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Borderland conditions between the united states and Mexico: a conversation between Rachel St. John and Natalia Mendoza.

The border as a unit of analysis becomes a key player when addressing issues of transnational scale. Throughout history, the shape and meaning of borders have evolved as dynamic configurations responding to a wide range of political, economic, and social affairs. In an effort to understand transnational organized crime (TOC) from a geographical lens, historian Rachel St. John and anthropologist Natalia Mendoza reflect on the changing condition of the U.S.-Mexico border and its spillover effect on peripheral communities. St. John has analyzed the history of the borderlands in her book Line in the Sand, where she explains how the capability of the border to attract people to it creates "a form of negotiated sovereignty" subject to "practical difficulties, transnational forces, local communities and the actions of their counterparts across the line." (1) Mendoza's ethnographical approach to her field work in the village of Altar in Sonora, Mexico, produced a collection of local narratives on how a community around the border has developed creative ways, both legal and extralegal, to confront the boundary line at a time when governments extend and reinforce the space of state surveillance. The following is a conversation between these two scholars regarding organized crime at the U.S.-Mexico border that can provide a better understanding of a wider conditionality of the boundary line.

Natalia Mendoza: I read your work, Line in the Sand, with great interest, and I think it speaks in remarkable ways to a debate that has been going on in local Mexican media over the last couple of years regarding the wave of violence in Mexico.

There are two main ways in which your work is significant to Mexico: one has to do with the periodization you suggest, and the other has to do with the geographical demarcations you establish. The debate in Mexican media has been largely focused on trying to prove that President Calderon's strategy to combat drug trade is the main cause of the increase in violence.

In Mexico, many believe this all started in 2006, when the president took office, and that the rise in violence is the logical consequence of the way the drug trafficking problem was addressed. Your work shows that issues at the border have been going on for a much longer period of time. It would be interesting to discuss whether there is a larger, more long-term view of this problem. Is the rise of violence perhaps a new form of an old problem?

The fact that you choose the borderlands both in Mexico and in the United States as your geographical frame of study is also very interesting. The debate has so far respected national boundaries and been largely focused on the question of who is to blame for the violence: the Mexican or the U.S. government? We have lost a social history perspective to this problem, which will show what happens to the border itself. Both sides, as a unit, are not examined in the context of TOC. There are very few approaches that really take the border and the areas around the border as the main unit of analysis.

Rachel St. John: This question about periodization is interesting because there is a tendency in the history of the border to create a very long narrative in which the border has always been violent. The media portrays a kind of continuity between Apache raids and the violence in Juarez, either broadly or specifically related to the drug trade.

However, there are different kinds of violence; connecting the drug violence to very specific institutional changes is actually important. As an interested observer, I have also followed the discussions about how Calderon and his policies have been connected to this rise in violence. Other kinds of violence, particularly the sort of long-standing violence against women in Juarez, for instance, have become subsumed within this category of drug violence. I think that what is happening with women in Juarez, or the violence perpetrated against migrants, is not the same as the violence that is emerging between the government and drug cartels and people who are caught in between.

What is interesting is that this violence is building upon the older networks of violence. I was particularly struck by your article, "The Right to Bury," where you talk about the Yaqui in Sonora. By cartels making a connection with the Yaqui people, there is a link to a longer history of violence against the state in which Yaqui have been involved. There is a cultural tradition of oppression by the state, but there is also a long-standing pattern of smuggling that is now being incorporated into transnational drug trading networks. Even though there is no direct continuity, there are older traditions of smuggling on the border. The Yaqui have been involved in arms smuggling on the border first, in order to arm their own resistance movements against the Mexican government in the late nineteenth century, and also during the Mexican revolution. There is a historical tradition of smuggling among people who live along the Mexican border, particularly those people who have seen the Mexican state as an enemy.

Mendoza: Yes, we have seen recently that all violence gets conflated into drug trafficking violence. It is very important to recognize that there are different forms of violence that have different temporal realities--they did not begin simultaneously.

My research has been focused on one particular village on the border-state Sonora, called Altar. Even though I think it is representative of a larger reality, it is also quite singular as a place. Altar is a municipality that is mainly rural. Ten years ago, it was still primarily living on cattle and agriculture.

