A decade of murder and grief: Mexico’s drug war turns ten

A few weeks before the Mexico’s 2006 election, La Familia Michoacana — among the most vicious of Mexico’s major drug cartels – tossed five severed heads onto the dance floor of the Sol y Sombra night club in Uruapan, Michoacán, along with a message outlining its strategy for targeted killings, which it called “divine justice”.

As this gruesome incident rekindled the debate on national security, candidate Felipe Calderón, who went on to win the election, made a campaign promise: to fix the country’s drug problem. Calderón would be only the second Mexican leader who did not hail from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which had ruled for most of the 20th century. His campaign presented him as the only honest alternative to the PRI’s corrupt legacy. “My hands are clean”, claimed his ads.

On December 11, 2006, days after taking office, Calderón launched the “Operativo Conjunto Michoacán” – Operation Michoacán – sending some 6,500 soldiers, marines and federal police to the state. Its aim, according to minister of the interior Francisco Ramírez Acuña, was to “take back” a country that had been “seized” by organised crime. He also asked Mexicans for patience, cautioning that the fight would take time.

All this was exactly ten years ago. Today, Mexico’s drug war rages on, virtually unchanged. It is time to ask: what has the decade-long cartel strategy achieved?

Another failed American war

As one must when assessing war, let’s start with the casualties. 150,000 people have died in Mexico’s drug war since 2006, and another 30,000 are missing. Many victims of this decade of murder and grief have been unheralded, but some have made the headlines: 22 civilians summarily executed by the army in Tlatlaya, 43 students who disappeared without a trace in Ayotzinapa in 2014.

A woman reacts to a massacre perpetrated by the Gulf Cartel. Daniel Becerril/Retuers

The death toll far exceeds the 103,000 civilians killed in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2007 and 2014. By 2012, Mexico’s homicide rate was among the world’s highest, at 21 per 100,000.

Researchers at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica have found that in Mexico the deadliness ratio – that is, the proportion of civilians injured compared those killed – is alarmingly high. In 2014, the army killed 168 civilians and injured 23 (deadliness ratio: 7.3), while the Marines injured 1 and killed 74 (deadliness ratio: 74). It’s little surprise the Marines are the favoured military force in fighting the drug war.

Despite this violent law enforcement, drugs have continued the steady flow north to the United States, the world’s largest consumer of cocaine; 84% of that cocaine enters via the Mexican border. Between 2005 and 2011, the height of Calderón’s war, the US Border Patrol seized 13.2 million pounds of marijuana. In 2015, Border Patrol seized more than 2 million pounds of all sorts of drugs.

Mexico’s drug war actually predates Calderón. The term “War on Drugs” came into common usage after American president Richard Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973 to conduct “an all-out global war on the drug menace.”

Since then, both the US and Mexico have fought that war, at great cost. Mexico has spent at least $54 billion on security and defence, with US donations of at least $1.5 billion. That amount includes the Mérida Initiative, a security-based aid agreement that included special aircraft and training for pilots to confront cartels from the air.

The American government has consistently encouraged Latin American governments to use weapons of war to fight drugs (a role the US military cannot legally play at home).

Enrique Peña Nieto has continued his precedessor’s cartel policy – he just talks about it less. Reuters

In Mexico, the armed forces have been turned against the Mexican people, and have gradually established a record of violating human rights. Under Calderón, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission saw a significant increase in citizen complaints of abuse. In the first two years of Calderón’s successor Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, the army accumulated 2,212 complaints – 541 more than those lodged against the military in Calderón’s first two years.

The war is thus a Mexican-American problem. But the US has managed to stay righteous while quenching its thirst for cocaine and other drugs. And American weapons and drug money laundered by big-name banks continue flowing south into Mexico.

Doing it for the kids

US culpability doesn’t make the Mexican government innocent. Indeed, political analysts Rubén Aguilar and Jorge Castañeda have traced the roots of the drug war back to Calderón’s faulty legitimacy in office.

Calderón assumed the presidency amid a turbulent struggle with the supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, his left-wing opponent in the 2006 elections. López Obrador claimed fraud and challenged the election results in court. Though Calderón was unanimously declared the winner, López Obrador refused to recognise the decision, calling Calderón an “illegitimate president”.

Aguilar and Castañeda argue that, in 2006, the Mexican government needed an enemy: the drug cartels handily played this role.

Publicly, Calderón’s main justification for waging war on drug traffickers was a supposed increase in consumption among Mexico’s youth. He coined a simple slogan – “Para que la droga no lleguen a tus hijos” (“Keep the drugs out of your children’s reach”) – and recruited masked Lucha Libre wrestlers to reiterate his alleged concern for Mexican kids.

Calderón’s claims were groundless. According to data provided by both the Mexican National Council on Addictions and the United Nations, drug use in Mexico is very low (for international comparison, see this interactive map of consumption). Today, as in 2006, Mexico remains a transit country.

Calderón’s true motives for launching the war were probably a combination of the need to legitimise his government domestically and strengthen his strategic relationship with George W Bush. However, in a forewarning of today’s post-truth era, the fact that Mexican children didn’t actually do drugs didn’t stop him from justifying a war in their name.

The deadly time machine

Calderón wasn’t a cartoon tyrant. He is a savvy lawyer, and a careful observer of society and politics.

