Profit making within the logics of capitalism

Structural violence and the commodification of
undocumented Central American migrants
The undocumented-migrant journey across Mexico
has become a site of intense violence, exploitation,
and profit making within the logics of capitalism.
While transnational migration is often
conceptualized from the perspective of sending and
receiving communities and borderlands, I suggest
the liminal spaces between these zones are crucial
sites for understanding how structural forms of
violence are reconfigured in local settings. Drawing
on my ethnographic fieldwork in migrant shelters
located along the journey, I trace how Central
American migrants’ bodies, labor, and lives are
transformed into commodities within economies of
smuggling, extortion, and humanitarian aid. I argue
that everyday violence along the journey is
produced by historical trajectories of political and
criminal violence and by local and global economies
that profit from human mobility. As violence is
rearticulated at the local level, new tensions and
social dislocations emerge between and among
social groups. [migrant journeys, commodification,
structural violence, securitization, political economy,
Central America and Mexico]
uring my fieldwork studying violence and migration in southern Mexico, Father Jose, a priest who runs a migrant shelter ´
in the state of Oaxaca spoke to me about the cachuco industry. Cachuco is a derogatory term used for Central Americans in
Mexico and roughly translates to “dirty pig.” Instead of simply blaming an increase in violence against migrants on “bad” individuals, gangs, or drug cartels, Father Jose spoke of the dynamic economic in- ´
dustry that surrounds the steady movement of undocumented transit migrants. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people from Guatemala, El
Salvador, and Honduras attempt to cross Mexico, where they regularly encounter abuse, rape, dismemberment, and death.1 While Central Americans have historically encountered abuse in Mexico since they began migrating in substantial numbers during the civil wars of the 1980s, in recent
years, direct violence and exploitation have become far more systematic
and inescapable.2 Manuel, a migrant from El Salvador, described this shift:
Before on the journey, there were robbers and everyone knew that they
would steal whatever you had on you but then they would leave you in
peace. But now, with these groups that are kidnapping, well it’s a whole
other level, now they are organized together with the police and they
carry weapons, heavy artillery. The same police that denounce them
are the ones who protect them. It’s the same group that you see on the
news, the ones who kidnapped the 32 [referring to 32 migrants held
captive in Puebla in 2008]. They have not been around long, I think it
was just this year that it all began, or maybe two years. Imagine, they
kidnap 20, or ten or even five people and they ask for $5,000 for each
one. They know that their families will send money even if they cannot
afford to.
In this article, I examine how the journey across Mexico has become
a site of intense violence and profit making. I suggest that everyday
physical acts of violence must be understood as arising at the intersection between local and global economies that profit from human
AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 764–780, ISSN 0094-0496, online
ISSN 1548-1425. C 2013 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
DOI: 10.1111/amet.12053
Migration, violence, and commodification American Ethnologist
mobility. The spatial liminality of transit migration exacerbates processes of exclusion and violence. Beyond the local level, migration is crucial to capital accumulation, as
the movements of Central Americans are circumscribed by
demands for labor and drugs in the United States and for
weapons, military funding, and remittances in Mexico and
Central America. These factors contribute to the historically
produced structural vulnerability (Quesada et al. 2011) of
migrants in transit. In other words, the cachuco industry becomes implicated within and, in some cases, central to the
differentiating and often violent logics of global capitalism.
The systematization of kidnapping, smuggling, and extortion underpins the cachuco industry, wherein violence
is the central mechanism through which vulnerabilities are
produced and profits are derived. Often it is the fear of
violence and concerns for individual and collective safety
that fuel economic demands. Such processes not only reflect but also depend on dehumanizing state, legal, and social practices that construct migrants as unwanted criminals and racialized and gendered others. Laws and policies
that govern unauthorized migration from a perspective of
national security rather than human rights coproduce vulnerability and violence. Such “legal violence” (Menjivar and
Abrego 2012) funnels migrants into dangerous and clandestine routes, making the “presence of absented people”
more valuable in licit and illicit economic contexts (Coutin
2005:196). These practices have become heightened within
the context of Mexico’s drug war and transnational securitization projects.
