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Immigrants marching for immigration reform in Austin.
Priscila Mosqueda
March for Immigration reform in Austin

Because of the government’s failure to reform immigration laws, faith leaders said Wednesday in a press call with media that they are building a new nationwide sanctuary movement and urging churches across the country to offer shelter to immigrants facing deportation.

The rebirth of the sanctuary movement began in Arizona in May when 36-year-old Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, who was born in Mexico, sought refuge in the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. After nearly a month of living in the church, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials granted Neyoy Ruiz a one-year reprieve from deportation.

Currently, Rosa Robles Loreto, a mother of two young boys, is living at the Tucson church trying to fight her deportation to Mexico. Robles said she has lived in Tucson for the last 15 years. “My goal is to stay with my husband and children because they need me,” she said in the press call today. “My struggle goes further than from my immediate family, and it is a call and a national petition so that others can also have hope and establish their lives here, where we have already lived for so long.”

Arizona, specifically Tucson, was the birthplace of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s when thousands of Central Americans fleeing civil wars sought asylum in the United States. Many of the refugees were detained in prisons then deported to their war-torn countries where the U.S. was involved in providing funding and weapons to governments and forces viewed as anti-communist. The founding of the movement is credited in part to Rev. John Fife, minister at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. Fife spurred other religious leaders to defy federal immigration laws and offer sanctuary to refugees at churches, spurring a powerful resistance movement that spread to Texas and other states.

In the press call Wednesday, faith leaders said the violence many immigrants are facing back home is just as dire as it was more than 30 years ago. They said the current movement is rapidly growing, from two churches in Arizona to 24 congregations promising sanctuary and another 60 faith-based groups offering support.

Rev. Noel Andersen, grassroots coordinator with Church World Service, a faith-based humanitarian agency, said faith leaders are reaching out to Texas congregations to join the movement but none have accepted yet. “We don’t have anyone in Texas but that could change in the coming weeks,” he said.

Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian said the deportations are destroying families across the country. Each day, the U.S. government deports at least 1,000 people, according to government statistics. “In Arizona we have witnessed again and again the destruction of families through inhumane deportation practices. Responding to the commands of our faith to love our neighbors, congregations throughout the state are declaring sanctuary for undocumented individuals like Rosa Robles Loreto who have final orders of deportation.”

Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson, blamed elected officials for failing to act on comprehensive immigration reform. “The system has to be fixed,” he said. “There’s been nothing but cowardice on the part of House leadership who won’t even allow a vote on the Senate bill that while flawed deserves a vote.” Grijalva also blamed President Obama for delaying his executive action on immigration until after the election. “It was the wrong move,” he said. “The sanctuary movement is a response to the lack of action. It is a response to the humanity of the issue. And I think it is going to be a cornerstone in pushing the decency of the American people to demand of its elected officials to do something.”

Faith leaders who took part in the announcement included: Rabbi Linda Holtzman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, Rev. Julian DeShazier of University Church Chicago, Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church, Rev. Gradye Parsons, the highest elected official in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A as well as Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona’s 3rd District.

The group said that sanctuary is currently being provided to immigrants in Phoenix, Tucson, Chicago and Portland. Churches in the following cities are providing support: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, New York, Oakland, Portland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle and Tucson.

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A backpack found on the Cage Ranch in Brooks County.
Jen Reel
A backpack left behind by a migrant in Brooks County

The Texas National Guard has deployed a team to Brooks County to conduct search and rescue operations for migrants lost in the brush.

Law enforcement has recovered more than 400 bodies since 2009 in the rural county 60 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border. Every year, thousands of migrants try to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint in Brooks County by walking through rugged, isolated ranchland. Many die during the journey from heat exposure and thirst.

The deployment is a separate operation from the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Operation Strong Safety and the National Guard soldiers deployed by Gov. Perry to the border, according to a DPS press release. Specially trained teams of 20 to 25 guardsmen will conduct search and rescue missions in the county when requested by the Brooks County Sheriff’s office. The National Guard didn’t say how long the deployment to Brooks County would last.

Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Brooks County, said the guard deployment could save lives. “We welcome any assistance in search and rescue in Brooks County,” he says.“We’re very interested at the center in seeing how this works, and how they work with Border Patrol and the sheriff’s office.”

Canales believes the guard will mostly focus on 9-1-1 distress calls from the brush, which are received by the sheriff’s office. In the past, the Border Patrol has been criticized for taking two hours or longer to respond to distress calls, or in some cases not responding at all.