The president knew he couldn’t rely on the police, whom 90% of Mexicans feel are corrupt, to undertake his crusade. They’re also outrageously inefficient: an estimated 99% of crimes go unsolved. Now that’s impunity.

Mexicans believe in three institutions: family, the Catholic Church and the army. Calderón thus adopted the US’s favoured policy of sending the army into the streets to fight drugs.

His shrewd decision may have initially pleased the Mexican people and their American neighbours, but it didn’t have the support of the constitution. According to article 129, no peacetime military authority may perform functions not directly connected with military affairs. In other words, the military cannot do the job of the police.

However, in 1999, PRI President Ernesto Zedillo proposed a law to create a Federal Preventative Police, hiring 5,000 new military personnel for allegedly temporary positions until Mexico could select and train enough new civilian agents.

Zedillo’s policy was legally challenged, but in 2000 the Court decided that, under the Mexican constitution, the armed forces can legitimately perform law enforcement functions. And thus: the legal basis for Calderon’s cartel war.

As Professor Desmond Manderson has noted, the law is a time machine: the real problem with bad law isn’t its immediate implementation but how it can be used in the future.

Since 2014 president Peña Nieto has persisted with Calderón’s approach, with the clever twist of not publicising it so much. Journalist José Luis Pardo has observed that the current president is like a teenager who, in trying to rebel, repeats what he’s seen his father do.

Arresting cartel leader after cartel leader has yet to make a dent in the drug smuggling business. Daniel Becerril/Reuters

Today, organised crime accounts for nearly 60% of the more than 15,000 homicides recorded in Mexico. August and September 2016 were the deadliest period in almost 20 years.

What is to be done?

The supply-side response to a problem driven by demand has not made a dent on drug trafficking.

Nonetheless, two security bills pending in the Mexican parliament seek to sustain it perpetually. Presented by senator Roberto Gil and congressman César Camacho, they propose to permanently enable the Mexican military’s law enforcement role.

Even General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s minister of defence, seemingly thinks this is a bad idea. On December 8 he declared that fighting the war against drugs has “denaturalised” the Mexican military. “None of us studied to chase criminals”, he said.

‘Desaparecidos’, like the 43 students who went missing in Ayotzinapa in 2014, are collateral damage. Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Ten years after Calderón sent troops to Michoacán, Mexico has a choice: change or perish. We can start by accepting that we will never eliminate drug consumption. Using drugs is a personal decision and a health issue, not a criminal one.

Drawing from the recent recommendations of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Mexico can outline a policy agenda that decriminalises personal use and possession of drugs while implementing alternatives to incarceration for low-level suppliers. (Full disclosure: I recommended decriminalisation as a member of the transition team of Calderon’s PAN precedessor, Vicente Fox. I’m haunted by the consequences of the government’s failure to do so). It should also consider moving toward regulating the drug market, as Uruguay has done with marijuana, from production to distribution.

Decriminalising both the supply and consumption of something as transnational as drugs can only succeed if it’s embraced on both sides of the border. Even under a Trump presidency, lobbying for decriminalisation in the US would be a wiser use of Mexico’s resources than bemoaning Americans’ taste for Latin American drugs.

Decriminalisation must necessarily be accompanied by demilitarisation. Two recommendations from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein can guide this process: first, to strengthen the capacity of Mexico’s police to protect public safety while respecting human rights and second, to adopt a time frame for withdrawing the military from public security functions.

Follow the leader (again)

In 1996, President Bill Clinton’s drug tsar Barry McCaffrey said that a war waged against a shapeless, intangible enemy as drugs can never truly be won.

In recent years the US has been heeding its own advice and winding down the domestic war on drugs. President Obama has declared that addiction should be addressed as a health problem. In the November 2016 election, nine states considered liberalising cannabis laws. Four approved recreational marijuana, including  California, the world’s sixth-largest economy. Residents in a total of eight states, plus the District of Columbia, can now legally take marijuana.

While Mexico continues battling its drug smugglers, more US states are legalising and regulating marijuana. Steve Dipaola/Reuters

With Colombia having similarly scaled back its violent anti-narcotics strategy, Mexico is now almost alone, in the unpleasant company of authoritarian firebrands such as Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, in waging war against an shapeless abstraction.

Here’s to ending this ten years of tragedy with a smarter new beginning. In an authentic republic, citizens – not soldiers – look after each other’s security and liberty.

Dr Luis Gomez Romero, Senior Lecturer

This article first appeared in The Conversation on 12 December 2016

How the US is outsourcing border enforcement to Mexico

In describing the complex relationship between the two countries, Jeffrey Davidow, American ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002, spoke of “the bear and the porcupine”. The US is an arrogant bear, brawny and insensitive to Mexico’s concerns. Mexico is a resentful porcupine, paranoid about American plots to undermine its sovereignty.

Mexico often detains Central Americans before they reach the US border, including children, like Kendri Hernandez, 3 (L) and Andri Yovani, 2. Carlos Jasso/Reuters

Davidow candidly noted that the bear could crush the porcupine, but every time it has tried to, the porcupine’s sharp spines have hurt the bear’s big paws.

This analogy remains pertinent. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump strategically chose Mexico and Latin America as his straw men, characterising Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, threatening to build a border wall and capping off his win by confirming plans to deport up to three million undocumented Latino migrants.

