on the part of Border Patrol by a long shot. For years, we’d strongly condemned Border Patrol for their practice of depositing Central Americans directly across the border on the Mexican side. This sort of “third-party” deportation is illegal and, in the case of minors, constitutes child endangerment under American law. More importantly, it exposes people to extreme danger.
As a humanitarian and an opponent of all borders on principle, I’ll say that this sudden change in US Border Patrol policy was a step in the right direction, and undoubtedly saved some lives. Needless to say, though, word got around, and large numbers of Central American minors started heading north, both with and without their mothers.
Meanwhile, in Mexico in early 2014, I saw firsthand that the Mexican authorities on the Guatemalan border were issuing seven-day transmigration forms to Central Americans en masse, including to busloads of single men. This isn’t normal behavior on the part of these authorities, either. When we started meeting many of these people in southern Arizona, it turned out that many of them were indigenous Mam speakers from the provinces of San Marcos and Huehuetenango in Guatemala, which are well known as areas of resource extraction. Then we started hearing different versions of a similar story: the cartels were trying to clear out parts of San Marcos and Huehuetenango along the Chiapas border, in order to use the territory for drug smuggling, human trafficking, and mining. I can’t empirically prove this (and I’m not sure which tail was wagging which dog), but based on a large amount of anecdotal evidence, I feel confident that something fairly scandalous was happening. If this is true, it had to involve a coordination of policy on some level by the American, Mexican, and Guatemalan governments, by the major cartels, and by various mining companies – most likely Canadian. The period ended later in 2014, after the “crisis” briefly became major news and the Border Patrol stopped releasing Central American minors and women with underage children. The Obama administration later deported many of the women and children who entered the country during this time, and the Trump administration will undoubtedly try to deport most of the rest.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of the legalization of street drugs in the United States is that it would take some of the oxygen out of the Mexican drug war. (There are many other good arguments, but that’s not my focus here.) This much is true. However, to understand the likely consequences of legalization, it’s necessary to understand the North American drug market. It’s particularly important to understand the marijuana market, since it’s unlikely that other street drugs will be legalized soon.
Most high-grade marijuana consumed in the United States is grown domestically, especially in northern California. The industry is highly decentralized; there are thousands of independent operations in California and in many other states. Most low-grade marijuana consumed in the United States is grown in Mexico, in parts of Baja California and the Sierra Madre Occidental controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. The industry is highly centralized; there’s only one game in town.
The two industries have traditionally occupied separate market niches. Small- to mid-scale marijuana cultivation is legal, semi-legal, or tolerated in some parts of the United States. However, there is nowhere that it’s possible to grow marijuana on the scale on which it is grown in Mexico. Even after marking up the price to move the product across the border, Sinaloa can still undersell American growers when dealing in bulk. Exporting the product means compacting it, though, which degrades the quality. So traditionally, Sinaloa has dealt with larger quantities of lower quality product, and American growers have dealt with smaller quantities of higher quality product.
This has begun to change. As legalization efforts in the United States have progressed, marijuana prices have dropped across the board. Sinaloa is still hanging on to its market share, but if it becomes possible to grow marijuana on an industrial scale in the United States, or even on a slightly larger scale than it is now, American growers will be able to cut Sinaloa out of the market. The obvious endgame of this is that a heavily subsidized American agribusiness company, probably a tobacco company, would export marijuana to Mexico, dominating that market as well, as Mexican growers could not hope to compete on such a scale. Wait, where have we heard this before?
It is tempting to say “Good!” and leave it at that. Sinaloa isn’t a benign organization. However, cutting it out of the American marijuana market will have unpleasant consequences. I respect some aspects of the marijuana legalization movement, but single-issue activists are deluding themselves if they think that legalization will only bring positive results. Here’s why…As I described above, the two main camps in the Mexican drug war are organized under different business models, and use different marketing strategies. Sinaloa’s camp controls the major migration and marijuana-smuggling routes along the border. It controls territory where marijuana and poppies are grown, so it can produce its own marijuana and heroin, along with every kind of drug that can be manufactured in a lab. It distributes every kind of drug in existence, both for domestic consumption and for export to the United States. Compared to the Zetas’ camp, it profits more from these activities, and less from extortion, kidnapping, and contract killing.
The Zetas don’t control major migration or marijuana- smuggling routes along the border, and they don’t control territory where marijuana or poppies are grown, so they can’t produce their own marijuana or heroin. They do produce every kind of drug that can be made in a lab, and they distribute every kind of drug in existence, both for domestic consumption and for export to the United States, except for marijuana. The Zetas aren’t major players in the American marijuana market. It would make no sense; they could only buy from their competitors and they could never sell as cheaply. They must import heroin for distribution, usually from Afghanistan. Compared to Sinaloa, they profit more from extortion, kidnapping, and murder-for-hire.
Of all of these activities, the only one that necessitates upholding a social contract is the cultivation of marijuana and poppies: to grow crops, Sinaloa must deal with thecampesinosthat work the fields. Sinaloa demands obedience, and in return it promises to protect and care for its people. In this way, it’s no different from any other government – effectively, it is the government. In the territory that Sinaloa governs, it largely upholds its end of the bargain. Sinaloa has an interest in social stability; the Zetas have an interest in social instability.
For all of these reasons, marijuana legalization affects Sinaloa more than the Zetas. However, the drop in prices isn’t hurting Sinaloa’s bottom line. The organization is has a diverse portfolio and various contingency plans. At the moment, it also has to uphold its end of the social contract. So the drop in marijuana prices has led Sinaloa to shift production to poppies in the Sierra Madre Occidental. This led first to a drop in heroin prices in the United States, then to a spike in demand, and then to a dramatic increase in heroin overdoses nationwide. This is the origin of the heroin ‘epidemic’ that the American press began to report on in 2014. Even if the Mexican marijuana industry collapses completely, it probably won’t cost Sinaloa a cent. It’ll increase heroin production until there’s no more room to grow poppies or until the American market is so saturated that it can absorb no more production. Given the nature of heroin, this might be hard to do. If marijuana collapsed and heroin simultaneously reached saturation, then some part of Sinaloa’s agrarian base would become expendable, and would be abandoned. Sinaloa could then fall back on cocaine and lab drugs, but most likely there would eventually be some breakdown in distribution or logistics. Only after all of this happens would the legalization of marijuana actually begin to cost Sinaloa money. If Sinaloa starts to lose money, that favors the Zetas – not what most marijuana legalization activists are hoping for.
At the moment, marijuana is a special case; an actual end to drug prohibition in the United States is not in the cards. However, social attitudes are changing, and it’s worth speculating about what effects the end of prohibition would have in Mexico.
An end to prohibition would spell trouble for all the cartels. Prices would drop, which would cause a spike in demand, which would call for more supply. Eventually, the market would be glutted to the point that profits would diminish, and the only solution would be to rely on an economy of scale to reduce costs. This has already happened with marijuana. Faced with diminishing profits, the cartels wouldn’t just ride off into the sunset. They’d look for other sources of revenue, such as extortion, kidnapping, and contract killing. Failing all of this, if the cartels did go under, the lower-ranking members would be thrown out of work first. It would move up the food chain and affect the biggest fish last. This would leave large numbers of people with no clear means of subsistence unless it was accompanied by a wider social transformation that enabled them to pursue another way of life.
Most hard drugs are smuggled into the United States in vehicles, through every official port of entry along the entire border. As often as not, this is accomplished with the assistance of corrupt Custom and Border Protection Agents working the ports. All that the agent needs to know is what vehicle to look for so as to wave it through instead of stopping it, and the job is done. Much of the Mexican drug war boils down to conflict over who controls these ports of entry. Marijuana is different. Being cheap, bulky, and fragrant, it’s mostly carried through the desert on foot. This is accomplished by groups of human “burros” who carry fifty-pound bales of compacted marijuana on their backs. The desert consumes these people just as readily as migrants and refugees, but to the mafias that employ them they’re expendable.
There are two basic kinds of marijuana smugglers. The first, mostly from northern Sonora, are those who do it for a living. They might start working when they’re barely teenagers, and some of them know the desert better than any Border Patrol agent, even better than I do. They’re paid about as well as public-school teachers in the United States, which is to say much better than employees in any other line of work available to most young men from northern Sonora. The second kind, mostly from Central America, are those who do it one time. These people are in fact migrants or refugees. Instead of paying the mafia thousands of dollars to get into the United States, they pay for their passage by carrying a bale that might be worth $100,000. Sometimes this risk isn’t freely chosen – it’s not unheard of for travelers (usually Central American) to be kidnapped at the border and press-ganged into service. Those who transport marijuana for a living can often be found in groups with those who are doing it just once. It’s common for a group to consist of six to eight Hondurans, who carry the weight, and one or two Sonorans to lead the way.
When the Border Patrol apprehends a group, one of three things happens. Sometimes they confiscate the marijuana, then detain and prosecute the group for drug smuggling. There are Border Patrol agents who are not in on the game. Besides, it wouldn’t look right if no marijuana ever showed up in court. Other times, they confiscate the marijuana, then detain and deport the group as migrants. In this case, the marijuana never shows up in court. Is the burro going to say anything to the judge? No. And still other times, they confiscate the marijuana and just leave the group in the desert to walk back to Mexico.
Onto whom could these agents be unloading all of this marijuana? There’s only one answer: Sinaloa. Burros and their loads are traded as favors, passed around in complex horse-trading between law enforcement and organized crime. The mafia understands that agents on the take have to keep up appearances, and that a percentage of the product will be lost. Agents on the take understand that the mafia has to move enough product to keep the wheels turning, and that it’s not in anyone’s interest to actually shut the sector down. Everybody wins, except for the kid from Honduras who has to sit in prison when it’s his turn to take the fall. Once, a Sonoran teenager asked me how much Border Patrol agents in the field get paid. I told him that a normal salary was about $70,000. He thought that was hilarious. “They can get more than double that any time they feel like taking one of our loads. They only have to do it once or twice a year and they’re set. We do all the hard work for them.”
More on the Trip
As a physical space, you could visualize the US-Mexico border as a zone demarcated by three lines of control, extending east- to-west from Brownsville-Matamoros to San Diego-Tijuana. The southern line, usually well inside of Mexico, is wherever it becomes necessary to pay someone to pass. There isn’t one inch of the border that isn’t spoken for by somebody. Even crossing without a guide means paying a large fee to whatever combination of mafia and the government patrols the southern side. It isn’t advisable to try to avoid paying this fee.
The central line is the international boundary. The northern line, 25 to 50 miles inside of the United States, is at the interior checkpoints. These are places where Border Patrol stops and inspects all vehicles on all major roads. They profile passengers based on skin color first and English fluency second. Anyone who looks brown is going to have to demonstrate good English. Some people without papers who look brown and speak English well can bluff their way through. However, anyone who looks brown and doesn’t speak English well is going to get asked for papers. Anyone who looks brown, doesn’t speak English well, and doesn’t have papers is going to get taken in.
So, to cross the border, you have to be granted passage through the southern line, cross the boundary line, and then get all the way past the northern line to a place where it’s possible to be driven to safety in a vehicle.
In some cities and towns, the southern line collapses onto the central line at the border wall. This occurs in places where it’s impossible to cross the international boundary. So you don’t have to pay anyone off to get to the city of Nogales, but you can’t cross the wall there, either. If you want to get out into the desert where you can cross the boundary line, somebody has to be paid.
The northern line extends the whole length of the United States. It’s never easy and usually very difficult to get away from the border on the American side without driving through a checkpoint.
There are two main sets of migration routes. The northwestern routes are in Sonora and are controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. These are also the main routes for overland marijuana smuggling. The northeastern routes are in Tamaulipas, and controlled by the Gulf Cartel. The latter is a former rival and current ally of Sinaloa, and appears to be doing business on a similar model. In Sonora, the business of human trafficking and marijuana smuggling is so closely interlinked that it is simplest to discuss it as a single operation. The two main sets of routes share those basic characteristics, but are otherwise completely different. The northwestern routes traverse basin-and-range topography, picturesquely described by Clarence Dutton as “an army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico.” These routes change elevation abruptly as they alternate between rugged mountain ranges and arid basins. It’s usually bone-dry; the winters are quite cold, and in the summer it’s a blazing furnace. The entire space between the southern and northern lines of control is wild and uninhabited desert. Most of the American side is public, tribal, or military land.