Another area where they need help is with missing persons reports, Canales says. The center received a dozen phone calls from relatives of missing migrants over the summer. But callers often have so little information about where their loved one went missing or fell ill in the county that it’s difficult—if not impossible—for law enforcement to locate them.

“I just received a call for someone who disappeared on the 18th of September,” he says. “But the only information we have about where he went missing is that it was near the checkpoint.”

Canales says families need help but he’s unsure what the National Guard search and rescue team can do in these cases with so little information. “What is the process to request a search and rescue deployment?” he asks. “I’m exploring all of the avenues right now, hoping they can help.”

Rick Perry at Swift Camp
Gov. Perry surveys the GOP terrain.

As part of his continuing get-tough-on-the-border campaign, Gov. Rick Perry addressed several dozen National Guard soldiers today in a sweltering hangar at the Camp Swift training facility near Bastrop. While he provided little in the way of information on his deployment of troops to the Rio Grande Valley, he did provide some striking visuals for his presidential bid.

The press had been invited to attend presumably to learn more about Perry’s deployment of the National Guard to the border. But as we all stood fanning ourselves in a metal hangar in mid-August, the only new piece of information we gleaned was that 2,200 guardsmen have volunteered for the deployment and will be sent in rotation—1,000 soldiers at a time. There was no talk about rules of engagement, or what exactly the troops will be doing, or how long they will be on the border. When asked when they might be deployed, Perry said he didn’t want to tip the cartels off.

We did learn about the federal government’s inability to secure the border and how the good people of Iowa and South Carolina, not just Texas, are scarred by illegal immigration. Incidentally Iowa and South Carolina are key presidential primary states that Perry has been barnstorming in the past few weeks, always a few steps behind the competition Sen. Ted Cruz.

Lately, Perry’s been enjoying a political boost from the “border crisis” and it’s no secret he’s considering a 2016 presidential bid. Since he announced last month that he’d send 1,000 National Guard soldiers to the border, the governor has received standing ovations from some GOP voters. Never mind that the influx of Central American children and families, which constitute the recent “border crisis,” are mostly presenting themselves to immigration officials and asking for asylum.

It was clear Wednesday that Perry—with such a bump in the polls—couldn’t pass up another photo op with the National Guard. And even better, have it in a controlled setting on a military facility in Bastrop far from the border where he might face protesters who don’t want their communities turned into a war zone.

What Perry wanted the press to know today is that he’s protecting the nation from the “tentacles” of “narco terrorists.” The cost to Texas taxpayers isn’t an issue, he said, “because Texans support a secure border.” In a not-so-curious stroke of timing, Perry also released a web ad last week, paid for by his new RickPAC. The ad is all about border security and features numerous talking heads from Fox News, making Perry look like the last line of defense from the horde of brown invaders from south of the border.

After the press conference, the media were herded on to buses and taken to a firing range to watch Gov. Perry look through the viewfinder of what appeared to be a large box draped in camouflage. We were told by a National Guard public information officer that the contraption provides “specialized training for enhanced optics.” It was the only glimpse we were allowed into what the soldiers will be doing on the border. Regardless, the “border crisis” has provided plenty of “enhanced optics” for Perry’s presidential ambitions.

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Ted Cruz at a wildly popular event in the convention's exhibition hall.
photo by Tim Faust

The Republican leadership in the House suffered an embarrassing setback Thursday after being unable to muster enough votes to pass a $659 million emergency supplemental spending bill for the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America. Now, Republican leaders say they’ll try again Friday to pass the spending bill.

Capitol Hill reporters described the scene at the Capitol as “embarrassing” and “chaotic” as Republican leaders pulled the bill down then met in the basement in a desperate attempt to muster votes before they adjourn for five weeks.

Republican leaders loaded the bill with plenty of red meat to appeal to the most extreme faction of their party. The measure guts a 2008 anti-trafficking law that protects vulnerable Central American children from being immediately deported. Leadership also offered a bill to stop the expansion of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportation for young undocumented immigrants, also know as Dreamers. The sentiment of Republicans seems to be “deport ‘em all” but this wasn’t enough to appease the party’s most conservative House Republicans, who had a tea party in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office yesterday. Cruz wants to see DACA completely defunded.

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the congressional debacle a “sad day for America” during a press conference Thursday for reporters.

