2016 Virtual Edition: Shannon Speed

Postscript to Dangerous Discourses: Human Rights and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Mexico

In my 2005 article, “Dangerous Discourses: Human Rights and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Mexico,” I argued that the discourses of human rights and multiculturalism were intimately linked to the neoliberal state and held a variety of potential dangers for indigenous people. Eleven years later, it is hard not to feel nostalgia for the era in which those were the pressing dangers. In Mexico today, discourses of human rights and multiculturalism are virtually irrelevant. Rights-based legal struggles have receded as the legal regimes retracted rather than expanded, and the violence of market forces, untethered from legality, characterize what I have come to view as the era of neoliberal multicriminalism. For indigenous people—indeed for most people—it means less discourse and more danger.

My current research is on indigenous women migrants from Mexico and Central America to the United States. While violence is not a new aspect of indigenous women’s experience, it has increased for them in the current moment and contrasts sharply with the expectations of what neoliberal globalization would bring. The 1990s were a time of hope, at least in some regards, for indigenous people in Latin America. “Globalization” and the so-called “end of history,” in Fukuyama’s (1989) infelicitous phrasing, seemed to mandate a wave of democratization and expansion of rights, in tandem with the spread of neoliberal economics. As states undertook an often massive reorientation of their economies (Mexico is particularly notable), ending land reform, eliminating state subsidies for farming and industry, privatizing capital and natural resources, limiting tariffs on foreign goods, and slashing government social welfare programs, they also moved toward popularly-elected governments and expanded notions of human rights and the rule of law. Mexico reformed its constitution to recognize indigenous peoples and extend to them some level of collective indigenous rights.

My 2005 article was situated in debates about the benefits and limitations of the new recognition and rights regimes for indigenous peoples. While some theorists hailed the recognition of indigenous peoples rights as a significant victory “shaping the quality of democracy in Latin America,” and signifying “a major power shift,” and “a more generalized opening of the political system to excluded and vulnerable sectors of society,” (Van Cott 2007: 127; see also Van Cott 2000) others signaled a need to “qualify somewhat premature and narrow discussion of democratic consolidation” (Yashar 1999: 77). Charles Hale (2005, 2006) questioned the multiculturalism that underpinned the politics of recognition and analytically tied it to neoliberalism. He coined the term “neoliberal multiculturalism,” as he warned of the dangers of an overinvestment in limited cultural rights at the expense of an analysis of socio-economic inequality.

Hale (2002) also suggested that the limited rights afforded by neoliberal multiculturalism served to keep people focused on the possibility of qualifying for state-sponsored rights, rather than engaging in struggles for potentially more just systems of governance.  Along with others, I focused on the dangers for indigenous people in relying on the legal regimes of the state for their liberation and highlighted the multiple forms of state subject-making at work in these arenas (García 2005; Hernández et al. 2004; Park and Richards 2007; Postero 2006; Sieder 2002; Speed 2008). While all recognized the significance of the constitutional and political changes for indigenous people, we busily debated how extensive and effective those were likely to be in contributing to greater equality or power for indigenous peoples.

These debates were significant just a decade ago. However, as history unfolded in the region, neoliberal free market economies quickly expanded and grew out of the control of any legal regimes, becoming a hydra-headed monster wreaking havoc on all. Meanwhile, the nascent democratic tendencies and fledgling rights regimes, however limited, were quickly sucked into the vortex of the mass-scale illegal economies. Drug, gun, and human trafficking expanded as the cartels grew in Mexico, feeding on widespread corruption of the government and military and the deregulated money flows and reserve army of the newly impoverished generated by neoliberalism (Campbell 2009; Váldez 2011). Increasingly, authoritarian and militarized governance became the norm in the new national security era of the so-called “drug war,” even as the government, military and police were drawn into the “narco state” structure.  Human rights and indigenous rights faded into obscurity in the face of obscene levels of bloodshed and massive impunity.

