Google+ Back to mobile

La Linea

Q&A with Dawn Paley, Author of Drug War Capitalism

In new her book, Paley breaks from a tired narrative to connect U.S. policy, free trade and the devastating war on drugs in Colombia and Mexico.
Dawn Paley - Drug War Captialism

Since Mexico sent the military into the streets to fight the drug war in 2006, at least 140,000 people have lost their lives. Drug capos are killed or jailed by the Mexican government, and still the violence escalates. Canadian journalist Dawn Paley peels back the layers of this complex conflict, dismissing the simple cops-versus-cartels narrative that dominates most U.S. media reporting on the drug war. Her new book, Drug War Capitalism, reveals how U.S. foreign policy, free trade and the ever-expanding drug war and militarization contribute to the bloodshed in Latin America. Currently living in Mexico, Paley covers dangerous territory: greed, political corruption and a battle for dwindling resources under the guise of a drug war.

In her courageous and ambitious book, Paley argues that there’s no longer a clear distinction between the drug cartels, the government forces supposedly fighting them and the rapacious global economy.


Texas Observer: Can you talk about the origins of your book Drug War Capitalism and why you decided to write it?

Dawn Paley: I was in Colombia and watching Mexico totally degrade over the first couple of years of the Merida Initiative, and I wanted to link what people were telling me in Colombia and the kind of experiences they were having there with what was happening in Mexico. It was instinctual. But I didn’t have a hypothesis at the beginning so I just started working. The first thing I did was go to Reynosa and Monterrey and started speaking with people. And then I met [Tamaulipas politician and businessman] Francisco Chavira Martinez, and his way of understanding what was happening in Reynosa was that it was the municipal politicians themselves that were working with drug cartels to set off explosions in public buildings so that people would be afraid to go and ask for transparency from the municipality. What is happening is that it’s about more than just controlling cocaine. The violence is bleeding into political life, creating this climate of fear that is useful in maintaining the current economic and political model.

TO: Why did you call the book Drug War Capitalism?

DP: When I was writing the book I was thinking about it along the lines of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and the subtitle of her book “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” My book is a different take on a similar idea of these various strategies that are deployed to promote and expand capitalism and I argue that the drug war is one of them.

TO: It was very interesting to hear your March presentation in McAllen. You talked about how trade agreements are often linked with military expansionism in countries. It reminded me of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion in Texas. The company hired local police as security. The police are from the community but then they become this private security force protecting the pipeline.

DP: Yes, it’s a whole area where we can see how U.S. foreign and military policy is brought back to the U.S. It’s been talked about with Ferguson, for example, where you see military equipment that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there are former soldiers who have returned from overseas and are now policing communities. In the case of the drug war, the militarization is something that we know less about and it’s less documented.

The easiest argument to communicate to people who live in the United States, for example, is about how militarization benefits the corporate sector. People understand that. There are these environmental struggles and struggles around social justice and occupying public spaces, and the role that the police play here in the U.S. as protectors of banks, protectors of capital. It’s a role police play everywhere. Of course the police are good for big corporations that are conflictive and that create conflict in communities.

Drug War Capitalism
Dawn Paley via Facebook
Drug War Capitalism
By Dawn Paley
AK Press
$10.55; 255 pages

TO: In your book you talk a lot about the link between militarization and the extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration.

DP: In Colombia during Plan Colombia it was very overt. Part of Plan Colombia included funding for U.S. soldiers to train Colombian soldiers to protect a pipeline that belonged to Occidental Petroleum. And there were other developments in Plan Colombia where soldiers had protected mining companies in the exploitation phase and were carrying the product and actually guarding the sites. One of the things announced in 2010 was that the Colombian Army would also carry out security for corporations carrying out mining exploration. So it’s the militarization of the entire lifecycle of extractive projects. And it was being done in a very blatant way and in the case of the oil pipeline, which was specifically funded by the U.S. And it’s done always with the same argument that it’s crucial to improve the business climate because that’s the way to reduce poverty—but it’s an argument that I think doesn’t have any basis in reality.

In Mexico, the militarization of the extractive industries might be a little less obvious. But there are a couple of cases in my book of federal police bursting into ejido meetings and trying to influence landowners, and trying to influence their decision-making around a mining project. In the same area in Chihuahua the army used its trucks to bring mining employees across a strike blockade. Those were two instances I was able to find for the book, but I think unfortunately over time there will be more evidence of collusion between police, the military and the promotion of these types of extractive projects. It’s not like this activity is always part of Plan Mexico. But Plan Mexico is crucial in arming and equipping soldiers and police units. Also we have a very hard time knowing exactly what’s being done with the money the U.S. is dispersing through the Initiative.

TO: What do you think will happen in Tamaulipas with fracking opening up, especially in a place with so much insecurity and violence?

DP: Multiple mass displacements have taken place in the Burgos Fields (in Tamaulipas). The area of the Eagle Ford Shale that runs south from Nuevo Laredo is essentially one of the most violent areas in Mexico where there’s no free press, people live in fear and there’s been multiple displacements from that region. We’ll see what happens with the fracking. It depends on gas prices, depends on the auctions held by Pemex and it depends on the ability to access water and how residents react to it. But I feel like what my book is doing—in the case of fracking in Tamaulipas—is calling attention to this new energy boom in one of the scariest, most dangerous regions of Mexico and saying, “let’s be open to the possibility that that’s not a coincidence.”

TO: Do you think there will be a rise in paramilitaries? Will oil and gas companies use private security forces in Tamaulipas because of the insecurity?

