Susana Hayward

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Eleven-year-old Ana was playing in the park near her house.

Her family sat on the front lawn and sipped cold drinks and talked about their day. Suddenly, the crackle of automatic gunfire rang out. With the chatter, the chirping and the sound of traffic muted by the blasts, Ana sped home on her bicycle.

There she found big men with big guns. The grass and cement had turned red with blood. Her aunt, her uncle and a cousin lay dying. Her mother, shot four times in the back, wished in silent agony that her daughter would run. But Ana, a long-limbed girl with dark hair to her waist, was frozen with terror. One of the gunmen held an AK-47 against her temple.

Time stood still.

The most remarkable event of that summer day in Ciudad Juarez was not that people were executed. No, that happens every day.

The most remarkable thing was that one of the killers showed mercy.

“One of them said, ‘Don’t kill her,’” recalled Juan, Ana’s father, who asked that his family’s real names not be used for fear of retaliation. Ana and her brother, father and permanently disabled mother survived. But they knew they had to leave Juarez.

 

The family had bought it’s home in a government-funded neighborhood 15 years earlier. Since then, they say, the neighborhood had become increasingly derelict. Strangers came and went at all hours. New neighbors moved in who weren’t like the working-class families who originally bought into the neighborhood.

Juan says that the gunmen on that day in 2009 pulled up in white SUVs. They said they were looking for the owner of a red truck. His brother-in-law had a red truck, and now Juan thinks he was the target.

“People were scared,” Juan said. “There was another red truck in the neighborhood, maybe they confused it. I don’t know. It happened so fast. There were more than 100 shots fired.” He was doing repairs inside the house when the shooting started.

“While all this was happening, there was a military checkpoint at the corner and they didn’t do anything,” Juan added. “The ambulance took 40 minutes to arrive.”

Afterward, Juan went to the police station to see if they’d done anything. He says they told him not to cause trouble or the gunmen would return to kill him and his family. “They said, ‘Leave it alone, let it all go, leave all your material things behind while you’re still alive,’” Juan said.

Juan, like thousands of other Juarez residents, faced a dilemma. Gunmen had attacked his family and could come back. The police offered no protection, telling him to leave town or die.

The 40-year-old had a “laser visa,” a border-crossing card that allowed him and his family to visit the United States. After spending weeks in hiding, and once his wife could be moved from a Juarez hospital, the family crossed the border to El Paso and safety. He took his wife to University Hospital for further treatment, where he slept in his car in the parking lot. The night guards found him and called Annunciation House, a shelter for asylum seekers.

Thus began Juan’s life as a refugee, caught in a purgatory grown from the worst in politics, crime and international law.

 

The relationship between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso is a complicated tale of two cities. They are linked by history, family and trade. A steel wall forms a barrier along parts of the border, but bridges connect the two inextricably. Juarez, home to 1.3 million people, once offered attractive shopping and a vibrant nightlife; its residents enjoyed the numerous city parks. El Paso, population 750,000, offered many American-style comforts and cheaper household goods.

For centuries residents of El Paso and Juarez considered themselves part of the same community, if not the same country. Over the last four years, though, drug wars have divided the cities like never before. Juarez businesses are boarded up, many with “For Sale” signs. No one is buying. After 5 p.m., only those with urgent business are out and about. Most people are hiding in their homes, praying that gunmen will not pay a visit. Juarez, the epicenter of Mexico’s drug war, has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world; El Paso remains one of the safest.

The violence started after conservative President Felipe Calderon took office on Dec. 1, 2006. Soon afterward, the United States put enormous pressure on Mexico to crack down on drug trafficking, and Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers to the border. Two years later, the U.S. gave Mexico $1.4 billion in military and intelligence equipment under the Merida Initiative, signed by President George W. Bush, to fight the cartels. Since then, the violence has escalated.

The focus has been on Juarez, where experts say at least 70 percent of the cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines consumed in America cross the border. That crackdown has sparked drug wars in Mexico that have claimed more than 25,000 lives since 2006—including more than 6,000 in Juarez since 2008.

The rate of killing continues to climb, with more and more innocent people in the crossfire. Competing gangs of narco-traffickers grow more and more creative in how they kill, maim and terrorize anyone in their way, or anyone who might be, or anyone who simply knows someone who may or may not be involved in the drug war. The trafficker’s dictum is simple, Plata o Plomo, “Money or Lead.”

On July 15, the cartels used their first car bomb in Juarez, apparently detonated by a cell phone, killing two police officers and a medic and signaling yet another escalation in tactics. Four days later, gunmen opened fire on a birthday party in Torreon, in Coahuila, a state on the Texas border. Seventeen people were killed, and 18 others were wounded in a hail of gunfire. They were reportedly in their 20s and 30s and had organized the party on Facebook.

At a meeting of Mexican and U.S. health officials in El Paso on July 21, Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferris said the drug violence “has become a public-health issue and is one of the main causes of death in the region.” No one knows how many Juarez residents have fled the city because of the violence, but estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000.

Mexican officials say the problem is not theirs alone. “The origin of our violence problem starts with the fact that Mexico is located next to the country that has the highest level of drug consumption in the world,” President Felipe Calderon wrote in a 5,000-word editorial printed on June 16 throughout Mexico. “It’s as if our neighbor were the biggest drug addict in the world.”

While Juarez’s violence was triggered by the troop deployment, and by funding from the United States, Mexicans seeking refuge in their sister city find that the U.S. government is unwilling to help the victims of the violence.

 

When Juan crossed the border, he didn’t tell the border guards his family was seeking asylum; his crossing card meant he didn’t need to. He also knew that sharing his fears could land his family in a detention cell. So he acted as if it was just a daily trip allowed by all laser visa holders. Then, he found refuge at Annunciation House, a shelter for asylum seekers established in 1978, when civil wars were spreading in Central America.

“We have nothing left in Juarez. We have nothing here either, but it’s safer,” Juan says. He works odd jobs as a carpenter, landscaper, whatever he can get.

“If immigration catches me, I will go to another country, but I can’t go back to Mexico because they will kill us,” he says. “The narcos, the Mexican government, they know everything. Everything’s corrupt.”

Technically, Juan has until September to apply for asylum. But he’s not sure he wants to attract the attention of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The process takes a lot of time and money. And he knows the U.S. rarely grants Mexicans asylum.

So far, 11,000 Mexicans have sought asylum, and tens of thousands more have crossed the border fearing for their lives. They include people with visas, people like Juan who overstay their visas, people who seek asylum and people who are afraid to seek asylum. They are rich, poor, professionals, students, journalists and police officers—in short, the people who make up any community anywhere in the world. They are the displaced, uncounted victims of the war on drugs.

Of those who have sought asylum in the United States, only 2 percent have gained permission to stay. That compares with 40 percent of Colombians who apply after fleeing drug-related violence in their country.

“There are four types of Mexican citizens in El Paso: those who have legalized their status, those who have resident visas because they are students, professionals or business people, and there are those with border-crossing cards who either live in El Paso and work in Juarez, or stay in El Paso illegally,” said Gustavo de la Rosa, the human rights ombudsman for the Mexican government in Juarez.

De la Rosa’s job is to investigate abuse accusations against government officials. He sleeps in El Paso for his safety but goes to work in Juarez during the day with bodyguards. Wealthy Mexicans, he says, usually have visas, resident status or relatives who are U.S. citizens. They can afford El Paso rents that are three times the rates in Mexico. (Since the drug wars began, real estate prices along the border are up 20 to 40 percent in urban areas.)

