August 3, 2021, marked the second anniversary of the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that took place on a Saturday morning in 2019 and resulted in the deaths of 23 people and injury of 26 others, ranging in age from 2 to 82.
Twenty-one of the 23 killed were of Mexican origin, and eight were Mexican citizens; another eight Mexican citizens were wounded. The killer was a lone, white gunman, aged 21, named Patrick Crusius, who published an online manifesto immediately prior to the attack where he proclaimed his intent to target those he considered responsible for what he described as the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
This kind of rhetoric has echoed widely in Texas amid Gov. Greg Abbott’s concerted campaign to eliminate most controls on the possession of firearms, at the same time as he has sought to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border, and criminalize and stigmatize migrants as responsible for Texas’ self-earned status as a COVID-19 “super-spreader” state.
The El Paso killer’s text referred to immigrants of “Hispanic” origin as the purported “instigators” of his murderous violence, from the perspective of his self-described role as a “defender” of “his” country “from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by” Latino immigrant “invaders.” It should be noted here that it is much more accurate to describe the historical origins of Texas in terms of an invasion by white settler slaveholders into what was at that time internationally recognized as Mexican territory, and that the largest Latino immigrant community in Texas today is of Mexican origin. All of this is deeply embedded in the cross-currents of the battles over what can and should be taught — and what must be suppressed — about the history of Texas in the state’s public schools.
Nonetheless, the August 2019 killing spree must be placed within the broader historical context of anti-Mexican violence in Texas, throughout the U.S.-Mexico border region and nationally. This necessarily includes the relationship within this framework between violence perpetrated directly by federal, state and local authorities, and “vigilante”-style violence by non-state actors in potential complicity with governmental agents, as suggested by Article 25 of the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute regarding the scope of international criminal responsibility. This includes white nationalist militias that set up camp at the outskirts of El Paso in the spring of 2019 with the express intent of terrorizing migrants at local border crossings.
In El Paso — and in the U.S.-Mexico border region and Texas more generally — to target “Hispanics” generally, in practice, means targeting primarily people who are specifically of Mexican origin. There are large numbers of Central Americans among the migrants who tend to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, but most of them do not settle in Texas because they have relatives already present elsewhere within the U.S.
The El Paso gunman also touted his “support” for the March 2019 mass shootings directed at Muslim immigrant worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51 and injured 40, and were accompanied by a manifesto entitled “The Great Replacement.” This title echoed that of a well-known book published in 2011 by French white nationalist author and activist Renaud Camus, which has been cited as an influence by ethno-nationalist, anti-immigrant sectors throughout the world, including the killer responsible for Norway’s Utoya Massacre in July 2011. Utoya in turn was a crucial inspiration for the Christchurch mass killings.
According to the El Paso shooter, his rampage was “just the beginning of the fight for America and Europe,” which made him feel “honored to head the fight to reclaim my country from destruction.” Chris Grant, a surviving eye witness to the shooting described how “the shooter targeted people who appeared to be Hispanic, but let white and black shoppers out of the building.”
The gunman’s self-confessed intent to kill “as many Mexicans as possible” has led to his still unfolding prosecution on federal hate crimes charges in addition to multiple crimes under Texas state law. The site of the shooting was reportedly visited and chosen by the killer shortly before the incident because of its proximity to the border and popularity with shoppers from Mexico. The store was packed with hundreds of back-to-school shoppers at the time of the shooting, including many children.
The U.S.-Mexico border region in general, and the sector centered around the binational communities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, had long been highlighted as the epicenter of a persistent U.S. immigration policy-driven humanitarian crisis when the mass shooting erupted in August 2019. The incident must thus be understood as a culminating moment in a much longer, continuing story about how this region — and El Paso specifically — have been at the core of longstanding efforts to militarize the border, “securitize” immigration policy, and criminalize migrants and their families, which the Trump administration vastly intensified.
El Paso, meanwhile, continues to be central to the most backward, abusive elements of U.S. immigration and border policy still being perpetuated under the Biden administration, as the site where thousands of migrant children have been held under inhumane conditions in an improvised detention facility at Fort Bliss, one of the country’s largest military bases.
