The Central American refugee crisis has been aggravated by the Trump administration’s policies, but this administration certainly did not precipitate it. The first half of this article examines the determinant role US policy played—and continues to play—in the violence that has sent tens of thousands of refugees to the US-Mexico border, showing how Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction has repeatedly been used to represent Central Americans as the existential enemy. From Ronald Reagan through Bill Clinton, administrations crafted policies toward the Central American enemy, directly creating the gang violence in the Northern Triangle. This article considers if the cost of security for the US citizenship is borne by the insecurity of Central American citizenship. The second half of the article examines fictionalized accounts drawn from the testimonies of women held in detention at Dilley, Texas, the existential enemy par excellence of the Trump administration. The reasons for their flight elucidate the particular ways in which gang violence against them and their children is gendered, showing how heteropatriarchy is decisive in both Mara violence and ICE and Border Patrol response to that violence, as evidenced in the experience of these women and their families.
Sixty-nine thousand unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed the US-Mexico border in 2014.1 This dramatic spike in numbers retrospectively marked the beginning of the refugee crisis that continues unabated through today’s “zero tolerance” policy under the Trump administration. This crisis makes evident several artificial boundaries: between the United States and its “enemies” to the south, between private reproductive labor and public productive labor, and between academic fields like African American and Latinx studies. The Mara Salvatrucha gangs in Central America, singled out by Trump as a supreme threat to US sovereignty and security, grow in dominance by providing transportation and distribution services between South American drug producers and their US and Canadian consumers. The cycle of drug production, distribution, and consumption is a transnational affair and cannot be reduced to a binational problem resolved by simply sealing off the US-Mexico border. The Maras belie a temporal boundary as well, set between the Cold War past of the United States and its neoliberal present, as they embody the traumatic legacy of US-backed military dictatorships and neocolonial intervention in Central America. Most significant, Central American violence demonstrates the artificiality of bounded citizenship and its liberal promise of security within nation-state sovereignties, as refugees arriving at the US border requesting asylum make evident the contingent nature of our security on their insecurity. The specifically gendered nature of the violence they flee contradicts the public-private divide by foregrounding the centrality of reproductive labor for the global drug economy. Finally, the Maras and the refugee crisis they precipitate highlight the urgency of crossing academic boundaries between an Afrocentric prison studies and abolition movement and a Latinx-centric migration studies and sanctuary movement.
This article undoes these artificial temporal, geographic, gendered, and disciplinary divisions established for the purposes of border control. Liberal responses to the refugee crisis — “refugees have a right to asylum”; “children belong with their parents”; “they flee barbaric conditions” — cannot liberate us from anti-immigrant policies because of the stranglehold of these divisions. Premised on the faith that national sovereignty and citizenship are legitimate modes of organizing global populations, liberal policy solutions, while necessary, can at best be ameliorative and reformist. Instead, this article analyzes citizenship as a transnational event, suggesting the refugee crisis requires a response cognizant of the historical dependence of US citizenship on Central American citizenship. By focusing on the historic and ontological role that Central American citizens’ insecurity has played in securing our security as US citizens, we arrive at an appropriate analysis of problems of migration more broadly and the Central American refugee crisis specifically. Carl Schmitt is considered one of liberalism’s most profound critics. And yet, a historical analysis of US foreign policy demonstrates that administrations have sequentially crafted a Schmittian existential “enemy” out of Central American citizens, recursively reiterating a friend-enemy distinction between US citizens and Central American citizens to maintain the militarized liberal myth of nationally bounded, sovereign states. Trump’s current anti-immigrant rhetoric merely refashions a friend-enemy distinction that has been at the heart of US foreign policy toward Central America since the beginning of the twentieth century. Central America’s experience with drug trafficking and US-style gangs is the price of protecting a US citizen’s presumably inviolable right to a life without crime. The gendered violence and flight that result from these gangs in Central America are but the well-calibrated cost for maintaining the friend-enemy distinction with Central Americans in perpetuity for liberal, political gain.
For the past four years I have volunteered with CARA, a nonprofit organization that assists women and children held in detention at the family residential units in Texas and Pennsylvania.2 These women seek asylum as victims of gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, christened the “Northern Triangle” by security experts. My reasons for volunteering are personal; however, as a scholar with expertise in Central America, I immediately recognized that the violence these women suffered in their home countries was the direct result of a recursive deployment of the friend-enemy distinction against Central Americans by seventy years of US foreign policy. As a volunteer, I am privy to the testimonies of women seeking asylum. The narratives conveyed to me are completely confidential and entirely overwhelming, as one might imagine. If they are overwhelming to listen to, what must they be to live through? It is, as Alberto Moreiras argued in The Exhaustion of Difference (2001), literally unimaginable. Nevertheless, I realized the urgency of these testimonies demanded imaginable and immediate action.
Methodologically, I present here fictionalized accounts drawn from the most banal examples of these women’s testimonies. I offer representative, fictive accounts of the everyday forms of violence suffered by the vast majority of these women at the hands of the Maras, rather than the most extraordinary and horrific testimonies suffered by a smaller number of women, for two reasons. First, I want to convey the sheer mundane nature of violence in the everyday lives of these women, brought on by our consumption patterns in the North, and the geographic expansion of drug economies. Second, focusing on the most horrific events would only feed pornographic mythologies of the criminalized nature and barbaric sexuality of the Central American enemies we must keep out, consequently confirming the need for the very territorial and epistemic borders I wish to deconstruct. I have fictionalized the names, the locations, and other details to obscure the true identities of these women. Having participated in over sixty interviews, I have grappled with the difficulty of conveying the experiences of these women without pathologizing their countries of origin, with the difficulty of theorizing their experiences within a much larger structural history without instrumentalizing them, and with the ethically charged responsibility of representing these mothers as powerful agents rather than simply victims. I apologize in advance for any inadequacies in my treatment of their narratives of violence, but I broach this topic in the hopes of giving us tools to combat this horrible — though by no means exceptional — moment of anti-immigrant sentiment and action, as well as a way of evaluating forms of redress for Central American and Mexican refugees.
