This is an abridged and edited version of ideas examined in depth in: Good Gingrich, L., & Young, J.E.E. (Forthcoming 2019). Borders for profit: Social exclusion and symbolic violence along the NAFTA corridor. International Journal of Migration and Border Studies.

We begin in a small town nestled in the hot, humid lowlands between the mountains of Guatemala and the highlands of central Chiapas – a town near the Mexico-Guatemala border that we call “Santiago.” Here, in this small dispersed community, the national boundaries that define the NAFTA region are worked out and mobilized. But more than this, we argue that in this place and in the day-to-day lives of Olivia[i], Carmen, Gaby and Ana, we see the NAFTA border at work. Southern Mexico sits at the crossroads of a multitude of complex migration stories and trajectories, and is recognized as a place of origin, destination, and transit for international migrants. Here, destitution is produced by the ambiguous regulation of migration, and migration governance is organized by varying degrees of destitution.

Our analysis of the production of the NAFTA border and its dispossessions emerges from a community-based project in the Mexico-Guatemala borderlands. Our project included collaborative relationships forged over eight years with four Central American migrant women, two community partners from the region, two practitioners working in Mexico for a North American NGO, and two Canadian researchers. Our goal was to make visible the social structures and systems that link the everyday realities of our lives as North American women with those of migrant sex workers from Central America.

In thinking through these connections, we asked our community partners, “What are those specific links that connect what is happening on one side of the world to what is happening on the other side of the world?” Our colleague Alejandro summarized it in this way:

In the end everything is connected. The Mexican government and the US government have the same interconnection. The US depends on the illegal things from Mexico. The US can remain that model country, the good country, but at the same time it survives off the countries that are corrupt and illegal. ... [Mexico is] the one who does the dirty work [July 2013].

We begin with the narratives of migrant women to understand the mechanisms of transnational social exclusion generated by collaborative bordering practices.

Embodying the border

Olivia, originally from Honduras, has been living in Santiago for over 10 years. She explained:

They [local immigration officials] came to talk to me and I told them,“I’m sorry, I am not going to tell you that I’m Mexican. I am Honduran and tomorrow I will come back. I will be in front of you; that is how fast I will return. Why don’t you give me a chance to live here a year or two, I don’t know. I will try to arrange my paperwork but I will not leave this place. My son is buried here and the other son is in therapy. I am not doing any harm, and furthermore I have my gravesite. I am going to stay here with my tomb.” This comment made them laugh because they thought it was funny that I have a grave ready for when I die here [July 2013].

Olivia’s words capture the consequence of the border in her everyday life: it circumscribes the choices – “choices of necessity” (Young et al., 2017) that are instrumental rather than aspirational – that she perceives. A key feature of her day-to-day existence is her precarious status in Mexico, which makes her vulnerable to exploitation and violence. And yet, Olivia navigates this border space in ways that make it possible for her to provide for her family and herself.

She describes how this border works: it is at once highly controlled and relatively porous, since this is not the first time she has been faced with the possibility of deportation, and both she and the Mexican officials understand how easy it will be for her to return. Olivia participates as an effective economic agent in this social field in various ways – as a regular but ‘deportable’ (De Genova, 2002) border crosser, as a mother and caregiver, as a bar owner, as a sex worker, as a drug addict. Each of Olivia’s social roles and positions is both enabled and thwarted by the NAFTA border that runs through her daily life – past, present, and future.

Image 1. Migration as a “choice of necessity.”

The production of the NAFTA border

Contrary to the economic integration project of the European Union, the North American trade agreement of 1994 (as with its more recent incarnation, the USMCA of 2018) did not address labour migration. Rather, a series of policy measures has been implemented in the meantime that reframes border control and migration management as a regional imperative, with Mexico constructed (materially and discursively) as the lynchpin of these efforts. Thus, the policing of the southern border of Mexico promotes the economic relations forged through NAFTA, and both reinforces and is reinforced by the market-state fusion that characterizes this transnational social field. We extend Bourdieu’s (1990) concepts of social fields, structures of capital, and symbolic power to highlight the inter-dependence of symbolic and material economies in this transnational space, and to deepen our understanding of how the borders and territories linked through NAFTA work.