Longstanding historical continuities are striking in this context. It was at Fort Bliss that about 5,000 Mexican refugees (including many families and children) fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution were held behind barbed wire in improvised settings in 1916, and fumigated regularly through gasoline baths and by insecticides such as Zyklon B (later employed in Nazi death camps for purposes of extermination) at the Santa Fe bridge border crossing.
Both Trump and Biden-era immigration policies and practices — such as family separation, the generalized denial of the right to seek asylum on both sides of the border, and the indefinite detention of migrant children and families in inhumane conditions — must be understood and redressed as serious violations of human rights that rise to the level of “crimes against humanity,” such as torture. Similar policies are being implemented aggressively at other border sites and against migrant families and communities throughout the world.
What does the El Paso massacre tell us about the implications and consequences of such policies in practice? What is the relationship between racist and xenophobic violence and policies of this kind? To what extent does the story of El Paso, migrants, and the border converge with that of other border regions and migrant communities within the framework of the global struggle for human rights?
El Paso’s central role in this overall narrative notably includes the Trump administration’s family separation policy, which mandated forcible separation upon arrival at the border of thousands of migrant families and their transfer to detention sites that in many cases were hundreds of miles apart, without any way to locate or communicate with each other. Such practices and their consequences (for example traumatization of children that may be irreversible) coincide with the definition of “torture” and of “forced disappearances” pursuant to international criminal law and international human rights law, which fall within the definition of “crimes against humanity,” the most serious kind of offense, according to the Rome Statute. This policy, later expanded to the rest of the border as part of the “Zero-Tolerance” initiative, was first tested in El Paso.
El Paso received unprecedented national and international media attention at the height of the family separation crisis in June of 2018, and became a convergent site for a wide range of national and international mobilizations of concern and solidarity, including many faith-based initiatives and a national campaign to end child detention focused on closing the Tornillo “tent city” facility, located in the desert east of the city. This intensity continued between December 2018 and July 2019, as numbers of Central American families fleeing structural injustices and drug violence surged at the border as part of entrenched processes of forced migration that are ultimately attributable to the regional effects of U.S. policies.
The El Paso’s killer’s rhetoric regarding the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas was echoed on multiple occasions by former President Donald Trump and other high-level administration officials. This discourse provided a framework within which Trump’s targeting of Mexicans in particular, and of immigrants more generally, including his laughing off a supporter’s demand that migrant caravan participants be shot at the border during a May 2019 rally, could be anchored.
The El Paso massacre must be understood as much more than simply another seemingly random “mass shooting.” It is tempting to obfuscate or elide the specifically racist and xenophobic dimensions of the El Paso attack by approaching it primarily from the perspective of the broader category of undifferentiated mass shootings, and to focus on its implications for important issues like gun control, rather than to explore it as a case study of white nationalist violence directed both at people of Mexican origin and immigrants.
The August 2019 shooting must instead be framed as a racist and xenophobic mass human rights crime — a “massacre” that had a potentially genocidal character. “Massacre” in this context is a term of art grounded in the expert terminology of international criminal law and human rights, and specifically of genocide studies, pursuant to the internationally recognized definition of genocide in the United Nations Genocide Convention and in the Rome Statute, as an act of deliberate killing that was “intended to destroy, in whole or in part” a social group with identifiable national, racial, ethnic or religious characteristics. The El Paso massacre falls within this definition because it was specifically intended to generate a large number of victims of Mexican and/or immigrant origin, who were targeted because of their identity.
This also means understanding that the El Paso massacre is at least in part the product of presidential incitement dating back to the “anti-Mexican” dimensions of the announcement of Trump’s candidacy in June 2015, and to the cumulative impact of the cascade of official policies targeting the U.S.-Mexico border region and El Paso specifically for intensified enforcement throughout the last three years.
From this perspective the August 2019 mass killing in El Paso was the ultimately predictable, and thus preventable, result of the policies that preceded it, and that made it possible.