The northeastern routes traverse flat, sandy scrublands. It’s usually very humid, and in summer it’s swelteringly hot. The central line of control is the Rio Grande; it passes through the metropolitan areas of the river valley. Huge cattle ranches occupy the space between the central and northern lines. Nearly all of the American side is private land.
There’s no need to describe every migration corridor in the country in detail. People cross everywhere. However, it’s worth spending some time on the places where the most deaths occur: southern Arizona and south Texas.
The most heavily traveled part of Arizona can be broken into three subcategories. The eastern routes, traversing a hodgepodge of public land jurisdictions, are between the Atascosa Mountains and the Baboquivari Mountains. They’re at a slightly higher elevation and are slightly cooler, but they also feature the most rugged and confusing terrain. It’s very easy to get lost. These places are extremely sparsely inhabited; there are far more deer and cows than people. The only place between the boundary line and the northern line of control where anyone lives is the town of Arivaca. This is where our solidarity work has been focused for many years.
The central routes through Arizona, which traverse Tohono O’odham tribal land, pass between the Baboquivari Mountains and the Ajo Mountains. They’re hotter and at a lower elevation than those around Arivaca. There are areas of the reservation that are uninhabited, but there are also many places where people live. For many years, we didn’t work on the reservation. Over the last several years, we’ve been doing occasional search and rescue operations there, under specific circumstances and with permission from the tribal government.
The western routes pass between the Ajo Mountains and the Mohawk Mountains across a mixture of public and military land. They’re lower, hotter, and even more sparsely inhabited than anywhere else. The only place where anyone lives is the town of Ajo. We started working in this area several years ago.
The busiest part of Texas is in Brooks County, between McAllen and Falfurrias.
Let’s look at each of these places in detail.
Arivaca, AZ is an unincorporated community of about 700 people. The population is widely dispersed across many small to medium-sized ranches. There’s one bar, one store, and anywhere from three to six churches depending on the season. Maybe it would be possible to break down the racial demographics between Anglos and Latinos, or the subcultural demographics between cowboys and hippies, but Arivacans have been miscegenating in every way for so long that most of them are something in between. The place is wild. There’s still buckshot in the doorway of the bar, where a man named Lucky accidently blew off his arm with a sawed-off shotgun that he had stuck in his coat.
Arivaca became ground zero for everything related to mi-gration and border militarization in the years after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Border Patrol pushed traffic west out of Nogales and forced it into the remote desert surrounding Arivaca. Thousands of travelers started turning up at Arivacans’ back doors in every imaginable stage of desperation. Before long, Arivaca itself became heavily militarized; caravans of Border Patrol would roll through town at all hours of day and night, loaded for bear and generally treating the place as if it were Iraq. No More Deaths began to work in Arivaca in 2004.
Arivaca briefly made national news in 2009. On May 30th, two white supremacists from the Pacific northwest (Shawna Forde and Jason Bush), an Arivaca man (Albert Gaxiola), and a never-identified fourth party committed double-murder at the Arivaca home of Raul “Junior” Flores, his wife Gina Gonzalez, their 11-year-old daughter Alexandra, and their 9-year-old daughter Brisenia. Forde and Bush had been bouncing around the white supremacist and border vigilante milieu for years. Forde was an affiliate of Chris Simcox, the nationally-known founder and spokesman of a succession of “Minuteman” militia groups. She’d concocted a plan to rob “cartel members” in order to fund a new group, Minutemen American Defense. She enlisted the assistance of Bush, who was associated with the Aryan Brother- hood, and who is suspected of having committed two additional racially motivated murders in the state of Washington in 1997. Gaxiola led them to the Flores home.
Junior Flores, by most accounts I’ve heard around town, was probably involved on some level in the local marijuana business, like a fair number of other people in southern Arizona. He’s generally thought to have run afoul of Gaxiola, who was also involved, because of something related to this. Flores may not have been a completely law-abiding citizen, but most people seem to agree that calling him a “cartel member” was a pretty serious stretch. Nobody thinks that he deserved what happened next. In the news, if not in Arivaca, it was usually mentioned that both Flores and Gonzalez were third-generation citizens of the United States.
Forde, Bush, and Gaxiola woke the Flores family around 5 am, dressed in camouflage, wearing bulletproof vests, and claiming to be Border Patrol. Alexandra was sleeping away from home. When Flores asked them for identification, Bush shot him in the chest and shot Gonzalez in the leg. They ransacked the house but failed to find anything of value. Bush then shot Brisenia in the head. Gonzalez was able to return fire, wounding Bush, and the assailants fled. She survived, and told and retold the story about the people who barged into her house in the middle of the night and murdered her husband and daughter for no reason.
This event sent the border vigilante movement into a tailspin from which it has never recovered, and probably never will. In April 2010, Chris Simcox’s wife was granted a protection order after he allegedly brandished a gun at her and threatened to shoot her and their children. In June 2013, he was arrested on multiple counts related to child molestation and sexual conduct with a minor, involving three girls under the age of 10, one of whom was his daughter. Simcox was convicted of child sexual abuse in June 2016 and is serving a prison sentence of nineteen and a half years. In May 2012, another Arizona border vigilante leader, Jason “JT” Ready, shot and killed his girlfriend, her daughter, her daughter’s fiancée, and her 15-month-old granddaughter before turning the gun on himself. The “Minutemen” have shown themselves for what they are: people looking for opportunities to inflict violence down the social hierarchy, often on children. Albert Gaxiola was sentenced to life in prison plus an additional 72 years. Shawna Forde and Jason Bush are on death row, vainly looking for supporters. Gina Gonzalez, at terrible cost, can go to her grave knowing that she fired the shots that sent this odious milieu to hell. God only knows what would have happened if her aim had been less true.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact of the Flores murders in Arivaca. Everyone knew Gina and Junior; everyone’s kids went to school with Brisenia. I was in Arivaca on the day of the killings and remained there for months afterwards. The mood in the bar was not just sorrowful, but ominous. I thought there would be retribution.
After the murders, solidarity workers like us were the only game left in town. It was clear that there was a crisis; no one could ignore it. The crisis would come to you, in the form of a desperate Honduran woman knocking on your window in the middle of the night. The state had discredited itself completely by bringing on this crisis and then by treating Arivaca like a war zone. The vigilantes had proven themselves to be child-murderers. We’d been there for five years, leaving water bottles in the desert. It was pretty clear whose side to take. As of 2016, there’s a humanitarian aid office across the street from the bar, there have been repeated protests and acts of civil disobedience at the Border Patrol checkpoint outside of town, and there’s often a big sign that says “Militias Go Home” on display when you drive into the tiny Sunday farmers’ market. I doubt that there is any municipality in the entire country where a higher percentage of people have acted concretely in solidarity with migrants and refugees, or where a lower percentage of people will cooperate with Border Patrol if they can avoid it.
Solidarity workers from other places have contributed to this, but we didn’t lead, and people from Arivaca didn’t follow. If anything, the inverse was true. Locals had been helping people for years before we got there. What happened was a two-way street; locals and outsiders influenced each other. At this point, it’s becoming difficult to tell the difference between the two.
Neither the state nor the vigilantes have any hope of regaining the sympathies of this town. You can’t put people under siege and expect them to forget. Nor can you shoot a 9-year-old girl in the face and expect to be forgiven. At this point, when people in Arivaca run into travelers in need of assistance, they’re most likely to deal with it themselves, or to reach out to us for help. They’re not very likely to call Border Patrol. Not in a thousand years will anyone call the vigilantes.
Komkch’ed e Wah ‘osithk (Sells)
The politics of migration on the Tohono O’odham reservation are extremely complex. I am not O’odham, and I don’t speak for any O’odham people. Some O’odham thinkers whose analyses have been useful to me personally include Ofelia Rivas, Alex Soto, and Mike Wilson. I encourage the reader to seek out their commentary, while understanding that O’odham opinions differ widely and sometimes directly clash. This is what I can say from my vantage point.
To reiterate, European colonists stole the land that currently makes up the border between Arizona and Sonora from its original inhabitants by means of genocide. It’s O’odham, Apache, and Yaqui land, occupied by the governments of Mexico and the United States. If anyone has a right to decide who can pass through O’odham territory, it’s O’odham people, not either of those governments. There are many indigenous communities in the United States, and many southern border communities as well, but the Tohono O’odham reservation is one of the only places in the country that’s both. That means that it not only gets the problems of Arivaca, but of Pine Ridge to boot. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s been converted into a militarized police state. O’odham people are subject to rampant harassment and racial profiling on their own land, pulled out of their cars and houses left and right by Border Patrol agents fresh out of Connecticut who can’t tell red from brown and couldn’t tell you the difference between Sells, Arizona and San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The border has sundered O’odham on the south side from their relatives on the north; militarization and migration have led to the desecration of sacred sites and the disruption of ceremonies. In addition, O’odham people face the same problems as many other indigenous people in the United States: poverty, unemployment, erosion of cultural identity, multigenerational trauma, and more.
The federal government has gone out of its way to push traffic onto the Tohono O’odham reservation, out of the sight of white people. Almost every year, more people die there than on any other comparably-sized section of the entire border. The government has offered up the reservation as a sacrifice zone to the border militarization, drug smuggling, and human trafficking industries, in the same way that it’s offered up Black Mesa to the coal industry and Yucca Mountain to the nuclear industry – to name just two of countless examples. In all these cases, it’s found tribal “leaders” willing to play ball. They’ve turned the O’odham jewed(homeland) into a deathtrap.
The O’odham tribal government works closely with Border Patrol, and forbids humanitarian aid on the reservation, taking the position that such aid would encourage more migration through O’odham land. In my opinion, this position is asinine; it’s clearly the actions of the federal government that have pushed the traffic onto O’odham land and ensure that it’ll stay there. I do, however, recognize that the federal government has put the tribal government in an impossible position; they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They can control what the humanitarian aid organizations do, but they can’t control what Border Patrol does. I also recognize that the tribal government is not a monolithic entity; there are dissenting voices within it. More importantly, there’s no shortage of O’odham people acting autonomously of the tribal government. O’odham people have been at the forefront of many of the more interesting things happening in Arizona in recent years – from the May 2010 occupation of the Border Patrol headquarters in Tucson to the December 2011 actions to disrupt the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference in Scottsdale, the ongoing campaign against the 202 Loop outside of Phoenix, and many other examples. I’ve heard countless stories of O’odham people acting in solidarity with travelers passing through their land.
As usual, there’s no easy solution and no simple reform that will end the suffering on the reservation. I think it’s fair to say that most O’odham people are well aware of the terrible irony that thousands of people, including a great number of indigenous people, are dying on their homeland. I seriously doubt that many O’odham are happy about this.
In my opinion, it would be a step in the right direction if the tribal government would allow humanitarian aid organizations to operate on the reservation. But if that were the only thing to change, if the federal government were allowed to continue to use the reservation as a sacrifice zone, then yes, it’s possible that this would only lead to more traffic on O’odham land. The needs of undocumented people can’t be untangled from the needs of indigenous people.
This place is grim. Rocky, barren, devoid of shade, and fearsomely, ferociously hot. Some of this territory was the site of the incident of May 2001 described in The Devil’s Highwayby Luís Alberto Urrea, when 14 people died here trying to cross near the Growler Mountains. Despite the fact that the author credulously accepts a lot of Border Patrol public relations talking points at face value, that book did draw a lot of attention to the deaths on the border.
Land jurisdiction on these routes is divided between Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Reserve, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. Public access to Cabeza Prieta and especially the Barry Goldwater range is strictly controlled. Outside of the town of Ajo, absolutely no one lives on these routes. Many routes miss Ajo entirely. Tourists do frequent Organ Pipe. Very few civilians ever set foot on Cabeza Prieta, and fewer still on the Barry Goldwater.
