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The Mexican Drug War and the Consequent Population Exodus: Transnational Movement at the U.S.-Mexican Border

Sociology and Anthropology Department, University of Texas at El Paso, 500 W. University, El Paso, TX 79968, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Societies 2013, 3(1), 80-103;
Original submission received: 10 December 2012 / Revised: 18 January 2013 / Accepted: 23 January 2013 / Published: 25 January 2013
(This article belongs to the Special Issue On the Move: Human Migration Past, Present and Future)


At the frontline of México’s “war on drugs” is the Mexican-U.S. border city of Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, which has become internationally known as the “murder capital of the world.” In Juárez, which neighbors El Paso, Texas, United States, estimates of the murders in Juárez are as high as 7,643 between 2006 and 2011, leaving approximately 10,000 orphans. Juárez has also experienced an exodus of approximately 124,000 people seeking safety, some migrating to the Mexican interior and others to the U.S., particularly along the U.S.-México border. Based on 63 in-depth interviews with Juárez-El Paso border residents, along with ethnographic observations, we examine the implications of the “war on drugs” on transnational movements and on the initial settlement of those escaping the violence. In particular, we construct a typology of international migrants who are represented in the Juárez exodus: the Mexican business elite, the “Refugees without Status,” and those who resided in México but who are U.S. born or have legal permanent residency in the U.S. This article highlights the role of transnational capital in the form of assets and income, social networks in the U.S., and documentation to cross the port of entry into the U.S. legally, in easing migration and initial settlement experiences in the U.S.

1. Introduction

The México (MX)-United States (U.S.) border is a transnational space that has historically been characterized as a region where its residents are constantly “on the move”. The Juárez-El Paso region has traditionally been one of the main crossing points to and from the U.S. for Mexican and Latin American migrants, although border control initiatives such as increases in federal border patrol agents, technological surveillance, and other forms of militarization have restricted this movement [1,2,3,4]. Simultaneously, there is constant movement in the form of transnational border crossings from residents and corporations on both the Mexican and U.S. sides of the border. The irony of establishing political economic treaties that “open” the border while simultaneously trying to restrict people’s movement is what Massey and associates referred to as the “smoke and mirrors” phenomenon [4]. This study focuses on the exodus of residents from Cuidad Juárez, Chihuahua, México (here forth referred to as Juárez), who are fleeing violence and insecurity by migrating to the U.S. While a significant number of individuals escaped the violence in Juárez by migrating internally to other parts of México, the focus of this study is on international migration and cross-border movement into the U.S. The preferred destination for Juarenses (people from Juárez) who migrated to the U.S. is the city of El Paso, Texas. These two cities are commonly referred to as “sister cities” due to sharing a geographical region, culture, and the frequent social, political, and economic exchanges among them.
Approximately between 2006 and 2011, Juárez a city of an estimated 1.3 million people has undergone widespread violence initially over a turf battle among drug cartels vying over border drug corridors, claiming the lives of approximately 7,643 men, women, and children. The death toll associated with the drug war is at least 71,804 in the entire nation of México [5]. Currently 65% of different parts of México have been classified as unsafe by countries such as Australia, France, Germany, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. because of the violence associated with narcotics and organized crime [6]. While this violence is not restricted to Juárez alone, this city has experienced the bulk of this devastation. In addition to death, physical harm, and psychological distress, the violence has created economic displacement. Many private and even governmental businesses have been burned down and subjected to extortion demands, forcing them to shut down. While statistics are difficult to attain, from 2007 to 2011 it has been estimated that 10,000 businesses were forced to close in Juárez [7]. This type of economic displacement has also surfaced in other parts of the México-U.S. border such as Laredo where “refugee businesses” have closed in Nuevo Laredo, México and relocated to Laredo, Texas, U.S. [8]. There is also a displacement of people due to the war on drugs. A private study “consultoría privada (Parametría)” estimated that 220,000 people in Juárez abandoned their homes in the course of 3 years from 2009 to 2011 [9]. A significant portion of the migrants has attempted to resettle in Juárez’s sister city of El Paso, Texas. The El Paso chief of police estimated that in 2008–2009 approximately 30,000 Mexican nationals fleeing the violence in Juárez have settled in El Paso [10], while a study from the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez estimated 124,000 migrated to escape the devastation in Juárez [7].

1.1. Objectives

Based on 63 in-depth interviews and ethnographic observations with transnational residents on both sides of this Mexican-U.S. border, we analyze the impact of the violence on migration out of Juárez and initial settlement in the U.S., particularly El Paso, TX. Specifically, the objectives of our paper are two-fold: (1) to develop a typology of who is represented in the Juárez exodus, and (2) whether initial settlement in the U.S. is easier for Mexican emigrants given that they migrated to Juárez’s “sister city”—El Paso, Texas or they had frequently visited the U.S. in the past. This study will contribute to Mexican migration literature by examining how violence impacts movement across borders. For the most part the Mexican migration literature has paid limited attention to the influence of violence on emigration (for an exception see [11]). Most of the attention on violence and movement to the United States is concentrated in a separate literature on refugee and asylum seekers [12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25] but this scholarship has paid little attention to México. Generally, violence in the refugee and asylum literature is associated with decolonization, civil, and ethno-religious conflicts that are contextually different from the Mexican drug war. Another contribution is the focus on the migratory patterns of urbanities and the middle-class. Mexican migration to the U.S. has focused on emigration patterns from rural regions, while less attention has been paid to the migratory patterns of Mexican urbanities (for an exception see [26]) and the middle-class.