DP: Well, you can look at a case that Pemex started in Houston around the sale of stolen condensate, which the Mexican government says was stolen by the Zetas, primarily in Tamaulipas and Coahuila, and then brought across the border and sold to a syndicate of Texas fossil fuel companies that knew they were buying product that had been extracted illegally. And so these companies in Texas had these direct links with these armed groups. So it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that their cooperation with these armed groups could extend to playing other types of roles. Another thing is, I’ve interviewed a number of oil and gas workers in Reynosa who talk about how dozens of people over a handful of years have been kidnapped and disappeared while they were working at remote sites and Pemex doesn’t do anything about it. One man recently told me that part of his job is marking these men down every week as absent. Some of these men have been missing now for four years and he marks them down as absent because the company won’t acknowledge that they have disappeared. It’s this absurdity where these high-level Pemex people are allowing this to happen and there’s been no big public denouncement by Pemex. I think if there were attacks against private contractors and U.S. or Canadian companies then it would be a scandal and there would be things we would know about and there would be more security measures in place.

TO: After so many years of writing about the drug war in Mexico, the U.S. media still covers it mostly like a crime story with body counts and not a lot of depth. Why is that, do you think? Why is there no context?

DP: I feel like as a journalist there is this idea that if you’re not writing about the drug cartels and the battles and not chasing ambulances then you aren’t really covering the drug war, you’re covering something else. The dominant discourse in the media is so restrained and the language that they use is about Cartel X and Cartel Y fighting each other and the amount of drugs, and there are these sets of things that you have to say… the body counts. And what the police say and what the government is doing about it.

Going outside of those boundaries is something that could be risky for people’s careers. There is very little space in the mainstream media for telling other versions or for challenging that official version. People have built their careers on that version of events. I think that’s another part of it: There’s analysts, there’s journalists, there’s police officers, DEA officers there are all of these segments of society that depend on that official version. Challenges to that version of events could undermine the legitimacy.

TO: What are you working on now?

DP: I’m currently working on a book about clandestine mass graves in Mexico and the politics of exhumation and who is looking for these graves. It feels like my next logical step after this book. I think of the clandestine mass graves in Mexico as being one of the very important physical remnants that the drug war has left in Mexico. The drug war has transformed Mexico into a cemetery. We are talking about upwards of 24,000 people declared disappeared over the past six years. Meanwhile the state and federal governments are not following any type of protocol when it comes to finding these graves or matching them with folks who have been disappeared. Looking at the way the mass graves are treated reinforces this structural impunity that allows the war to continue.

border security
Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs/Flickr
Soldiers depart from the Virginia National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility in Sandston, Va., to provide aerial reconnaissance support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection as part of the national effort to counter illegal immigration along the Texas border.

The state’s republican leaders have made border security their top priority and are prepared to spend millions, perhaps even billions, on it. Now if they could only agree on what securing the border means.

In late February, the Senate Finance Committee began debating the state budget for the next biennium. But the state’s top budget analysts, the Legislative Budget Board, told the committee that since the state lacked any consensus on—or definition of—border security, it was nearly impossible for them to track expenditures or determine how effective the funding has been.

Despite the confusion, the Senate is proposing to spend as much as $815 million on border security in its draft of the budget. State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), a member of the committee, said at the hearing that it was unclear to him why the extra funding is needed. “We’re crafting this out of a very vague set of numbers and comments,” he said. “Recently we had an influx of young children crossing the border that resulted in the reaction of putting a whole lot of money at the border. Now we’re doing something different … We all need to know what the goal looks like, not just, ‘The more money we put into it the tougher we are.’”

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) said she left the draft budget vague on purpose. “My goal was to increase funding significantly, which we did … and to cover certain areas, but to leave it up to the committee’s discretion how we do that. … We do have a very clear goal and that’s a secure border,” Nelson said.

From the meeting it also became evident that the debate over border security spending isn’t entirely a partisan one. State Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) said he wanted to see clear goals and performance measures before voting on more money for border security. “On this subject in particular I’ve heard people say it polls well and that’s what voters are demanding. I get that,” he said. “I don’t care what it polls. Every dollar we spend has to be accounted for. We’re dealing with all of these contract fiascos. I don’t want to come back in another two years after spending $800 million to find out we have another boondoggle on our hands.”

Eltife has cause for concern. No-bid border security contracts have been doled out in the past. In 2012, the Austin American-Statesman revealed that the Texas Department of Public Safety had given at least $20 million in no-bid contracts to a private Virginia consulting firm called Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. (ALIS). The company, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, is one of the main architects of the Texas border security plan.

After the 2012 revelations, the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office began to investigate the ALIS contracts. But the unit was forced to end its investigation in 2013 after then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed $7.5 million for the anti-corruption agency.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson in Appropriations Committee
U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Houston)

In 2009, Congress passed a statutory quota requiring Immigration and Customs Enforcement to keep 34,000 immigrants in jail on a daily basis. But immigration patterns are cyclical, and apprehensions—with the exception of an influx of Central Americans in the Rio Grande Valley—are at a 40-year low. Nevertheless, congressmen like John Culberson (R-Houston) want ICE to keep the detention facilities at capacity at all times. Apparently, Culberson wants immigrants locked up even if there’s no legal reason to do so.

Culberson got into a heated debate last week with Sarah Saldaña, the new director of ICE, during an appropriations hearing, over locking up more immigrants in the country’s growing patchwork of private for-profit prisons.  Culberson sits on the subcommittee that oversees funding for ICE and Saldaña to her credit pushed back.

In Congress, Geo Group, Corrections Corporation of America and other private prison companies spend millions on lobbying. Much of that lobbying is focused on powerful members of the appropriations committee like Culberson, who received campaign contributions from CCA, which runs detention facilities including Dilley’s controversial South Texas Residential Center, which detains women and children.

A new study by the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership finds that the private prison industry has increased its share of immigrant detention beds by 13 percent since the 2009 quota was passed. For-profit corporations now operate sixty-two percent of ICE immigration detention beds.