In this contemporary parallel of Davidow’s comparison, the evil porcupine keeps injuring the trusting and innocent bear. But in truth, for the last few years, the porcupine has been doing the bear a big favour by guarding its expansive lair.

Border patrol goes down Mexico way

All the attention on Mexico’s northern border and US immigration policy has overshadowed ongoing violence and deportations related to migrants who have crossed Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize.

These have seen a sharp rise since 2014, when the Mexican government announced the implementation of the Programa Frontera Sur (Southern Border Program). The policy’s key declared objectives were to bring order to migration into Mexico’s southern region while protecting the human rights of migrants who enter and travel through the country.

But implementation has gone off course. In 2013, Mexico deported 80,709 immigrants. In 2014, that figure increased 35% to 107, 814.

‘The Beast’, a train used by Central American migrants to get across Mexico, derailed in 2013, killing at least six. Luis Manuel Lopez/Reuters

Mexico decriminalised undocumented entry into its territory in 2008. Yet it has also increased patrols throughout areas where migrants travel and conducted controversial raids, which human rights organisations have described as hunting parties, to detain migrants in remote places.

Enforcement has changed migration routes but hasn’t deterred migrants. Instead, the Southern Border Program has dispersed them, making them more vulnerable to extortionists, rapists, and thieves.

Children, sent away by desperate parents trying to get them away from gang violence, are among the most affected groups. In 2014, 18,169 migrant children were deported from Mexico. This represents a 117% increase from the 8,350 returned to Central America in 2013.

Children not immediately deported are locked up in detention centres. From January 2015 to July 2016, 39,751 unaccompanied minors were “secured” by Mexican authorities.

The US has enthusiastically greeted Mexico’s new immigration policies. In January 2015, US President Barack Obama celebrated “strong efforts by Mexico, including at its southern border” that had helped reduce Central American migration into the US “to much more manageable levels”.

From an instrumental standpoint, Obama’s praise makes sense. In 2014, some 69,000 unaccompanied children were stopped at the US border. The resulting humanitarian crisis was an embarrassing public relations mess.

Thus, Mexico’s detention and expulsion of immigrants who travel through it en route to the US is beneficial. Once immigrants cross the US border, it’s American money and effort that’s spent on returning them.

The shifting border

In short, the US has outsourced border control. Trump’s rants against sending American jobs to Mexico aside, the president-elect may be pleasantly surprised to learn that Obama persuaded Mexico to take over the task of stopping migrants.

In practice, this means that the Mexican-American border has shifted 3,000 kilometres south. It now passes through the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz, where Mexico is narrowest and the traffic of immigrants is easier to control (here’s an interactive map).

Mexicans weren’t happy that President Peña Nieto met with then-candidate Donald Trump in August 2016. Henry Romero/Reuters

According to the American Border Patrol, between October 2014 and February 2015, apprehensions of unaccompanied migrant children decreased 42% over the previous year. On the flip side, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reported a substantive increase in migrant complaints against the authorities in the year after the Southern Border Program was implemented.

Today, most of Mexico has become an extension of the US border region. As intellectual Sergio Aguayo has argued, on immigration matters, Mexico is “a servant of the US”.

Or in Davidow’s framing, the porcupine deploys its spines to protect the bear.

The Porcupine Tamed

This is the paradoxical reality behind Trump’s hyperbolic vision of America’s border area.

A week after the American election, the Mexican government announced an 11-point plan to assist Mexicans in the US, who migrated both legally and illegally, with accurate information on possible changes to immigration policy.

“These are uncertain times,” said Secretary of Foreign Relations Claudia Ruiz Massieu in a Twitter video, speaking directly to immigrants. “The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto and all Mexicans are with you. We are going to be closer than ever”.

Mexico’s measures include a 24-hour hotline that will allow people to report harassment and immigration raids, and the expansion of deportation-defense work at the Mexican Embassy and 50 consulates.

The mildness of these measures starkly contrasts with the brutality of Trump’s projected policies. As Univision reporter Jorge Ramos has pointed out, the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, paralysed by fear, has seemingly decided to kneel before Trump.

The financial, diplomatic and commercial consequences of the coming era cannot be addressed through tweets or hotlines.

Train lines through Mexico that double as migration routes. Martin Gabriel Barron Cruz/Instituto Nacional de Ciencias PenalesCC BY-NC-ND

An ethical revolution

For 20 years, a group of women from La Patrona, Veracruz, has been feeding thousands of Central American migrants. Each day, “Las Patronas”, the (lady) Bosses, stand a few metres away from the train – known as “La Bestia” (The Beast) – that transports Central American immigrants through Mexican territory. When they hear the train’s whistle, they toss drinks, tortillas and beans to the hungry migrants.

These women offer a powerful human rebuke to Mexico’s policies toward vulnerable travellers, who, after all, have grown up and lived in the same rough and violent conditions that compel Mexicans to journey northward. Their basic act of decency is an ethical revolution; people do not surrender as easily as governments do.

With El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala structuring a common strategy to face the challenges of a Trump presidency, Mexico has the opportunity to ally with its neighbours and render Trump’s wall useless by improving quality of life in the region.

