Small Wars Journal

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Frontera: a journey across the US-Mexico Border

Fri, 03/29/2024 - 10:22pm

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Frontera: a journey across the US-Mexico Border

Daniel Weisz Argomedo


Sergio Chapa and Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Frontera: a journey across the US-Mexico Border. Fort Worth, TCU Press, 2024 [ISBN: 9780875658537. Hardcover, 516 pages]

The borderlands between Mexico and the US are among the most studied border regions in the world. The border represents an intersection of several studies on security, culture, environment, and economics. This book can encompass and touch on a myriad of complex issues affecting the Mexican-American border by taking a deep dive into both sides of the border. The authors use a variety of perspectives and experts to thread together an intricate picture of the current and future state of the border. Sergio Chapa and Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera are the authors of this book. Sergio Chapa is an oil and natural gas industry expert and journalist in Houston, Texas. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University. Sergio Chapa and Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera's book explores the natural and ethnographic landscapes of both sides of the US-Mexico borderlands. The authors provide insight into the region's cultural life, political context, and security situation.

Frontera is organized into three main sections with twenty-four chapters, including a foreword, an introduction, a glossary of terms, an index, and a conclusion. Each of the thirty-eight Mexican border municipalities and the twenty-four US border counties has a chapter. The book's first section covers the Texas-Mexico borderlands and is divided into eleven chapters, each highlighting a unique segment of this region. Section two comprises six chapters and covers the border region of New Mexico and Chihuahua, Arizona and Sonora, and California and Baja California. The third section of this book presents some notes and reflections by US and Mexican border experts, journalists, and practitioners on the borderlands.

Section one, ”The Texas-Mexico Borderlands,” presents the region's history from both the Mexican and the American side and expands on their interactions throughout history. Each chapter focuses on a specific border municipality on the Mexican side or a county on the US side. The section provides a detailed description of the present conditions and the effects of the pandemic in the region. The authors compile a detailed ethnography of every major city in the municipality and counties explored, including information from the city's economy to famous figures from that area. The authors then examine the significant conflict incidents, the evolution of organized crime groups (OCGs), and migration issues in each region. The authors carefully balance information on both sides of the border to present a complex picture of each explored area's past, present and future. Each chapter is accompanied by various images that help illustrate each region's culture, environment and society, as well as case studies of important events or conflicts that have occurred. The format helps illustrate how crime and conflict are not just focused on the Mexican side and helps unravel how both sides of the border interact and affect each other.

The second section, “‘Exceptional” US-Mexico Borderlands,” covers the borderlands of New Mexico and Chihuahua, Arizona and Sonora, California and Baja California. This section has a format similar to the first section. The section focuses on this border region's unique historical and cultural components. For example, the section discusses Ciudad Juárez's economic importance. It details this region's cultural importance by focusing on its culinary traditions and noting how the burritos were invented in this region. This section also discusses how the American Civil War and the Mexican Revolution affected this section of the borderlands. The chapters continue to provide a balanced understanding of the border. An example of this balance can be seen in the security situation that notes issues like femicide on the Mexican side while also mentioning cases like that of Patrick Wood Crusius, who used a semi-automatic weapon to kill and “target Mexicans” on the American side. These authors illustrate the complexity of the border through differences they note in each of these regions. For example, the Arizona borderland includes unique features such as deadly geography and deserts and the train known as La Bestia. Focusing on these differences allows the reader to understand the borderline and the different challenges and situations people face across the borderline. Like the first section, each chapter provides valuable insights into the effects of the pandemic and provides a complex understanding of the past and present of the borderlands.

