Deported to Death: How Drug Violence is Reshaping Migration in Mexico

 by Jeremy Slack (University of Texas at El Paso) 


In 2010, 72 would-be migrants were executed in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. These migrants, from Central and South America were found shot in an abandoned building. In the following year, over 200 bodies were found in mass graves in the surrounding areas. These deaths became a mere footnote in the 150,000 murders that rocked Mexico between 2006 and 2013. The U.S. Mexico border bore much of the brunt of this violence as gangs and drug cartels clashed over the valuable access to the United States, leaving a bloody mess and moral morass. Through research with migrants and deportees who are largely strangers in the borderlands, attempting to cross through some of the most contested zones in the hemisphere, this book explores how drug violence has forever altered the migratory experience. By bringing together research on undocumented migration and drug violence in Mexico, I show the unique ways people in movement experience and are the subject of violence. By arguing that bodies in movement, bodies out of place, have been used as fodder for the drug war, in the form of labor and income for organized crime, as well as a group that has limited protections from the state, this book reshapes debates on the long-term impacts of border enforcement.

The war on drugs and the immigration enforcement have become enmeshed through increasing penalties for unauthorized migration, long stays in privately run immigration detention facilities and more intense policing of immigrant neighborhoods in the United States. In many ways the “immigrant” has replaced the “drug dealer” within the era of decreasing prison populations. The same apparatus used to criminalize and incarcerate communities of color through the prohibition of drugs is being used to incarcerate and remove non-citizens. Immigration offenses are now the most common federal crime, surpassing drug charges. The maximum penalty for illegal re-entry is 20 years, although this is rarely enforced. However, long sentences for immigration offenses are now common, with immigration violators serving long sentences in federal prisons. These dual phenomena merge, not only through the repressive apparatus of the state, but upon return to Mexico, as the mass forced removal of Mexicans clashes with the day-to-day realities of conflict on the border. People who have been institutionalized in U.S. prisons, and those with ties to prison or street gangs in the United States find that they are immediately interrogated, recruited or made disappear, depending on where they are deported.

During fieldwork, deportations into the region best known for migrant massacres began to intensify. By 2012 Tamaulipas received more deportations than any other state along the U.S. Mexico border. The number of deportees outstripped the number of Mexicans being apprehended in the area by about 70,000 per year in 2013. However, since I began to study migration, first in Sonora, Mexico in 2007, the situation has changed drastically all along the border. This book is based on a pioneering study that combines data from 1,100 surveys in five Mexican border cities along with multi-sited ethnographic research in some of the most contested regions of the border. Each survey had 250 questions and lasted about an hour per interview. By tracing the twin phenomena of deportation and drug violence throughout the 2,000 mile U.S. Mexico border this book breaks with conceptualizations of the U.S. Mexico border as one homogenous region. I explore how the physical cultural and political geography of the border play into the production of violence and conflict in this region. Instead of relying on traditional mixed methods approaches where qualitative data is relegated to the scoping phase of research, the statistics I present in this book are meant to contextualize the vignettes, stories and experiences within the larger flow of deportees, adding generalizability to the detailed ethnographic accounts. Moreover, the ethnographic research, particularly my work in Tamaulipas explores the clandestine dimensions of violence that cannot be studied directly with black and white questions on a page, rather through the subtle interactions and hidden norms that make the border such a complex environment.

1. Introduction

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. “We don’t have trouble with you. Our trouble is with them,” the armed man said pointing his gun at the group of migrants who had just checked in. The long time staff member Tino, froze: “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. The group of migrants started to scream and plead not to let them be taken. “Do you want us to have a problem with you?” questioned the armed man. “I let them take them. What else could I have done?” questioned Tino carefully.