1.2. Mexican Drug War and Violence

According to Human Rights Watch, Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006–2011) ignited a fight against organized crime at the beginning of his term, which resulted in widespread violence throughout México, particularly along the Northern border. Recent changes in domestic policies by President Calderón declared a direct and fierce fight against the drug cartels in México. For instance, President Calderón assigned over 50,000 military soldiers, federal, state, and local police to combat the drug cartels in different parts of the country. A backlash then came in the form of thousands of deaths across the country. As mentioned previously, the death toll in Juárez had been estimated at about 7,643 people in the span of five years (2007–2011). Campbell [27] vividly describes the violence as “…bullet-riddled bodies discarded in the streets of Juárez—many bearing signs of brutal torture, and some burned or decapitated—appeared wrapped in tape and blankets and frequently bore written signs or statements containing direct threats against the Juárez cartel (which issues counter threats).”
It is difficult to describe a typology of who is likely to be afflicted by the violence since no one appears to be safe, as victims have included children and the elderly. For instance, the violence has included the massacre of a baseball team consisting of youth that were having a get-together at a home. This violence has been referred to as narcoterrorism or acts of terrorism by the drug cartels that challenged the authority of the state and maintained dominance through the creation of fear [28]. Due to the nation state’s unaccountability for the crimes and the economic displacement that followed through the loss of businesses, the violence has expanded beyond that caused by the drug cartels. Campbell [27], for instance, argued that “Car theft, bank and store robberies, kidnapping for ransom, extortion (especially by telephone), and other crimes skyrocketed in Juárez, creating a kind of “failed city” government.” Furthermore, the violence also includes complaints of human rights abuses by military and security forces.

1.3. U.S. Political Refugee and Asylum Policies

Arguably the people of Juárez fleeing the violence are political asylees or people who have fled their homeland due to the fear of violence, although for the most part legal restrictions impede this status. To begin with, the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 included several key provisions that stimulated immigration from Latin America and Asia [29,30]. Among those provisions, the act exhibited a preference for refugees [31]. The refugee issue attracted much attention in the late 1970s. The first act to systematically address the admission and incorporation of refugees based on humanitarian need was the Refugee Act of 1980 [30]. The act established the worldwide quota to 270,000 and excluded refugees from this numerical limitation in the U.S. Moreover, it allowed for refugees who had been physically present in the U.S. for a period of at least one year and for asylees one year after being granted asylum to be given U.S. permanent residency status [30]. Provisions for refugees did not occur again until the Immigration Act of 1990, which provided temporary status to undocumented people from certain countries that faced armed conflict and natural disasters.
Both refugees and asylum seekers must establish that individuals have a well-founded fear of persecution or violence. More specifically, under U.S. law a refugee is someone who: (1) is located outside of the U.S.; (2) is of special humanitarian concern to the U.S.; (3) demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group; (4) is not firmly resettled in another country; and (5) is admissible to the U.S. [32]. If granted refugee status in the U.S. they are given authorization to work in the U.S., are eligible for: medical and cash assistance, to apply for U.S. visas for their spouse and unmarried children under 21, and can apply for permanent residency. A person who does not qualify for refugee status under these provisions can also apply with the UN Refugee Agency UNCHCR.
There are some important distinctions between refugee and asylum laws. Those seeking refugee status must apply while outside their country of nationality and the United States (U.S.), while those seeking asylum must be in the U.S. or applying for admission at the U.S. port of entry [33]. Moreover, while there are caps for refugee admission there is no limit on the number of asylums granted. Furthermore, political asylum concerns individuals and is usually considered on a case-to-case basis versus refugee law that concerns a mass influx of people. In addition, asylum-seekers must apply within one year from the date of last arrival in the U.S., if applying after a year the applicant must show changed circumstances that materially affect the applicant’s eligibility or extraordinary circumstances that delayed the filing process [33]. The courts are currently overwhelmed with asylum cases and in El Paso it is taking approximately three years for applicants to get a court date [34].
There are several other concerns with refugee and asylum laws. First, the laws do not specify what the source of the persecution or violence is to qualify for refugee/asylum status. This is an issue for the victims of the Mexican drug war since the causes of the violence and the consequent migratory flows are structural and indirectly associated with the nation state, in contrast to flows caused by decolonization and the targeting of ethno-religious groups. Arguably, the cause for the Mexican drug war is economic restructuring, which by itself is not a major cause of refugee flows (see [35]).
Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo argued that contemporary refugee movements can be categorized according to three types: the activists, the target (individuals who are targeted because of membership in a particular group), and the victim (those exposed to social violence) [35]. Zolberg et al. define the activist as a rebel whose action contribute to conflict which causes them to flee [35]. The last category—the victim—is caught in the cross fire or expose to generalized social violence. The victim category is the one in which the exodus of people escaping the Mexican drug war fall under. However, provisions that define who are victims are vague. Regardless, the U.N. Convention’s definition of refugees has accommodated some victims [35], which opens up the discussion to consider those fleeing the violence in México as refugees. The second concern is the contradiction between having a more universal consideration of who is a refugee or political asylee versus the actual legal definitions. As stated by Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo, on the one hand, there is a “willingness of specific states to grant asylum to individuals and groups of special concern, to a more universalistic definition of refugees…At the same time, however, states that compose this community continue to exercise considerable discretion in implementing the definition and in interpreting their obligation to those acknowledged as refugees” [35]. The U.S. is among the nation states that find themselves in this contradictory situation. Third, some argue that the strict requirements to attain refugee status subjects people who have already been victimized in their home countries in some way to be re-victimized by the host society. Penchaszadeh [36], for instance, emphasized that it is a violation of human rights when asylum seekers are criminalized if they do not meet the political requirements. She concluded by criticizing the subjectivity involved in granting refugee status and advocated for the redefinition of international refugee law in a manner that refugee cases are evaluated on a collective basis and in their proper political context rather than on an individual basis. Fourth, immigration court is a civil and not a criminal court so legal counsel is not provided by the government and immigration attorneys charge an average of $20,000 per asylum case [34]. Fifth, if denied asylum the defendant will be deported.