Currently we see a rupture--a transformation that I call "cartelization." Journalism, certain kinds of academic work, and governmental discourses, have created almost fictitious entities, which are called the cartels. But where are these cartels in a place like Altar? What is the reality of these cartels? Ten or fifteen years ago, independent groups that were based in Altar carried most of the drug smuggling across the border. They bought the drugs from other individuals and smuggled them as autonomous entities, not working specifically for a larger structure such as a cartel.

For example, I met a couple who wanted to get married, and, in order to get the money for the wedding, they decide to smuggle drugs across the border as a one-shot deal. So that kind of smuggling was perceived as part of a tradition of smuggling things across the border, not as a professional network. Recently what has happened in that part of the border is that all these independent smugglers can no longer survive on their own; they either work for larger organizations or just do something else. Today, if you want to be in the business of smuggling drugs then you have to follow the rules of larger, more organized structures. These rules require that you pay large amounts of money in order to have the authorities run a blind eye to your activities. So the cost of smuggling has increased to a point that smugglers can no longer be independent.

In this particular rural part of the border, the people who live there and were accustomed to making a profit out of the border have lost that possibility. What used to be administered locally is now in the hands of larger structures, both by the government and by the cartels. Do you think that this tendency towards central control of the borderlands is something that we have been seeing for a long time?

St. John: The kind of centralization that you are talking about is something that ebbs and flows. To a large extent, I think it is a response to a ratcheting up of state surveillance and control over the border. When the state increases its regulations and restrictions it requires people who are trying to evade those restrictions to increase their coordination and change their efforts. It is a corollary to the argument about Calderon's administration, which attempts to crackdown on the drug trade by using the military. But the question is: is there a crackdown happening at the border as well? And in response: do people need to coordinate in order to evade those government efforts? What is interesting about that question is whether it is coming from individuals. The couple you speak of, for instance, is their problem that they cannot cross the border by themselves, or is it that the networks themselves are expanding and capturing all of the trade in order for them to control it?

Mendoza: That is a question I could not answer myself. Last December when I was talking to locals there, I expected them to say that things had become more complicated because of the new Mexican government policy on drug trafficking. However, most people I talked to thought of this as a process independent from governmental policies and more related to the development of drug trafficking itself. If that is true, then it means that there are other processes that are not necessarily a consequence of governmental policies.

St. John: The primary narrative of a place like Altar coincides with the history of immigration control on the border over the last twenty years. In the mid-1990s, the crackdown on the border ports of entry through California led to an increase in illicit entries across the Arizona border for the first time. In the United States, the emphasis tends to be on immigration control. Focusing on the rationale for controls along the border for immigration also affects drug trafficking. So you have to add this factor to understand how much of this is internal to the Mexican state, how much of it is external to the U.S. state, and then how much of these are actually cooperative efforts.

To me it is striking that drug policy and immigration policy are talked about in very different ways. Immigration policy is always talked about as a U.S. policy, and when people talk about Calderon, they mostly talk how he is doing things in order to respond to what the U.S. government wants, but these two things are actually working together. Drug trade and migration are not separate things. Immigrants are often found carrying drugs, so drug trade and immigration are increasingly linked.

Mendoza: We are constrained by the idea of national histories. Do you think that this recent wave of violence, which has arguably caused more than 70,000 deaths in Mexico, has expanded across the border? Have we seen an increase in violence on the U.S. side of the borderlands?

St. John: It is not my area of research, but based on what I have read, the U.S. border cities are relatively safe. The violence actually does stop at the border to a large extent. People often point to the rhetoric of the dangerousness of the border for Americans. But as much as the drug violence is crossing over, it is crossing over into cities that are far away from the border. Moreover, most of the violence is targeted at Mexicans or migrants coming from other places. This is not violence that is affecting Americans nearly as much as Mexicans--it does break down along national lines.

I often find myself thinking that there seems to be enough organization that at least people in the cartels seem to be trying to avoid killing Americans. While at the same time they seem to have no problem killing large numbers of Mexicans. I do not actually know if that is true but the numbers make it seem like it must be a conscious effort.

Mendoza: Could you think of another period in history in which we saw something similar to what we are seeing on the border now?

St. John: Not specifically similar to what we are seeing now, but I think an interesting corollary to how violence crosses the border and how violence is perceived is the Mexican Revolution. There was great concern within the United States, particularly people in border communities, about whether the violence on the other side of the border was going to cross over. As the war progressed, there were moments when the violence did cross the border. Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, is the best known example. But there were also smaller transborder raids; there are also a number of incidents where stray bullets accidentally crossed the line.

