Deported to Death
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Deported to Death

How Drug Violence Is Changing Migration on the US–Mexico Border

Jeremy Slack

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Deported to Death

How Drug Violence Is Changing Migration on the US–Mexico Border

Jeremy Slack

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About This Book

What happens to migrants after they are deported from the United States and dropped off at the Mexican border, often hundreds if not thousands of miles from their hometowns? In this eye-opening work, Jeremy Slack foregrounds the voices and experiences of Mexican deportees, who frequently become targets of extreme forms of violence, including migrant massacres, upon their return to Mexico. Navigating the complex world of the border, Slack investigates how the high-profile drug war has led to more than two hundred thousand deaths in Mexico, and how many deportees, stranded and vulnerable in unfamiliar cities, have become fodder for drug cartel struggles. Like no other book before it, Deported to Death reshapes debates on the long-term impact of border enforcement and illustrates the complex decisions migrants must make about whether to attempt the return to an often dangerous life in Mexico or face increasingly harsh punishment in the United States.

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CHAPTER ONE

The Violence of Mobility

Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas

“He stuck his hand in between the door when I turned my back. I didn’t see them coming. Before I knew it they were inside with their guns pointed at us, threatening to do something to my wife, or to me or burn down the institution (a migrant shelter). It was a very serious threat . . . One of the Zetas, because he identified himself as a member of the Zetas cartel, spoke to me very calmly, in a certain way. ‘We want to take these two people. There is a patero (human smuggler) who is not reporting to us. We want to know who crossed them. We will ask them for code words. If they have the codes we will leave them alone and not bother them anymore. If they don’t give us the codes, well, it’s because someone crossed them and they are not with us.’ ” The longtime staff member Lázaro froze: “I immediately contacted the priest (in charge of the shelter) and told him, ‘Padre, we have a situation here.’ ‘Lázaro, let them go. We can’t do anything else,’ the priest replied, so I said, ‘You have to leave, muchachos, la Casa (del migrante) can’t do anything for you.’ ” The migrants started to scream and plead not to let them be taken. “I let them take them (the deportees) and I never saw them again. What else could I have done?”1
These incursions into migrant shelters have become common in northeastern Mexico. “I still hear their screams,” Lázaro said as we sat in a restaurant in D. F. shortly after the event. I had just ended my fieldwork along the border and we got the chance to catch up at a workshop held by the ACLU in Mexico City to discuss migrant possessions. This incident happened shortly after I left the shelter, but similar events had happened throughout the Northeast. The two young men who were taken were originally from Michoacán, a central Mexican state and also an area controlled by one of the mortal enemies of the Zetas cartel: La Familia Michoacana. Being deported to Tamaulipas placed them in danger because the Zetas are always suspicious of deportees coming from territories controlled by rival gangs. When the Michoacanos were walking to the shelter, two young lookouts, known as halcones, who monitored the people coming and going from the shelter, stopped to interrogate them, a common practice. “They were big guys, as tall as you,” Lázaro explained, “and did not pay attention to the halcones, who were little kids.” The deportees pushed past the lookouts, shoving one hard against a fence. “The other (lookout) went and called on his radio and the reinforcements arrived. The trucks came with armed men.” Simple missteps like this one may have cost these two young men their lives. Being a deportee along the border is a dangerous world, one with complex rules and a shifting terrain that has put immigration squarely in the sights of drug cartels.
Events like this are rarely publicized—the organizations that run shelters do not want the negative publicity and potential closure, nor do the police and organized criminal groups from the area want these activities known. But what precisely is going on here? What would drug traffickers, once famous for their gaudy lifestyles and excessive wealth, want with relatively poor deportees and migrants? These hidden horrors are the backdrop for the high-profile massacres in the region, particularly the killing of 72 Central and South American migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in August of 2010.2 This massacre has become yet another gruesome footnote in the drug war that has wrecked havoc on Mexico during the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
This book explores a fundamental problem with the U. S. immigration system. Deportation is not considered a punishment but rather an administrative action because people are simply being sent home.3 And yet, people like these two young deportees from Michoacán are routinely placed in danger, many becoming the victims of torture or death. The mass deportation of people from the United States to Mexico has exacerbated an already hyperviolent situation whereupon organized criminal groups and corrupt authorities prey upon deportees. With the conflict over control of the drug trade raging between drug cartels and the authorities, criminal activities and the pervasiveness of violence into more and more aspects of daily life along the border have led to a concentration on migrants and deportees that is largely new. Long a staple of border cities, the small groups of individuals waiting on street corners, dressed in black and exhausted after days of walking through the desert, were once pitied or simply ignored by residents,4 but now they are interrogated, extorted, kidnapped, forcibly recruited by organized crime, and even killed.
This violence can be attributed to two major social processes. First, the figure of the migrant, or deportee for that matter, someone defined by his or her movement and always belonging to someplace else, is uniquely exposed to violence. The limited protections afforded to migrants because they are in transit make them easy targets for being abducted, brutalized, or simply made to disappear without anyone searching for them for long periods of time. While, in theory, international conventions protect migrants and refugees, at the local level the ambiguity of belonging, of being in transit, neither from the space where they live nor at their final destination, means there is no one to answer for crimes committed against them. Second, the increasing presence of death, both in terms of the danger of the journey itself but also its social and emotional counterparts, has become an important aspect of the journey. This is highlighted by the blurring of boundaries between deaths caused by the sprawling conflict over the control of drug trafficking and those that are the result of migration. As more and more people pass through these zones of conflict, either while traveling through Mexico from Central America or upon deportation to Mexico’s northern border, they are placed in extreme danger and have become the unlikely targets of organized crime.