During the same period that over 150,000 people were murdered in Mexico, over 2 million people were also deported, dropped off in conflict ridden and unfamiliar border zones. This mobile population, hard to track, hard to study and difficult to verify has been on the front lines of this violent conflict. Incursions by armed men have become a common occurrence in migrant shelters throughout Northeastern Mexico. This is part of the untold story of deportation. In order to provide services, shelters such as this one have had to stop providing legal advice on human rights abuses, stop offering services such as money transfers from family and even had to sacrifice the very people they are trying to help. A perpetual silence has governed the northeast. Limited news coverage, reliance on social media for information and gruesome high-profile murders of journalists caused the flow of information to stop. Several individuals connected to this and other shelters have been murdered. Combine the Mexican state’s unwillingness to investigate or curtail the kidnapping and murder of migrants with the removal of hundreds of thousands of people from the United States each year and there is a perfect combination of volatile ingredients. My experiences living and working at shelters in the region reminded me of putting a fresh coat of paint on a burning building. The day-to-day operations consisted of counting the number of bars of soap or toothbrushes given to each migrant. This is understandable considering the uncertainty of the situation in which they operate and the potential disaster that would result from closing these shelters. However, people return to the shelter every day after being beaten, threatened, extorted or kidnapped. Some die in the river or simply disappear. Research with transitory populations by nature means that people frequently leave and vanish, never to be heard from again. Some return home to Mexico or the United States, others wind up incarcerated due to increasingly severe penalties for undocumented migration and still others may perish during the crossing or at the hands of organized crime. This book explores the complex and hidden world of the border, delving into the politics of enforcement, the impact of organized crime and the violence that has reshaped life for many along Mexico’s northern border.

By tracing the dual phenomena of deportation and drug violence throughout the borderlands, with intensive fieldwork in Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo, it exposes how state practices have served to exacerbate the vulnerability of migrants. By shedding light on the true consequences of deportation, this book provides an important tool for people fighting removal. This includes activists, lawyers and policy makers concerned both about the wellbeing of migrants being put in harm’s way, but also for the border and Mexico as a whole. Current so called security practices actually exacerbated the situation along the border and caused even more death and violence by providing a stream of vulnerable, desperate and easily abused people to the border. While I do include fieldwork with people who are on the journey northward, particularly those from Central America, the principal analytic for this book is deportation. This allows us to better analyze government programs such as Operation Streamline, the mass trials for migrants at the border, lateral repatriation (ATEP) where people are moved from one sector to another and the different mechanisms used by local law enforcement to apprehend, detain and deport immigrants. These programs, along with the systematic criminalization of migrants, have exacerbated the security situation in Mexico and exposed migrants to new levels of vulnerability, especially by diverting migrants with criminal records into some of the most dangerous zones on the border.

2. Crossing Deserts – Crossing Drugs

Nogales, Sonora

“They [Sinaloa Cartel] kidnapped our group and tortured the guide for calentando el terreno – attracting too much attention. They tortured the guides, tying them and hanging them upside-down while hitting them with cactus pads for having crossed at the wrong time and without permission,” explained Jose.[i] [He and his group had been held on a ranch where drugs and guns were being stored.] “There were about 300 captives in all. The men told me, ‘We have the right to kill you.’” (Personal Communication, 07/19/2011)

How has the crossing experience changed? This chapter examines the dual processes of drug smuggling and clandestine migration through the desert. How are border spaces shared and produced through the negotiations that occur between human smugglers and drug traffickers? By examining migrant experiences with drugs and drug traffickers during their journeys, the distinct changes to the border and the crossing experience becomes evident. Quantitative data on robbery by bandits, and extortion by drug cartels at non-state run check points that charge people to get close to the border, helps us understand how non-state actors have effectively set up a form of parallel governance over the clandestine spaces of the border.

Recent scholarship on human smugglers known as coyotes, has attempted to combat the stereotypes generated by law enforcement and the media of human smugglers as evil rapists and murders. Scholars point out that coyotes rely on word of mouth to recruit new migrants. Therefore, behaving well and keeping one’s word is essential to repeat customers and the long family chains of migration that continuously send people north. However, there is another story that has been neglected, namely, how the spatial overlap between the two activities of drug trafficking and undocumented migration has created a defacto hierarchy whereupon the rules of how, when and whom may cross the border are dictated by drug cartels, creating intensely violent, monopolized clandestine spaces.

3. Deportation and Mobility on the Border

“Es que quiero irme de aqui, – I just want to leave here.” Christian said, his eyes red with tears. It took five minutes for someone with keys to come open the door to the migrant shelter that is locked up tight by 7:30 in the morning. “You should have walked with the rest of them to the plaza when it was safe,” scolded the shelter worker. Cristian was shaking, his normal youthful bravado gone, replaced by pure fear. He asked if we could call him a taxi. The person from the shelter nodded and walked away. I stepped outside to wait with him. He asked me for a cigarette but I don’t smoke. When no one came back for a few minutes I ducked inside and made a call from the office to one of the taxis I use. They showed up quickly and he jumped inside, and we never heard from him again (12/11/2013, Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas).

