War in the sewers

COVER Barrio libreBarrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals of the New Frontier
Gilberto Rosas
2012, Duke University Press
188 pages

AS THE international border in the divided city of Nogales has grown increasingly militarized it has changed from being a barrier to human traffic into an obstacle to development – at least for some sectors of society on the Mexican side.

In this compelling and very contemporary ethnographic study, Gilberto Rosas examines the shadow of security – and violence – that hangs over one section of the population of Nogales and condemns them to a life of criminality and demonization.

Although this book strains to find a bitter form of hope in the response of one group – the so-called Barrio Libre, or Free ’Hood of marginalized youths who survive by preying on the many forms of traffic that cross the border, from migrants to drugs – it is ultimately bleak, painting a disturbing picture of the hopeless future awaiting these young people.

Rosas took to the extensive dangerous sewers beneath Nogales that defy border controls and have become the stamping ground of gangs calling themselves collectively Barrio Libre. Above them, the border became militarized as neoliberal economic policies ushered in the North American Free Trade Agreement – and began to displace millions of people and push them in search of livelihoods across the frontier.

The researcher’s objective was to explore tightening security reflected in a paradoxical assertion of state sovereignty under NAFTA, and how the ever more extensive security apparatus of border control and policing in general has transformed lives in this once sleepy – and happy – part of Mexico. This is a book about a new form of transnational violence that is being directed against some of the most vulnerable members of society, and how they respond.

Rosas describes with great eloquence the changing complexion of Nogales, which has been transformed from a dusty backwater into an edgy, semi-industrial crossover dominated by maquiladora factories and a magnet for migrants, both legal and illegal.

Dollars and crime seem to be the new currencies of this kind of town, which embodies a new order in North America of unforgiving globalized capitalism and the widespread disruption of lives and cultures. Rosas writes:

“Many of the youths in Barrio Libre were the sons and daughters of local maquiladora workers. Others came from other communities in Sonora, Sinaloa, Chiapas, or other states in Mexico, and a few hailed from Central America. They had come to this new frontier either on their own or with their families, following the mammoth disruptions that the liberalization of national economies had wrought in much of Latin America, particularly in the countryside.” [p. 7]

These youths live by violence, theft and bribery, often preying on the undocumented migrants trying to flow across the border to the US, many of whom use the sewer network. Their lives reflect the comprehensive impact of NAFTA, and free trade in general, on large swathes of Latin American life. Many of the migrants flowing through Nogales have been displaced from the countryside where economic liberalization has resulted in social erosion.

In the US, this flow of human traffic and the country’s own imperial forays into other exotic parts of the globe have heightened a sense of collective insecurity that can easily be focused upon Latin American migrants.

As a result, accompanying the growing anomie has been a tightening of policing of all kinds on both sides of the frontier – not infrequently directed at the youths – that has become so pervasive and extra-judicial that it represents a form of low-intensity warfare. To live in the Barrio Libre has come to mean to terrorize and to be terrorized, with the young people making up this tribe the target of incessant police brutality and a more pervasive form of state violence by which they are denied basic public services. Rosas writes:

“… Barrio Libre flowed under the low-intensity warfare that border policing has become, a kind of warfare that dramatizes the necessarily incomplete nature of sovereignty in the age of late neoliberal globalization. It is a kind of warfare that collapses the distinctions between the police and the military, between regulating life and killing it. This kind of low-intensity warfare has become instrumental in the making of sovereignty in the neoliberal or putatively post-neoliberal age, and it births intense historically and politically charged nightmares of insecurity among the citizens of the United States and, increasingly, Mexico.”

The Barrio Libre is a product of this nightmare, and the author coincides with others who have argued that a form of Low-Intensity Conflict (LIC) – an established military doctrine about a kind of limited urban warfare that also involves political goals which, readers in the UK should note, was similarly applied by the British Army in Northern Ireland – has accompanied the militarization of the US-Mexico border, such as Timothy Dunn. US officials, for example, now characterize undocumented economic migration across the border as a threat to “national security”.

Given this, Rosas argues, the youths in the Free ’Hood must ultimately be seen as victims: his aim is to understand the system of security and control that criminalizes them from the outset of their young lives through a process of degradation reflecting neoliberal reconfigurations of state power that are simultaneously economic, national, racial and gendered.

Drawing on such diverse theoretical influences as Marx and Foucault, Rosas examines the victimization of these young people with the cool insight of a committed scholar. Crucially, he does not excuse Mexico for its complicity in this process, both at the level of economic policymaking but also in terms of how its own security narratives are allowing this to happen, not least as part of the bloody battle against drug-trafficking. He writes:

“In seeping under the new frontier, the denizens of Barrio Libre dramatize the perverse effects of often violent, dramatic exercises of sovereignty on the part of both Mexico and the United States. The specific history of Barrio Libre thus captures the brutal, orchestrated use of force in the creation and the governance of Others and reveals the politicization of death and violence – even criminal violence – as new tactics of neoliberal governance and rule.” [pp. 17-18]

Rosas paints a truly disturbing picture of tightening security at the border, the employment of new technology that makes crossing ever more dangerous, and the rise of racist vigilante paramilitary groups on the US side acting against undocumented migrants with a form of de facto legitimacy.

Together these comprise what he calls the “new frontier” – a dystopian human wasteland that no longer exists just in nightmares. The youths of Barrio Libre exemplify the new way of life that survival in this nightmare requires.

Latin American Review of Books – Latamrob www.latamrob.com

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