Refuge and Fortification

The U.S./Mexico borderlands are rife with the contradictions and cruelties of global capitalism; they are places where commerce flows freely but people do not.

U.S. soldiers enforcing the closure of the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, November 25, 2018.
U.S. soldiers enforcing the closure of the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, November 25, 2018.

The wall or fence symbolizes offense (off-fence) on the Mexican side of the border while it symbolizes defense (de-fence) on the U.S. side.
— Norma Iglesias-Prieto 1

1. Tucson, Arizona, October 2020

The 1,900-mile border between the United States and Mexico, running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, is much more than the mutual demarcation of national sovereignties. To many historians, the border embodies what Noam Chomsky has called an “architecture of violence” and internal militarization, rooted in centuries of conquest and the doctrine of manifest destiny. To other scholars and critics, it is a liminal zone of cultural hybridity, economic exchange, and social interplay. Decades ago the anthropologist Fernando Ortiz characterized the border as a “transcultural space”; to the feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, it is the “borderlands” where races mix, a frontier at once physical and psychological, where “two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch.”

To some the border is a zone of cultural hybridity and economic exchange; to others it is the unruly periphery, a playspace for legalized vice and sex tourism.

For others, the border is ever the unruly periphery, the playspace for legalized vice and sex tourism, what historian Dominique Brégent-Heald has called “commodified transnational eroticism.” Yet the region is increasingly understood as a sphere of influence in its own right. The planning historian Lawrence Herzog has described the border city as the “transfrontier metropolis,” an international zone of trade, industry, consumption. 2 Today the border is indeed rife with the contradictions of global capitalism; it is where commerce flows freely while people do not, where corporate hegemony and economic inequity, political instability and organized crime, environmental degradation and global warming, are experienced with especially brutal force.

For two decades now I have been living in the borderlands, first in New Mexico and now in Arizona, about 60 miles north of the border in a region that was, until the Gadsden Purchase, part of the Mexican state of Sonora. For much of that time I have been researching the region, especially the 700 or so miles between El Paso/Juarez and Tijuana/San Diego, documenting their landscapes and landmarks and how these have been changing in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Patriot Act and Secure Fence Act. 3 More recently I’ve come to see these transnational zones as a sort of supercharged sensor or receptor, acutely attuned to ceaselessly shifting geo-politics, delivering vital streams of information not only about their immediate circumstances but also about places that are far away from any of the four dozen designated crossing points that stretch westward from Brownsville/Matamoros to San Diego/Tijuana.

This is hardly a new idea, but for me it took on new urgency after an encounter with Honduran refugees in Tijuana two years ago; the refugees were part of the “migrant caravans” of asylum-seekers, including many women and children, described by the U.S. president as an “onslaught” of criminals. 4 Also around that time I started to track the geography of news reports about increasing numbers of Mexicans arriving at the border from Guerrero, and about the for-profit detention centers which are proliferating all across the United States but which are concentrated in the Southwest. Not satisfied with second-hand understanding, I set out to explore the places in my newsfeeds, the pins on my maps; I wanted to read the sensors for myself.

2. Tijuana, Baja California, November 2018

A young man from Honduras approached me and asked, tentatively, ¿Cómo podemos cruzar la frontera? “How can we cross the border?” Aquí no es posible. La frontera es demasiado fuerte, I answered. “Here it’s not possible. The border is too strong.”

Many migrants were women and children, fleeing poverty and violence; most had made the long journey on foot.

It was November 2018, and I was in Tijuana, a city I have visited frequently over the past decade for ongoing research and professional collaboration. 5 As it happened, that was when the caravan of almost 8,000 migrants that had started to form a month earlier, in San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras, started to arrive in Tijuana, intent on reaching the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry. Many of the migrants were women and children, fleeing poverty and violence and seeking asylum; some identified as LGBTQ; most had made the 2,700-mile journey on foot. Media coverage was intense, and the northward journey of the migrants was paralleled by the mobilization of several thousand U.S. troops — the first time in decades that active-duty soldiers were sent to the border — and the increased fortification of the 50 land ports along the international boundary. 6 Already flanked by imposing steel fencing, surveilled through real-time video feeds and motion sensors, and staffed with more than 21,000 Customs and Border Protection agents, the ports were now being fortified with concrete barricades and concertina wire, which were described by one news outlet as “the most visible result” of the costly military deployment. 7

By mid-month more than 2,000 migrants had found makeshift shelter in a tent camp set up by city officials in the open field of the Unidad Deportiva Benito Juárez, a municipal sports center barely a block away from the border fence. Soon their living conditions began to deteriorate — one report described “acrid portable toilets and overflowing trash cans” 8 — even as local humanitarian groups and city police labored to provide food, medical care, and security, and as the nearby Zona Norte barrio struggled to absorb the influx. Some tijuanenses lost patience and demanded the migrants’ expulsion; at one protest rally, residents waved banners saying MÉXICO PRIMERO, and the mayor was seen wearing a red MAKE TIJUANA GREAT AGAIN hat. 9

Refugees preparing to march to the San Ysidro Land Port, Tijuana, November 2018.
Refugees in the barrio Zona Norte, preparing to march to the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, Tijuana, November 25, 2018.

Near the El Chaparral Bridge, during the refugee march, Tijuana, November 2019. The protest sign reads: "NOT HAVING PAPERS IS NOT A CRIME AND DOES TAKE AWAY HUMAN RIGHTS"
Near the El Chaparral Bridge, during the refugee march, Tijuana, November 25, 2018. The protest sign reads: “TO NOT HAVE PAPERS IS NOT A CRIME AND DOES NOT TAKE AWAY HUMAN RIGHTS.”