Undoing Exception and the Structuring Enemy
The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation. . . . The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor. . . . It is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. . . . Each participant is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.— Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political
In his 2016 presidential announcement speech, Trump infamously said of Mexicans, “They are not our friends, believe me. . . . When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people with a lot of problems. . . . They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” While Trump condemned China and Japan as adversaries for “beating us at trade,” he reserved the political language of friend and enemy for Mexico. This was part of a shrewd calculus devised by his campaign adviser Steve Bannon, a self-professed adherent of Carl Schmitt’s political theories. Bannon used Schmitt’s friend-enemy axiom to fashion for Trump his most constant enemy: the Mexican immigrant, who, through racial etymology, morphs into today’s Central American refugee. For Schmitt, the political derives its animus from this friend-enemy distinction. Indeed, this distinction creates the political: a filial union or association that must ultimately be defended by an authoritarian sovereign. Any association not involving this filial/nonfilial distinction does not rise to the level of political community.3 Derrida has called Schmitt’s enemy a “structuring enemy” because of its constitutive role in structuring political community and a sovereign capable of declaring a state of exception for the purposes of protecting the political community.4 Trump has consistently structured his political community by summoning a series of enemies: Washington insiders, Democrats, Muslims, Mexicans, Central American refugees. Perhaps his list of enemies seems too far flung to congeal into the singular structuring enemy proposed by Derrida. And yet, Trump’s success in creating a political community out of 40 percent of the US electorate lies in his ability to distill so many “concrete antagonism(s)” that are likely to arise in a pluralistic society into a singular, polarized friend-enemy distinction.5
In Archives of the Insensible, Allen Feldman theorizes the elasticity of the category of Schmitt’s enemy as an “archive” rather than a concrete and specific referent, indexing a repertoire of tropes available for retrieval as the circumstances for declaring states of exception require: “The principal advisory is replaced by figurations, metaphors, doubles, typifications, traces, apparitions, placeholders, emissaries, and specters of this archived enemy who have been conscripted to underwrite, support, and mold a decentered political posture.”6 The Mexican immigrant and Central American refugee have been conscripted by Trump as precisely such ghostly apparitions and placeholders of evil in the imaginary of his political community. In Trump’s arsenal of enemies, he repeatedly returns to the Mexican/Central American who in “a specially intense way” congeals into the “existential” threat, something so “different and alien” that it must be “repulsed.” Refugees are cons, a mere “screen” for the enemy — Central American Maras and the Mexican rapists — who merge into one existential enemy intent on negating “our” way of life, whom each participant in Trump’s base can judge as an opponent to be fought to the death to preserve “our” form of existence.7
The political community finds its full expression in Schmitt’s authoritative state capable of discerning enemies unequivocally and waging war accordingly: “The state as an organized political entity decides for itself the friend-enemy distinction.”8 Trump’s politicized authoritarian state is not the depoliticized bureaucratic democratic state, with its separation of powers, its checks and balances, which negotiates competing internal and external antagonisms. His inability to enact immigration policy by the stroke of a pen runs against his authoritarian vision of protecting US sovereignty and its citizens from the nonfilial enemies he decides upon. Thus, when stymied by Congress in building a wall, Trump declares a state of national emergency, in keeping with another of Schmitt’s authoritarian maxims: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”9 A state of exception, for Schmitt, is by definition beyond what is contemplated in constitutional law. Thus, he who decides on the exception — who through force is able to suspend constitutional law and adjudicate new law in the zone of exception — is by necessity the sovereign who precedes and exceeds the constitution.
Trump’s political success depends on his ability to recursively convert Central American immigrants seeking refuge into hostis, into the political enemy (the Mara who kills and deals drugs, the Mexican who rapes and murders) who in that capacity precipitates the state of exception.10 It is Schmitt’s distinction between hostis (the political, public enemy) and inimicus (the private adversary) that enables Trump and his base to proclaim they are not racists. Thus, they may in private treat their individual Mexican neighbor kindly or feel empathy for the plight of individual Central American women while collectively shouting in public to “build the wall” against the nonfilial, unassimilable, collective Central American/Mexican enemy. Even these women seeking refuge advance Trump’s political calculus, as he adroitly recasts them as “cons,” not as victims of violence but as the bearers of violence. Their reproductive capacity is the tip of the lance that is turned against them: their children do not flee violence; they are Maras disguising as children disguising as refugees.
The liberal Left regularly denounces Trump’s racism against immigrants and his illegality in issuing a state of exception; pundits and politicians instead insist that Trump’s entire presidency is itself exceptional. And yet, Central American citizens have been repeatedly retrieved from our archive of enemies, requiring a state of exception to shore up US sovereignty and citizenship against them. Rather than accept Schmitt’s concept of the political as a critique of liberalism, I suggest his friend-enemy axiom exists in constitutive relation with a liberal citizenship premised, presumably, on pluralism and humanitarianism, because what is truly exceptional has been the ability of administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, to resuscitate the Central American enemy through time for the purposes of military intervention or policing, for the purposes of securing our national-bounded sovereignty and citizenship.