“Instead of choosing immigration reform the House has decided to pass bills that will deport vulnerable children—both those who have recently arrived and those who have lived among us for years. This is a defining moment in the national debate. The real issue here is ‘who we are as Americans?’ As leaders in human rights protections we often instruct other nations to receive refugees or protect human rights of people, yet we see child refugees on our own border and we respond in an inhumane way.”

 

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Courtesy of Artesia Chamber of Commerce
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia that houses the temporary detention facility

An immigration attorney, working with Central American asylum seekers, in a newly opened detention facility says it’s becoming clear that the U.S. government is doing whatever it can to deport families as quickly as possible and only going through the motions when it comes to the asylum seekers.

Immigration attorney Shelley Wittevrongel, a former nun, was one of the first to volunteer to help Central American women and children pro bono at a newly opened detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico. The isolated detention center is located at a U.S. Border Patrol training facility about 200 miles from the Mexican border. It currently houses about 400 Central American women and children, according to media reports.

In Artesia, Wittevrongel has 10 clients and a list of 20 other women who have asked for legal representation. From the beginning, Wittevrongel says she has struggled to represent her clients in an isolated facility with no access to photocopiers, scanners or a place to file documents. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who have been deployed from across the country to staff the detention facility have been courteous and helpful to attorneys but they’ve made it known that their goal is to deport the families as quickly as possible. “The officer in charge told me, ‘I want you to know that all of these people are going to be deported,’” says Wittevrongel. “He said, ‘Our job is to get them deported and there’s maybe one in 1,000 entitled to stay in the United States, and the rest are going to go,’” she says.

Wittevrongel was startled by the admission. “I told him, ‘I appreciate you giving me such a clear statement about it because the whole place feels that way.’”

All 10 of Wittvrongel’s clients had signed a form while in Border Patrol custody, agreeing to expedited removal, a fast-track process to deportation. “They are kept two or three days in custody at the border and processed under difficult, cramped conditions,” she says. “A client told me she was held for several hours in a room with several other women and children. They called her in at 3:00 a.m. and told her to sign the papers. She told me she was so tired and confused she had no idea what she was signing.”

Once someone has agreed to expedited removal it’s extremely difficult to avoid deportation, says Dan Kowalski, an Austin-based immigration attorney. “Statistically it’s hard to overturn,” he says.

Another step in the process that has been cut short, Wittevrongel says, is the credible fear interview, in which an U.S. asylum officer determines whether the immigrant has a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The interview is one of the most important steps in the asylum process. If a person doesn’t pass a credible fear interview he or she will not be able to present their asylum case before a judge. There is a chance for appeal but it’s rarely granted. Many of the women are fleeing extreme violence and persecution and have been traumatized in their home countries and on the journey to the United States. The law requires that the fear of persecution be “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

But the type of violence afflicting Central America and Mexico doesn’t often fit neatly within these categories. Honduras, currently the lead country in the number of refugees arriving, has the highest murder rate in the world. But the violence is caused by a nexus of organized crime, street gangs and corrupt politicians. It takes time for Central Americans to relate their stories of persecution and explain the links between government and crime in their communities. “You’re interviewing traumatized people,” Wittevrongel says. “Typically, these type of credible fear interviews take several hours.”

Women are also forced to meet with the asylum officers accompanied by their children. This makes it difficult for them to focus on the interview and difficult to emphasize to the asylum officer the danger in their home countries. “They’re trying to protect their children,” Wittevrongel says. “They don’t want to say in front of them that they might be killed if they’re sent back, and it’s already likely they’re going to be deported.”

Some of her clients are deported before she can even meet with them for the first time, she says. “Yesterday I asked to see a client but she had already been sent back.” Another client told her that last week 80 women and children were woken up at 1:00 a.m., placed on a bus to the airport and flown back to Central America on a chartered plane. One woman, however, was allowed to stay at the last moment in the United States. She hadn’t passed her credible fear finding, but a judge disagreed with the asylum officer’s ruling and allowed her to continue her asylum case. “One out of 80,” Wittevrongel says. “That gives you an idea of the odds of staying.”

The 72-year-old immigration attorney says she left her home in Boulder, Colorado, to volunteer in Artesia so that the families can have “full access to what the law provides.” The families deserve a chance before they are sent back to the violence and persecution that forced them to flee their home countries. But unfortunately, the process at Artesia seems more like window dressing than what the law requires. “It’s more hurry up and deport than giving them their full due process,” she says.