2. The México-U.S. Border Context, Neoliberalism, and Violence

The Mexican-U.S. border is one of the most unique geographical spaces where a rich and a poor nation collide. Both cities are located in the physical and political fringes of their respective countries. The city of El Paso is in the Southern most portion of the U.S. and is largely occupied by people deemed as unwanted by society—impoverished communities and racial minorities [37]. Indeed, El Paso is one of the poorest cities in the U.S. and approximately 85% of people are of Latina/o, mostly of Mexican-origin. Also in the fringes is the city of Juárez where in the eyes of transnational corporations represented an ideal site to experiment with globalization [2,38] due to a perceivable surplus of exploitable labor—brown people from a developing nation (see [2,38,39,40]).
Figure 1 shows the close proximity between Juárez and El Paso. Juárez is also known as the city where “anything goes” [2,38]. “Anything goes” is a reference to the subjugation of local place that Juárez has been exposed to. For instance, historically, transnational actors such as U.S. citizens, illicit businesses, and corporations have constructed Juárez as a frontier where “anything goes” and people are dehumanized and disposable [38,39,40]. Bowman [41] also argued that it is this script of a morally corrupt place that has justified U.S. citizens crossing into México to participate in illegal and semi-legal activities such as prostitution, gambling, drug use, and underage drinking. These discourses about Juárez as a “city of vice” continue to resonate in Méxican [42] and U.S. popular cultures [38].
Juárez’s characterization as the city where ”anything goes” promoted it to become an experimental site for globalization. The México-U.S. border region experienced the first wave of globalization in 1965 with the Border Industrial Program (BIP), known as the maquiladora (transnational export processing factories) program. This second wave of globalization surfaced under the guise of “free trade” with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 [2,38]. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund encouraged further liberalization of México that ultimately led to NAFTA [43]. These neoliberal treaties also encouraged cross-border movement between the Mexican-U.S. border cities. The fluid movement of people and services, coming back and forth across the border towns in the U.S. and México is historically common [44]. NAFTA displaced workers, particularly those in México’s agricultural sector, because they lacked the resources to be able to compete globally [4]. This caused out-migration from rural to urban centers, and subsequently out-migration from México.
Figure 1. Map of the México-U.S. Border.
Figure 1. Map of the México-U.S. Border.
Societies 03 00080 g001
This displacement also opened the door for the replacement of fruit and vegetable crops, with something that is more marketable—illicit drugs. This has exacerbated the violence against the indigenous people who live in rural México and occupy the land that is now in demand by the drug cartels. Many small populations in rural México that were not very visible to the world have been placed in the spotlight, due to the massacres of innocent people by the cartels on different occasions, such is the case of Creel [45], Pueblo Nuevo [46], San Dimas [46] and La Sierra de Petatlán [47], among many others. On more than one occasion, heavily armed convoys of sicarios (enforcers of the cartels) have gone through small towns and assassinated innocent people, forcing them at gun point to abandon their lands and their community, which displaced thousands of people to other territories within México [45,46,47]. As such, the violence that surrounds the drug industry is partly a result of neoliberal displacement that accompanied economic development initiatives.
As mentioned previously, there is limited attention given to how violence shapes Mexican migration. This gap in the literature is largely attributed to the lack of data and methodological constraints. An exception is the work of Alvarado and Massey [11] who quantitatively examined the influence of structural economic changes and violence on migration from Latin American countries (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and México) from 1979 to 2003. Within the world system theory framework they hypothesize that migration and violence are common byproducts of societal transformations associated with the globalization of markets. Thus, they expected for violence to influence migration through a macro-level analysis. Surprisingly, Alvarado and Massey [11] found that exposure to violence reduced the likelihood of emigration in México. It is possible that rather than concentrating on migration from the entire nation of México, the association between violence and emigration would surface in regions that have been disproportionately impacted by several waves of globalization and violence, such as Juárez. Another departure from Alvarado’s and Massey’s study is that rather than examining only homicide cases at the macro-level, our analysis focuses on the impact of a violent environment and thus considers those who are directly and indirectly victims of homicide, extortions, kidnappings, and other forms of violence. Moreover, our work is a case study of the Juárez /El Paso border, a region with an established history of transnational exchanges of commerce and people. We argue that the socio-historical context is important to consider given the uneven impact that economic structuring has in different regions in México. Juárez, for instance, has historically been recognized as a region where “anything goes” and serves as the site to experiment with globalization [2,38]. Additionally, as an important drug border corridor, due to it neighboring the U.S., Juárez experiences heightened levels of violence as drug cartels fight over this territory. The violence in combination with the economic displacement and the unaccountability by the Mexican state exacerbated more violence leaving migration among the only viable solutions to find safety. In addition, in contrast to Alvarado and Massey this study concentrates on qualitative micro-level responses, as oppose to quantitative macro-level patterns of migration.

3. Data and Methods

The data for this case study are based on convenience sample of 63 in-depth interviews and ethnographic observations with adults residing in Juárez and El Paso. These data are drawn from a larger project examining the impact of the violence on border families collected during 2009–2011 in Juárez and El Paso. The targeted population is those who have family members on both sides of the México-U.S. border since they are frequent border crossers and they represent the normative family structure at the border. All the researchers are also members of the targeted population. This paper is based on grounded theory methods that stress that the procedures for verifying theory differ from the methods of theory development [48]. As such, the exodus from Juárez to the U.S. was not the initial focus of the study, but it surfaced as a topic through the data. Due to the close proximity between México and the U.S. and the exodus in Juárez, along with the preference for migrating to El Paso, this border region represents an ideal site to examine the transnational movements of those impacted by violence.
Appendix A provides information on data collection and respondents’ socio-demographic information. All of the respondents are from the Juárez/El Paso region and as such we cannot generalize our results to other border regions. The interview questions were designed to gather data on a series of issues such as: responses to the violence, border crossing experiences at both U.S. and Mexican ports of entry, Mexican militarization, and perceptions of how the violence impacts family stability and integration. All of the respondents gave us verbal consent to participate in this study and we received approval from the Institutional Review Board from our university. Interviews were conducted in the linguistic preference of the respondent—Spanish or English. All interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. The transcribed interviews in Spanish were then translated into English. All transcriptions were coded and analyzed through N*VIVO qualitative analysis software. The average interview lasted approximately two hours in length. These data are supplemented with participant observations of living and working at this border.

4. Results

4.1. A Picture of the Migrants in the Juárez Exodus

In this section, we provide a typology of who is represented in the Juárez exodus. We categorized the migrants represented in the Juárez exodus into three mutually exclusive groups—the Business Elites, Refugees without Status, and the Return of U.S. Citizens and U.S. Legal Permanent Residents (LPR) (documented immigrants to the U.S.)1. Below we begin our discussion with an illustration of why people are migrating, followed by a description of migrants in each category.
The people of Juárez encounter daily threats of violence. For instance, Rosa, a teacher, describes the fear and the subsequent exodus of Juarenses:
We live in a lot of fear that something will happen to our family. Thank God nothing has happened to our daughters… We don’t go out at night. We are completely insecure. There is no security here as long as there is so much violence in Juárez that affects everyone. Many jobs have been lost because of the violence. A lot of people, most people, I believe almost everyone is already leaving for other places.
Rosa described the strategies to cope with the violence such as not going out at night and migrating. Below we describe the typology of some individuals represented in the Juárez exodus.

