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  Number 405 | Abril 2015
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Central America

The American Dream’s anteroom is Mexico’s nightmare, Solid and liquid border vigilance, part 1

The United States, with Mexico as its underling, has created a corridor of solid and liquid vigilance over the amalgam of drugs, terrorism and immigrants. Mexico has pawned its own sovereignty to be a platform where US anti-drug, -terrorist and –immigrant organizations can directly patrol, investigate, amass and assess information, and witness interrogations and torture.

José Luis Rocha

The surveillance operations of the policies designed to repel immigrants have both “solid” and “liquid” expressions, often more theatrical than effective, that are executed to “thicken” the borders.

“Solid” anti-immigrant vigilance:
The panoptic model

“Solid” vigilance draws on the idea of the panopticon: a form of architecture that allows surveillance, imprisonment, monitoring, confinement and control. According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, that model is alive and well and has been electronically reinforced, but is no longer the universal pattern of domination, as it is now restricted to prisons, psychiatric hospitals, camps and other institutions. It’s no longer used to incapacitate bodies. The classic panoptic model is seen on the margins, in urban areas where the poor are segregated and subjected to a form of punitive and penetrating vigilance under the pretext of promoting wellbeing in their homes.

It’s what Loïc Wacquant calls “social panopticism,” exercised through the collaboration of the State’s social arm and coercive fist. A “normal” example is the patrolling of poor neighborhoods with a high delinquency rate such as Jorge Dimitrov and Reparto Schick in Managua, El Gallito in Guatemala City’s Zone 3, Medina in San Pedro Sula, El Sitio in Tegucigalpa and San Jacinto and Lourdes in San Salvador.

In Nicaragua, as part of its community work, combining social work with punitive vigilance, the National Police conduct house-to-house visits to monitor PIPs (people of interest to the police), who are the opposite of VIPs (very important people). Another example of this model is the vaccination campaigns in Pakistan done by CIA-paid doctors to collect the DNA and addresses of people suspected of terrorism.

“Liquid” vigilance:
The banoptic model

When the poor escape their neighborhoods and flee their countries, the surveillance efforts add another strategy, known as the “banopticon,” a model applied to the world’s marginalized. This neologism, coined by Didier Bigo, Professor at King’s College London Department of War studies, and based on the word “ban” (exclusion), refers to a strict vigilance exercised through profiling using computer technology.

Sociologist David Lyon, known internationally for his work in Surveillance Studies, offers this description of the banopticon: “Its dispositif shows who is welcome or not, creating categories of people excluded not just from a given nation-State but from a rather amorphous and not unified cluster of global powers. And it operates virtually, using networked databases to channel flows of data.” The laws and bureaucratic procedures single out a group to subject it to a specific treatment.

The banopticon fulfills two functions: building exclusion and applying measures. Using the terminology of feminist philosopher Judith Butler, we can describe it as “per¬formative exclusion,” in which the excluded group is created by applying a certain treatment to it. The administrative measures subject those who are excluded so as to label them and that subjection in turn generates a duly classified group.

Central Americans:
Labeled with racial criteria

The labeling criteria tend to be racial, according to Oscar H. Gandy Jr., author of The Panoptic Sort. These criteria and the accompanying administrative measures are part of racializing, a term anthropologist Nicholas De Genova employs to emphasize the processes by which the meanings and distinctions attributed to race come to be produced and continually reproduced. As they are always intertwined with social relations and conflicts, they retain a lasting importance because their specific forms and substantive meaning are eminently historical and mutable.

The jokes and images disseminated in songs, stories and films are vehicles for the stereotypes of racialization. The banopticon allows those of artisanal origin to be reproduced and expanded until they achieve greater sophistication and become tools of the bureaucracy in the search to build an ordered universe: a nation that is not a random collection of individuals, but rather a coherent community of citizens.

In that imagined community, Mexicans have played a role in the US hierarchical racial organization in different ways throughout history. De Genova has studied them as being in the crossfire of the polarity between whites and blacks established by the US racial economy. In the past three decades, Central Americans have been incorporated into that group. Migrating to the United States subjects them to racialization as Mexicans and to similar measures of control and rejection. In other words, it subjects them to the panopticon and the banopticon.

Differences between the
panopticon and banopticon

Bauman sustains that “the surge in the global mass of exiles, refugees, asylum seekers—or seekers of bread and drinking water—may indeed boost both kinds of surveillance technology.” But each of them has different mechanisms and effects.

