Yet there is a pilgrimage,
a history straining its arms and legs,
an inexorable striving,
shouting in Spanish
at the police of city jails
and border checkpoints,
fishermen wading into the North American gloom
to pull a fierce gasping life
from the polluted current
—Martín Espada, “Heart of Hunger”
April 27 marks one month since the death by incineration of 40 migrants from five countries who were locked in a single overcrowded cell in a Mexican detention center in Ciudad Juárez, despite their desperate protest over inhumane conditions and the commensurate indifference of their privatized jailers. At least 68 migrants had been packed in a cell designed for 50 — detained simply for being migrants en route toward the United States — as part of a series of sweeps on the streets of the city, where many are forced to sleep because of the inadequate number and capacity of local shelters.
Many locally in Ciudad Juárez speculate that these sweeps were part of a “social cleansing” operation to clear the way for a pre-planned visit by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) which coincided with the immediate aftermath of what has become the latest in a series of migrant massacres on Mexican territory since 2010. His ill-timed visit was marked by the bitter clamor for justice of protesting migrants and family members of the fire’s victims who fruitlessly sought a meeting with the embattled president.
These demands were further stoked by AMLO’s focus on blaming the migrant detainees for starting the fire as a protest, or on the failure of U.S. migration policies, rather than on reports that security guards failed or deliberately refused to open the door of the mens’ cell, while deciding to open the cells where women were detained.
It is likely that impunity will be the predominant characteristic of the Mexican government’s investigation of the incident, a historically recurrent pattern for human rights crimes in Mexico that has deepened during AMLO’s tenure. This includes what appears to be the essentially symbolic prosecution of only a handful of Mexican officials from its National Migration Institute (INM) who are facing the most serious criminal charges for the fire.
All of this is especially striking because many within Mexico and beyond continue to insist on categorizing AMLO as a “leftist” because of his anti-U.S. rhetoric and populist trappings, despite his recurrent, substantive failures to address the country’s deepening human rights crisis. This labeling fails to account for AMLO’s combination of an increasingly assertive, independent foreign policy and resistance to overt U.S. intervention through the drug war with his promotion of U.S. investment in extractivist mega-“development” projects and trade. AMLO’s unprecedented collaboration with U.S. imperatives that have imposed the fully militarized containment and repression of migrant flows completes the picture, by highlighting the human and ethical cost of his sometimes apparently contradictory overall positioning.
Since 2006, Mexico has seen 300,000 dead (mostly unarmed civilians) and more than 100,000 forced disappearances (the largest number in the hemisphere and one of the largest in the world), together with the largely unsolved killings of 72 human rights defenders in 2022 and another four so far in 2023, plus reports of two forced disappearances and 12 cases of arbitrary detentions. Mexico has become more militarized than ever before, including the systematic targeting of migrants in transit for persecution and terror. It is symptomatic in this context that there is no official accounting by the Mexican government — much less an effective policy — for the number of missing migrants in Mexico, whose total has been estimated independently the tens of thousands.
Human rights defenders in Mexico, the U.S. and migrants’ countries of origin have instead argued that the small initial steps that have been taken toward limited accountability in the Ciudad Juárez case have been gravely undermined by AMLO’s recent defense of INM’s head — Francisco Garduño, a longtime presidential ally — who has kept his job, and so far been indicted only for relatively minor administrative offenses. They also argue that this failure of accountability has been exacerbated by AMLO’s refusal to go further up the chain of command and address the responsibilities for Mexico’s immigration and detention policies attributable to Mexico’s interior, foreign and public security ministers.
Those who died included 18 from Guatemala, seven from Venezuela, six each from El Salvador and Honduras, and one each from Colombia and Ecuador, plus one so far of unidentified nationality. So this, like the 2010-2011 San Fernando migrant massacre and mass graves or those at Cadereyta in 2012 and Camargo in 2021, was a mass human rights crime of literally continental dimensions. Most of those who died were of Indigenous origin or African descent, driven by intensifying processes of forced migration from Latin America’s poorest and most marginalized communities, where it is simply impossible to live a dignified life.
This encompasses the regions most impacted by “root causes” of migration, including armed conflicts driven by U.S. interventions in service to the supposed imperatives of neoliberalism, “free trade,” and the “drug war,” plus the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, in varying contexts such as Central America, Haiti, Colombia and Venezuela, or by their spillover effects in cases such as Ecuador.
AMLO’s régime is representative of sectors of the Mexican ruling elite who have long collaborated with the most essential dimensions of U.S. hegemonic interests in the region — in contexts such as the Cold War, post-9/11, and the drug war, and now as to border and migration policy — while seeking to distance themselves rhetorically from their most egregious expressions. Their goal is to position Mexico more autonomously in the face of the ever present danger of U.S. intervention, while at the same time consolidating it as a regional power that can resist the most extreme versions of such imposition by mobilizing hemispheric solidarity in its own defense.