Crucial to these dynamics are the ways migrant bodies, labor, and lives are transformed into useful objects of
exchange and exploitation. I suggest that while en route
to become productive laborers abroad, migrants are transformed into particular types of commodities that may both
gain and lose value within local conditions.3 Karl Marx
(1967) defines commodities as objects of utility and depositories of value and argues that value is acquired via social
and historical processes, namely, exchange. Migrants’ bodies are not necessarily produced to be sold, but because
they are exchanged and sold on the market, their supply
and the demand for them are real (Polanyi 2001:76). As
Lesley Sharp notes, “Commodification insists upon objectification in some form, transforming persons and their bodies from a human category into objects of economic desire”
(2000:293). And, although under conditions of capitalism
and its shifting neoliberal phase, migrant labor has already
been transformed into “a commodity like any other” (Harvey 2005:171), I suggest the journey represents a new phase
in commodification.
Within this phase, surplus value is derived from migrants’ potential as commodified labor as well as their
more immediate use-value and exchange-value in local
economies. For example, while in transit, migrants may
be valued in various combinations of cargo to smuggle,
gendered bodies to sell, labor to exploit, organs to traffic,
and lives to exchange for cash. Moreover, social relations
become linked to processes of exchange, labor, and cash
economies, particularly in the contexts of kidnapping and
human smuggling. The use-value and exchange-value of
migrant life, and, in some cases, migrant death, are always
dialectical (Harvey 2010:24) and shifting (Moodie 2006).
That is, migrants may both gain and lose value during their
journeys in material and embodied ways through their dismemberment, disappearance, and death.
While I focus on the political economy of violence in
Mexico, I also consider how processes of commodification
and violence are produced by larger historical and transnational conditions. Paul Farmer’s call for a “historically deep”
and “geographically broad” framework of structural violence becomes useful in tracing how misery and “inequality
[are] structured and legitimated over time” (2004:309) and
reproduced in people’s daily lives (Green 2004). I pay particular attention to legacies of state violence, war, and neoliberalism. Many migrants do not conceptualize the violence
they experience along the journey as new or unique but as
a continuation of processes they have known their whole
I conclude this article with a reflection on the ways
the political economy of migration reshapes local spaces.
Ethnographic attention to dynamics within transit communities reveals a number of interesting tensions between and among social groups. In some cases, residents
depend on migrants as consumers and patrons yet also resent migrants’ presence when their communities experience increases in fear and violence. Tensions are particularly acute in spaces such as shelters where transit migrants
seek refuge. Shelters have collectively emerged as the base
for much of the migrant-rights movement in Mexico yet
have also become incorporated into zones of profit. In such
a climate, the lines between victim and perpetrator are often blurred. Such dynamics speak to the complex and competing interests that shape the political economy of migration and ultimately contribute to the precariousness of people’s lives as they negotiate their journeys.
Liminal spaces
Human mobility has often been linked to processes of
violence—from the transatlantic slave trade to asylum seekers fleeing genocide and war. The effects of policing, militarization, and racism are particularly salient in spaces
associated with migration, such as border regions, factory work zones, and immigrant enclaves. Less understood
are the ways migrant journeys—in terms of the physical
spaces migrants occupy for the weeks, months, and in some
cases years they are in transit—have become sites of violence. This is particularly true for undocumented people
who are funneled into increasingly clandestine routes that
American Ethnologist Volume 40 Number 4 November 2013
make their journeys more dangerous, time consuming, and
I argue that to fully understand migration as a social process, we must look to both the larger historical
conditions that shape migration flows and to the material and highly embodied realities of migration for people
in active transit. Migrant journeys are rarely neat or linear
and complicate traditional conceptualizations of migration
from departure to arrival, integration, and, finally, assimilation (Papadopoulou-Kourkoula 2008). Research on the
“spatiality of the journey” (Collyer 2007:668) has demonstrated that migration is a complex, makeshift, and often
ambiguous lived experience that depends on and reconfigures processes of social exclusion and inequality.