The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan
Photo from Sheriff Trevino’s Facebook page.
The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan

Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño, the former sheriff of Hidalgo County and once one of the most powerful lawmen on the border, was sentenced to five years in jail Thursday and a $60,000 fine for money laundering. The sentencing of the former sheriff capped off a two-year corruption scandal that included his son Jonathan Treviño and several other members of law enforcement in the Rio Grande Valley.

First elected in 2005, the 65-year-old Treviño was forced to resign in March after being charged by federal prosecutors. Treviño pleaded guilty in April to one count of money laundering. According to prosecutors, he took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a Weslaco drug trafficker named Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez.

At the sentencing, Treviño—who had won his last election with 80 percent of the vote—apologized to voters, his family and fellow law enforcement officers and told U.S. District Court Judge Micaela Alvarez at the McAllen hearing that he was “embarrassed” and “remorseful,” according to Sergio Chapa, from the Rio Grande Valley’s KGBT-TV.

In December 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI arrested the sheriff’s son, Jonathan Treviño, a former Mission police officer. Jonathan’s arrest sparked two years of speculation among Valley residents about whether the sheriff was involved in illegal activities, which he repeatedly denied.

Since at least 2006, Jonathan Treviño had run a street-level narcotics task force called the Panama Unit in Hidalgo County. In March 2013, Jonathan and other officers associated with the Panama Unit—including five Hidalgo County deputies—were indicted for “conspiring to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine. Treviño and other Panama Unit members are now serving time in federal prison.

Former deputy Miguel Flores was at Treviño’s sentencing Thursday. He became an FBI informant after Jonathan Treviño and members of the Panama Unit tried to recruit him in 2012. Now a corporal with the La Joya Police Department, Flores told the Observer that Treviño’s five-year sentence was fair. But he said corruption is still a problem in the Rio Grande Valley. “I believe it will send a message but not everyone will get it,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)

In the last decade, U.S. Border Patrol has become one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation. But regulatory oversight and transparency haven’t kept pace. Border residents complain of civil rights abuses including body cavity searches and other harassment at immigration checkpoints. Border Patrol shootings have also increased. Since January 2010, at least 28 people have been killed by agents, some shot in the back while standing in Mexico, according to the ACLU. But for anyone with a grievance against the federal agency, there’s little remedy other than a lawsuit. In March, two border congressional leaders—one a Republican and the other a Democrat—filed a bill to make the Border Patrol more accountable to the public and to require better use-of-force training and oversight for its agents.

Whether the bill will make it through a Congress deeply divided on anything border-related is questionable. But Congressman Steve Pearce (R-NM), cosponsor of the bill along with Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), is pragmatic about its chances. So far, he’s the only Republican signed on to House Resolution 4303, known as the Border Enforcement Accountability, Oversight, and Community Engagement Act of 2014. “Immigration is one of the hottest, most volatile issues,” Pearce says. “So it’s not like we think it’s going to automatically pass.”

To date, six Democrats have pledged support, and in April the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, where it remains. Even if it doesn’t pass, Pearce says, it still sends a message many Republicans can get behind: that federal overreach—which is sometimes literal—needs to be reined in. “The Border Patrol agents are very arrogant, and I can’t tell you how many constituents I’ve had in my office complaining,” Pearce says. “I’ve had constituents subjected to body cavity searches.”

HR 4303 would require the agency to create a Border Community Liaison Office to field complaints and a committee to evaluate Border Patrol training and use-of-force policies, and to report to Congress on agent-related deaths. Momentum for reform is growing. Under pressure from lawmakers and human rights groups, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the umbrella agency of Border Patrol, recently released a highly critical report by an independent auditor evaluating the agency’s use-of-force policies. The report found that in some cases agents stepped in front of moving vehicles to justify shooting, and that other agents shot at people throwing rocks when they could have simply moved out of the way. “I think this bill—even if it doesn’t pass—communicates its own message to the Border Patrol,” Pearce says. “People are watching. And as other legislators learn more about the bill there’s going to be a predominant opinion that something needs to be done.”

Migrantchildren
Eugenio del Bosque
Mexican children waiting in Reynosa after being deported by the U.S.

President Obama issued a presidential memo Monday calling the huge number of unaccompanied children crossing the border—primarily into Texas—an “urgent humanitarian situation.” The White House announced it will put the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge of coordinating federal agencies to respond to the growing crisis.