At one point during the U.S. House Appropriations Committee hearing last week, Saldaña tries to explain to the tea-partier Culberson that she can’t put people in detention “just for the heck of it.”


Culberson: What is ambiguous?—I don’t see that it’s ambiguous—the requirement that you use not less than 34,000 detention beds. That’s statutory in the Homeland Security bill.

Saldaña: Yes, I have it right here—it says, “provided further that funding made available under this heading…”

Culberson: Is there anything about that that’s discretionary or optional?

Saldaña: No, we have maintained that capacity.

Culberson: Right, But you’re not using it. Right now you’re at about 26,000.

Saldaña: Well, that’s dictated sir by the flow of immigrants. As you know Customs and Border—

Culberson: There’s no shortage of folks coming over the border illegally.

Saldaña: Right, and we need to apprehend them and find them. But as you know at the border, apprehensions are down—the first line of defense is CBP—is down about 24 percent. So that’s going to obviously affect—since we get 60 percent of beds—or apprehensions—from CBP, that’s going to affect that. Plus, it’s seasonal. This is a seasonal flow and we’re just getting to the warmer months where the migration patterns in the past have shown us there might be an increase in migration.

Culberson: So is it optional for you to use those 34,000 beds in your opinion?

Saldaña: Optional? It’s not optional to have them available.

Culberson: But it’s optional whether or not you use them?

Saldaña: It’s not optional, sir. We have those and we will use those to the extent that we make decisions that someone needs to be detained. If you’re asking me whether it is more important to fill a bed than it is to do it right, then I’m going to have to go with doing it right. And that is make our decisions on the basis of—just like the federal courts do—

Culberson: But if it’s not clear I mean, whereas, policy makers and statute drafters wrote this so it is not ambiguous, it’s not discretionary, it’s not optional. We want you to use 34,000 beds.

Saldaña: That’s absolutely clear to me.

Culberson: You’ve got plenty of demand. You’ve got plenty of demand—

Saldaña: But sir, we don’t detain people just for the heck of it.

Culberson: I know that, but—

Saldaña: We detain people based on what the law tells us, and that is: Is this person a flight risk? And is this person a threat to public safety? Those are the decisions that our very seasoned officers are out there making every day. And from what I have seen and observed, they are making the right decisions.

Culberson: I feel very confident you could find an extra 9,000 criminal aliens that needed to be detained to fill those beds in a heartbeat.

Saldaña: We’re working on that. That’s part of what Operation Cross Check was.

Culberson: But you feel like this is not a requirement to use the beds. So perhaps the language might need a little tweaking.

Saldaña: That’s not what I intended, I said it is capacity in my view—

Culberson: Well the president thinks statutes are optional and subject to his discretion. He’s obligated by the constitution to take care the laws are faithfully executed. He’s clearly in violation of that. You’ve told us that you don’t think this policy the president has issued is contrary to the law. We as policy makers and legislators are here—the law enacted by Congress that the president and agencies are to follow. Not a policy directive or memorandum sent out by the head of an agency. It is the law enacted by Congress that you and the president are obligated to follow. And there’s just a fundamental disagreement here. I think it’s at the root of what’s outraged the country, quite frankly, from coast to coast. The president systematically and repeatedly refuses to enforce the law as written and you just confirmed that for us today. It’s upsetting and concerning because we in Texas feel the brunt of this with the number of criminal aliens crossing border, drug runners, killers, sex traffickers. It’s appalling and outrageous and no one is more concerned about it than the communities—for example our good friend U.S. Rep. Cuellar represents along the Rio Grande river. Laredo is a ghost town as you know; it’s a terrible situation. We expect you to follow the law as written and when something says “shall. “Shall” is not optional.

Saldaña: I didn’t say that, sir. I really said—

Culberson: But you don’t feel like you need to use them.

Saldaña: No, sir. We are working to use them. Every day people are out there trying to find—particularly with respect to people with criminal records and those who meet our priorities. We are trying to find those folks if CBP doesn’t hand them to us. To me the important thing is to make the right decisions as required by law as to whether we can detain someone or not. It’s not the sole purpose and goal to fill a bed; it’s to fill it in the right way. That’s my view.

Melissa del Bosque
Left to Right: Valeria Ramirez, Salma Guzman, Ashlei Levrier-Howell, Yineli Carreon and Jesslyn Garay

It’s early Thursday morning at the Texas Capitol and Yineli Carreon, 18, and Ashlei Levrier-Howell, 17, huddle around a map with three other high school students. They’re trying to find House Speaker Joe Straus’ office but have gotten lost in the confusing maze of hallways and staircases. “We literally just did a circle,” Levrier-Howell laughs. “Yesterday I took the elevator and ended up outside.”

This isn’t a typical school field trip to the Capitol. These high school students are members of the South Texas Youth Congress, a nonprofit started in 2013 to involve South Texas high school students in public policymaking. The program’s executive director, a Corpus Christi educator named Armando Villarreal, modeled the STYC after the Iowa Youth Congress, which he started when he was director of the Iowa Division of Latino Affairs. The STYC currently has 28 members from 14 South Texas counties, each of them voted into the congress by their high school classmates, school administrators and alumni of STYC.

For the past two days, Levrier-Howell, Carreon and 14 other teenagers have been lobbying legislators to pass House Bill 3467, which would allow graduate and medical students to take specialized classes from experts outside of the region via high-speed video streaming. The high school students came up with the idea for the bill, debated and agreed upon its language, and then persuaded state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez (D-Weslaco) to carry it.

“This goes beyond student council,” says Salma Guzman, a 16-year-old STYC member from Laredo. “We are at the Legislature working to get bills passed. A lot of the representatives are surprised that we are still in high school.”

