Violence as an Investment Policy, Human Rights Violations as a Business Model

According to a new report by the Indigenous Alliance Without Borders, the UCLA Latin American Institute and Center for Mexican Studies, border deaths in southern Arizona’s Pima County have nearly doubled since 2019. In December of 2018, the U.S. government implemented Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a policy that forces people to wait for their asylum hearings in Mexico. Then, in 2020, the Trump administration activated Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that rapidly expels or deports border crossers. These policies have proved lethal. From 2019 to 2022, 67 percent more people died on the Tohono O’odham Nation, a Native American reservation located in southern Arizona, compared to figures from 2015–18.

The number of bodies found on the nation, which has long been a place where people have come north after crossing the border, grew exponentially from an average of 49.5 (2015–18) to 82.5 (2019–22). The report also connects MPP and Title 42 with increased violence against migrants, including incidents of robbery, disappearance, and sexual assault, which it documents using a large data set from Human Rights First. “We explain how those official policies led to unprecedented violence carried out from Jan. 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022 through migrant expulsions by CBP [ U.S. Customs and Border Protection] and by multinational criminal organizations,” the authors write.

Out of Sight Out of Mind: An Interpretive Human Rights Report on U.S. Mexico Border Violence under MPP and Title 42 is well timed, on the cusp of May, the month that begins the hot season in the desert, when crossing the border becomes more life threatening.

But the report doesn’t stop there. It situates these human rights abuses within the broader economic dynamics of globalization, particularly free trade agreements between the United States and Mexico (NAFTA), as well as Central America (CAFTA). By doing this, the researchers offer not only a bigger and broader context about why people are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border to begin with, who’s crossing borders, why people are crossing borders, and what are some of the root causes of dispossession and displacement, but it also situates the hyper-militarized U.S. Mexico border as one puzzle piece in an “economic pipeline.”

As the authors put it:

“Workers displaced from NAFTA and CAFTA in free trade states became unwitting human capital for economic exploitation by operators of the pipeline within the regional neo-liberal model. In the free trade countries, hollowed out governance structures were supportive of the military suppression of workers’ access to employment and corporate capture of natural resources.”

The researchers continue, “Migration, and its myriad of political and human costs, became a major tradeoff in the Meso-American regional economy. In parallel, a glaring pattern of human rights violations dotted major migration routes and borders.”

By looking at the border policy as a kind of business model, the report reveals the extractive tentacles of the state, corporations, and organized crime. Violence against migrants, it argues, becomes an “investment policy” that enables this state-corporate-criminal nexus to extract and profit from people who are on the move, whether through dispossession in their home countries or smuggling costs to get across the border, not to mention the lucrative contracts that surveillance companies receive, among other things.

In this sense the report contends with MPP, Title 42, and the resulting rapid mass expulsions and vulnerability imposed on people who stay on the Mexican side—all these, the report argues, work in tandem with criminal networks that would exploit these same people for profit. This becomes an important point because CBP is so often pitted against crime, which justifies its budgets. But really, the researchers say, the Homeland Security agency and its deportations help fuel the deaths and violence. And the border becomes a place where the free market, border militarization, and crime collide.

And now, entering the summer months, we can predict that people who right now are otherwise healthy will die crossing the border. If trends continue, the Tohono O’odham Nation will yet again be a place where bodies will be recovered and people will disappear. This is far from an anomaly Out of Sight Out of Mind makes clear, the violence is a predictable part of the system of mass border militarization and mass deportation. All in all, it has become a matter of the business of the border.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.