Thousands of unaccompanied children—the majority between 7 and 18—are fleeing deteriorating security and economic conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are primarily arriving in the Rio Grande Valley—the shortest distance from Central America to the U.S. border. The number of children has been climbing since 2009 from an average of 8,000 a year to an estimated 60,000 or more children in 2014.

In a media conference call arranged by the White House, Cecilia Muñoz, the White House director of domestic policy, said President Obama issued the memo to unify federal agencies and provide for a coordinated response. Muñoz acknowledged that the growing number of children crossing the border alone was not a new phenomenon, but the scale in the last few months caught the government off guard. “The number of children coming is much larger than we anticipated,” she said. “It’s a 90 percent increase from last year and we are seeing more girls and more children under the age of 13 compared to previous years.”

In response to the growing crisis, the Department of Defense opened the Lackland Air Force Base two weeks ago in San Antonio to house as many as 1,200 children. The government also plans to fly children to a naval base in Ventura County, California, which can serve as an emergency shelter for up to 600 children, said Mark Greenberg, assistant secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children and Families, the agency primarily in charge of caring for the unaccompanied children. The nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services will care for the children at Lackland, Greenberg said.

Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, said the goal is that no child be in Border Patrol detention for more than 72 hours, when the law mandates that the child be transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a shelter that is appropriate for children. Currently, Border Patrol stations are at capacity or overflowing in South Texas with children in need of assistance. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is struggling with the overflow, Fugate said. “They are backing up in facilities that were never designed for children.”

 

CarlosSpectorOffice
Carlos Spector in his El Paso office

El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector represents more than 100 families who have fled violence in Mexico. Many were forced to flee while investigating the disappearances of their loved ones by the military or law enforcement.

In Mexico, 98 percent of murder cases are never investigated or solved by the authorities. Even fewer cases are investigated when the disappearances or murders are linked to soldiers or law enforcement. Families who investigate on their own often risk their lives.

This was the case for the Alvarado Espinoza family from the small town of San Buenaventura 170 miles south of Juarez. On December 29, 2009, Mexican soldiers forced 32-year-old Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza and her cousin Jose Angel Alvarado into a military vehicle. Another cousin Rocio Irene Alvarado was also picked up the same day, according to a petition filed with the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Their families haven’t seen them since and the Mexican military won’t provide any answers. So the family took it upon themselves to investigate the disappearances. But soon they began to receive death threats. Ultimately, they were forced to flee to the United States and seek political asylum.

Seeking justice in Mexico from the United States adds another layer of difficulty and frustration for families in exile. The three daughters of the disappeared Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza—18-year-old twins Mitzi and Nitza and fifteen-year-old Deisy who now live in the United States—formed a group called Hijos de Desaparecidos (children of the disappeared) to pressure Mexican officials to investigate the disappearance of their mother and countless others. The Mexican government estimates there are as many as 27,000 disappeared in Mexico since the drug war violence began in 2006. But many Mexican activists suspect the number is much higher since most families are too scared and distrustful of the authorities to report disappearances.

So it was a significant event last week when a Mexican federal law enforcement official, Salomon Baltazar, came to El Paso to meet with relatives of missing men and women. Baltazar was appointed in 2013 as the head of the newly-formed Special Unit to Search for Disappeared Persons within Mexico’s Attorney General’s office. For the first time, Baltazar traveled to the United States to take complaints and testimony from the Alvarado Espinoza family and other exiles searching for missing relatives. During a short press conference at the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Baltazar said officials in Mexico were committed to investigating the missing persons cases. Baltazar’s meetings with the families were private. But Carlos Spector said another high-ranking Mexican human rights official, Ricardo Garcia Cervantes, also attended the meetings in El Paso and was visibly moved by the testimonies of the families. “He was the most vocal in pledging to do something about the disappearances,” Spector said.

Three days later, however, Mexico’s attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam announced that Garcia Cervantes would be resigning from his post. “Garcia Cervantes was the most open to doing something,” says Spector. “It seems odd he would leave his post three days later, which makes you wonder if he was fired and if so, why?”

Spector and the nonprofit group Mexicanos en Exilio, as well as Mexico’s Women’s Center for Human Rights, were instrumental in persuading the Mexican officials to come to the United States. The next step for Spector and Mexicanos en Exilio is to persuade Mexican congressional members to hold a hearing in El Paso on the murders and disappearances as well as the numerous properties and businesses lost by people now living in exile. More than anything families want justice and they want closure after years of searching for missing loved ones. “So far there’s been symbolic gestures, which is a positive step,” Spector said of Mexican government officials. “But it’s not enough.”