But now the bill is stuck in a House committee, and the students are making their case to legislators to get the bill moving. After a few minutes, the students find the speaker’s office and Levrier-Howell opens the stately etched-glass door that leads into the reception area. The five young women file inside. Levrier-Howell, the group’s vice president, is confident and poised. She asks the woman at the front desk, Megan Collins, if they can meet with an education policy analyst about their bill. Collins disappears into the depths of the cavernous office.

Levrier-Howell has another year of high school but she’s already mapped out her plans for college. She wants to become a pediatric oncologist. “I’m applying to UT-Austin and to Cornell,” she says, “but when I’m done I want to go back to the border.”

Carreon, the group’s president, will be attending Texas A&M in the fall, where she plans to study to become a certified dietician. She also wants to return home when she’s finished. “We have a high rate of diabetes in South Texas, especially in the colonias,” she says. “I want to help my community.”

The group isn’t happy that the border often gets a bad rap, especially at the Capitol. “I saw this trip as an opportunity to speak out on issues important to my community,” says Carreon. “I don’t appreciate when people try to stereotype us, that we are all the same because of our background and that we won’t get anywhere.”

Villarreal, the executive director of the South Texas Youth Congress, says these high school students represent the new Texas. “Our motto is: ‘The future is here and we are the future,’” he says, “They’re going to have an impact on social policy and bring a whole new type of politics with them. They are more focused on the application and allocation of resources where they are needed and less focused on ideology.”

At the speaker’s office, Collins, the young staffer, returns with disappointing news. The woman in charge of education policy is busy and can’t meet with them. Collins offers to meet with the group and pass their concerns along to Speaker Straus.

Levrier-Howell and the other students follow her into a meeting room, where she, Carreon and the others launch into a pitch for their bill, and how access to post-grad video courses will help their community. “How much will this cost?” Collins wonders, furrowing her brow.

“What we’re asking for first is a feasibility study to determine the cost and where the money might come from,” says Levrier-Howell.

Collins looks impressed. “Wow, so did you say you are in high school?”

Afterward, the students regroup in the hallway. Levrier-Howell says they’ll swing by Straus’ office again later to see if they can meet the education staffer then. “You have to keep going back,” she says.

“I was nervous when I first got to Austin,” Carreon says. “I thought they might question our knowledge on the bill because we are high school students. But now I’m really pumped. There’s a lot of energy in here.”

The high school students are pragmatic about their chances of passing their bill this session. More than most adults, they already understand that getting something passed in the Legislature takes persistence, and probably more than one legislative session. But they have their whole lives in front of them and plenty of time.

“We’ll be back,” Levrier-Howell says. “We’re just getting started.”

Eugenio del Bosque
Omar Garcia and Maria de Jesus Tlatempa Bello

“I am Maria de Jesus of Tlapa, Guerrero, and I am here to ask for your help.” The mother of three stood before state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) and about 15 legislative staffers in a hearing room early Thursday at the Texas Capitol.

Maria de Jesus Tlatempa Bello had come more than 1,110 miles from her home in Guerrero, Mexico, to tell the story of her son, Jose Eduardo, one of the Ayotzinapa 43. On the night of Sept. 26, police in Iguala, Guerrero, opened fired on the three buses he and other students of the Ayotzinapa Normal School were riding in, and then kidnapped 43 of the students, including Jose Eduardo.

Maria de Jesus has been looking for her 19-year old son ever since. Meanwhile, Mexicans have been searching for answers about the fate of the 43 students. “They were taken alive, we want them back alive” has become a national rallying cry, even though federal prosecutors insist the students were burned to death in a garbage dump.

The truth, like many cases of forced disappearance and violence in Mexico, has been hard to find, obscured by cynical political theater and deliberate misinformation. But it is clear that elected officials were involved in the disappearance of the students.

The mayor of Iguala and his wife are in jail facing allegations they ordered the attack on the Ayotzinapa 43 over fears that the students, with their long tradition of radical politics, would interfere with the wife’s bid for office. The governor of Guerrero has resigned under pressure from the public.

The federal government’s callousness toward the the victims’ families, and its refusal to conduct a transparent investigation, has helped spark a massive protest movement in Mexico and around the globe. The fallout from the Ayotzinapa atrocity has also become a political and public security crisis for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Human Rights Watch has called it the worst human-rights crisis facing Mexico since soldiers massacred unarmed students at Tlatelolco in 1968.

Maria de Jesus and 24-year old Omar Garcia, an Ayotzinapa student who survived the police assault, arrived in Austin Tuesday on the Caravana 43. Organized by a coalition of grassroots organizations in the United States, they are traveling across the U.S. to raise awareness about the growing number of disappearances in Mexico and to put pressure on the Mexican government to find the 43 students.

“We’ve had enough,” Maria de Jesus said. “We’re tired of the kidnappings, the murders and disappearances. The Mexican government doesn’t help, it only abuses its power. We come here to ask for your help because we know the U.S. gives Mexico a lot of funding. Some of that money goes to pay the police, the military to fight the drug cartels. But this money is being used to repress the people, not fight the drug cartels.”

The two were invited to the Capitol by Rep. Israel (D-Austin) and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin). Afterward, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) presented a memorial resolution on the Senate floor to the families of the 43 students.

The caravan, which began on March 15 in McAllen, is one of three criss-crossing the United States. All three caravans will converge in Washington, D.C. for meetings with Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, according to Julio Cesar Guerrero, a community organizer from San Antonio and a national coordinator for Caravana 43.

Guerrero says the U.S. coalition brought 15 family members and students from Mexico to participate in the three caravans. “There aren’t just 43 students missing,” he said. “There is at least 23,000 people forcefully disappeared in Mexico. They have become a symbol of thousands of deaths because of the senseless war on drugs.”