The first step is to acknowledge the importance of social and economic rights, such as education or health services, in deepening democracy and fighting inequality. Other provisions in the Central American strategy include improving security while respecting human rights and strengthening Mexico’s relations with Latin American countries.

If Mexico’s government is not up to the challenge, (as its harshness with migrants and mildness toward Trump suggest), then Mexican citizens can nonetheless follow las Patronas’example. Many Mexican academic institutions, including the Colegio de la Frontera Norteand civil society groups, such as the Tabasco-based migrant refuge “La 72”, are responding to the Central America border crisis with calls for rights-based immigration policies. Together, Mexicans can exercise the dignity of saying “no” – both to Trump, the bully to the north, and to Peña Nieto, their very own American pawn.

Such efforts support George Orwell’s assertion that “if men would behave decently the world would be decent”. Las Patronas tell a tale more radical than that of the porcupine and the bear, which is that even when governments are indecent, nobody can prevent the people from embracing decency.

Senior Lecturer  Dr Luis Gomez Romero

This article was first published on The Conversation

Surveying PostCapitalism

It is hard to escape the feeling that, for better or for worse, we are living in a transitional age. Capitalism remains on its feet, but is looking ever more unsteady as neoliberalism proves incapable of providing durable economic growth and good jobs. A particularly lethal cocktail of imperialism and religious fanaticism has set the Middle East aflame. In Europe, the far-right is on the march as nationalist politics threatens to tear apart the European Union. The rapid development of information and communication technologies is challenging extant economic structures and human relationships. Standing over everything is the spectre of profound, irreversible climate change.  Making sense of this turbulent reality, and charting a progressive course forward, is the task Paul Mason takes upon himself in PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our FutureMore specifically, he seeks to understand why neoliberalism has stalled economically and politically, and elucidates how information technologies offer a path beyond not only neoliberalism but, in the long-term, the capitalist mode of production itself.

Mason begins by stating clearly the central issue; neoliberalism is broken. The 2008 global crash marked a watershed in the history of neoliberalism. Fiat money, financialisation, global imbalances and burgeoning information technologies, hitherto the planks of neoliberal stability, have become corrosive agents. Their combination ensures that even an enlightened ‘info-capitalism’ could produce only long-term stagnation, rising inequality and environmental destruction. Moreover, it would be premised on a fundamental shift in the global political and economic order, a shift that is more likely to be manifested as a ‘de-globalisation crisis originating in diplomatic and military conflicts’.

Using a modified form of Kondratieff wave theory, Mason locates this problem historically. He forwards a fairly orthodox account of capitalism moving in more-or-less regular fifty-year cycles. A period of upswing, characterised by clusters of technological innovation, new business models, the development of new markets and increases in the quantity and availability of money, is typically followed by a downward phase of falling wages, prices and investment. He departs from Kondratieff and other wave theorists, such as Joseph Schumpeter and Carlota Perez, in tying fifty-year cycles to Marx’s observation of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF). Upswings, on his score, are to be understood as periods where the TRPF is held in check by a combination of counter-tendencies, including mobilisation on the part of organised labour and the state to prevent cost-cutting and force capital to adopt a higher-wage mode of growth; downswings, by contrast, occur when these specific bundles of counter-tendencies become exhausted.

What does this theoretical schema have to tell us about neoliberalism? According to Mason, in the late-1990s, the elements of a fifth long wave came into being. ‘Network technology, mobile communications, a truly global marketplace and information goods’ should, in long-wave terms, have led to a vigorous economic upswing. However, this boom has failed to materialise, and Mason lays the blame squarely at the feet of neoliberalism.

The reason? The very same information technologies that could have proved the basis for an upturn are, on Mason’s score, qualitatively different from the technological surges that founded other long-cycles. The advent of sophisticated computer technologies has fundamentally altered the relationship between physical work and information. Using a variety of useful vignettes, such as the revolution effected in jet engine design, Mason demonstrates how information technology has transformed the design, production and lifecycles of commodities. The result is that, ‘[t]he great technological advance of the early twenty-first century consists not of new objects but of old ones made intelligent. The knowledge content of products is becoming more valuable than the physical elements used to produce them’.


The problem for capitalism, however, is that knowledge, unlike physical goods and services, is abundant and can be reproduced for free. Using Marx’s labour theory of value, Mason demonstrates how this reality tends to corrode the price mechanism, based as it is on scarcity and competition. As the knowledge content of physical goods rises, this price-effacing effect spills over into the production of physical goods as well. Mason explores most incisively the defences thrown up by capitalism; gigantic tech monopolies like Apple and Google, the encouragement of what he dubs ‘bullshit jobs’ in the service sector, and the mining of the positive externalities thrown up for free by the interactions of networked consumers.

Even more troubling for capital, Mason suggests, is the rise of a new revolutionary class, the ‘networked individuals.’ Influenced by the autonomist Marxist tradition, he argues that the social basis of the old Western proletariat has disintegrated, as capitalist production has escaped the walls of the factory and workers experience debt as a specific form of financial exploitation. In any event, he makes the audacious claim that Marx and Engels were wrong about the proletariat, to which he ascribes an inherent conservatism. Whereas this proletariat was never equal to its historical task, Mason holds greater hope for the networked individual, a ‘beautiful troublemaker’ whose fundamental interest is in post-capitalism.