The panopticon is useful for controlling those already identified and confined, for keeping them inside and fenced in, disciplined in confinement, while the banopticon repels them at a distance, excluding them with security measures. The panopticon used to be accompanied by physical violence, which implied visual—albeit asymmetrical—and physical contact, while the banopticon privileges computerized contact, based as it is on the meticulous classification of populations into categories destined for different treatments.

Banoptic mechanisms are more useful for containing migration because their function is “to promptly spot individuals who show signs of unwillingness to fall into line or who plot to breach those binding patterns.” Those that most challenge such control are migrants and coyotes. That’s why the laws on illegal trafficking and their dissemination through organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UN agencies, which operate under the glossy varnish of a heroic campaign against trafficking, form part of the long legal and organizational arm implementing the banopticon and seeking to subject those disobedient people.

When borders are databases

The way the banopticon complements the panopticon is not merely a question of added value. It implies a qualitative transformation because it restores vigilance in the field of liquid modernity, which is the paradigm Bauman uses to explain the specificities of what others call postmodernity, late modernity, the risk society or cognitive capitalism.

It’s in this field in part because it’s exercised in a de-localized way. According to David Lyon, surveillance power, as exercised by government departments, police agencies and private corporations, is more liquid: national borders no longer have just a geographical location; they now appear in databases.

These bases are ubiquitous; they levitate in cyberspace. Lyon sustains that “although the paraphernalia of checkpoints or Customs and Immigration offices may be at border crossings, the use of remote databases and telecommunications networks means that the crucial—and consequential—checking happens extraterritorially or at least in multiple locations whose actual whereabouts is immaterial…” Often—dramatically but not exclusively in the case of unmanned drones—it amounts to remote surveillance that speeds up the process of acting from a long way away and separates those performing the surveillance from the consequences of their actions. Finally, it’s a form of vigilance in which the data processing is automated, with the statistics and software that classify people with racial criteria put into invisible hands.

A dynamic that dehumanizes
both watchers and watched

The stigma that Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman studied as generated during direct contact among people—stigmatized and normal people who interact intimately or impersonally, occasionally or habitually—becomes cybernetic stigma here. It’s not the reaction of a human being faced with a particularity that poses a burden on society, but rather the kind of reaction a metal detector might have. And although it’s about detecting elements of a social identity (Goffman prefers this term to that of “social status” because in stigmas—and also in vigilance— not just attributes such as occupation but also personal attributes such as honesty are important), a stigma by definition consists of believing that the person stigmatized isn’t entirely human. We’re thus facing a dynamic of double dehumanization: in the person doing the watching and the person being watched.

Humanity becomes limited to a few categories. The watcher is a system and the person being watched is reduced to a hodgepodge of attributes, those the immigration authorities’ classification attributes to them through a dismemberment and selection of features: dark-skinned, with a bag or backpack, with boots or sneakers... Lyon argues that statistical and classificatory treatment “can ‘de-face’ the Other by ‘screening out’ all but its categories.”

We could therefore say that the classifying mechanisms create the stigma by de-facing. Goffman described stigma as a special relation between the attribute and the stereotype. In the banopticon we have certain processors who, guided by the stereotype, build an attribute of individuals and population groups by classifying them.

According to Bauman, that desire to classify, or pigeonhole, is rooted in the conviction that progress is a journey toward perfection, a striving that defines the modern era and calls for “eradicating, wiping out and getting rid of innumerable beings unlikely to be accommodated in a perfect scheme of things.” Perhaps that is the meaning behind plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”

A depersonalized bureaucracy

The three characteristics of the banopticon—de-localization, remote acting and automation—become the most comprehensive product of bureaucratic government’s impersonality, according to Hannah Arendt’s famous characterization: “bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.”

Automation, distance and de-localization remove passion from the control; they depersonalize it. Lyon mentions the meticulous organization, the careful separation of the official from the “victim,” and the mechanical efficiency of the operation. It’s an aseptic process that depersonalizes and creates an asymmetry of transparency: “As power moves with the speed of electronic signals in the fluidity of liquid modernity, transparency is simultaneously increased for some and decreased for others.” This exacerbates the imbalances of power in the digital era, reinforcing the impersonality and paving the way for bureaucrats to distance themselves from the consequences of their actions.