When we began to work in this area, we noticed something suspicious: every year lots of human remains are discovered in Organ Pipe, but almost none in Cabeza Prieta or on the Barry Goldwater. This doesn’t mean people aren’t dying there – it just means nobody ever goes there to look for them. When we started going into Cabeza Prieta and onto the Barry Goldwater, we started finding remains immediately.
In addition to all the challenges I’ve already described, people who cross the Barry Goldwater have to contend with the fact that it’s an active bombing range full of unexploded ordinance. It’s possible to be blown up from above or from below. Nobody has any idea how frequently this happens. There are areas where even Border Patrol can’t go. Picture this: there’s a place inside the bombing range that’s a facsimile of a town that the Air Force has built to practice bombing. They build and destroy it perpetually. Unless people know better, they head toward this place, thinking that surely they must be in sight of something, maybe even Gila Bend. What they find is that they’ve wandered into the set of a movie about Stalingrad, featuring real bombs and no direction from above. This is probably the worst place on the entire border.
Brooks County, in rural southern Texas, is listed as the poorest county in the state and regularly makes the list of poorest counties in the entire country. It has recently seen an explosion of migrant deaths, especially of Central Americans. As in Arizona, large numbers of people are dying while trying to circumvent the Falfurrias checkpoint on Highway 281. Since 2012, there have been some months when more remains have been discovered in Brooks County than on any part of the Tohono O’odham reservation of comparable size. This was previously unheard of. I’m less conversant with the situation in Tamaulipas and Texas than I am with Sonora and Arizona, but I am fairly sure that I can pinpoint three basic reasons why this happened. The first is because of border militarization in Arizona. This is usually the first factor mentioned in the American press. I believe this has had a role, but not as much as is often portrayed. In my experience, militarization in Arizona mostly serves to move traffic around Arizona itself – from one trail to another, from Arivaca to the reservation, from the reservation to Ajo, and so on. However, it is true that it’s more difficult to cross there now than it was in the late 2000s. I don’t doubt that some people have decided to take their chances with Texas instead.
The second reason that’s usually mentioned is the Border Patrol’s policy change, in effect from late 2013 until some time in 2014. As I mentioned earlier, during this time, they weren’t immediately deporting unaccompanied Central American minors or Central American mothers with underage children, and word got around. This doesn’t explain everything though. After all, the Border Patrol never stopped deporting Central American men, or women without children, and these demographics have been well represented in south Texas as well. Many if not most of the unaccompanied minors and women with underage children who crossed into south Texas during this time didn’t try to circumvent the checkpoint; they crossed the international boundary and then sought out Border Patrol to turn themselves in. This is a very different thing, and much less dangerous.
The third reason, rarely mentioned in the American press, is cartel politics on the Mexican side. The onset of the Brooks County deaths generally coincided with a series of setbacks to the Zetas. Several influential Zetas leaders were killed or captured around this time (October 2012 to October 2013), and the Gulf Cartel won back control of Reynosa, where they’d been battling with the Zetas for several years. Lo and behold, shortly afterwards, large numbers of Central Americans started turning up in Brooks County. It appears to me that the Gulf Cartel put out the word in Central America: “OK, the adults are back in charge. You can come this way again. Call Roberto.” It appears to me that there was a period after the San Fernando massacres where the human trafficking business in Tamaulipas all but broke down. Now it’s business as usual, which means that people are going to die. This has created a perfect storm in south Texas.
South Texas is clearly calling out for solidarity efforts. A lot of people are dying. It would be great if a campaign in solidarity with migrants and refugees took place there on a scale comparable to the one in Arizona. However, this has proven difficult. What happened in Arizona was an organic outgrowth of a particular set of conditions. It can’t just be exported to Texas. For starters, there are two fundamental differences between south Texas and southern Arizona. First, a lot of the land on which people are dying in Arizona is public, so we can operate on it freely. Practically all the land on which people are dying in south Texas is private. So operating on it means getting the consent if not the participation of the owners and workers on large cattle ranches. This is possible, but it takes work.
The second difference is that, while southern Arizona is extremely mountainous, south Texas is completely flat. Mountains create trails, which make for lots of good places to drop supplies. In flat places, there’s nothing to force people to walk one place instead of another. The best that can be done is to haul fifty-gallon drums of water to various places, put blue flags on them, and hope people see them. Again, this isn’t impossible, but it necessitates the participation and consent of private landowners.
The last complicating factor is that radicals didn’t get on the ground first in Texas, like they did in Arizona. Lacking other options to respond to the large number of deaths, Brooks County ranchers began organizing their own patrols to look for people. They’d patrol each other’s ranches, look for people in distress, and call the Border Patrol when they found them. It appears to me to that this was mostly an organic response to the crisis, later influenced somewhat by reactionary activists of the national border vigilante milieu. As mentioned before, this milieu has been completely discredited in Arizona. Honestly, the civilian patrols were probably better than nothing. They almost certainly saved lives. However, collaborating with the Border Patrol in this way is something that we adamantly don’t do in Arizona. We never help them apprehend people, and we never turn anybody in unless they ask us to. Maintaining an adversarial relationship with Border Patrol has helped us curb migrant deaths. Being clear about our politics has allowed us to seek support in the right places, and has given us credibility where we need it. On a practical level, it means that people who need help don’t have to hide from us. The Border Patrol is the problem; it can’t be part of the solution. Not even if individual agents or sector chiefs try, which occasionally they do. All of that said, there are a variety of groups and individuals doing effective work in Brooks County, notably the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias. If the reader wants to get involved or initiate a new project, I encourage you to contact somebody there or in Corpus Christi.
Two ranchers lived near us: El Pelón and Crazy Mark. Both Vietnam veterans, they were a study in contrasts. El Pelón was as bald as a cue ball, and wore a magnificent Ho Chi Minh mustache – “a worthy adversary,” he told me, describing the Vietnamese communist leader. He’d seen heavy combat in the Marine Corps, and had repeatedly been exposed to Agent Orange. He’d moved to the desert after the war, and had been helping migrants in distress since long before No More Deaths or any other humanitarian aid organization arrived. He gave food and water to thousands of people over the years. He liked us. I used to feed his donkeys. Crazy Mark hated us with a passion. He’d destroy our water bottles whenever he could find them, and occasionally he’d let off a couple of shots in the general direction of our camp. He made it clear to me on more than one occasion that he’d be just as happy to put a hot one through my head. He’d go around all the time in full camouflage and reflective sunglasses. He was really damaged and dangerous.
The two ranchers were close friends. El Pelón would frequently invite us over for dinner, to use his shower, or to get ice. Sometimes Crazy Mark would be there. One time he began to threaten me and one of my colleagues in lurid detail. El Pelón interrupted him. “These people are my guests, Mark. They’re under my protection.”
El Pelón’s health declined precipitously. We were spending a lot of time with him. He had flashbacks and all types of nerve damage. He never slept. He wouldn’t eat or drink anything except coffee, and he’d stay up all night watching war movies, chain-smoking, and ashing on the floor. He was taking enough morphine and Oxycontin to drop a horse. We started sleeping up at his house as often as not. One night there was a ferocious storm brewing. It was clear that it was going to rain harder than hell. It was cold. A group of seven migrants came knocking on the door. “I’m sorry señor,” one of them said to El Pelón. “It’s going to rain. Is there anywhere we can spend the night?”
“Yeah,” El Pelón told him. “Get in the barn. It’s warm and dry. There’s plenty of straw.” We went to sleep. It poured all night, with wind and thunder and lightning.
First thing in the morning we went out to look for anybody that had gotten caught in the storm. We didn’t find anyone, and we went back to the house around noon, to check on the migrants. Another volunteer was in the driveway. “El Pelón is dead,” he told me. “He’s in there in his bed. His dogs are freaking out. I did CPR and everything, but it’s no use. I called 911 almost an hour ago. They should be out here any time.” As soon as he said this we saw an ambulance and a police car in the distance, bumping up the long and rocky road toward the house. My stomach dropped. First, there were still seven migrants in the barn. Second, I was acutely aware of the fact that El Pelón’s house was bursting at the seams with every kind of firearm imaginable, from ancient blunderbusses to 50-caliber machine guns and everything in between. There were a lot of ways that this could end badly. All of a sudden Crazy Mark came roaring up next to us on his four wheeler, seemingly out of nowhere. He wasn’t wearing his sunglasses. “Where is El Pelón?!” He sounded hoarse.
I dropped my head. “El Pelón is dead, Mark. I’m sorry.”
We looked at each other. I drew a circle in the dirt with my foot. “This is me.” I drew another circle, that touched the first one at only one point. “This is you.” I twisted my foot on the point where the circles met. “This is El Pelón. Even if you and I don’t have a single other thing in common we both loved him.” My colleague ran to the barn, to tell the migrants to stay hidden in the straw. Mark left.
The paramedics drove off with El Pelón’s body. The sheriff and the coroner followed them. The migrants left. Mark came back. “We have to deal with the guns,” he told me. He disassembled each weapon methodically, one by one. “This one is OK. This one is OK. This one is a problem.” The next day a lawyer came out to the house. All of the guns were disposed of legally.
The next time I saw Mark was at the memorial service, in front of the house. He had his sunglasses on. At the end of the service he did the three-volley salute with a pistol, for El Pelón. Ready. Aim. Fire. Boom. Aim. Fire. Boom. Aim. Fire. Boom. He didn’t speak a word to me.
The war in Vietnam ended before I was born, but it killed my friend El Pelón just the same. The last thing he ever did was shelter seven people in his barn.
Mark stopped slashing our bottles. I never saw him again.
How it all works and who it serves
People arrive in Altar (or Matamoros, Reynosa, Agua Prieta, Nogales, Caborca, Sonoyta, Mexicali…) and the mafias divide them up into groups. Groups of seven to fifteen people are pretty common. There are often two guides. Sometimes, as I said, the mafia will send the migrants and the marijuana down the same routes. There are advantages to this: it allows them to use groups as diversions. Migrants might be a diversion for marijuana, or a smaller group might be a diversion for a larger one. The mafia has a million tricks. They’ll hand Border Patrol a group today for a favor tomorrow.
There are also times when they keep the groups separate, marijuana being sent along more rugged routes. This is the best-case scenario. However the traffic is organized, someone has to keep an eye on the big picture. There might be nine different groups heading out from Altar on any given day, with various others at different stages in the field. Somebody has to make sure all these people aren’t tripping over each other, or that if they are it’s for some purpose.
What happens next could be portrayed by a simple flow chart. Once a person sets out, there are three possible outcomes: arrival, deportation, or death. In the event of arrival, the person still remains at risk of being deported. In the event of deportation, the person may choose to try again. The cycle continues. Every story is different, but nearly all share similar themes.
The group starts walking well inside Mexico. They reach the area of the boundary line. Border Patrol focuses enforcement here, so this is a risky time. If nothing goes wrong, the group crosses and continues north. Some days later, if nothing goes wrong, they reach the northern line of control – another risky time, as Border Patrol focuses enforcement here as well. If nothing goes wrong, they meet their ride, and are driven to a house or ranch somewhere, where they’re either held for ransom or transported onward to their destination.
As often as not, something does go wrong in the desert. The traveler is detained by Border Patrol or loses the guide. If travelers are detained, they’re deported, or imprisoned and then deported. If they’re separated from the guide, it’s usually for one of two reasons. The first is that the guide abandons them because they’re unable to keep up; they are sick, hurt, or out of shape. The second is that the guide loses them, usually because Border Patrol scattered the group. If they lose their guide, they’re lost in the endless desert. They either find someone or die. If they find a sympathetic person, they may still make it. If they find Border Patrol, they’ll be detained.