In the legislative hearing room at the Capitol Thursday, Omar Garcia told legislative staffers that he is lucky to have survived the brutal attacks in Iguala. “We are very happy that the voice of Ayotzinapa is resounding around the whole world. This case has gotten a lot of attention but it still has not been resolved. Imagine what happens with the other cases that receive less attention. Just in Iguala, 600 families are searching for missing family members. Our task is to not only seek justice for ourselves but others violated in Mexico.”

Rep. Israel said she was thankful for the caravan visit. “Maria de Jesus is taking a big risk being here and being critical of the Mexican government,” she said. “You have incredible strength to have gone through all of that and to be here today.”

Omar Garcia said some parents have been killed in Mexico for refusing to give up the search for their children. “We worry that that could happen to some of the parents of the 43 students,” he said. “But we will continue knocking on doors and urge the Mexican government to do an honest investigation of what happened. We refuse to accept that our classmates are dead.”

A DPS training near McAllen
Alex Landeen
A Texas DPS training session near McAllen

While reporting my 8,000-word feature on the Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter shooting of two undocumented men over the last year, I tried repeatedly to obtain documents from the Texas DPS by using the Texas Public Information Act. I wanted to better understand the agency’s dramatic transformation in the last decade into a militarized police force, especially when it comes to its border security programs.

I was met with resistance at every turn by the agency, even when it came to documents that I knew had already been released to other news outlets.

In September 2014, I filed a public information request with DPS seeking documents, such as contracts and memos, on a Virginia-based contractor called Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. (ALIS). The private company, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, is one of the main architects of the sweeping Texas border security plan.

In January, the Texas attorney general issued an opinion that DPS didn’t have to release much of the information, citing homeland security concerns, among other reasons. But DPS had already agreed to release documents that it considered to be public information. In October, I paid a $221 deposit to DPS. For months I have written and phoned Molly Cost, the DPS lawyer in charge of the agency’s public information requests, but have never received a response.

Other media outlets have had problems getting even basic information from DPS.

The Houston Chronicle recently reported that DPS refuses to release border crime data. Even the Texas Attorney General’s office can’t get a response from Cost at DPS, despite numerous attempts to reach her, the Chronicle wrote. What kind of state agency won’t even talk to the state’s top lawyer?

In 2012, Jeremy Schwartz at the Austin American-Statesman published an important investigative piece about ALIS, pointing out that the company had received at least $20 million in no-bid contracts for everything from drafting border security talking points for then-Gov. Rick Perry to helping DPS set up joint intelligence centers and military-style commands across the state.

After these revelations, the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office began to investigate the ALIS contracts. But the unit was forced to end its investigation in 2013 after Perry vetoed $7.5 million for the anti-corruption agency.

Yesterday, the liberal group Progress Texas made the important point that the ALIS contracts have been all but forgotten, even as Gov. Greg Abbott and the Legislature are considering an increase in border funding of as much as $815 million.

Now would be the time for the Public Integrity Unit to reopen its investigation into the ALIS contracts and help shine some light on DPS, said Progress Texas.

“The human cost and lack of transparency surrounding DPS operations at the U.S.-Mexico border underscores why we must scrutinize third-party contractors training DPS and other state employees in border security,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas.

One thing I wanted to figure out during my investigation was who crafted the policy authorizing DPS personnel to fire from helicopters during pursuits. No other law enforcement agency in the country would entertain such a policy, because it’s so clearly reckless. “What if you hit the driver? Then you’ve got an unguided missile on your hands,” Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of at the University of South Carolina and a national expert in police pursuits, told me. “What they were doing was totally crazy.”

But without DPS providing even basic information, there’s no way of knowing who was responsible for that deadly policy.

Listen to Melissa del Bosque discuss her story, Death on Sevenmile Road, on Texas Standard.

Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

Ever since thousands of Central Americans sought asylum in Texas last summer, the White House has been trying to stop other families from doing the same. One of its most controversial tactics is to lock up asylum-seeking women and children in detention facilities and charge such high immigration bonds that they can’t get out. Eventually, the mothers become desperate, give up their asylum claims and agree to be deported.

The United States has recognized valid asylum claims under international conventions and treaties since World War II. But the government’s treatment of the families currently detained in Texas defies basic U.S. asylum law, says Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a San Antonio nonprofit assisting women and children in detention facilities in Karnes City and Dilley in South Texas.

“This is about politics, not about the law,” Ryan says. “I’ve never seen them apply such high bonds. It’s not only unusual, it’s extraordinary.”

It’s also inconsistent, says Ryan: “Single men who were taken into detention are given bonds of $1,500 but the women are being given bonds as high as $5,000 up to $15,000.”

Faced with impossibly high bonds, most women have no choice but to remain locked up with their children for several months, waiting for their court date with the asylum judge. Faced with this grim scenario many accept deportation instead.

RAICES is trying to change that. In October, it started a fund to raise money from individuals and from religious and other groups to help women and children get out of detention on bond. So far, the organization has collected $82,000 and helped 21 families. Bond money goes to the U.S. Treasury, where it collects interest. If the family doesn’t report to immigration court, the money is forfeited, but otherwise, it returns to the person or group that donated it once the case resolves.

The important thing, Ryan says, is to give the families a chance to start their lives over without the fear of persecution or death that caused them to flee their countries. “These women and children are being treated as if they are a national security threat,” he says. “You have these private companies that are making a profit from keeping women and children in a box against their will until they can pay enough money to get out.”

The two detention facilities in South Texas are capable of holding up to 3,000 women and children. Ryan says RAICES has nearly depleted its bond funds and is trying to raise additional money to free more families. “You want to cry tears of joy every time a woman and her child is released,” he says. “What we are doing is just a drop in a bucket. There’s still so much more to be done.”

Karnes County Commissioners
Melissa del Bosque

On Thursday afternoon, the Karnes County Commissioners Court, which normally meets before a handful of citizens, moved its meeting to an overflow room. The meeting was unusually well-attended because the county’s residents need to decide—and decide fast—whether their county will be home to one of the nation’s largest family detention centers.