But we will see that, as Lyon accurately observes, solid vigilance still exists and matters because, although power is global and extraterritorial, politics continues to be local and incapable of acting at a planetary level. To compensate for that weakness, borders have been extended inward and outward for each nation-State.

The US border starts in Mexico

In the post-9/11 world in which experts and politicians from the liberal democracies assume that security is a central value threatened by global terrorism, migratory policies tend to build thicker borders. Inside, the State applies military technology in the desert areas next to the border, performs national espionage operations that violate basic citizens’ rights and breaks down the barrier between public and private by appropriating private information to track criminals and terrorists.

Outside, the US government has been resoundingly successful in transnationalizing (in)security through a series of military and diplomatic alliances that allow it to engage in long-distance patrolling. It isn’t just a question of inspections in airports and globalized police round-ups, or biometric techniques that allow disciplining and punishment beyond its borders. In the field of drug trafficking the fumigation operations over Putumayo, Colombia, are the most emblematic of this border extension. In migration terms, certain territories resemble the forest reserve buffer zones where certain settlers can live knowing that it’s an area of strict vigilance to keep alien elements from penetrating the reserve itself.

Mexico performs this function in US anti-immigrant vigilance. For this reason, and because it’s a territory that Central Americans cross, I chose to start this report on US border vigilance there. The liquidity and solidity of the vigilance combine to make it more arduous and fertile for collateral damage, but do they make it more effective? What mechanisms are used to increase its powers of data-gathering, persuasion and punishment?

Mexico’s 2,237 miles
of lethal border

To get to the United States, most undocumented Central Americans have to cross Mexico, that gigantic 3,600-kilometer “vertical border” bracketed between the Río Suchiate and the Río Grande. Crossing it is an ordeal that doesn’t satisfy the US government or the xenophobic host in which the migrants risk their life inch by inch.

That expanded border bristles with deadly dangers. Mexico is the country into which some estimate that 2,000 arms enter every day from the liberalized US market on their way to the skilled, permanently combat-ready hands of drug-hitmen. It’s the country where during President Calderón’s government an average of one person was murdered every hour, where officials from its Attorney General’s office—the institution designated to fight drug trafficking since 1947—appear on cartel payrolls with monthly salaries of up to US$450,000. It’s where top police posts sell for millions of dollars to those managing the drug-trafficking operations and ordinary police officers grant drug barons permission to kidnap in their strongholds in exchange for a modest negotiated commission.

In this country, the State trains elite police officers and pays for them to attend courses abroad, only to see them turn into mercenaries of the narco-industry. In 2011 alone in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, the National Defense Secretariat identified 21 police corps at the service of Los Zetas cartel. Mexico is where Concepción Moreno from El Ahorcado, Querétaro, was sentenced to six years in prison for feeding Central American migrants. We’re told by legendary journalist Julio Scherer that migrants there are the victims of “a hornet’s nest of criminals protected by [police] badges and dressed in the trappings and ways of power.” The dangers of travelling through Mexico exceed the terror already experienced by most Central American migrants—those who come from what organized crime expert Edgardo Buscaglia calls “the triangle of death” (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala), a region into which Mexican drug barons have extended their dominions and that devours the best intentions.

Mexico is clearly a migrant screen, one of the best tools of the US banopticon. The same selection of migrants that took place on Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 is currently happening throughout Mexico in the most brutal way and with the savage trimmings of natural selection. That’s why “vertical border” is an expression whose descriptive efficacy reaches far beyond metaphorical evocations. It complements the banopticon theory.

The link between free trade
and military vigilance

Mexico is a border in at least two senses: one formal and the other informal, depending on the disposition of the territorial control providers the migrants come up against. In the formal sense, Mexico is a border because it extended into its own territory the illegalization of migration and implementation of anti-immigrant operations that have characterized US policy in recent decades. And it did so precisely at the rhythm of demands coming from Washington in a shameless subjection that wounds the national pride of many Mexicans.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has become a transnational agency that imposes operations and directly coordinates with the Mexican State’s police squads. In so doing it exercises a kind of world governance in its attempt to control drug trafficking that takes absolutely no care of global public assets, to borrow the criticism of Nobel Economics Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz with respect to the International Monetary Fund’s financial policies.

