Captive Bodies: Migrant kidnapping and deportation in Mexico

By Jeremy Slack, University of Texas, El Paso

The massacre of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico in 2014, and before that the massacre of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, have drawn attention to the tragedy of disappearances, mass murder and state/criminal collusion. Over the last eight years more than 22,000 disappearances have been registered in Mexico.  While theories abound, the question of what has been happening to these people and why remains unanswered. This tragedy quickly faded from international, and even national, debates about the cost of the war on drugs.

NGOs and activists dedicated to migrant’s rights, the freedom of information and uncovering stories behind this recent violence continue to press the issue. However, academics have had little to say on this topic. Why are migrants being kidnapped en masse? Is this purely about ransom, or are there other reasons to kidnap relatively poor individuals? My article, recently published in Area, uses data taken from interviews and surveys about deportees’ experiences of being kidnapped or held against their will. It takes seriously how people live through the policies and practices of a militarized U.S. Mexico border, and can help answer these questions.

Juanito*, a 21 year old from northern Mexico provides us with a little seen window into this horror. Agents from Grupos Beta, a migrant aid organization from the Mexican government, abducted him. As a deportee, they offered him a meal and half price bus ticket to his home, but in reality, they had other plans. They put a bag over his head and drove him and about 40 other people through the night. He was held for five months and subjected to torture, including sexual assault and electrocution. His family paid a $5,000 USD ransom but he was not released. No one was. Instead, they put him and the others to work, “cloning marijuana or packing it”. He explained that he was able to survive by being submissive. Those who got angry and fought back didn’t last.

Grupos Beta agents provide transportation for deportees in Nogales, Sonora. Photo Credit: Murphy Woodhouse

Grupos Beta agents provide transportation for deportees in Nogales, Sonora. Photo Credit: Murphy Woodhouse

Juanito’s case is an extreme one. However, surveys with 82 deportees who had been kidnapped reveal more questions than answers. Of these 82 surveys, 13 reported being let go and another ten escaped. Others were never asked for ransom. Some paid and were not let go. Only about half of them were freed after paying ransom. What does this tell us about the utility in taking control of people’s bodies? Moreover, why migrants? For Juanito it is the fact that they are out of place, dislocated from their homes, networks and support. He explained that if they were to do this to local residents, there would be a revolt.

It cannot be ignored that the practices and policies of the U.S. government place people in these situations. Deportation practices such as the lateral movement of people from one region of the border to another directly violate issues of non—refoulment, the provision that you cannot return people to a country when there is a threat of torture. Deportees are being actively funneled into the region best known for migrant massacres. Juanito was lucky to escape with his life. When asked what should be done in light of his horrific ordeal, he responded, ““More than anything, I want the [US] government to understand that it’s not necessary to be dropping people off, deporting them to all these places. It’s possible to find a city, where it’s safe” –  so that others will not suffer the same fate.

* Juanito is a pseudonym used to safeguard his identity.

About the author: Jeremy Slack obtained his PhD from the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona and is currently a Visiting Assistant professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Texas, El Paso. Jeremy’s doctoral research explored the intersection of drug fuelled violence and undocumented migration on the U.S Mexico Border. He is also one of the Principal Investigators for a major project funded by the Ford Foundation to produce generalizable data about deportee’s experiences crossing the border. 

60-world2 Archibald R C 2010 Victims of massacre in Mexico said to be migrants New York Times 

60-world2 Lakhini N 2015 Students who survived Mexico’s night of bloody horror accuse army and police The Guardian 

60-world2 Servín F C 2014 Crítica, la situación de México por las desapariciones forzadas: ONU La Journada (in Spanish)

books_icon Slack, J. (2015), Captive bodies: migrant kidnapping and deportation in Mexico. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12151

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