Karnes City, an hour southeast of San Antonio, already hosts the Karnes County Residential Center, an immigrant detention facility run by the private prison corporation GEO Group, Inc., with a capacity of 532 beds. Until July, the detention center was an all-male facility, but after this summer’s influx of asylum-seeking Central American women and children at the border, it’s been converted into a detention center for families. In the next year, GEO wants to expand the facility to more than 1,100 beds.

Karnes County has a population of just 15,081 people. For decades, its residents have eked out a living with dry-land farming or work at the county’s two prisons. GEO Group acquired the Karnes facility in the late 90s. At the time, county leaders were desperate for the jobs. But now Karnes is at the center of the Eagle Ford Shale play, and a booming fracking economy that’s made millionaires of local landowners. These days, a resident can make $100,000 a year working in the oil fields. Suddenly Karnes County isn’t so desperate for jobs; that makes the Karnes facility expansion, from 532 to more than 1,100 beds, a harder sell for GEO Group.

But this isn’t GEO’s first rodeo. GEO Group is a multi-billion dollar global corporation publicly traded on the stock market. In the glossy prospectus it provides shareholders, the company refers to the inmates it houses as “clients.” At the community forum Thursday, dozens of local residents in white GEO polo shirts with GEO badges hanging from their necks filed into the overflow room. County Judge Walter Long, who repeatedly reminded the room he’d only been judge for two weeks, seemed flustered as the room filled to capacity. Outside the courthouse annex, Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva had stationed extra deputies. The previous meeting on the expansion had been heated, with people outside protesting against family detention.

This time, GEO made sure to fill the room with supporters. One by one they stood to testify in favor of the expansion as the judge, county commissioners, a handful of residents and outsiders and a phalanx of TV news cameras looked on. A young blond woman named Laura Guerrero strode up to the lectern to testify. “I’ve worked at the facility for 17 years as a client administrator,” she said. “I have three children in school and GEO allows me to have a career and be a mother. With the expansion there will be more jobs and it’s going to be better for our community, and so I’m for the expansion.” The room erupted in applause.

Karnes County meeting
Melissa del Bosque
Residents debate the expansion at the Thursday meeting.

An older man named Bill Carr, in a blue windbreaker with the GEO logo, testified next. “We have in excess of 100 employees in this community,” he said. “We pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the economy. And we’re going to be here 30 years from now. Eagle Ford Shale will not be here. That’s all I have to say.”

An hour into the community forum, there was little mention of the women and children locked up at Karnes until Marisa Bono, an attorney from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, stood to speak. MALDEF and other legal nonprofits are representing some of the people inside the facility— women who have alleged sexual abuse from guards, and MALDEF and others also filed a complaint with GEO Group and Immigration and Customs Enforcement claiming the facility provided inadequate food, health and mental services, and employed questionable disciplinary tactics.

“This is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. right now,” she said. “There’s only three of these family detention facilities in the country. Artesia [in New Mexico] is going to be closed because there are lawsuits against it because of complaints of abuse. … Some people will be shipped here to Karnes or to Dilley. There’s a recurring pattern,” she said. “Think about Hutto [T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center]. It was sued by a number of organizations because of alleged abuses, and the county was the defendant in those lawsuits, and they closed down the facility. Broken contracts and the county left holding the bag. … It’s important to identify what happened in the past and ensure it doesn’t happen here.”

People in the crowd were already mumbling about the outside agitators from San Antonio when Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the nonprofit RAICES, spoke up. “This is an important question for the future of your community,” he said. “Do you want people to Google ‘Karnes’ and the first thing that comes up is family detention?”

A woman sitting nearby who had been heartily clapping for the various GEO employees that testified broke into applause. She seemed perfectly happy with the idea.

In the region, GEO Group already has competition from Corrections Corporation of America, which is building another family detention facility in the South Texas town of Dilley, which will have 2,400 beds.

Before this summer there was only one immigrant family detention facility in the nation—the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania, which holds up to 85 people. But Texas is no stranger to family detention. The T. Don Hutto jail, outside Austin, housed families for years in deplorable conditions. Children and parents wore prison uniforms and were locked in cells. A lawsuit filed in 2007 by the American Civil Liberties Union and University of Texas Law School’s Immigration Clinic finally put an end to the disturbing experiment.

But in the last year the U.S. government has detained more than 68,000 family members at the border—a 361 percent increase—and it has reacted predictably, locking them up in private prisons. Now Texas is again at the crux of some of the thorniest questions for our society: Should immigrant families be housed in jails while they await their immigration proceedings, for months or even years? Should private corporations like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America be allowed to profit off a vulnerable and marginalized population such as women and children seeking political asylum?

After two hours, the county judge announced that it was time to move on to the next item—a new HVAC system for the county annex. Everyone filed out into the hallway, leaving just a handful of people behind for the remaining business. Afterward, the County Attorney Herb Hancock told me it would be difficult for the county to deny GEO Group the expansion. A 2006 contract with GEO left the county open to a breach of contract lawsuit if it didn’t agree to the expansion.

In a roundabout way, Hancock—who emphasized he’d only been county attorney for two years, and wasn’t involved in the 2006 negotiations—said Karnes County had been a very different place in 2006, before the Eagle Ford Shale boom, and been desperate for economic development.

“That’s no longer an issue for Karnes County, thank God,” Hancock said. But GEO will be an issue for the county for a long time to come. “We are bound to the agreement. But that’s just my opinion in my short 50 years in practice.”

This story has been updated to correct the name of County Judge Walter Long.

by Molly Kaplan, courtesy of the ACLU
After being attacked by a gang in Mexico, Nydia returned to the United States, where she had asylum status. Immigration officers ordered her deported anyway.

