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The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan
Photo from Lupe Treviño's Facebook page
The former sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan

One by one, members of the disbanded Panama Unit, a street level drug trafficking task force, stood before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane in a McAllen courtroom this week to receive their sentences. The longest sentence—17 years—went to Jonathan Treviño, the leader of the task force and the son of Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño, the former sheriff of Hidalgo County.

“I blame nobody else but myself,” Treviño told the courtroom Tuesday, according to KGBT News. He then thanked the federal prosecutors for arresting him and stopping the rogue Panama Unit before more damage was done.

Jonathan’s father, once the most powerful law enforcement figure in the Rio Grande Valley, was noticeably absent from the courtroom. Last month he was indicted for money laundering and forced to resign as sheriff. It was the 65-year-old Treviño, a career lawman, who had engineered his son’s quick rise through the ranks of law enforcement, making sure he was appointed head of the Panama Unit in 2006 at the age of 22, just months out of the police academy.

But instead of busting drug dealers, the task force devoted itself to stealing from dealers and reselling the drugs for a profit. Jonathan surrounded himself in the unit with close friends, including Alexis Espinoza, the son of Hidalgo Police Chief Rudy Espinoza and five deputies who worked under his father. For a while the rogue task force was the worst-kept secret in Hidalgo County, at least among law enforcement and local drug dealers. Then, in December 2012, the FBI indicted Jonathan and other members of the Panama Unit, following a nearly year-long investigation.

But the scandal only widened from there to include two deputies, Jorge Garza and J.P. Flores, from the sheriff’s crime stoppers program who worked in tandem with two drug dealers, Fernando Guerra Sr. and Fernando Guerra Jr. The crew would fake police stops in order to rip off other local dealers trying to move their product north, according to court documents. Eventually, Flores introduced the Guerras to the Panama Unit, which also included deputies Gerardo Mendoza, Claudio Mata, Eric Alcantar, Sal Arguello and Fabian Rodriguez, who had until then sold their stolen drugs to various local dealers.

The trial, which stretched from early Monday to late Tuesday, was packed with media, attorneys and family members of the 11 defendants. The deputies received sentences between 10 and 14 years with Jonathan receiving the stiffest sentence. Fernando Guerra Sr. received 15 years and his son received 8 years.

This week’s sentencing signals the end of one complicated chapter in a law enforcement scandal that continues. Throughout his son’s travails, the former sheriff has repeatedly insisted he knew nothing of his son’s activities or of the corruption in his own department. But after his recent indictment, the normally talkative former sheriff has gone quiet, even deactivating his Facebook page—where he often addressed his critics. The sheriff’s right-hand man, Deputy Commander Jose “Joe” Padilla, recently pleaded guilty to bribery and has been linked to a local convicted drug dealer, Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez, who reportedly gave thousands of dollars to Treviño’s reelection campaigns. And just two weeks ago, the former sheriff pleaded guilty to taking the campaign contributions. Now Treviño is awaiting his own sentencing before a federal judge in July.

The hunger strike has ended at a federal immigrant detention center in El Paso, but at least 37 men from northern India say they are still being wrongfully detained after requesting political asylum in the United States nearly a year ago.

The men, in their 20s, are from Punjab state, and follow Sikhism. They are part of a minority political party that has advocated for a separate Sikh state. John Lawit, a Dallas-based immigration lawyer representing six of the men, says the party’s members are politically persecuted in India. “They’ve been attacked and threatened with arrest,” Lawit says. “And they’ve been victimized at rallies and their families have received death threats.”

The majority of the men arrived last June and July and requested asylum at the international port of entry at Columbus, New Mexico. From there they were detained and transferred to the El Paso Processing Center. Lawit says his clients have passed their credible fear examinations and should have already been released on parole to wait for their day in immigration court. “It’s abysmal,” Lawit says. “They’re being held indefinitely, and ICE has thrown away the key.”

The men started their hunger strike to protest their continued detention, Lawit says. The men began the strike on April 8 and ended it April 21 after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents promised to facilitate their release, Lawit says. But the agency has yet to make good on its promise, Lawit says. “There’s a very strong chance that there could be another hunger strike,” he says. ICE wouldn’t comment on specifics of the case.

