MMC interviews Gabriella Sanchez:
“Complexities matter”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2018 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

Over-simplifying migration motivations, smuggling networks and the range of actors involved in them risks letting governments off the hook and perpetuating migrants’ hardships, explains Gabriella Sanchez.

In Central America and Mexico, are the activities of drug traffickers, migrant smugglers and human trafficking actors across similar borders and crossing territory “owned” by powerful gangs? Does this present particular problems for migrants and refugees?

The claim that drug traffickers, migrant smugglers and everyone else in between have coalesced is perhaps the most dominant narrative in contemporary security discourses in the US-Mexico-Latin America migration pathway. It is true that there are gangs and that there is drug trafficking activity along the entire continent, including along the US-Mexico border. However, some of us challenge the claim that migrant smuggling is now under the complete domain of transnational gangs and/or of drug trafficking. What we do know on the basis of research is that human smuggling activities and drug trafficking do take place along similar corridors. But that should not be interpreted as evidence of them coming together and/or structurally functioning as a joint enterprise. Smugglers and drug traffickers do know one another, share information with one another, and for their benefit they have to be aware of each other’s activities. But this is not to say they work as one, or that one industry has taken over the other. The suggestion that all the criminal markets have merged under the umbrella of drug trafficking and that these are the ones behind migrant victimization exculpates the state. The claim is in short overly simplistic and provides little in terms of solutions on how to improve the conditions faced by migrants.

Some commentators have been looking for a connection between drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, and terrorism in Africa and Asia, but it seems in Central America the nexus between smugglers and drug traffickers is real. Would you agree, and how lethal is this for those on the move?

I’m glad you’re bringing up the issue of terrorism. In the global narrative of transnational organised crime – and we see this worldwide – people use the term smuggling in conjunction with sex trafficking, drug trafficking, weapons smuggling and, yes, terrorism. Again, this oversimplifies the way smuggling operates, exempts migration regimes of their responsibilities towards migrants, and finally, has limited empirical backing. At the same time, researchers have documented that the experience of many migrants often involves their participation in illicit activities in order to finance their travel, to gain access to routes that are faster and, somewhat ironically, often safer than the ones they would otherwise have to use, etc. As I said earlier, migrant smuggling often takes place in the same contexts of other crimes, but that does not mean they have morphed into one. That’s way too simplistic.

In so far that these gangs in the Central America region are powerful, is their presence in any way advantageous to migrants and refugees on the move?

Well, I would not use the term advantageous and at the same time, once again, we should not simplify the dynamics of the journey, or blame violence on gangs alone. Migrants draw from collective and individual experiences and are indeed aware of the challenges clandestine journeys may involve. However, awareness does not translate into an ability to avoid all the risks the migrant journey involves, especially in the case of people traveling without financial or social capital, and which often include women and children. As I said, the narrative that suggests that transnational organised crime entirely controls the smuggling market along the Central America and the US Mexican border shifts the focus away from the fact that migration regimes and not organized crime are behind the reduction of legal, safe paths to mobility. Furthermore, it virtually obliterates the roles of community and interpersonal dynamics in migrants’ journeys, of which smuggling facilitation is part. The reluctance (or unwillingness) to understand these dynamics leads to dangerous migration policy practices. The response to greater numbers of migrants and refugees is not the increased criminalization of their journeys, or the militarization of borders, or the designation of more resources to fight organized crime. Migrants need access to safe paths for legal mobility.

Do you think that standards of international protection must account for those who are victims of gang violence and organised crime – a seemingly dominant reason for movement in Central and South America?

Here I am really troubled by the emphasis on violence, and in particular on gang violence. I do not deny either. Yet violence and specifically gang violence is only one of multiple factors that play a role in people’s decisions to migrate. And yet there is a discursive obsession, a collective obsession with drug traffickers and gang members in the migration agenda. Even though it is true that they play a significant role in the level of violence that people face, violence is not only traceable to them. There’s also intimate partner violence, gender-based violence that plays a role in people’s decision to migrate. There is poverty, lack of employment, limited educational opportunities, global warming, environmental degradation, hunger. Family reunification – as in spouses wanting to be together, unaccompanied children reuniting with their family – is also a strong reason for people to migrate, probably stronger than poverty, which people also wrongly regard as the main driver.  Furthermore, people are not just heading out for the United States. Many are moving to the next village, from town to town and sometimes to other countries within the region, but they’re not all heading for the US Mexico border. So it is important that we don’t simply adopt the simplistic view that everybody is merely running away from scary gang members. Violence comes from many other sources – have we mentioned the state? – but it is this oversimplified narrative of gangs that dominates migration rhetoric. We have to do a better job unpacking the motivations of people on the migration pathway, not just in the Americas but globally. We have to bring complexity into the debate. If we just attribute it all to violence, we are lost.

