The crackdown culture
By Katherine Sugg
Katherine is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of the Latino Studies Program at Central Connecticut State University. Her book, Gender and Allegory in Transamerican Fiction and Performance, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008.
This is the story of a spate of recent murders in the U.S. and Mexico, crimes that herald a dangerous new order.
On Valentine’s Day of this year, in Pima County, Arizona, Minuteman leader Shawna Forde was convicted of the 2009 murders of Raul Junior Flores and his nine-year-old daughter Brisenia Flores. Shawna Forde and a male accomplice came to the family’s door in Arivaca, Arizona claiming to be police officers. Raul Flores didn’t believe that they were police and when he questioned them, Forde and her accomplice opened fire. Flores was shot, and Gonzalez was forced to play dead on the floor while the gunman fired two bullets into her youngest daughter’s head, ignoring the girl’s pleas for her life. Forde had organized the break-in, according to prosecutors, hoping to use the robbery to get enough money to support efforts by her group, called Minutemen American Defense, to close the border to “illegals” for good.
Another murder shocked even hardened observers in northern Mexico’s Chihuahua City on December 16, 2010. Mother and longtime activist Marisela Escobedo was chased through the streets and shot in the head by a hit man in front of the state capitol buildings. Escobedo was in Chihuahua City working, as she had for over two years, to draw attention to her daughter Rubi’s murder case, one of the infamous femicides that have killed over a thousand young women in Ciudad Juarez since the 1990s.
Ciudad Juarez has seen an epidemic of unsolved cases of murder, torture, mutilation, and disappearance of young women over a decade. The femicides started before Ciudad Juarez became internationally famous for the violence associated with Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s crackdown on Mexican drug cartels.
Within the same two-year period, on November 9, 2008, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian migrant worker named Marcelo Lucero was walking home with a friend in Long Island, New York. Very unfortunately for him, a group of local white teenage boys had decided—as they often did, according to testimony—to go “beaner jumping” that night. The “Mexicans” they found were Lucero and his companion, who escaped. Lucero was beaten and stabbed to death in the streets of the quiet suburban town of Patchogue, NY. It emerged during the trial that these same seven boys, ranging between 16 and 18 years old, had been responsible for a 13-month-long campaign of attacks against Latinos, some of which had left their victims in the hospital and none of which had led to arrests or prosecutions by local authorities.
White suburban Long Island would seem to have little in common with the infamous Ciudad Juarez or even the desert regions of southern Arizona, but each of these cases shares a story and particular conditions that spawned such murderous violence. Flores was a Latino man, thought by Forde to be dealing drugs, in the borderlands of southern Arizona—a state where hostility against Latinos has become part of the legislative process. The murderer of Marisela Escobeda, and before that of her daughter, assumed that authorities in Mexico wouldn’t pursue the killers of poor unmarried women—even when gunned down in the street in broad daylight on the capitol steps. Marcelo Lucero lived and worked as a migrant worker in a region where such workers face public hostility, even as the region’s economic vitality relies on their labor in construction, landscaping, food service, and other domestic and hard physical labor occupations.
Each murder occurred in the wake of a wider crackdown effort that used the legitimated violence of military, police, and legal institutions to control unwanted populations and unpopular social conflicts. And the victims were subjected to this violence not despite a national fixation on law, order and security, but because of that fixation. Marked by law or by practice as members of disposable populations, these three victims found themselves caught in the violence that a crackdown culture perpetuates.
In Mexico, narco-trafficking and drug cartels justify the ongoing crackdown that’s created a militarized zone in Ciudad Juarez and the border – and created a culture that likely contributed to the continued murder of women there.
The Mexican federal government, led by President Felipe Calderón, borrowed U.S. policy to fix its problem with the drug cartels—even though these very policies and solutions had failed spectacularly in the U.S.’s own drug war. In using the tactics of the U.S. drug war and accepting U.S. financial and military support, Calderón embraced the idea that violent confrontation and a hard line on crime in the border region would create security and confidence in Mexico’s government institutions.
Instead, violence of all kinds has exploded across Mexico. The official death count is now over 35,000 killed since the Calderón administration sent 6,500 troops into the state of Michoacán in December 2006. The death tolls keep rising and the two main drug cartel factions, the Zetas/Juárez cartels and the Sinaloa/Gulf cartels, are now engaged in an open fight for power, even as each appears to have gained a kind of territorial sovereignty over sections of the northern and gulf states of Mexico. The drug cartels—not the Mexican government or military—control significant portions of these states and the communities within them. The Mexican government is thus widely understood to be losing the war against the cartels that it started.
But Calderón’s crackdown isn’t simply ineffectual. The crackdown culture is generating the very forms of violent disorder it is purportedly designed to prevent, and Escobedo’s murder in December 2010 is a case in point. Many, including her mother, considered her daughter Rubi’s murder in 2008 to be another instance in the 17-year-long epidemic of femicides in the region of Ciudad Juarez. The first femicidios in the 1990s involved a series of grisly murders in which young women, almost all single and many living on their own while they worked in the maquiladoras, were kidnapped, tortured, and their mutilated bodies left to be found in the deserts and vacant lots surrounding this border town.