Trump’s Central American friend-enemy distinction does nothing more than recursively reiterate Ronald Reagan’s “hordes” of Central American guerrillas “at our doorstep,” threatening to contaminate the United States with their enemy communist ideology.11 The Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations used Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction to forward ruthless wars not only against guerrilla groups but also against the entire Central American civilian population — the sea within which swam the enemy. Through three administrations, Republican presidents convinced the US electorate that Central Americans, in favor of democratic rule and a more equal distribution of wealth, were instead the ultimate communist enemy, a threat so imminent to US democracy that geography did not matter, with the entirety of Mexico an insufficient barrier to these foreigners at the gate. The friend-enemy distinction enabled Reagan and Bush administrations to overtly and covertly support right-wing dictatorships and counterinsurgencies that collectively murdered over half a million Central Americans. Moreover, said enemy justified its own state of exception, as the Reagan administration made the sovereign decision to circumvent constitutional law in the Iran-Contra scandal to fund murderous counter-revolutionaries.12 Even the gendered violence experience by women in Central America today — in their homes and as mothers — recalls the gendered forms of violence suffered by women in Central America in the 1980s. Writing in response to the 1980 rape and murder of three nuns in El Salvador, Jean Franco concluded that violations perpetrated by the US-backed Central American dictatorships had “destroyed both the notion of sacred space and the immunity [from violence] which, in theory if not in practice belonged to nuns, priests, women, and children.”13 Even the sanctity of feminized spaces and bodies could be violated in defense of our inviolable rights as citizen-friends to be safe from our enemies.
The ongoing nature of this gendered violence in Central America suggests that citizenship has never been nationally bound. Rather, it exists in supplemental relation to a friend-enemy distinction that makes evident that citizenship is always a transnational event. Nationalism and citizenship rights are paradigmatically liberal principles that require the conceptualization of theoretical, if not actual, border walls. Citizenship protects the rights of people within a bounded nation, presumably. However, from the perspective of Latin American nations, the path to nationally bounded, democratic citizenship has been an obstructed one, with the primary obstacle being, since 1846, the United States. As the ironies of history would have it, in 1976 the United States celebrated a double bicentennial: in two hundred years, our government had deployed the US Army, Navy, Marines, or CIA agents to foreign nations and seas a total of two hundred times. The majority of those military and intelligence deployments were to Latin America, and especially to Central America and the Caribbean. After World War II, however, the preferred method of the United States to prevent or overthrow democratically elected governments was through covert intervention. The paradigmatic case of a US-orchestrated overthrow of democratically elected governments was in Guatemala in 1954, against the mildly socialist government of Jacobo Árbenz, then construed as an existential enemy.14 The overthrow of Árbenz’s government led to three decades of civil war, with over 200,000 people killed — 83 percent of these victims were indigenous, killed by the US-backed military and paramilitary forces. Assassinations or massacres by left-wing guerrillas accounted for only 3 percent of the civilian deaths in Guatemala.15 The US intelligence agencies and Southern Command played a central role in orchestrating deadly counterrevolutionary strategies in Central America throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, supporting military dictatorships that would easily have toppled under the pressure of both armed and peaceful movements for democracy, if not for our financial and military support of Central America’s National Guards, paramilitaries, and counterrevolutionaries.16
Thus, while we in the United States were guaranteed a peaceful democratic transition despite Trump’s loss of the popular vote in the 2016 election, from the perspective of Central America the “shining city on the hill” has used its privileged pinnacle to actively obstruct constitutional democracies in their countries, to repeatedly violate national boundaries, and to violate the rights of their citizens by repeatedly constructing Central Americans as our existential enemies. I am not rehearsing this well-known history of US imperialism as ritualized denunciation but, rather, to demonstrate how the practice of democracy and citizenship, presumably a national affair — America First — has never been a national affair. Rather, US national citizenship and democracy exist only in a constitutive relationship to other nations, one that has always relied on Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction. This constitutive relationship is not simply a philosophical or ontological one, however. This mythologized external or internal threat, the protection of the perceived security of US citizens — for example, the right to be safe from even a geographically remote threat of communism — has regularly required the mobilization of our very real military and intelligence apparatus for the explicit violation of the political and civil rights of Latin American citizens within the borders of their own nations.
The purchase of US security at the expense of the rights of Central American citizenship is not part of our waning imperial past but is present in our contemporary policing strategies and in our current immigration laws, laws that were on the books long before Trump’s nationalist rhetoric. While Republicans, Democrats, and Trump may have different ideas about how much to spend on a wall between Mexico and the United States, or whether or not to end family reunification as a path to citizenship, all politicians are united around the principle of deporting criminal aliens, whether they are here legally or not. Politicians reiterate their commitment to do so at every opportunity. One would be hard-pressed to find a progressive on the US Left who would not agree with the principle that criminals should be deported to their country of origin, rather than jailed in the United States at the taxpayers’ expense. We are repeatedly told that US citizens have a right to a life without crime. We are not entitled to a life without mass shootings, but we are entitled to a life without the remotest possibility of crimes committed by criminal aliens. But should we have the right to a life without crime, if that right depends on exporting the conditions of criminality to other countries? To exercise the right to security from drugs or drug-related crime, the United States puts citizens in other countries at risk. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala must accept criminal deportees, even though these gang members left at such young ages that they do not remember their countries of origin, often do not speak Spanish, and were trained in their criminal activity entirely on the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, and Long Island. These men and boys are not DREAMERS — no politician even contemplates extending DACA to include them — but they are too often US citizens in every way but legally.17
Rival Mara Salvatrucha gangs (MS-13 and MS-18) that today dominate life in the Northern Triangle emerged on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1990s, made up almost entirely of the children of Central American refugees who fled their war-torn countries in the 1980s.18 The Maras emerged initially as a street gang, in contradistinction to, and seeking protection from, Mexican American street gangs in California. But whereas the Mexican American street gangs of Los Angeles had been around for over a hundred years, their ranks made up of generations of US citizens who could not be deported, the ranks of the newly formed MS-13 and MS-18 were primarily filled by undocumented youth or by resident aliens under protected visa categories.