SAN FERNANDO: VIOLENCE AND MIGRATION COLLIDE

The massacre of 72 migrants, “the 72” as they came to be known, marked a sea change in the conflict. For the first time it became impossible to contend that this conflict was confined to the ranks of drug traffickers and criminals; clearly many others were also exposed to this violence. Therefore, it became one of the events that caused the greatest problem for the Mexican government. The discourse of criminals killing each other, the “ajuste de cuentas” best translated as the settling of scores, had been the most common refrain for the Mexican government to fall back on when addressing the violence. These people were simply killing each other, and therefore it was not a matter of concern for those who were not involved in such activities.5 With 72 migrants from Central and South America murdered execution style, their bodies lined up against the wall of an abandoned, half-finished building, there was no way to spin it as some sort of internal gang dispute. This was something much more sinister.
Rumors swirled. The initial discovery of the bodies was due to a survivor, a young man from Ecuador, shot in the head and left for dead. He was able to escape and flag down a military convoy that reported the massacre. Questions about whether he was left alive on purpose, or a member of the cartel working in collaboration, caused heated debates (sources say that his survival was neither intentional nor was he a member of the Zetas). Certainly, the fact that no steps were taken to dispose of the bodies, as had become customary in the region, raised further suspicions. Those suspicions grew as almost two hundred bodies were found buried in mass graves in the same area the following year, many of them having been dissolved in acid and burned beyond recognition. Why leave such a devastating trail of violence? For Juanito, a young man who was kidnapped and held in San Fernando two years after the massacre, the answer lay in the complicated relationship between organized crime and the Mexican government. He believed it was a cynical action by organized crime to embarrass the beleaguered Mexican government and destabilize their legitimacy by questioning their ability to protect foreigners on national soil, thereby exacerbating the international debate about whether or not Mexico was becoming a failed state.6 By selecting only foreign migrants to murder, it applied international pressure on the administration as the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Brazil all joined to denounce Mexico’s failure to protect migrants. In this way the Zetas hoped to force cooperation from the government, and specifically its enforcement apparatus, to turn a blind eye to the drug trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping that has plagued Mexico’s Northeast.
This leads us to one of the main questions driving this research: How does enforcement shape the types of activities carried out by criminal organizations? For one, the overreliance on the military, following the arrest and elimination of local police as occurred in cities such as Nuevo Laredo during my fieldwork, led to an increase in violence targeted at local residents. Militaries are not designed to police civilian populations, especially not their own nationals. They are trained to kill enemies, not to investigate crimes, not to make arrests and get convictions in court. They are trained to confront and engage. This has caused a great deal of institutional confusion as the army and navy begin to receive training in police tactics and the police receive more and more training in military tactics and materials such as the Black Hawk helicopters provided by the United States. Life on the ground, however, shows that this has resulted in nothing but chaos and confusion.