The El Paso strike came just weeks after separate and unrelated hunger strikes at immigrant detention centers run by the private corporation GEO Group in Tacoma, Washington, and Conroe, Texas. With no movement in Congress on immigration reform and a growing number of immigrant detention facilities, families have become increasingly desperate to see their relatives released. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants in more than 250 facilities across the country, even though a majority of the cases didn’t warrant detention, according to the ACLU.

El Paso is the toughest venue for political asylum cases in the country, Lawit says. “I’ve been practicing there for 35 years, and it’s always been that way,” he says. El Paso has an 87 percent denial rate for asylum. The national average is 50 percent. El Paso Immigration Court Judge Thomas C. Roepke has the fourth highest denial rate in the nation, rejecting 96.7 percent of all applications, according to a 2012 report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research organization based at Syracuse University. But the El Paso sector also has an unusually high number of immigrants without legal representation, and without a lawyer, it’s often difficult to win asylum. And now some of them, desperate to get their cases moving, are resorting to hunger strikes.

The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan
Photo from Lupe Treviño's Facebook page
The sheriff and his sons (from left to right) Juan Carlos and Jonathan

Former Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño pleaded guilty Monday to money laundering, just two weeks after resigning from office.

For several months federal investigators had been looking into cash donations to the former sheriff’s campaign from a convicted drug trafficker named Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez. Last Friday, Treviño’s former chief of staff, Maria Patricia Medina, who also served as his campaign treasurer, pleaded guilty to withholding information from a crime.

During a hearing Friday in McAllen, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Sturgis said that Medina knew that Treviño had deposited money from Gonzalez in banks under false names. Medina then falsified campaign reports to make it look like Treviño had returned the money to Gonzalez after it became public, according to the Monitor.

Scandal has shadowed Treviño since ICE’s homeland security investigations and the FBI arrested his son Jonathan Treviño, a former Mission police officer, in December 2012. Since at least 2006, 30-year-old 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.

Deputies and former deputies also told the Observer that Treviño had forced employees to work on his campaigns or be demoted. They said they were forced to buy and sell tickets to fundraisers to pay off Treviño’s campaign debt. Many of the deputies said that one of the sheriff’s commanders, Jose “Joe” Padilla, served as the sheriff’s chief enforcer, making sure deputies carried out his wishes. In December, Padilla was arrested on a seven-count indictment for drug trafficking and money laundering related to the El Gallo case. Padilla is still awaiting trial.

Miguel Flores, a former narcotics investigator at the sheriff’s office, said he felt relief after the sheriff’s admission of guilt Monday. For more than six months, Flores wore a wire and worked as an informant for the FBI to bring down the corrupt Panama Unit task force. Last May, Flores revealed for the first time to the Observer that he was an informant because he felt Treviño was retaliating against him after he found out Flores had been instrumental in his son’s indictment. Eventually, Flores was forced out of the department and was unemployed for several months. He recently found another job with a local police department. “This has ruined a lot of lives,” he said. “And It’s been a long hard journey for me, but I feel that it was worth it,” Flores said. “No one wanted to believe me but now they’ll know the truth.”

ToddMillerHiRes
Todd Miller

Todd Miller, a Tucson-based freelance journalist, has covered the U.S.-Mexico borderlands for the last 15 years for publications, including Mother Jones, The Nation and Salon. His new book, “Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Homeland Security,” explores how the post-9/11 border security bonanza has gone global, morphing into a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry or as Miller calls it, “the new world border.”

At home, border militarization is spreading into the interior of the country with SWAT-style immigration raids, increasing surveillance and checkpoints. And abroad, the U.S. Border Patrol is exporting its training techniques and resources to countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Dominican Republic. Miller combines on-the-ground reporting with extensive research to expose the booming industry for military-grade weaponry, cutting-edge surveillance technology and prisons where corporations and politicians profit, while communities suffer the consequences.

Miller’s book is surprising and alarming, even for people, like me, who’ve covered the border for many years. I spoke with Miller recently about his new book.

Texas Observer: You cover a lot of territory in this book. It’s a very thorough examination of how the notion of border security and the U.S. Border Patrol has changed since 9/11.

Todd Miller: Yes, I wanted to really focus on the expansion of the agency and what that means in one sense and also look at some of the not so obvious, yet powerful manifestations of the expansion.

TO: What are some of the less obvious manifestations?