Mexico’s government added its territory to the US-created corridor of vigilance so the United States could extend its geopolitical border southward and create a security perimeter removed from US territory and the military-industrial complex infrastructure.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has been the cornerstone of a strategy that interweaves free trade and the interests of military vigilance. The byproduct, according to Mexican analyst Juan Manuel Sandoval, is “copied or made-in-the-USA measures, turning Mexico into a border country; in other words the border between North America and the rest of the continent.” The instruments through which Mexico fulfills its functions in the buffer zone include Plan Mexico, also known as the Mérida Initiative, and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) against drug trafficking.

The horror caused by
“the war against drugs”

The Calderón government (2006-2012) showed its first sign of submission to Washington’s dictates by allowing the extradition of 15 drug barons. By declaring a war on drugs in a vain attempt to legitimate his challenge-riddled access to the presidential office, Calderón put not only the streets but also citizens’ rights in the army’s hands, with the terrible results journalist Marcela Turati documented in her book Cross-Fire: Victims Trapped in the War on Drugs.

Calderón’s war resulted in the detention of a few minor drug barons and 46,000 murders that former Salvadoran guerrilla comandante Joaquín Villalobos hailed as the inevitable side effects that indicate a successful fight: “The current expansion and multiplication of violence isn’t happening because of the growth of organized crime, but rather its weakening and fragmentation.”

Human Rights Watch amply denounced the costs of becoming an extension of the US border and subjecting itself to Washington’s dictates, placing the reins of territorial control in the hands of a corrupt coercive apparatus open to all kinds of rackets to improve its performance indicators. These costs include torture cases whose impunity involves the complicity of judges and medical opinions; forced disappearances that are then turned into “false positives” as civilians kidnapped, murdered and presented as drug-trafficking agents; and the customary habit of planting evidence to implicate innocent people.

Anti-drug, anti-terrorism
and anti-immigrant

Migrants are among the victims of tightening controls, militarized surveillance and the handling of organized crime with no distinction made between a coyote crossing the border with a dozen Central Americans and a drug lord moving tons of cocaine. Both are illegal commodities and that’s how they are treated.

The United States and Mexico as its underling have created a vigilance corridor for monitoring drugs, terrorism and immigrants in a braid derived from war, terrorism and the fight against crime. In defense of sovereignty, Mexico pawns its own to become a platform where US anti-drug, anti-terrorism and anti-migrant organizations can operate directly: three divine agencies and only one real government. In 2011, Mexico was crawling with more than 500 US agents—Green Berets, DEA, CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and others—who were busy patrolling, investigating, advising, amassing information and witnessing interrogations and torture. At least 40 were employed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and 100 by Transportation Security Administration.

In the thick of these US impositions, an executive branch agreement of May 18, 2006, exalted Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM)—13 years after its creation—into a national security body, which obligates it to integrate its databases with the security systems and provide information about “acts leading to espionage, sabotage, terrorism, rebellion, treason against the homeland and other crimes against the United States of Mexico within national territory.” Within the framework of these extended border services granted to the US by the Mexican government as recompense for commercial trade, temporary immigrant worker agreements, financial relations and technical advice, migrants have come under the scrutiny of Mexican national security.

Between 2001 and 2014, as a result of the borderization of Mexico, its INM deported 1,642,452 Central Americans: 767,707 Guatemalans, 575,811 Hondurans, 275,581 Salvadorans and 23,353 Nicaraguans. It has acted more efficiently than its colleagues in ICE which, in the same period, deported 864,493 Central Americans.

Fascism underlies
globalized surveillance

The vertical border works. It doubles the number of excluded, those kept away through surveillance and the forcefulness of the US banopticon that now extends the expulsion area in Mexico beyond the conventional border strip to form a 2,237 mile-long legal and military border. Bauman reminds us that “the United States moved its immigration agents from the airport arrival gates to the point of departure.”

Didier Bigo analyzed the essence of this when he wrote that the globalization of security promulgated by the United States and its allies after 9/11 is designed to make national borders obsolete artifacts and compel other international players to collaborate. At the same time, Bigo maintains, it makes obsolete the conventional distinction between the universe of war, defense, and an international order and strategy on the one hand, and a universe of crime, internal security, public order and police investigations on the other.

This explains the creation of globalized law enforcement networks and police work assigned to the military. It also explains the mixing of the idea of war with that of criminal. That’s why Bigo coined the term “global complicity of domination” as a concept that recognizes the fascism underlying this globalized surveillance, an instrument of the neocolonial project that exports liberty and fights evil.

