Borderland Conditions between the United States and Mexico: A Conversation between Rachel St. John and Natalia Mendoza

Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Borderland Conditions between the United States and Mexico: A Conversation between Rachel St. John and Natalia Mendoza


The border as a unit of analysis becomes a key player when addressing issues of transnational scale. Throughout history, the shape and meaning of borders have evolved as dynamic configurations responding to a wide range of political, economic, and social affairs. In an effort to understand transnational organized crime (TOC) from a geographical lens, historian Rachel St. John and anthropologist Natalia Mendoza reflect on the changing condition of the U.S.-Mexico border and its spillover effect on peripheral communities. St. John has analyzed the history of the borderlands in her book Line in the Sand, where she explains how the capability of the border to attract people to it creates "a form of negotiated sovereignty" subject to "practical difficulties, transnational forces, local communities and the actions of their counterparts across the line." (1) Mendoza's ethnographical approach to her field work in the village of Altar in Sonora, Mexico, produced a collection of local narratives on how a community around the border has developed creative ways, both legal and extralegal, to confront the boundary line at a time when governments extend and reinforce the space of state surveillance. The following is a conversation between these two scholars regarding organized crime at the U.S.-Mexico border that can provide a better understanding of a wider conditionality of the boundary line.

Natalia Mendoza: I read your work, Line in the Sand, with great interest, and I think it speaks in remarkable ways to a debate that has been going on in local Mexican media over the last couple of years regarding the wave of violence in Mexico.

There are two main ways in which your work is significant to Mexico: one has to do with the periodization you suggest, and the other has to do with the geographical demarcations you establish. The debate in Mexican media has been largely focused on trying to prove that President Calderon's strategy to combat drug trade is the main cause of the increase in violence.

In Mexico, many believe this all started in 2006, when the president took office, and that the rise in violence is the logical consequence of the way the drug trafficking problem was addressed. Your work shows that issues at the border have been going on for a much longer period of time. It would be interesting to discuss whether there is a larger, more long-term view of this problem. Is the rise of violence perhaps a new form of an old problem?

The fact that you choose the borderlands both in Mexico and in the United States as your geographical frame of study is also very interesting. The debate has so far respected national boundaries and been largely focused on the question of who is to blame for the violence: the Mexican or the U.S. government? We have lost a social history perspective to this problem, which will show what happens to the border itself. Both sides, as a unit, are not examined in the context of TOC. There are very few approaches that really take the border and the areas around the border as the main unit of analysis.

Rachel St. John: This question about periodization is interesting because there is a tendency in the history of the border to create a very long narrative in which the border has always been violent. The media portrays a kind of continuity between Apache raids and the violence in Juarez, either broadly or specifically related to the drug trade.

However, there are different kinds of violence; connecting the drug violence to very specific institutional changes is actually important. As an interested observer, I have also followed the discussions about how Calderon and his policies have been connected to this rise in violence. Other kinds of violence, particularly the sort of long-standing violence against women in Juarez, for instance, have become subsumed within this category of drug violence. I think that what is happening with women in Juarez, or the violence perpetrated against migrants, is not the same as the violence that is emerging between the government and drug cartels and people who are caught in between.

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