This article is based on fieldwork conducted in the
spatiotemporal world between “departure and arrival” and
“sending and receiving,” where migrants negotiate their
daily lives in a liminal state of mobility. In anthropology,
liminality is often associated with rituals and rites of passage (Turner 1967) or other reflections on “the between”
(Stoller 2009). And while migration is often characterized as
a rite of passage in people’s lives, I focus less on the temporal aspects of liminality and more on its physical and
spatial aspect (Ghannam 2011) as migrants move through
space and place. During their journeys across Mexico, migrants occupy a liminal space as they attempt to cross
national borders, earn cash, secure shelter, eat, and make
incremental movements toward their destination. Spatial liminality is magnified by migrants’ legal status as
paperless–unauthorized and by their social status as largely
disconnected from core networks and family. Susan Coutin
describes “clandestine spaces” as places where “the unauthorized become, in a sense, stateless or extrastatal, lacking
recourse to either their country of citizenship or presence”
(2007:103). Such legal vulnerability contributes to migrants’
vulnerability to commodification and violence.
To study these in-between spaces, I conducted research
within migrant shelters and transit communities in southern Mexico. Approximately fifty shelters have been established throughout Mexico to provide humanitarian aid to
migrants in transit (see Figure 1). Many of these shelters are
connected through the pastoral organization of the Mexican Episcopal Conference of Bishops—Movilidad Humana
(Human Mobility)—and do not receive direct support from
the Mexican state. Shelters are clustered around border regions and the most-traveled migrant routes, often along the
train tracks where migrants wait to board the tops of freight
trains. Shelters range from temporary makeshift structures
located near the tracks to concrete-walled complexes replete with dormitories, bathrooms, and kitchens. As I discuss in more depth elsewhere (Vogt 2012b), shelters have
become an integral part of the migrant route through Mexico and occupy a unique role along the continuum of humanitarianism and human rights activism (see Figure 2).
Building on several research trips (2006, 2007), I conducted 15 months of fieldwork in 2008–09, working as a
volunteer in a shelter located in Oaxaca, and traveling
to other key nodes along the migrant journey in Oaxaca,
Chiapas, and Veracruz and at the Guatemala–Mexico border. I began to conceptualize migrant shelters as depots
where I could be relatively stationary and study the fluid
movement of people who were constantly arriving and departing. Through the quotidian activities of shelter life, I
was able capture the raw emotions, testimonies, and experiences of transit migration for people still in the midst of
their journeys (Vogt 2012a).
The main shelter where I worked was not located directly on the train route but on an alternate route that bypasses one of the most feared sections of the journey between Oaxaca and Veracruz states. It was located several
blocks from the city’s “second-class” bus station. Often traveling in groups of six to 16 people, migrants arrived at its
large black metal gate, where their backpacks were checked
for weapons before they were allowed to enter. As they entered the modest shelter, they were greeted by a picture of
the Virgin of Guadalupe and, above it, the painted words
“Maria Guadalupe, Take care of our Migrants.”
Within the shelter walls, migrants were offered warm
bowls of beans and tortillas, showers, and clean beds. Much
of my time was spent helping people make phone calls to
their families and seek medical attention at a local clinic, arranging for cash to be wired, and giving orientations on the
risks of the journey.5 In the shelter office, a map documenting migrant deaths along the U.S.–Mexican border served
as a stark reminder of what was yet to come. Most migrants
stayed a few days and some several weeks, becoming integrated into the daily rhythm of the shelter, cooking and
cleaning, playing games and music, and simply recovering
from exhaustion and injury. Yet even those most involved in
shelter life often disappeared as quickly as they appeared,
leaving little trace of their presence beyond the heavy hearts
of shelter workers, including myself, who wondered about
their destinies.
Threads of violence
El Salvador is like a prison. The only way to gain liberty
is to escape.