As with all social fields, the NAFTA border is produced through practices that conform to a precise “common sense” or logic of reproduction. The transnational social field of the NAFTA border is produced through official procedures and unofficial practices that simultaneously facilitate and impede the international movement of resources, capital, and people, thereby ascribing differential value within and across its boundaries. This paradoxical functioning of the border is by design and it works to selectively criminalize mobility across and through this space.  Furthermore, ambivalent and transnational border control recast “the migrant woman” as disentitled transgressor.

This is symbolic violence – a central and cogent feature of the processes and outcomes of social exclusion – that reduces migrant women’s bodies to sites of profit generation. The scalar integration of our analysis draws attention to three distinct social and economic spaces in which the NAFTA border materializes, spaces in which the dynamics of symbolic violence are spontaneously set in motion: 1) the space across nation-state borders; 2) the space in-between nation-state borders; and, 3) the space within nation-state borders.

The space across nation-state borders

The economic unevenness that persists between Mexico and its northern partners under the formal NAFTA is further entrenched and reinforced via control of Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize. The border itself is enforced selectively, ambivalently, and is made evident in Santiago through periodic interventions by state officials to crack down on illicit businesses. These demonstrations of force invigorate the “deportable” status and symbolic dispossession of migrant women, and extend the reach of the NAFTA border further south. As Maria explains:

The law has become stricter – [government officials] have to have the number of deportations – I feel that the most vulnerable are these women…. Yes, because of everything that is happening in the USA now, because the idea is that Mexico needs to control its borders so that they [the migrants] don’t go there. So, on television they typically say, “This is good, 5,000, 2,000, or 100 undocumented in this border town,” for example, in order to show that Immigration is working. The immigration agents are doing their job. Remember that I told you that immigration officers used to come and say, “Today in the afternoon we are going to come and do a ‘round-up.’” … They would say:

“They are putting pressure on us because we are not deporting anyone. So, figure out how you will do it, hide your girls because we are going to come” [April 2013].

Maria’s analysis highlights routine strategies of border enforcement and, specifically in this context, the ways in which officials in Mexico carry out the “dirty work” of migration control for Canada and the United States. Multiple actors and institutions are engaged in managing the Mexico-Guatemala borderzone, which we see as a crucial hub in the governance of the NAFTA border. Police, migration officials, military, cartels, gangs, traffickers, and local community members have stakes in “enforcing” this boundary line in different ways. Moreover, it is not only Mexico and Guatemala that regulate how the border works: the role of the US in enforcing this border can hardly be overstated, as evidenced by the investment of significant resources, including funding, personnel, training, equipment, and so on. Following suit, Canada has been involved in training and capacity-building in this border region since 2009 (Young, 2018). These interventions are aimed at policing not only this “local” border but other borders further north as well, thus protecting the power differential and associated economic interests of NAFTA nations.

Image 2. Border control along the NAFTA trade corridor.

Indeed, Santiago is similar to dozens of communities along the NAFTA corridor connecting Central America, Mexico, the United States, and Canada. These roadside communities have become key points in the official and unofficial management of the movement of people and products, and crucial to the reinforcement of destitution for those en route.

The space in-between nation-state borders

Over the past 10 years, the policing of Mexico’s southern border has changed dramatically. Through the Mérida Initiative (2008) and reinforced by the Programa Frontera Sur (2014), Mexico has ramped up border control efforts along its southern frontier. The Mérida Initiative has guided over US$2.3 billion in US security “aid” to Mexico since 2008. Expanding the hard infrastructure of their extraterritorial policing, the US recently invested in the construction of five multi-agency customs and immigration processing facilities (Centros de Atención Integral al Tránsito Fronterizo), one near Santiago at an important crossroads. Canada also participates in policing this border through its interdiction policies (including a visa requirement in place from 2009-2016 and the designation of Mexico as a “safe country of origin” in 2013) and, since 2009, via the Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program that sees personnel, equipment, and other resources deployed within Mexico’s boundaries for the purposes of police and security training.

Image 3. Mexico’s southern border and the “belts of control.” (Source: Isacson, Meyers & Morales, 2014.)

All of these investments and actors contribute to reproducing and reinforcing Mexico’s borders. However, border enforcement is all but absent at the international boundary line (the black dotted line in Image 3). Rather, it is now enforced through a series of checkpoints further into the country, forming “belts of control” whereby various state officials seize numerous opportunities to prevent migration further north (the solid yellow lines in Image 3).