More than two million people have been deported since President Obama took office in 2008. Among this massive number of deportations, an increasing number of people with valid legal claims to remain in the U.S.—even U.S. citizens—are mistakenly deported, according to a report released by the ACLU today. Once returned to their “home” countries, many have suffered catastrophic consequences, including kidnapping and murder. Produced by Sarah Mehta, an ACLU attorney,“American Exile: Rapid Deportations That Bypass the Courtroom” is the first comprehensive study of deportations ordered by immigration agents instead of immigration judges.

Mehta, who was raised in Arlington, Texas, and now lives in New York, spent a year studying deportation cases and found that an astounding 83 percent of people deported in 2013 were removed without a hearing or a chance to see an immigration judge.

Many of the people Mehta interviewed were deported through a process called expedited removal, whereby an immigration enforcement officer can determine someone’s fate in a matter of minutes. In many cases, the officer’s decision can literally mean life or death for the immigrant. For example, Mehta interviewed a transgender woman from Mexico named Nydia R. who was deported under expedited removal despite having obtained political asylum in the United States. Back in Mexico, Nydia R. was raped and tortured by members of Los Zetas and barely escaped with her life. Mehta also documented other cases of people wrongfully deported who were kidnapped, tortured or even killed after being returned to their home countries. The Observer spoke with Mehta about the ACLU’s new report and how our immigration system, which Mehta calls “deeply corrupted,” has largely become a vehicle for mass deportations without legal due process.


Observer: Why did the ACLU decide to spend a year studying deportation numbers?

Mehta: Overwhelmingly, most people now are not going through immigration court and they’re not getting hearings. The bulk of our work to date had been making those hearings fair but increasingly it’s rare for someone to go to immigration court at all. There has been such a dearth of information about who is being deported that we wanted to do a real investigation into who actually is getting deported. When expedited removal was first introduced in 1996 and then expanded in 2005 there was a lot of concern even from congressional representatives that the wrong people—meaning people who had claims and rights—would be swept up and deported. In view of the very cursory nature of expedited removal it’s not really a surprise that mistakes are made nonetheless. We didn’t have any information as to how often it happens, what it looks like and to what extent people who have verifiable claims are still being deported.

Observer: Can you explain what expedited removal is?

Mehta: Expedited removal is where someone is ordered deported not by a judge, not by a lawyer, but by an immigration enforcement officer. It applies predominantly at the border and it allows the officer to order someone deported for five years, 10 years or even for life. It has the same consequences as a deportation order by a judge but without a hearing with evidence and rights to a lawyer. You would think a deportation order issued by an enforcement officer who is not a lawyer or an expert in law would be subject to more oversight and review but it actually gets less review. And it’s almost impossible to get a deportation order reviewed or rescinded once an enforcement officer has issued the order.

Observer: So, who exactly is getting deported?

Mehta: The problem is Border Patrol officers who are doing these deportations are not even asking basic questions. Some people said they were only asked their name and nothing more than that. So it’s not surprising that we have very little information about who gets deported because officers themselves aren’t asking any questions before they order someone deported. One group we looked at is asylum seekers—people who come here fleeing violence. This is one group of people that right now U.S. Customs and Border Protection is supposed to be screening for. They are supposed to ask people who are fleeing violence if they are afraid to go back to their country. The people we interviewed said they were never asked this question before they were deported.

We find that even lawful visitors and people who work lawfully in the U.S. from Canada or Mexico or elsewhere are being deported by expedited removal. The immigration officers assume they are not lawfully in the U.S. even when their claims can be verified, or they make assumptions that they are misusing their visas even when it can’t be verified and there’s no opportunity for them to contest it. Again this is without having to provide any evidence or an opportunity for the person to prove it’s not true.

Observer: Geographically, are there certain areas where there are more expedited removals?

Mehta: One thing I found very surprising is the consistent regularity of problems across the southern border. Along the southern border it didn’t matter where you were. There were consistent problems with Border Patrol officers failing to inform people of their rights and giving them forms often in a language that they didn’t know and ordering them deported in a matter of minutes.

Observer: What were some other surprising things you discovered?

Mehta: One thing that surprised me is the people who get deported who have verifiable claims, people who already have rights to stay in the U.S. It’s not surprising that Border Patrol officers will make mistakes about people who have complicated claims because they’re not lawyers and they’re not trained to give people these very complicated legal determinations but, again, people like Nydia who had asylum—these are things that could have been determined before they were deported. Deportation comes with very specific consequences. It’s very hard to put right even honest mistakes, but in many cases it seemed that Border Patrol officers weren’t even taking the time to do a very basic check to verify a person’s status, to give a person time to collect evidence or to call their attorney or call their family to bring the evidence to prove their claims.

Observer: And why do you think this is?

Mehta: I think in part there’s a general assumption along the southern border in particular that people who are apprehended there don’t have rights or claims to be there and that it isn’t worth the time to verify those claims. And part of the problem is that the Department of Homeland Security interprets the border not as a line but as a 100-mile zone so there are people who are living within 100 miles of the border who are treated as if their lives and rights are disposable. Even if law enforcement officers try to do a good job and have the best intentions they often just don’t have the expertise and sometimes the time to verify a person’s claims and ask the necessary questions that would elicit the information that they need.

Observer: And in fact you even found U.S. citizens during the course of your study who had been deported?

Mehta: Yes, and it’s predictable because it’s a deeply corrupted system that is designed to fail people with their rights. Based on the assumption that anyone arrested in the 100-mile border zone isn’t going to have a right. I think there are mistaken assumptions based on a way a person looks, or his language abilities that lead officers to assume that they aren’t citizens and they unfortunately don’t give them the opportunity to prove that before deporting them. Deportation can come with very catastrophic consequence for some people. Some of the individuals in the report were attacked, kidnapped and raped or sometimes all three. One person was murdered after being deported and they had told the officers about the danger before they were deported.