“You say you are going to visit family. You stay in El Paso and pay rent, but you’re not absolutely legal and (U.S. officials) know it,” de la Rosa said. “There are certain illegalities that are tolerated by the U.S.”

If you can afford it.

Poor Mexicans are not so lucky. So for now, Juan and his family are among 90 people from Mexico hiding in one of the homes run by Annunciation.

 

The numbers make it clear that not all of those killed and wounded in Mexico are drug traffickers. Pablo Hernandez Batista, a veteran reporter with the Juarez newspaper El Norte, says that at the beginning of the war in 2006, the murder of innocents was rare.

“These conditions started changing around 2008 when the trained gunmen of criminal organizations were either killed or arrested,” Batista said. “The cartels started hiring people with little experience firing automatic weapons, or people from other parts of the country. Many new sicarios (hired gunmen) are young gang members with no knowledge of an AK-47, and that’s when the rate of innocent victims started to climb.”

El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector points to another factor. He says the violence escalated after the United States lifted a 10-year ban on 19 types of assault weapons in 2004. Since only the police and the military are allowed to own guns in Mexico, the United States became the most convenient place for cartels to buy illicit weapons, with large quantities on offer for low prices.

“There’s so much money, so much opportunity in drugs and guns,” Spector said. “The drug traffickers haven’t changed the rules of the game. They play by them. ... These guys are evil geniuses.”

Batista says the cartels use indiscriminate violence to strike terror into the civilian population. Like any violent insurgency, cartel leaders want to demonstrate that they are in control, with more powerful weapons than the government. They want to prove that the drug war is futile. “It’s the premeditated murder of people who have nothing to do with drug trafficking. It’s narcoterrorism,” said Batista, who covered the car bombing in Juarez, which wounded a colleague. “Their objective is to terrorize the population and create the perception in the community that anyone can be a victim of the cartels.”

With every escalation by the cartels, President Calderon must respond in kind to demonstrate his government’s authority.

“The government declares a war against the cartels, who respond with more executions, kidnappings and extortion to recuperate capital,” Batista said. “And that’s what began the human exodus.”

Nonetheless, the Mexican government and the U.S. State Department insist that most of the dead belong to drug-trafficking organizations. This is an important declaration by both governments, because if they admit that the violence in Mexico involves more than just the government and criminals, then international law could require the United States to treat the victims fleeing for their lives very differently.

 

The U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, an international treaty signed by the United States, requires governments to provide shelter and safety to international refugees until their fears are no longer justified.

The convention defines a refugee as a “person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The United States denies Mexicans refugee status by arguing that they aren’t fleeing communism or a civil war, and that their only “political” opinion is fear of traffickers and their henchmen or the military and police. The convention doesn’t mention criminal violence. So while the United States has recognized that the drug violence in Colombia is linked to a civil war, the Obama administration views the Mexican violence as purely criminal. Thus, Mexicans fleeing for their lives have to prove to an immigration judge that they have suffered past persecution, or have a well-founded fear of future persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Fear of death is not enough.

Some observers of the Mexican drug wars not only believe that civilians fleeing the violence should qualify as refugees, but also see the cartels’ violence becoming more political. Neither Mexico nor the United States wants to admit to a political dimension in the drug war or to admit that Mexico can’t protect its citizens. And since immigration is a big issue in U.S. politics, the Obama administration has no interest in admitting Mexican refugees.

“They’d have to acknowledge there’s a war going on and that Merida is not working,” said Eduardo Beckett, the head lawyer at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.

Beckett says more than 400 people have asked him for help since January. “They are asylum-seekers, people who fear they will be killed, people who were shot or were wounded. Many are police informants or failed informants. Women with children, business owners and workers. They have received threats from cartels or criminal organizations that have ties to corrupt Mexican government officials,” he said. “We can get some of them non-immigrant visas; some go to shelters or with family. They say, ‘Give me a hand.’ For us on the border, El Paso and Juarez are the same city, so they come and they hope they don’t get caught.”

 

One case that illustrates the difficulties of receiving asylum, and how things may change, involves Emilio Gutierrez Soto. A journalist, he fled his hometown of Ascension, 98 miles west of Juarez, last year with his 15-year-old son after the military threatened his life for writing about their abuses. He requested asylum at the small border crossing of Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

Gutierrez landed in ICE detention in El Paso for seven months. He was separated from his son, who was locked up for two months. Because of an outcry by journalist organizations, he was ultimately released, pending a hearing next year on his asylum eligibility.

“The overt policy of the U.S. government is to discourage Mexican asylum applicants,” said Spector, the immigration lawyer who is representing Gutierrez. “The judges here have a learning curve because they don’t believe what they’re hearing. They say, ‘How can this be, this nightmare you’re presenting?’ And then there’s the fear that the floodgates will open, as with the immigration debate.”

Spector says Gutierrez is his strongest asylum case. A victory could set a precedent by proving that the Mexican government can’t protect one of its citizens.

Threats against Gutierrez began in January 2005, when he wrote about soldiers accompanying a known kidnapper to storm a lodge in Las Palomas. They stole jewelry and other items from the guests and threatened to kill them. After he wrote the story, a senior military officer threatened to kill Gutierrez if he wrote another story about the army. His newspaper, Diario del Noroeste, ran the headline “High-ranking officials threatened to kill the correspondent in Ascension.” For the next two years, Gutierrez filed formal complaints with the state and the national human rights office.

“I was naive. I had confidence all that time that the government would help me, because we have institutions that protect citizens,” Gutierrez, 41, said in an interview in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The threats mounted, and one night the military ransacked his home, taking files and documents and destroying furniture.

“They told me, ‘Get on the floor!’ and they said this will be the last time I write about them,” he says. “I realized then that if I hung on, it would be the end.” That night he drove with his son to the border and asked U.S. officials to help him, never realizing he would be jailed.

Now on Saturdays Gutierrez runs the desk at the El Paso bureau of Juarez’s El Diario. But mostly he sells burritos that he and his son make in the mornings. They take them door to door to businesses in Las Cruces, where he awaits his hearing. When he can, he travels the United States telling his story, and that of other Mexican journalists.

Thirty-three journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2006, and 17 went missing this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“I have to survive,” Gutierrez said. “None of us wants to leave Mexico, our lives, our jobs. But those who are able to cross the border have no other alternative ... The worst is knowing I can probably never go back. They took my country away.”

 

Spector, like many lifelong El Paso residents, believes the United States can’t continue to seal its borders while it finances a war that Mexican citizens can’t escape.

“What is it going to take to stop this? Another revolution? Brace yourself,” Spector said. “It’s all a fraud and it’s coming unglued, and each month, every day, it’s worse.”

Many Mexicans and Americans believe the solution is to decriminalize some drugs, but that is a far-off possibility. In the meantime, Calderon—with U.S. backing—remains intent on violently cracking down on the cartels.

“I think Mexico is going through the most violence since the Mexican Revolution,” said Anthony Payan, a political scientist and border expert at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“It’s a bi-national problem, but essentially it’s an American war being fought in a foreign territory, like all our other wars,” he said. “The war on drugs that began with Nixon is an official policy of prohibition. And it’s our longest war, but it doesn’t mesh with America’s social tolerance and attitude toward drugs.”

