The Texas Observer’s SXSW Interactive panel Life on the Line: Tweeting the Drug War highlighted the bravery of citizen reporters living in Tamaulipas—the most censored state in Mexico—to an international audience in Austin.
I joined KGBT-TV Interactive Manager Sergio Chapa, and UT-Brownsville Professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, to discuss the media blackout in the state of Tamaulipas on the Texas-Mexico border where reporters have been killed and threatened and Mexican news outlets bombed or burned to the ground.
The most censored state in Mexico also happens to be the country’s most innovative when it comes to circumventing the media blackout using social media. The panel highlights the birth in 2010 of the city hashtag #reynosafollow to collect and disseminate information on gun battles, blockades and other important information. Since 2010, citizen reporters in Reynosa have pioneered methods for sharing information while protecting their online identities.
As if to prove our point, a massive gun battle raged in Reynosa a day after our SXSW panel. The Mexican media didn’t report on the battle, which went on for three hours. Later, the government reported two dead and one injured, but through #reynosafollow journalists and citizens were able to verify that as many as 50 people died that evening.
Back in 2010 Governor Rick Perry compared the passage of the Affordable Care Act—aka Obamacare— to something like Godzilla crushing the Statue of Liberty. “Freedom was frontally attacked by passage of this monstrosity,” he huffed.
In three years, Perry’s rhetoric hasn’t changed much on health care reform despite lobbying from thousands of Texans, local government leaders and the medical community. On Tuesday, an estimated 2,000 Medicaid recipients and supporters gathered outside the Texas Capitol to persuade Perry and other Republicans to get behind the Medicaid expansion.
As lawmakers met inside the Capitol, former Texas Medicaid director DeAnn Friedholm addressed the crowd from the south steps, chiding Perry and legislators who have steadfastly rejected the expansion. Accepting the Medicaid expansion could provide the state with $100 billion in federal money the first decade, and provide insurance for at least 1.5 million Texans. “We’re here because people in the Capitol either don’t understand or even worse they understand but don’t care,” she said. “And we need to make it absolutely unacceptable, morally and politically, for them to do nothing.”
Friedholm, now the director of health reform for the advocacy group Consumers Union, said legislators should not get sidetracked by the argument that Medicaid is broken. “Can it be better? Yes!” she said emphatically. “But the biggest problem for Medicaid right now are the payments which are so far behind that doctors won’t accept Medicaid. And it’s the Texas Legislature that’s in charge of setting Medicaid rates.”
It’s rare that the business community, local government and powerful healthcare groups like the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Medical Association come together on an issue, she said. “The last time that happened was 10 years ago, and we passed CHIP [the Children’s Health Insurance Program] which is a pretty great program.”
People came from all over the state for Tuesday’s rally. Mike Seifert, a community coordinator with the grassroots RGV Equal Voice Network said 107 people from the Rio Grande Valley got up at 3:30 a.m. to board two buses for Austin. “It’s not easy when you’ve got kids and jobs, but they wanted to be here,” he said.
Seifert said Medicaid expansion could transform things for people along the Texas-Mexico border who “live day-in and day-out with the anguish of not having health insurance.” Many uninsured residents used to go to Mexico for low-cost health care, but are now unable to go because of the violence, he said. “I know of a woman who used to see a dentist in Mexico but she can’t go anymore. She had to pull out her own tooth because she didn’t have insurance.”
At the rally, Courtney Wyrtzen, from Austin, held up a photo of her 11-year-old daughter Blythe, who suffers from a nervous system disorder called Rett Syndrome. Wyrtzen said her family relies on Medicaid’s Medically Dependent Children Program for the treatments her daughter needs. “Children with special needs are receiving life saving care from Medicaid,” she said. “We need to protect it.”
Perry isn’t yielding on the Medicaid expansion. But at least there seems to be discussion among Republicans on how to lift Texas out of its dismal role as the state with the highest number of uninsured in the nation. Some legislators are reportedly looking at a waiver recently granted to Arkansas that would allow newly eligible Medicaid recipients to move into a state health insurance exchange. The federal matching funds for Medicaid would be provided as a subsidy to taxpayers.