Everyday, thousands of people are dropped off at the border, but to say they all have the same experiences neglects a complicated reality. Some come almost directly out of the desert, detained for a day or two by the border patrol and then dropped off, wearing the same often tattered clothes that took them through the desert crossing. Others were removed from their homes in the United States, leaving a family and a life behind in their adopted, unofficial home. Some may not have been to Mexico for decades; others never learned Spanish, migrating as young children. Still others are coming out of prison. Some have served long sentences, gang affiliations and even a host of mental disorders exacerbated by institutionalization and solitary confinement. However, most find themselves in prison for immigration crimes. After being taken from their families and lives in the U.S. they now find themselves, after multiple repeat failures at crossing, caught up in the new zero tolerance policies of border enforcement.

Upon arrival in Mexico they find a different world, one whose rules have been carefully established but difficult to learn. Where they can go, where they can eat, how they can work has all been decided. For many, the best option is to get out, go across, go to some former home in Mexico, but others, lacking resources are stuck and must negotiate this terrain carefully.

4. “Te van a levantar – They are going to kidnap you”

 Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua

“They cut out a young Nicaraguan guy’s eye and severed two of his fingers because he didn’t pay. He bled to death in two days.”Held in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (Interview in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua)

 What is behind the recent epidemic of migrant kidnapping? This chapter problematizes the ransom narrative by providing evidence from victims about the other motives behind taking someone captive, namely, recruitment, labor and power over a population whose unlawful movement has stripped them of their rights and ability to seek assistance from the state. Therefore, we can see that movement; particularly clandestine movement, is a key to understanding why this is occurring. This chapter also explores the myriad types of kidnapping that occur in Mexico, such as virtual kidnapping that takes place through extorting phone calls, levantones which are largely reprisals that do not look for ransom, and torture/ interrogation driven kidnappings whose goals revolve around obtaining information rather than ransom. I also present evidence that kidnapers have largely begun to ignore ransom payments, instead continuing to hold people until they are of no use. This has been exacerbated by recent changes to Mexico’s laws.

5. “They asked me to Guard the River” Deportee Recruitment by Organized Crime  

Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas

Diego was stopped today by the Zetas.[1] They pointed guns at them and searched them. “I thought I was dead for sure, but they were really just looking for recruits. They said they would pay you 8000 pesos a week[1] to guard the river. You would get money clothes, guns, a truck a house. And girls. The guy told me, ‘we have girls between 3 years old and 15.” Diego was furious at this comment. “That’s sick “he said. “I wanted to fight them but they would kill me.”  I asked if people went with them. They said yes. Four or five people from the shelter went. Diego said: “it’s not true what they are offering.” Kalangas, another man from El Salvador spoke up and said. “Of course it isn’t true. They know that too. First, no one is going to pay us that much for honest work. Second, part of your mind just clouds over when you think about the tempting offer.”

The choice about whether or not to participate in the hierarchy of illegal activity at the border is a complex, personal and fraught with danger. This chapter explores the experiences of a group of migrants and deportees stuck in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas for a variety of reasons. As they struggle to find a way to cross the border, return home or earn a living at the border, the constant offers of work (both casual and threatening) for criminal organizations present a unique set of hazards and opportunities. How do people negotiate these pitfalls? At what point do people tire of the powerlessness of being a deportee in a city that does not want them and plunge into the dangerous world of organized crime?

The primary activity (at least nominally) is guarding the river against migrants trying to cross without authorization. Strangely, recruitment for this position is almost entirely conducted within the population of Central American migrants and Mexican deportees, who are now charged with policing other aspiring migrants. The violence of self-regulation, brutality toward those in your same social position raises important questions about survival within the complex illicit geography of the border.

6. The Disappeared

Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 2013

They walk across the bridge, bleary eyed, dressed primarily in prison garb, baggy light gray sweaters and blue slip-on shoes. Ramon, a large, jovial agent from Grupos Beta greets them in a group. After giving them the standard introduction about the services they provide such as a deportation slip that can serve as a temporary identification and ticket to social services around the city, he warns them ominously, “do not go walking on your own.” He later explains to me, “Every night a couple people decide they don’t want to wait and they disappear. There is nothing I can do about it. But the number of people who disappear is piling up. Sometimes they use fake names and other times they just walk off into the night and we never see them again.”

