Research at the Border: Politics PhD Alumna Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera

To celebrate her recently-published book, Los Zetas, Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, And Civil War in Mexico, Research Matters sat down with Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a recent doctoral alumna of the New School for Social Research Department of Politics, and current Associate Professor at the Shar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Born and raised in Mexico, Correa-Cabrera focuses on issues of border security, human trafficking and smuggling along the US-Mexico border. Straddling the line between political science and international security studies, her work probes the economic dimensions of organized crime in a transnational context, and other forms of unrest along the border.

Correa-Cabrera trained as an economist in Mexico. Interested in furthering her education, she chose to pursue a master’s degree in Politics at The New School for Social Research. After completing the program, she choose to stay at The New School to pursue a PhD under the supervision of Professor of Politics David Plotke and her dissertation concerned the relationship between politics and violence.

Having extended her stay in the US to complete her doctorate, Correa-Cabrera planned to return to Mexico upon graduation in 2010. As she put it, she wanted continue her research into “the institutional factors leading to violence and instability in my homeland,” which she had begun to explore more directly in her dissertation. These insights were later developed into Correa-Cabrera’s first book, Democracy in “Two Mexicos”: Political Institutions in Oaxaca and Nuevo León (Palgrave). Moreover, she felt a certain pull to continue teaching and writing in her native Spanish. Taking these factors together, a return to Mexico seemed like the most attractive option.

Before she could return, however, Professor Plotke suggested that Correa-Cabrera apply to a position at the University of Texas Brownsville (now The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Located adjacent to the border itself, and serving a community of American and Mexican students, this post offered her a unique opportunity to expand upon her research while reconnecting with her Mexican roots.

“You could cross the street and you could see the bridge to Mexico,” Correa-Cabrera said. After securing and accepting the position, she moved from New York to the small Texan town.

Correa-Cabrera explained that she “had been studying the northern part of Mexico, particularly the border states, especially Nuevo Leon.” But she added that the border is, “a very tough place.” Around the time of her arrival, Mexican border states were going through a particularly difficult period, with high rates of violence concentrated in the very states Correa-Cabrera had been researching. “Border violence was a big deal exactly when I arrived,” she said, “A very violent war between two organized crime groups started just on the other side of the border.” It was precisely this climate, which had previously shaped her teaching and gave concreteness to her doctoral research, that would define her unfolding research program.

As it turns out, Matamoros—Brownsville’s twin city across the border—is home to one of the most prominent violent drug organizations in the region. Popularly known as the “Gulf Cartel,” the organization is known not just for its violence, but for how its ‘business innovations’ have transformed the way criminal enterprises operate in Mexico and throughout the western hemisphere. Correa-Cabrera found herself as a political scientist precisely at the right place and time to delve into how these organizations operated.

As a result, she said, “It was inevitable” that her research focus would grow to encompass the issues of crime and violence in this region. She recalled that many of her students lived across the border in Mexico, and would often cite criminal violence as their reason for being absent from class. “They came to me and told me that their parents were very frightened,” Cabrera-Correa said, “A couple of them had had their parents kidnapped.” Undeterred, she explained that she and her students, “continued to work, often while listening to the gunfire coming across from the other side of the border.”

Applying her social research skills to what was occurring around her, Correa-Cabrera obtained a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. The grant allowed her to conduct interviews on both sides of the border, and to review the way people discussed violence on social media. “At the time,” she added, “I didn’t have the consciousness of what was really happening, and it really shocked me […] it changed my life basically, and it gave some meaning to what I wanted to do. It gave me a project to pursue that was at the same time important, meaningful, relevant.”

Correa-Cabrera’s new book, Los Zetas, Inc., is the result of the research she conducted since that time. She explained: “It’s the product of personal experience in my own family, and other students who were suffering the same thing.” Despite the difficulties inherent in teaching and conducting research in such a precarious environment, she said, “It was the perfect laboratory for me.” Through this combination of research and life experience, Correa-Cabrera became an expert in border security, border relations, and organized crime, elaborating on the connections between a range of organized illicit activities. These extend not just to the transport of illegal drugs and weapons, but also to human smuggling and trafficking. Unlike smuggling, which consists of an agreement between two parties, in human trafficking one party is forced to work and is exploited, and the other party gains from that exploitation.

In other words, through the influence of the Gulf Cartel and others, Correa-Carbrera said, “drug trafficking organizations have consolidated and diversified to the point that they now involve all these illegal activities that were, at some point, controlled by different groups.”

Correa-Cabrera’s work was received positively, and she began to receive support from institutions like the Free University in Berlin, and UNAM in Mexico City. She also won a grant from the US State Department to study the connection between human smuggling, organized crime, and the trafficking of persons along migration routes. It was here that Correa-Cabrera pivoted, focusing on what she calls “the connection between the human elements and the criminal elements” associated with these international crime organizations. This connection led her beyond Mexico, to other countries in Central America’s “Northern Triangle”—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador— where these networks extended their reach.

This project reveals a new dimension to Correa-Cabrera’s research: her on-the-ground empirical work, in which she accompanies migrants on the long journey from Central America to the United States border. “It made a lot of sense for me to go to the countries of the Northern Triangle and to take the journey with the migrants from there,” she said. To Correa-Cabrera, this was the only way to see how these people were affected by international criminal groups, and how, in the end, smuggling could lead to human trafficking.

“Today because of immigration policies of the United States, it can be much more complicated for migrants to enter the United States so they [often] pay a fee to a smuggler,” Correa-Carbrera said, “And these smugglers are connected to the criminal organizations.” She explained that trafficking can involve many forms of forced labor: from sex work to coerced domestic labor, agricultural work, or forced participation in the criminal activities themselves. She emphasized that this project was about, “how these are connected and the vulnerability of the migrants […] The project was about doing the journey and interviewing individuals in the migrant shelters and in the trucks.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to Correa-Cabrera, this was an exceedingly complex process that entailed over 400 interviews. After its conclusion, she was awarded a Residential Fellowship at The Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum in Washington, DC. There, she is turning her research into articles, which in turn will inform concrete public policy proposals. This marks a new chapter in her work as a publicly-engaged scholar.

“I’m contributing to the design of public policy by presenting the results of my research,” she said, “It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Fieldwork photos credited to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera.