Barrio libre (the free 'hood): transnational policing and the 'contamination' of everyday forms of subaltern agency at the neoliberal U.S.-Mexico border from way, way, below
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This study analyzes a group of severely marginalized Mexican young people, and their vexing subject formation of Barrio Libre (the Free ‘Hood), along the Arizona-Sonora border in the 1990s and early in the 2000s. The young people’s survival strategies included occasionally living in a sewer system, which runs way, way, below the U.S.-Mexico border, incarnating a transnational subjectivity as inhabitants of an ethnically Mexican neighborhood of Tucson, Arizona, also called Barrio Libre, mugging other immigrants, and practicing substance abuse. The young people spoke of these practices in an idiom of freedom; they were crystallizations of living Barrio Libre. Processes of deterritorialization, desires for reterritorialization, the dematerialization of capitalist relations, and sporadic, sometimes brutal, border policing, particularly by the Mexican authorities, configure this subject formation. In the context of the displacement of millions of Mexicans as result of the consolidation of neoliberal economic policies in Mexico in the early 1990s, popular regions for undocumented crossings of the border like Brownsville, El Paso, and San Diego, were rendered inaccessible. Immigrants were funneled to southern Arizona. By 1998, a local version of the intensification campaign was forcing immigrants to adopt dangerous border-crossing tactics. Indeed, since 1995, more than 2,300 immigrants have died trying to circumvent immigration controls. Notably, this has coincided with a similar, though largely undocumented, upsurge in policing practices on the Mexican side of the border, as is evident in Nogales, Sonora. I maintain that this regime of transnational governmentality, or the regulation of immigrant bodies, generates intensities informing the young people’s subject formation of Barrio Libre. This manuscript reflects a two-part study. The first part “studies up.” It historicizes this nascent regime of transnational policing within the political economic history of Mexico-US relations and then renders my ethnographic research on border surveillance and policing and their effects on the everyday lives of the young people of Barrio Libre. The second part thickly describes the young people’s “contaminating” agency, from way, way, below. It then explores contemporary scholarly writings on agency and resistance; finding them reluctant to grapple with politically confounding or “contaminating,” exercises of agency.