Borders of Violence and Justice

Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Law Enforcement in the Southwest, 1835-1935

By Brian D. Behnken

334 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 14 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7012-6
    Published: November 2022
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7011-9
    Published: November 2022
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-7013-3
    Published: October 2022

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Brian Behnken offers a sweeping examination of the interactions between Mexican-origin people and law enforcement—both legally codified police agencies and extralegal justice—across the U.S. Southwest (especially Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas) from the 1830s to the 1930s. Representing a broad, colonial regime, police agencies and extralegal groups policed and controlled Mexican-origin people to maintain state and racial power in the region, treating Mexicans and Mexican Americans as a "foreign" population that they deemed suspect and undesirable. White Americans justified these perceptions and the acts of violence that they spawned with racist assumptions about the criminality of Mexican-origin people, but Behnken details the many ways Mexicans and Mexican Americans responded to violence, including the formation of self-defense groups and advocacy organizations. Others became police officers, vowing to protect Mexican-origin people from within the ranks of law enforcement. Mexican Americans also pushed state and territorial governments to professionalize law enforcement to halt abuse.

The long history of the border region between the United States and Mexico has been one marked by periodic violence, but Behnken shows us in unsparing detail how Mexicans and Mexican Americans refused to stand idly by in the face of relentless assault.

About the Author

Brian Behnken is associate professor of history at Iowa State University. He also holds affiliate faculty positions in the U.S. Latino/a Studies and African and African American Studies Programs. He is the author of Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas and the editor of Civil Rights and Beyond: African American and Latino/a Activism in the Twentieth-Century United States.
For more information about Brian D. Behnken, visit the Author Page.


“As our nation continues to witness increased police violence, it is imperative that we turn to sound scholarship to understand its long history in order to find ways to combat it. Behnken examines historical patterns of violence that too often involved the false idea of a lawless frontier to justify the elimination of so-called bandits, almost always of Mexican origin. Borders of Violence and Justice reminds us of this painful past as well as the various ways in which communities sought to address both nonstate- and state-endorsed violence. This historical synthesis will be of great value to the general public and policy makers alike—it has the potential to effect real change, if only those lessons from the past are taken seriously.”—Sonia Hernández, Texas A&M University

"Brian Behnken gives us a rare look into the convoluted history between ethnic Mexicans and the U.S. criminal justice system. Behnken writes of power, colonization, and control, which invites the reader to recognize the origins of systemic racism and inequality aimed at Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and other minoritized groups. This study fills a major gap in both Mexican American historiography and public knowledge of how ethnic Mexicans engaged in a tug-of-war with our criminal justice system."—Miguel A. Levario, author of Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy

"Borders of Violence and Justice is a consequential contribution to the scholarship on racist violence, police brutality, and Mexican American history. This book should provide a model for researchers into America's long history of racially motivated violence."—Brent M. S. Campney, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

"Borders of Violence and Justice makes the invisible visible: the story and plight of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in their struggles against both legal and extralegal violence."—William D. Carrigan, author of The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836–1916