The Third and final section, “Reflections from Both Sides: COVID-19 and the Future of the US-Mexico Borderlands,” is not divided geographically like the first two sections. Instead, it is divided thematically and is composed of twelve essays that discuss the following themes: trade, migration, border security, environmental issues, energy and public health. This section provides a diversity of perspectives encompassing several critical moments in this border region and reflecting different perspectives to solve these issues. The first theme discussed is trade. Gerardo Shwebel’s articleLaredos: One City, Two Countries” discusses the importance of Laredo as a port for trade and the struggle to educate politicians from Washington, DC and Mexico City on what makes border regions successful, emphasizing positive relationships. Tony Payan also discusses trade in his piece “The Lifeline and Engine of North America: Trade and the Mexico-US Border.”Payan focuses on the networks of trade and commerce that reflect the complicated relationship between Mexico and the US. The author explains how trade and commerce flows have shaped the border. Payan details the history and evolution of contraband and trade and reflects on illicit trade and COVID-19 concerns. The author concludes by showing how commerce has survived several challenges spanning from wars to COVID-19 and establishes that trade is at the core of the long-lasting relationship between Mexico and the US.

The next theme discussed in the third section is migration. Elliot Spagal’s article “The Border is Everywhere”examines how drug trafficking in 2014 had overshadowed the issue of migration. Spagal explains how the election of Donald Trump brought renewed attention to the border and explains that the migration flow has only continued to rise under President Biden. The author concludes by asserting the need for reform of the asylum system as new waves of immigrants from places like Haiti continue to establish migrant camps in border cities. Leonor de Jesús Figueroa Jácome's piece “Thinking about Migration and Immigration while Recovering from COVID-19” examines the effects of COVID-19 on migrant populations The author notes several problems that compounded the already vulnerable population of migrants, such as the closing of migrant centers due to the pandemic. He concludes that the pandemic exposed the need for migration reform that treats migrants humanely and protects their rights in a world with ever-evolving threats like the pandemic.

The book then transitions into the theme of border security. Terence Garrett writes the piece “The Border Wall and Policies as Simulacrum and Spectacle: Transborderisms and Security before and after COVID-19 in the Rio Grande Valley.” Garrett uses both the concepts of spectacle defined by Debord and the simulacrum concept, which represents the border wall as security. He uses these concepts to examine the struggle for openness in borderlands versus the border security apparatus during the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea of simulacrum explains how a wall that represents the oppression of borderlanders has been reframed as a symbol of security. The spectacle concept explains how perceptions are manipulated to create representations of the border in crisis. Garrett details several recommendations to help address the migration routes and focuses on helping people who do not want to leave their own countries in the first place. The author concludes by showing how those who live on the border resist oppressive policies and how transborder dynamics empower human capabilities through their daily exchanges. José María Ramos's article “Security, Our Border, and the COVID-19 Pandemic” examines how the border became closed to Mexican border residents due to the pandemic and the broader implications of this closure. The author points out how the H1N1 epidemic had much better cooperation frameworks than the current mechanisms that partially closed the border and suggested better cooperation for vaccinations as an example of how both countries can improve their cooperative response to pandemics. Finally, the author notes the challenges still present at the border, notes some countries that have successfully managed their borders through the pandemic, and presents them as models for the Mexico-US border.

The third section in the book then covers environmental issues at the border. William Yaworsky’s article “The February 2021 Texas Winter Frozen and its Effects on the Lower Laguna Madre Spotted Sea Trout Population”details the detrimental effects of the 2021 Texas cold front on the spotted sea trout populations in the Lower Laguna Madre. The author notes how the cold weather was responsible for the death of 104,000 spotted trout, representing 48 percent of all game fish lost, and millions of other fish perished. The author explains that climate change has made these “freeze”episodes more common, and when compounded with pollution from coastal industrialization, they both present severe threats to this ecosystem. Christopher Seller's piece "The Border and the Environment in Pandemic Times" exposes how the US used engineering to capture water and then illustrates the treaties developed to try and create more equitable water-sharing mechanisms between both nations. Sellers explains that as the north of Mexico industrialized and its populations grew, so did the need for water, which has led to water scarcity and has made it difficult for Mexico to uphold their water treaties with the US. Industrialization has also created pollution that affects the air, land and water. Industrialization combined with climate change that increases water scarcity in the border region presents a severe threat and must be addressed now to avoid a future catastrophe.