Refugees crossing the Tijuana River, November 2018.
Refugee march, after crossing the Tijuana River, November 25, 2018.

Refugees at the Unidad Deportivo Benito Juárez, Barrio Zona Norte, Tijuana, November 25, 2018.
Refugees at the Unidad Deportivo Benito Juárez, Barrio Zona Norte, Tijuana, November 25, 2018.

Refugee march, Tijuana, November 2018. The sign reads: WHY DO YOU CROSS OUR BORDERS? AND NOT LESS US CROSS YOURS?
Refugee march, Tijuana, November 25, 2018. The sign reads: WHY DO YOU CROSS OUR BORDERS? AND NOT LET US CROSS YOURS.

Refugee march, Tijuana, November 2018.
Refugee march, Tijuana, November 25, 2018.

Refugees near the Ferrocarril Mexico rail yars, November 25, 2018.
Refugees near the Ferrocarril Mexico rail yards, November 25, 2018.

It was at this fraught moment that hundreds of migrants gathered on the morning of Sunday November 25 for what was intended to be a peaceful march from the sports center to the San Ysidro crossing, where the Central Americans planned to present themselves to U.S. authorities and formally request asylum. The day was warm and sunny, and the marchers — including women wheeling strollers, young children carrying backpacks and toys — proceeded through several blocks of Zona Norte with residents looking on and international media in tow. Soon the march was halted by Mexican federal police officers, armed with helmets and riot shields, at the entrance to the El Chaparral Bridge on the south bank of the dry, channelized Tijuana River. A swarm of drones hovered overhead. The port of entry lay just across the bridge, a couple thousand feet away. After an uneventful standoff that lasted nearly an hour, the Central Americans pushed through the police lines, crossed the concrete riverbed, and spilled into the dense commercial zone surrounding the port. The Mexican police regrouped and barred entry to the southbound traffic lanes. Temporarily blocked, hundreds of migrants scattered through the network of streets and along the riverbank, attempting to approach the border facilities along the east and west sides of the San Ysidro complex.

The right to seek asylum is protected by U.S. and international law, and it is this right that drove the migrants northward.

The march, and the migrants’ hopes for asylum, were surely doomed from the start. San Ysidro is the busiest land port in the western hemisphere, a sprawling complex where tens of thousands are processed daily through more than two dozen vehicle and pedestrian crossings. The right to seek asylum — part of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights — is protected by both U.S. and international law, and it is this right that drove the migrants northward. TO NOT HAVE PAPERS IS NOT A CRIME AND DOES NOT TAKE AWAY HUMAN RIGHTS, read the banner of one young man in the march. Yet that fall San Ysidro was processing barely a few dozen asylum seekers each day. Earlier in the year the Trump administration had tightened the rules requiring migrants to apply only at official entry ports (rather than anywhere along the border); the bureaucratic euphemism is “metering” — an Obama-era emergency measure that the Trump administration has hardened into standard policy. 10

In this grim context, what happened next seems almost inevitable. By late morning CBP agents began to shut down the U.S. side of the port; it would remain shut for several hours. Operations were halted and long lines of cars and trucks came to a standstill. U.S. military helicopters circled above. CBP agents in riot gear and U.S. soldiers in camouflage emerged in force, stringing razor wire across the entry lanes. Traffic was redirected and a P.A. system blared that the border crossing was temporarily closed and that travelers were forbidden to approach port facilities and that the use of force was authorized. On the Mexican side, the police stood firm while civilian laborers began erecting a series of interlocking steel barriers that quickly formed into an armored wall about eight-feet high. The 21st-century port was being sealed through the use of medieval techniques.

Refugees at the Unidad Deportivo Benito Juárez, barrio Zona Norte, near the border fence, November 25, 2018.
Refugees at the Unidad Deportivo Benito Juárez, barrio Zona Norte, near the border fence, November 25, 2018.

Riot shields, San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, November 23, 2018.
Riot shields, San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, November 2018.

U.S. soldiers, San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, November 25, 2018.
U.S. soldiers, San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, November 25, 2018.

Mexican police, near the San Ysidro Land Port, November 2018.
Mexican police, near the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, November 25, 2018.

Southbound traffic lanes, San Ysidro Land Port, Tijuana, November 2018.
Southbound traffic lanes, San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, Tijuana, November 25, 2018.

A group of refugees break through the police line near the San Ysidro Land Port, Tijuana, November 2018.
A group of refugees break through the police line near the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, Tijuana, November 25, 2018.

Port vendor being arrested by the Mexican police, Tijuana, November 2018.
Port vendor being arrested by the Mexican police, Tijuana, November 25, 2018.

I felt the first effects of teargas while watching an impromptu soccer match being played by vendors in the emptied-out travel lanes of the port.

I felt the first effects of teargas while watching an impromptu soccer match being played by food and souvenir vendors in the emptied-out travel lanes of the port. Border Patrol agents had earlier fired the canisters at migrants in the dry riverbed, and it was not long before men, women, and children were choking and crying, and trying to retreat. A half mile away, in the port lanes, the chemicals were potent enough to halt the game. Moments later, a group of Hondurans entered the vacant border crossing, and the vendors, irate over the closure, began pursuing the migrants. I lost sight of the soccer ball and watched as improvised weapons emerged — a baseball bat, a hammer, a lug wrench. The disorganized chase wound through tamale carts and taqueria stalls, moving into the green strip that separates the expedited and regular crossing lanes of the port and then onto a plaza where, on a typical day, a queue of taxis would be waiting.