—Ever, Salvadoran migrant
Present-day violence against migrants must be understood
within a deeper historical context of structural forms of
violence that precipitate migration from Central America.
This includes legacies of war, violence, and everyday economic and social uncertainty throughout the region. In
other words, human mobility is rooted in larger structural
forces and historical processes that systematically weaken
Migration, violence, and commodification American Ethnologist
Figure 1. A map of migrant shelters helps people navigate their journeys across Mexico. July 2013, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Wendy Vogt.
the ability of people to live in their home communities with
safety and justice.
Nearly all my interlocutors cited the deep structural
conditions of economic insecurity and chronic violence
in their motivations to migrate. I suggest that a historical continuum of violence in the lives of present-day migrants helps explain their choices to leave and that migration today can be understood as the most recent iteration of
centuries of exploitation of people in Central America and
Mexico, where violence is crucial to that exploitation and
to profit making. In other words, the violence people experience along the migrant journey echoes both the violence
and the struggles for dignity that have shaped their entire
Many of the Central American migrants crossing
through Mexico today lived through or were born soon after the civil wars and state repression of the 1970s and
1980s in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and, to a lesser
degree, Honduras. A quarter of a million people are estimated to have died during these conflicts, tens of thousands
were “disappeared” (missing victims of state terror likely
tortured or killed), and millions more were displaced from
their homes.6 While many of the younger migrants I interviewed did not clearly remember the wars, I interviewed
people who fought in them, lost family members to them,
and had vivid memories of death and horror that defined
their childhoods. For example, Mari, a Salvadoran woman
in her midthirties told me this story: “I remember when I
was six years old and inside the patio where we lived, right
there in the corridor there were dead people. They were in
the trees, there were people hanging there who had had
their skin taken off. The neighbors said they didn’t see anything, but there they were at dawn, tied to the trees without their skin. This is what I remember of my childhood.”
Beyond the effects of the social memory of violence, Mari’s
chilling recollection is echoed in the present-day violence
that Central Americans continue to endure at home and
across borders. Just as the death squads left their signatures on the murdered bodies of victims during the civil war,
multiple actors instill fear today through decapitated heads,
American Ethnologist Volume 40 Number 4 November 2013
Figure 2. Migrants watch a train pass by as they wash their clothes at a Oaxacan shelter. November 2008. Photo by Wendy Vogt.
body parts, and dead bodies in public spaces. The violence
of migration becomes relative to the violence of everyday
life at home.
The legacy of political violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, coupled with widespread
economic insecurity, has created the conditions for what
some call “new violence” to emerge (Benson et al. 2008) in
postwar Central America. The “northern triangle” of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala leads the world in homicide rates (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime [UNODC] 2011).7 Scholars have documented the continuities
and ongoing social effects of structural forms of violence,
insecurity, and social struggle in the postwar period (see,
e.g., Burrell and Moodie 2013; Coutin 2007; Moodie 2010;
Pine 2008; Robinson 2003, 2008; Zilberg 2011). Wartime violence has given way to “violent pluralities” (Arias and Goldstein 2010; Burrell and Moodie 2013) of state and nonstate
actors through organized crime, corruption, gang violence,
lynching, and paramilitarism, in which the lines between
political violence and criminal violence become blurred
(Coutin 2007; Godoy 2005; Zilberg 2011).8
Moreover, social violence is often produced by transnational forces of neoliberalism, democratization, and securitization. This is exemplified in countries like El
Salvador, where transnational circulations of migrants and
deported gang members and zero-tolerance policing strategies are embedded within a longer legacy of U.S. involvement in the region (Zilberg 2011). More recently, transnational security agreements to fight organized crime and
trafficking have renewed economic and military ties between the United States, Mexico, and Central America.9
However, Central America has largely disappeared from the
geopolitical stage, which Jennifer Burrell and Ellen Moodie
argue is “the inevitable structural outcome of capitalist processes, especially in an era of neoliberal democratization”

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