Considering the extent of violence in Mexico, and the general perception of revolutionary armies being entirely out of control, it is actually quite striking that the violence did stop at the border most of the time. There were major battlefields in a number of border cities--in Juarez, Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, and Agua Prieta. All these cities experienced battles that went right up to the boundary line and stopped at the boundary line. There was a powerful rhetoric from the time of the Mexican Revolution, in which people talked about how the boundary line seemed like an imaginary line, but it was actually quite powerful. It could be the difference between life and death. That is still true today. The boundary line between citizenship matters; the difference between being a working-class woman in E1 Paso and being one in Ciudad Juarez is very significant.

Mendoza: It interesting to notice that people in Altar, in 2004, also saw violence as coming from elsewhere, and more specifically the south of Mexico. Families that have lived there for three or four generations, mostly ranchers, see themselves as closer to an Arizona ranger than to southern Mexican or Guatemalan. They often say, "we are rangers, sometimes we smuggle drugs across the border, but we do not kill people. It is the people from the south of Mexico and from Central America that change the ways in which we used to do things." This kind of violence was an interruption of their traditional way of administering the border.

St. John: I think it is interesting because there is an older tradition of violence in Sonora and other parts of the Mexican north. This frontier violence--against Indians in particular--was something that bound border communities to Arizona. They could share a common enemy and the fact that they were frontier fighters. It also ties this to a broader way of thinking about transnational criminal organization. To what extent do the people who you are speaking to perceive themselves to be part of the organization? Or do they think the organization is something that is elsewhere that they are just working for?

Mendoza: There is quite a recent development in Altar. In 2004, when I was there the first time, I did not find one single person that would consider himself--because these were mostly men--to be part of a cartel. They talked about themselves as working for different bosses as subcontractors. For example, when somebody came into town and wanted to get something across the border, he would just find somebody who could give him that service. There were no professionals hired constantly by these organizations. Today there is a whole new population being employed on a constant basis. These are mostly young men between fifteen and twenty-five years old that receive a permanent pay of anywhere from $250 to $600 per month, and are required to report all the movements they see. It has become a profession for some. This is something that did not happen before. Today, these people do think of themselves as part of a cartel.

St. John: Do they perceive themselves as part of the violence?

Mendoza: Of course.

St. John: Smuggling has often been a very innocent activity. For example, if you do not want to take your cattle all the way to Nogales, you might cross at an unauthorized point. That is smuggling. But it is an innocent smuggling, not a dangerous one. That allows them to separate themselves from the violence as well.

Mendoza: People in Altar used to argue that the assassins, or sicarios, were people that come from somewhere else. However, there is a growing sensation that it is their own children that take on other identities and do these things at night. This produces a growing feeling of suspicion and mistrust among members of the same village, which also makes action of retaliation more likely and produces local chains of violence that are harder to stop.

There is the sense that the U.S. government is more present. They say that it has become more difficult to smuggle things across the border; they do not say it is because the Mexican army is more present, but because the U.S. policy has become stronger. Also, the criminal organizations have privatized crossing points, for example, someone's ranch that had once been for common use. Today if you want to smuggle something across the border you have to pay for the right to do so. Somebody has taken control of that particular place, whether he owns the ranch or not.

St. John: The perception appears that this particular form of organized crime is all about control across the border--that it is all about smuggling. This is seen as a national problem; it is a conversation largely contained within Mexico. Are the drug cartels themselves reactive, or is it that new suppliers emerged? We talk as though there is a Mexican state, a U.S. state, the drug cartel, and that these organizations stay the same. Are drug cartels actually that organized and powerful, or are new people emerging?

Mendoza: We need to create a narrative that is an alternative and not limited to the American state, the Mexican state, and the cartel--try to see what are the other forces at stake. I think it might have to do with the fact that knowledge is concentrated in certain places. Altar became prominent as a migration crossing point; after making use of this knowledge and expertise, it became a major drug-crossing point too. There is an accumulation of knowledge and skills from certain places that become important and useful in a way that produces local agency. There is also an attempt by people in these places to force the cartel to move into their region. They fight for the cartel to choose them because it brings a lot of profit to those places.