Over the last few years, we’ve finally started to see travelers carrying cell phones with American service; these can be found on sale for ten times their normal price in Altar and other origin points along the border. This means that when people end up in danger, they can call 911 like anybody else, provided that service is available, which varies greatly depending on the sector. Often it isn’t, a state of affairs that’s no coincidence. Where there is service, there is still the small matter that not all emergencies are created equal. These calls are profiled based on language and on what cell tower they bounce off of. If dispatch suspects that the caller is crossing the border, the call is routed to a special Border Patrol line, which nobody picks up. This is completely illegal under American law, but it happens every day. On some occasions, travelers in distress have called 911, been told that there isn’t enough information to initiate a search, then called their families, who then called their consulates, who then called us. We then went and found the caller standing at some known point, exactly where they said they were. There are actually only a finite number of places with “two cattle tanks, one empty and one full, next to three windmills, southeast of a mountain that looks like an elephant and southwest of one that looks like a camel,” and so on. This has happened more than once, despite the fact that the government is capable of using geo-location to triangulate cell phones and we’re not – along with other obvious differences in the scale of resources available to our network and that of the state.
The suffering that takes place every day on the border isn’t an accident, a mistake, or the result of a misunderstanding. It’s the predictable and intentional result of policies implemented at every level of government on both sides of the border. These policies have rational objectives and directly benefit identifiable sectors of the population of both countries. I am constantly meeting migrants whose groups have been split up by helicopters. The Border Patrol flew over them a few feet off the ground, everybody ran in different directions, and soon thirty people were wandering lost across the desert in groups of two or three. The Border Patrol often made no effort to apprehend these groups after breaking them up – they just flew away. One time a man walked into our camp carrying an almost empty gallon jug of water with our markings on it in one hand, and a white shirt tied to a long stick in the other. “This water saved my life!” he told me. “I think the Border Patrol leaves it on the trails for people!”
“No, man,” I said, “Border Patrol couldn’t give a shit if people live or die. We left that water.”
“Those bastards,” he said. “I’ve been waving this flag at their helicopters for three days. They just fly on. When you want them they’re nowhere to be seen, and when you don’t – there they are.”
Over the years, No More Deaths has developed a pretty comprehensive understanding of the area we cover, which at times has been one of the most heavily traveled sections of the entire border. We’ve formed a fairly clear picture of where traffic starts, where it goes, how it gets there, where it’s busy and where it’s slow at any given time, where the pinch points are, and so on. I honestly believe that if I worked for the Border Patrol, I could point at a map and tell them how to shut down the whole sector. Our work has been done by untrained civilian volunteers, armed with low-end GPS units, a few old trucks, run-of-the-mill mapping software, cheap cell phones with spotty service, and a limited budget. Does it seem logical that we could figure this stuff out while the US government can’t, despite access to helicopters, unmanned drones, electronic sensors, fleets of well-maintained trucks, night vision systems, state-of-the-art communications, surveillance, and mapping technology, tens of thousands of paid employees, and a limitless supply of money?
The task of the Border Patrol and the actual objective of the policies it’s there to enforce isn’t to stop illegal immigration. It’s to manage and control it. To what end? To whose benefit? Settle in, because it’s complicated.
First of all, it’s as plain as day that the American economy is dependent in no small part on the exploitation of undocumented labor. You know it’s true, I know it’s true, the Guatemalans installing the air conditioning at the Trump International Hotel know it’s true, but it is considered extremely taboo to mention this fact in public. Excuse me, but anyone with a modicum of common sense should be able to see that if the government actually builds a 2,000-mile-long border wall and rounds up and deports every one of the nearly 12 million undocumented people in the country, there will be massive and immediate disruption in the agriculture and animal exploitation industries, not to mention everything related to construction – quite possibly leading to a serious breakdown in the national food distribution network and conceivably even famine. I’m not exaggerating.
The people who write border policies aren’t fools. They understand this perfectly, even if most of the people who voted Donald Trump into office don’t. Regardless of what any politician says, I seriously doubt that anyone is going to put a stop to illegal immigration as long as undocumented labor is needed to maintain the stability of the economic system. So, the goal is to make entering the country without papers extremely dangerous, traumatizing, and expensive, but possible, and to make the threat of deportation serious. This provides American employers with a disposable pool of labor that’s vulnerable and therefore easy to exploit, and this in turn drives down wages for workers with American citizenship, which is why the old saw about the “illegals coming to our country and taking our jobs” is so convincing. Like many good lies, it’s powerful because it omits the most important part of the truth. Border and immigration enforcement drives down wages across the board – that’s the point of it. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America also serve as the stand-in bogeyman of American politics, always there if nothing scarier is at hand. The Democratic strategy is nuanced. First, they blame Republicans for the lack of progress on immigration issues, hoping to maintain the support of voters from immigrant communities. Second, hoping to appease anti-immigrant voters, they don’t push pro-immigrant measures unless they experience severe pressure from their base to do so. Third, they ramp up the rate of deportations. Every single year, the Obama administration deported more people than any previous administration ever did in one year – something like 400,000 annually. The Democrats can use those numbers to tout their law- and-order credentials when they need to court conservative voters. Conversely, they can produce other numbers to make themselves look compassionate when it’s more expedient to pander to liberals. The strategy worked out nicely, except for the hundreds of thousands of families torn apart and the thousands of people whose bones are strewn across the desert. The Republican strategy is more straightforward: they appeal directly to fear and racism. In the long run, I don’t believe this is a winning strategy. Most likely, it will come back to haunt them, in 2020 if not sooner.
Here’s one last clue to understanding the real purpose of the border: much of the legislation that becomes government policy is written by the corporations that stand to profit from it. Arizona’s State Bill 1070, which was intended to require police to lock up anyone they stop who can’t show proof of having entered the country legally, was drafted in December 2009 at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington D.C. by officials of the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, now CoreCivic), the largest private prison company in the country. This took place at a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a membership organization of state legislators and powerful corporations. The law, which was partially overturned but provided the model for copycat legislation that passed in other states, was designed to send hundreds of thousands of immigrants to prison, which means hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for the companies such as CCA that are responsible for housing them. It’s not in this industry’s interest to stop illegal immigration; it’s in their interest to let in enough people to fill their jails.
So who benefits from the death in the desert? In a broad sense, the entire ruling class does. But that’s not the whole story, not by any means. To tell that story, we have to back up a bit.
To recap, the passage of NAFTA in 1994 decimated the Mexican agricultural sector and set off a tsunami of migration to the United States. Within the year, the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper, a program that massively increased funding for Border Patrol operations in the San Diego sector of the border in California. The federal government greatly stepped up enforcement in this sector and built a fourteen-mile wall between San Diego and Tijuana. Operation Gatekeeper marked the beginning of a two-decade-running process of ever-increasing border militarization that continued steadily throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, and will undoubtedly continue to do so during the Trump administration. Every year, there have been more Border Patrol agents, National Guardsmen, helicopters, fences, towers, checkpoints, sensors, guns, and dogs along the border.
It used to be much easier to cross the border than it is now. Most people crossed into relatively safer urbanized areas such as San Diego, El Paso, or the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Starting with Operation Gatekeeper, the Border Patrol made it much more difficult to enter the country in these places; over the years, it has methodically pushed traffic into the increasingly remote mountains and deserts beyond, contributing to the death toll. At this point, I think, the game is reaching an endpoint. The government has pushed the traffic into the very deepest and deadliest pockets of the border, where they want it. This doesn’t mean the situation’s completely static – the Border Patrol will clamp down on some of these pockets sometimes and ease up on others, but on the large scale, it’s been more or less stable for years. It remains to be seen if the new administration will fundamentally change this.
These changes have produced several interesting side effects. As I said, in decades past, many people used to come to the US to work for a season, then return home until the next year. That’s much less common now that getting into the country’s such an ordeal. People come and generally stay as long as they can. Also, most people who crossed used to be men with families south of the border. There are many more women and children crossing now that it’s no longer feasible for most men to work in the north without leaving their families behind for good. Finally, with the increase in internal deportations, there are many more people crossing now who’ve lived here for long periods of time and are returning to their homes in the United States.
As I hope I’ve made clear, a policy of pushing migrant traffic into extremely dangerous areas doesn’t imply an intention to stop or even deter people from entering the country illegally. This complex and perverse strategy allows politicians to look tough for the cameras while still providing the American economy with the farmworkers and meatpackers it depends on. It also provides ample opportunities to swing huge government contracts to giant corporations – for example, to Wackenhut and G4S to transport migrants, to Corrections Corporation of America to detain them, and to Boeing to build surveillance infrastructure. It justifies the hefty salaries of the 20,000 people who work for the Border Patrol. And it has other beneficiaries, whom I’ll speak of shortly. On the whole, border militarization is best understood as a massive government pork and corporate welfare project probably only surpassed in the last twenty years by the war in Iraq.
Just as it used to be easier to cross the border, it also used to be a lot cheaper. Now there’s as much money to be made moving people as there is moving drugs. Recognizing an excellent business opportunity, the cartels that already controlled the drug trade have muscled out the competition, and taken over the game. This transformed what had been a relatively low-key affair into a lucrative, highly centralized, and increasingly brutal industry with tens of billions of dollars at stake.
Unsurprisingly, the rise of the cartels to a position of absolute dominance within a booming industry led to a mass-based approach and an extraordinarily inhumane methodology. I’ve heard the organizations referred to as polleronetworks, which means something like “meat herders,” since pollo’s the word for a dead chicken rather than a live one. This should offer some indication of the degree of care that these organizations tend to invest in each individual human life throughout the process of bringing people into the United States. I’ve seen groups of as many as fifty people, and heard about groups as large as a hundred, being driven quite literally like cattle across the desert, with the sick and wounded straggling behind and trying desperately to keep up. I’ve met people who were told that what’s always at best an extremely demanding four- to five-day journey would take as little as twelve hours on foot, and countless more who were left behind to die by their guides when they were no longer able to keep up.
As a result of border militarization, prices have risen to the point that it can cost over $10,000 for Central Americans to be brought into the United States through the networks. Fees for Mexicans vary widely, but they’re far from cheap. You won’t be surprised to hear that many people who wish to migrate don’t have $10,000 lying around. The cartels have developed a variety of inventive solutions to this problem, often involving kidnapping and indentured servitude. I’ve met people who spent years working in the United States simply to pay off their initial fee, some while held in conditions of bond labor. I’ve met others who made it through the desert and were immediately held for ransom by the same groups that brought them in. The ones who were able to raise a few thousand dollars more were allowed to go. The ones who weren’t were beaten for days, then driven back out to be left in the desert, where Border Patrol agents who clearly had some sort of working arrangement with the kidnappers picked them up for deportation within minutes.
Rape and sexual assault of female migrants is absolutely endemic at every step of the process, as it is to varying degrees for transgender migrants and younger or smaller men. This has been greatly exacerbated by the policies of the US government: by pushing the traffic out into the middle of nowhere, they have basically guaranteed that in order to enter the country women and children have to place themselves in situations in which rape and sexual assault are extremely likely.
In addition, the trails are frequented by groups of armed bandits who make their living targeting migrants. I believe some of the bandits are employed by the cartels themselves, who are simply robbing their own clients, while others are freelancers taking advantage of an easy opportunity to prey on defenseless people who are often carrying their life savings in their pockets. Again, it is primarily because the US government has pushed the traffic to the ends of the earth that these fuckers have been blessed with such favorable circumstances in which to ply their trade.
To be fair, I’ve also heard stories of low-level cartel members acting decently and compassionately, even heroically. It’s worth pointing out that the guias(guides), the people who actually walk the groups through the desert to the other side of the checkpoints, are at the bottom of the pecking order within the networks, their lives considered nearly as expendable as those of the migrants. They’re supposed to bring large groups of people through harsh terrain where there’s no potable water, usually in the dark or in brutal heat, while being hunted by military personnel with guns and helicopters. Their bosses are probably not the kind of people you want to run afoul of. It’s hardly surprising that guides are often unwilling to risk losing their whole group because one or two people can’t keep up. The whole situation is guaranteed to bring out the worst in someone. This isn’t to make excuses for them, or to absolve relatively powerless people of personal responsibility when they do indefensible things. It’s just to say that most of the guilt has to be assigned to the powerful people whose actions have created this nightmare and who profit most directly from it.
