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Nchia kanche (Izote House), Edith González Cruz, 17 December 2021

Nchia kanche (Izote House), Edith González Cruz, 17 December 2021

Reconfigurations of Structural Violence in Southeast Puebla in Times of Crisis

Theory & ResearchPrecarious conditions of social existence, gender-based violence, inequality, and systemic violations of human rights prevail in the strategic economic zone of southeastern Puebla

The narrative presented here on structural violence and the effects of the so-called polycrisis takes place in the southeast of the state of Puebla, Mexico. A multi-ethnic territory historically inhabited by Nahuas, Totonacas, Tepehuas, Otomíes, Mixtecas, Popolocas[1], and Mazatecas. Several authors point out that the region of southeastern Puebla was central to the Mesoamerican culture, and is considered the cradle of the Otomanguean languages, as well as the origin of maize, agriculture, and early ceramics (Gámez Espinosa, Ramírez Rodríguez, and Correa de la Garza 2009; Gámez Espinosa, Rodríguez Figueredo, and Martínez Juárez 2010; Castellón Huerta 2022). 

Currently, the region’s economic development revolves around Tehuacán (the second-largest city in the state), a crossroads between Puebla, Oaxaca, and Veracruz, and a central node for the trade flow in Mexico. Despite the semi-arid landscape characteristic of the region, the presence of maquilas, and the agricultural, poultry, pork, and mining industries, among others, is notable. This puzzle is further complicated by the high levels of precariousness, migration, gender-based violence, and insecurity experienced by local populations. 

The following reflections emerge from the ethnographic work we carried out in the municipality of Tlacotepec de Benito Juárez between 2021 and 2022. Through semi-structured interviews, accompanying locals in community activities, and multiple informal meetings, we discussed with the inhabitants the impact of the socio-biocultural transformations that in recent decades have unfolded before their eyes. 

Images of a Violent Normality

It is 6:00 in the morning, a boy — perhaps 7–9 years old, no more — is waiting for the bus on the side of a road in one of the villages in the municipality of Tlacotepec de Benito Juárez. He will not go to school, he has long since abandoned it to work a job provided by the South Korean agro-industry[2], which has been established in the area for a little over ten years. The working day for men and women who take their underage children to work in the harvest begins at 7:00 and ends at 17:00, Monday to Saturday. In October 2022, after the intervention of government institutions, the workers managed to attain a day off on Sunday, and to have the working day for the rest of the week reduced by one hour (interview with Gabriela Luna, 27 November 2022). 

However, the work is still strenuous in an arid-semi-desert climate where the annual average temperature is 24ºC. Despite the health risks associated with agricultural labour, working conditions do not include medical services, retirement savings, or any social insurance. Agro-industries have established attendance bonuses and encouraged competition among workers as methods to increase productivity: “the more vegetables you gather or sow, the more you earn” (interview with Luz, 27 September 2022). As we can see, all these flexible conditions that in the neoliberal lexicon can be described as expressions of liberty, are in fact strategies to discipline the workforce and prevent collective labour resistance.

These images of precariousness and harsh social environments have become normal in rural areas of Mexico, inhabited mostly by Indigenous populations, where children and adolescents work mainly in the fields. According to the Belisario Dominguez Institute of Mexico’s Senate, in 2019 “3,280,064 children and adolescents — 11.5 percent of the 28,522,295 people aged five to 17 — are in child labour” (Morales 2023); and the three states with the highest risk of child labour were Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Puebla. After the COVID-19 pandemic, it is estimated that more than 180,000 children and adolescents began to work as child labour.

The villagers say that, even with university studies, school does not guarantee young people a better future due to the precarious working conditions that prevail in Mexico. They also recognize that school has always been one of the state institutions that has contributed most to the processes of discrimination against native languages (see Varillas Pérez 2022) and to the stigmatization of traditional knowledge. Due to the discrimination they have been subjected to in the name of “progress”, many people have stopped speaking their mother tongue in public spaces, although its use prevails in family and community spaces. 

Systemic racism and the objectification of Indigenous people are part of the structural and cultural violence that continues to be reproduced diachronically in Mexican state institutions and in public policies that seek to integrate Otherness into the nation-state and capitalist dynamics (Osorio González et al, 2020). This is because the idea of progress has always implied the overcoming of the indigenous, always trapped in folklorized representations as atavistic and static. 