TM: One that I really focus on in the book is money. The idea that there is a private sector increasingly attached to this world of the Border Patrol and border security. If you look at Border Patrol agents they are just one part of a larger systemic world where more and more private interests are involved. One thing I do is go to border security trade shows and talk to vendors from different companies trying to sell their products in what they call the border security market. I talk to Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other big military companies as well as startup companies interested in this market. Projections show it’s a market growing at an annual 5 percent clip. In 2013 it was a $20 billion global market and if you add in homeland security and emergency management services we’re talking about a $544 billion market.

TO: You wrote that what was once a border reality has become a national reality. Could you expand on that?

TM: One of the things I do is spend extensive time on the northern U.S. border. I went to places like Detroit, Buffalo and even Syracuse. In western New York people have never seen these green striped vehicles before and all of sudden there’s checkpoints and roving patrols. There are more people being pulled over and more police collaborating with immigration. In New York state if you’re pulled over and don’t speak English they will call Border Patrol. They don’t have SB 1070 like Arizona but I interviewed a woman who was driving to the grocery story outside of Rochester, New York, when she was pulled over by the local police. She couldn’t produce a driver’s license so they called Border Patrol and she was detained for a month and then deported.

There are all kinds of stories like that in many places where you’ve never had stories like that before and it’s taken many people by surprise. In Erie, Pennsylvania, it’s much like Rochester—it’s not near a border crossing. It’s actually on a lakeshore, but it’s considered an international border because the borderline is 12 miles out on the lake. Alan Bersin, the former chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said a threat of terrorism was more likely to come from the Canadian border than on the U.S Mexico border. There’s way more agents and resources on the southern border but the buildup has increased at a much higher rate on the northern border, especially since 2005. Another aspect is the increased operations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the interior of the country. Border Patrol agents can operate within 100 miles of an international border but ICE, with its increasing collaboration with law enforcement under different agreements like 287g and Secure Communities, can operate anywhere. The way people are being arrested and deported often in the interior of country there’s a semblance of that reality from the southern border moving north and into the interior of the country.

TO: In the book you talk about growing up in Niagara Falls and about the economic collapse of your town and then the expansion of the homeland security state in and around Niagara Falls. Can you talk about that a little?

TM: When I say I’m from Niagara Falls most people think I’m from Canada mainly because that’s where most tourists go to see the falls. Niagara is a border town and I grew up on the New York side of it. It’s mostly an industrial town that’s relied on the chemical and metallurgical industries. In the last 20 years it’s been in economic decline. Many of the companies have left. Now when you go there it’s a very tragic scenario. The city of Niagara has about 35 percent poverty. There’s potholes everywhere and collapsing homes. The town seems like it’s dying but at the same time in the last five or six years we’ve seen a lot of growth of the Border Patrol in Niagara Falls. It’s quite astonishing for me, because I’ve lived in the Arizona borderlands for a long time now, so when I see one of the green and white striped Border Patrol vehicles in Niagara, I feel like I’m in Arizona or Texas. It’s almost surreal but it’s happening. You have a city that’s collapsing but the Border Patrol is growing and they are working with the Niagara Falls Police Department and they have all of these resources. The Border Patrol’s Buffalo sector headquarters has huge video walls, high-powered surveillance cameras and all of this really expensive technology, plus these shiny new vehicles and all of these resources in a city that is economically collapsing, so it’s quite startling.

TO: It sounds like they might be the only employer hiring in Niagara these days?

TM: It’s definitely one of the only agencies that seem to be growing. Perhaps the Niagara Police Department is hiring as well.

TO: How are the role of the Border Patrol and the notion of border security expanding outside of the United States? You call it “the new world border.” And there are some interesting examples you cite like the recordings that were broadcast by the U.S. government from airplanes over Haiti after the earthquake that said, “Don’t even think about coming to the United States.”

TM: I spent a lot of time doing research on the Dominican-Haitian border. The reason I went there is because the Dominican Republic formed its own Border Patrol in 2007 at the urging of the United States. And it turns out that the United States also helped the Dominican Republic with the resources to form their own border patrol and U.S. Border Patrol agents went to the Dominican Republic to give trainings and help the new force get off its feet. I went there and met with some border guards from the Dominican Republic on the northern Dominican-Haitian border. What you see is a very rudimentary version of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Dominican Republic has put up a wall but it looks more like protest barricades. There are agents sitting and watching their patch of border and making sure that no one gets across.