4.1.1. Business Elites

A group represented in the Juárez exodus is what we call the “Mexican Business Elites” which we define as Mexican nationals that migrated with U.S. business investor visas. While the majority of the U.S. was undergoing an economic recession or economic stagnation, El Paso, Texas, U.S. was experiencing economic growth due to “refugee businesses” that migrated from Juárez. The Mexican drug war and the unrest that followed caused an estimate of 10,000 businesses to close in Juárez from 2007–2011 [7]. In Juárez many businesses, from small informal businesses to formal business establishments, are extorted for money, or they are vandalized, and/or the owners (and/or their families), employees, or clients are held hostage or killed. Consequently, business visa applications have risen by 6% from the time that Mexican President Calderón declared the war on drugs [49]. The El Paso Chamber of Commerce estimated that about 400 new businesses from México have re-established in El Paso [50]. Thus, among those represented in the exodus is what we call the Mexican Business Elites.
Only the privileged have access to migrate through an investor visa (E1). Recently the financial requirements for an investor visa are $100,000 to $150,000 (USD), plus they must have a business plan that proves they would generate jobs [7]. These visas are renewable on a year-to-year basis, so they are only temporary. The revenue to relocate a business and consequently attain an investor visa is beyond the reach of most Juárez residents and as such, this migration stream represents the elite.
The presence of the Mexican Business Elites is notable through their impact on the local economy and their group’s organization. They have even established an organization called La Red (The Net) for Mexican business owners who are resettling in El Paso. The mission of this organization is to gather Mexican-origin business leaders to achieve economic and political success while preserving their values and culture. Many of the Mexican Business Elites are members of this organization but it also includes U.S. citizens (and to a lesser extent individuals who are LPR) who were living in México before the violence escalated who then established businesses in El Paso.

4.1.2. The Return of U.S. Citizens and U.S. Legal Permanent Residents (LPR)

Another group represented in the Juárez exodus are U.S. citizens and to a lesser extent those with LPR status, or what has historically been called a green card holders, both of which are authorize to reside and work in the U.S. Although there are more rights extended to U.S. citizens than those who are LPR, members of both of these groups have transnational capital given they have the authority by the U.S. government to reside and work in the U.S. This group consists of small business owners, students, and non-elites that have lived in Juárez most of their lives, despite having the necessary citizenship status to live and work in the U.S. This living arrangement is not unusual along the Mexican-U.S. border. Indeed, México’s foreign-born population largely consists of U.S. citizens that are concentrated along the northern Mexican border such as Juárez. As such, they freely cross through both the U.S. and Mexican borders.
There are some important distinctions to make between the Mexican Business Elites and U.S. born business owners who lived in México most of their lives: (1) Mexican Business Elites have more resources and their businesses are more lucrative; (2) Mexican Business Elites had established businesses in Juárez prior to the escalation of the violence while the U.S. citizens/LPRs may be trying entrepreneurship for the first time or may have a less established business; (3) the business investor visa that the Mexican Business Elites possess is only temporary versus those of U.S. citizens/LPRs. As such, these two groups of migrants are distinct from one another.