On the basis of these seemingly radical premises, Mason draws surprisingly prosaic prescriptions. The path to post-capitalism will be constituted by deep, non-market action on climate change, the socialisation of the finance system, the delivery of a high level of wealth and prosperity to the majority of people, and harnessing technology towards profound automation and the reduction of work to its physical minimum. In the unfolding of these processes, Mason believes the state will have a critical role to play.

There is much to like about the account Mason has developed. He knits a diverse range of economic, political and social phenomenon into a cohesive and lucid post-capitalist vision, all premised on a fundamentally sound understanding of capitalism as an inherently contradictory system. To this general vision is allied a detailed and trenchant criticism of neoliberalism as a particularly rabid capitalist form. Indeed, he is at his best in his cutting accounts of the criminality of Lehmann Brothers traders, the defensive responses of tech giants, and hopeful exploration of the rebellion of the networked individual. As would be expected from a journalist of his standing, the book is written in a lively and persuasive style.

His eclectic theoretical framework is impressive in its breadth, but it is here that the chief shortcomings of the book are to be found. Two flaws in particular stand out. First, he tries to ‘have his cake and eat it too’ regarding the labour theory of value and the proletariat. He proceeds on the assumption that the labour theory of value is fundamentally correct and describes the essence of capitalist society, yet then tries to deny that the ‘old’ proletariat had a fundamentally revolutionary potential. In reality, the two constitute a unity. If we accept that the foundation of capitalism is the extraction of profit on the basis of unpaid labour time, it follows that the political-economy of the working-class will always, à la Michael Lebowitz in Beyond Capital, have latent within it anti-capitalist potential. The desire to paint the new ‘networked individual’ as something structurally different from the old proletarian causes him to overstate the distinction between the two, somewhat unsurprisingly given his affinity for autonomist Marxism. Strikes in China, for example, are painted as the uprising of the networked individual, rather than classic labour struggles. Similarly, the extraction of wealth from workers in the form of debt is taken as a new form of exploitation when it remains, as Marx identified in Capital Volume III, a levy upon surplus value realised in the production process.

Second, Mason assumes that the state can, in a neutral and technical fashion, realise the policies he prescribes. Considering the effort he has gone to in theorising the economic and technical basis of capitalism, the lack of a proper theorisation of the state is sorely felt. There is no notion of the state as a form of capitalist social relations, a form that must be broken if Mason’s post-capitalism is to come to fruition. This rendering of the state in class-neutral terms is also the basis of Mason’s hope for a gradual, peaceful transition to post-capitalism, and also informs his hostility to those currents of socialism, such as Bolshevism, which advocate forcible seizure of the state apparatus.

For all that, however, Mason has produced a theoretically engaging yet accessible book that goes a long way towards making sense of the tempestuous times in which we live. In identifying the tension between abundant, free and potentially liberating information technologies and neoliberalism, Mason foregrounds an orthodox Marxist concern renovated for the current era; the state of productive forces is increasingly grating against the fetters of capitalist production relations. Given how easy it can be to get discouraged as a leftist in the neoliberal era, this contention, together with his account of the rebellious character of the networked individual, is a much appreciated dose of hope for a post-capitalist future.

This review first appeared in Capital & Class.

Just who are the millions of ‘bad hombres’ slated for US deportation?

image-20161116-13503-ryaxviIn an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, United States president-elect Donald Trump highlighted some campaign promises that he actually plans to keep. Among others, he confirmed that he will build his promised wall on the Mexican border and deport up to three million undocumented migrants.

If the United States is serious about kicking out the “bad hombres” from Mexico and Latin America, then it’s important to ask: who, in fact, are these people?

In Trump’s apocalyptic worldview, they’re a hoard of Latino “gang members” and “drug dealers” with “criminal records” who are invading America. But analysis reveals that image is far from reality.

What’s in a name?

First, Mexico and Latin America are not the only sources of immigration to the US. In fact, since 2009 more Mexicans have been leaving the US than coming to it, and China and India have since overtaken Mexico in flows of recent arrivals. Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa also now comprise a significant share of undocumented immigrants in the US.

Still, in his third presidential debate, Trump used Spanish to depict undocumented migrants as wicked lawbreakers. The perverse effect of the “bad hombres” quip is the vilification of Latinos in our own language – albeit with such humorously bad diction that it sounded more like bad hambres – “bad hunger”.

This bigotry is the hashtag version of an old and ugly American tradition. As early as 1829, Joel Poinsett, America’s first ambassador to Mexico, described Mexicans as an “ignorant and debauched people”. The supposed moral and intellectual ruin of Mexicans was the predictable outcome of the “constant intercourse” of Spaniards with “the aborigines.” That is, Mexico’s mestizo origins were the cause of the country’s backwardness.

In Poinsett’s view, whereas Spanish settlers were “among the most ignorant and vicious” of Christian Europeans, Mexico’s native people were “the very lowest class of human beings”. Poinsett’s racist generalisations established the foundations of current US stereotypes about Mexicans and Latin Americans.

Meeting the bad hombres

Given the unsavoury foundations of some Americans’ suspicion that Latin American migrants are violent criminals, it’s urgent to understand precisely what sort of migrants Donald Trump may deport. We can do so by examining the record-breaking 2.6 million deportations undertaken by the current American administration.