By now the peaceful march had devolved into a chaotic melee. 11 Taxi drivers were joining the crowd; a small group of Central Americans sought refuge in a parking lot but were barred entry by attendants; another group was standing atop an embankment that runs parallel to the rail yards where NAFTA-sanctioned freight trains await customs clearance. The Mexican police swarmed the streets on foot followed by a column of vans and pickup trucks. At which point the momentum quickly dissipated; nearly as dramatically as events had escalated, the Central Americans were loaded into vehicles and driven away.

This was the moment when that young man from Honduras turned to me and asked how to get across the border. Our exchange was cut short when he and his compatriots were picked up by Mexican police and taken back to the tent camp near the stadium. Within weeks, the camp was dismantled and many of the asylum seekers were relocated to a new shelter set up in a derelict nightclub on the southeastern edge of Tijuana — much farther from the border. 12

San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, during the hours when the port, the busiest land crossing in the western hemisphere, was closed by the U.S. government.

Many saw in the migrant marchers a humanitarian crisis; the Trump administration saw a political opportunity.

As I write, almost two years later, the repercussions from the tumultuous events in Tijuana in November 2018 continue to unfold. While many saw in the migrant marchers a humanitarian crisis — people fleeing violence from drug cartels or organized gangs or domestic partners, others seeking relief from virulent homophobia or transphobia, many trying to escape the entrenched poverty of corrupt states — the U.S. president saw a political opportunity. In early 2019 the Department of Homeland Security announced a new policy, the Migrant Protection Protocols, a.k.a. the “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires asylum seekers to stay south of the border during the many months when their cases are under review. The legality of the new rule was almost immediately challenged in a lawsuit led by the American Civil Liberties Union, but the notorious program, described by migrant rights advocates as a “dramatic undermining of the foundation of the U.S. asylum system,” remains in effect. 13

To date tens of thousands have been denied asylum or discouraged from seeking it at all; currently thousands are stranded in Mexico. The so-called zero tolerance policy, which allowed family separations, was in force for much of 2019; the number of children who have been effectively orphaned will likely never be known. Meanwhile many who did enter the U.S. are being held in detention centers alongside those who have been swept up in immigration raids within the country. All of them, tens of thousands of people, have collided with the newest iterations of the Border-Security-Industrial Complex.

Many of those seeking asylum in the United States are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the Central American countries of the Northern Triangle; but sizable contingents come from China, Haiti, Cameroon, Romania, Bangladesh Ukraine, Angola, Congo — everywhere in the world. And these days an increasing number arrive from the Mexican state of Guerrero.

3. El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019

Marcos and Cecilia live close to the sky, more than 7,000 feet above sea level, on a north-facing ridge at the edge of their campo in the pueblo of El Tejocote. The tiny community, with just a few hundred souls, is located in Guerrero, in the midst of the Sierra Madre del Sur, some 130 miles east of the state capital, Chilpancingo, and worlds away from the coastal resort of Acapulco. A drone’s-eye view would show the mountainous terrain as a patchwork of cleared land and cloud forest, with stands of pine and oak giving way to fields planted with poppies and corn.

I spent several days with Marcos and Cecilia in their compound, a loose arrangement of small adobe structures with tin roofs, bordered by subsistence plots of corn, squash, and beans. Born and raised in El Tejocote, Marcos and Cecilia are both in their thirties; they built the place themselves and live there with their four children, Marcos’s father, a flock of chickens, and a cat. Vines of morning glory climb the adobe. Inside, the rooms are decorated with school portraits and silk flowers, and with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus Christ, and Jesús Malverde, the legendary outlaw folk-hero known as the “angel of the poor,” and sometimes as the “narco-saint.”

Sierra Made del Sur, Guerrero, August 2019.
Sierra Madre del Sur, Guerrero, August 2019.

El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

Marcos and Cecilia's kitchen, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
Marcos and Cecilia’s kitchen, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

View from Marcos and Cecilia's kitchen, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
View from Marcos and Cecilia’s kitchen, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

Bedroom in Marcos and Cecilia's house, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
Bedroom in Marcos and Cecilia’s house, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

School pictures, in Marco and Cecilia's house, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
School pictures, in Marco and Cecilia’s house, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

Poppy seeds, Guerrero, August 2019.
Poppy seeds, Guerrero, August 2019.

Poppy flower seed pod, August 2019.
Poppy flower seed pod, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

Gathering la goma, Guerrero, August 2019.
Gathering the poppy paste, la goma, Guerrero, August 2019.

Poppies interplanted with corn, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
Poppies interplanted with corn, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

El Tejocote is isolated. Navigation apps won’t reliably guide you there. The nearest cell tower is miles away. Wi-Fi is available, but only for twenty pesos an hour from a tiny convenience store that’s attached to the home of an entrepreneurial campesino; it’s the only store in El Tejocote. The nearest large town, Tlapa de Comonfort, is about 30 miles away; the drive will take you three hours over winding mountain roads that narrow from two-lane paved, to unpaved, then gravel tracks and finally dirt paths that wash away in storms. But washouts and ditches aren’t the only hazards. I was advised not to drive alone or at night; no point in making yourself an easy target for corrupt police or cartel operatives — which some days are one and the same.