With no lessening of violence in sight, what will the U.S. government do to help the victims of its war in Mexico? Under pressure from human rights organizations, the Obama administration issued a new policy for ICE in January to change the formula for arresting and jailing asylum applicants fleeing persecution. It allows discretion in determining what happens to someone with “credible fear” of persecution in their native country.

ICE officials now say they will “generally release arriving asylum seekers.” Thus, if a Mexican citizen at a U.S. border checkpoint tells an officer he or she wants asylum, the officer may allow entry without formally admitting the person or assigning them an immigration status. The officer can also grant “automatic consideration for parole.” But that’s the case only if the officer believes the asylum seeker. No matter what happens, the immigrant will still be detained, often in solitary, and still have to appear before an immigration judge, who will determine whether a credible fear exists.

While these reforms are important, they still leave ICE agents and immigration judges enormous leeway, and it is too early to tell whether Mexican refugees are actually being judged any differently under the new policy.

In the meantime, Ana and her family wait in limbo in the shelter in El Paso, not knowing where the future will take them. The Mexican government’s attacks on the cartels appear to have had little influence on the availability of drugs in the United States. Drugs move north, money changes hands, and guns and profits go south. The violence gets worse. And a little girl hides, developing ulcers and growing depressed.

“We’re just grateful she’s alive,” her mother said.

Susana Hayward spent 10 years covering Mexico for the Associated Press, Knight-Ridder newspapers and the San Antonio Express-News. She is a freelance reporter based in San Antonio.

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Recalcitrant, stubborn and feisty, Dave Oliphant emerges in his memoir as a one-man bulldozer in the roadblocks of his life, an often-bumbling scholar who is so earnest you can’t help but love him, though sometimes he drives you crazy. In a life spanning seven decades, the noted poet, critic, translator, trumpeter, jazz lover, professor, shoe salesman and publisher of Prickly Pear Press soars as a Renaissance man unique to the Lone Star state.

The prolific Oliphant is author of Texan Jazz and more than 20 other books of music, poetry and Spanish translations. His latest translation, Love Hound, by Chilean poet Oliver Welden, won the 2007 poetry prize at the New York Book Festival. Oliphant retired in 2006 after a 30-year career at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a senior lecturer in English and editor of the scholarly journal The Library Chronicle.

Don’t read Literary Life for uniformity and chronology. It’s not for the flippant; it’s for wannabe scholars, for scholars who study scholars, for writers, poets, and musicians. Fans of his Texan Jazz and Maria’s Poems will appreciate his passion, the torment of creativity, the emotional angst of climbing the academic ladder and the travails of pursuing artistic excellence. “Today, in spite of the many books that I have written, I recognize that at best I am just a passable writer. ... Even so, I am satisfied that I have not stood idly by nor hidden my dim little candle under a bushel,” he writes.

The heart of the book is the creative process: how one flickering thought, word, person or incident spawned a poem, and how that led to another and another. He recalls growing up in Fort Worth on May Street and playing with his black friend Terry in an alley. Oliphant is invited to his house, viewing for the first time the inside of a poor, segregated world. As with many experiences, he relates them to a book or author he has read or a melody that inspired him. He associates confronting his own prejudices with reading Ralph Ellison, best known for Invisible Man.

From William Carlos Williams to Socrates, Larry McMurtry, James Dickey and Pablo Neruda, the book’s index reads like a who’s who of authors, musicians and poets. It’s a world of friendships, music and words, a recognition of the people who shaped his life and lit his artistic fire. “Do genes, upbringing, the luck of the draw, fate or choice determine how one turns out?” he writes. “I would like to think the latter, but perhaps there are too many variables to be able to say that one chooses one’s path in life. I do know that once I started down the literary trail, I stuck to it in spite of discouragement and continuing doubt.”

Wings Press publisher Bryce Milligan credits Oliphant as the translator, anthologist and liaison who brought many Latin writers to the Texas fold, most notably the modern Chilean “anti-poet,” Nicanor Parra. Politics—particularly Chile’s at the time of the Pinochet regime—is not his forte, and he skims the subject. Recalling friend Federico, a member of the Chilean police who became Pinochet’s spokesman, Oliphant acknowledges many “will stigmatize him as a human rights violator, but to me he will remain a friend in need and the kindest of hosts.” Chalk it up to Oliphant’s big heart.

As a wayward English student at Lamar Tech during Vietnam, he feels guilty he escaped the draft because he was 2 pounds underweight. His wife wonders aloud how that might have changed him. “Maria has always contended that the service might have done me good, toughened me up and made me less spoiled.” One longs for more information about “the Beauty” librarian he courted breathlessly and married 40 years ago. Oliphant barely spoke Spanish and was perplexed by the rituals of courtly love in Latin America. One wonders how the couple traversed the language barrier, how his muse managed the cultural shock of moving from Santiago, a relatively cultured capital even during political upheaval, to relative dumps in Fort Worth, Denmark and  South Carolina, where Oliphant taught at Voorhees College. Perhaps that’s another book.

Literary Life could have used some editorial whacking, say 100 pages, but who cares? It’s a Texan’s literary life, after all, and one that Oliphant relishes.

Susana Hayward is a Texas writer who has covered Latin America for more than 20 years.

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Punctuated by chiming, infectious laughter, it was an otherwise serious affair that brought several hundred people to a conference on the seventh floor of the Alkek Library at Texas State University-San Marcos one breezy evening last month.

Jim Dauterive, writer and executive producer of the cult animated television sitcom "King of the Hill," was the guest speaker, and-most of the time anyway-was ready for the avalanche of questions hurled at him by fans, students, and teachers who clearly have spent too much time thinking about the show.

Whom would Hank Hill vote for?

Hank Hill would never tell you.

What's Hank's favorite movie?

Of course it would be "Lonesome Dove," followed by "Patton" and "National Lampoon's Family Vacation."

Will Bobby ever grow up?

No, he's going to remain sweet and slothful and forever in the eighth grade.

Do you like making Peggy suffer (last seen, she was falling out of a plane)?

The woman just makes good comedy, but OK, occasionally writers go too far.

What are you telling the rest of the nation about Texas, and do people get it?

Unlike, say, "Dallas," "King of the Hill" is written through the eyes of working-class Texans and middle-Americans, so yes, a majority do get it.

"I've heard people in Texas call it a documentary," said Dauterive, a Dallasite. "If you live in New York, you might think it's anthropology."

The savvy exchange on Nov. 11 lasted three hours, and the questions kept coming. One last question-a statement, really-from a professor in the English Department stumped Dauterive:

"'King of the Hill' is urban globalization ... but contextually is it like 'Mad Men' or 'The Sopranos?'"

"Oh man," answered Dauterive. "You're talking academic."

But the Texas State conference was indeed celebrating the hoisting of "King of the Hill" to academic eminence: Dauterive has donated boxes of archives documenting 11 years of behind-the scenes, madcap writing and production for student research.

"For young people who want to be writers, it's a way to see it is possible. It shows the hard work involved, including all the many false starts, discarded ideas-and a lot of bad writing too," Dauterive said. "You give yourself permission to be bad and keep writing until it's good. You can see that process here."

Dauterive began bequeathing his work in 1999, but when "King of the Hill" seemed to hit the end of its run after 10 seasons in 2005, he began shipping boxes of the show's material to the university in earnest.

"Essentially, the show was canceled, and our writers took other jobs. I thought it was going to the underground salt mines of Nebraska, a fate the show didn't deserve, being a cultural touchstone for Texas in a particular point in time," he said. The show has survived a bit longer than Dauterive expected. His donated materials form a treasure trove for fans and researchers who want to understand a bit more about Texas, and how a simple animated show captured the state's character as well, or better, than scores of others that have tried.