On one of my first trips to Nuevo Laredo, I headed to the convenience store with my hosts to buy some beer for the carne asada. We walked into the ubiquitous OXXO, similar to the one on nearly every corner in Mexico. The young woman behind the counter was shaking. “I can’t sell you anything. I have no change. They just came in here and robbed me,” she said. “They put a knife to my throat.” My host Fernando7 pulled out his wallet to check. “That’s okay. We have correct change for the beer.” We paid and walked out as if it were the most normal thing in the world.8 The banality of violence and turmoil caused by efforts to root out corruption was itself shocking and completely unremarkable as people averted their attention and normalized the things that were out of their control.
This is just one example of how national-level policy changes influence the nature and character of violence. But what about international policies such as border and immigration enforcement? How do the policies and even the individual decisions made by immigration officers at the U. S.-Mexico border influence the nature of violence along the border? I argue that immigration enforcement practices have been one of the major drivers of kidnapping and violence against migrants in Mexico. This occurs through the complicated geography of detention and repatriation that shuffles people all along the two-thousand-mile border, as well as the steady process of criminalization that has produced a stigma that transcends borders and has permeated Mexican society as well.
With more and more immigrants being arrested, incarcerated for greater periods of time, and sentenced for crimes that for decades were generally treated as administrative violations and not criminal acts, it has promoted higher levels of violence around undocumented migration and deportation.9 The costs to cross, the stakes of getting caught, and the intermingling of migrants and drug traffickers in prison have all converged along the border. This, along with the uniquely situated vulnerability and exposure of clandestine migrants, has led to the complex and shifting exploitation, abuse, and even massacres of migrants in Mexico such as in San Fernando but also in Cadereyta, Nuevo León. The lack of understanding and questions about the true scope of this violence present a unique challenge for research, advocacy, and especially for asylum seekers in their quest to stay in the United States. Neither I nor anyone else can answer seemingly simple questions about what happens to people whose asylum applications are rejected. How many are killed? Where do they go? Do they hide or run? How many are conscripted into organized crime? How many are kidnapped, tortured, and exploited? This book addresses some of these questions, but arriving at a definitive answer to such hidden and violent processes will require additional research and perhaps decades of diligent work by scholars, advocates, and activists.
Furthermore, no other place along the border has generated as many unanswered questions as the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. With so little information coming out of this area, it is difficult to know for sure the levels of violence. How frequent are killings like the massacre in San Fernando? What has driven the explosion of drug cartel–related violence against migrants and deportees in recent years? One thing is for sure; this violence has drastically reshaped migration, adding new layers of violence to what was already a treacherous and often deadly journey.
The severity of the situation has left migrant rights advocates and service providers desperately unprepared and without the necessary resources. Across the Northeast, migrant rights centers were forced to close, often sending those running these programs into hiding, leaving the region or country as a whole. This lack of services correlates to the diminishing power of the press to report on crime or operate freely. In Nuevo Laredo where I worked, one could not buy a national newspaper or Proceso (a renowned news magazine published in Mexico City) at the local OXXO. Even the man who delivered papers from Laredo, Texas, was threatened and, as a result, stopped bringing papers across the river.
Survival became the primary organizing principle of social life. I remember walking around Ciudad Juárez in 2010, the year more than three thousand people were murdered in that city.10 People ...

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