El Tejocote is struggling. The village lies in the heart of a region where for two decades more than half of Mexico’s opium poppies have been cultivated.

El Tejocote is also struggling. The village lies in the heart of a region where for the past two decades more than half of Mexico’s opium poppies have been cultivated. Until recently, poppies provided Marcos and Cecilia and their family with a decent living in one of the poorest states in Mexico. Unlike in Sinaloa, where the cartels exert tight control over drug crops, in Guerrero the campesinos grow the poppies, gather the sticky paste, la goma, from the seed pods, and then sell that raw material to the cartels, which in turn produce heroin and supply the seemingly insatiable demand north of the border. Or at least they did until a couple of years ago, when the market for heroin from Mexico started to falter and then crashed. By the summer of 2019, most campesinos hadn’t bothered to plant poppies at all; the only plot in El Tejocote was interplanted with corn. As we walked in his campo, Marcos explained that in previous years the mountainsides would have been blanketed in red and pink blossoms. When the market was at its height, opium gum could be sold for upwards of $1,900 per kilo; just a few kilos brought enough cash to get by, raise a family. But now the price had fallen to about $200 per kilo, which doesn’t even cover the costs of labor and fertilizer. Marcos has a stockpile of seeds in case the prices rebound.

By most accounts, the downturn has been due to the introduction of new products and shifting patterns in drug use among the gringos. 14 For several years now the U.S. market has been flooded with fentanyl from China, a.k.a. China White, the synthetic opioid that’s sold on the dark web and shipped via companies like DHL. It’s much stronger than heroin, much easier to produce and smuggle, and much more lucrative for the cartels. In my hometown of Tucson, a kilo of fentanyl now sells for fifty percent more than the same amount of black tar heroin. Profits soar when the organic opiate is compounded with its immensely more potent synthetic counterpart.

All of which accounts for the rows of corn in Marcos’s campo; but it’s a crop grown for food, not cash. These days Marcos travels to find work, wherever he can, and he’s often gone for weeks at a time. I asked if he and Cecilia had ever considered leaving El Tejocote. “Where would we go that is better than here?” he replied. Marcos and Cecilia are raising their family on land passed down from Marcos’s family and for now the connection to community, to their roots, is more valuable than any opportunities they might find in cities like Chilpancingo. I’ve thought often about his answer, and continue to hope that he and Cecilia will never need to migrate, as so many others have done, for reasons that are political as well as economic.

Toy gun, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
Toy gun, El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

Guerrero has in fact long been a turbulent place, a region of crushing poverty, a stronghold of leftist indigenous resistance where hundreds if not thousands of alleged rebels were tortured and “disappeared” during Mexico’s Dirty War, in which successive right-wing governments terrorized student activists and campesinos. I learned more about the persistence of regional violence as I drove through the mountains with a local journalist and sometime fixer named Lenin. At one point Lenin gestured toward a dirt track off the main road, a spur that ended, he said, in a small campo that had been taken over by a gang of narcos. Lenin told me that the campo was now guarded, and that showing up without being able to offer the name of someone who lives there could mean no entry, and possibly no exit. “Lawless” is how Lenin described the place. Meeting the wrong roadblock can be perilous.

Guerrero has long been a stronghold of leftist indigenous resistance where hundreds if not thousands of alleged rebels have been tortured and ‘disappeared.’

A few months after my visit, ten members of the group Sensación Musical were killed when their vehicles were ambushed on the road near Chilapa. 15 The men, all Nahuas, a local Indigenous group, were burned beyond recognition, likely targeted because of their political activism. A community and policing organization, the Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias, or CRAC, which represents and protects Indigenous people, attributes the murders to Los Ardillos, a new gang of criminals that has been terrorizing the region following the dissolution of the Beltrán Leyva cartel. The gruesome crime brought back painful memories of the Ayotzinapa 43, the students from a local teachers college who in 2014 were massacred; in a horrifying irony, they were about to leave for Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, during which federal soldiers fired upon student protestors. Their disappearance, which remains unsolved, has become a potent symbol of pervasive corruption and persistent insecurity in a country where cartel activity is linked to the highest levels of state power through police and military collusion. 16

The campesinos are vulnerable to the predations of the enterprising cartels, who’ve replaced heroin trafficking with kidnapping, extortion, and land expropriation.

Today, with the poppy crop effectively worthless, the campesinos are increasingly vulnerable to the predations of the enterprising cartels, who’ve replaced heroin trafficking with kidnapping, extortion, and land expropriation. 17 “The poorest places have always been those that supply and subsidize the criminal economy — they pay for the broken dishes, as we say in Mexico.” This is how Abel Barrera Hernández described the situation as we sat in his office in Tlapa de Comonfort. Barrera is the founder and director of the Tlachinollan CHDM, a human rights organization that advocates for local Indigenous groups. An anthropologist by training, and a recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, Berrera is gregarious but also solemn; you can almost feel the weight of responsibility in his voice, as he recounts the complex political and economic issues that affect the peoples of the mountains.

Memorial to the disappeared, los desaparecidos, in Cuernavaca, August 2019.
Memorial to the disappeared, los desaparecidos, in Cuernavaca, August 2019.

The issues, as he explains, are rooted deep in history, in the Dirty War of the 1960s and ’70s, in the rise of the drug-trafficking cartels, in the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA promised jobs and investment, foreign money and new factories, an open market with the U.S. and Canada. The 1994 treaty was supposed to be a boon for Mexico’s emerging middle classes. But instead markets were consolidated and production was centralized. The new manufacturing jobs were concentrated in the maquiladoras owned by U.S. businesses and located along the northern borderlands. Mexican farmers were undersold and undercut by subsidized U.S. agricultural producers. For many small-scale cultivators, the most viable options were illicit crops, especially opium poppies.