The war on drugs has been criticized for decades as an absolute failure, having far more costs than benefits, while drug availability and production has never been so widespread. Are we about to see many of those errors repeated against human smugglers or is it different?

Indeed, we have seen in the Latin American corridor a replication of strategies that have been used by countries to combat drug trafficking organisations are now being used against migrant smuggling facilitators. By strategies I mean the criminalisation of survival practices, gender disparities in apprehensions and sentencing, combined with the overall narrative of smugglers as the reason behind all evils. These have been mobilised by states but are not reflective of the actual conditions migrants find on the ground.

The international focus is often on the efforts of the US to deter, prevent, or deport migrants, but Mexico has also been active: restricting people getting onto trains since 2014, or their Programa Frontera Sur. To what extent has Mexico’s migration policy contributed to additional risks to migrants in terms of kidnapping, forced labour and disappearances?

Mexico and its migration policy have played a pivotal role in the shaping of the vulnerabilities migrants encounter as they travel through the country – not only Central American migrants but also those from South America, from Mexico itself and from elsewhere. From the onset, Programa Frontera Sur was implemented with the idea in mind of creating a containment belt along the border with Guatemala to deter irregular migration from Central America. Since it started, the numbers of Central American migrants detained and deported from Mexico have skyrocketed. In fact, Mexico has deported more Central American migrants than the United States. As in other parts of the world, migrants’ need to avoid detection and apprehension in order to reach a destination leads them to rely on the most dangerous, remote routes for their journeys, which in turn increases the risks they face and reduces their chances to obtain help and/or to seek justice. Migrants traveling through Mexico – especially those with very limited social and financial capital – are likely to encounter and be the target of groups involved in kidnappings, abductions, forced labour and other forms of intimidation and exploitation. Mexican authorities have often been named among the perpetrators.  As researchers, we definitely see a direct link between the kinds of violence committed against migrants and stepped-up immigration control efforts in Mexico.

Mexico is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, and many human rights agreements, and yet it has pursued an aggressive policy along its southern borders since 2014. Some claim that in 2015 almost 200,000 individuals were arrested and deported. How would you explain these kind of contradictions, and are they a prequel to what the European Union is starting to practice as it tries to externalise border control?

Firstly, let us once again remember we are witnessing these trends worldwide and secondly that they are neither new nor unique to Mexico. Detention, deportation and removals have been constants of the migrant experience. In terms of border externalisation for example, Spain and Morocco have had arrangements that long precede the current trends in European migration control policy. People tend to forget that there have been many previous, if unsuccessful attempts to create these “buffer” or “containment” zones, which are now becoming more of the rule. Even though we are outraged by what is going on in Libya for example and cannot conceive Europe is being complicit in the return of migrants to Libya or the kind of conditions people are facing, it is also remiss to think these are unprecedented or unheard-of acts. We must put them into context.

Given that Mexico considers itself a friend to refugees, why do so few of those seeking refuge from the troubles in the “Northern Triangle” seek asylum in Mexico?

First, it’s important to remember that today Mexican people are no longer migrating to the United States at the same levels they used to. Mexico itself is becoming a destination country and not just a country of transit. I think that when we look at the treatment by Mexico of migrants coming to Mexico or passing through the country we see a clear example of migration policy gone wrong. The numbers of migrants filing asylum claims in Mexico has grown exponentially, but that does not mean the claims are being approved. That is on the one hand. On the other, many other migrants may perceive or see Mexico just as a point of transit on their way to the United States or Canada. They may stay in the country until they are able to head north. Again, it is important to recognize the complexity of people’s motivations to migrate. While many migrants have also decided to stay in Mexico given the current anti-immigrant climate in the United States, for many others reaching US territory is still important. There is not a single or dominant answer. There is vast complexity in migrants’ decision-making. We need to do a better job to unpack it.

A Mexico-based advocacy group reported that there may have been over 70,000 refugee and migrant disappearances in Mexico between 2006 and 2016. If plausible, this suggests Mexico itself is very unsafe for migrants and refugees, let alone the US/Mexico border?

To simply state that Mexico is not a safe place for those who apply for asylum is incomplete. Let us say instead that the Mexican state does not have the political will to implement mechanisms to protect those seeking refuge (which includes thousands of Mexican citizens themselves who have been displaced due to violence). As for the use of numbers to count disappearances and deaths, we need to be cautions of not falling for what [legal anthropologist Sally] Engle Merry calls the “seduction of quantification” : there are not official, accurate or reliable data concerning the dead and the missing in Mexico. We must not rely on numbers as the sole indicator of what is happening in Mexico and across Latin America. At the end, statistics and numbers are irrelevant to those with missing and/or dead relatives: they want to know where their loved ones are. They only want to know where they are.