It’s a phenomenon that’s happening globally. There’ve been over 100 countries that the U.S. Border Patrol has traveled to give trainings on border security and in some cases help other countries form their own border policing units. Especially in the case of Iraq where they’ve been going for about seven years now and helping Iraq form it’s own border police—the same with Afghanistan. Wherever the United States has had some serious military efforts abroad that’s where we’ll then follow up with this notion of border security. In Central America if you look at some of the money the U.S. is giving to Central American countries, especially in the drug war effort, there’s money designated for different Central American countries to increase their border security and Border Patrol agents have gone into places like Honduras and Guatemala. And so you see it’s more and more of an international phenomenon. When I go to border security trade fairs there’s a significant foreign presence as more and more countries ramp up their border policing apparatus. That’s why the global market is increasing at 5 percent and it’s becoming a booming market.

TO: Who’s competing with the U.S. in this booming border security market?

TM: When I talk to experts in the United States they often cite Israel as a leader as far as this idea of development of national security technology used on a border. Israel is leading the charge. The University of Arizona has a science and technology park and they are one of the first that is actively trying to develop a border security cluster in the U.S., at least according to its CEO. They are trying to attract all kinds of companies who work on border security, border management technologies. I asked the CEO if it would be the most significant cluster of its kind in the world and he said, ‘No, Israel has the most significant cluster in the world’. This will be the first of its kind in the United States.

TO: So, do you think most Americans are unaware of all of these huge changes in border security?

TM: Yeah, I do. If you look at immigration reform and the ongoing debate rarely are the for profit interests mentioned. For instance, with the Senate passage of the immigration bill last June there was $46 billion going to border security technology, drones etc. You have all these private interests invested in this legislation passing with a huge package for border security. It’s something that needs to be talked about because it’s a significant actor especially if they have lobbyists in Washington. You go to a trade show and last year at the main one in Phoenix everyone was talking about immigration reform like a treasure trove for border security interests. That part of the comprehensive immigration reform package is not being debated. The reason not many people know about it, is because it’s not being discussed as it should be.

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Photo from Eddie Guerra's Facebook page

After the sudden—yet not entirely surprising—resignation Friday of embattled Sheriff Lupe Treviño, Hidalgo County moved quickly to appoint an interim sheriff Wednesday. The Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court appointed Precinct 4 Constable J.E. “Eddie” Guerra to run the law enforcement agency, one of the largest in the state with nearly 800 employees and a $44 million budget.

County residents will have an opportunity to elect a new sheriff in the November general election. The Monitor in McAllen reported that 12 candidates applied to replace Treviño as interim sheriff and there were three finalists up for consideration Wednesday. Guerra, the only elected official in the running, was chosen by unanimous vote after about 25 minutes of deliberation.

The 52-year-old Guerra will resign from the constable position immediately and begin serving as sheriff Thursday. “The message that I really want to give out is that we’re going to start restoring accountability back to the Sheriff’s Office,” Guerra said, according to The Monitor. “We’re going to hold these people accountable—the deputies accountable for their actions—from now on. We’re not going to make any excuses for any troubles.”

Treviño, in his resignation letter submitted to County Judge Ramon Garcia last week, said that Texas’ “eighth largest sheriff’s office deserves dedicated and focused attention which I have not been able to give it.” The 65-year-old has dealt with a series of scandals since ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI arrested his son Jonathan Treviño, a former Mission police officer, in December 2012. 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.

Shortly after the Panama Unit bust, James Phil “JP” Flores, who ran the sheriff’s Crime Stoppers program, and 47-year-old warrants deputy Jorge Garza were also indicted along with Aida Palacios, an investigator with the district attorney’s office. According to federal indictments, the drug conspiracy centered on local drug dealers Fernando Guerra Sr. and his son Fernando Jr.—also indicted—who helped set up fake drug stings with the corrupt cops to rip off other local dealers and then sell their drugs.

In December of 2013, Treviño’s management of the law enforcement agency was dealt yet another blow when Commander Jose “Joe” Padila, a close ally and integral part of the sheriff’s re-election campaigns was indicted for drug trafficking and money laundering in connection with a known Weslaco drug trafficker, Tomas “El Gallo” Gonzalez. Padilla has pled not guilty and is still awaiting trial.

