Rape as a Weapon of War: Advancing Human Rights for Women at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Article excerpt

FROM THE CONQUEST TO THE PRESENT, WOMEN HAVE BEEN TARGETED IN GENDER-specific ways during militarized conflict. In every militarized conflict, women are systematically raped or sexually assaulted. Some feminist scholars and advocates contend that rape is not about sex, but rather about power and the dehumanization of women (Woodhull, 1988). By international standards, rape is a war crime, a form of torture, and a link to genocide. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former Special Rapporteur for the United Nations (U.N.) Commission on Human Rights, released a document on the former Yugoslavia that classified rape as "an abuse of power and control in which the rapist seeks to humiliate, shame, embarrass, degrade, and terrify the victim. The primary objective is to exercise power and control over another person" (U.N. Economic and Social Council, 1993a: 71).

In this article, I argue that rape is one outcome of militarization along the U.S.-Mexico border. I examine specific cases of militarized border rape using data from nongovernmental organizations, government committees, and U.S. newspapers. (1) I also analyze the factors that facilitate militarized border rape and emphasize the need to advance human rights for women in the border region. Each of the women in the case studies took some form of action against the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Some even used an advocate to move their cases forward through an investigation. All of the cases involved INS officials or Border Patrol agents. (l) Though the cases highlighted do not include U.S. military or paramilitary forces, the influence of military culture on Border Patrol agents has affected that agency.

Rape is a weapon of war and militarization at the border indicates that a form of war exists. Data indicate that some men have reported being raped at the border (Amnesty International, 1998), but most rapes violate women, whether at the border or throughout the world. Motivations for raping women differ in a war-torn country from those committed along the U.S.-Mexico border. However, the outcome remains the same -- the systematic degradation of women.

National concern over the border has led to broad public support for militaristic tactics in this region. The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border involves two key elements: the introduction and integration of military units in the border region (the War on Drugs is the primary motivator for involving military units) and the modification of the Border Patrol to resemble the military via its equipment, structure, and tactics. Cynthia Enloe (2000: 3) contends that militarization involves cultural, institutional, ideological, and economic transformations. The INS has undergone these transformations. For example, transferring the INS from the Department of Labor to the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 1940 resulted in institutional and ideological shifts (Dunn, 1996: 13).

Various Department of Defense (DOD) Authorization Acts loosened the restrictions placed on the military's domestic enforcement roles. The DOD Authorization Act of 1982 started the process of altering a 100-year-old statute that prohibited cooperation between the army and civilian law enforcement. This had a major impact on the role of the military in domestic affairs and encouraged an alliance between civilian law enforcement and the military. Other DOD Authorization Acts advanced and expanded this cooperation. In addition, other national actions, such as Operation Alliance and Joint Task Force 6 advanced the militarization of the border, especially after 1986 when President Reagan declared drug trafficking to be a national security threat (Ibid.).

Militarized antidrug strategies influence the policies for undocumented border crossers who are not involved in drug trafficking. For example, Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper focus on the points of entry frequented by undocumented people in El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, California. …