In this regard, let me to say a bit more about the relationship between the governments and the cartels. Basically it’s this: they need each other. They’re animated by the same logic and they share similar interests. In the United States, the cartels need the government, while the government makes great use of the cartels. The cartels rely on the US government to keep the prices of their goods and services artificially high, while the government uses the cartels to justify funneling billions of dollars to the transnational corporations whose interests they represent. On the Mexican side, as I’ve already argued, it isn’t realistic to talk about the government and the cartels as if they’re separate entities. There, the government and the various cartels are fighting for control of the multi-billion dollar American drug and migration market. Analysts sometimes use the term “Colombianization” to point out that the state of affairs in Mexico is starting to look a lot like that in Colombia. Perhaps the most striking similarity is in the increasingly sophisticated collusion between elements of the government and the cartels with which they’re nominally at war. On a local and state level, it’s common for all the cartels to buy off police, mayors, judges, and other government officials. On the national level, strong evidence suggests that the Mexican Army and federal government are favoring the Sinaloa Cartel, the largest and richest in the nation, in hopes that it will eventually defeat its rivals and work out a stable agreement with the government such as the one in Colombia. There’s a great deal of cartel infiltration of the Mexican security forces. This is common on the American side as well, but it’s less widespread.
The unholy trinity of government, corporations, and organized crime – three ways of saying the same thing – is a formidable opponent to anyone who hopes to see the death in the desert end any time soon.
The Border Patrol
There is no government job that can be attained without a high school diploma that pays more than that of a Border Patrol agent: about $45,000 in the first year, $55,000 the next two, and $70,000 and up after that. I don’t know how to convey the extent of the abuse I’ve heard migrants report at the hands of these agents. I’ve heard of agents beating, sexually abusing, and shooting people, as well as throwing them into cactus, stealing their money, denying detainees food and water, deporting unaccompanied minors, and driving around wildly with migrants chained in the back of trucks that look like animal control vehicles – not to mention robbing smugglers and otherwise demonstrating extensive involvement in drug trafficking.
The Border Patrol is a lucrative business in and of itself, and part of that business entails exaggerating the danger of the job in order to milk taxpayers for more money. Since inception of the institution in 1904, 122 Border Patrol agents have died in action, 40 of whom were victims of homicide. In 2015, out of some 20,000 agents, not one lost his or her life in the line of duty. It’s impossible to know how many migrants die crossing the border every year, but somewhere between the middle hundreds and the low thousands is a good bet. If you crunch the numbers, you’ll find that Border Patrol agents are also much safer than roofers, sanitation workers, truck drivers, sex workers, and any number of other people.
The other thing that any self-respecting Border Patrol agent will tell you is that they’re protecting us from terrorists. This begs the question of who “us” is. More human beings have lost their lives in the desert as a direct result of Border Patrol activity than in every ISIS and Al-Qaeda attack on American soil combined. The more important point is that as long as there is such outrageous global inequality, Americans are never really going to be safe.
Many Border Patrol agents come from working class back- grounds; many are Latino. To be fair, I acknowledge that I have met some who treated migrants with respect. I also allow that in fact they do find people in distress sometimes, that some of those people would surely have died otherwise, and that some agents can be nice enough. The fact of the matter, though, is that it is rank-and-file Border Patrol agents who enforce the policies that cause all of the problems I’m describing. No matter what they do individually, they’ll never be a part of the solution as long as they wear a uniform, carry a gun, and obey orders. They could put the cartels out of business and end the death in the desert tomorrow simply by going home.
I’ve heard too many apologies for the Border Patrol – they’re not the enemy, they’re subject to the same economic forces as the migrants, etc. I don’t buy it. History is replete with examples of people who were willing to sell out their own people to save themselves. There were Black slave drivers on the plantations, Jewish police in the ghetto, Native scouts leading the army after Crazy Horse, and now there are Latino Border Patrol agents in the desert. When people become willing accomplices in atrocities, I don’t think they deserve much sympathy.
Recently, a friend of mine found the body of a woman who died of some combination of dehydration, sickness, exposure, and exhaustion within a quarter of a mile of one of our largest supply drops – a place that I’ve personally serviced several hundred times. She’d passed through an area where for months, a few particularly hostile Border Patrol agents consistently slashed our water bottles, popped the tops off cans of beans so they’d go rancid, and removed the blankets that we leave on the trails. As a result of these activities, we’ve had to move these drops around constantly, and stop dropping at what would otherwise be excellent locations because the supplies will almost surely be vandalized. I believe that it’s likely that before this woman died, she either passed a drop that had been vandalized or a place where there would have been a drop if it weren’t for the actions of these agents. I believe that it’s very likely that had she found our supplies, she would have survived long enough for us to find her. As far as I am concerned, the people doing this are murderers, and her blood is on their hands.
In 2012, we caught Border Patrol red-handed destroying resources we put out for migrants in distress. At our wits’ end at their constant vandalism, we began to hide cameras in places where we knew they’d destroy supplies. Within a matter of days, we had a video of a smiling blonde Border Patrol agent kicking down a line of water bottles in the middle of the summer, and of another using a racial epithet. The epithet was “tonk,” a word used by Border Patrol agents to refer to migrants; the word is derived from the sound a flashlight makes when you hit someone over the head with it. The footage debuted on the PBS program “Need To Know” and circulated widely on the internet. The government looked bad. It didn’t go well with the administration’s efforts to pander to the Latino vote leading up to the 2012 presidential elections, and somebody up the food chain told agents in the field to knock it off. This simple action cost us $75, and led to a marked decrease in vandalism in the Arivaca sector that lasted until after the elections.
I love the desert, and it breaks my heart that it’s played host to such terrible suffering. It gives me some solace to know that someday – even if it’s only because there are no more human beings left on the planet – there will be no more United States, no more Mexico, no more helicopters, no more walls, and no border. The memory of these things will fade, and the land will finally have a chance to heal. under the blue sky and the merciless sun.
We were walking up a small canyon one day, and one of my companions was calling out, “COMPAÑERAS! COMPAÑEROS! NO TENGAN MIEDO! TENEMOS AGUA, COMIDA, Y MEDICAMENTOS! SOMOS AMIGOS! NO SOMOS LA MIGRA! ESTAMOS AQUÍ PARA AYUDARLES!” The great majority of the time, no one is there to hear these call outs. We turned a corner in the canyon, and there were about 35 people: men, women, children, and teenagers, dressed in blacks, browns, and desert tans, dead silent, and taking up a very small amount of space. “Holy shit! Uh, did you hear us coming?”
“Yes, we heard you coming.” It was very hot. We gave them water, food, socks, and treated blisters and sprained ankles. They were all from Guatemala. They said they’d been together every step of the way. As we prepared to part, one of them handed us a large sack of money – pesos, quetzales, and dollars.
“Um, no, you don’t understand, you don’t have to give us any money.”
“No, it’s you who does not understand,” he said. “We found this money at a shrine in the desert. We decided that it wasn’t doing anybody any good there, so we took it. If the migracatch us they’ll take it from us, and it won’t do anybody good. We want you to take this money, and use it to help other migrants.” We carried out their wishes.
The border doesn’t end at the border, and the hardships that undocumented people face don’t stop there either. The border cuts through every city and state; it cuts through many of our own bodies. The line in the sand is neither the first nor the last twist of the meat grinder that global capitalism has prepared for people without papers.
After crossing the border, undocumented people enter a world in which they can’t legally earn money. They have compelling reasons not to call an ambulance, go to the hospital, obtain health or automobile insurance, drive a vehicle, open a bank account, use a credit card, apply for a mortgage, sign a lease, or rely on any number of other options that people with citizenship can fall back on.
Still, for millions of people worldwide, illegal immigration is a legitimate form of resistance to the iniquities of global capitalism. It is the most effective action that many people can take to change the conditions in which they live. It may be indirect resistance, but it gets the goods in two ways. First, it’s effective economically. Remittances from immigrant workers in the United States, many of them undocumented, to their families in Mexico totaled more than $24.8 billion in 2015 alone, plus $6.25 billion from Guatemalans, $4.28 billion from Salvadorans, and $3.4 billion from Hondurans. If you add up all the remittances from immigrant workers in the entire global north to all of their families in the entire global south, the total starts to look pretty significant. It’s filtered through a fine screen of work and exploitation; but all the same, this money represents one of the largest redistributions of wealth from the rich to the poor in the course of human history.
Second, it’s effective demographically. South-to-north immigration, much of it illegal, is bringing about real demographic shifts in parts of the global north, particularly in the United States. This shift may eventually lead to meaningful changes within this country, which could contribute to a somewhat more equitable restructuring of the global economic system, which would mitigate the tremendous disparity in wealth between the global north and south, which is what drives the migration in the first place. It’s certainly not a given that this hope will pan out. Generations of immigrants have moved from the margins into the mainstream of American society without radically changing its character. Nonetheless, this pathway has generally been reserved for immigrants of European ancestry. It hasn’t yet been proven that this country can assimilate or segregate the current influx of non-European immigrants without eventually undermining the foundation of white supremacy upon which it’s been built.
One day we got a call from our neighbors. A man had crawled up to their door who could barely stand or talk. He hadn’t eaten or drunk water for three days, and he hadn’t urinated for a day and a half. It had been deadly hot. We tried to give him fluids, but he’d vomit immediately every time. “You need an IV,” I told him, “and we don’t have one here. You may have kidney damage. We can’t treat that. You need to go to the hospital. They’ll deport you after they treat you, but if you don’t I’m really afraid that you might die.”
“No,” he said. “Don’t call them.”
“But – ”
“No.” We laid him down. After several hours, he managed to keep down a tiny amount of water. We nursed him through the night as best we could, giving him water every hour or so. By morning, he was able to hold it down without vomiting, and he finally urinated a little bit. He could barely sit up, but he was able to talk again.
“I’ve never seen anyone so sick refuse to go to the hospital,” I said. “What happened to you?”
“I’ve lived in the States for 18 years,” he told us. “I’ve never been in any trouble. I’ve never even gotten a parking ticket. My wife and I finally paid off our house. All my children are here. So are my grandchildren. For work, I take care of elderly people. Six months ago, I had an accident and I broke my back. I was in bed for nearly four months. After I was working again, I got pulled over. The policeman said I didn’t use my turn signal. I’ve been here 18 years and I never got pulled over once. I’ve always been very careful. They sent me to a detention facility. They kept me there for fifteen days, with chains on my hands and feet. They fed us peanut butter crackers three times a day. I was shackled the whole time. They dropped me off across the border with nothing. I had nowhere to go. I hadn’t been there in so long. I left with a group that night. They drove us way out into the desert. We walked for three days. I couldn’t keep up any longer. I’m not a young man any more. They left me out there with no food or water. I was by myself for three more days. I had no idea where I was. I drank dirty water from a cattle pond, and it made me even sicker. I was hearing voices and seeing things. When I saw that house up there, I didn’t know if it was real or not. I kept walking towards it. I thought that I might have already died. I can’t do this again. My whole life is here. There is nothing for me in this world if I can’t make it back. If I die, I die. This is my only chance. I have to keep trying.”
He recovered slowly. He called us from his house a week after he left. A month later, he and his wife sent down a huge package of shoes and food and clothing to give to other migrants. “I almost always stay inside,” he said. “I can’t afford to risk being sent back again. I suffered so much out there. I’m still healing. I know that I can’t make it another time.”
The impending demographic change in the United States is a cause of real anxiety for some powerful Americans, as well as many less powerful ones who haven’t thought through its ramifications. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner it comes, the better. In my opinion, even a partial erosion of white supremacy in the United States is in the long- term self-interest of most “white” Americans. You can build a throne out of bayonets, but you can’t sit on it long. Aside from the fact that subjugating other people is a rotten thing to do, it’s not a safe way to live. It’s extraordinarily impressive that Black people in the United States managed to break free from both slavery and Jim Crow without resorting to indiscriminate slaughter of white people on a grand scale. It certainly would have been understandable to do so, and it arguably would have been justified. I suspect that things would have been much uglier if there hadn’t been at least a few white people who were willing to do the right thing. I don’t know if I want to bet that the billions of people that are being pushed around the world today will be so restrained when it comes time to pay the piper on a global level. It seems better to get on the winning side while there still may be time. In any case, the wheels are coming off the bus. We live on the same small planet as everybody else. The way of life we inherited has proven disastrous for the biosphere and for the long-term prospects of human survival. My generation is perhaps the first group of white Americans that not only have an ethical mandate to turn away from this path, but also an urgent self-interest in doing so. Left unchecked, the current arrangement is guaranteed to cannibalize what’s left of our land base within our lifetimes and leave our children with nothing but the bones.