NAFTA has functioned, in effect, as a stimulus package for the cartels.

NAFTA has functioned, in effect, as a stimulus package for the cartels. By the first decade of the millennium, Guerrero had become, along with Afghanistan, one of the main suppliers of the global heroin trade. The rugged mountains appealed to the criminal networks because of their isolation; and, as it turned out, poppies thrived in the cool, dry climate. With an annual allotment of fertilizer from the federal government, campesinos can harvest the plant three times yearly, a “full season.” Berrera describes the poppy as a “ring in the finger” that joined the local farmers to the profitable new cash crop. It was all too easy, he told me, to encourage poppy growing in a poor region “where otherwise people were just growing corn and tending goats.” 18 Barrera defines the work of Tlachinollan as defending the Indigenous campesinos against “state violence,” by which he means not only the physical violence that makes headlines but also the economic violence of racial capitalism. As he argues, the Indigenous peoples of Guerrero are victims of targeted racism and impersonal globalization; in our conversation, he described the logics of the government and the market in terms of “extraction, dispossession, and privatization.”

Residence near El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
Residence near El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

Fertilizer warehouse, near El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
Fertilizer warehouse near El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

On Marcos's phone, a video of one of the violent storms that are increasingly common in the Sierra Made del Sur.
On Marcos’s phone, a video of one of the violent storms that are increasingly common in the Sierra Madre del Sur.

For Marcos and Cecilia, the challenges are growing ever more acute. This past year the government-sponsored fertilizer program failed to deliver the needed supplies, and tens of thousands of campesinos were unable to plant viable crops; thus famine was added to their list of travails. 19 Meanwhile the fragile mountain ecosystem is in the grips of a changing climate. The rains come late and end early; they are less frequent but more intense. Many pueblos are still grappling with the lingering impacts of hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel, which swept through on the same day seven years ago. The Indigenous people “obviously understand” climate change, Berrera told me, even if they don’t use the terminology. “They understand that the seasons of the year are no longer the same, that the rain is angry … that it breaks the cornfield.”

As Marcos says, La lluvia ya no es lluvia. Es una tormenta. “The rain is no longer rain, it is a storm.”

It is unsurprising that many campesinos have been heading north, bound for the border ports of El Paso or Nogales or Tijuana. Those who survive the difficult journey and manage to negotiate the punitive new policies are as likely as not to be imprisoned in one of the for-profit detention centers that have proliferated along the border in recent years.

4. Eloy, Arizona, February 2020

The Eloy Detention Center sprawls across a square mile of the Sonoran Desert, midway between Phoenix and Tucson, amidst fields of cotton and alfalfa that have been irrigated into contingent existence. The 390,000-square-foot complex is part of a vast network of private prisons that extends across the country. 20 It is operated by a corporation called CoreCivic under a lucrative contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the Nashville-based company, which runs three other prisons in Eloy, is by far the largest employer in the town of 20,000.

The nondescript buildings, surrounded by electrified fencing, are part of a network of detention centers that extends across the country.

I am visiting Eloy with Francisco, a volunteer with the Kino Border Initiative, an immigration advocacy organization based in Nogales. As we drive north from Tucson on a warm day in February, I learn that Francisco conducts interviews with migrants, facilitates communication between detained people and their family and lawyers, and makes himself readily accessible for moral support. Soon the complex comes into view: a dozen nondescript, low-profile buildings, surrounded by two layers of high chain-link fencing separated by a wide strip of nowhere. The outer fence is topped by razor wire; the inner one is electrified. Except for a couple of athletic fields, the grounds are bare dirt. Francisco and I wait our turn to enter a fenced-in exterior passageway, with doors at each end that are locked and unlocked remotely. As guards patrol the perimeter and cameras monitor our presence, we announce “visitation” to an unseen entity within the administration building. The door latch is actuated with a buzz and a clack, and we step inside an anteroom before proceeding to security. We relinquish our car keys and wallets, then move through the screening x-rays and metal detectors, take a number, and wait.

Eloy Detention Center, Eloy, Arizona.
Eloy Detention Center, Eloy, Arizona.

Eloy Detention Center, Eloy, Arizona.
Eloy Detention Center, Eloy, Arizona.

Eloy Detention Center, Eloy Arizona.
Eloy Detention Center, Eloy Arizona.

The concrete block walls of the reception area are hung with portraits of the warden and administrative staff and with posters that contain compulsory information about migrant rights and labor law. There is a small flatscreen television tuned to the Disney Channel, a vending machine, and foam-filled, pastel-colored couches with no hard edges — specialty prison furniture. Eventually the names and numbers of several detainees are called, along with those of the woman Francisco and I are here to see. More doors, another hallway; then we file into a visiting area furnished with small white rectangular tables topped with clear plastic partitions. Detainees have entered from the opposite end. The CoreCivic guards discourage physical contact and require hands to remain visible and stationary on both sides of the partitions. Every guard is Hispanic.

Adriana’s voice is soft and tentative as she describes the daily hardships of Eloy, from spoiled food to emotional despair.