St. John: There are a lot of interesting stories that you bring out in your article very well. For example, how powerful organizations are dependent on local knowledge from ranchers; people who we do not usually think of as being sophisticated or high tech, but who have knowledge of the local landscape and experience with getting across the border. One of the things that is interesting in the history of the border is that there is always a sort of fight between border agents. By the time the U.S. government started monitoring immigration and customs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, you had agents who took local circumstances into consideration. So they had, and still have, strict rules on the book, but it may not make sense to enforce those rules so strictly when you know most of the people who are crossing. It is interesting to think about how these cartels tap into the local network. They are also tapping into local knowledge by recruiting people--who might cross daily for work--to smuggle and incorporate themselves in the day-to-day life of the people who live by the border.

Mendoza: People in Altar used to say that all smuggling coming out of Altar used to go through what they called la puerta de los papagos, which stands for the "Papago's door," an Indian reservation that happened to be binational. What is the history of this reservation?

St. John: The Papago, or Tohono O'odham, have lived for generations in what would become the border. When the border was drawn in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, it went right through these peoples' homeland. But, the U.S. government did not create the reservation until the twentieth century. It is a community of people who continue to live in Mexico and in the United States and, for social, economic, cultural, and religious reasons, move back and forth across the border. One of the things that actually happened in recent years is that the U.S. government, in particular, has placed a more strictly controlled access point near the reservation. It had formerly been a more unguarded place, much like Arizona had not been controlled strictly. A closing down of the main points of immigrant entry became a big source of tension on the reservation.

There is a type of adaptation in any sort of network in which you are moving. When the movements are contested by big bodies like organized crime and the state, there are going to be points that people choose most and where governments try to police access. In the drug trade, which is a massive transnational trade, the U.S.-Mexican border, for both practical and political reasons, has become one of those places.

The scholar, Peter Andreas, wrote a book called Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, where he makes a very convincing case that the border has become significant in political rhetoric. The politics of border control has become predominant, even while there are many different places where you can control access to drugs. You can control access to drugs on the site of production and at the site of consumption--controlling drug consumption in clubs in New York City, for example. So for political reasons, the border has become a site where the state is trying to contest control.

That means the cartels are moving in and asserting themselves in more significant ways. Add to that, migrants without money come from other places and lack connection to people who have power. So you have a large population of incredibly vulnerable people who do not have a social network, alongside a contest between the state and the cartels. I think that it is not surprising to have large-scale violence.

Mendoza: I think it has become more and more violent, not only because the U.S. and the Mexican governments have privileged a military response to it, but also because of an internal tendency towards monopolistic and territorial control by the cartels. The question is, to what extent this tendency has been reinforced or actually encouraged by the Mexican government? In a way, for the Mexican state, it is easier to have one interlocutor in drug trafficking, instead of having the whole town population smuggling in a disorganized way. To some extent, I think it is deliberate to choose one single cartel that is the main business body as interlocutor, and then everyone could fall under your control. I think that the violence we are seeing in the border is the result of all these organizations trying to fully control drug trafficking. That was not the case fifteen years ago, where we had many independent drug traffickers.

For instance, there used to be ten different families smuggling drugs across the border in Altar. Each family would independently negotiate with authorities. They would talk to the president of the municipality, the police, and the military. They would pay a set amount of money to all the authorities to not interfere. Nowadays, you have one single person negotiating in the name of everyone and making arrangements so that whoever is working under his command gets to benefit, leaving other small actors out of the game.

Of course, there is resistance from the other actors who were in the business and are now out. The cartel monopoly plays into the violence that we are seeing at the border.

So I think we should change the main question: instead of asking how do we get rid of drug-trafficking, which has proved virtually impossible, we should ask what kind of drug trafficking do we want to have? I know this is a question that we cannot ask politically. But I think that should really be the question to ask. Do we want the kind of drug trafficking that is controlled locally, that distributes benefits between a larger part of the population, and is less violent? Or, do we want a centralized monopoly that concentrates benefits in some few persons and depends on constant as systemic violence to maintain its territorial control? The answer to such question should be the directive to thinking the best public policies for the matter.

St. John: The point you make is very important. The violence at the border is not natural. I think there is a tendency for people to want to think that it is natural. The violence is the product of very specific policy decisions coming together with transnational drug trade and transnational migration routes that have led the border to be this way.


(1) Rachel St. John, Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border (United States of America: Princeton University Press, 2011), 7.
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Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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