4.1.3. Refugees without Status

A third group of migrants is what we call “Refugees without Status” (RWS) which we define as people who migrated because of fear of violence or persecution, but who are not recognized for political refugee status or political asylum. These are individuals who may genuinely need refuge but may not legally qualify thus we follow Zolberg et al. [35] who suggests that the definition of “refugee” needs to be changed to reflect the current realities. While the migration of Mexican Business Elites is significant as evident by the 400 businesses they have re-established in El Paso, most of our respondents are in the Refugees without Status category.
During the period of the drug-related violence (2006–2011), the U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review reported that it has received 23,715 applications from Mexican nationals seeking political asylum in the U.S., yet only 388 individuals, less than 2% of all Mexican applicants, had been granted asylum during this timeframe (Table 1). On the other hand, Colombians who have also been subjected to drug-related violence and subsequent militarization similar to México, had 39% of their asylum applicants granted during this same time period. In particular, the U.S. had 7,257 Colombians apply for political asylum during 2006–2011 and 2,825 of them were granted (Table 1).
Table 1. México and Colombia Asylum Statistics from U.S. Immigration Courts, 2006–2011.
Table 1. México and Colombia Asylum Statistics from U.S. Immigration Courts, 2006–2011.
Source: U.S. Department of Justice.
When applying for asylum two main issues arise—defining persecution and social group [51]. The Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) does not define “persecution” and therefore it is up to the courts to determine if the level of harm experienced by the applicant constitutes persecution. Even when satisfied with the level of persecution the petitioner must not be victim of indiscriminate violence unless they are singled out for membership in a particular social group [51]. This presents another hurdle for Mexicans. In Delgado-Ortiz v. Holder, for instance, the Ninth Circuit court denied review of a petition from Mexican citizens who claimed to be the victims of crime associated with Mexican drug cartels because the court decided that “Mexicans” as a proposed social group is too broad [51].
Due to the difficulties in meeting the definitions of prosecution and social group, the delay in processing the applications (in El Paso about three years), the cost of hiring an attorney, and fear of being detained, denied, and/or sent back to their sending community many Mexicans are not applying for asylum (also see [10,34]). Since the U.S. is not reevaluating the processing of Mexican political asylum claims, human rights organizations and legal advocates along the U.S.-Mexican border are advocating for this issue. For instance, the Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, a NGO dedicated to help migrants, the homeless, and the poor, started a petition to get Mexicans who were fleeing the violence to be considered for political asylums in the U.S. Human rights organizations argue that the reason why Mexican nationals are being denied credible asylum consideration is attributed to the politicized nature of the asylum process. Despite formal laws outlining who can qualify for refugee/asylum status, states continue to exercise considerable discretion in implementing those definitions [36]. Indeed, the Annunciation House compares the Mexican case to that of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees who were denied asylum on a “wholesale basis” that resulted in the landmark case of American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh that mandated the U.S. Department of Justice and Immigration Naturalization Services to restructure the political asylum process [10]. We also suspect that if the U.S. widely recognizes the high levels of violence it would have to focus on its role in the trafficking of arms from the U.S. to México and/or it would be a direct critique against a nation that they consider a friend. As for the discourses from the local Mexican government, the mayor of Juárez has publically called those fleeing the violence by migrating to El Paso as traitors to México, although paradoxically he lives in El Paso [52].
Consequently, the Refugees without Status in our study face some of the same traumas as political refugees but are not recognized as political refugees and are largely not granted or not applying for political asylum. As such, the typology of Refugees without Status represents those who migrated to the U.S. to escape the violence in México, but have no authorization to live and work in the U.S., which limits their opportunities to financially support themselves and their families. Being without status also means they live in constant fear of being deported back to the violence that they are escaping in México.
The Refugees without Status (RWS) differ from other undocumented Mexican migrants in the U.S. The first difference between RWS and other undocumented immigrants are the motives for migration. As opposed to economic reasons or family-reunification based migration, which are the two primary reasons for Mexican migration to the U.S., RWS migrants are escaping violence. Second, even though RWS are subjected to the same social and economic exclusion as other unauthorized migrants, if RWS migrants are deported their lives are in physical danger given that they are escaping violence. Thus, the fear of deportation is intensified for the RWS. These two issues differentiate the RWS from other authorized Mexican migrants in the U.S.
While popular media has painted a picture of Mexican migrants crossing illegally into the U.S. border in mass, it is important to acknowledge that this is not the case for the Juárez exodus. The RWS are mostly people with a border crossing card (BCC) which provides them with the necessary documentation to cross through the port of entry into the U.S. As such, those with a BCC do not have to worry about crossing the border without authorization to escape the violence. Moreover, the BCC is valid for a time period of 10 years and is only within a 25 mile radius from the border, which includes El Paso. Even though the BCC authorizes the RWS to cross the U.S. border they may or may not have overstayed the legally mandated amount of time permitted—72 hours. This is another example of Menjívar’s [53] concept of liminal legality, characterized by an ambiguous citizenship status where one is in “neither an undocumented status nor a documented one.” As such, the BCC allows one to be in the U.S. for 72 hours, but the person can cross back into Juárez and return to the U.S. and they will be in status again. Perhaps, more importantly when you return to México your return is not registered, as such it is difficult to ascertain whether a BCC holder has violated the 72 hour rule. It is important to note that the BCC does not authorize individuals to work in the U.S. Therefore, most of the RWS in our study live in El Paso but work in Juárez or live with and are financially supported by relatives who live and work along the U.S. side of the border.
It is important to note that the BCC is increasingly difficult to attain. For example, Mexican nationals must show proof that they have minimal desire to settle in the U.S. This is usually established by evaluating the Mexican national’s connections to social institutions in México and their income. As such, the most destitute residents in Juárez do not have the resources to attain the BCC. The RWS then represent individuals who have some status in Mexican society, since U.S. authorities will deny a BCC to any person who does not have adequate financial means. It is also expensive to apply for the BCC. The cost is even beyond the means of some Mexican professions. For example, a teacher in Juárez states “My visa expired and now I can’t cross. It expired last year and I don’t renew it because they charge too much.” Indeed, the impoverished Juarenses in our study stated that they had never even been to the U.S. or that it had been over ten years since their visit. The only resource to cross into the U.S. for impoverished Juarenses is to cross clandestinely without authorization, however, this is not too common among those fleeing the violence to our knowledge.
The families more likely to escape the violence also have social capital in the form of family ties in the U.S. side of the border. It is common for families at the Mexican-U.S. border to have family members on both sides of the border, this in turn eases migration. Paula, for example, illustrates how widespread the violence is and that helping her family to migrate is a viable solution to escape the hostility:
I don’t understand why they would think my mother has any money, she is a humble woman. She was scared, she is a 72 year-old woman and my brother is 32 years-old. They were threatened two consecutive times and that’s the reason that I had to rescue my mother and bring her to live with me [in El Paso].
It is common knowledge that while the violence initially involved those who had some sort of connection to the drug trade, it now affects everyone. For instance, Paula stated that even her elderly mother has been threatened. Furthermore, having social ties to someone in the U.S. can literary save the lives of the victims by enabling their migration across the border. This finding can contribute to the unresolved discussion on the role of social networks among Mexican migrants that originate from urban centers—some stating that urban-origin migration is structured by social networks [26] while others disagree [54]. At this border, it is not uncommon for people in El Paso to rescue their family members in Júarez as Paula does.