Admittedly, this is complicated. Groups of humans have subjugated other groups of humans and destroyed their own land bases since long before the social construct of whiteness ever existed, and people of European ancestry aren’t the only ones capable of doing either of these things. White supremacy isn’t the only linchpin holding this all together, but it’s a significant one. At this point, I don’t think we can hope to stop the devastation of our planet without contesting the structures of white supremacy – or vice versa. So the answer isn’t for white Americans to continue to defend the indefensible at the price of our souls, or to crawl into a hole and die. It’s for those of us who fit that description to think carefully about where our allegiance really lies, and to find ways to act on it in materially meaningful ways. There are examples throughout history of people who did just this – members of oppressor and colonizer groups who decided to throw in their lot with the colonized and oppressed. You can point to white people involved in the Underground Railroad during slavery, gentiles who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust, white Americans who took part in the civil rights movement, white South Africans who resisted apartheid, Americans involved in the Sanctuary movement during the wars in Central America in the 1980s, and Israelis resisting the occupation of Palestine today, to name a few. It’s a good story to be part of. Those of us who are positioned to do so should embrace it and be proud of it. Our opponents will call us traitors, as if we support another government. In fact, we’ve pledged our allegiance to something older and wiser than anything that any nation-state has to offer.
Working on the border has shown me time and again that you can’t really extricate one part of the equation from all the other parts. The drug war won’t end without structural change throughout Mexico, which won’t happen without structural change in Colombia and the other cocaine-producing countries, which won’t happen without structural change in the United States, and so on. You can reverse the order of these statements or add others, and they will still be true. So, for example, fighting internal deportations and fighting border militarization are the same project. Once, I asked this Oaxacan guy what he thought it would take to end the death in the desert. “Una revolución binacional,” he answered, without hesitating. We laughed, because of course that’s impossible. For now.
New volunteers sometimes ask me what I think a just border policy would look like. I tell them there’s no such thing; it’s a contradiction in terms. Ultimately, the only hope for a solution to the border crisis lies in bringing about worldwide systemic change that ensures freedom of movement for all people, rejects the practice of state control over territory, honors indigenous autonomy and sovereignty, addresses the legacies of slavery and colonization, equalizes access to resources between the global north and the global south, and fundamentally changes human beings’ relationship to the planet and all of the other forms of life that inhabit it. That’s a tall order. Where to start?
The desert isn’t the only place, but it’s one. The strength of our work is that there is no doubt we’re having a tangible effect on the lives of the people who find our water, our food, or us. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back, but to say that it is possible to start somewhere. People sometimes lament the fact that it can feel like we are just serving as a band-aid. But one life means a lot to the person who lives it.
Nevertheless, the weakness of our work is that we’re always dealing with the symptoms and never the cause. It can feel like we’re always cleaning up a mess we didn’t create, like a child trying to mend the damage an abusive parent is doing to the rest of the family. It’s better than nothing, but what we really need to do is to stop the abuse.
It can be tempting to say that it’s better to succeed at what we can do than fail at what we can’t, but that’s just defeatism. I really don’t want to be doing these same water drops twenty-five years from now. So what should we do? Thankfully, none of us has to do everything. It’s not my job to act like Moses and set the people free. That’s not how meaningful social change happens. I can do my best to help, but if people are going to get free they are going to do it themselves. I simply can’t call the shots in other people’s struggles for liberation. I trust that the millions of people who are most directly affected by immigration and border enforcement will keep finding ways to combat it. There will almost certainly be things that white US citizens can do if we keep our ears to the ground. If my efforts in the desert are in any way contributing to $39 billion dollars moving from the rich to the poor every year, then I’m happy.
What might you be able to do? Some (including Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning in Points of Intervention) have suggested that in order to link systemic change with tangible goals, we must find points of intervention in the system where we can apply power to leverage transformation. These points of intervention include the point of production, the point of destruction, the point of consumption, the point of decision, and the point of assumption. It’s not perfect, but it’s as good a framework as any to use when thinking about how to intervene in this particular situation.
What might direct action at the point of production look like? Stalling the construction of new CCA facilities? What about at the point of destruction? Finding ways to interfere with BP/ ICE operations or intervene in deportations? What about the point of consumption? Pressuring businesses to commit to non-compliance with anti-immigrant laws and organizing boycotts of the ones that refuse? The point of decision? Interrupting meetings or legislative processes? What might direct action at the point of assumption look like? What lies and assumptions are used to justify the dehumanization of immigrants? How might you be able to counter them?
I don’t generally get too excited about actions in which people get arrested on purpose. Civil disobedience is widely fetishized in the United States, even though it does not always produce the most desirable results. However, like any other tactic, it can be quite effective under the right circumstances. For example, on October 11, 2013, two groups of people chained themselves to two G4S (formerly Wackenhut) buses full of 70 detainees headed for “Operation Streamline” hearings at the federal courthouse in Tucson, Arizona. Another group chained themselves together inside the courthouse itself. This story requires some context.
Operation Streamline is a joint initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, started in 2005, that adopts a zero-tolerance approach to unauthorized border crossing. In contrast to previous policy, immigration violations are processed under the criminal justice system. First-time offenders are prosecuted for misdemeanor illegal entry, which carries a six-month maximum sentence. Anyone who’s been deported in the past and is caught re-entering can be charged with felony re-entry, which carries a two-year sentence but can involve up to a 20-year maximum if the person has a criminal record. Over 99% of people “streamlined” plead guilty, because those who do so are likely to get shorter prison terms, whereas those who don’t are likely to get close to the maximum sentence.
Another distinguishing feature is that cases aren’t heard individually, but are processed in one large group. A single case in the Tucson courthouse can include up to 70 defendants. The group cases typically take from 30 minutes to two and a half hours to decide, meaning from 25 seconds to 2 minutes per defendant. Furthermore, defense attorneys are typically afforded no longer than 30 minutes per client for consultations, which take place on the morning of the trial. These consultations are held in the open, in the same courtroom that will later hold the mass trial. This is all of dubious legality at best, but they’ve been happily doing it every business day for years. Business is good.
People are regularly sent to prison for years in these kangaroo courts. I’m no fan of legal proceedings, period, but even by normal standards, Streamline is a travesty of justice. Strictly speaking, it’s a failure of due process. The clear objective of all of this is to pull more people into the legal system. The end result is that tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are funneled to the private prison industry that will warehouse the detainees – to G4S, for example.
Streamline was brought to a full stop in Tucson on the day of the bus action. It took the police long enough to figure out how to deal with the situation that all hearings for the day had to be canceled. There was then no way to bring the detainees back in for trial, because the court had 70 more people booked for the next day, and the next, and the next, on into infinity. All detainees on both buses were eventually deported without criminal prosecution, because the government was unable to provide them a speedy trial under the letter of the law. The government then tried but ultimately failed to convict the participants in the action of various charges. The defendants in the case were eventually sentenced to 14 hours in jail: time served, no fines.
There is some disagreement about the efficacy of the action, because an abnormally high percentage of the detainees were then laterally deported. For context, lateral deportation is another questionably legal practice that the government has been engaged in for years. The idea is to send a deportee not to the closest border city to the place they were apprehended, but to somewhere very far away. The Department of Homeland Security was especially fond of delivering people to northeastern Mexico in the early 2010s, when it was basically a war zone. Being laterally deported from Nogales to Matamoros in those years was a bit like getting picked up for a drunk in public charge in San Francisco and being dropped off in Baghdad at midnight after having been relieved of your wallet. Because of this, some people argued that the negative impacts of the G4S lockdown outweighed the positive ones. Others weren’t convinced that the two events were related; still others pointed out that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and there’s no way around this.
As far as I know, however, most people do agree on this: at the end of the day, 70 people were never criminally prosecuted who otherwise certainly would have been, meaning that up to 70 people never went to prison who otherwise were headed directly there. So the action cost its participants very little and the benefits were great. That’s a good outcome. The tactic could easily be replicated or improved upon by people into this sort of thing. Eventually, the law of diminishing returns would kick in – police tactics would improve, fines and sentences would increase, the definition of a speedy trial would change, and so on – but it would be effective for a while. When it ceased to be effective, the participants could develop alternatives, and the battleground would move again.
I’ll conclude with two points. First, supply chain management is always at the heart of military logistics. Longer and more complex supply chains are always more susceptible to disruption, and the supply chain of the American government’s one-sided war on undocumented people is long, complex, and highly susceptible to disruption. Second, it’s possible to assess the effectiveness of most actions by running a simple cost-benefit analysis: how can we get the maximum output, benefit, or payout for the minimum input, risk, or cost? The bus lockdown was a good example of this going well. There is an infinite field of possibility awaiting further experimentation.
This is the best I can do to tell the story of irregular migration in North America. This story isn’t unique to the United States, or even to the West. Variations on it can be found wherever comparative poverty and instability meet comparative wealth and stability: from Haiti into the Dominican Republic, from the many countries of West Africa through Morocco into Spain at Ceuta and Melilla, from both West Africa and East Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan) through Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea into Italy at Lampedusa, from East Africa over the Sinai Peninsula into Israel, from the Central African Republic to anywhere else, from southern Africa (especially Zimbabwe) into South Africa, from the Middle East (Syria, Iraq) and Central Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan) through Turkey and across the eastern Mediterranean into Greece at Lesbos, from Bangladesh into India, from both Bangladesh and Myanmar (especially of Rohingya people) over the Andaman Sea and into Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia), from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal) and the Philippines into the Gulf states (through the kafalasystem), from North Korea across China and Laos into Thailand and then South Korea, from rural China to urban China (via the hukousystem), and from various parts of Asia and the Middle East through Indonesia and over the Timor Sea into Australia… to name just a few examples.
Any one of these routes could fill a book. Every place is different, but the story is always the same. Everywhere there is the same border. Everywhere people die to cross it, confronting the same barriers and guards. Everywhere there is the same human trafficking industry built up around it, with the same patterns of kidnapping, extortion, indentured servitude, slavery, and rape. Everything is blamed on these traffickers, who aren’t the cause of the problem but a byproduct of it. Everywhere there’s unequal exchange: high prices, low wages, and chaos on one side; high wages, low prices, and order on the other. Everywhere there’s the same hyper-exploitation of undocumented labor in the interior, the same terror of deportation, the same profiteering off of detention and border militarization, and the same scapegoating of migrants and refugees. Everywhere there is the same attempt to outsource the problem to buffer states (Mexico, Morocco, Libya, Turkey, Indonesia), the same third-party deportations, the same leveraging of displaced people to negotiate concessions between these states and the states that call the shots in the first world – between the periphery and the core. (The overwhelming majority (86%) of people defined as refugees under international law are hosted in so-called “developing countries” such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran, Ethiopia, and Kenya, among others – not in Western Europe, the United States, or elsewhere in the first world. As of 2016, Lebanon is hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees, who now constitute a quarter of the Lebanese population – far and away the highest ratio of refugees to citizens anywhere in the world. At equivalent levels, the United States would be hosting 107 million refugees.) Everywhere there is surplus humanity, who refuse to disappear even though capitalism has no use for them. Increasingly, there is only one option left, one place left to turn, one employer still hiring: pure nihilism. ISIS, Boko Haram, the Zetas, warlords. Even when every single door is closed, the excluded can still hire on according to this principle: “If our lives are worth nothing, then nothing is sacred.” This isn’t a world I want to live in.
The core tenet of “free trade,” the globalized capitalism that’s dominated the world since the end of the Cold War, is that capital should be able to move freely across borders, while labor and surplus humanity are constrained by them. The state’s primary role – increasingly, its only role – is to police the interior and guard the border. Citizenship has become the primary determinant in a multi-layered global caste system. After more than 25 years, this system appears to be operating less and less smoothly. It may be breaking down altogether. As of the end of 2015, the UN Refugee Agency reports that 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, and human rights violations. According to the report, this is 5.8 million more than just 12 months earlier, and the number of displaced people is now at its highest ever, surpassing even the aftermath of World War II.