Much of the bequest was exhibited from Sept. 1 through Dec. 14 at the Alkek Library, where the prestigious Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography also showcases the making of another fabled Texas televised saga: "Lonesome Dove."

"This is what I pay good money for to come to college. Thanks a million!" one student wrote on the ledger after admiring the Hill exhibit. It's arranged into seven parts from episodes, production materials, marketing ideas, photographs, drawings, artifacts, and guide books that were drafted to outline the show's general principles and keep writers from veering off course.

Illustrator rules for King of the Hill

The guide books include The Death of Common Sense, billed as the basis for Hank's common-sense philosophy, and The Book of Virtues, which inspires Peggy's know-it-all ponderings.

There are also imagined "interview questions" reporters might pose to the characters, asking about the intricacies of selling propane, of sentimental relationships, and of world politics. (In 1997, Texas Monthly named Hank Hill one of the "Texas Twenty"-one of "the most impressive, intriguing and influential Texans" of the year.)

"King of the Hill" was the brainchild of writer Mike Judge, now a mercurial Austinite who created the MTV hit series "Beavis and Butthead." Judge partnered with Greg Daniels, a writer for "The Simpsons," which also airs on Fox.

Neither Judge nor Daniels, who now directs the hit show "The Office," was at the exhibit's reception and conference. "Again, I apologize for not being Mike Judge," Dauterive repeatedly told the audience.

Judge is credited with the relatively simple concept of giving a well-intentioned, befuddled propane salesman in a Texas suburb the panache to reach across audiences, from young to old, and across racial and religious lines.

"Mike Judge is the ultimate hip guy, and he chose to do a neighborhood family show," said Hill collection curator Connie Todd. "It's a pedestrian setting like "All in the Family" or "The Office" that everyone relates to."

Dauterive said Judge came up with the idea of life on Rainey Lane when he was living in Richardson, Texas, and having trouble with his fence. Hammering away in an alley, his pounding was the siren's call to a motley assemblage of curious, beer-swigging neighbors who offered a hand.

Before Judge knew it, his neighbors had taken over, and it was Judge who was standing there with a beer in his hand, watching the fence-mending.

"It was one of those moments that make things click," Dauterive said.

Hank was born, a Dallas Cowboy fanatic with a narrow urethra who loves his wife Peggy, a substitute Spanish teacher who never suffers from a lack of self confidence.

Enter their son Bobby, a chubby, deadpan 12-year-old who doesn't live up to Hank's idea of a good son, who's not interested in football or the male haven of shop class.

Hank's anxiety over Bobby provides ongoing fodder for an early line of the sitcom, "the boy ain't right."

Illustrator rules for King of the Hill

In the Hills' urban Texas cosmos, there's also Hank's brash father Cotton, the World War II veteran who brags his shins were shot out in a Japanese POW camp; neighbors Dale, an exterminator; Boomhauer, a muffled-voiced ladies' man; Bill, the melancholic divorcee; Luanne, Peggy's shapely and mindless niece; and Nancy Gribble, a television weather woman who's married to Dale but is having an affair with native American John Redcorn. Redcorn is Joseph Dribble's father, though Dale is clueless about it.

While most other sitcoms portray unlikely and atypical events, "King of the Hill" is comedy set in real life as experienced by average Americans.

"Andy Griffith's back, and he's pissed ... these are good people hampered by political correctness and red tape," Dauterive said. "There's a heavy dose of frustration in Hank's world, and frustration yields comedy."

Dauterive ventures that Hank Hill could also be compared to the beatified Mother Teresa, who once tried to open a branch of her Missionaries of Charity in New York City but saw her good intentions stymied by bureaucracy.

One document in the archive is known as the "Bible" used by writers to define and understand their characters. On Hank: "He's a good man in an imperfect world who is loyal to his Arlen employer, Strickland Propane.

"He speaks with authority even if he doesn't know what he's talking about.

"At 40, he still doesn't know much about women, and he's been married to Peggy for 20 years.

"He's embarrassed by the site of a few centimeters of someone else's flesh.

"His heroes include Willie Nelson, Tom Landry, Roger Staubach, Jim Bowie, and Sam Houston.

"His best friends may be idiots, but at least they live close by.

"He likes beer, 'which is about the same as saying he likes to breathe.'"

As for Peggy:

"She is strong and independent, as in Ann Richards, but stands by her man.

"She was a great high school beauty, speaks Spanish with a strong Texas accent, and her dog Ladybird only understands commands in Spanish.

"She's the Boggle champion of Texas and is working on a novel in her laundry room on an antiquated Kaypro typewriter."

Most of the action takes place on one block in Arlen, "where the most prominent features of the landscape are pickup trucks, motorboats, and riding mowers way too big for the lawns they serve."

It's typical of the 'burbs surrounding Texas cities-think Garland and Mesquite around Dallas, or Humble outside Houston.

"It used to be a small town with a main street, stoplight and courthouse," the sitcom's "Bible" adds. "But with the oil boom in the late '60s and '70s, the big city began to swallow it up and litter it with lumberyards, car dealerships, convenience stores, and cookie-cutter tract housing."

The archives reveal how the show's writers-with the aid of Judge, Dauterive, and Austin's Johnny Hardwick, who can explain such things-handled such challenges as explaining to a mystified international television audience (including Mexicans and Japanese) what exactly constitutes a chicken-fried steak, at what age a Texas boy can be expected to acquire his first gun, and not least, how many people Charles Whitman shot from the Texas Tower.

The simple art of drawing the characters also has rules that make the show distinct from other animated sitcoms. There are 60 rules "and growing." Among them:

-No looking into the camera.

-Do not hold mouth open during drinking.

-Do not hold eyes closed while drinking.

-Don't draw Peggy too sexy.

-Dale does not flip his shades up.

-No big horse teeth.

-No desert cacti tumbleweed shots-wrong for this part of Texas.

-Animals don't act human.

"We also get our ideas from the Internet, yawn, and by reading Texas publications like Texas Monthly, the big city papers, and small-town stuff like the Pflugerville Flag and the Johnson City Record Courier," the show's writers note. "We read The Onion, too, because we think it's funny."

Because it's funny-and because Dauterive says it's a "comfy, old chair"-"King of the Hill" is back for another season despite threats of annihilation.

"I don't know if this show could be pitched now. It's so crude, so unanimated. It shows the world passing people by, and they're trying to hold on to what's dear," Dauterive said.

One such holder is Myra Robles, 28, a Texas State graduate now living in Austin. She said "King of the Hill" resonates because, well, they are us.

"King of the Hill is almost a society. We (Texans) are used to making fun of ourselves ... in a way that lets everyone know we're OK with it," she said. "You either know someone like that, are related to someone like that, or you are someone like that."

Or live in a world like that. Next season, for example, look for an episode called "Trans Fascism," in which a turf war evolves outside Strickland Propane between a lunch truck touting a transfat-free lunch and one offering the usual transfat-laden meal.

"It won't be done in a pompous way," Dauterive said. "We leave that other stuff to Jon Stewart."

Susana Hayward is a former reporter for the Associated Press, the San Antonio Express-News, and Knight-Ridder. She lives in San Antonio.

