savage frontier

Making News and Security on the Argentine Border

the book

From the back cover:

"This highly original work of anthropology combines extensive ethnographic fieldwork and investigative journalism to explain how security is understood, experienced, and constructed along the Triple Frontera, the border region shared by Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. One of the major "hot borders" in the Western Hemisphere, the Triple Frontera is associated with drug and human trafficking, contraband, money laundering, and terrorism. It's also a place where residents, particularly on the Argentine side, are subjected to increased governmental control and surveillance.

How does a scholar tell a story about a place characterized by illicit international trading, rampant violence, and governmental militarization? Jusionyte inventively centered her ethnographic fieldwork on a community of journalists who investigate and report on crime and violence in the region. Through them she learned that a fair amount of petty, small-scale illicit trading goes unreported—a consequence of a community invested in promoting the idea that the border is a secure place that does not warrant militarized attention. The author's work demonstrates that while media is often seen as a powerful tool for spreading a sense of danger and uncertainty, sensationalizing crime and violence, and creating moral panics, journalists can actually do the opposite. Those who selectively report on illegal activities use the news to tell particular types of stories in an attempt to make their communities look and ultimately be more secure."



Savage Frontier is a fascinating study of the entanglement of those who make news and those who make security in the allegedly ‘lawless’ Triple Frontier. In a zone of clandestine practices, public secrets, and camouflage statecraft, Ieva Jusionyte explores in vivid detail how journalists navigate illegal practices, codes of silence, and global and local discourses on (il)legality.”—Dominic Boyer, Rice University

“Jusionyte combines her experience as a professional journalist and anthropologist to examine local media production in the under-studied tri-border area. Through extensive fieldwork and a fresh ethnographic approach, Jusionyte fills a critical need for the study of Latin American media production, while also contributing to the growing field of security studies.”—Winifred Tate, author of Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia

Savage Frontier explores how mass media are shaped by but also constitute borders. With a sharp ethnographic approach, Jusionyte explores how global, national, and local media form our conception of the Triple Frontier of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.”— Josiah Heyman, University of Texas at El Paso



Introduction: Hide and Seek

In the border region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, news-making and security-making are intertwined. This ethnography focuses on journalists as mediators between global, national and local scales of security that converge on the edges of the state. Based on their lived experiences of crime, violence, and other forms of social vulnerability, perpetuated by corrupt government institutions, and legacies of state terror journalists selectively report on illegalized yet legitimate activities. On a reportedly lawless Argentina's northern border the media act as gatekeepers in the circulation of public knowledge about (in)security within the contours of everyday life in the criminalized community. 

Chapter 1: Breaking the Code of Silence

During ethnographic fieldwork in the Argentine border town of Puerto Iguazú I wrote articles for the local press and collaborated on an investigative television program "Proximidad." This dual engagement allowed me to explore the code of silence, which circumscribed knowledge production about security and crime on the border, from two parallel, yet critically different perspectives. In this chapter, I use my experiences as an ethnographer and a journalist to tease out the tensions between anthropology and news media as two modes of knowledge production and the particular processes and politics of representation pertinent to each genre. 

Read Chapter 1 (PDF)

Chapter 2: Dispatches from the Wild

News production relies on thematic, logistical, economic, and political frameworks that reduce the physical and social geography of the state into a legible narrative. In the case of the Argentine Northeast, this standardized news script has been built around the opposition between civilization and savagery, and order of the center against violence of the periphery. Since the 19th century foreign and national press construed the Argentine border with Brazil and Paraguay as a savage and violent frontier, where state control and the reach of the law were weak. This chapter traces contemporary security build-up in the Triple Frontier to the particular history of state advancement in the tri-border region, legitimated by the master trope of civilization over barbarism.

Chapter 3: Global Village of Outlaws

In the aftermath of two bomb attacks against Israeli institutions in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, and especially since the global "war on terror" began since 9/11, political and media discourses have designated the tri-border area as a "global village of outlaws"––a haven of organized crime and a remote hideout for terrorist financiers and sleeper cells. This chapter shows that journalists play an important role in translating security talk across scales and regimes of knowledge: they selectively reject and adapt stories and rewrite global narratives to fit local situations. Examining these processes of translation and negotiation from inside the allegedly insecure border milieu allows us to better understand the role of the media in mitigating securitization of emergent threats.

Chapter 4: Small Town, Big Hell

Security on the local scale is very different from that defined in national and global doctrines. Public memory and enduring legacy of terror during Argentina's last military dictatorship, journalists' first-hand experiences of crime in urban centers, and the rules of complicity that a small border community abides by all have important effects on news-making. This ethnographic chapter shows that, like many Iguazúenses, journalists often interpret violence as the quality of the state. Local media invert the dominant geography of crime and violence, in which the nationwide press portrays the border as lawless and dangerous, and provide a forum to put the blame for rising crime in Iguazú on suspected migrants from the shantytowns of Buenos Aires. 

Chapter 5: On and Off the Record

Journalists maneuver between stories for, on, and off the record in compliance with the local understanding of what constitutes illegal yet socially legitimate practices. This chapter illuminates the seemingly contradictory position of reporters in the border community: as residents, they often engage in the informal trade but, as cultural producers, their job is to make news about contraband. Trying to find their way out of this predicament, journalists tactically keep activities that have widespread social legitimacy off the media agenda. By not reporting on some potentially newsworthy illegal exchanges, they indirectly contribute to preserving the informal border economy, which, in the absence of sufficient legal employment and social welfare, supports their community.

Chapter 6: Blurred Boundaries

My anthropological research on security and participation in media production converged when I made a television program about illegal adoptions and child trafficking. Following the motion video format of consecutive "takes," this chapter examines why Iguazú residents treated adoptions as a public secret and refused to talk about them on the record. Scarred by scandalous media stories about the trade in babies, residents of the marginalized province feared that common practices of informal fosterage could be misinterpreted as child trafficking, resulting in more deleterious legal and socioeconomic effects. Comparing my experience of making the television episode with writing this book, I highlight important differences between methods and ethics of journalistic and ethnographic knowledge production. 

Conclusion: Ethnography of In/visibility

Security-making and news-making both involve tactical uses of visibility and invisibility. While people invent ingenious ways of remaining invisible to law enforcement and continue to engage in illegalized activities mitigating their economic insecurities, government agents on the border not only tolerate such practices, but, through corruption, become part them. Journalists maneuver between exposure and disguise, working on the murky terrain of in/visibilities and in/security. In the conclusion I address the politics of ethnographic representation pertinent to the anthropology of security. I argue that an informed discussion of crime and violence should replace silence, perpetuated in complicity with powerful actors that benefit from keeping stories of the lived experience of insecurity on the margins of the state as public secrets.