River and Rock, Church and Gun

By Ben Stahnke

A Political Ecology of Expulsion, Racism, and Violence in the US-Mexico Border Region

A political border is both an idea and a material phenomenon: for those who live in their shadow, this fact can be observed both in the physical barriers—the looming walls, the militarized security, and the razor wire—and in the impact that such an imposing physicality has upon one’s daily life. In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, political scientist Wendy Brown observed that, “nation-state walling responds in part to psychic fantasies, anxieties, and wishes and does so by generating visual effects and a national imaginary apart from what walls purport to ‘do.’”[1] Fortified political borders—border walls—both shape and respond to not only the material conditions of a nation-state, but to ideological structures as well. In Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, border historian Oscar J. Martinez noted that, “borderlands live in a unique human environment shaped by physical distance from central areas and constant exposure to transnational processes.”[2] For the residents of a borderland, the border dominates one’s immediate physical life, as well as the thoughts experienced about such a life; yet the shadow of a border region looms large—over the history as well as the contemporary politics of the region.

In the United States in 2019, the current administration rose to power—in part—on the promise of a large-scale and militarized border wall along the 1,954 miles of the nation’s southern border; a wall designed to stem the northward flow of migration; a wall to separate the have-nots from the haves. The right-wing president Trump ham-handedly exclaimed that, “[t]his barrier is absolutely critical to border security. It’s also what our professionals at the border want and need. This is just common sense.”[3] But, to a critical eye, the so-called common sense of politicking is never quite what it appears to be at face value. The common sense of rightism is, in this case, a xenophobia made manifest in a policy strategy. It is a response to a rapidly changing world—both climatologically and geopolitically. And it is, as Ian Angus noted in Facing the Anthropocene, “a call for the use of armed force against starving people.”[4]

In Planning Across Borders in a Climate of Change, Michael Neuman noted that, "borders are always dynamic, ever shifting. Borders are human constructs enshrined in laws, treaties, regulations, strategies, policies, plans, and so on. We draft them, modify them and erase them at our will. We create, and recreate them, and cannot escape them.”[5] Yet, borders are not simply political in nature; they are economic as well. And these political economic phenomena have a history which is important. Under capitalism, borders are uniquely capitalistic; their logistical and material functions directed not only by security and military interests, but by banking, trade, and distribution interests as well. The 2011 publication of the World Bank, Border Management Modernization, defined a border as:

"...the limit of two countries’ sovereignties—or the limit beyond which the sovereignty of one no longer applies. The border, if on land, separates two countries. Crossing the border means that persons, and goods must comply with the laws of the exit country and—if immediately contiguous—the entry country. [...] Borders are not holistic. Different processes can take place at different places. For example, a truck’s driver may be cleared by immigration at the border, but the goods transported in the truck may be cleared at an inland location. Borders then essentially become institution-based and are no longer geographic."[6]

As intricate complexes of geographical, institutional, and administrational factors, borders are thus managed, maintained, and reformed by a host of political and economic forces. However, as the sociologist Timothy Dunn observed in The Militarization of the U.S.—Mexico Border, “Such issues are too important to be left to the discretion of bureaucratic and policy-making elites, or to be defined by jingoistic demagogues, who scapegoat vulnerable groups.”[7] Under capitalism, and along the southern United States border in particular, the erection of fortifications along the border delineation are entirely swayed by such jingoistic demagoguery.

As the World Bank’s Border Management Modernization argued, “inefficient border management deters foreign investment and creates opportunities for administrative corruption.”[8] Under capitalism, and under the aegis of jingoistic, racist, and conservative policies following the spirit of a new global Manifest Destiny, an inefficiently-managed border equates to a loss of potential profit: an unthinkable evil where capitalism’s logic of profit über alles prevails. And as Tim Marshall observed in The Age of Walls, “[w]alls tell us much about international politics, but the anxieties they represent transcend the nation-state boundaries on which they sit [...] President Trump’s proposed wall along the US-Mexico border is intended to stem the flow of migrants from the south, but it also taps into a wider fear many of its supporters feel about changing demographies.”[9] The land currently identified as the Mexico-United States border has seen, over time, its share of shifting demographies. The national anxieties and fears which presently add the requisite degree of legitimation to the Mexico-United States border wall are, in truth, the fears of a white settler—a stranger upon a land to which he does not belong.


The present-day Mexico-United States borderland was not always defined by the administrational and jurisdictional limits of the Mexican and American nation-states. In truth, the region has been well-populated since at least the onset of the Younger Dryas and the Last Glacial Period—and human habitation has been suggested in the southern region of North America for at least 18,500 years. The historian Paul Ganster noted that the region itself, “has a human history stretching back approximately twelve thousand years. The Americas in 1492 are estimated to have had a population of 60 million; 21 million, or 35 percent, of this total are thought to have lived in Mexico.”[10] The imposition of the present day border region of Mexico and the United States fractured—both geographically and socially—a landscape and peoples for whom no such fracture previously existed. Despite the mythos, colonization did not—in almost every instance—occur in wild, unsettled lands, but in lands abundant with inhabitants. The very essence of colonialism is at once bound up in a logic of displacement, genocide, and denial.