In recent decades, the exercise of such structural and cultural violence has intensified with the imposition of neoliberal policies. These policies have accelerated the transformation of the socio-biocultural space of the Tehuacán Valley and are reflected in the commodification of the common goods that guarantee subsistence (land and water); in the internalization of individualism and competitiveness as presuppositions of development; in the displacement of indigenous knowledge and the restructuring of community relations. For the neoliberal narrative, supposedly, all subjects are free to compete. However, the non-truth of this imperative is revealed when free competition becomes synonymous with force.

The Violent Consequences of the Neoliberal Policies in Southeast Puebla

Although denim production and the presence of agro-industry in the Tehuacán Valley dates back to the 1950s, a new cycle of economic growth began again in the 1990s with the installation of maquilas owned by transnational companies, taking advantage of the cheap labour and the flexibilization of labour conditions favoured by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This second moment of industrialization saw in the Indigenous populations an inexhaustible source of the industrial reserve army which, combined with the new legislative framework of the time, initiated a process of original accumulation. These conditions allowed Tehuacán to become “the world capital of blue jeans” (Castillo González 2020, 708) — a process marked by the blatant violations of human and labour rights (Muñiz Montero and Ramirez Valverde 2018).

Since then, the drive to satisfy the national and global market has gradually displaced traditional crops and production techniques, as well as the ritual practices that accompanied them. Leticia Aparicio Soriano (2022) stresses that environmental and social problems have been aggravated in recent years by the development of agribusiness in the Tehuacán Valley. The drilling of deep wells in underground aquifers, the intensive use of agrochemicals, the increase of toxic waste in the open air (from pig and chicken processing, and the maquila industry), and water pollution all bring with them health problems for the population — in particular, neuromotor disorders in newborns and dermatological conditions have increased. In addition to the above, human and labour rights violations persist, and substance abuse, gender-based violence, and human trafficking abound (Aparicio Soriano 2022, 187–88)[3].

Although the renting and lending of land has been common practice among peasants in the region, in recent years it has been rented out to Mexican and foreign agro-industrial firms (Rodríguez Lezama 2020). These leases — which can last for more than 30 years — are negotiated between ejidal commissioners[4] and capitalists, without providing the peasants with full information about the economic, social, and environmental effects of large-scale agriculture (De la Luz Degante 2020). Some villagers are concerned about the possible loss of land ownership and the transformation of the land into a huge field of crops that wipes out endemic flora and fauna.

The smallholding, which is mostly rainfed land[5], is insufficient to satisfy the global market demand, as are the economic resources to invest in irrigation systems, drilling wells, and the purchase of agricultural inputs and labour. Under these conditions, it is impossible to compete with agro-industrial firms, so small farmers are forced to accept the conditions that are imposed on them.

The reconfiguration of the ejido system in 1991, the reduction of import barriers, and the elimination of protectionist policies favoured large landowners and agro-industrial capital, but for the vast majority of small producers, it was a catastrophe (Harvey 2005, 101). Mexico’s rural areas witnessed a massive exodus of the labour force — to other regions of the country, and to the United States. In recent years, the journey for “a better future”, the dream house, and the hope of one day returning to the village, have gradually faded away. 

Today migrants not only face the criminalizing migration policies approved by US governments in recent years, they also run the risk of falling prey to organized crime and human trafficking (especially if they are women). Migrants do not know if they will make it “to the other side” and, if they do, they do not know if they will ever be able to return (interview with Leti, 27 September 2022). They are trapped in the American nightmare. In this context, the deteriorating working conditions that prevail in the agribusiness of the Tehuacán Valley are presented as the only “opportunity” for the peasants who stay behind.

The precariousness of rural areas and migration have also had an impact on the gender relations of local populations. As soon as young people decide to start their lives as a couple, men flee in search of work, while women are left with the burden of care and administering household resources. In most cases, staying behind means living under the scrutiny and surveillance of the man’s relatives (Hernández Varillas 2023).

It is no coincidence that this area has one of the highest rates of gender violence in the state (Hernández Varillas 2023). As a whole, the loss of direct control over women’s bodies, the precariousness of salaries, and the cuts in social policies aimed at male peasants have had the effect of creating a crisis of male subjectivity that is expressed as violence against women.

Although the community networks[6] prevail, the experience of the people of southeastern Puebla shows the impact of the reconfiguration of structural violence during the rampant deployment of neoliberal policies, with their discursive practices of competitiveness and individual success/failure. The failure of the neoliberal narrative does not lessen the burden of poverty and stigma for Indigenous people, but rather exacerbates it.