Treviño received two $5,000 cash donations from “El Gallo” Gonzalez. Treviño told The Monitor that Padilla had delivered the campaign donations but that he rejected the money. Gonzalez also paid for campaign re-election signs for Treviño.

Federal agents don’t seem close to ending their investigation, which only spells more trouble for the embattled Treviño who, to date, has not been charged with any crime. On March 10, Texas Rangers and federal agents executed a search warrant at the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s office and confiscated a computer. Two weeks later Treviño’s Chief of Staff Maria “Pat” Medina resigned for “personal reasons.” Medina is also Treviño’s campaign treasurer.

Treviño’s replacement, Guerra, will be sworn in tomorrow. Guerra has worked in Hidalgo County law enforcement since 1995. He has also worked as a reserve deputy for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. In a press release sent out late Wednesday, Guerra called his new appointment “nerve racking” but said he feels he can make a difference at the troubled sheriff’s agency.

“My first order of business tomorrow after I submit my bond and I am officially sworn into Office; is to address the hard working men and women at the Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “I am going to challenge them to work with me to regain the public’s trust and admiration and lift the dark cloud over the Sheriff’s Office.”

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

Embattled Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño—one of the border’s most powerful law enforcement officials, whose office has been roiled with allegations of corruption—formally announced his resignation Friday.

Scandal has dogged Treviño since ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI arrested his son Jonathan Treviño, a former Mission police officer, in December 2012. Since at least 2006, 30-year-old 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.”

For years, according to law enforcement sources, the task force had ripped off local dealers then resold the drugs for a profit. (The Panama Unit members pled guilty in 2013 and are still awaiting sentencing.) The news that the sheriff’s own son had been running a corrupt drug task force—while he lived with the sheriff—was shocking for many Rio Grande Valley residents. But it was only the beginning of the scandal that would roil the sheriff’s office.

Shortly after the Panama Unit bust, James Phil “JP” Flores, who ran the sheriff’s Crime Stoppers program, and 47-year-old warrants deputy Jorge Garza were also indicted along with Aida Palacios, an investigator with the district attorney’s office. According to federal indictments, the drug conspiracy centered on local drug dealers Fernando Guerra Sr. and his son Fernando Jr.—also indicted—who helped set up fake drug stings with the corrupt cops to rip off other local dealers and then sell their drugs.

In March 2013, I wrote about the sheriff and his troubles in a story called “The Shadow of the Son.” The sheriff, who runs one of the largest law enforcement agencies on the U.S.-Mexico border with 763 employees and a $44 million budget, had won his last re-election with more than 80 percent of the vote and had been tapped by the Department of Homeland Security as an adviser on border security. But since his son’s indictment and arrest, his 42-year career has been shadowed by allegations of corruption in his agency. Deputies and former deputies told the Observer that Treviño had forced employees to work on his campaigns or be demoted. Deputies were also forced to buy and sell tickets to fundraisers to pay off his campaign debt. Many of the deputies said that one of the sheriff’s commanders, Jose “Joe” Padilla, served as an enforcer for the sheriff, making sure that deputies carried out his wishes. In December 2013, Padilla was arrested on a seven-count indictment for drug trafficking and money laundering. He is still awaiting trial.

Throughout these many scandals, the sheriff has refused to resign. He’s continuously defended his record and said he had no knowledge of his son’s actions or the corruption in his agency. After Padilla was arrested, Treviño posted on his Facebook page: “Even though I consider him a friend and political supporter, I am not complicit in any illegalities whatsoever. People in all walks of life that know me and my reputation can attest to that.”

But last Friday the sheriff’s longtime chief of staff Pat Media retired. Rumors swirled in the Rio Grande Valley last week that Treviño would quickly follow in her footsteps. Today the sheriff alerted supporters on his Facebook page that he was indeed stepping down:

“Attached is my letter of resignation that serves as notice for my retirement. I do this with a very heavy heart but it is in the best interest of the County of Hidalgo and my family. Please take the letter and it’s contents for face value. Rumors run abound but they are rumors until they become fact. I would sincerely like to thank you for your support in good and bad times. These are the times when you find out who your true friends are. I have always counted on you and will continue to do so as you will with me…Thank You and God Bless You. Sheriff Lupe Trevino”

But the travails of the sheriff aren’t over yet. Many wonder whether the FBI is still investigating him and his agency and whether there will be more indictments. Commander Padilla’s trial will more than likely be set for the summer. Whatever comes out in the testimony will only further damage Treviño’s tarnished tenure as sheriff.