Francisco and I have come to see Adriana, a young woman from an Indigenous community in Ecuador. Many months earlier, she and her older sister had left their village, fleeing from a dangerous living arrangement within a religious sect. She arrived at the U.S. border in June 2019 and has been detained — imprisoned — ever since. Unlike her sister, Adriana was not granted humanitarian parole following her “credible fear” interview, which would have allowed her to request asylum without being locked up; she’s now being held without bail, seeking asylum from detention. 21 Adriana’s voice is soft and tentative as she describes to us the hardships of Eloy. At one point, a seizure sent her to the hospital for several days; to make matters worse, she was then returned to a different cell block, a.k.a. “tank,” and placed among women she didn’t know. Cut off from the provisional community she’d been fostering, she felt newly isolated and yet more depressed. She requested, and was granted, a return to the original tank, which made the days marginally more bearable.

Adriana describes the cafeteria food as barely edible. A typical boxed lunch contains bread, processed meat, crackers, packaged condiments, maybe a piece of fruit. It tastes bad and lacks good nutrition; it’s also often spoiled — a widespread problem in the prison industry. 22 Adriana, who is slender and barely five feet tall, tries to avoid eating anything other than oatmeal. If she wants better food, her only recourse is the commissary, which is expensive. Likewise, personal care products, such as soap, toothpaste, and tampons, are available only from concession companies whose detention center prices are well above market rates on the outside.

The status of her asylum hearings remains uncertain. Adriana’s first language is not Spanish but  Quechua, and she has requested a translator. This has delayed the proceedings, as has the pandemic; meanwhile she has been enhancing her language skills by reading as much Spanish literature as she can. Since my visit, we have been regularly corresponding by letter and speaking on the phone. She tells me that she dreams of working in fashion, surrounded by colorful clothes and shoes; to fill the long days in detention, she draws and makes decorative objects of folded paper. But the confinement, which has now lasted almost a year and a half, is wearing her down and she tells me she often feels desperate. Sometimes she manages a dark joke, as when she writes: … ahora comido esta pan, pan, y pan creo que mucho pan voy a salir de aquí panzón. “… now I have eaten bread, bread, bread, so much bread I will leave here paunchy.”


As I write, Adriana has still not been released; she is among the tens of thousands languishing in one of the more than 200 detention facilities across the country run by private corporations under ICE contracts. 23 In 21st-century America, human displacement has been commodified. The incarceration of migrants and asylum seekers is now a full-blown growth sector in the prison-industrial complex, increasing from a daily average of fewer than 3,000 detainees, in the late 1970s, to almost 50,000, in 2019. 24 In the past decade, the federal budget for detention has increased by more than 50 percent, and CoreCivic is one the chief beneficiaries of this tax-supported largesse. 25

In America, the incarceration of asylum seekers is now a full-blown growth sector in the prison-industrial complex.

For the prison town of Eloy, with a majority Latinx population, CoreCivic is an economic driver, employing more than 60 percent of the local workforce. Several years ago, when the facility was under construction, the city manager said, “We like to think of [detained migrants] as in a gated community with lots of amenities.” 26 CoreCivic, whose corporate motto is “Better the Public Good,” has recently reported hefty profits even as Eloy has suffered the second worst outbreak of COVID-19 among U.S. detention centers. 27 Today visitation is suspended, the cafeteria is closed, protective equipment is in short supply, and medical care is sporadic. Adriana was among those who tested positive, and she spent two weeks in quarantine — solitary confinement, in fact, what detainees call “the hole.”

5. La Gente de la Montaña

In El Tejocote, we were arrested. The experience was, actually, low-key and undramatic; but the fact was that our small group (Marcos, his friend Chuy, Lenin, my travel companion/translator Simon, and myself) was not going anywhere. Three young men with grave expressions and stern postures, members of the Policía Comunitaria, or CRAC-PC, had stopped us. Equipped with walkie-talkies, dressed in dark jackets and jeans, they positioned themselves in front of my rental car and informed us that we were to meet with the local secretaries of CRAC. The drone I had been flying over the opium poppy fields had drawn attention.

Comedor Comunitario, Guerrero, August 2019.
Comedor Comunitario, Guerrero, August 2019.

The drone I had been flying over the opium poppy fields had drawn attention from the Policía Comunitaria.

In the offices of the Comedor Comunitario — part town hall, part community center — we were offered seats facing two long folding tables with chairs arrayed along their length. The room began to fill; I counted eight funcionarios and about ten onlookers from the community. Nearly everyone shook my hand and made a gentle bow. The proceedings began. Although I do not speak Mixteco, the dynamics were legible. One of the secretaries asked who I was; when told that I was a university professor from Arizona, they asked if I could provide credentials. As my identification was passed around the room, the discussion focused on the proposition that any work by outsiders was a matter for consideration by the entire pueblo, not just individuals, like Marcos, who might be hosting the visitors. Concerns were raised: Was I a DEA agent? Did I work for a mining company? The audience echoed those sentiments.

I was asked to explain my intents and purposes. It was clear that a short answer wouldn’t do, so I responded with a detailed explanation — the crux being that I was documenting how the global economy intersects with local, informal economies and how the poppy trade among the campesinos is a vivid distillation of these interactions. The CRAC secretaries and the audience listened closely, some taking notes. More discussion; more questions. The final concern was that in operating my drone, I might have inadvertently recorded the identity of one of the campesinos. Could they view my footage?

The drone offered the campesinos a vantage point once available only to the military helicopters that surveil the mountains during poppy eradication operations.