As we have seen, precarious conditions of social existence, gender-based violence, inequality, and systemic violations of human rights prevail in the strategic economic zone of southeastern Puebla. Since the beginning of the Mexican war on drugs in 2006 and until 2023, in this region at least 93 environmental and territorial defenders have disappeared; and, more specifically, 20 people have disappeared during the five years of the current progressive government in Mexico (Gómez Durán and Ayala 2023).

When the Dreams Become Nightmares

The aggressive implementation of neoliberal reforms in Mexico began in the early 1980s, as a pretext for the debt crisis. The supposedly more efficient management of public resources involved the privatization of common goods, the “rationalization” of social policies, economic restructuring, and the deployment of conditions that would enable the development of individual autonomy and responsibility. However, the result of neoliberal reconfiguration has been a dramatic increase in inequality, exclusion, and violence in the country (Salazar 2004; Patiño 2004; Harvey 2007; Roux 2010; Bayón 2019).

The situation was no different at the global level. Especially after 2008, the signs of the global decline of the neoliberal narrative began to manifest themselves in chronic debt growth, unmanageably high inflation, and a prolonged depression (Roberts 2016). The deepening of this crisis brought with it more repression, more austerity, and a growing tendency towards authoritarianism, even in supposedly consolidated democratic regimes. 

In Mexico, despite the current progressive government, violence remains as an indispensable ingredient of social policies. Although President Andres Manuel López Obrador has promised a break with the neoliberal policies and authoritarian logics of the past, in practice, counter-insurgent mechanisms to remove obstacles to capitalist development are still in place: 

Nearly 90,000 … have disappeared since the beginning of the “war” against organized crime in 2006. Thousands continue to disappear every year. More than 36,000 people have disappeared since President López Obrador took office. (Human Rights Watch 2023)

After decades of neoliberal policies that created precarious conditions of existence and an Otherness that was rendered vulnerable to destruction, the social body not only confronts the accumulation of ruins and death left by the Mexican Dirty War or the war on drugs[7], but also confronts the current war on corruption. The metaphor of war has been present in Latin America in order to impose neoliberal policies, discipline the social body, eradicate the subversive Otherness, and justify the militarization of the state (Calveiro 2012; Barrios Rodriguez 2021). All this language reveals that, in each historical phase, appropriate coding is developed to justify the increasing militarization of the country. Since the figure of the “enemy” remains sufficiently “indeterminate”, it allows it to be endowed with different masks while, at the same time, the technologies of dominant violence are updated. 

In addition, under the current progressive government there has been a process of “washing” the image of the military, often described by the president as being representative of the people and the guardian of public wealth. The military has not only upgraded its presence on Mexican streets through the establishment of the National Guard as a “substitute” for some of the police functions, supposedly due to the latter’s levels of corruption; it is also responsible for the defence and administration of strategic megaprojects, such as the Mayan Train[8] and the Interoceanic Corridor[9]

Instances of local resistance opposing such megaprojects have been accused of being conservative and against development. At the same time that the state appropriates Indigenous symbols and names, the president dismisses resistance defending ancestral territory against the socio-ecological devastation. The army is now presented as a principal actor in fighting corruption and safeguarding development, as it is a different institution from the past. All the while, accusations of human rights violations, forced disappearances, murders of community leaders, and the repression of social struggles continue to feed the ruins and death of past and present.

The current progressive government faces the “polycrisis” with a cocktail of assistance-oriented policies and the increasing militarization of the country so as to confront “internal” enemies. Complementary strategies to maintain social order: where the discipline of money is not enough, the weapon of the police intervenes. The advance of the capitalist machine involves the devouring of entire socio-biocultural systems to satisfy its bloody famine.

The relentless crisis of capital is reaching a tipping point that threatens the very existence of human and non-human life. Ecological, humanitarian, economic, and political crises are expressions of dominant violence. Conceptualizing them as a polycrisis is perceiving them as isolated phenomena and not as different threads of the same dynamic that weave together the social totality. The so-called polycrisis can be useful to describe the various manifestations of the same crisis of capitalist domination as it becomes more unstable and violent. 

However, the “polycrisis” without a critique of the violent immanent rationality of capitalist totality can be a liberal concept adequate for reports from bodies like the World Economic Forum, where the symptoms are diagnosed but not the cause of the growingcatastrophe: capital. The dream of a “green” or more “humane” capitalism as advanced by progressive governments is more than self-deception. It is a discourse to disguise capitalist brutality.