Migrantchildren
Eugenio del Bosque
Unaccompanied children waiting in a Mexican social service office

A majority of the unaccompanied Mexican and Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border should qualify for political asylum, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office, which released a report Wednesday on the growing humanitarian crisis.

“There is an alarming number of children seeking asylum. The U.S. government estimates this year there could be as many as 60,000 children in federal custody,” said Leslie Velez, a lead author of the new UNHCR report “Children on the Run,” released by the agency’s Washington, D.C., office, which covers the United States and the Caribbean.

Velez, in a conference call with reporters, said the “surge” of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without a parent or adult guardian began in 2011, and mirrors a sharp increase of adult U.S. asylum claims from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico that rose from 5,369 in 2009 to 36,174 in 2013. The growing humanitarian crisis is also affecting countries besides the United States. Neighboring Central American countries like Costa Rica and Nicaragua have seen a 432 percent increase in asylum claims, according to the report.

The number of U.S. immigration apprehensions of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has risen sharply from 4,059 in 2011 to 21,537 in 2013, and the majority of them cross the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, the shortest route from Central America into the U.S. Local and state authorities and advocates have struggled to provide resources and beds for all of the children arriving in Texas. In 2012, children were briefly sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to be housed in dormitories until additional shelters could be found.

The agency also interviewed unaccompanied minors from Mexico, and found that the number of Mexican children apprehended has also increased from 13,000 in 2011 to 18,754 in 2013. As I reported in the 2010 Observer story “Children of the Exodus,” Mexican children traveling alone are treated differently by U.S. immigration officials than Central American children. Instead of being screened and interviewed by U.S. Border Patrol agents, to see whether they qualify for asylum—as required by a congressional mandate—children are often returned to the nearest Mexican border city within 24 hours.

Velez said it was the U.N.’s task to document the reasons children are fleeing their homes in an unprecedented number. Velez said the agency interviewed 404 children from the four countries and found that pervasive violence and the inability of the state to provide security for its citizens were primary reasons for fleeing their countries. “At least 83 percent of the children had more than one reason for leaving,” she said.

The study’s authors said 72 percent of the children they interviewed from El Salvador qualified for “international protection,” (meaning possible asylum), the highest rate of any country. Children cited organized crime and gang violence as their primary reasons for fleeing El Salvador.

At least 48 percent of the Guatemalan children interviewed were indigenous, and they cited deprivation (poverty), violence at home and in society as their main reasons for leaving the country. At least 38 percent of Guatemalan children “raised international protection concerns,” according to the UNHRC.

Children from Honduras, like El Salvador, cited organized crime and pervasive violence in their country as primary reasons for leaving, and at least 57 percent of them raised international protection concerns, according to the report.

Findings from interviews with Mexican children were especially striking, according to the report. At least 64 percent of the children interviewed raised “international protection” concerns. And at least 38 percent of the children said they had been recruited by organized crime to be used in human trafficking “precisely because of their age and vulnerability,” according to the report. As I wrote in 2010 in “Children of the Exodus,” Mexican children are often used by organized crime for everything from drug smuggling to guiding immigrants through U.S. ranch lands, because if they are arrested they will be deported immediately back to Mexico. These children are powerless to defend themselves and often are intimidated and forced to participate in criminal activity.

In the report, the UNHCR asks that Central American countries, Mexico and the United States acknowledge that violence and insecurity are fueling the displacement of thousands of children and creating the humanitarian crisis. To help these displaced children, the agency recommends better asylum screening, and new or stronger laws to protect unaccompanied children.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman
Screen shot from video released by Mexican government
Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman escorted to a military helicopter

Both the U.S. and Mexican governments are celebrating Saturday’s arrest of Mexico’s most notorious drug kingpin, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, but longtime experts on Mexico believe his arrest will only spur more violence in a conflict that has already caused more than 100,000 deaths and at least 26,000 disappearances since 2006.