The uneven distribution of citizenship and refugee rights played a pivotal role in the formation of the Maras in California and their subsequent deportation to the Northern Triangle. During the Central American civil wars, civilians fled in the greatest numbers from El Salvador and Guatemala, because they faced persecution for their political beliefs and activities or because of their indigenous status. However, they fled right-wing dictatorships supported by the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, and thus the United States refused to acknowledge they fled repressive regimes. Consequently, these immigrant families were never granted the benefits that accrue to refugees in the United States, though many were able to regularize their status through other legal routes. In contrast, Nicaraguan civilians fled to the United States in much smaller numbers; however, the Reagan administration had declared the Sandinista government a repressive communist regime. Nicaraguans were immediately recognized as political refugees and afforded the same rights as Cuban refugees: immediate path to citizenship, financial aid, access to social welfare programs, and assistance in finding employment. Not only did Nicaraguan children grow up with a greater wealth because of their refugee status, but once the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) went into effect, criminals who may have been of Nicaraguan origin were in almost all cases US citizens, and unlike their Salvadoran and Guatemalan counterparts, Nicaraguans were not subject to deportation. This factor contributes to Nicaragua remaining relatively free of gang and drug violence today.
In 1996, the US Congress passed the IIRIRA in response, in part, to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, perpetrated by foreign terrorists who had entered the country illegally. IIRIRA toughened border control by increasing the number of Border Patrol agents, military apparatus, and technological surveillance along the US-Mexico border, including the seven-hundred-mile border wall that President Trump hopes to expand. IIRIRA made illegal entry a felony for the first time; however, it was primarily geared toward policing Clinton’s infamous “super predators” already in the United States. The Clinton administration once again retrieved Central Americans from the archival repertoire of enemies, as IIRIRA vastly expanded the lists of crimes subject to deportation, including all drug-related crimes, even simple possession. The bulk of its enforcement has been, predictably, against our perpetual existential enemy, the Central American and Mexican immigrant. Under IIRIRA the United States deported 40,000 MS-13 and MS-18 gang members to El Salvador alone in the 1990s and 2000s. As a consequence, in 2015 El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world, at 105 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.19 These deported criminals went on to form regional criminal syndicates that now control large swaths of rural and urban territories throughout the Northern Triangle. This deep history of the imbrication of US and Central American citizenship and security across rather than within national boundaries — from killing communists and their sympathizers there to deporting drug dealers and users here — brings us to the cases of the Central American women and their children who flee the targeted gendered violence of these gangs today. Though both gangs began as Mara Salvatrucha, the group fissured into MS-13 and MS-18 early in its US history; thus today in the Northern Triangle people refer to MS-13 simply as los Maras, while MS-18 are referred to as los Dieciochos.
Gendered Citizenship and Its Transnational Constraints
The Central American democracies that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, as the result of revolutionary triumph, in the case of Nicaragua, or from UN-brokered peace agreements between guerrilla armies and right-wing military dictatorships, in the case of Guatemala and El Salvador, certainly qualify, still today, as emerging constitutional democracies. Concomitantly, the sharp rise of Central American women and children crossing the US-Mexico border seeking asylum over the last four years would suggest that gender and sexuality are placing serious constraints on the exercise of citizenship rights in these democracies. Yet these women and children are not fleeing Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador because of an infringement of their freedom of speech or right to assembly.20 They are not fleeing persecution because of their political affiliation or religious creed, or because of their race, ethnicity, or language use — as did so many Central American citizens in the 1970s and 1980s who were fleeing US-backed wars in their countries. They do not, in other words, form a social group that is experiencing political discrimination as such, and thus do not automatically warrant special protection from the US immigration system, precisely because freedom from criminal violence has not been elevated to an inviolable human right.21 Suffering discrimination as a social group would qualify these women and their children for political asylum in a US immigration court, but the UN-mandated right to political asylum explicitly excludes persecution resulting from nonpolitical crimes. In the cases of these women, targeted by gang violence because of their gender and sexuality, we spot the effects of transnational citizenship and the artificiality of the promise of universal, democratic citizenship.
Tens of thousands of Central Americans have fled the Northern Triangle in the last four years. Women and children who are caught by Border Patrol agents are subject to detention in the three official family residential units, in Karnes, Texas, Dilley, Texas, and Berks County, Pennsylvania.22 Two of CARA’s central goals are moving women and their children out of detention centers and into asylum proceedings as quickly as possible, and advocating for the end of family detention as a practice in the United States. CARA gathers information from new arrivals to detention centers, enabling volunteers to track separated families across the ever-expanding web of detention facilities we have in the country. It is customary for families traveling together to get separated once they are captured by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as men over eighteen cannot accompany women to the family detention center. CARA volunteers help locate fathers and older sons sent to other facilities for these mothers and their families. CARA also ensures that women and children are processed for release, or deportation, within the requisite twenty days, as well as making sure they get all the services they need. As a volunteer, I have also assisted with the preparation of these women for their Credible Fear Interviews (CFIs) with immigration officials. The fictionalized accounts I present here are based on the patterns I detected in these interviews.