I explained that we would need a computer. Neither the desktop PC nor the laptop of one of the officials had sufficient power to view the 4K video files. Lenin suggested that I fly the drone so everyone could see its capabilities first-hand. Everyone filed outside and watched as I unpacked and assembled the device. Encircled by spectators, the improbable machine beeped and blinked as it locked onto signals emanating from GPS satellites. The propellers spun up and the craft ascended above the campo. Soon the camera began feeding its view to the controller screen, delivering a vantage point that once had been available only to the military helicopters that surveil the mountains during poppy eradication operations.

El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.
El Tejocote, Guerrero, August 2019.

The campesino who had been concerned about his identity stood close by, looking over my shoulder, obviously engrossed. One by one, people took turns looking at themselves in the view from 400 feet. Satisfied, and recognizing the utility of the drone, one of the secretaries then requested that I make a photographic survey of the campo. The images available on Google Maps were, in their assessment, low quality, and clearly I could make better ones that would be useful for community planning purposes. Si, por supuesto que si. Yes, of course, I answered, and began photographing.

Author's Note

Much of the fieldwork and research for this essay was completed during a sabbatical from the University of Arizona. Funding and support were provided by INBAL – Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura of Mexico; the Arizona Commission on the Arts; and the University of Arizona College of Fine Arts. Thanks to Taiyana Pimentel, Willy Kautz, Julio Castro, Mirelle Torres Vega, Silverio Orduña Cruz, Marit Martinez, Javier Tapia and Marcela Guadiana for everything connected with my residency at Proyecto Siqueiros: La Tallera in Cuernavaca. Thanks to Francisco Cantú and the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project for assistance with those parts of the project dealing with immigrant detention and for the introduction to Adriana. Travel in Guerrero would have been impossible without critical contacts, expertise, and assistance. For that I am grateful to Alejandro Cartagena, Carlos Quintero, Yael Martinez, travel partner/translator Simon Schatzberg, and fixer/guide Lenin Ruwa Mosso. And thanks to Paul Ivey, Anita Huizar-Hernández, Alex Turner, and again to Francisco Cantú, who have offered insightful feedback as this essay took shape.

I am especially grateful to Adriana, who was finally granted parole just as this article was being published; to the young man from Honduras whose fate I do not know; to Marcos, Cecilia, and their family for opening their home in the mountains of Guerrero; and to the people of El Tejocote, who are so remarkably resilient and cohesive in the face enormous uncertainty.

The names of some people in this essay have been changed to protect their privacy.

Editors' Note

This article is also published in Spanish translation by Arquine: “Refugio y fortificación.”

