Crimes of Peace at the Border

‘Crimes of Peace’ is what Italian anthropologist Maurizio Albahari called the nexus of institutional violence during times of peace. He argued that tragedies have origins: there are mechanisms, situations, and choices which underpin them across time and space. In his 2015 book, Albahari wrote about the deaths of people crossing the Mediterranean, and the crimes against and toward migrants in detention on the borders of Europe. He defined the concept thus:

“Crimes of peace are enabled by situations of institutional and structural injustice that might escape neat legal categorizations. They are reproduced by choices people make while failing to consider implications of and alternatives to their specific actions and inactions. They speak of methodical negligence, ill-conceived policies, and well-oiled criminal networks…. Crimes of peace happen routinely, as entrenched asymmetries of power, wealth, and authority are integral to border dynamics.”

On the night of March 27, 39 migrants were killed in a fire in a detention center in Ciudad Juarez, as well as over two dozen injured. Men from Guatemala, Venezuela, Honduras and El Salvador, mostly young. Apparently they were not given food and water. They had started a protest, as others in immigrant detention centers have done before in Mexico, by lighting their mattresses and some bedding on fire. The fire spread. Security footage showed the prison guards walking away, leaving the men encaged, locked in the facility in flames.

A tragedy, like other tragedies at the border. Tragedies, in the way we speak of them, do not call for responsibility. Tragedies point fingers, but only at those in the immediate vicinity. Tragedies do not show us the faces and families. They simply count the dead and move on. As Hannah Arendt and Albahari both discussed in different decades of displacement: non-citizens cannot count on the same protections as citizens. They must prove themselves morally deserving of rights (to be human). Their existence will be criminalized until they can do so properly. Tragedies at the border then do not force the question, why are these men being locked up without water in the first place?

One thing studying migration has taught me is that these tragedies are connected to larger systems. What happened with the fire was connected to choices made – by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration, by the National Institute of Migration, by the choice to outsource detention center contractors – but it is not just Mexican immigration policy to blame. The United States and its great magnetic forcefield has led to more and more hopeful people accumulating in border cities, at the same time as it has turned such cities into year-round waiting rooms through capricious immigration policies.

Since I started working as an interpreter in immigration court, I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of respondents came to the US from in or around El Paso, Texas. Which means they came through Ciudad Juarez. Statistics from US Customs and Border Protection show apprehensions by border officers on the Southwest border have skyrocketed since 2020. The Turkish language speakers I work with are not affected by Title 42, which means they have been able to cross into the US and apply for asylum without being sent back to Mexico.

However, many waiting at the border are not so fortunate. Title 42 was implemented under the Trump administration to ostensibly stop immigrants and asylum seekers from bringing Covid-19 into the United States. The policy allows border authorities to expel certain nationalities who arrive to the country irregularly, back to their country of origin, or the last country they were present in (often, Mexico), instead of taking them into immigration custody and processing. Since the policy went into effect, migrants have been expelled nearly 2.7 million times, right back into overcrowded immigration limbo in some of Mexico’s most dangerous cities.

Biden ran on a progressive immigration platform to lift the policy, but numerous Republican-led states sued to contest it and it remains in effect. An expanded agreement between US and Mexico widened the list of asylum applicants from certain countries (first Venezuelans in October, and since January, also Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans) who must await processing from Mexico. The US has deemed that these nationalities cannot be deported to their own countries for risk of refoulement (because returning a refugee to the place of their persecution is against human rights conventions). Now people wait for months to get immigration appointments on the buggy CBP One app, with the requirement that they must remain in Northern Mexico until they can secure one.

There are rumors that Title 42 will be lifted in May due to a final Supreme Court decision, prompting greater convergence at the border. In Juarez, the shelters are at capacity with women and children, and hence single men have been forced to more or less fend for themselves outside. Without the resources to support waiting for months on end for their asylum claims, some have taken to selling petty goods, cleaning cars or begging. In an effort to get people off the streets, many of these men were picked up by local authorities and moved to the detention center where the fire occurred.

There will be people who heard the story of what happened in Ciudad Juarez last week and questioned why the migrants were there in the first place. Surely, they must have deserved to be in that detention center. No, this is where the rationale of this system must be questioned, and the choices which led to that fire must be scrutinized. Foreign nationals awaiting immigration processing were rounded up from the street, locked up in informal facilities, and not given food or water. These were not humane conditions. Setting things on fire to protest was one of the few forms of agency – beyond self-harm – available to them. It has been used by many in desperate situations across history. Indeed, this type of extreme protest was something which came up a lot in my own research on migrant and refugee workers in Turkey.

In Albahari’s book, Crimes of Peace, one of the notable themes is how preempting potential threats through criminalization generates actual crimes. In immigration regimes, the migrant is identified as illegal until proven otherwise. Behind what happened in Juarez is the maintenance of a system of structural injustice which is crumbling and deeply in conflict with humanitarianism, let alone human rights. The deaths from the fire are now being investigated as homicides. Eight suspects from state and federal agents, as well as the private security contracting firm, have been identified in the case. But the questions about the system, and who makes the choices which uphold it, remain.

For more on US-Mexico border politics, check out:

  • Journalist Luis Chaparro @LuisKuryaki

  • Photojournalist Oscar Castillo @eltestigo44

  • Last week’s episode of El Hilo, which goes into more depth about the fire and the situation on the border (Spanish language only)

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Copyright by RD Medya. All rights reserved.

Copyright by RD Medya. All rights reserved.