Deported, homeless, and into the canal: Environmental structural violence in the binational Tijuana River

Soc Sci Med. 2022 Jul;305:115044. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2022.115044. Epub 2022 May 18.


Introduction: The US deports more Mexicans to Tijuana than any other borderland city. Returning involuntarily as members of a stigmatized underclass, many find themselves homeless and de-facto stateless. Subject to routinized police victimization, many take refuge in the Tijuana River Canal (El Bordo). Previous reports suggest Tijuana River water may be contaminated but prior studies have not accessed the health effects or contamination of the water closest to the river residents.

Methods: A binational, transdisciplinary team undertook a socio-environmental, mixed methods assessment to simultaneously characterize Tijuana River water quality with chemical testing, assess the frequency of El Bordo residents' water-related diseases, and trace water contacts with epidemiological survey methods (n = 85 adults, 18+) in 2019, and ethnographic methods in 2019-2021. Our analysis brings the structural violence framework into conversation with an environmental injustice perspective to documented how social forces drive poor health outcomes enacted through the environment.

Results: The Tijuana River water most proximate to its human inhabitants fails numerous water-quality standards, posing acute health risks. Escherichia coli values were ∼40,000 times the Mexican regulatory standard for directly contacted water. Skin infections (47%), dehydration (40%) and diarrhea (28%) were commonly reported among El Bordo residents. Residents are aware the water is contaminated and strive to minimize harm to their health by differentially using local water sources. Their numerous survival constraints, however, are exacerbated by routine police violence which propels residents and other people who inject drugs into involuntary contact with contaminated water.

Discussion: Human rights to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene are routinely violated among El Bordo inhabitants. This is exacerbated by violent policing practices that force unhoused deportees to seek refuge in waterways, and drive water contacts. Furthermore, US-Mexico 'free-trade' agreements drive rapid growth in Tijuana, restrict Mexican environmental regulation enforcement, and drive underinvestment in sewage systems and infrastructure.

Keywords: Environmental injustice; Epidemiology; Ethnography; PWID; Police violence; US-Mexico border; WASH access; Water quality analysis.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Homeless Persons*
  • Humans
  • Mexico / epidemiology
  • Police
  • Rivers
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous*
  • Violence