Of the CFI preps that I conducted, all but four presented credible, detailed evidence of their persecution, or the persecution of their children, by MS-13 and MS-18 gangs, or of domestic violence by their partners.23 In some cases, these “partners” are also gang members. These women comprise three groups, though the boundaries between them are often blurred: single mothers who run small businesses out of their homes, women who have been selected to be concubines of the Maras or have been pressured to turn over their pubescent daughters to the Maras as gang members and concubines, and women who have suffered domestic violence. The majority of those with credible fear were single mothers who ran pulperias (neighborhood stores) or food stalls out of their homes or at public markets; hence, my first two fictionalized accounts are about pulperia owners. Central American women were most often threatened with the rape or murder of themselves or their children once they were no longer able to make extortion payments to the Maras, what they call los impuestos de guerra (war tariffs) or simply las taxas (the taxes). Women who have family members living in the United States are especially targeted, as Maras expect families to pay the taxes if women are unable to do so, as in the case of “Elvira” in San Pedro Sula, Honduras:
I used to work peacefully. I had a stall of fruits and vegetables in the market, but the gang members started charging taxes around Christmas, 20 — . They kept raising the taxes, and I couldn’t even buy stuff for my stall after they had taken all my money. I couldn’t work, so I closed the stall and went back to my house. But then they came around my house, coming to the front door demanding money. They threatened me, saying that if I couldn’t pay they were going to take my daughter instead. I told them, “No! I have her in school so that she can learn.” This was in the middle of July, and my daughter was still walking to school every day. They told me I would never see my daughter again because they were going to pick her up on her way to school and send her to the next town over. That they were going to use her to sell drugs, to be their mujer. A different gang member came two or three weeks later, again asking for the money because they knew that I had a sister in Houston. They told me that I had to pay $2000 limpira [US$85]. Every fifteen days, they said I still had to pay, that I should ask my sister for the money. They sent different guys each time, but they are the same Maras gang. They made it clear that it was either money or my daughter. So, I left [date redacted] as soon as I was able to get the money to come.
In the case of “Luisa,” a Salvadoran woman who ran a pulperia, her extortion payment took the form of providing free lunch for the MS-18 in her neighborhood in San Miguel:
I was threatened by the Dieciochos. I had a pulperia in my house, a business I ran for two years. Three Dieciocho gang members would come at midday every day, when I had my lunch prepared for my family, and they demanded that I give them food. So I did. For about a year, these three young men would sit down at the table with my family to eat.
One day, I went to the market to buy inventory for my store and was late getting back. I didn’t have time to prepare any food when the Dieciochos arrived demanding it. They got very angry that I didn’t have the food ready. They told me that if I didn’t give them food every day at the same time, other rules would apply. They didn’t come back for a couple of weeks, and I was relieved. But then the Dieciochos sent other men from the gang, men I didn’t know. They pushed me in the store, threatening me with a gun, demanding that I give them US$25. Then two weeks later, they came demanding US$50. Because I couldn’t pay they threatened me, saying things would go very badly for me and my children if I disobeyed them. After that, I knew I had to escape, though they told me that I couldn’t escape them because they would follow us anywhere we went. I just left everything there in my house and store, abandoned. The Dieciochos are making all the people leave their houses.
Luisa believed that it was her house they were after all the while, to use as a safe house, or as a drug distribution center, as this is what she had witnessed in the case of her neighbors. The Maras extort all business people operating in their territories, male and female. Nevertheless, the gendered aspects of extortion make women vulnerable in different ways than men. Women are expected to provide feminine succor to the Maras, in the archaic meaning of the word as “reinforcements for the troop.” Again, the “sacred space” and “immunity” of the feminized Central American home is violated, as the experience of these women today resonates with the violence of the recent, civil war past. Women are expected to provide broad forms of reproductive labor as part of, or in substitution for, their war tax, in ways that simply would not be expected of male shop owners. In the example of Luisa, she is expected to provide home-cooked meals for the neighborhood gang members, incorporating these men into the affective sphere of her family, with whom they ate daily. In Elvira’s example, she is expected to sacrifice her daughter to the troop, so that the girl may provide an array of domestic services, cooking, cleaning, and sex.
These testimonies by Central American asylum seekers also make it clear that the Maras are always looking for an opening, a slipup on the part of these women. One missed payment and the Maras up the ante, demanding sexual favors from these women or the sacrifice of children. This is part of the Maras’ larger strategy of requiring complete obedience from those who live within their territory.24 These are tests of subservience rather than ploys for money: if the women comply, they are transformed into unwilling participants in the Maras’ activities. If they disobey, their rape or death sets the example of the cost of resistance.
Because the Maras recruit boys and girls, the mothers who flee face a “Sophie’s choice.” “Conchis” fled with her daughter and her younger son because the Maras had similarly demanded she turn over her girl as an extortion payment. Conchis confessed in the CFI prep that she had to leave her fifteen-year-old son in El Salvador. I use the word confessed because of the tremendous sense of guilt these mothers often convey, having to regularly make these kinds of choices. Forty-five minutes into her CFI prep, Conchis broke down in tears about the son she left in San Sal-vador, as did her daughter who was in the room with us, telling me she just did not have sufficient funds to bring all three of her children. Conchis assured me that her older son would be all right because he was a muy buen muchacho, and an excellent student, but it was clear she was trying to reassure herself. The boy, on good terms with the Maras, had not yet been pressured to join the gang, presumably because of a childhood friendship with one of the members.