Barack Obama has actually tried to focus immigration enforcement on convicted criminals, and Trump’s approach is, to some extent, a continuation of these policies. But Obama also intended to build political support for revising immigration laws that aimed at creating a path to citizenship for illegal migrants in the US.

The Obama administration estimated by 2013 that 1.9 million “removable criminal aliens”were living in the US.

This figure is not limited to undocumented migrants. It includes those with greencards (for legal permanent residency) and those with temporary visas. Nor is it limited to those found guilty of serious crimes; it also includes people who have been convicted not of drug trafficking or gang activity but of theft and other non-violent crimes.

Around 59% of US deportees are actual convicted criminals, but who are the remainder? Reuters

So it would be a mistake to assume that the key priorities of immigration enforcement are terrorism suspects and convicted felons. In 2015, 59% of the people America deported – 235,413 in total – were convicted criminals, while 41% were removed for immigration violations such as overstaying a visa. Undocumented entrants apprehended at the border are also included in this number.

So the claim that three million undocumented migrants living in the US are dangerous criminals is unsubstantiated – and irresponsible.

The tide of history flows back to the US

Still, hundreds of thousands of deportees are actual criminal offenders. The stereotypical Latino offenders that primarily obsess Trump and his ilk are gang members and drug dealers: Mexican cartel bosses, Salvadoran maras. Scary stuff, right?

Maybe, but a nuanced historical analysis shows something nativist US politicians are less keen to publicise: that American anti-Communist foreign policies implemented in the 1980s played a major role in fuelling these criminal activities.

Ronald Reagan famously claimed in 1982 that those who embraced communism ran against “the tide of history”. Reagan thus committed himself to lead a “crusade for freedom” against the communist evil. Under his watch, the US was meant to deliver “freedom and human dignity” across the world.

Mexico and Central America were crucial battlefields. In 1979, the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorial government in Nicaragua.

Reagan immediately offered financial and material support to anti-Sandinista forces called the Contras, including by ordering the CIA to plant mines in Nicaragua’s harbours and deploying funds obtained by selling weapons to Iran, which were then embargoed.

Critical to today’s reality, the US also channelled its assistance to the Contras through traffickers who had been indicted on drug charges. A 1989 senatorial committee lead by then-Senator John Kerry, revealed an appalling complicity between the US government and Latin American drug traffickers. The report found, for example, that the Department of State paid over US$806,000 to renowned drug traffickers, including Honduran drug lord Juan Ramón Matta-Ballesteros.

At the same time, in El Salvador, the US was also embracing a military junta that in 1979 had overthrown president Carlos Humberto Romero, offering its leaders substantial military and economic aid in order to prevent “another Nicaragua”.

As El Salvador’s dictators violently repressed political criticism and opposition, peaceful political groups metamorphosed into leftist guerrilla forces called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

In May 1980, FMLN leadership met in Havana, Cuba, establishing themselves as US enemies. With US guidance in tactics learned from Vietnam, the Salvadoran army brutally suppressed the FMLN Communists. According to Americas Watch, this strategy involved, along with bombings, occasional civilian massacres.

This US-sponsored violence in Nicaragua and El Salvador soon spread to Guatemala and Honduras, in part due to geographic proximity and in part because as all these countries have historically been characterised by marked social and economic inequality.

What does all of this have to do with the gangbangers and drug lords of Trump’s imagination? Decades of war left thousands of Central American orphans. Many of them eventually migrated to the US and, parentless and penniless, joined what family the streets had to offer: criminal organisations such as Los Angeles’ Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs.

Latino drug traffickers and gangs are hence an important legacy of the Reagan administration.

Is this Mexican migrant farmer a ‘bad hombre’? Henry Romero/Reuters

Time for resistance

John Forsyth was US Secretary of State from 1834 to 1841. In 1857, he noted in a letter that “the hybrid races” of the American continent would “succumb to and fade away before” the “institutions” and “superior energies of the white man”.

The current president-elect of the US has ominously based his immigration policies on this tradition of thought, a problematic position further compounded by a general American failure to understand the historical causes of the immigration-related problems Trump seeks to address.

The time for Latin America to resist bigotry and racism has thus arrived. In this task, we must not resort to nationalist discourses that merely mirror, from the other side of the looking glass, the stereotype of evil gringos who hate bad hombres.

Rather, Latin American responses to racism should draw both from humanism and an accurate knowledge of the past, as well as of human rights and international law.

Two positive steps we could take are addressing the countries’ own crime problems while respecting rights and due process, and treating with dignity the approximately 500,000Central American immigrants who cross into Mexico each year.

Like it or not, history and geography have now made Mexicans the vanguard of resistance, and the world will be watching.

Dr Luis Gomez Romero, Senior Lecturer

This article first appeared in The Conversation

The wall and the beast: Trump’s triumph from the Mexican side of the border

Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States, even though political pundits predicted that he would not even win the Republican presidential nomination. In the end, more 59 million Americans voted for him.

On inauguration day in January, many of Trump’s voters will be looking forward – among other campaign promises – to the construction of a wall along the Mexican border.

This means a physical barrier over 3,000 kilometres in length, on a border that one million people legally cross on a daily basis, producing half a trillion dollars in annual trade.