El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector has, since 2006, represented dozens of families in asylum court as they flee warring political and drug factions. Spector currently represents 100 families in political asylum cases, and has begun receiving families from the southern states of Guerrero and Michoacan, where rampant extortion and government officials’ complicity with cartels have prompted communities to form their own self-defense forces. “Chapo’s capture is a great political victory for both countries, and they’re going to take it for a ride as long as they can until reality sets in and there’s the next wave of assassinations throughout the country,” Spector says.

Spector has family in both Mexico and the United States. His grandfather was mayor of the small Mexican town of Guadalupe just across the border from Tornillo, Texas. In 2009, the Mexican military moved into Guadalupe, spurring a scorched-earth campaign between Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel, which had run the territory for decades. The small town’s murder rate skyrocketed to one of the highest in the world, and many fled to the United States to ask for asylum. Several police officers were killed, and the military built a makeshift barracks in the small town to patrol Guadalupe and the surrounding Juarez Valley.

As I wrote in a 2012 Texas Observer story, “The Deadliest Place in Mexico,” numerous survivors from the town told me that the military was assisting Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel in eradicating Juarez Cartel members. Spector says that since at least 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel has been in control of Guadalupe and the surrounding valley, which is under the control of the Mexican Army. The region still doesn’t have any local police forces. “A very interesting question is: How does the capture of Chapo change the dynamic of the relationship with Sinaloa and the military that has kept the cartel in power in the Juarez Valley?” says Spector.

The U.S. media is presenting Guzman’s capture and the Sinaloa Cartel in too simplistic of terms, he says. “They are viewing it through American eyes as another economic and corporate structure, but his power has a lot to do with deep family ties and personal loyalties which in large part is what Mexican politics are all about,” Spector says. “Now other cartels and dissident groups within Sinaloa are going to form new alliances and it’s going to create a lot of violence and readjustment.”

What doesn’t change is the drug market. “The production and distribution is still in place,” Spector says. “But I think we’re going to see a lot more violence, maybe not immediately but in the foreseeable future.”

David Ramirez, a former federal law enforcement officer, spent decades investigating and arresting drug cartel members before retiring in 2009. Ramirez says the arrest of another kingpin is always a political victory but ultimately doesn’t make a dent in the drug market.

As a rookie U.S. Border Patrol agent, Ramirez arrested Amado Carrillo Fuentes in the 1980s—later released by federal prosecutors—before he became the infamous “Lord of the Skies” and kingpin of the Juarez Cartel. Later, Ramirez became part of an elite group of covert agents in the Immigration and Naturalization Services, investigating organized crime. The INS was dissolved and repurposed into U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the massive new U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Ramirez retired in 2009.

“It frustrates me that we’ve been fighting the drug war for more than 40 years and arrested countless kingpins but we’re still in the same situation,” he says. “They talk as if it’s going to slow down the drug flow, but it does nothing. We need to stop the demand on our side of the border.”

The Sinaloa Cartel basically organized the drug smuggling structure in the western hemisphere back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he says. “The structure is already there—you don’t need Chapo Guzman. They’ll just put somebody else in his place.”

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Lt. Gov. Dewhurst tours the Rio Grande on a well-armed DPS boat
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst on a DPS gunboat

When a normally buttoned-down Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst dons a bulletproof vest and poses next to a machine gun on the Rio Grande, it can only mean one thing—it’s Republican primary season.

For the four Republican candidates vying to occupy the state’s second-highest office, including incumbent Dewhurst, talking tough on border security is a tried and true campaign strategy. Waging war on the border might sway fickle Republican primary voters but it almost always alienates the majority of border residents.

Take for instance Dewhurst’s photo op on the Rio Grande in late September: While the 68-year-old Dewhurst posed for photographs on a Department of Public Safety armored gunboat, the agency was in the midst of its three-week “surge” along the border, called “Operation Strong Safety.” The surge featured DPS roving checkpoints throughout Hidalgo County, that created havoc in local communities. Businesses saw a reduction in customers, school attendance declined and local legislators received dozens of phone calls from panicked residents afraid that family members would be detained at the checkpoints and deported. “People are too afraid to go out,” Juanita Valdez-Cox, an immigrant advocate and executive director of La Union del Pueblo Entero, told the Observer at the time. “Many families here have mixed citizenship. The parents may not have documents but their children are U.S. citizens.”

