Author Q&A: William Paul Simmons, Binational Human Rights

Binational Human RightsWe continue our series of Fall 2014 Author Q&As with William Paul Simmons, one of the editors, with Carol Mueller, of Binational Human Rights: The U.S.–Mexico Experience. The book brings together leading scholars and human rights activists from the United States and Mexico to explain the mechanisms by which a perfect storm of structural and policy factors on both sides has led to such widespread human rights abuses. Through ethnography, interviews, and legal and economic analysis, contributors shed new light on the feminicides in Ciudad Juárez, the drug war, and the plight of migrants from Central America and Mexico to the United States. The authors make clear that substantial rhetorical and structural shifts in binational policies are necessary to significantly improve human rights.

(Previous Q&As: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means; Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia; Jacqueline Bhabha, Human Rights and Adolescence; Rebecca Cook, Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective: Cases and Controversies; Megan Threlkeld, Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico.)

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Penn Press: How does the concept of “femicide” relate to the more familiar concept of “genocide”?

William Simmons: The basic distinction between the two terms is that genocide is the elimination of a group or culture because of their race and ethnicity, while femicide is the killing of women or girl-children because they are female. In the Latin American context, beginning with the serial killings in Ciudad Juárez in the early 1990s and moving on to the killings in Guatemala and elsewhere, the term femicide has been used to connote the killing of women and girl-children and the structural factors that allow and encourage the killings as well as the impunity of the killers. Thus, it brings into focus the killings and the absence of social, cultural, and institutional responses to the killings. With this broader use of the term, activists have been able to call into question all those forms of structural violence that underlie the killing of women and girl-children.

The U.S. drug market seems to exert a strong influence on the chain of events of which femicide is a part. What is the role of the casual consumer of illegal drugs in the U.S. as an actor in these situations?

Yes, the U.S. drug market plays a large role in a number of human rights violations that we cover in Binational Human Rights, including the femicides. In the volume’s conclusion I quote Mexican poet Javier Sicilia who said, “Americans have to realize that behind every puff of pot, every line of coke there is death, there are shattered families.” But, we have to make a key distinction here; it is the illicit drug trade that has led to mass deaths. By making drugs illegal and not reducing demand, U.S. and Mexican policies have fueled massive profits for the drug cartels. While some effects of drug legalization in the U.S. cannot be predicted with certainty, it assuredly would hurt the profits of the drug cartels. Similarly, comprehensive immigration reform would also hurt the profits of the human smuggling rings that are increasingly dominated by the drug cartels. Indeed, our volume can be read as a long polemic against current U.S. and Mexican drug and immigration policies that we see as fueling much of the human rights abuses in the region.

Do the drug cartels have any kind of moral code, something like their own discourse of “rights?”

I believe that the drug cartels are rational actors that seek to maximize profits and, even more controversially, I would go so far as to argue that among the main actors in the region, they might be the most rational of actors. U.S. immigration policy and Mexican national policies during the drug war have been attempting to address multiple, often conflicting, goals simultaneously, and they have had to respond to various constituencies over time and are caught up in a web of rhetoric and symbolic politics. Instead, the cartels in their mostly single-minded pursuit of profits have kept their eyes on the ball, and have been able to quickly adapt to almost all changes in policies and other pressures. They have developed very effective recruitment and public relations campaigns using the Internet. They have quickly been able to develop techniques to avoid increased drug interdiction efforts. When the human smuggling operations became extremely lucrative because of increased border enforcement, the cartels were able to quickly “diversify” into that arena and create a near-monopoly over human smuggling. I also think that the rationality of the cartels plays a large role in the fact that Ciudad Juárez has been so violent and yet the violence has not spilled over the Rio Grande to its sister city of El Paso, Texas. It would be bad for business for the cartels to engage in massive violence within the U.S.

The mother of a murdered daughter asks at one point, “Who benefits from this?” Who or what does benefit from the violence and dysfunction in Juárez and elsewhere?

Clearly, the cartels benefit from a certain amount of chaos and disorder. And, the cartels, especially newer ones like the Zetas, have deemed it worthwhile to engage in military and terrorist tactics to take over extremely lucrative trade routes (plazas) to the U.S.

We also should not forget that the violence has justified the further securitization of international borders and the state of emergency that Mexico has been under since the beginning of the Calderón presidency. Of course, such violence then rewards politicians who adopt a “tough on crime” approach. What our book strongly shows is the self-reinforcing nature of these views. The increased securitization has led to more violence, which leads to calls for more securitization, which leads to more violence, which leads to even more calls for enforcement. In a separate article, my colleagues and I refer to this as a “chain reaction of violence” that is self-perpetuating. This type of logic is very resistant to rational argument and appeals to compassion. For instance, humanitarian crises, as clearly shown by my research with Michelle Téllez on the widespread sexual violence against migrant women and children as well as the recent waves of unaccompanied youth from Central America that have overwhelmed U.S. border areas, have led to some humanitarian responses but those who favor securitization appropriate these abuses and human rights language to argue for more border enforcement. They now claim that closing the border would “save” these women and children. What they are missing is that increased border enforcement has led to the states of lawlessness that allow such abuses to occur. They also miss that the migrants already are often enduring horrible conditions on their journeys and that making the border harder to cross is not going to deter very many from making what is already a treacherous journey.

What kind of policy changes and implementations would you like to see in order to assuage the violence in the border region?

I will focus on U.S. policies here. I would like to see changes to policies and in the discourse about the border. Comprehensive immigration reform is needed to fix a badly broken and overwhelmed immigration system but the immigration reform currently bogged down in the U.S. Congress is far from perfect and is only a first step. Also, a radical change in drug policies needs to be seriously considered, as well as changes in U.S. gun policies that are aiding the cartels in Mexico. Unfortunately, these changes will not happen until we change the discourse about immigration, drugs, and guns. This discourse has demonized immigrants, and led to mass incarceration in the U.S. and massive gun violence in Mexico, a country with very strict gun control policies. When the current Arizona Superintendent of Education can make blatantly racist comments about Latinos on websites and not feel the need to step out of his current electoral race, we have a major problem about rhetoric. When Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio and his office can be found to have racially profiled against hundreds of Latinos and still overwhelmingly win re-election, we have a serious problem. When members of the U.S. Congress can laugh in good conscience at a female migrant being apprehended by Border Patrol while they were touring the border, we have a serious problem. When dozens of people react, without shame, to hundreds of migrant women and unaccompanied minors being dropped off at bus stations in Phoenix and Tucson with no food or water or shelter by saying they will now get their guns and head to the bus stations, we have a serious problem. The failure to see and react to human suffering is appalling and needs to change.

What potential does feminism in particular hold for addressing the problems that are the focus of the book?

This is an excellent question that deserves a lengthy response. I refer you to wonderful writings by feminist scholars such as Kathy Staudt, Melissa Wright, Cecilia Menjívar, Michelle Téllez, Anna Ochoa O’Leary, Olivia Ruiz Marrujo, Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Rosa-Linda Fregoso, and Cynthia Bejarano on this question. Briefly, I will say that a feminist perspective has been instrumental in re-conceptualizing these human rights abuses and the activism against them. Most importantly, the brave women on the ground in Ciudad Juárez and other places have taught feminist scholars a great deal about responding to violence and sustained resistance to a recalcitrant state. All scholars should take that example and continue to learn from those most affected by human rights abuses and listen to their voices and work in solidarity with them to advance their human rights.

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William Paul Simmons is Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Arizona and author of Human Rights Law and the Marginalized Other and An-Archy and Justice: An Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas's Political Thought. Binational Human Rights is available now.