The promised wall

Trump compared his projected border barrier to the Great Wall of China. The wall, as Trump has dreamt it, will be as high as 17 metres.

It will have a “big, fat, beautiful door” that will only let legal migrants enter the US. The wall is supposed to keep Mexican and Latin American “bad hombres” – who Trump generally conceives as drug traffickers, criminals and “rapists” – away from the US.

Trump has promised that Mexico will pay for the wall. When he has been asked about how he is supposed to make Mexico pay for it, he has threatened either war or cutting off the flow of billions of dollars in payments that Mexican migrants send to Mexico.

The wall was central to Trump’s campaign. He now has to deliver on his promises – however outrageous or irrational they may have been. The time for Mexico (and the rest of the world) has thus come. The sheer fact of Trump’s victory sent the Mexican peso plummeting in global markets. Mexico is officially the first victim of the Trump effect.

The wall that is already there

Ironically, Trump’s wall is already there. Its foundation stone was laid as early as 1848. In 1845, the US annexed Texas, which Mexico considered part of its territory. Mexican claims over Texas prompted the US to invade Mexico in 1846. The military campaign was finalised by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which established the US-Mexican border at the Río Bravo, and ceded more than half of Mexican territory to the US. A marble monument built in Tijuana commemorates the day Mexico and the US agreed to the current border lines.

The territorial spoils of the Mexican-American War allowed the US to emerge as a world power in the late 19th century. The peace that followed the war, from a Mexican perspective, established a bitter pattern of political, economic and military inequality between the two countries. This asymmetrical relationship has haunted Mexican-US relations ever since.

Enter globalisation. Wall construction along the Mexican-American border began during former president Bill Clinton’s administration, 21 years before Trump’s wall-building promise.

The implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 displaced hundreds of thousands of Mexicans as small business owners and farmers were crushed under the corporate muscle of giants such as, for example, Walmart or Cargill. American officers foresaw this collateral effect of NAFTA, and rushed to harden immigration laws.

In 1996, Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The act approved the construction of a 22.5km fence near San Diego. Clinton thus replaced the barbed-wire fence at the border with an iron wall. The metal sheets that make up the fence were originally used by the US military to land planes during the Gulf War.

President George W Bush continued Clinton’s work. In 2006, the Secure Fence Act – signed on the wave of post 9/11 security panic – resulted in setting aside of several laws to build almost 1400km of fencing in the border. Legal impediments on water and air pollution, endangered species and Native American heritage, among other matters, were waived to allow the construction of the wall.

When the history of the physical barriers constructed along the Mexican-American border is read in these terms, it is preposterous to pretend that the wall-building techniques used by the Chinese in the eighth century to control their borders will still be useful in the 21st century. Borders are meant to be crossed by people who do not necessarily have the resources to pay a visa. Nobody leaves his homeland without a reason. If Mexicans and Latin Americans could find the same economic opportunities they search for in the US in their countries, they would probably not leave.

Trump’s promised wall has hence only made evident the hypocrisy of the supposed defenders of Latin American migrants in the US. Trump has explicitly said that the American Dream is not meant for everyone.

His predecessors – including Barack Obama, the American president who has deported the largest number of undocumented migrants (2.6 million) in American history – simply preferred an inconspicuous style of getting things done.

Another brick

In 1848, article XI of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the US responsibility for controlling “hostile Indian incursions” in Mexico. Today, it is Mexico that watches over the border for the US, preventing Central and South American migrants from crossing it.

On August 31 2016, Trump hastily visited Mexico and met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The meeting was deemed a major political failure in Mexico. Mexicans felt betrayed because Peña Nieto did not comment on Trump’s repeated insults against both Mexico and Mexican people.

There was little reflection, however, on Peña Nieto’s claims about Central and South American migrants. Peña Nieto referred to a “humanitarian crisis” caused by “an increasing number of non-Mexicans” crossing the Mexican-American border. He also advocated for a bilateral agenda on “national security”, aimed at controlling the flow of “undocumented people and illegal drugs and weapons”.

There was not a single mention to the dangers that Central and South American migrants face in Mexico as they ride “The Beast” – that is, the Mexican network of freight trains.

Central and South American migrants “ride The Beast” atop the moving trains because there are no passenger railcars. They face obvious physical dangers that range from amputation to death, if they fall or are pushed. Beyond the dangers of the trains themselves, migrants are subject to extortion and violence at the hands of the gangs criminal groups that control the routes into the US.

Migrants in Central America take on ‘The Beast’. Reuters

After visiting Mexico, Trump ridiculed Peña Nieto in his infamous Phoenix speech on immigration policy. He smugly used the Mexican president to boost his campaign. His major triumph, however, was the adoption of his views on immigration by the Mexican government.

On Trump’s side, there was an unsurprising lack of empathy. On the Mexican side, however, there was a shameful lack of courage in acknowledging the role that Mexico plays in enforcing on non-Mexican migrants the harsh immigration policies that Mexicans loathe and fear from the US. All in all, as Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli has suggested, the Mexican government became that day just another brick in Trump’s wall.

Taming the beast

On 15 August 2016 – just a few days before Trump’s visit – article 11 of the Mexican Constitution was amended to grant refugees the right to both seek and be granted asylum in Mexico.