4.2. A “Stepsister” Relationship? Initial Settlement Attempts of the Mexican Exodus

As mentioned previously, the cities of Juárez -El Paso are frequently referred to as “sister cities” due to their shared history, culture, and geographic space as neighboring border cities. As frequent border crossers Mexican fronterizos (those who live along the border such as the residents of Juárez) are likely to prefer to migrate to cities along the U.S. side of the border, such as El Paso, given their physical proximity to their home country and their shared history and culture. Thus, the question arises, is settlement easier for Juarenses who are familiar with their sister city of El Paso? Juarenses frequently travel along the U.S. side of the Mexican-U.S. border for shopping, entertainment, and to visit family. Juarense, especially those who have the resources to cross the border, know El Paso relatively well and perhaps more importantly their family members who stayed in México are geographically close by. Daniel, a doctor who has LPR status in the U.S. but was living in Juárez, explains how the violence encouraged his migration and why he migrated to El Paso:
I had to move. The violence was one of the motivating reasons. Ten years ago I would have never thought of moving here [El Paso]. I was living well, I’d come shopping here [El Paso] and buy what I wanted. These are the social and economic dynamics at borders with a political division, even though geographically there is no division between us, it is one community. We need to see things from this point of view, as communities that interact with each other [Juárez-El Paso] it is difficult to close its doors and to say, you cannot cross anymore. It is like a family who closes the door to one of its members and tells them you cannot come in.
Daniel describes the border culture and the connection between Juárez and El Paso alluding to their status as “sister cities.” As such, Daniel questions, how can El Paso close its door to Juárez?
Despite this common references to having a “sister city” relationship between Juárez and El Paso some of the migrants in our study experienced hardships in their settlement processes. These hardships are especially evident among the migrants that returned to Juárez even though the violence had not subsided. Given the extreme forms of violence that many had directly experienced, such as being kidnapped, being held for ransom, or losing a family member, their return migration is surprising. Thus, in these cases settlement did not refer to long term settlement (of at least a year) rather it is more representative of an attempt to settle. Alternatively, rather than an attempt to settle this migration is perhaps only a reflection of transnational movement at this U.S.-México border.
We find that one of the main reasons why settlement is difficult is because of the family members that are left behind in Juárez. While one can argue that leaving family behind is a burden on most migrants, this is especially the case when those who stay behind are subjected to daily forms of violence. This is also magnified for Latina/os who culturally have strong family connections and who prioritize the need of the family over the individual. This is described through the concept of familism in the literature [55]. Susie, a RWS, for instance, misses her family a lot and despite fearing for her own safety she frequently visits Juárez to see them. When asked about how strong her connection is to her family, she said:
Very strong, actually I lived there (Juárez) just a few months ago. I keep going… right now more often… because I miss them, and I get a sad feeling that they are there alone. But well, that is why I decided to rent a place in El Paso, because for example today, I got out of school late, I would be scared to go back to Juárez alone, I am very afraid.
With a student visa, Susie would commute from Juárez to El Paso. Due to the violence, she decided to move to El Paso and now only returns to Juárez to visit family. While Susie has not migrated back to Juárez, others have mentioned missing family as a primary reason for returning. For some, this is complicated by legal constraints that impede some family members from crossing the border. Nancy, an LPR of the U.S., explains:
Families and friends are left behind [in Juárez]. They can’t leave because they don’t have the ability to. No money, housing, or the mobility and so families are separated.
For Nancy migrating to El Paso means leaving behind family members who lack the financial resources necessary to be granted a BCC to cross the port of entry into the U.S. into a much less violent environment. Indeed, El Paso ranks as the safest city in the U.S. among cities with a population of over 500,000.
Another obstacle towards settlement in the U.S. is that Mexican education and training credentials do not easily transfer over to the U.S. and middle-class migrants miss the jobs they held in Juárez. When we asked our respondents if they considered migrating the common sentiment for those who remain in Juárez is, “of course, but one can’t leave because of work.” Mexican professions in our study had a difficult time retaining the socioeconomic status they enjoyed in México. Fernando, a U.S. citizen who lived in Juárez and recently migrated to El Paso, explained:
…my kids, for example, don’t go to Juárez for nothing. Now I have to go because I have no other choice, my business is over there, my source of income is there… but my wife is going to retire shortly and when that moment comes that’s the time we will come over here [El Paso].
Fernando is a U.S. citizen who lived in Júarez most of his life. When he migrated with his family because of the violence, his family lived in El Paso but both he and his wife continued to cross the border to Júarez to work. Even though Fernando and his wife are both U.S. citizens their source of employment is in Juárez and their educational credentials are from México so they felt that they were trapped by that economic arrangement.
The Mexican Business Elites have status in comparison to other Mexicans who cannot migrate to the U.S. to escape the violence, but they still experienced a change in socioeconomic status by migrating from a developing to a developed nation. Alejandro, a Mexican Business Elite that relocated himself and his accounting business to El Paso, claimed “‘I am in exile’ my presence here in El Paso is precisely to flee the violence.” When asked about his experiences in El Paso as a migrant versus a visitor he explained:
Well before I came as a tourist and before you only spent your 100 dollars and you returned back happy (laughs), and now if you can’t afford it you don’t buy it…This is the cost, the price you have to pay to be at peace. Because over there in México you are not even safe in your own house, they still come and bust down the door... like in war times... without worrying about the police. You have to go to sleep with the rifle in the hand and on the couch…We had a hard time when we came over here [El Paso], that was when the U.S. made its flips with its economy and it ruined everyone. I have seen a lot of businesses go bankrupt.
Keep in mind that the average weekly cost to feed a family of four in Júarez is approximately $50 USD [43] and Alejandro recreationally spent twice that much in shopping in El Paso in a day. While Alejandro reminiscences about his life as a middle-upper class Mexican, he considers the change in class after his migration to El Paso as the price he has to pay for safety.
Another telling story is that of Roberto, a RWS. At first Roberto had no desire to move away from Juárez, but this all changed after he was kidnapped for ransom. Immediately after being released from the captors, Roberto moved his entire family to El Paso. However, he only remained in the U.S. for approximately two months before making the decision to move back to Juárez. In a follow-up interview Roberto stated he returned to Juárez because he missed his extended family that remained in Juárez and also the complication of transferring credentials from México to the U.S. Surprisingly, despite the common reference to Júarez—El Paso as “sister cities,” Roberto felt culturally estranged in El Paso. Indeed, he felt he received a less than friendly reception.
This brings us to another obstacle towards settlement claimed by our respondents—cultural estrangement. Juárez migrants felt culturally estranged and discriminated against in the U.S., even in El Paso. Martha, a RWS, for instance, describes the insecurity she feels in El Paso:
…before everything started happening in Ciudad Juárez (violence), I was afraid here in El Paso. I’ve fear being stopped by the police, in case that I did not put my blinker on, if I changed lanes incorrectly, if I did not have insurance for the car, but now with what is happening in Ciudad Juárez (violence) far from being afraid, well I feel a peace of mind. When I cross here to El Paso, I feel a huge difference, very peaceful to be here in El Paso.
Martha feared the criminalization in El Paso, signifying that Juárez may be more like a “stepsister-city” [56] or not exactly having the same connection that is allured to with the common metaphor used for this region as sister cities. When the violence started escalating in Juárez, however, her reference point changed and she started to feel more secure in El Paso than in Juárez.
Similarly, others are afraid of the criminalization of Mexicans in the U.S. Post 9/11 attacks, the U.S. domestic response included the intensification of the criminalization of immigrants and militarization of the border, in particular the Southern border with México, causing blatant violations of citizenship and human rights against Latina/os [57] and other racial groups. When asked if the violence will eventually impede her from crossing into the U.S. Lilia a Mexican national stated:
I believe so because the United States is trying to be careful about who enters their country, and at some point, all Mexicans will be suspected of being criminals perhaps. So I think that in the future they won’t want to give visas in order that not a single Mexican is in their country.
As such, Lilia believes that the violence associated with the war on drugs will give Mexicans a bad reputation, which will consequently lead to political motive to further exclude Mexicans from entering the U.S.
We find the issue of cultural alienation is so strong that it discourages migration and encourages return migration to Juárez. Laura, a U.S. citizen who resided in Juárez stated:
My parents live in constant fear and they want to bring my sister and me to the U.S. My mother has called me many times very scared because they see all the news about what happens in Juárez. I have seen her very frightened and at times frustrated because we don’t want to leave. So yes, it’s like there’s a block because there’s what we want and how we see things and how they see things.
Laura eventually did migrate to Arizona, U.S. with her children to live with family members after her and her co-workers were threatened at work. Specifically, she migrated after a co-worker had been kidnapped for ransom and additional threats were made against her. Yet, despite being U.S. citizens, Laura and her children had difficulties accommodating to life in the U.S. so they returned to Juárez.
Unfortunately, a year after her return the police misidentified Laura and her children as criminals and started shooting at their car wounding her son. The police then escorted them to a hospital, but upon arrival they detained Laura and prevented her from accompanying her son into the hospital. Laura was placed in a jail cell while police tried to make a case pinning all responsibility of the shooting onto her. Fortunately for Laura, since she is a U.S. citizen as well as her children, the U.S. consulate and U.S. federal officials became involved leading to her eventual release. She has since migrated back to the U.S. and decided never to live in México again.
We argue that rather that a “sister city” relationship between Juárez and El Paso our study suggests that Júarez it is becoming more of a “stepsister” due to the difficulties that Juarenses experience with being incorporated into El Paso. Others have also criticized references to these cities as “sister cities.” Lorena Estala [56], for example, explained how the postcards of the Mexican Revolution painted Mexicans as impoverished, socially disorganized, and dehumanized them in contrast to the images of American soldiers and civilians, leading to the suggestion that Juárez is more like El Paso’s “stepsister” than “sister” city. Similarly, in our study, we argue that Júarez is more like a “stepsister” than a “sister” given the struggles that Juarenses undergo to settle in El Paso. Yet, a caravan for peace representing the Mexican exiles has been traveling around the U.S. providing testimonies of their victimization and exodus due to the Mexican drug war presented their cases to El Paso’s city hall. Although they did not find a supportive resolution to all of their demands, i.e. the legalization of drugs, the city of El Paso did endorse a voluntary code of conduct for responsible firearm dealers that are promoted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Perhaps there is still a chance for Juárez and El Paso to remain sister cities.