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On a hot afternoon seven years ago, Vicente Fox went to Oaxaca to celebrate his presidential victory, which ended 71 years of one-party rule in Mexico. Thousands of Indians from Zapotec villages came to see the new president, who appeared in the plaza flanked by world leaders also hailed as champions of democracy, including Poland's Lech Walesa and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

Fox had likened his defeat of Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2000 to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

When Walesa flashed a victory sign from the podium, few knew who he was. But the brightly dressed Zapotecans roared like delirious rock fans when Chávez was introduced.

"Chávez! Chávez!" they chanted as the Venezuelan leader, wearing a white Panama hat and mirrored sunglasses, smiled coyly, being careful not to steal the limelight from Fox.

"Hugo Chávez is fighting in his country for a profound change, like we are doing here in Mexico, to end corruption," said Fox, a capitalist champion who once headed Coca-Cola in Mexico, of the former army paratrooper.

Strange bedfellows they may have been, but the Fox-Chávez dynamics exemplified how the former Venezuelan career military officer had obtained a popularity that reached even into small Mexican villages.

Hugo Chavez biography cover

Two years later, Mexico-Venezuela relations became strained after Chávez called Fox the "puppy dog of the empire," meaning, of course, the United States. The tension was typical of the polarizing emotions that Chávez could elicit with his loose tongue and undiplomatic outbursts.

Chávez was elected president on Dec. 6, 1998, at age 44. Six years earlier, he had gained notoriety after attempting to overthrow the government of Carlos Andrés Peréz, a political stalwart serving a second, nonconsecutive term that had mired Venezuela in economic disarray, popular unrest, and government corruption.

After almost a decade in power, Chávez remains an enigma for many. Vilified by critics as a Latin American dictator who wants to emulate his good friend Fidel Castro and hailed by supporters as a democrat bringing social and economic justice to the masses, Chávez has political observers in perpetual conjecture.

Veteran Venezuelan journalists Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka attempt to unravel the Chávez conundrum in the ambitiously titled biography, Hugo Chávez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President.

Drawing on interviews with childhood friends, family members, army buddies, an ex-lover, political loyalists, archenemies, and political foes, as well as news reports and excerpts from Chávez's diaries, Marcano and Barrera take on the complex personality of a man who emerged from relative obscurity to become one of Latin America's most influential and controversial leaders.

Chávez is notorious partly because he embodies the myths that have shaped much of Latin America history. He is, by turns, regarded as the seductive "anti-imperialist" revolutionary, the populist who defends the landless against the oligarchy, the military officer with illusions of grandeur, and, many now fear, the caudillo who won't step down.

The authors retrace widely reported events-Chávez's failed coup attempt, his rise to power, the survival of an attempted coup on his own government, and general strikes in 2003 and 2004.

But the heart of the biography is the authors' attempt to psychologically pinpoint where Chávez's revolutionary passion came from: What were defining moments of his youth? When did his political awareness begin? Who were his heroes and mentors?

Marcano and Barrera depict a confident, cocky man deemed "common" by the upper echelons of society-he's dark skinned, of Afro-indigenous descent-but also a leader often filled with self-doubt and remorse. He's naïve, rude, a jokester, and a seductive speaker; his speeches last longer than Castro's.

Before his election, Chávez never held political office. He showed no discernible interest in doing so growing up in a small town comprised of four streets and 1,000 people, "a place where cattle, ghosts, horses, and apparitions coexist," the authors write.

Chávez, the second of six brothers, was born on July 28, 1954, in Sabaneta, where children were brought into the world by midwives because there were no hospitals or clinics.

Chávez's father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, was a teacher at the only school in town, Julian Pino elementary. Family finances were shaky, so Chávez and oldest brother Adan were farmed out to live with their grandmother on his father's side, Rosa Ines, after Chávez was born.

Rosa Ines wasn't better off financially than his parents. Reportedly a good-humored, strong-willed, quiet woman, she prepared aranitas, or papaya sweets, that Chávez sold on the streets. Together they gathered mountain broom from the fields to sweep the home's dirt floor.

Chávez adored her, and she had a deep influence on him. He named his first daughter Rosa Ines. But what that influence may have been, exactly, isn't explored.

When his mother, Elena Frias, wanted her children to return home, the brothers instead opted to stay at grandma's. Chávez lived with Rosa Ines, whom he called "mama," until he left Sabaneta at age 17 to study at the state military academy, the army being the only option for a continuing education for boys of his social class.

Early separation from his mother has given rise to many hypotheses about Chávez's personality, the authors note. Many observers speculate that deep-seated maternal resentment fuels Chávez's fiery political rhetoric.

That remains speculative. In rural Latin nations, it's normal for children to be raised by extended-family members. Friends recall that Chávez was "poor but happy," a boy who loved to read, paint, and play baseball, an average student and "ugly duckling" who seldom stood out.

He was also an avid reader of Venezuelan and Latin America history at a time when tumultuous events gripped the region.

Chávez was 13 when the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary hero, Che Guevara, was captured and killed by Bolivian forces.

"Why doesn't Fidel send some helicopters to rescue him?" Chávez is quoted as saying in a 2004 interview.

He was also about 13 when he started hanging out with the children of Jose Esteban Ruiz, a communist intellectual who introduced Chávez to Karl Marx, Jacques Rousseau, Machiavelli's The Prince, and Ezequiel Zamora, the father of Venezuelan federalism.

During long hours in the Ruiz library, Chávez also discovered Simón Bolivar, the Venezuelan-born son of Spanish nobility who in the early 19th century organized military rebellions that led to independence from Spanish rule of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

While boys his age read Superman comic books, Chávez says he read Bolivar, widely known in South America as The Liberator.

When Chávez left Sabaneta to attend the Academy of Military Sciences in the capital of Caracas, he carried with him The Diary of Che Guevara. But his admiration of Bolivar is such that many people who know Chávez say it borders on "delirium."

"I Hugo Chávez, am not a Marxist, but I'm also not an anti-Marxist. I am not a communist, but I am not an anti-communist ... I am neither left-wing nor right-wing," he has said. "I am a Bolivarian."

It wasn't until 2005 that Chávez declared himself a socialist, invoking a 21st century socialism model that remains in its infant stage. But it clearly rests on Bolivar.

"What we propose is the idea of reclaiming this primordial notion, beneath the aegis of which our Republic was born. Simón Bolivar's idea," said Chávez in the Argentine newspaper La Nacion. "We don't need to go around copying other models from other latitudes. ... Bolivar had a pluripolar vision of the world."

From the biography, it appears Chávez's political ideas were crystallized at the military academy, where he and a group of friends created a left-wing workers party called the Radical Cause. As a sublieutenant, he graduated eighth in a class of 75 students in 1975 with degrees in military sciences and art, concentrating in engineering, land management, and communication, at which he excelled.

During these years Chávez's nationalism and anti-Americanism began to emerge, the writers note. But he was still hard to pin down.

"As far as anyone knows, Hugo Chávez began to lead a double life when he was around twenty-three," the authors write. "In the presence of military superiors, he would feign obedience and discipline. With his family, he pretended to be 'neutral,' as his mother put it, exhibiting no interest in politics. In his clandestine life, however, he was another person entirely, forging ties with left-wing activists, debating Venezuela's political future."

At the time, Chávez's older brother Adan, the one he grew up with in his grandmother's house, was a physics professor and activist in the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, a political party formed after Castro visited Venezuela in 1959. The long-haired, bearded ideologues didn't mix well with Chávez's uniform and short hair, but through Adan ties were established.