US officials regularly manipulate the shame and guilt of asylum seekers purposefully to trip them up. Upon capture, ICE or Border Patrol officers are simply supposed to ask these women if they have experienced persecution in their home countries or are afraid to return for some other reason and then deport them or send them to detention accordingly. Most follow this protocol, but several women have informed us that the officers pressure them to admit they were not actually fleeing violence in ways that border on psychological torture. In our example, a Latina officer questioned Conchis in Spanish. Conchis, sensing sympathy from the Latina officer, told her about the son she left behind, perhaps because the officer spoke to her kindly in her own language. Instead, the officer taunted Conchis, accusing her of either lying or being a terrible mother. The officer told Conchis that she too is a mother, so she knows Conchis is lying because no mother would every leave a child behind if the situation were really as dangerous as she claimed.
While surely fathers experience similar anguish over making these kinds of choices between children, it is unlikely that they are subjected to level of shaming experienced by several asylum seekers on the basis of the cultural and gendered identifications. From these women’s testimonies, it seems that Latinx agents repeatedly manipulate shared culture and gender norms. Gendered and sexual biases are operative in the heteronormative assumptions deployed by Maras and by ICE and Border Patrol agents alike. These women are, in most cases, single heads of household, making them more vulnerable to extortion, as well as to unique forms of intimidation. These mothers do not have male surrogates to mediate between their families and the Maras, a fact not lost on the gangs. Moreover, as they are the sole providers for their families, they live in conditions of greater financial precarity than households with two breadwinners, again making it more likely that they will find it difficult to pay the war tax. Most important, it is the threat of sexual violation — for themselves, but especially for their daughters — that finally triggers flight. All these mothers have already withstood considerable threats of violence, extortion, and psychological torture made against their persons and their property by the Maras. This is the status quo in their home countries, one that they were prepared to live with, but once the Maras demand their daughters as sexual slaves, they decide to flee.25
The example of “Elizabet,” a young Guatemalan mother, best illustrates how heteronormative imperatives of gender and sexuality adversely affect women’s lives under the Maras and force them into migration. Elizabet’s mother moved to the United States to earn a living, leaving Elizabet and Elizabet’s daughter in the care of the grandparents and an uncle. The grandparents lived on a small ranch on the outskirts of Santiago de Atitlán, and the uncle worked at a drugstore, but when the uncle was killed in a motorcycle accident on the way to work, Elizabet’s troubles began. The uncle had not only paid the war tax charged by the Maras on his parent’s ranch but also assisted Elizabet financially with the raising of her daughter. Once the family lost the uncle’s protection, Elizabet, her daughter, and her grandparents were forced to abandon the ranch for a rural town where another relative lived. Things went from bad to worse for Elizabet and her daughter:
All of us were crammed into the house. Next to the house, there is a pool hall, and all week long, the Maras hung out, making cat calls at me, whistling. They would come by the house asking my cousin about me. I got a job at the market, but I had to walk there, past all these men who were always at the pool hall, and I became too afraid because of the horrible things they said to me. They said they were going to kidnap me and my child. Whenever I left the house, three or four Maras would be there saying things to me. When I didn’t respond, they called me perra [carrying the connotation of being a bitch or a slut]. They would ask me, “Who do you think you are? Why are you so full of yourself? Do you think you’re too good for us?” Then they started making threats: “You better be careful when you go out!” They threatened my daughter, saying, “We are going to make sure your daughter grows up before her time.” They said, “We are going to make you grow fat, because you’re too skinny.” Basically, they were threatening to rape me and my daughter, to get us pregnant. It got to the point where I wouldn’t leave the house, I was a prisoner. And because the house didn’t belong to me but to my cousin’s husband, I was made to do all the work around the house. My cousin felt like she was the mistress of the house and that she could order me and my daughter around. I would not leave the house alone, only very infrequently with my cousin’s husband. And inside the house, I was trapped and abused by my cousin. Finally, I left. My mother was helping the whole family sending money because I couldn’t work or leave the house, and finally I was so threatened and afraid that my mother sent us money to join her.
Elizabet’s life went from manageable to unlivable in a matter of months. Without the protection of the unmarried uncle, who fulfilled the role of surrogate husband, Elizabet became fair game to the Maras. And whereas she had lived as an equal member of the household at her grandparent’s home, at her new home Elizabet and her daughter were treated as servants, expected to perform the tasks usually reserved for dependent female relations, out of respect for the hierarchy established by the conjugal relations between her cousin and her husband. But as in most of these cases, it was the Maras escalating verbal threats of sexual violence against herself and her daughter that triggered Elizabet’s decision to leave. Threats to impregnate women and their pubescent daughters are particular favorites of the Maras in the Northern Triangle, repeated with such frequency that they belie not only the patriarchal values of Mara gang culture but also the special function of rape in claiming women’s bodies as the extension of territorial control.26
As part of their CFIs, mothers will be asked by ICE officials if they went to the police to report the threats or acts of violence committed against them, to establish that the fear was so serious that they reported it to the police, and to establish that the police were unable to protect them. Thus, we too ask the question in prepping the women. While the majority of the women from all three countries simply said that the police were corrupted by the Maras and would not help them, a surprising number of the city dwellers had reported the harassment to the police. However, this often only caused them more problems. Conchis explains, “The police can’t just take my word for it, they have to investigate.” Once the police go to their neighborhoods to investigate their claims, the women are marked by the Maras as squealers and are targeted for more violent harassment or death, thereby hastening their decisions to flee. Elvira did not go to the police to report her crime, but she insisted that she did not think the police in her country were corrupt. She explained, sympathetically, “The police are human too. They are just as afraid of the Maras as we are. They have families too, and the Maras will just as easily kill their families as they will kill mine if they try to arrest them.”