5. Conclusions

Based on 63 in-depth interviews and ethnographic observations this study begins to provide a typology of who is represented in the Juárez exodus. This study focuses on Juárez where, El Diario de Juárez, the local newspaper, claimed that with 239 homicides for every 1,000 residents last year Juárez is once again for the third year in a row, the most violent city in the world [58]. The violence surrounding the daily lives of Juarenses displaced people and businesses which stimulated emigration from Juárez. We argue that México-U.S. border residents in our study who are able to escape the violence by migrating to the U.S. have what we call transnational capital—or the possession of resources that ease the movement across international borders such as financial assets and income, social networks in the receiving community, and documentation that authorizes entry into the receiving nation.
Most of the studies on refugee and political asylum into the U.S. have not considered the Mexican case and the war on drugs. Moreover, the Mexican migration literature pays limited attention to violence as a root cause of migration. An exception is the work of Alvarado and Massey who found no quantitative association between violence and emigration in México [11]. Given that it is the healthier individuals that tend to migrate, it is possible that exposure to violence can reduce the likelihood of migration (i.e., Massey and Alvarado’s case) but can also encourage migration as in our case study on border residents with transnational capital. Below we highlight two major findings.
To begin with, we find the Juárez exodus is a migration stream that mostly represents the upper- and middle-class residents of Juárez. The disparities in who has the transnational capital that enables individuals to escape this violent environment is evident in class inequalities where the more impoverished residents of Juárez may be trapped in a violence-oriented environment. It is important to acknowledge that not all Juarenses want to leave their homes, but a significant number have emigrated or have tried to. In our sample we find that the majority of the individuals in the Juárez exodus are represented in three groups with transnational capital: (1) the Mexican Business Elites that have enough resources, specifically access to $100,000 to $150,000 (USD), to qualify for an investor visa; (2) those that have U.S. citizenship or legal permanent residency in the U.S. who are authorize to live and work in the U.S. without fears of deportation; and (3) a group we call Refugees without Status who are not applying for political asylum given that Mexicans are largely denied. While the transnational capital of the latter group may not be obvious, the Refugees without Status group held border crossing cards or student visas that authorize them to cross into the U.S., thus did not have to clandestinely cross into the U.S. In addition, in order to be granted a border crossing card Mexican nationals must prove that they are not likely to stay in the U.S. by showing proof of income and connections to Mexican societal institutions. As such, the RWS migration stream does not represent the most destitute residents of Juárez.
A second major finding is that some migrants in the Juárez exodus are undergoing difficulties in settling in the U.S. causing some of them to return to the dangerous city of Juárez. The reasons given for their return migration include: missing family and friends, having Mexican education credentials that do not transfer over to the U.S., and cultural alienation. It is surprising that those who migrated from Juárez to the U.S., especially those who fled to El Paso, experienced culture alienation given they are frequent border crossers and know El Paso well. As a consequence, we question the characterization of Juárez and El Paso as “sister cities” and wonder whether the relationship between these two cities is more symbolic of a “stepsister” relationship [56]. Metaphorically “sisters” are supposed to help each other and welcome each other with open arms, yet the Juárez migrants felt alienated in their “sister’s house.”
While grounded theory provides some methodological advantages—namely that it allowed for us to theorize about migration patterns directly from the respondents—it also presents some limitations. A disadvantage is that we did not purposely sample across all the migrant categories (Mexican Business Elites, Refugees without Status, and the Return of the U.S. Citizens and LPRs). It is also possible that there are other reasons for migrating or that there are additional groups represented in the current exodus from Júarez to El Paso that did not surface in our data. Moreover, due to our grounded theory approach, another limitation entails the conceptualization of settlement. Since issues related to settlement arose from the data and not part of the initial focus of the study, our project captures attempts to settle. Being that the Mexican-U.S. border is an area that is in constant movement of people, some of what we called initial settlements could just be a part of the transnational movement between the U.S. and México. The cross-sectional nature of the data also restricts us from knowing how many migrants will return. Therefore, our interpretation of initial settlement might actually be capturing the movement that historically has existed along the border. Lastly, this study can be strengthened by analyzing how the local government and civil society groups in El Paso are dealing with the Júarez exodus. That would expand the discussion on whether Júarez is becoming more of a stepsister rather than a sister city.
We are proposing additional projects for future research. A direction for a future project is a comparison between migrants and non-migrants. Although, we did capture some insights into transnational capital factors that ease migration—authorization to cross the border, economic resources, and social capital in the form of family ties to the U.S.—a more in-depth analysis of why people stayed in Juárez is of interest. A second direction for future study entails an analysis on how ports of entry influence transnational U.S.-México border movement. Studies on border control measures have largely focused on unauthorized border crossings outside of the ports of entry on the U.S. side of the border [59,60,61], yet dynamics at the ports of entry at both sides (U.S. and México) play a significant role in managing the transnational movement of people. Another important direction for a future project is to further investigate the reasons why Mexicans are being denied political asylum in mass. Interviews should be conducted directly with the sources that are making those determinations—mostly immigration judges but also immigration attorneys to some extent.