"We met on the basis of structuring a civilian-military movement that would make long-term plans for a revolutionary insurrection," Adan said.

In the early 1980s-the writers say the date is hard to ascertain-Chávez as a military instructor created the Bolivarian Revolutionary Army with a team of similar-thinking army officers, Francisco Arias, air force Maj. William Izarra, and loyal cadets.

Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution came to a head during the second term of Peréz, who was re-elected president in 1989. Peréz, the son of a coffee plantation owner who became politically active as a teenager during a period of repressive military rule, was a survivor, a "foxy politician" who won re-election even though his first term as president, from 1974 until 1979, became known as "Saudi Venezuela" for his administration's extravagant spending that exacerbated Venezuela's great economic inequalities.

The same problems assailed Venezuela during Peréz's second presidential term.

"We knew that the enemies of Venezuela were hunger, corruption, indigence, unemployment, and the misuse of our nation's immense riches," recalls Pedro Carreno, one of Chávez's students at the military academy. Chávez was a captain and instructor of Venezuelan military history, imparting not only the greatness of Bolivar, but also "free land, free men. Horror in the face of the oligarchy."

Chávez and Arias continued to lead the Bolivarian Revolutionary Army, all the time apparently under the radar as Chávez perfected plans to seize power. When Peréz was re-elected the second time around, the economic belt-tightening reforms invoked by international lending organizations, which had most of Latin America in a financial stranglehold, ruptured not only the poor but also the middle classes. Protests, riots, and looting broke out.

An earlier military conspiracy didn't pan out. Chávez and members of the Bolivarian Revolution were charged with plotting to assassinate Peréz and were arrested. They were released for lack of evidence.

Chávez then began graduate political science studies at Simon Bolivar University. His thesis proposal was on how to transition from authoritarian regimes to democracy. His military rank was then commander.

On Feb. 2, 1992, Chávez led a small band of rebel soldiers that tried to take over key military and communications installations in what today would seem like a comedy of errors, were it not for the 14 soldiers killed and dozens of others wounded.

"There were fourteen deaths. Fewer deaths than any weekend in Caracas, fewer deaths than those of the children who die of hunger every month in Venezuela," Chávez said years later. "Are your hands stained with blood, someone asked me. Yes my hands and everything is stained with blood."

Ironically, the resulting two years in jail provided Chávez with the audience he lacked in the military. Venezuelans, curious about the revolutionary army officer, began pilgrimages to the prison, where the authors report Chávez signed autographs as if he were a movie star.

He also extolled the virtues of Bolivar. Marcano and Barrera make much of Bolivar's influence on Chávez's political thought. But they fail to draw parallels which could be an essential element in understanding Chávez.

In Bolivar's "Cartagena Letter," the "Jamaica Letter" and the "Angostura Address," all still widely read, he makes a case for Latin American integration, a dream that never came to fruition.

Under Bolivar's vision of government, a republic would have a life-term president akin to a symbolic monarchy, while the legislative branches and cabinet ministers ran the government.

After his election, Chávez renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and proceeded to nationalize the oil, electricity, and communications industries. He also wants to end the central bank's autonomy to access foreign reserves and spend on social programs for the poor.

But what has raised flags is his proposal to change Article 236 of the Constitution from two six-year terms to indefinite seven-year periods, albeit through popular elections. These constitutional changes must be approved by the National Assembly, whose 167 members are mostly Chávez supporters, and then followed by approval in a popular referendum.

Chávez maintains he needs more time for socialism to take hold. He notes other nations, including France, also don't have presidential term limits.

"I propose to the sovereign people the seven-year presidential term; the president can be re-elected immediately for a new term," Chávez said recently. "If someone says this is a project to entrench oneself in power, no-it's only a possibility, a possibility that depends on many variables."

Key among those variables is the popular vote. As history has shown in Venezuela, voters haven't been pawns of their leaders.

Today Chávez heads one of several populist governments in Latin America. Socialist leaders rule in Argentina, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. All have differing demographics. But all were democratically elected and promised to address the needs of populations mired in great economic disparities brought on in large part by the one-size-fits-all austerity measures imposed by U.S. and international lending organizations over more than two decades.

The austerity measures required adherence to fixed exchange rates, high interest rates, and low inflation. Governments that didn't abide risked becoming pariahs and losing foreign aid.

With booming oil revenues estimated at $175 billion since he took office, Chávez has now begun spreading the wealth as loans and debt relief to many similarly minded Latin nations, strengthening the Bolivarian vision of Latin America integration.

The Bush administration has called Chávez a threat to regional stability, and Chávez has fired back numerous insults, calling Bush "Mr. Danger," a pendejo, and an alcoholic.

But money talks louder than ideological differences; Venezuela-U.S. trade is the highest in recent history, some $50 billion a year, mostly in oil exports.

"Chávez is an argumentative and confrontational figure, devoid of any public relations skills. He's incapable of self-censorship," said Larry Birns, director of the nonpartisan Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington that monitors U.S.-Latin American relations.

"But everything he does involves elections," Birns said in an interview. "The main ac usation is that he may be on the road to dictatorship. But it's difficult to discriminate to what is, isn't, or may become."

For now, Chávez continues to enjoy the support of most Venezuelans. According to polls, he is riding high after the 2006 presidential election that he won with 60 percent of the vote, cast by 75 percent of eligible voters.

"In the 'kingdom of socialism' that he has promised for Venezuela ... his popularity seems to know no end," the authors conclude. "The revolution still needs a quarter century to achieve its dreams. That, it seems, is its new destiny-for now."

Susana Hayward has covered Latin America and Mexico for the past 20 years, working for the Associated Press, The San Antonio Express-News, and Knight-Ridder.

[post_title] => The Conundrum in Caracas [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => 2611-the-conundrum-in-caracas [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2012-10-26 05:06:14 [post_modified_gmt] => 2012-10-26 05:06:14 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.texasobserver.org/2611-the-conundrum-in-caracas/ [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) ) [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 4540 [post_author] => 638 [post_date] => 2010-08-05 15:33:00 [post_date_gmt] => 2010-08-05 15:33:00 [post_content] =>

Eleven-year-old Ana was playing in the park near her house.

Her family sat on the front lawn and sipped cold drinks and talked about their day. Suddenly, the crackle of automatic gunfire rang out. With the chatter, the chirping and the sound of traffic muted by the blasts, Ana sped home on her bicycle.

There she found big men with big guns. The grass and cement had turned red with blood. Her aunt, her uncle and a cousin lay dying. Her mother, shot four times in the back, wished in silent agony that her daughter would run. But Ana, a long-limbed girl with dark hair to her waist, was frozen with terror. One of the gunmen held an AK-47 against her temple.

Time stood still.

The most remarkable event of that summer day in Ciudad Juarez was not that people were executed. No, that happens every day.

The most remarkable thing was that one of the killers showed mercy.

“One of them said, ‘Don’t kill her,’” recalled Juan, Ana’s father, who asked that his family’s real names not be used for fear of retaliation. Ana and her brother, father and permanently disabled mother survived. But they knew they had to leave Juarez.

 

The family had bought it’s home in a government-funded neighborhood 15 years earlier. Since then, they say, the neighborhood had become increasingly derelict. Strangers came and went at all hours. New neighbors moved in who weren’t like the working-class families who originally bought into the neighborhood.

Juan says that the gunmen on that day in 2009 pulled up in white SUVs. They said they were looking for the owner of a red truck. His brother-in-law had a red truck, and now Juan thinks he was the target.