  1. Norma Iglesias-Prieto, in Ronald Rael, editor, Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 24.
  2. Noam Chomsky and Graham Cairns, “Noam Chomsky: How the U.S.-Mexico Border Is Cruel by Design, Alternet, October 28, 2013. Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, trans. Harriet de Onis (New York: Knopf, 1946; Durham: Duke University Press, 1995). Gloria Analdua, Borderlands (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987). Dominique Brégent-Heald, “The Tourism of Titillation in Tijuana and Niagara Falls: Cross-Border Tourism and Hollywood Films between 1896 and 1960,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, vol. 17, no. 1 (2006), Lawrence A. Herzog, “The Transfrontier Metropolis,” Harvard Design Magazine, no. 1 (Fall 1998).
  3. David Taylor and William L Fox, “The Gray Scale,” Places Journal, January 2016, David Taylor: Working the Line (Sante Fe: Radius Books, 2010). David Taylor: Monuments (Sante Fe: Radius Books, 2015).
  4. Kirk Semple, “What Is the Migrant Caravan and Why Does Trump Care?” New York Times, October 18, 2018.
  5. Taylor and Fox, “The Gray Scale,” Places. David Taylor: Monuments. Carolina A. Miranda, “Why two artists surveyed the U.S.-Mexico border … the one from 1821,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2016.
  6. “Migrant caravan: Hundreds reach Tijuana on US border,” BBC News, November 14, 2018. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Helene Cooper, “Deployed Inside the United States: The Military Waits for the Migrant Caravan,” New York Times, November 10, 2018. Nick Miroff, “U.S. adds more barriers, razor wire at Mexico border amid fears of a crowd surge,” Washington Post, November 19, 2018.
  7. “Razor Wire Is Most Visible Result of $210M Deployment,” Voice of America News, November 21, 2018.
  8. Sarah Kinosian and Joshua Partlow, “’The situation keeps getting worse’: Unrest at U.S.-Mexico border creates new tension over migrant caravan,” Washington Post, November 26, 2018.
  9. James Fredrick, “Shouting ‘Mexico First,’ Hundred in Tijuana March Against Migrant Caravan,” NPR, November 19, 2018.
  10. Dara Lind, “The US has made migrants at the border wait months to apply for asylum. Now the dam is breaking,” Vox, November 28, 2019.  Elisabeth Malkin, “Migrant Caravan Is Just Yards from U.S. Border, but Long Wait Lies Ahead,” New York Times, November 18, 2018. Jonathan Blitzer, “The Long Wait for Tijuana’s Migrants to Process Their Own Asylum Claims,” The New Yorker, November 29, 2018.
  11. For more on the events that day, see Jonathan Pedneault, “A Peaceful Demonstration Turns Ugly at US Border,” Human Rights Watch, November 26, 2018. For more on the rights of migrants under international law, see “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials,” UN Human Rights Commission, 1990.
  12. Jack Herrera, “A Look Inside a Migrant Shelter in Tijuana,” Pacific Standard, December 20, 2018.
  13. “Asylum Seekers and Refugees,” National Immigrant Justice Center, January 2019. Jack Herrara, “A Year After the Caravans, Has Trump Won?” The Nation, December 9, 2019.
  14. Simon Schatzberg, “Struggling to Compete with Fentanyl, Mexico’s Poppy Farmers Ask for Legalization,” Filter, February 4, 2019. Romain De Cour Grandmaison, Nathaniel Morris, and Benjamin T. Smith, “No More Opium for the Masses,” Noria, February 10, 2019. John Holman, “Mexican drug cartels, poppy farmers and the US fentanyl crisis,” Al Jazeera, May 7, 2019. Kirk Semple, “Mexican Opium Prices Plummet, Driving Poppy Farmers to Migrate,” New York Times, July 7, 2019.
  15. “Mexico violence: Indigenous musicians killed in ambush in Guerrero,” BBC News, January 18, 2020.
  16. Alejandro Almazan, “Dispatches from Guerrero,” N+1, Spring 2015. Jorge Volpi, “Mexico in the drug war: ‘A cemetery of bodies with no story, and stories with no body’,” The Guardian, November 4, 2019. Anabel Hernandez, A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students (New York City: Verso, 2018). “Mexico ex-defense minister arrested in U.S. on ‘drug charges.’,” Al Jazeera, October 16, 2020.
  17. “Fifteen people killed in Mexican village linked to windpower dispute,” The Guardian, June 23, 2020. “Mexico: 15 people killed in dispute linked to wind energy projects in Oaxaca,” Business & Human Rights Resource Center, June 23, 2020. Eoin Wilson, “Murders, megaprojects and a ‘new Panama Canal’ in Mexico,” Al Jazeera, July 13, 2020. Jose Benjamin Montaño, “Impunity Reigns in the Murder of Indigenous Activist Samir Flores,” Latino USA, February 21, 2020.  Alexandre Meeghini, “’Under Siege’: desperate Mexico region uses guns, children to fend off cartels,” Reuters, February 10, 2020.
  18. Oeindrila Dube, Omar Garcia-Ponce, Kevin Thom, “From Maize to Haze: Agricultural Shocks and the Growth of the American Drug Sector,” Journal of the European Economic Association, July 8, 2016, Travis Hartman, Lizbeth Diaz, “Garden and Gun: In southern Mexico, illicit poppy gardens lie in the middle of economics, violence, addiction and potentially, regulation and legitimacy,” Reuters, February 6, 2019.
  19. “Crisis pending in Guerrero as up to 16,000 farmers still without fertilizer,” Mexico Daily News, August 26, 2019. Arturo de Dios Palma, “Fentanyl Boom Leaves Migration and Misery in Guerrero,” El Universal, April 2, 2020.
  20. See the interactive map, Freedom for Immigrants.
  21. For more on the “credible fear” interview process, and its current abuses, see “Allowing CPB to Conduct Credible Fear Interviews Undermines Safeguards to Protect Refugees,” Fact Sheet, Human Rights First, April 2019. For more on the deportation process, see Robert Moore, “Trump administration testing rapid asylum review, deportation process in Texas,” Washington Post, October 24, 2019.
  22. See Alan Zibel, “Detained for Profit: Spending Surges Under U.S. Immigration Crackdown,” Public Citizen, September 18, 2019. Joe Fassler and Claire Brown, “Prison Food Is Making U.S. Inmates Disproportionately Sick,” The Atlantic, December 27, 2017.
  23. Just as this article was being published, I learned that Adriana was granted parole; she is not free, but she will no longer be imprisoned in Eloy.
  24. Emily Kassie, “Detained: How the U.S. built the world’s largest immigrant detention system,” The Guardian, September 24, 2019. Eunice Hyunhye Cho, Tara Tidwell Cullen, Clara Long, ACLU, Human Rights Watch, National Immigration Justice Center, Justice-Free Zones: U.S. Immigration Detention Under the Trump Administration, 2020.
  25. Today four private corporations — CoreCivic, Geo Group, Management & Training Corporation, and LaSalle Corrections — manage the majority of U.S. detention centers. The basic unit of revenue and expense is the “compensated man-day,” i.e., the income and costs associated with maintaining individual detainees for one day. This is the “key performance indicator” of profitability. For more information, see Clyde Haberman, “For Private Prisons, Detaining Immigrants Is Big Business,” New York Times, October 1, 2018. Renae Merle and Trace Jan, “Wall Street pulled its financing. Stocks have plummeted. But private prisons still thrive,” Washington Post, October 3, 2019. For more on the rising costs of border security since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, see “The Cost of Immigration Enforcement and Border Security,” American Immigration Council, July 7, 2020.
  26. John Burnett, “How Will A Small Town in Arizona Manage an ICE Facility in Texas?” Morning Edition, NPR, October 28, 2014. For more, see “Eloy Detention Center: A Place Where People Disappear,” The Carceral State of Arizona: The Human Cost of Being Confined, Puente Movement/Advancement Project (October 2019), 25–29.
  27. Daniel Gonzalez, “More than 40% of staff at large Arizona detention center positive for COVID-19, operators say,” USA Today, July 9, 2020. “233 coronavirus cases reported at ICE facility in Eloy,” 12 News, August 28, 2020. Cora Currier, “Letters from ICE detainees expose desperate prison conditions amid coronavirus epidemic,” The Intercept, July 27, 2020.
Text and Photographs by David Taylor, “Refuge and Fortification,” Places Journal, October 2020. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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