Migrants are an appetizing
commodity for drug traffickers

Central American migration to the United States takes place in this context of expulsions, globalized security and the yoke between police on the warpath and a law-enforcing army. That’s why successful territorial control—or the tenacity of migrants bent on circumventing it—can’t be measured just in numbers of deportees, but also in the unknown number of those who return terrified under their own steam and those who don’t even make the attempt because of the deterrent effect of a country at war. Mexico’s vertical border exemplifies one seamless banopticon with elongated border areas.

Mexico is also a vertical border in an informal sense that needs dissecting. This informal sense is linked to the globalization of security, as commercial opportunities emerge that—paradoxically, but consistently—globalized surveillance opens up to organized crime.

In the words of Buscaglia: “A third disadvantage that exists in Mexico is the proliferation of both migrant and human trafficking towards the United States. These problems would be difficult to resolve without the participation of the US government, as regulatory excesses of that country’s legal migration create a surplus demand for labor that is covered by the organized crime operating in Mexico. This is an example of how a bi-national dynamic clearly promotes the existence and growth of transnational organized crime.”

My hypothesis is that the increasing illegalization of migratory movements transforms migrants into an appetizing commodity while changes in the drug-trafficking enterprises have whetted this appetite. After the blows dealt to the Colombian cartels—first to that of Medellín, then of Cali and finally of Norte del Valle—the Mexican cartels took on the role of capitalist partners previously held by the Colombians, a role that involves paying the supplier for the cocaine then waiting for the results from sales. Since the flow from drug dealing is slow, both by its illicit nature and because it depends on retailing crack, it needs the up-front liquidity that can come from what’s accrued by drug-related activities or other sources.

Small drug-trafficking cells wanting to break into this market also need other sources of funding as seed capital. One such source has been the sustained looting of Pemex, with massive pipes and even oil pipelines that syphon the para-state company’s oil stocks to legal outlets in Texas. In El Cartel Negro: Como el crimen organizado se ha apoderado de Pemex (The Black Cartel: How Organized Crime Owns Pemex), a book that forced its author Ana Lilia Pé­rez into exile in Germany, she reported a Pemex subcontractors’ network in Tabasco that was a Gulf cartel front and Los Zetas cells in Tamaulipas that expropriated companies providing services to Pemex, and these were only some of the strategies implemented with the complicity of high and low-level Pemex employees.

Remittances and extortions

And with that we come to another source of money: Central American migrants. In 2009, the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico estimated that Los Zetas and other groups linked to drug-trafficking had obtained annual earnings of US$50 million through kidnapping and extorting migrants, basically Central Americans, for whom they asked anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 in ransom per person, with an average amount of $2,500.

Los Zetas and others quickly gleaned that $50 million was just a tiny part of the $1.2 billion in remittances Central American migrants sent to their home countries in 2008. As extortion payments are sent through banks and regular remittance transfer agencies, they counted as Mexican remittances, but barely constitute 0.2% of the over US$25.4 million Mexico received in remittances that year.

They were also a tiny amount compared to the tens of billions of dollars the Mexican drug trade handles or the $3 billion that drug traffickers move in the Central American region annually. But there’s no doubt that the profit from these extortions is vitally important revenue for more than one drug trafficking cell.

Los Zetas are the most feared of all

Kidnappings are attributed by the public and the media to Los Zetas, whose original nucleus was formed by deserters from an elite military unit; they emerged from the predictable recycling of the Amphibian Special Forces Groups (GAFES). They are another by-product of the Cold War: over a third of GAFES’ founders were apt students at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning.

In official circles it’s believed that the name comes from the Federal Judicial Police radio code (Z1) of its first commander, Arturo Guzmán Decena. Others think it alludes to the name of its founder: Zeferino Cuéllar. But when Heriberto Lazcano (Z-3), founding member and leader of the cartel from 2002 until his death in 2012, was asked “Why Zetas?” he replied: “Because there’s nothing after Z.”

Its recruitment tactics are effective. On the morning of April 14, 2008, a banner appeared in Reynosa with this message: “Los Zetas operational group wants you, military or former military. We offer you a good salary, food and care for your family. No more mistreatment, no more hunger. We won’t give you Maruchan instant noodle soup to eat.” Its appeal crosses borders: in recent years it’s been strengthened with deserters from the Guatemalan army, the so-called Kaibiles.