Observer: So how do we fix the system? We always hear about spending more money on border security but are we spending enough on our immigration court system? What about providing attorneys to immigrants who need them?

Mehta: We have deeply underfunded the court system and all of the mechanisms and safeguards that provide justice and protect people’s rights. While there has been an expansion of funding for the militarization of the border there hasn’t been comparable funding going to the courts. The courts are severely overburdened as it is. We hope that with Obama’s executive action that there will be some reprieve on the courts and they will free up to adjudicate people who were left out in the executive action.

There also need to be attorneys and an opportunity for people to read the deportation order in a language they understand before they sign it and an opportunity for them to know about the rights and the consequences of taking a deportation order or accepting voluntary return. Right now border officers have the discretion to refer people for a hearing but it doesn’t appear they are using that discretion because [in 2013] 83 percent of the deportations were from officers and not through the court system. Border Patrol officers should screen for people who might have claims to be in the U.S. and children in particular. These individuals should get a hearing with all of the protections that go with it.

Observer: I often hear from commenters online who say, “Why should we be so concerned about providing legal representation to people who are not U.S. citizens?

Mehta: For one thing we don’t know if they’re citizens or not in some of these cases. There are a lot of people who are U.S. citizens who were not born in the United States and there are people who were arrested and deported who it turned out are U.S. citizens. Verifying their claims sometimes requires legal assistance. This can be a quick and easy thing but other times it can get complicated and does require a lawyer’s assistance. But beyond the people who are U.S. citizens there are a lot of people with strong ties and rooted lives here who are parents or relatives of U.S. citizens, who are a part of our community and their rights matter. It’s important to have lawyers, it’s important to have justice because the entire integrity of the immigration system depends upon it.


A march for immigration reform at the Texas Capitol.
Priscila Mosqueda
A march for immigration reform at the Texas Capitol.

After years of struggle and protest, immigrant families finally have something to celebrate. At least four million undocumented immigrants could receive work permits for three years under the executive action.

It’s disappointing though, that the Obama proposal includes more militarization along the border, especially when border communities are begging for more oversight of the existing military-industrial border complex, which has already gotten out of hand.

Another important thing to remember is that this is only a temporary fix. There’s no path to legal residency or citizenship. Without Congress acting to reform our broken system legislatively, we’re going to have an even crazier, more complicated patchwork of temporary visas, temporary work permits, legal resident visas, etc., etc. We’re creating an immigration caste system of people living under provisional agreements, not fully integrated into our society and living under limited legal protections. This creates a nightmare for law enforcement, the courts, and most of all for the families who are subject to the whims of Congress and the next president. What happens at the end of the three-year window?

The battle continues. But for today, let’s celebrate this small miracle. Here’s a  breakdown of Obama’s immigration reform: The good, the bad and the ugly.


The Good


1) An expansion of people eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, aka DACA.

Prior to the executive action, only those who were under 31 on June 15, 2012, who had entered the U.S. before June 15, 2007 and who were under 16 when they entered the U.S. were eligible. Now all undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before the age of 16, and not just those born after June 15, 1981 can qualify for DACA. They’ve also bumped up the U.S. entry date from June 15, 2007 to January 1, 2010. The work permits and relief from being deported will last three years, instead of two.

2) Some parents of U.S. citizens and lawful residents can also get deferred action and a work permit if:

  • They have been in the country for at least 5 years;
  • Their child was a U.S. citizen as of November 20, 2014;
  • Must complete criminal, national security background checks and pay a fee.


The Bad


1) More militarization along the border.

2) Parents of DACA kids do not qualify under the executive action.

3) Nothing in the executive action affects the thousands of women and children being held right now in immigrant detention facilities in New Mexico and Texas.


The (could get) Ugly


1) A Priority Enforcement Program, aka PEP, replaces the controversial Secure Communities program—which encouraged local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law. It looks like under PEP, ICE detainers will be replaced by a notfication system among other things.

Cristina Parker, spokesperson for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which helped lead the charge in Texas against the unpopular Secure Communities program, says that her organization and others who have fought against the program for years are celebrating its demise. S-COMM was the reason that many immigrants were deported for minor misdemeanors or traffic infractions.

Parker says they are pessimistic, however, about the new program and eagerly awaiting more details on how it will be implemented. “ICE doesn’t inspire confidence in how it follows directives. It’s a rogue agency. And this really sounds very similar to the first day of S-COMM,” she says. “That’s kind of where we’re at now but we’re trying to be cautiously optimistic.”

Immigration attorney Dan Kowalski is equally pessimistic about any change in policy. “It’s going to be really tough for ICE officers on the ground and managers in the field and D.C. to execute because their whole training is to detect, detain, arrest and deport. It goes against the grain of their training,” he says.

2) The president also directed Homeland Security to revise policies regarding deportation priorities.

Here’s the new policy in brief from the memo:

“DHS is going to implement a new department-wide enforcement and removal policy that places top priority on national security threats, convicted felons, gang members, and illegal entrants apprehended at the border; the second-tier priority on those convicted of significant or multiple misdemeanors and those who are not apprehended at the border, but who entered or reentered this country unlawfully after January 1, 2014; and the third priority on those who are non-criminals but who have failed to abide by a final order of removal issued on or after January 1, 2014.

Under this revised policy, those who entered illegally prior to January 1, 2014, who never disobeyed a prior order of removal, and were never convicted of a serious offense, will not be priorities for removal. This policy also provides clear guidance on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.”

Again, this will depend a lot on how ICE implements the directive. In the past, they’ve been criticized for doing their own thing and not exercising prosecutorial discretion. The new policy could get ugly if ICE continues to act on its own, and not according to the president’s directives.

1 2 3 34