This is the challenge behind the 24,851 disappearances that occurred between 2007 and 2015 in Mexico. The labyrinthine nature of Mexico’s law enforcement bureaucracy, the lack of investigation and prosecution makes it almost impossible to find answers. However, the violence and fear of reprisal against people who dare to ask questions and search for loved ones is an even more serious hurdle in the search for answers. This chapter discusses disappearances in Mexico. Only Colombia has a higher number of disappeared persons. This phenomenon, writ large, has an important intersection with migration and deportation. The difficulties surrounding migration – lack of contact with family, death in the river or desert, violence by gangs – only compound the problems in the search for loved ones. By finding the ways that migration intersects with the general tendency to make people disappear we can get a sense of the magnitude of the problem. For instance, some of those identified in the massacres of San Fernando, Tamaulipas and Cadereyta, Nuevo León were carrying deportation slips. Efforts to identify missing migrants and document remains found in the Arizona desert have made headway into this area, while those that disappear in Mexico have almost never been found.

7. Resistance, Revolution and Love: the Limits of Violence and Fear

 Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas

Today Zacatecas was very agitated. I asked what was wrong. He told me that he was going to start “cuidando el rio,.” He said: “Look, Antonia (a Honduran migrant he had been dating) is gone. I don’t have anything. The last 13 years of my life don’t exist here. What else am I going to do? If they catch me crossing again they are going to lock me up?”Later that day he got a phone call that Antonia had been caught by the border patrol and was being held for ten days. A big smile lit up his face and all his friends started making fun of him. He immediately began going to work everyday in whatever he could do. “I don’t love her and she doesn’t love me,” he said. “But at least we have each other.”

Questions remain about how far this violence can expand, and how long it can endure. I assert that a threshold has already been established, whereupon the reach of an oppressive illicit regime has already begun to provoke a response form society. This vignette shows the power of personal relationships to pull people back from the danger and violence of the drug war. The emotional ties created through shared experiences of migration and removal creates important bonds, bonds useful for allowing people’s humanity to show through in even the darkest times. I argue that the relationships people build during their experiences at the border are important tools for resisting recruitment and not participating in criminal activities. Highly oppressive regimes are inherently unstable and recent movements by auto-defensas, self-defense collectives have challenges rule by narcos. Apart from these large-scale, revolutionary uprisings, this chapter explores the myriad ways in which people evade and resist domination.

8. Conclusions – What can we do?

Why study human suffering? Following in the tradition of activist scholars, this book urges us not only to arrive at a deeper understanding of the harm being caused by mass removal, and the prohibitions on drugs and labor. Rather, this is an attempt to produce real social change. Due to a Supreme Court ruling, deportation is not considered a punishment since it is simply sending someone back home. Because of its status as an administrative procedure and not a punishment, the burden is on the individual not only to hire a lawyer, but also to prove that they face harm once returned, or their removal would cause undue hardship for U.S. citizens or that they belong in the United States. The asylum process is daunting, convoluted and generally hidden from public view. One judge famously described it as doing “death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.”

This book serves as a tool to combat the idea that the removal of non-citizens is a benign act. Deportation is an act of violence, and my research shows the devastating consequences of this highly racialized, indiscriminate and frequently hidden process. Lawyers across the country struggle to find expertise and published information about what people will endure when returned to Mexico. By not acknowledging the systematic ways in which deportees as a distinct social group are targeted, kidnapped, tortured and murdered, the United States is in direct violation of international human rights. The Convention Against Torture (CAT) prohibits (non-refoulment) the removal of individuals likely to face precisely the conditions described in this book. Minor modifications to immigration policy such as not deporting people after dark, ensuring that their possessions are not taken away, not moving people between border regions[ii] and coordinating their arrival to the border with aid organizations would all increase people’s wellbeing. By monitoring the security situation in border towns, people being deported from the interior through the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) the current practice of dumping the majority of migrants with criminal records into Tamaulipas could easily be averted. At what point do we begin to take these abuses seriously? We must acknowledge that deportation is not a simply task of returning people to their homes, but a violent process that places people directly in the line of fire of one of the most gruesome conflicts in recent memory.


[i] This and all other names are pseudonyms.

[ii] Recently, the repatriation agreements dictating terms for removal were rewritten, due in part to the policy reports generated through this research cited here: http://immigrationimpact.com/2016/03/01/new-u-s-mexico-repatriation-agreements-seek-to-protect-returning-migrants/