Los Zetas emerged in 2002 as hitmen for Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the former Gulf of Mexico cartel’s strongman. They went independent in 2007 and exploited their connections with senior police and military—the source of many of their recruits—in order to fight with Cárdenas for his home turf, building itself into the most feared criminal enterprise in Mexico.

Drug-traffickers also
kidnap and murderer migrants

Journalists and human rights activists have documented migration agents selling Central American migrants to Los Zetas. If they can’t pay or don’t collaborate, they’re eliminated.

This happened in the massacre of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, as Roberto Saviano recalls for us in his book Cero Cero Cero (Zero, Zero, Zero): “It’s August 24, 2010. Seventy-two illegal migrants coming from South and Central America tried to cross the US border in Tamaulipas. They were herded together in a farmhouse where they began to be killed. One by one. They hadn’t paid the “toll” for crossing the border in their area or, much more likely, they hadn’t knuckled under to Los Zetas’ demand that they work for them.”

The kidnappers charge in coin or in labor: “If you don’t have the $1,500-2,000 needed to pay the coyote, you can redeem yourself by putting cocaine in your luggage.” Without discarding these motives, it’s worth considering the theory of one of the most diligent migration researchers, Rodolfo Casillas: the executions are punishments and exemplary penalties when the coyote doesn’t pay for the route.

Drug traffickers have been murdering migrants for many reasons. The scandal burst when piles of bodies appeared in mass graves in Mexico. A dozen were discovered in 2010 in Sonora, Campeche, Nuevo León, Guerrero, Chihuahua and Quintana Roo. Another 500 were found in drug graves in Durango and San Fernando in 2011 alone. The first massacre in San Fernando left 72 dead while the second added 193 bodies distributed in 47 mass graves. After those macabre findings, some young people, inspired by a strange sense of humor similar to the Santa Muerte cult, posted on Facebook: “Come, San Fernando is waiting for you with its graves open.”

Advertising isn’t a good idea because it “heats up the turf” calling attention and bringing in police and conflicts. That’s why some bosses order the elimination of the bodies of those whose lives have already been eliminated. At the other end of the Mexican-US border, the Tijuana cartel has an infallible technique for dissolving all traces of their victims. Santiago Meza López, nicknamed “El Pozolero” in reference to a traditional Mexican stewed meat, confessed to having disintegrated at least 300 bodies in caustic soda. The Arellano-Félix Organization (Tijuana cartel) paid him $600 a week.

Peña Nieto’s government:
one disappears every two hours

The colossal scale of the kidnapping, extortion and murder industry is just beginning to be known. Official records provided a figure early this year: 9,384 Mexicans disappeared in the first 22 months of Peña Nieto’s administration. During Calderón’s six-year term in office six Mexicans went missing per a day. So far in that of Peña Nieto one disappears every two hours.

Of the 250 cases of missing persons documented by Human Rights Watch between 2007 and 2013, 56% (140) were disappearances that either directly or indirectly involved state officials providing support or acquiescence: marine infantry and local or federal police. These figures don’t include migrants, whose kidnapping figures tend to be underestimated for obvious reasons: most of them don’t have family members or friends in Mexico to file complaints.

Based on statements by fellow travelers and survivors, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission documented 214 kidnappings of groups of migrants in the six months from April to September 2010: a total of 11,333 victims. Those reporting to the Commission as well as those who reported to the Human Rights Watch mentioned the complicity of agents from the INM and the federal, state and local police.

Journalist José Reveles said that police and migration agents were directly responsible for 3,000 “kidnappings of undocumented persons for purposes of extortion, theft, rape, torture and eventually murder.” The Beast—the train many migrants use to cross Mexico—often slows down a few hundred yards from the station to facilitate the kidnapping of migrants.

“We didn’t know who was who”

Calixto Mendoza, a native of Cojutepeque, El Salvador, explained the modus operandi in detail, in his case on a bus: “As we approached Reynosa, before reaching the terminal, a federal policeman stopped the bus and told the driver he was being diverted because he couldn’t pass through that street. We went to another, unknown, location. As soon as we got off the bus, we were surrounded by some rather strange looking cars. I thought it was the police. They started beating us and told us: ‘Do you know who we are? What password do you have?’ ‘We don’t have any password,’ we told them, ‘we’re Salvadorans who come here to pick fruit.’ ‘There’s no work like that here. The only work here is killing or selling drugs.’ And they kept on questioning and hitting us.