We will like to thank the Editors at Societies and the anonymous reviewers for their feedback. We are also grateful to Cynthia Bejarano for reviewing a version of this paper.
  • 1. We used the term “legal permanent resident” (LPR) to use the correct legal terminology, not to refer to those who do not have the LPR status as “illegal.”


Appendix A. Sample Description.
Appendix A. Sample Description.
CasePseudo NamesGenderU.S, México or TransnationalCitizenship/U.S. Legal statusInterview LanguageMigrated y/nType of migrant
5VeronicaFemaleMéxicoU.S. CitizenEnglishYesU.S. Citizen
7LauraFemaleTransnationalMexican/U.S. Dual CitizenSpanishNoN/A
18CeciliaFemaleMéxicoU.S. CitizenSpanishYesU.S. Citizen
19MikeMaleTransnationalMexican (U.S. Student Visa)EnglishYesRWS
20MonicaFemaleU.S.U.S. CitizenEnglishNoU.S. Citizen
22LisaFemaleU.S.Mexican-born Naturalized U.S. CitizenEnglishNoU.S. Citizen
23LeoMaleTransnationalMexican/U.S. Dual CitizenEnglishYesU.S. Citizen
24FernandoMaleTransnationalMexican/U.S. Dual CitizenSpanishYesU.S. Citizen
25JohnMaleTransnationalMexican/U.S. Dual CitizenSpanishYesU.S. Citizen
26NancyFemaleTransnationalMexican-born with Legal Permanent Residency in U.S.SpanishYesU.S. Citizen
28ElizabethFemaleTransnationalMexican/U.S. Dual Citizen SpanishYesU.S. Citizen
29Susie FemaleTransnationalMexican with U.S. Student VisaSpanishYesRWS
30AlejandroMaleTransnationalMexican with U.S. Investor Visa SpanishYesBus. Elite
31JoshMaleU.S.Mexican/U.S. Dual CitizenSpanishYesU.S. Citizen
32DanielMaleU.S.Mexican/U.S. Dual CitizenSpanishYesU.S. Citizen
33StacyFemaleU.S.Mexican with Legal Permanent Residency in U.SSpanishYesLPR
34StephanieFemaleU.S.Mexican with Legal Permanent Residency in U.SSpanishNoN/A
35AprilFemaleU.S.Mexican with U.S. Student VisaSpanishNoN/A
37CarmenFemaleMéxicoMexican/U.S. Dual CitizenSpanishNoN/A
38NidiaFemaleMéxicoMexican with U.S. Student VisaSpanishNoN/A
39RosaFemaleMéxicoMexican with BBCSpanishNoN/A
40ArmandoMaleMéxicoMexican with BBCSpanishNoN/A
41GabrielaFemaleMéxicoMexican with BBCSpanishNoN/A
43MonseFemaleMéxicoMexican with BBCSpanishNoN/A
44PamelaFemaleU.S.Mexican with Legal Permanent Residency in U.S.SpanishNoN/A
46DanielMaleTransnationalMexican with Legal Permanent Residency in U.S.SpanishNoN/A
47MayraFemaleTransnationalMexican with Legal Permanent Residency in U.S.SpanishYesLPR
48JeremiahMaleTransnationalU.S. CitizenEnglishNoN/A
49LourdesFemaleMéxicoMexican with BBCSpanishNoN/A
50MelisaFemaleU.S.U.S. CitizenSpanishNoN/A
51PaulaFemaleU.S.Mexican with U.S. Student VisaSpanish/RWS
53NathanMaleU.S.U.S. CitizenEnglishNoN/A
55MarioMaleMéxicoMexican with U.S. Student VisaSpanishNoN/A
59KimFemaleU.S.U.S. CitizenEnglishNoN/A
61IvoneFemaleMéxicoMexican with BBCSpanishNoN/A
62JosefinaFemaleMéxicoMexican with BBCSpanishNoN/A
63EduardoMaleMéxicoMexican with BBCSpanishNoN/A


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MDPI and ACS Style

Morales, M.C.; Morales, O.; Menchaca, A.C.; Sebastian, A. The Mexican Drug War and the Consequent Population Exodus: Transnational Movement at the U.S.-Mexican Border. Societies 2013, 3, 80-103.

AMA Style

Morales MC, Morales O, Menchaca AC, Sebastian A. The Mexican Drug War and the Consequent Population Exodus: Transnational Movement at the U.S.-Mexican Border. Societies. 2013; 3(1):80-103.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Morales, Maria Cristina, Oscar Morales, Angelica C. Menchaca, and Adam Sebastian. 2013. "The Mexican Drug War and the Consequent Population Exodus: Transnational Movement at the U.S.-Mexican Border" Societies 3, no. 1: 80-103.

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