This question about police protection alerted me to the various ways in which citizenship is transnationally contingent. Certainly, police shootings of black and brown men make it evident that in the United States police protection is contingent on factors such as race. However, police in the Northern Triangle are not discriminating against these women as a social group; the police are not, as in the case of the United States, violating the civil rights of a group because of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender. Indeed, the women who went to the police to report the Maras were expressing their belief in their right to safety. And those police who investigated threats and violations were also acting according to their belief in this right, as well as their responsibility to fulfill this right.
Both these women and the police, in other words, enacted faith in the constitutional democracies of their respective countries, and yet, in the very performance of this faith, both women and the police exposed themselves to more danger and exposed the transnational dimensions of contingent citizenship. Everyone involved in these cases was dutifully performing her or his rights and obligations as citizens; nevertheless, transnational modes of governmentality and belonging trump these small acts of citizenship. The Maras belong to a transnational syndicate of drug cartels that stretches from Central America to the United States, providing them with firepower, drugs, financial liquidity, and mobility. Their origins in California provide them with extensive kinship structures that enable them to return, legally and illegally, to the United States when they face criminal charges by police or death threats from rival gangs, or simply when the drug business requires them to do so. The Maras developed their gang culture and skills at drug distribution while in the United States, but they are truly part of the global economy. The Maras are a US export, the living, circulating product of the long history of US intervention in Central America. The Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran police are simply outmatched by them. The Maras are the ultimate expression of transnational and contingent citizenship produced in the United States, deported as an existential enemy only to return to us in the form of refugees fleeing violence at their hands.
This brings me to the most obvious, and yet more subtle, way in which citizenship is transnationally contingent, confounding the neatly bounded liberal citizenship we presume to enjoy in the United States. Clearly, the right to be safe in one’s own home — a right that most but not all US citizens take for granted — is entirely dependent on which country in the Americas that home is located. Though Central Americans do live in functioning constitutional democracies, they do not live with the expectation of safety in their homes or neighborhoods. To the contrary, living in a constant state of danger appears to be the form that citizenship takes in the Northern Triangle. The experiences these women shared make evident that the gang violence of the street does not stop at the threshold of the Central American front door. To the contrary, what characterizes the Mara violence experienced by these women is its ability to confound the division between the public and private sphere. The Maras convert the domestic sphere into the site for the public performance of reproductive labor, invading their homes, expecting lunch, laundry services, and care. They simultaneously converted other homes into the sites of productive labor. Maras invaded women’s homes, using them as safe houses for fugitive gang members, as lookouts for rival gang members and police, as depositories for guns, as distribution sites for drugs, and in one spectacular case, as the radio dispatch and internet station, where the Maras conducted business meetings with one another but also virtually with gang members across Central America and the United States via Skype. However, Maras also convert the public street into the domestic sphere for coerced reproductive sex when they threaten these mothers with the kidnapping of their daughters on their way to work, when they stalk these daughter at their schools or on their bus rides home, and when they psychologically abuse mothers and daughters with their lewd taunts and threats of sexual violation. The Maras have converted the streets of Central American cities and towns into a public stage for their sexual prowess and military power. And given that they were “Made in the USA,” it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the safety of US mothers and children is contingent on the insecurity and endangerment of Central American women and their children. Citizenship is thus a transnational phenomenon, constituted by the structuring Central American enemy.
Small D Divisions
As long as our immigration policy promotes the deportation of criminal aliens — the existential enemy that is nevertheless the product of US cities and towns — this will continue to be the case. As academics and activists, we have a responsibility to change immigration policy, not by eliminating “chain migration” or the “diversity lottery” but by eliminating deportation. To be clear, I am not proposing incarceration as an alternative to deportation. Rather, I am suggesting that as academics and activists we transcend the limiting boundaries of our respective fields. Policies for criminal justice reform cannot be kept separate and apart from policies immigration reform. Criminal “aliens” are victims of racial profiling and policing as well, and any criminal reform must contemplate the plight of immigrants caught up in a detention and deportation industrial complex. Similarly, immigration reform policy cannot simply focus on “good” subjects but must consider the fate of criminals who are also citizens in all but name. Criminality is not only constitutive of the friend-enemy distinctions that haunt our naïve notions of bounded citizenship and liberal norms; it is also part of a global drug economy US citizens fuel with their consumption.
El Salvador is not a “shithole country,”27 but the shitty experience of women living there is entirely our responsibility because of the consti-tutively transnational character of US citizenship and security, on the one hand, and the ease with which we perennially convert Central Americans into our ultimate enemy, on the other. It is only by exposing the historic, economic, and philosophical emergence of criminality and citizenship as transnational, contingent events that we might expose the filial relations that transcend borders. To further an agenda of social justice for the continent, we must rid ourselves of the illusion that by liberating women and children from family detention we will have addressed our culpability in promoting hemispheric violence through our unending drug war, policing, and deportation policies. Similarly, as engaged academics we must transcend the parochial divisions of our fields and consider criminal justice reform, abolition, and immigration reform as intimately related, as part of one social justice agenda, and as especially in the interest of those transnational citizens who are affected by the legacy of the United States’ imperial past and present.
Wiltz, “Unaccompanied Children from Central America.” Wiltz draws her figures from the US Customs and Border Protection website. If one counts from 2012, the number exceeds 100,000, with the spike beginning in 2014.