In similar terms, the draft Constitution of Mexico City defines Mexico’s capital as refuge and destination of migrations and exiles. A sensible response to Trump’s international bullying demands Mexico to take these principles and ideals seriously.

If Mexico wants to escape Trump’s asphyxiating grasp, it needs to tame “The Beast” by protecting the non-Mexican migrants who cross into its own territory and treating them with the dignity they deserve. For Mexico, the only way to overcome Trump is by showing him that he may have the power and the money to build a huge wall, but he has neither justice nor reason on his side.

Dr Luis Gomez Romero, Senior Lecturer, University of Wollongong

*This article first appeared in The Conversation on 10 November 2016

Special issue of Australian Feminist Studies interrogates (in)justice at intersections of medicine, gender and law

‘Medical Bodies: Gender, Justice and Medicine”, a new special issue of Australian Feminist Studies interrogating (in)justice at intersections of medicine, gender and law, has recently been published. The special issue was co-edited by LIRC member Dr Linda Steele (along with UOW Feminist Research Network research colleagues Dr Macarena Iribarne, University of Wollongong and Rachel Carr, University of Sydney) and builds on the 2015 research symposium ‘Feminist Perspectives on Medical Bodies’ hosted by LIRC, Feminist Research Network and Centre for Critical Human Rights Research.

The special issue contains contributions from scholars across a diverse range of disciplines including law, cultural studies, medical anthropology and sociolegal studies. As the co-editors state in the introduction to the special issue, the collection directs ‘attention to questions of gender, bodies and justice (as well as injustice) in the contemporary medico-legal terrain. … Through close analyses of contemporary case studies, each of the articles in this special issue revisit and rework feminist debates around choice, responsibility, equality, harm, identity and agency. … At the heart of our inquiries in this special issue has been the question of how feminist scholars and activists might contest and strategically engage with the contemporary medico-legal terrain to achieve justice. What is clear from the contributions gathered here is that to address this question requires clear analyses of this terrain in its complexity and movement. This includes recognition of the varied ways in which harms are being constituted anew and may travel between and across bodies, across nations and generations, and via the very systems that are put in place to minimise them. We hope that this special issue will contribute to further feminist debate around gender, bodies and justice.’

New article critiques ‘human rights’ basis for sterilising women and girls with disability

A new article by LIRC member Dr Linda Steele provides an in-depth analysis and critique of the 2013 report of the Australian Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee titled Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of People with Disability in Australia. Despite a number of submissions including those made by disability rights activists and Dr Steele arguing for the prohibition of sterilisation, the Senate Committee instead recommended the continuation of court-authorised sterilisation. The Senate Committee recommended replacing the ‘best interests’ test that presently guides judicial consideration for authorising sterilisation and replacing this with a ‘best protection’ of rights test. Dr Steele argues that this test and the continuation of court-authorised sterilisation is contrary to the 2008 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and results in the perverse outcome whereby the violent and discriminatory act of sterilising a woman or girl with disability can be the means for realising her human rights. Dr Steele argues that this approach to disability, violence and human rights only ‘makes sense’ when people with disability are legally constructed as ‘abnormal’ and hence so fundamentally different to people without disability as to ever be capable of comparison for the purposes of determining equality and non-discrimination. This then means they can be subjected to lower human rights thresholds that enable violence and discrimination where this would never be allowed or even comprehended for people without disability.

Please click here for a link to Dr Steel’s article.

Women of Impact: Four LIRC members recognised by the University of Wollongong

Congratulations to Professor Nan Seuffert, Professor Sue Turnbull, Associate Professor Marett Leiboff and Associate Professor Julia Quilter of the Legal Intersections Research Centre (LIRC) , who have been recognised as Women of Impact by the University of Wollongong, announced by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Professor Judy Raper, on 5 July 2016.

Nan, Sue, Marett and Julia were selected along with 37 other women from a diverse range of research fields following a University of Wollongong-wide assessment process which decided that each was carrying out research of major importance, making a significant contribution to advancing knowledge, demonstrating success in teaching and learning, and were acting as mentors and role models for others.

Director of the Centre, Professor Nan Seuffert, was recognised for her research animated by a passion for social justice – an investigation of areas where there is a gap between law and justice. Professor Seuffert’s primary research and teaching area is in intersectionality in the law, studies of the law, gender, race and sexuality. Her secondary focus is on financial regulation. Nan is a member of the Contesting Vulnerability and Social Justice and Global Forces Research Themes of LIRC.

Professor Sue Turnbull (The School of the Arts, English and Media) was recognised for her research which explores what television crime series such as the popular Scandi-crime genre tell us about the cultures in which they were produced, the social issues of law and order that matter in that culture, and what value these series have for the creative team that produced them and their global audiences.

Associate Professor Marett Leiboff from the Law and Popular Cultures Research Theme was recognised for her work that reveals how non-legal cultural, social, educational and historical background of lawyers unconsciously shapes their understanding of law and legal principle, their practices of legal interpretation and argumentation – and the reasoning deployed in court judgments.

Associate Professor Julia Quilter from the Crime and Society Research Theme was recognised for her inspirational work as a leading expert on criminal law and justice, in particular her leading contribution to laws aimed at curbing alcohol-related violence. Julia is highlighted in a featured video released at the launch of Women of Impact.