(UPDATE: On May 31, Ricardo Garcia Cervantes told the Mexican magazine Proceso that he chose to resign and was not pushed out by the Peña Nieto administration. Garcia Cervantes said he left because Peña Nieto’s administration was giving less priority to investigating  the thousands of disappearances throughout the country, and that he could no longer bear the sorrow of so many families whose cases were not being investigated by the human rights agency.)

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Courtesy of Mexican government
A diagram released by the Mexican government on its plan for Tamaulipas

The residents of the Mexican State of Tamaulipas, Texas’ closest neighbor to the south, have been living under a near constant threat of violence since 2010. That was the year the paramilitary organization Los Zetas splintered from its former partner in crime the Gulf Cartel.

Since then, so many kingpins, plaza bosses and sicarios have been killed by the military or cartel rivals that it’s almost impossible to keep count. But one thing is certain. The death of kingpin “Tony Tormenta” or the arrest of “Z-40” hasn’t made Tamaulipas a more peaceful place. Instead the state of 3.3 million people is experiencing its worst wave of violence since those dark times in 2010 when 72 migrants were massacred in San Fernando and nearly the entire city of Ciudad Mier fled to Texas after living under siege for weeks. In 2010, journalists from Mexico City who came to report on the bloodshed in Tamaulipas were kidnapped and threatened with execution. Many local reporters were killed.  After two reporters escaped with their lives and returned to Mexico City their editor in an open letter pronounced the death of press freedom in Tamaulipas.

After that the lights went dark. Most of Mexico’s national media stopped coming and few foreign reporters ever go to Tamaulipas. It’s a tough state to parachute into, because it’s been co-opted for so long by the Gulf Cartel and organized crime. Corruption has flourished for decades and festered. The local police have worked for the cartels for years. The only way any information gets out of Tamaulipas these days is through a dedicated network of citizen reporters sending out short dispatches on Twitter streams like #reynosafollow or through Facebook.

But the most troubling aspect of Tamaulipas’ descent into violence is how a state so rich in hydrocarbons and other natural resources could be so utterly abandoned by Mexico’s political class. That’s why many citizens were buoyed by the news that after weeks of gun battles, bodies in the streets and blockades, Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto announced he had a plan. Last Tuesday, Mexico’s Interior Secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, and top military officials traveled to Reynosa to announce the government’s new strategy to quell the violence. The government will split the state into four parts: two regions controlled by the Army and the other two by the Navy. Each region will have its own federal prosecutor to investigate crimes. Local and state police, which have long been accused of corruption, will be disbanded and replaced by the federal police.

It might sound like progress until you look at what happened in the state of Chihuahua or Michoacan—largely run now by self-defense forces—where Mexico has tried similar military takeovers. Violence and human rights abuses have skyrocketed.  In 2009, former President Felipe Calderon sent more than 8,000 soldiers and federal police officers to Juarez to help fight organized crime. But after their arrival, the murder rate spiked,  and Juarez became the murder capital of the world. Human rights abuses were rampant and residents fled to other parts of Mexico or to the United States to seek asylum. In the Juarez Valley, which I wrote about in 2012 for the Observer, it was a scorched earth scenario. Many surviving residents blame the military and the federal police for extortion, extrajudicial killings or for standing by as cartel gunmen massacred families and burned down their homes. No law enforcement or military official has been investigated in any of these allegations.

Still, at least we knew about the extrajudicial killings, the human rights abuses and other atrocities because of the fearless Juarez journalists who not only didn’t give up despite the murders of their coworkers, they also helped hundreds of foreign journalists like me access the sources and information we needed to report these tragedies to the world. We can also thank the state’s brave activists and human rights defenders. Tamaulipas has few such journalists or activists. The grip of organized crime is so tight that few journalists or activists can take the risk and speak out.

What our neighbor really needs are strong civic institutions, freedom of the press and the rule of law.  These are the most effective weapons against the deep-seated corruption that is fueling the violence and destroying the state. Sadly, President Peña Nieto’s plan to save Tamaulipas doesn’t include any of these key aspects of a healthy democracy.  Instead, it’s the old heavy-handed method that so many leaders have tried before. “What Tamaulipas needs is not military occupation but sustainable peace,” says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chair of the government department at the University of Texas-Brownsville who has studied this complex border state for years. We should all pay more attention to our neighbor to the south because it points to Mexico’s future. And if we’ve learned anything from the past, we should be deeply concerned.

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