The initial series of murders have been widely documented, and most commentators believe the perpetrator was a well-connected man with a bent toward serial killing and torture. But that serial killer has had many imitators, resulting in perhaps thousands of femicides in Juarez since 1993 (estimates vary from between 400 and 5000 women). Despite international attention, the femicides have not been solved nor have they abated: more than 310 women were murdered in Ciudad Juarez in 2010. The steady, and now growing, rate of fatalities indicates that many successfully learned the lessons taught by the apparent indifference of police and judicial authorities: murder of young women does not merit punishment in Ciudad Juarez.
These links between the femicides of Ciudad Juarez and the failed Mexican drug war suggest that intense militarization doesn’t erase the corruption and dysfunction of legal and police institutions in Mexico—and perhaps accomplishes the reverse. Human rights complaints have increased six-fold, and the lack of military prosecutions in recent years indicates that soldiers break the law with impunity, especially given the increasing number of solidiers accused of rape across Mexico. The legal and political system remains infiltrated by the drug cartels, and an intensified criminalization of protest frames non-violent protesters, often using trumped up drug charges. The state system is at an impasse, one “that practically guarantees impunity through a combination of institutional corruption, sexism, racism, incompetence, and indifference,” writes Laura Carlsen director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy.
Despite a commonsense equation that sees the use of federal government power and military action—even violent force—as sensible and productive tactics when facing social disorder, the crackdown culture may create rather than eradicate violence. Officially sanctioned violence in the name of law and order naturalizes violence – it becomes the norm for the society at large. In Ciudad Juarez, women and other vulnerable populations are the most visible victims. In the United States, migrant workers are the targets.
The United States remains powerfully focused on the problem of so-called illegal aliens—those migrant workers coming from Mexico, Central America, and other regions to take the millions of jobs that U.S. industries from agribusiness to poultry processing to construction to domestic service keep in reserve for them. But current immigration legislation and popular politics operate as if migrant workers require a ferocious policing that is said to be the only solution to a huge problem – even if that solution violates our own democratic values. The force of this response suggests that immigrant laborers without papers are somehow less than human – like the women of Ciudad Juarez, they become a disposable population.
In Arizona, for example, the passing and signing of Arizona SB 1070 in April 2010 set off a firestorm of national debate. Named “The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” SB 1070 is the just one of various legislative initiatives in several states aimed at making life in the U.S. unbearable for unauthorized workers and their families.
Although federal courts placed an injunction on the most controversial provisions of SB 1070—such as requiring all residents to carry ID documents with them at all times—the act sparked a nationwide trend. In Arizona and nationally, for example, there is a push to revoke birthright citizenship, a central provision of the 14th Amendment, to prevent so-called anchor babies.
Rhetorical and legal justifications support this crackdown culture in the U.S. Raids on homes and workplaces are a common crackdown tactic, such as the federal Immigration Control and Enforcement operation that on December 12, 2006, sent a thousand ICE agents into Swift and Company meat packing plants in six states. The military style and large-scale coordination of these raids resulted in 1,282 Swift employees detained for immigration violations, 65 charged with identity theft, and hundreds placed in deportation proceedings. The federal policy emphasizes restoring the rule of law, but the result has been to make non-violent violations of immigration codes the basis for extreme and large-scale practices of detention and deportation. In this way, gainfully employed undocumented workers and residents are transformed into illegal aliens in the national mind.
It is not surprising, then, that too many Americans don’t recognize undocumented immigrants as fellow humans, not in the same sense they would other members of their communities. Sometimes the resulting violence is punished, albeit after the fact. In February 2011, a jury convicted and recommended the death penalty for Shawna Forde and her accomplice for the murders of Raul and Brisenia Flores. But would the crime have happened if not for the anti-immigrant passion and crackdown culture that helped to spawn groups like the Minutemen?
Other crimes remain unpunished. The same week that Forde was sentenced to death, a Pennsylvania judge gave two men a lighter-than-recommended sentence for the 2008 beating of Luis Alvarez. Alvarez, a 25-year-old undocumented worker, died from injuries he sustained after being brutally attacked by a group of white high school football players who said they didn’t like Hispanics and wanted them out of their town.
And decisions like these are the clearest example of what results from the crackdown culture in the Americas: what Somos Republicanos has termed a plague of violence and harassment under which unauthorized Latino workers live in the U.S. Anti-immigration rhetoric, laws, and governmental violence create a social and legal atmosphere that has led to murders such as that of Lucero and Alvarez, as well as countless assaults. By combining the rhetoric of law and order with the tactics of governmental aggression and violence, the crackdown culture encourages and absolves violence against Latinos across the Americas.
“Sealing the Borders: The Effects of Increased Military Participation in Drug Interdiction,” by Peter H. Reuter, Gordon Crawford, Jonathan Cave, Patrick Murphy, Don Henry, William Lisowski, Eleanor Sullivan Wainstein. Rand Corporation. 1988. http://www.rand.org/pubs/reports/R3594.html
Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency).” Critical Inquiry 33 (Summer 2007). 754-80.
Laura Carlsen, “The Murdered Women of Juarez”. CIP Americas. January 12, 2011. http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/3895
Perils of Plan Mexico: Going Beyond Security to Strengthen U.S.-Mexico Relations” CIP Americas. November 23, 2009. http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/1925
Alicia Schmidt Camacho, “Hailing the Twelve Million: U.S. Immigration Policy, Deportation, and the Imaginary of Lawful Violence.” Social Text 105. Volume 28. No. 4. Winter 2010.1-24.
Mae M. Ngai. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press, 2004.