Mules for Cartels: Survival and Clandestine Migration in the Sonoran Desert

Bill De La Rosa


Since the early 1990s, United States border strategies have relied on hazardous natural environments to deter clandestine migration. American lawmakers believed that by securing urban entryways and making clandestine migration difficult, migrants would be discouraged from illegally crossing the United States-Mexico border. Instead, however, these policies inhumanely funneled migration flows toward the forbidding Arizona desert. Consequently, for more than two decades, migrants have been enduring dangerous environments while sharing transitory space with human smugglers and, more recently, drug traffickers, who rely on the same paths into the United States. Using a framework of structural violence, this paper explores how migrants navigate clandestine migration in the Sonoran Desert, particularly as they become beholden to drug cartels, which, in exchange for assistance in crossing the border, insist that migrants transport illicit drugs. Drawing on two summers of ethnographic research at a migrant shelter in Nogales, Mexico, I argue that migrants are not only victims but also agents who employ specific forms of capital to survive highly violent situations during this process. This research reveals the intricacies of today’s clandestine migration across the Arizona-Sonora border and further illustrates the nuances of structural violence.


structural violence; clandestine migration; social capital; U.S.-Mexico border

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ISSN 2369-8721