I’m opposed to all borders and in favor of the free movement of all people across the face of the earth. I don’t think that the practice of regulating movement according to place of birth is justifiable under any coherent ethical, philosophical, spiritual, or even legal system. Mind you, I’m not a utopian. I don’t think there is any chance that borders will magically cease to exist, or that there would be no undesirable side effects if they did. However, any step in that direction is better than nothing. There are a few places where irregular migration is managed in a comparatively humane fashion, such as from Nicaragua into Costa Rica, from Syria into Lebanon, or from Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru into Argentina and Brazil.
Relaxing or abolishing the borders would produce new problems. But unless we believe that certain lives are more valuable than others, then from the standpoint of what will do the most good for the most people, we’d be better off facing these problems directly, courageously, and as soon as possible. Yes, it would make it easier for terrorists to attack the West, but if the West ceased to be a sealed fortress sucking in resources, there would be less incentive to attack it. Yes, wars might spread, but like it or not, these wars are already on their way, and the borders are only exacerbating the conditions that drive people to fight in them. The writing is on the wall. We live at the end of a time when the needs of certain people could be fulfilled at the expense of others – without a price.
The wall in the desert should be regarded as the symbol of my generation, as surely as the wall in Berlin was the symbol of the last one. Like the Berlin Wall, it will be torn down with hammers and bulldozers. I’ll be there if I’m still breathing.
After the end of the Cold War, we were told that we’d reached the end of history. The new era was to last forever: liberal democracy, capitalist free trade, US military hegemony, and a carefully managed system of borders to regulate the movement of labor and surplus populations. For a period of time in the 1990s, it was possible for some people to convince themselves that this was true. Nobody believes this story anymore – least of all the primary beneficiaries of the prevailing order. Their apocalyptic anxiety is written all over their movies, music videos, and advertisements, and especially their contingency plans. I won’t even bother to touch on ecology – everyone knows that party can’t last, that the carriage turns into a pumpkin at midnight and our children will reap the whirlwind.
If the neoliberal era is coming to an end, there are no guarantees that something better will take its place. Those who oppose this order in the name of liberation for all aren’t the only ones interested in tearing down its borders, nor the best armed, trained, or financed. ISIS may be the first fascist formation in history to be explicitly anti-racist and anti-nationalist. They actually managed to tear down a national border, which is more than any other movement or uprising has accomplished lately. ISIS miscalculated, of course. People don’t tolerate chaos for long. They look for any possible resolution, including totalitarianism if there’s no other option and it isn’t possible to escape.
This can be seen in both Syria and Mexico. ISIS saved Assad; the Zetas saved the PRI. As of this writing though, ISIS isn’t winning, the Assad regime is. Likewise, the Zetas have lost momentum; Sinaloa and the PRI are more securely in power today than they were ten years ago. Under pressure to transform society (in Mexico by La Otra Campañain 2006, in Syria by the Arab Spring in 2011), the Syrian and Mexican elites brought on war rather than face revolution. In both cases, the mayhem that followed ultimately served to legitimize their rule. In both cases, it’s only a matter of time before social movements reassert themselves to destabilize the existing order from below. Revolution turns into war. War justifies tyranny. Tyranny leads to revolution. Rock beats scissors. Scissors cut paper. Paper covers rock. The stakes of this game are increasingly global. Is there any way to win?
Are we talking about a revolution? What does that mean? Marx said it meant seizing the means of production; Lenin said it meant seizing state power. Nechayev said it was the end to justify all means; Stalin said it could happen forever inside the borders of one nation-state. Mao stressed the importance of culture; Pol Pot said it would get us all off to a fresh start. Their dreams were a nightmare, and victory was worse than defeat. Can this concept be salvaged? I think so.
Bakunin incarnated it; he also predicted how it would turn out if it were misunderstood as a way to put the right people in charge. Red Cloud and Crazy Horse never said a word about it; they didn’t have to. Frederick Douglass made a run for it, William Lloyd Garrison argued for it, Harriet Tubman lived for it, and John Brown died for it, though they all called it God. Seth Concklin spent his whole life working for it, and almost nobody ever thanked him or remembered his name. [Concklin was a white abolitionist lynched by Northern authorities after trying and failing to bring a slave family to freedom.] It held out for a week on the barricades of the Paris Commune. Louis Lingg told his captors to hang him for it, and then he beat them to it. Emma Goldman said you can dance to it, Alexander Berkman gave it his best shot, and they kept it together for 47 years. The Wobblies used to ride for it; Mother Jones used to dig it. Durruti said we carry it in our hearts, and that it’s growing this minute. In the final month of his life, Malcolm X said that it will ultimately be a global clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing – between those who want freedom, justice, and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. The Panthers had it all, but their enemies tore it apart: out West the heart, back East the teeth, up North the roots, down South the guts. It scared the hell out of the government all the same. Fred Hampton said it best, and they killed him for it. The Weather Underground tried to set it off. Assata Shakur believed that it could still guide us home to port, and she got away with it. AIM didn’t say much about it; they didn’t have to. The Zapatistas stopped talking about it and listened, and then it happened. It’s happening again in Rojava, in the most challenging circumstances imaginable.
I caught a glimpse of it in Seattle in 1999 and in Oakland in 2011, but then it slipped away. I’ll mostly leave my generation out of it, though: it’s not over yet.
One of the founders of No More Deaths once told me a story called “The Parable of the River.” It may be familiar to readers who’ve worked in the non-profit sector or in public health. The framing of the story isn’t perfect and the metaphor is completely wrong in at least one major way: migrants and refugees are never simply helpless victims, as I hope I’ve made clear. Most are not babies, and the children grow up fast. Nonetheless, the parable is well known for a good reason. It speaks to the central dilemma of desert aid work and other projects like it.
It goes something like this: There’s a small village on the edge of a river. One day, a villager goes down to the riverbank to wash some clothes. She sees a baby floating down the river, jumps into the water, and pulls him to safety. She carries him to the village and finds someone to care for him. Wet and tired, she returns to wash the clothes. She sees another baby floating down the river! Once again, she jumps into the swift current and takes the child into her arms. But before she can climb back onto the riverbank she sees another baby floating towards her. And then another. And another. She grabs one of them, but she only has two arms. The last two babies float past her. One disappears into the water just out of her reach. The other dashes his head open against a large rock. The woman looks up the river. Six more babies are floating toward her. Horrified, she shouts for help. Villagers working in the field nearby run to help her.
The babies keep coming. Soon, the entire village is occupied with the many tasks that the river demands. There are teams of strong swimmers, who maintain a watch on the riverbank. They pull babies out of the river until their muscles cramp and their teeth are chattering. Sometimes, even the strongest swimmers go into the river once too often, and are swept under by the fierce cold current, their bodies are broken on the rocks. There are people who nurse the babies back to health and tend to their wounds. There are foster parents, carpenters, weavers, gardeners, hunters, teachers, therapists, and cooks. It takes a lot of work to ensure that all these babies are properly fed, clothed, housed, and integrated into the life of the village. There are people who do all of these things and still feel like they’re not doing enough.
It isn’t possible to pull every baby out of the river. Many drown. But the villagers feel that they are doing well to cope with the crisis as best they can. Indeed, the village priest blesses them for their good work. Life goes on.
Eventually, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to provide enough food to feed everyone and to find homes for so many babies. The villagers are exhausted, hungry, and sad. Their nerves are shot. Tempers flare. Fights break out. Winter is coming. One day, two women are seen walking away from the village. “Where are you going?” another villager asks them, disconcerted. “We need you here! Can’t you see how busy we are!”
“You all carry on here,” says one of the two, machete in hand. The other woman is holding a pitchfork. “We’re going upstream to stop whoever is throwing all these babies into the river.”
A noisy argument breaks out in the village square. “It’s about time!” roars the blacksmith, raising his hammer. “Why didn’t we think of that before? We can’t afford to go on like this forever. Count me in!” Many of the villagers shout their approval.
“Not so fast!” counters the gravedigger, slamming his pick into the ground. “What will happen if we all just leave our posts? Who will watch the river? Who will care for the children already living among us? Who will staff the clinic, or tend the fields? I’ll tell you what will happen. More babies will drown.” Many of the same villagers nod in solemn agreement.
“This is a false dichotomy,” protests the teenager who washes the dishes. “Some of us should go up the river and some of us should stay here.” Most everyone agrees that she has a point, but this is a small village we’re talking about. “There aren’t enough of us,” says the village priest. “And besides, let’s say we decide to head upstream. You grab a shovel and I’ll grab an ax. What will we find? Given the sheer number of babies in the river, it seems that the most likely explanation is that some hateful or ruthless person is throwing them in. What will we do if we find the villain? Will we attempt to reason with him and explain why, all things considered, throwing babies in the river is a bad thing to do? Will we push him into the river? Are we willing to kill him if that is the only way to end this vile practice? What if he is even bigger than our friend the blacksmith? What if he has a gun and isn’t alone? What if his henchmen are armed with clubs, knives, pistols, shotguns, rifles, heavy artillery, tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, ballistic missiles, and nuclear bombs? How could we ever be able to stop him?”
Thankfully, the priest is missing something and so is this parable. There are millions of people in the river. We have to become capable of helping each other out.
I’m not an uncritical cheerleader for the Zapatistas. However, there’s a reason they were able to bring about the first revolution of the post-modern era. They studied their predecessors carefully, applied the lessons that were useful to them, adapted their strategies to their environment, waited patiently until the time was right, acted boldly, and turned the world on its head. As the end of the post-modern era draws near, we should be studying our forebears just as carefully, starting with the Zapatistas themselves.
The Zapatistas broke with all Marxist-Leninist tradition by demonstrating that the seizure of state power was a red herring. They declared war on the Mexican government with no intention of putting themselves in its place. Instead, they focused on establishing autonomous zones. Leftists were profoundly confused, I remember.
Autonomy is the keyword of the Zapatista rebellion. We can define autonomy as the freedom to make decisions and take action in all matters that affect us directly, without seeking permission from a higher power, starting at the level of the individual and scaling up. It took a year of armed struggle for this concept to fully emerge. Its first appearance in the Zapatista canon is in the January 1995 Third Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle. By the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle in June 2005, it was central.
At its core, the Zapatista movement is fighting for indigenous autonomy. By definition, it’s both Mexican and Mayan, but aims to inspire others to establish autonomous zones elsewhere as well. Zapatistas assert indigenous people’s right to self-determination, which has been denied for over 500 years. They argue that the people indigenous to a particular territory should be free to administer their own economy, politics, and resources according to their own traditions and customs. This differs from separatism in that the Zapatistas have been clear that they don’t want their own state.
Furthermore, In El Despertador Mexicano, on January 1, 1994, the first day of the rebellion, the EZLN defined a right of the people living in Zapatista territory to resist any unjust actions of the EZLN itself, saying that people should “acquire and possess arms to defend their persons, families, and property… against armed attacks committed by the revolutionary forces or those of the government.” (According to the reports of Paul Z. Simons in Modern Slavery, the YPG/YPJ (People’s Protection Units/Women’s Protection Units) have taken a similar position in the liberated territories of Rojava.) This is the acid test. Revolutionaries who claim a monopoly on force the way that the state does aren’t to be trusted.
On the scale of society, autonomy might be understood as the ability to hold territory plus a decentralized and participatory decision-making process to administer it, minus a monopoly on force. Revolution can be pictured as the bridge from here to there. Twenty-two years of indigenous autonomy in post-modern Chiapas is a truly stunning achievement. (See the works of James C. Scott for other examples in the post-modern world, as well as David Graeber’s writings on Madagascar. For some overlooked examples from American history, see the story of Maroon communities in the Great Dismal Swamp in The Real Resistance to Slavery in North Americaby Russell Maroon Shoats, as well as the story of Henry Berry Lowry and the Swamp Bandits in Dixie Be Damnedby Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford. The best of the European revolutionary tradition can scarcely point to anything like this in living memory. It’s not perfect, but I’ll take a flawed reality that I can hold in my hands over a perfect ideal I can never touch, every time.