The following theme explored in the book is energy, and Adrian Duhalt writes the piece "Ties that Bind: The US-Mexico Cross-border Natural Gas Trade." Duhalt exposes Mexico's natural gas dependency on the US and details how President Obrador has focused on increasing gasoline production while ignoring Mexico's natural gas dependency. The author explains how natural gas production increased in the US due to new technologies, but this increase did not occur in Mexico. Mexican dependence on natural gas and its vulnerability were exposed during the Texas freeze that increased natural gas prices and cost billions to the country's Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). The border has become a critical component of the natural gas trade as Mexico invests in infrastructure to secure the flow of natural gas from the US. The current administration of President Obrador continues to increase Mexico's dependence on natural gas and will continue to create issues for Mexico's energy security. Marcela López Vallejo also writes on energy in her article, “Energy Fluxes in the US-Mexico Border: Fueling and Powering an Integrated Region.” Vallejo shows how cross-border energy relations are essential to tighten the border region's economic, political, and social links. The author examines the infrastructure and interconnections relating to energy across borders, the current energy policies, and the pandemic's effects on cross-border energy relations. The author concludes by showing how energy fluxes determine how economies on both sides of the border work and what kind of industry and development they enjoy, thus creating a solid interconnection.

The following theme explored in the book is public health. Eva M. Moya and Silvia M. Chavez-Baray's article “Public Health and the US-Mexico Border in Pandemic Times” focuses on the health challenges, inequalities and risks associated with poor health outcomes. The authors expose the linkages between higher health vulnerabilities and lower socioeconomic populations and assert that addressing these inequalities is vital for the border region to thrive. The authors also show the pandemic's impacts on the border region and the opportunities to improve access to health care that have emerged from this health crisis. They conclude by stating the importance of addressing disparities and inequalities to strengthen binational cooperation and access to health care on both sides of the border. Zulia Yanzadig Orozco Reynoso's piece “Public Health in COVID-19 Times: The Case of Tijuana, Mexico” focuses on the pandemic's consequences on Tijuana. The author points to two main factors that contributed to the detrimental effects of the pandemic on this city. She points to the closure of the border and the changes in hospitals that restricted all other medical services to most of the population in this border region. The distribution of vaccines to border cities in Mexico from the US was highly influential in Tijuana, which was able to vaccinate 15,000 people in a single day. The author concludes that several obstacles remain for Tijuana, which seeks to return to its pre-pandemic public health and prosperity levels.

The conclusion of the book reemphasizes the complexity of the Mexico-US border, which is home to a variety of people and entities from indigenous populations to Space X. They portray a border that has violence but is also home to popular movies like Dune and music like corridos that continue to be played across both countries. They show an interconnection between both countries that surpasses the political, economic and cultural and exposes the diverse mosaic that encompasses the border region.

Frontera is a valuable contribution to border studies and should be on every bookshelf of those working on the Mexico-US border. This book also contributes invaluable to security studies, environmental studies and economics. The authors develop a stunning visual and textual representation of the border. They establish a balanced understanding of the entire region while highlighting the unique challenges and opportunities present in different regions of the border. The last section supplements this detailed overview of the border by looking at significant themes that affect the border, such as security, energy and health, to mention a few. The variety of experts and perspectives in this last section helps solidify our understanding of the border while maintaining a balanced knowledge of this region's present and future challenges. The authors achieve their monumental task by presenting a complex, balanced and detailed understanding of the US-Mexico border while threading their own experiences and love for this region to build a one-of-a-kind book about the bor

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Daniel Weisz Argomedo earned his PhD in Political Science at the University of California Irvine with a focus on International Relations and Comparative Studies. His dissertation focused on the war on drugs and its impact on women’s security in Mexico. He holds an M.A. in Political Science from San Diego State University where he wrote a dissertation on ‘Hacktivism and social movements; and earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Alberta where he wrote a thesis on the Mexican war on drugs. He wrote "Climate Change, Drug Traffickers and La Sierra Tarahumara" for the special issue on climate change and global security at the Journal of Strategic Security. He is a founder and secretary of the Leonora Carrington Foundation. He is fluent in Spanish and his research interests include cyberwarfare, the war on drugs, women’s security and contemporary Latin American politics and history.  He can be reached at