Needless to say, the ostensible promises of neoliberal multiculturalism, however problematic, never materialized, and indigenous people now confront something even more devastating: states in which all the damage of unrestrained neoliberal economics remains, without the democratic politics, rights regimes, and rule of law it was supposed to bring with it. In their stead, we have illegal economies on a massive scale, and states simultaneously moving toward authoritarian governance and militarizing to combat illegality, while corruptly participating in it to reap some of the profits.  In neoliberal multicriminalism, as neoliberal states abandon their populations to market forces, indigenous people are sent into ever increasing levels of poverty, marginalization, and dispossession.

In that context, the women whose stories form the basis of my book, which I am currently completing, left their homes and set out across Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States in search of a life free of violence.  Through an exploration that moves with the women migrants through space, I consider how settler state ideologies of gender, race, class and nationality function in conjunction with neoliberal market logics in the violence they experience at the hands of family members in their homes, from paramilitaries associated with mining companies in their communities, from gangs, cartels, and a variety of state agents on their journey, and in the United States through policing, detention, and human trafficking. I then draw conclusions about the state of the state, which I characterize as neoliberal multicriminalism.

How do indigenous people pursue their human rights in such a context, where human rights and human security are functionally nonexistent? From Ayotzinapa to Berta Cáceres’s murder and beyond, the continual flow of news stories from the region is a vortex of abductions, mass graves, government complicity and human devastation. The United States, far from standing idly by, actively fosters a continued lack of accountability, and maintains the massive webs of illegality, most with the better part of their tejido woven on this side of the border. Furthermore, the United States continues to punish those who attempt to escape such violence, interpolating them as terrorist threats under the banner of national security, without foundation, to incarcerate them indefinitely, or send them back into the violence. How do we talk about, much less pursue, human rights or recognition when the state is barely evident as an independently functioning entity and the necessary rights regimes are even less discernable? In the neoliberal multicriminal moment, the role of law and rights are subsumed by a seemingly all-encompassing illegality. For indigenous women migrants, the violence of that illegality is felt at every turn.


Campbell, Howard. 2009. Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez. Austin: The University of Texas Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. “The End of History?” The National Interest (Summer): 3-18.

García, María Elena. 2005. Making Indigenous Citizens: Identities, Education, and Multicultural Development in Peru. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hale, Charles R. 2002. “Does Multiculturalism Menace?: Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala.”  Journal of Latin American Studies 34(3): 485-524.

—2005. “Neoliberal Multiculturalism: The Remaking of Cultural Rights and Racial Dominance in Central America.”  PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 28(1): 10-28.

—2006. Más que un Indio: Racial Ambivalence and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research.

Hernández Castillo, Rosalva Aída, Sarela Paz, and María Teresa Sierra, eds. 2004. El estado y los indígenas en tiempos del PAN: neoindigenismo, legalidad e identidad. México, DF: CIESAS-M.A. Porrúa.

Park, Yun-Joo, and Patricia Richards. 2007. “Negotiating Neoliberal Multiculturalism: Mapuche Workers in the Chilean State.” Social Forces 85(3): 1319-1339.

Postero, Nancy. 2006. Now We Are Citizens: Indigenous Politics in Postmulticultural Bolivia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sieder, Rachel. 2002. “Recognizing Indigenous Law and the Politics of State Formation in Meso-America.” In Multiculturalism in Latin America: Indigenous Rights, Diversity and Democracy. Rachel Sieder, ed. New York: Palgrave.

Speed, Shannon. 2008. Rights in Rebellion: Indigenous Struggle and Human Rights in Chiapas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Váldez Cárdenas, Javier. 2010. Miss Narco: Belleza, poder y violencia.  México, DF: Aguilar.

Van Cott, Donna Lee. 2000.  The Friendly Liquidation of the Past: The Politics of Diversity in Latin America.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

—2007. “Latin America’s Indigenous Peoples.” Journal of Democracy 18(4):127-142.

Yashar, Deborah. 1999. “Democracy, Indigenous Movements, and the Postliberal Challenge in Latin America.” World Politics 52(1):76-104.