So far, so good, but there’s no denying that things haven’t gone very well in Mexico for the past decade. The Zapatista enclaves remain, but elsewhere everything’s gone from bad to worse. The Mexican state has drawn a line in the sand. They’ve lost control of part of Chiapas, but they’d rather set their own house on fire than risk losing control of the rest of it. The September 2014 kidnapping and murder of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College in Iguala, Guerrero sent a clear message that La Otra Campañais finished, that indigenous autonomy won’t be allowed to spread to other parts of Mexico, and that there’s nothing that the Zapatistas can do about it anymore. What happened?
I’ll defer to Mexicans more directly involved in this, but as an American participating in the movement, here’s my take: it comes down to guns. At the moment, autonomous zones exist only where tolerated (as in Chiapas) or fiercely defended (as in Rojava). Spaces of autonomy that aren’t tolerated and can’t defend themselves will be wiped off the face of the earth. It gives me no joy to say this.
Armed self-defense can turn into war very quickly, and war is costly in blood and treasure. Weapons and ammunition don’t come cheaply and have to come from some source. So armed struggle almost always demands state support. This is obviously a conundrum. Why would any state want to preserve spaces of autonomy? Generally, they don’t.
This generally means that when revolution turns into war, autonomy is the first casualty. Central to the Zapatista’s breakthrough was their understanding that war isn’t won on the battlefield alone – the driving force of the revolution isn’t to be found in armed conflict but in a better way of life. Unfortunately, the state always seems to have an ace in the hole.
Against all odds, the Zapatistas remain unvanquished. Their ongoing revolution has been an inspiration to millions of people worldwide for an entire generation, myself included. But the path to another world that they tried to open to us all has been submerged in an ocean of blood. There is no easy solution to this dilemma. These same dynamics turned Syria into a living hell, as various participants in the civil war escalated the level of violence until they had stripped themselves of their humanity and converted each other into killing machines. The revolutionaries in Rojava are walking a razor’s edge, forced to balance the danger of being co-opted by the American government tomorrow against that of being annihilated by ISIS today. The Zapatistas have been juggling these machetes for over twenty years. All I can say is that it’s generally undesirable for revolution to turn into war, that nonetheless sometimes it will, and that when it does both will be won or lost together. It won’t be possible to win the war by abandoning the revolution, or to advance the revolution while ignoring the war. I’ve seen the same patterns recur in history, current events, and my own experiences.
In 2010 and 2011, I spent some time working with Triqui people from the municipality of San Juan Copala in Oaxaca. Triquis there had taken part in the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca, and in January 2007 the municipality declared autonomy along the lines of the Zapatista model. By November 2009, paramilitaries aligned with the state government had placed the entire community under siege, cutting off access to water, food, medical services, and electricity. Gunmen stationed in the hills surrounding the town were shooting at anything that moved. Numerous people were killed.
On April 27, 2010, a small group of outside supporters, also veterans of the 2006 uprising, attempted to break the siege with a caravan of several vehicles full of food, water, and medical supplies. Paramilitaries ambushed the caravan outside of Copala, shooting and killing two participants: Alberta “Bety” Cariño Trujillo (a widely-respected Mixteca and the director of an indigenous organization named CACTUS) and Jyri Jaak-kola (a Finnish solidarity worker who was well-integrated into the Oaxacan social struggle). The survivors escaped into the mountains, several wounded, emerging alive days later and many miles away after having sent out gripping videos of the ordeal over their cellphones. The story briefly made American news; the outcry in Mexico was tremendous.
I think it’s fair to say that the story was especially compelling to many people because of who died. In Bety’s case, Triquis and Mixtecas have a very long and contentious history. In the American context, it might be like if a Hopi woman was killed while attempting to stop the relocation of Navajo (Diné) elders on Black Mesa, or if an Ojibwe woman was killed while bringing supplies to Lakota water protectors at Standing Rock. And Jyri was Finnish. It wasn’t lost on anyone that he’d come halfway across the world to risk his life for indigenous autonomy. All this met with profound disinterest from most of Mexican society, including the Mexican left. Triquis are one of the more marginalized indigenous groups in Mexico; they’re constantly depicted as genetically unreasonable and violent. Picture an uninformed American talking about the Middle East: “They’re always killing each other.” Well, why might that be?
Jyri knew exactly what he was getting into. He was one of us, and his death was a terrible loss.” Copala is the only campaign I’ve ever been involved with in which I would regularly see indigenous people carrying around pictures of a martyred white solidarity worker, rather than the other way around. Bety and Jyri’s names will be tied together as long as either of them are remembered.
In June 2010, a much larger caravan was organized to break the siege, this time comprised of numerous buses and dump trucks full of hundreds of people and supplies from all over Mexico. I was there, and even by my standards, this was a hair-raising experience. The caravan was repeatedly held up by police as it approached Copala, and shadowed by groups of masked gunmen posted on the hills above the road. It’s impossible to say if they were police, military, paramilitary, or some combination of the three. Shortly before nightfall, several miles outside the town, the uniformed police announced that they wouldn’t guarantee our security, and they all left. As participants in the caravan, we’d agreed to defer ultimate decision-making power to a core group of Triquis from San Juan Copala. This leadership had agreed to take input from all participants into consideration. Leadership was faced with a very difficult choice. They decided to turn back.
This caused a complete uproar. People were screaming at each other in the middle of the road and trying to decide what to do. The reader may remember the Gaza Freedom Flotilla of May 31, 2010, when nine humanitarian aid workers were killed by the Israeli military while attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip. That occurred just days before our caravan. The Triqui leadership, to paraphrase, said: “Palestine is known throughout the world. They just killed those people in cold blood, and nothing happened. We’re a small indigenous group. Nobody knows about us anywhere. The paramilitaries have already shown that they’ll kill people, and the government won’t do anything about it. We know them well; this is too dangerous. If we don’t turn back, some of you are going to die. We already have the deaths of two outsiders on our consciences. We don’t want any more.”
Many participants said in turn: “This is your only chance. You’ll never have this much momentum again. What did you call us here for if you didn’t think you could call their bluff? If you turn back now, the government will take it as a sign of weakness, and they’ll destroy you within a few months. It’ll be a setback for indigenous autonomy everywhere. This is bigger than you, it’s bigger than any of us. If they kill us, there’s at least some chance that Mexico will explode.” Leadership deliberated one more time, and turned us back. Within a few months, the paramilitaries burned out the last inhabitants of the autonomous municipality, culminating in a final offensive of killings and rapes in September 2010. As of 2016, displaced people from Copala are still camped out in the Zócalo in the city of Oaxaca. They’ve never been able to return home.
In the years since, I’ve spoken with several of the people who had to make this decision. I also learned that one of them had subsequently migrated through the Arivaca corridor in 2011, picking up water we’d set out along the way. I can see that the retreat still weighs heavy on them. It may have been where La Otra Campañadied; it may have saved my life. Nobody can say; I don’t know myself. I’m afraid both statements may be correct. I consented to defer to those people and I respect the decision they made.
In the aftermath of the second caravan, I’d hear conversations like this: “They’ve left you two choices: surrender or war.” The response would be: “The paramilitaries are financed by the state government. We are poor people, financed by nobody. It’s all well and good to talk about armed struggle. If we went to war, how would we afford guns and ammunition, and where would we get them? Are you going to supply them? We would lose.”
The siege of San Juan Copala taught me a hard lesson: unarmed resistance is suicide in the face of a ruthless enough foe, but armed struggle without state support may be suicide as well. Writing in 1943, George Orwell suggested that this was why fascism triumphed in the Spanish Civil War. In Looking Back on the Spanish War, he argues that the outcome of the war was settled in London, Washington, and Paris when the West declined to arm the revolutionary militias. In military terms, I’m afraid Orwell was right. When unarmed resistance turns into armed conflict, military considerations can’t be ignored or wished away. So is it better to seek state support in hopes of winning, or to not do so and almost certainly lose? Every situation is different. I honestly don’t know.
Fortunately, there’s another way to tell this story. In revolutionary terms, we can agree with Orwell that the outcome of the struggle in Spain was indeed determined in Paris and Washington and London – and Moscow and Marrakesh and Algiers – but not by the authorities. It was determined by the common people when they chose not to rise up and extend the revolution from Spain to the rest of the world. We might never be able to count on heads of state, but we can hope that the people they count on will sometimes refuse to carry out their orders. (Orwell is sympathetic to this position in Homage to Catalonia, written in 1938 a few months after he served on the Spanish front.)
As long as revolt is spreading and the authorities do not know who will be the next to break ranks, the ordinary rules of war don’t apply. In this situation, a drastically under-equipped populace can outmaneuver a world-class military. This occurred in France in 1848, in Russia in 1917, and in Egypt in 2011. In each case, it was only afterwards, when a new configuration of authorities was established – supposedly to complete and fulfill the revolution – that the movement was crushed.
On March 18, 1871, French soldiers refused to obey an order to fire on women and workers. That single refusal gave birth to the Paris Commune, one of the most famous revolutionary autonomous zones in history, and it was nearly enough to topple the entire government of France. For a few days, the whole country trembled on the brink of revolution as everyone waited to see whether other soldiers would desert, other cities rise up. The Commune was defeated from the moment that it started firing back on the army that was sent to force it out of Paris. Until that point, the government was terrified that the rest of the military would revolt, too; but once ordinary soldiers regarded the Commune as a military enemy, it was just a war again, and the woefully outnumbered and underequipped Communards were bound to lose. This illustrates the difference between war and revolution. I think the Zapatistas understood this: they recognized that they needed enough firepower to repel the Mexican government, but that the threat that their revolt might become contagious was the most powerful weapon in their arsenal.
To put this all together, the short-term survival of autono-mous territories often depends on physical superiority over a completely ruthless foe, which unfortunately demands an arms supply and arms suppliers. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Mid-term survival likely depends on revolutionary momentum spreading far enough to keep the place from being encircled, embargoed, and economically choked into submission, and long-term survival ultimately implies some kind of global revolutionary transformation. The faster all this takes place, the less bloody it is likely to be.
For what it’s worth, the defeat at Copala does seem to have informed later struggles such as the ones in Santa María Ostula and Cherán, both in Michoacán. The Nahua community of Ostula set a precedent in the region when it rose up in arms to protect its land from resource extraction carried out by local cartels affiliated with the state government, namely iron mining and the illegal logging of the endangered sangualica tree. The Purepecha community of Cheran also rose up in arms in 2011 to defend its communal forests from logging operations affiliated with the state government and local cartels. (See the 2013 documentary “Guarda Bosques” (“Forest Keepers”) by Manovuelta.) Both communities have organized rondas communitarias(community militias) to defend themselves from attack. I don’t know where the money or weapons come from in Ostula or Cherán, but I’m willing to bet that part of the explanation for the success of the rondasand the expansion of indigenous autonomy in Michoacán is that this question has been answered there somehow.
Cherán and Ostula committed themselves to collective armed self-defense, while Copala did not. Copala was annihilated. People who fed me, told me stories, advocated for my wellbeing, and stood by my side during the second caravan were left widowed, orphaned, homeless, in prison, living in exile, and dead. Thus far, Cherán and Ostula remain standing. This is probably not a coincidence.
Every time people place themselves outside the web of life, they end up in the same position: guarding the walls of a collapsing empire, as their forsaken cousins gather to pull down their temples and tear the flesh from their bones. The defenders of segregation are leading us down a path to certain destruction. They abandoned their families; it’s time for us to find our way back home. There is a light to guide us through the desert: the faithful northern star.
The border divides the world into gated communities and prisons, one within the other in concentric circles of privilege and control. At one end of the continuum, there are billionaires who can fly anywhere in private jets; at the other end, inmates in solitary confinement. As long as there’s a border between you and those less fortunate than you, you can be sure there will be a border above you, too, keeping you from the things you need. And who will tear down that second border with you, if not the people separated from you by the first?
For anarchy: the transformative interplay between chaos and order, an ex-desert-aid-worker, North America 2011, 2016