Aparicio Soriano, Leticia (2022), “El Impacto de Maquiladoras Textiles en el Agua de San Francisco Altepexi, Puebla. Repercusiones en la Vida Comunitaria y Posibles Propuestas ante la Problemática”, Territorios Indígenas, Educación e Interculturalidad en la Región Sureste de Puebla y Sur de Veracruz, edited by Sabino Martínez Juárez et al. Puebla: BUAP, UIEP, Incunabula.

Bayón, Cristina Maria (ed.) (2019), Las grietas del neoliberalismo: dimensiones de la desigualdad contemporánea en México, Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 

Barrios Rodriguez, David (2021), “Perspectivas de la guerra en México. Entre metáforas, propaganda, teoría y realidad”, La brutalidad utilitaria: Ensayos sobre economía política de la violencia, edited by Daniel Inclán, Mexico: Akal.

Calveiro, Pilar (2012), Violencias de Estado: la guerra antiterrorista y la guerra contra el crimen como medios de control global. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.

Castellón Huerta, Blas Román (2022), “Arqueología de las Primeras Sociedades Urbanas del Sureste de Puebla”, Territorios Indígenas, Educación e Interculturalidad en la Región Sureste de Puebla y Sur de Veracruz, edited by Sabino Martínez Juárez et al., Puebla: BUAP, UIEP, Incunabula.

Castillo González, Itzel (2020), “La industria del vestido en Tehuacán, Puebla. De la crisis a la reestructuración postmaquila”, Factores Críticos y Estratégicos en la Interacción Territorial Desafíos Actuales y Escenarios Futuros, vol. 3, Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México y Asociación Mexicana de Ciencias para el Desarrollo Regional A.C. 

De la Luz Degante, Guadalupe (2020), “De la ‘seducción’ al ‘trabajo sucio’, método para la renta de tierras a empresarios”, La Jornada de Oriente, 16 August, available at https://www.lajornadadeoriente.com.mx/tlaxcala/metodo-renta-de-tierras-aempresarios/. Last accessed on 10 June 2021.

Gámez Espinosa, Alejandra, Rosalba Ramírez Rodríguez, and Alejandra Correa de la Garza (2009), San Marcos Tlacoyalco: Un pueblo ngiwa, Mexico: Gobierno del Estado de Puebla, Secretaría de Cultura, Conacyt.

Gámez Espinosa, Alejandra, Monserrat Rodríguez Figueredo, and Eva María Martínez Juárez, (2010), Santa María La Alta: Una comunidad nahua de tejedores de palma, Mexico: Gobierno del Estado de Puebla, Secretaría de Cultura, Conacyt, BUAP.

Gobierno de México (2023), “Plataforma Logística del Corredor Interoceánico del Istmo de Tehuantepec”, 1 December, available at https://www.gob.mx/ciit/articulos/folleto-corredor-interoceanico-del-istmo-de-tehuantepec?idiom=es. Last accessed on 4 March 2024.

Gómez Durán, Thelma, and Aranzazú Ayala (2023), “A estas personas las desaparecieron por defender el ambiente y el territorio en México”, Oaxaca Media, 2 October, available at https://oaxaca.media/2023/10/a-estas-personas-las-desaparecieron-por-defender-el-ambiente-y-el-territorio-en-mexico/. Last accessed on 1 March 2024.

Harvey, David (2007), A Brief History of Neoliberalism, New York: Oxford University Press.

Hernández Varillas, Enedina (2023), “Todos los problemas que pasan en casa, jamás se los debemos contar a nadie. Expresiones culturales de la violencia contra las mujeres en San Marcos Tlacoyalco”, Language and Culture degree thesis, UIEP.

Human Rights Watch (2023), “World Report 2023”, available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2023/country-chapters/mexico. Last accessed on 1 March 2024.

Morales, Roberto (2023), “3.2 millones de menores de 5 a 17 años trabajan”, El Economista, 4 June, available at https://www.eleconomista.com.mx/politica/3.2-millones-de-menores-de-5-a-17-anos-trabajan-20230604-0129.html. Last accessed on 1 March 2024.

Morett-Sánchez, J. Carlos, and Cosío-Ruiz, Celsa (2017), “Outlook of ejidos and agrarian communities in México”, Agricultura, sociedad y desarrollo, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 125–52, available at https://www.scielo.org.mx/pdf/asd/v14n1/1870-5472-asd-14-01-00125-en.pdf. Last accessed on 4 March 2024.

Muñiz Montero, Isabel, and Benito Ramirez Valverde (2018), “Violencia laboral y violación de derechos laborales: el caso de la industria del vestido y la confección de Tehuacán, Puebla”, conference at the Instituto de Ciencias Jurídicas de Puebla, México. 