In Border Visions: Mexican cultures of the Southwest United States, anthropologist Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez noted that it was “highly likely that major parts of Northern Greater Southwest were well populated at the time of Spanish expansion in the sixteenth century,”[11] with the inhabitants of the region occupying socially and economically complex “permanent villages and urbanized towns with platform mounds, ball courts, irrigation systems, altars, and earth pyramids.”[12] Vélez-Ibáñez went on to note that, “at the time of [Spanish] conquest, the region was not an empty physical space bereft of human populations but an area with more than likely a lively interactive system of ‘chiefdom’-like centers or rancherías, each with its own cazadores (hunters), material inventions, and exchange systems.”[13] The majority of the pre-conquest inhabitants of the region were, according to Paul Ganster:

"what early Spanish explorers termed ranchería people, those who lived in small hamlets with populations only a few hundred each. Such settlements, often scattered over large surrounding territories, relied on wild foods as much as on planted crops. Where favorable agricultural conditions permitted, larger villages and more densely settled subregions existed. [...] Along the Rio Grande an estimated forty thousand people, practicing intensive agriculture, lived in highly organized villages."[14]

The notion that European colonization and settlement occurred in a depopulated wilderness is, as mentioned, naught but a myth of settlement—an ahistorical tool of legitimation for the children of settlers. In the much-lauded Changes in the Land, historian William Cronon observed that, “It is tempting to believe that when Europeans arrived in the New World they confronted Virgin Land, the Forest Primeval, a wilderness which had existed for eons uninfluenced by human hands. Nothing could be further from the truth.”[15]

The story of the pre-conquest border region is, as is the story of all of the Americas, one of violent displacement, of harsh and rapid resource extraction, and of pillage. In Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Eduardo Galeano lamented that:

"Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European—or later United States—capital, and as such has accumulated in distant centers of power. Everything: the soil, its fruits and its mineral-rich depths, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, natural resources and human resources. Production methods and class structure have been successively determined from outside for each area by meshing it into the universal gearbox of capitalism."[16]

The indigenous peoples of the Mexico-United States border region lived, and still live—along the border region’s western half—in the warmth and the aridity of the High Sonoran Region; an area characterized by:

"...high aridity and high temperatures. Typically, about half of the eastern part of the region’s precipitation falls in the summer months, associated with the North American monsoon, while the majority of annual precipitation in the Californias falls between November and March. The region is subject to both significant inter-annual and multi-decadal variability in precipitation. This variability, associated with ENSO, has driven droughts and foods and challenged hydrological planning in the region."[17]

The area itself is also mountainous—“criss-crossed by a maze of inhospitable ranges that divide the area into isolated subregions.”[18] Further, according to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), and by way of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Ecological Restoration in the U.S.-Mexico Border Region report, the present day border region is itself home to no fewer than seven unique ecosystems: the Californian Coastal Sage, Chaparral, and Oak Woodlands, the Sonoran Desert, the Madrean Archipelago, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Edwards Plateau, the Southern Texas Plains, and the Western Gulf Coastal Plain.[19]

While the Mexico-U.S. border region now is a “place where two historical-cultural tectonic plates are grinding against each other,”[20] it is a region whose delineations and delimitations have only been imposed recently: a “result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, [which] has never changed location except for the modifications introduced by the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 and one small sliver of land called ‘El Chamizal’ just north of the Rio Grande in El Paso that was set aside in 1963.”[21] Prior, however, to the American and Mexican treaties, and prior to the delimitation of the present-day border region, the area was home not only to indigenous peoples, but also to Spanish colonial aspirations.


Beginning with the 1492 journey of Christopher Columbus—a man who, on that very same 1492 journey, observed that, “[o]ne who has gold does as he wills in the world, and it even sends souls to Paradise”[22]; an insightful comment on the journey’s primary motivations—the resultant Spanish conquest of the Americas over the next several centuries was no less than a systematic genocide.[23] The indigenous peoples of the Americas suffered greatly under Spanish colonialism, and “[i]n little more than a century,” the economist and historian Michel Beaud observed, “the Indian population was reduced by 90 percent in Mexico (where the population fell from 25 million to 1.5 million), and by 95 percent in Peru. Las Casas estimated that between 1495 and 1503 more than 3 million people disappeared from the islands of the New World. They were slain in wars, sent to Castile as slaves, or consumed in the mines and other labors.”[24] The Council of Castile, “resolved to take possession of a land whose inhabitants were unable to defend themselves,”[25] and the wealth of the Spanish nobility increased exponentially—the cost being—both simply and brutally—genocide, slavery, and the rapacious extraction of resources. At its heart, the Spanish colonial impetus was one dominated by themes of greed, oppression, theft, murder, personal ennoblement, and of continued, relentless conquest. Virtually every colonial effort from the era seems to be dominated by these themes. Paul Ganster noted that:

"In the five decades after Columbus, the Spanish made a series of expeditions: Juan Ponce de Leon’s 1513 expedition to Florida; Alonso Alvarez de Pineda’s 1519 voyage around the Gulf of Mexico; Estevao de Gomes’s 1524-1525 recorrido (trip) up the northeastern seaboard; Pedro de Quejo’s 1525 voyage from Espanola to Delaware; Hernando de Soto’s 1539-1543 visit to what is today Florida and the Atlantic Southeast; and Joao Ridrigues Cabrilho’s 1542-1543 expedition along the California coast."[26]

The Spanish colonial expeditions had as their goal the procurement of wealth for the Spanish crown, as well as the securement of lands in the New World under Spani