CARA (caraprobono.org), now known as the Dilley Pro Bono Project, is a nonprofit made up of four member organizations: the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. It serves three family residential units: in Dilley, Texas, in Karnes, Texas, and in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Dilley is located approximately eighty-five miles from the US-Mexico border.
From Derrida, Politics of Friendship: “Here is the Schmittian axiom in its most elementary form: the political itself, the being political of the political, arises in the possibility with the figure of the enemy. It would be unfair . . . to reduce Schmitt’s thought to this axiom, but it would nevertheless be indispensable to . . . his theory of the exception and sovereignty”(84). For a full discussion of the plasticity of this structuring enemy, see Feldman, Archives of the Insensible, chap. 4.
Feldman, Archives of the Insensible, chap. 4.
Following Feldman’s definition of screen: “The structuring and archived enemy is a political screen (as in showing and concealing); it is covered by and cover for sovereignty. In this echographic archive of reversible transcription, the sovereign subject and the enemy inhabit and house each other; each becomes the host, hostage, and habitus of the other” (Archives of the Insensible, chap. 4).
The Boland Amendment forbade US funding for the counterrevolutionaries (Contra) in Nicaragua, while State Department sanctions against Iran included an arms embargo. Nevertheless, senior White House officials secretly sold arms to Iran and diverted the proceeds to fund the Contra.
From 1945 through 1954, the Guatemalan Revolution brought about mild socialist reforms under the sequential governments of Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Árbenz. Their administrations redistributed lands to the indigenous peasantry and expropriated, with compensation, the idle lands of the United Fruit Company, while leaving the vast majority of the economy in private hands. While these expropriations were put forth under the same principles that guided as the nationalization of the oil industry in Mexico in the 1940s, they led to the CIA organization of the overthrow of Árbenz’s government.
Commission for Historical Clarification, Guatemala: Memory of Silence, 41, paragraph 122.
The human rights abuses committed by Central American National Guards were so severe and so well documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that the US Congress was forced to ban military and intelligence aid to Gua-temala and to the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries and radically cut back aid to El Salvador.
DACA is the acronym for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” an executive action issued by President Barack Obama on June 15, 2012. DACA allows some of the individuals who arrived unlawfully in the country as children, commonly known as “dreamers,” to receive renewable two-year deferrals from deportation if they register and demonstrate that they have gainful employment, are pursuing higher education, or are serving in the military. Excluded from DACA are any youths who have committed felonies or serious misdemeanors. Moreover, DACA, unlike the DREAM Act which has repeatedly failed to pass both Houses of Congress, provides no path to citizenship.
Al Valdez clarifies the term in “Origin of Southern California Latino Gangs.” Mara is the name of an ant indigenous to Central America, known for its tenaciousness. Salva stands for El Salvador, while trucha in Spanish slang means reliable and alert. The numbers 13 and 18 were adopted to differentiate the rival factions. The number 13 references the letter m, the thirteenth letter of the English alphabet (in the Spanish alphabet it would be the fourteenth letter), symbolizing this faction’s alliance with the Mexican Mafia. The number 18 references 18th Street in the Los Angeles.
When I began researching and writing this article, Nicaragua was not among the sending countries, primarily because security forces there have successfully kept Maras out of the country. With the current political repression in Nicara-gua under President Daniel Ortega’s regime, Nicaraguans are now seeking political asylum in the United States as well. Nonetheless, as political refugees, Nicaraguans have recognized grounds for seeking asylum, setting them apart from Central American asylum seekers fleeing gang violence.
Precedent cases in immigration courts found that women targeted by Central American gang violence formed a class eligible for asylum, as did women suffering from domestic violence who qualify for a U visa. Attorney Jeff Sessions’s recent decision reversing previous court decisions shows just how tenuous this category was, precisely because it was set by precedent rather than being codified in existing international law. See Benner and Dickerson, “Sessions Says Domestic and Gang Violence Are Not Grounds for Asylum.”
Detention and deportation are the new normal in immigration policy, but the policy is a recent phenomenon, dating back to the George W. Bush administration. Before 9/11, ICE practiced a “catch and release” policy with any immigrants caught crossing the border who stated they were fleeing credible fear in their countries of origin and were seeking asylum. These immigrants were granted court dates before immigration judges and were released on their own recognizance. After 9/11, the policy was changed to that of “detain and deport,” and once again, a policy aimed at preventing terrorists from entering the country has mostly impacted Latin Americans leaving their countries for various reasons. Because of the number of immigrants who do claim asylum when caught at the border, President Bush mandated the construction of detention centers for families (or the conversion of prisons for this purpose). The population headed to these centers, however, ballooned in 2014 with the spike in Central American refugees. President Obama could have ordered a return to the “catch and release” policy but instead opted to reinvigorate Bush’s program, ordering the opening of new residential centers to house Central American refugees. While ICE maintains that the detention is not used as a deterrent to Central Americans, they make up 99 percent of the immigrants sent to these centers.
The U visa for victims of domestic violence was established under the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. Of the four women who presented credible claims of domestic violence that I helped prepare for their CFIs, two brought proof of spousal abuse in the form of hospital records and recorded threats.
Another mother, for example, had sent her two oldest sons to the United States by themselves at ages sixteen and fourteen, but when the Maras came for her twelve-year-old daughter, the mother decided to leave with her rather than send her alone and risk her being sexually violated on the trip.
For the role of rape in establishing territorial sovereignty for gangs, see also Segato, “Territory, Sovereignty, and Crimes of the Second State.”