“People were scared,” Juan said. “There was another red truck in the neighborhood, maybe they confused it. I don’t know. It happened so fast. There were more than 100 shots fired.” He was doing repairs inside the house when the shooting started.

“While all this was happening, there was a military checkpoint at the corner and they didn’t do anything,” Juan added. “The ambulance took 40 minutes to arrive.”

Afterward, Juan went to the police station to see if they’d done anything. He says they told him not to cause trouble or the gunmen would return to kill him and his family. “They said, ‘Leave it alone, let it all go, leave all your material things behind while you’re still alive,’” Juan said.

Juan, like thousands of other Juarez residents, faced a dilemma. Gunmen had attacked his family and could come back. The police offered no protection, telling him to leave town or die.

The 40-year-old had a “laser visa,” a border-crossing card that allowed him and his family to visit the United States. After spending weeks in hiding, and once his wife could be moved from a Juarez hospital, the family crossed the border to El Paso and safety. He took his wife to University Hospital for further treatment, where he slept in his car in the parking lot. The night guards found him and called Annunciation House, a shelter for asylum seekers.

Thus began Juan’s life as a refugee, caught in a purgatory grown from the worst in politics, crime and international law.

 

The relationship between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso is a complicated tale of two cities. They are linked by history, family and trade. A steel wall forms a barrier along parts of the border, but bridges connect the two inextricably. Juarez, home to 1.3 million people, once offered attractive shopping and a vibrant nightlife; its residents enjoyed the numerous city parks. El Paso, population 750,000, offered many American-style comforts and cheaper household goods.

For centuries residents of El Paso and Juarez considered themselves part of the same community, if not the same country. Over the last four years, though, drug wars have divided the cities like never before. Juarez businesses are boarded up, many with “For Sale” signs. No one is buying. After 5 p.m., only those with urgent business are out and about. Most people are hiding in their homes, praying that gunmen will not pay a visit. Juarez, the epicenter of Mexico’s drug war, has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world; El Paso remains one of the safest.

The violence started after conservative President Felipe Calderon took office on Dec. 1, 2006. Soon afterward, the United States put enormous pressure on Mexico to crack down on drug trafficking, and Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers to the border. Two years later, the U.S. gave Mexico $1.4 billion in military and intelligence equipment under the Merida Initiative, signed by President George W. Bush, to fight the cartels. Since then, the violence has escalated.

The focus has been on Juarez, where experts say at least 70 percent of the cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines consumed in America cross the border. That crackdown has sparked drug wars in Mexico that have claimed more than 25,000 lives since 2006—including more than 6,000 in Juarez since 2008.

The rate of killing continues to climb, with more and more innocent people in the crossfire. Competing gangs of narco-traffickers grow more and more creative in how they kill, maim and terrorize anyone in their way, or anyone who might be, or anyone who simply knows someone who may or may not be involved in the drug war. The trafficker’s dictum is simple, Plata o Plomo, “Money or Lead.”

On July 15, the cartels used their first car bomb in Juarez, apparently detonated by a cell phone, killing two police officers and a medic and signaling yet another escalation in tactics. Four days later, gunmen opened fire on a birthday party in Torreon, in Coahuila, a state on the Texas border. Seventeen people were killed, and 18 others were wounded in a hail of gunfire. They were reportedly in their 20s and 30s and had organized the party on Facebook.

At a meeting of Mexican and U.S. health officials in El Paso on July 21, Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferris said the drug violence “has become a public-health issue and is one of the main causes of death in the region.” No one knows how many Juarez residents have fled the city because of the violence, but estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000.

Mexican officials say the problem is not theirs alone. “The origin of our violence problem starts with the fact that Mexico is located next to the country that has the highest level of drug consumption in the world,” President Felipe Calderon wrote in a 5,000-word editorial printed on June 16 throughout Mexico. “It’s as if our neighbor were the biggest drug addict in the world.”

While Juarez’s violence was triggered by the troop deployment, and by funding from the United States, Mexicans seeking refuge in their sister city find that the U.S. government is unwilling to help the victims of the violence.

 

When Juan crossed the border, he didn’t tell the border guards his family was seeking asylum; his crossing card meant he didn’t need to. He also knew that sharing his fears could land his family in a detention cell. So he acted as if it was just a daily trip allowed by all laser visa holders. Then, he found refuge at Annunciation House, a shelter for asylum seekers established in 1978, when civil wars were spreading in Central America.

“We have nothing left in Juarez. We have nothing here either, but it’s safer,” Juan says. He works odd jobs as a carpenter, landscaper, whatever he can get.

“If immigration catches me, I will go to another country, but I can’t go back to Mexico because they will kill us,” he says. “The narcos, the Mexican government, they know everything. Everything’s corrupt.”

Technically, Juan has until September to apply for asylum. But he’s not sure he wants to attract the attention of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The process takes a lot of time and money. And he knows the U.S. rarely grants Mexicans asylum.

So far, 11,000 Mexicans have sought asylum, and tens of thousands more have crossed the border fearing for their lives. They include people with visas, people like Juan who overstay their visas, people who seek asylum and people who are afraid to seek asylum. They are rich, poor, professionals, students, journalists and police officers—in short, the people who make up any community anywhere in the world. They are the displaced, uncounted victims of the war on drugs.

Of those who have sought asylum in the United States, only 2 percent have gained permission to stay. That compares with 40 percent of Colombians who apply after fleeing drug-related violence in their country.

“There are four types of Mexican citizens in El Paso: those who have legalized their status, those who have resident visas because they are students, professionals or business people, and there are those with border-crossing cards who either live in El Paso and work in Juarez, or stay in El Paso illegally,” said Gustavo de la Rosa, the human rights ombudsman for the Mexican government in Juarez.

De la Rosa’s job is to investigate abuse accusations against government officials. He sleeps in El Paso for his safety but goes to work in Juarez during the day with bodyguards. Wealthy Mexicans, he says, usually have visas, resident status or relatives who are U.S. citizens. They can afford El Paso rents that are three times the rates in Mexico. (Since the drug wars began, real estate prices along the border are up 20 to 40 percent in urban areas.)

“You say you are going to visit family. You stay in El Paso and pay rent, but you’re not absolutely legal and (U.S. officials) know it,” de la Rosa said. “There are certain illegalities that are tolerated by the U.S.”

If you can afford it.

Poor Mexicans are not so lucky. So for now, Juan and his family are among 90 people from Mexico hiding in one of the homes run by Annunciation.

 

The numbers make it clear that not all of those killed and wounded in Mexico are drug traffickers. Pablo Hernandez Batista, a veteran reporter with the Juarez newspaper El Norte, says that at the beginning of the war in 2006, the murder of innocents was rare.

“These conditions started changing around 2008 when the trained gunmen of criminal organizations were either killed or arrested,” Batista said. “The cartels started hiring people with little experience firing automatic weapons, or people from other parts of the country. Many new sicarios (hired gunmen) are young gang members with no knowledge of an AK-47, and that’s when the rate of innocent victims started to climb.”

El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector points to another factor. He says the violence escalated after the United States lifted a 10-year ban on 19 types of assault weapons in 2004. Since only the police and the military are allowed to own guns in Mexico, the United States became the most convenient place for cartels to buy illicit weapons, with large quantities on offer for low prices.