Tens of thousands of other migrants like those who died or were horribly injured in this incident have been essentially confined to a string of cities and improvised encampments on the Mexican side of the border from Matamoros to Tijuana, with varying ebbs and flows throughout the last three years. This, like the detention center fire, is the predictable result of the convergent effects of the militarization of the border and the concomitant negation in practice of the right to seek asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection by both the U.S. and Mexico. The detention center was located steps away from the U.S. border at El Paso, as part of the extension of U.S. immigration enforcement and containment measures to Mexican territory, which has rapidly intensified since 2018.
This kind of outsourcing or “externalization” reflects a global trend, and has been a continuous guiding thread which has characterized the immigration and border policies of both the former President Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s administrations. It is thus not surprising that deaths of migrants have soared to unprecedented levels at the world’s borders — in transit, in custody and at the hands of Border Patrol agents and their equivalents, or in incidents which reflect the mortal dangers of intensified migrant smuggling and trafficking — from Mexico’s northern and southern borders to the Euro-Mediterranean and Asia-Pacific regions.
Everybody knows that life is cheap in Ciudad Juárez, as exemplified by the ever-mounting toll here of the U.S.-promoted drug war, and the countless women who have been victims of the structural violence of feminicide memorialized in the city’s telltale magenta crosses. But the recent migrant massacre, the latest in a string of similar incidents going back at least to 2010, underlines this even more starkly. Thanks to the combined deadly force of the U.S.’s longstanding policies of “prevention through deterrence” and the Mexican government’s increasingly abject complicity and submission, it is clear that migrant lives — infinitely exploitable and replaceable — don’t matter, on both sides of the border.
Yet in a deeper sense, Ciudad Juárez’s most recent horror is not truly exceptional.
The U.S.-Mexico border and the Euro-Mediterranean regions are key case studies globally that illustrate both the neocolonial dimensions of migration policies and their function as machineries of mass exclusion and death. In both cases these trends also underline the hollowness of hegemonic versions of human rights discourse in practice, and the implications of U.S. and European development policies and modes of intervention in these contexts.
The ultimate effect of the migration policies that currently prevail in Latin America, the Euro-Mediterranean region, and beyond, can best be gauged through the complex apparatuses of violence wielded by both state and non-state actors that have become mechanisms of migrant death on a global scale. The U.S. policy of “prevention through deterrence” that was first enshrined in the Border Patrol’s Strategic Plan in 1994 under the Bill Clinton administration has in effect gradually become the standard approach globally, and has been further exacerbated by measures (such as Title 42) ostensibly related to the COVID pandemic.
The well-documented results of these policies include tens of thousands of migrant deaths globally — more than 50,000 since 2014 — and en route toward the U.S. (an average of one death each day since 1998, some 8,000 in total and at least 853 during the past year, the highest recorded number yet), Europe and Australia as traditional migration routes are sealed off and flows are diverted to the most dangerous alternatives, producing increased reliance on smugglers and traffickers at higher cost, with greater profit.
This shift also includes the consolidation of control of these routes and flows by organized crime, accompanied by increased violence and exploitation, including mass kidnappings and mass killings, often with direct or indirect complicity by state authorities in cases such as San Fernando, where local, state, and federal police and authorities, and the military have long been implicated. At the U.S.-Mexico border and Mexico’s southern border, this also means increased numbers of migrant deaths in custody and in detention and increased vulnerability during the current pandemic and its aftermath.
What is generally less fully examined is the connection between these overall patterns and their origins and expressions in targeted instances of racist and xenophobic violence directed against those identified as migrants or migrant communities and those associated with them or labelled as their defenders, in alignment with frameworks such as “great replacement” theory. Key examples of these “mass shootings” include the El Paso massacre in August 2019 and the virulent racism of Charleston’s and Buffalo’s shooters in 2015 and 2022, plus convergent cases elsewhere in the U.S. such as Atlanta (with its crucial anti-Asian and misogynist characteristics, in 2021), and the murderous anti-Semitism of the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, and others such as the 2011 Utoya and 2019 Christchurch massacres in Norway and New Zealand, respectively.
It is the convergent impact of these intertwined dimensions which has led migrant movements throughout the world and their allies to emphasize the need for multi-racial resistance from below to the ascendancy and normalization of racism and xenophobia promoted by neofascist authoritarian movements and policies. This is increasingly combined with an insistence not only on the defense of the right to asylum, refuge, sanctuary, hospitality and solidarity, but on universal recognition of the right to freedom of movement, which includes both the right to migrate (and to return), and the right not to be forcibly displaced.
From this perspective, forced migration is understood as the product of the destruction of the structural conditions necessary to ensure the right to a dignified life in one’s community of origin. Ultimately this means challenging the defense of borders and their enforcement, and underlining how such paradigms and policies are inherently unjust, everywhere they have been imposed, and must be dismantled.
Radical articulations such as “No human being is illegal,” “No borders on stolen land,” and “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” refuse the rights-based, liberal platitudes of innocence, desirability, and assimilation and challenge the legitimacy of the border itself as an institution of governance. Many movements also highlight how migration is an embodied expression of decolonial reparations and redistribution, thus revealing a convergence of migrant and global justice movements (against the arms trade, vaccine apartheid, unfair trade agreements, debt, climate change, and so on).
The U.S.-Mexico border — and Mexico’s southern border, which has become its extension — are crucial arenas in this necessary global struggle.
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