The operation of multiple and mobile internal borders means that the immediate border zone, before the first official checkpoint about 20 miles into Mexico, becomes a space “in between” borders. This area has been referred to as a “tolerance zone” or a “free zone,” where people without Mexican documents can live and come and go relatively freely. Santiago, for instance, sits at the edge of the so-called “free zone” for nationals of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua aiming to pass through Mexico on their way to the United States; it is here that they encounter the first in a series of checkpoints that, for many, marks the end of their northward journey. Indeed, a June 2017 report by the Washington Office on Latin America finds a dramatic increase in Central American migrants remaining in Mexico, rather than continuing northward. In addition, there was a 311 percent increase in asylum claims lodged by Central Americans in Mexico between 2014 and 2016 (Isacson, Meyers & Smith, 2017).

This stretching of the material space of the border opens possibilities for people to engage in activities that mix the nefarious (extortion, trafficking, etc.) with basic survival. Olivia, for example, puts her options this way:

When looking at the circumstances, the reality is that I am not going to remain as a waitress or a fichera [a woman who gets paid to drink beer with men]. When the opportunity arose for me to open a bar that was my own, I took it because if I am going to remain here, I might as well have my own business instead of being someone else’s employee all the time. [July 2013]

The agency that Olivia and others exhibit, practice, and claim mingles alongside stark vulnerability.

The space within nation-state borders

The in-between space is key to the social and economic relations within the NAFTA border, as smugglers, drug dealers, immigration officers, and police all engage in informal yet highly organized business arrangements that profit from the vulnerability of migrant women in particular – the same actors involved in restricting migration ensure that the border remains porous, as such paradoxical practices are lucrative in material and symbolic terms. Migrant workers with precarious legal status provide cheap labour for local agriculture, for example, and an endless “supply” of ficheras for the bars that have proliferated in small towns near the border.

Image 4. The bar.

These small and fleeting drinking establishments pay ficheras to drink beer with men. This niche employment whereby women are paid to drink with men and more if they take them to bed is well-known throughout Central America and Mexico as a livelihood strategy for migrant women, even appearing in popular telenovelas. This work is known as one of the more lucrative employment opportunities along this route. Yet women often become trapped by addiction, indebtedness, and destitution, unable to escape the bar or the bar owner.

Women working in Santiago are vulnerable to the violence of drug dealers, immigration officers, bar owners, polleros, local residents – even one another. Beyond their lack of Mexican documents, attempts to find other work are also impeded by their non-Mexican-ness: locals and potential employers recognize subtle differences in facial features and dress. A woman who has crossed to this space inside the NAFTA border and is identifiably “not Mexican,” is assumed to be a sex worker, “illegal” and immoral, and locals do not want to be associated with “that kind of woman.”

Survival for women who have been criminalized in this way is difficult, as Carmen tells us:

They could be naturalised Hondurans, but nobody would give them work in a store, in a grocery store, in a clothing store, much less in a restaurant… Because when they see me and later discriminate against me, they ask me, “Which bar do you work in?”… And in Comitán, they don’t give me work anywhere, in any house. Not in a house, nor anywhere. Only because of the fact that I am Honduran [July 2013].

The border is read onto migrant women’s bodies and makes them into “unworthy” local residents, which deprives them of other livelihood options within the borderzone. In this sense, the NAFTA border directs social economies within borders that function to draw Central American migrant women inside, to devalued and dispossessed spaces from which they cannot easily escape.


The transnational social field of the NAFTA border is produced in the Mexico-Guatemala borderland, and its structure of capital – the “rules of the game” – renders certain bodies outside systems of regulation altogether, positioning them in social and physical spaces of non-existence, erasure, destitution. The transnationalization of market logic not only works within and across nation-state borders, but also through these boundaries to shape new zones in-between nation-states. Moreover, the paradoxical fortification of the NAFTA border meets economic ends, particularly for the US and Canada: its effects are the externalization – indeed, outsourcing – of risk and need. The border as a transnational social field forms a positive feedback loop, a self-perpetuating system of structural – and personal – insecurity and violence.


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De Genova NP (2002) Migrant “illegality” and deportability in everyday life. Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 419-447.
Isacson A, Meyer M and Smith H (2017) Mexico’s Southern Border: Security, Central American Migration, and US Policy. Washington DC: Washington Office on Latin America.
Isacson A, Meyer M and Morales G (2014) Mexico’s Other Border: Security, Migration, and the Humanitarian Crisis at the Line with Central America. Washington DC: Washington Office on Latin America.
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[i] Note that all names used are pseudonyms.