“There’s so much money, so much opportunity in drugs and guns,” Spector said. “The drug traffickers haven’t changed the rules of the game. They play by them. ... These guys are evil geniuses.”

Batista says the cartels use indiscriminate violence to strike terror into the civilian population. Like any violent insurgency, cartel leaders want to demonstrate that they are in control, with more powerful weapons than the government. They want to prove that the drug war is futile. “It’s the premeditated murder of people who have nothing to do with drug trafficking. It’s narcoterrorism,” said Batista, who covered the car bombing in Juarez, which wounded a colleague. “Their objective is to terrorize the population and create the perception in the community that anyone can be a victim of the cartels.”

With every escalation by the cartels, President Calderon must respond in kind to demonstrate his government’s authority.

“The government declares a war against the cartels, who respond with more executions, kidnappings and extortion to recuperate capital,” Batista said. “And that’s what began the human exodus.”

Nonetheless, the Mexican government and the U.S. State Department insist that most of the dead belong to drug-trafficking organizations. This is an important declaration by both governments, because if they admit that the violence in Mexico involves more than just the government and criminals, then international law could require the United States to treat the victims fleeing for their lives very differently.

 

The U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, an international treaty signed by the United States, requires governments to provide shelter and safety to international refugees until their fears are no longer justified.

The convention defines a refugee as a “person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The United States denies Mexicans refugee status by arguing that they aren’t fleeing communism or a civil war, and that their only “political” opinion is fear of traffickers and their henchmen or the military and police. The convention doesn’t mention criminal violence. So while the United States has recognized that the drug violence in Colombia is linked to a civil war, the Obama administration views the Mexican violence as purely criminal. Thus, Mexicans fleeing for their lives have to prove to an immigration judge that they have suffered past persecution, or have a well-founded fear of future persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Fear of death is not enough.

Some observers of the Mexican drug wars not only believe that civilians fleeing the violence should qualify as refugees, but also see the cartels’ violence becoming more political. Neither Mexico nor the United States wants to admit to a political dimension in the drug war or to admit that Mexico can’t protect its citizens. And since immigration is a big issue in U.S. politics, the Obama administration has no interest in admitting Mexican refugees.

“They’d have to acknowledge there’s a war going on and that Merida is not working,” said Eduardo Beckett, the head lawyer at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.

Beckett says more than 400 people have asked him for help since January. “They are asylum-seekers, people who fear they will be killed, people who were shot or were wounded. Many are police informants or failed informants. Women with children, business owners and workers. They have received threats from cartels or criminal organizations that have ties to corrupt Mexican government officials,” he said. “We can get some of them non-immigrant visas; some go to shelters or with family. They say, ‘Give me a hand.’ For us on the border, El Paso and Juarez are the same city, so they come and they hope they don’t get caught.”

 

One case that illustrates the difficulties of receiving asylum, and how things may change, involves Emilio Gutierrez Soto. A journalist, he fled his hometown of Ascension, 98 miles west of Juarez, last year with his 15-year-old son after the military threatened his life for writing about their abuses. He requested asylum at the small border crossing of Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

Gutierrez landed in ICE detention in El Paso for seven months. He was separated from his son, who was locked up for two months. Because of an outcry by journalist organizations, he was ultimately released, pending a hearing next year on his asylum eligibility.

“The overt policy of the U.S. government is to discourage Mexican asylum applicants,” said Spector, the immigration lawyer who is representing Gutierrez. “The judges here have a learning curve because they don’t believe what they’re hearing. They say, ‘How can this be, this nightmare you’re presenting?’ And then there’s the fear that the floodgates will open, as with the immigration debate.”

Spector says Gutierrez is his strongest asylum case. A victory could set a precedent by proving that the Mexican government can’t protect one of its citizens.

Threats against Gutierrez began in January 2005, when he wrote about soldiers accompanying a known kidnapper to storm a lodge in Las Palomas. They stole jewelry and other items from the guests and threatened to kill them. After he wrote the story, a senior military officer threatened to kill Gutierrez if he wrote another story about the army. His newspaper, Diario del Noroeste, ran the headline “High-ranking officials threatened to kill the correspondent in Ascension.” For the next two years, Gutierrez filed formal complaints with the state and the national human rights office.

“I was naive. I had confidence all that time that the government would help me, because we have institutions that protect citizens,” Gutierrez, 41, said in an interview in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The threats mounted, and one night the military ransacked his home, taking files and documents and destroying furniture.

“They told me, ‘Get on the floor!’ and they said this will be the last time I write about them,” he says. “I realized then that if I hung on, it would be the end.” That night he drove with his son to the border and asked U.S. officials to help him, never realizing he would be jailed.

Now on Saturdays Gutierrez runs the desk at the El Paso bureau of Juarez’s El Diario. But mostly he sells burritos that he and his son make in the mornings. They take them door to door to businesses in Las Cruces, where he awaits his hearing. When he can, he travels the United States telling his story, and that of other Mexican journalists.

Thirty-three journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2006, and 17 went missing this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“I have to survive,” Gutierrez said. “None of us wants to leave Mexico, our lives, our jobs. But those who are able to cross the border have no other alternative ... The worst is knowing I can probably never go back. They took my country away.”

 

Spector, like many lifelong El Paso residents, believes the United States can’t continue to seal its borders while it finances a war that Mexican citizens can’t escape.

“What is it going to take to stop this? Another revolution? Brace yourself,” Spector said. “It’s all a fraud and it’s coming unglued, and each month, every day, it’s worse.”

Many Mexicans and Americans believe the solution is to decriminalize some drugs, but that is a far-off possibility. In the meantime, Calderon—with U.S. backing—remains intent on violently cracking down on the cartels.

“I think Mexico is going through the most violence since the Mexican Revolution,” said Anthony Payan, a political scientist and border expert at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“It’s a bi-national problem, but essentially it’s an American war being fought in a foreign territory, like all our other wars,” he said. “The war on drugs that began with Nixon is an official policy of prohibition. And it’s our longest war, but it doesn’t mesh with America’s social tolerance and attitude toward drugs.”

With no lessening of violence in sight, what will the U.S. government do to help the victims of its war in Mexico? Under pressure from human rights organizations, the Obama administration issued a new policy for ICE in January to change the formula for arresting and jailing asylum applicants fleeing persecution. It allows discretion in determining what happens to someone with “credible fear” of persecution in their native country.

ICE officials now say they will “generally release arriving asylum seekers.” Thus, if a Mexican citizen at a U.S. border checkpoint tells an officer he or she wants asylum, the officer may allow entry without formally admitting the person or assigning them an immigration status. The officer can also grant “automatic consideration for parole.” But that’s the case only if the officer believes the asylum seeker. No matter what happens, the immigrant will still be detained, often in solitary, and still have to appear before an immigration judge, who will determine whether a credible fear exists.

While these reforms are important, they still leave ICE agents and immigration judges enormous leeway, and it is too early to tell whether Mexican refugees are actually being judged any differently under the new policy.

In the meantime, Ana and her family wait in limbo in the shelter in El Paso, not knowing where the future will take them. The Mexican government’s attacks on the cartels appear to have had little influence on the availability of drugs in the United States. Drugs move north, money changes hands, and guns and profits go south. The violence gets worse. And a little girl hides, developing ulcers and growing depressed.

“We’re just grateful she’s alive,” her mother said.

Susana Hayward spent 10 years covering Mexico for the Associated Press, Knight-Ridder newspapers and the San Antonio Express-News. She is a freelance reporter based in San Antonio.

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