Osorio González, Rebeca, Oliver G. Hernández Lara, Lilia Zizumbo Villarreal (2020), “¿Indígena objetivado o indígena subjetivado? Ser-indígena en el discurso de los organismos oficiales vs. la autodeterminación con base comunitaria”, Clivajes. Revista de Ciencias Sociales, vol. 13, pp. 150–80.

Patiño, Armando (2004), “Neoliberalismo: desigualdad y exclusion”, Tendencias, vol. 5, nos. 1–2, pp. 131–56.

Red TDT (2023), “Alto riesgo ambiental en el valle de Tehuacán, Puebla”, Red TDT, 13 June, available at https://redtdt.org.mx/archivos/18456. Last accessed on 1 March 2024.

Roberts, Michael (2016), The Long Depression: How it Happened, Why it Happened and What Happens Next, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Rodríguez Lezama, Elizabeth (2020), “Empresas chinas tienen cultivos en Tehuacán y Tepanco, rentaron decenas de hectáreas”, La Jornada de Oriente, 30 January, available at https://www.lajornadadeoriente.com.mx/puebla/empresas-chinas-tienen-cultivos-en-tehuacan-y-tepanco-rentaron-decenas-de-hectareas/. Last accessed on 1 March 2024.

Roux, Rhina (2010), “El príncipe fragmentado”, Veredas. Revista del Pensamiento Sociológico, vol. 20, pp. 73–96.

Salazar, Francisco (2004), “Globalización y política neoliberal en México”, El cotidiano, vol. 20, no. 126.

Varillas Pérez, Daniela (2022), “Discriminación hacia niños y niñas bilingües en la escuela primaria Federal Bilingüe Lázaro Cárdenas en San Marcos Tlacoyalco”, protocolo de investigación, Licenciatura en Lengua y Cultura (UIEP).


Gabriela Luna, 27 November 2022.

Luz, 27 September 2022.

Leti, 27 September 2022.


  1. 1

     This language family includes Ngiguas, Ngiwas, Ngivas (and their various variants).

  2. 2

     In the case of child labour, wages in agribusiness are higher than the Benito Juárez state scholarships for students in Basic and Upper Secondary Education.

  3. 3

     On environmental damage in the Tehuacán Valley see the Red TDT (2023) communiqué.

  4. 4

    The ejidos are a modality of property founded by the Mexican state, products of the agrarian reform (1934). “The maximum authority of ejidos and agrarian communities is the general assembly and the direction organs are the commissary (whether ejidal or of communal goods) that is designated by direct vote from ejidatarios or comuneros ... Agrarian subjects are ejidatarios and comuneros who have the rights to farming plots and access to all the common goods from the agrarian nucleus ... During the period from 1992 to date, and as a result of the end of the agrarian reform (1992) and of an intense program of regularization and titling of land tenure (Procede), the surface in social property increased by 40 % its number of owners or beneficiaries in just 23 years, by going from 3.5 million in 1991 to 4.9 in 2014. As consequence, the average number of owners per agrarian nucleus increased, and to the contrary, the surface per owner decreased, worsening the atomization and smallholding of social property, which entails dangers of overexploitation of the land, erosion and unsustainable exploitation” (Morett-Sánchez and Cosío-Ruiz 2017, 127–33).

  5. 5

     In other words, it depends on annual rainfall.

  6. 6

    In addition to Catholics, the presence of various religious denominations (Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Jehovah’s Witnesses) is another expression of internal divisions in rural Mexico

  7. 7

    The Mexican Dirty War (1964–82) describes the deployment of military repression and the use of extralegal actions, such as forced disappearances, against any social movements opposed to the Mexican state. Meanwhile, the war on drugs began in Mexico in 2006 and is part of a regional policy to combat drug production, trade, consumption, and organized crime groups.

  8. 8

    Despite the strong protests that its construction has generated, due to the massive socio-biocultural impact it entails, the Mayan Train is a railway infrastructure promoted by the current government aimed at economic and tourist development of the Mexican southeast. 

  9. 9

    According to the Mexican government website (Gobierno de México 2023), the Interoceanic Corridor is a multimodal logistics platform located in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to connect the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean and facilitate the transport of goods through railways, roads, ports, and airports. This megaproject includes the creation of ten development poles that would benefit the electrical and electronics, automotive, auto parts and transport equipment, agricultural, medical device, pharmaceutical, and petrochemical industries. 

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