“Then, all of a sudden, we saw a police patrol coming. We ran and made it stop. The policeman stood up and told us: ‘Don’t be afraid, boys. They’re good people and are going to help you.’ We no longer knew who was who. They were all in cahoots there. They tied us up, put us in a car and took us into the city of Reynosa where they locked us up in a house that had 15 dogs. There were 30 women and 200 men. They told us: ‘You’re going to stay here until your family pays your ransom. If it takes more than 15 days, we’re going to kill you one by one. Whoever has their family’s telephone number must call them to pay your ransom. You’ll see: if you want to live, call your family. If not, you’re already dead.’”

“The drug-traffickers used us as bait”

“Those idiots spent the whole time high on marijuana. I thought that, God willing, they’d let us go at any moment but after a week they even stopped giving us soup with rice and ashes, marijuana ashes. One day they took one of us, blindfolded him and tied him up. They made him kneel and said: ‘This is what’ll happen to you if you don’t call your family.’ And right there in front of us they killed him. They shot him twice and said: ‘We’re from the Gulf cartel. We’re not playing with you.’

“Almost all were leaving, paying the $1,500. My sister lent me the money. They were going to let me risk the border but said that if I wanted them to help me cross over I had to take a small bag for them. I didn’t take the bag because I knew it could land me five years in prison.

“So they split us up: one group of about seven with bags and on the other side another group of about thirty without bags. What they did was use those of us without bags as bait so that migration would follow us and they could pass the drugs through. While migration was following us, they calmly passed through all they wanted.”

Calixto now sells pirated DVDs on the streets of San Salvador to pay back the debt to his sister.

The drug-traffickers also
use the banopticon model

Links between criminals and police, pressure to get ransoms, murder as a persuader and finally being used as drug “mules.” With procedures like these, kidnappings and extortions will easily produce $50 million, or more.

While this amount is negligible for the macro economy and drug economy, it’s significant for the myriad of drug cells that, according to Georgetown professor John Baily, establish relations with the big drug trafficking brands, such as Los Zetas and the Gulf cartels, similar to those who get McDonalds franchises: they pay the head office a commission for the right to use a name that “sells” itself. For the migrants the result is a regime of terror that complements state surveillance.

Just like the most sophisticated administrators of the state banopticon, drug traffickers also make use of new technology to facilitate extortion: they steal cell phones, monitor telephone booths used by migrants then note down telephone numbers and access the police and migration authority databases to keep an eye on migrant flows and routes. Surveillance devices work for the drug traffickers and they, in turn, provide a deterrent service to anti-migrant policies.

Social cleansing?

There’s another theory about migrant murders that isn’t incompatible with the above. General José Francisco Gallardo, convicted and imprisoned from 1993 to 2002 after blowing the whistle on the military’s human rights abuses, talked about the kidnapping and murder of migrants in an interview with journalist José Reveles,: “I see it more like a social cleansing being implemented by the Mexican State, complying with a US policy of hindering at all costs the passage of migrants who want to get to the US via Mexico. What we have is the implementation of a shock tactic…. I know of cases where military personnel and criminals have said before a judge that they know there are US racist organizations and official agents who pay them for each migrant executed, missing or prevented from crossing the border, by whatever means.”

If this is true, we’re dealing with a more lethal version of the extended border and of the banopticon’s reach. Whether as a source of funding and labor for the drug traffickers or as victims of the long arm of xenophobia, the result in 2010 was the kidnapping of five migrants every two hours on this border

Even though fear is the message...

Paraphrasing the Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia, one can escape from Los Zetas, but not from calculated probabilities. This consideration enables us to appreciate the potential deterrent the formal banopticon, reinforced by the informal one, has on this extended US-Mexico border. INM Surveillance is reinforced and converted into a more effective filter by the surveillance of the drug traffickers, who in fact would have no interest in migrants had the policies applied by the INM itself not made them valuable merchandise.

The symbiosis of these two entities crystallizes in a policy of stopping immigration by terrorization, a strategy where fear is the message…and yet, migration has continued. A Honduran migrant told me why: “Hunger is stronger than fear.”

To be continued...

José Luis Rocha is a member of envío’s editorial council and of the Institute of Sociology at Philipps-University Marburg.

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