After much public outcry by border residents and some legislators, DPS Director Steve McCraw said he wouldn’t conduct the checkpoints again without legislative authority. Still, two months later, Dewhurst praised Operation Strong Safety during a press conference and said the state should spend $60 million on a “continuous surge to substantially shut down our border.”

For his part, rival candidate Todd Staples has been beating the border war drum for years as Texas agriculture commissioner. In 2011, he commissioned two retired generals to do an $80,000 military assessment on security along the Texas-Mexico border. The generals referred to border cities in their report as a “sanitary tactical zone” where military operations can push back “narco-terrorists.” Another candidate, state Sen. Dan Patrick, has warned of “illegal invasions from Mexico” and pledged to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities. At least Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has taken a more nuanced approach. He’s all for armed soldiers at the border, but he’s also for armed citizens throughout the state. “The fact that many Texans feel comfortable with only police carrying guns isn’t normal, historically speaking,” he wrote in a recent editorial for the San Antonio Express-News.  “Armed citizens shouldn’t be alarming in a free society.”

Migrantchildren
Eugenio del Bosque
Unaccompanied Children in Reynosa, Mexico

The U.S. Border Patrol recently released some stunning apprehension figures for the Rio Grande Valley. While the rest of the U.S.-Mexico border is still experiencing some of the lowest apprehension rates in forty years, the number of border crossers caught in the Valley has tripled since 2010.

The nexus of migration has shifted from Tucson, Arizona to South Texas. Since 1998, Tucson, Arizona, has registered the highest number of yearly apprehensions. But in 2013, the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector reported 154,453 migrant apprehensions compared to 120,939 for Tucson.

For anyone working with the immigrant community in the Rio Grande Valley, the new figures come as no surprise. There has been a huge influx of women, children and men from Central America fleeing skyrocketing violence and seeking refuge in the United States. South Texas has long been a favored route for Central Americans but the numbers of migrants in the past two years is the highest since Central America’s civil wars more than three decades ago.

Most troubling are the thousands of unaccompanied children—the majority between 7 and 18—fleeing deteriorating security conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In April 2012, South Texas shelters for unaccompanied children reached overflow capacity. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, scrambled to find emergency shelters for the children. The agency even called on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to provide shelter to more than 100 Central American kids.

The number of children pouring across the border hasn’t abated since then. And the Office of Refugee and Resettlement has had to secure more shelters across Texas to house the children.

“In Central America, organized crime and gang activity are leading to some of the highest murder rates in the world,” says Adam Isaacson, a senior associate for regional security at the non-profit Washington Office on Latin America. “What surprises me about these apprehension numbers is how fast it has grown in the past two years. The number of people has tripled.”

Because of the violence in Central America, parents already in the United States without documents are paying smugglers to bring their children across the border. Other children threatened by growing gang violence are fleeing to the United States even if they have no relatives here. It’s a humanitarian disaster, says Isaacson. Migrants are targeted for forced labor, extortion and recruitment by the cartels. “On the route to the United States, just about everyone is either robbed, kidnapped or raped,” he says.

Once they cross the border into the United States, migrants hiking through the desert or rugged ranch lands can die from heat exposure or hypothermia. The Border Patrol reported 156 deaths in the Rio Grande Valley in 2013, second only to Tucson where 194 people died.

In June 2012, Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, published an open letter to Congress asking that they address the unfolding humanitarian crisis through immigration reform. As Limon wrote in a letter published in The Texas Observer:

“The central fact of our existing immigration policies is that they keep families separated. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, passed by Congress in 1996 created the current problem. All at once it erected a major barrier for parents here illegally from ever seeing their young children again.”

One other trend that stands out for me from the latest Border Patrol report is the historically low level of apprehensions for Mexicans continues. In 2012, the Pew Research Center attributed this trend to a number of reasons including heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers of crossing the border as well as a decline in birth rates.

But the growing security crisis in Mexico is also having an impact on immigration numbers. What the Border Patrol doesn’t track is the number of political asylum requests. As noted in a recent New York Times article, political asylum requests from Mexico more than doubled from 13,800 in 2012 to 36,000 requests in 2013. Many Mexicans seeking asylum have moved to U.S. border states like Texas. And no doubt, with things deteriorating in Michoacan and other states we might see even more asylum requests in 2014.

The takeaway is that the humanitarian crisis is growing and much of it is now playing out in Texas, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.