The clock is ticking. The federal government will only provide its generous 100 percent match (later shrinking to 90 percent) through 2016. It’s late in the game for Texas to draft an entirely new waiver application and program, and Perry already rejected setting up a state exchange like the one Arkansas will use.
We could know a whole lot more about where Texas is heading later this week. House Appropriations Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) announced today that his committee will discuss Medicaid expansion Friday.
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw announced Thursday that DPS officers would no longer shoot from helicopters to disable vehicles, “unless we’re being shot at or someone else is being shot at.”
McCraw made the announcement during a the House Appropriations Committee hearing, after Houston Rep. Sylvester Turner asked McCraw to address the controversial policy.
Last October, DPS helicopter sniper Miguel Avila opened fire on a truck during a chase down a caliche road near the small Hidalgo County town of La Joya. Avila killed two men and injured a third. Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers had been pursuing the truck, thinking it was moving drugs, and called for backup from the DPS helicopter.
But the truck was not carrying drugs or weapons. Instead, nine Guatemalan nationals were hidden in the truck bed under a tarp. The driver was a 14-year-old boy.
The men had each paid $2,000 to be taken from San Martín Jilotepeque in the state of Chimaltenango, Guatemala through Mexico, and then another $3,000 each for passage into the United States. Most were headed for jobs in New Jersey, Alba Caceres, the Guatemalan Consul based in McAllen told the San Antonio Express-News after the shooting.
McCraw said DPS had reviewed its policy last Friday and decided to end it. “I’m a firm believer that they did exactly what they thought they needed to do,” he said of the DPS snipers. “And it was consistent with the Texas penal code.”
Despite McCraw’s continuing defense of the policy, the shooting was almost universally condemned by law enforcement experts and civil rights groups. ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke applauded the agency’s decision to end the policy in a statement.
“We are relieved that Texas is ending this extreme practice, which no other southwestern border states have ever allowed. We hope that this decision is a step, if only a small one, toward ending the culture of violence that pervades enforcement of border security in Texas.”
It may be a small step toward sanity in border security policy, but Texas still has a long way to go. A tragedy forced DPS to ponder its lethal force policies regarding helicopter snipers but not a word has been said about use of force policies regarding DPS’ armored gunboats now patrolling the Rio Grande.
During his remarks, McCraw mentioned that officers needed to reserve the right to shoot back. He said officers had been shot at more than 77 times from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, but didn’t specify the time frame or where that statistic came from. He also didn’t say whether any officers had been wounded or killed in those shootings.
Bullets are flying from the U.S. side of the river, too. DPS has just begun its armed patrols on the river, while Border Patrol has been patrolling for years with some controversy. In September, a Border Patrol agent on a boat fired on a group of people on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, killing a man at a barbecue. In the last three years, U.S. agents have fatally shot four other unarmed Mexicans as they stood on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
Between the Border Patrol and DPS, that makes two law enforcement agencies enthusiastically patrolling the border—and DPS’s new armored gunboats make the Border Patrol boats look like toys. Hopefully, it won’t take another tragedy before legislators look into the firepower behind DPS’s new “marine tactical unit.”
Last year, nearly every region along the U.S.-Mexico border saw a decline in migrant apprehensions—except the Rio Grande Valley. Apprehensions there increased 70 percent, according to a recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America.
But the increase isn’t about Mexican migration. For the first time in history, non-Mexicans made up the majority of the migrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley, according to WOLA. Approximately 49,939 out of 97,762 migrants apprehended in the region in 2012 were Central American—primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, according to statistics released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection this week.
It seems counterintuitive to see a surge in migration through one of the deadliest routes in Mexico. But the explanation may be partially rooted in cartel control of the booming human trafficking business.
The Rio Grande Valley borders the Mexican state of Tamaulipas where 72 migrants were massacred in 2010 and another 193 bodies were found in 2011 in several mass graves near the town of San Fernando. The region has such a fearsome reputation among migrants that detainees in a New Mexico immigrant detention facility begged U.S. officials to deport them anywhere but Tamaulipas.
Maureen Meyer, a senior associate at WOLA and an author of the report, said that poverty and increasing levels of violence are pushing many Central Americans to make the dangerous trek. It’s also the shortest route from Central America to the United States, she pointed out. “The fear of what might happen to them in Mexico is not enough to deter anybody,” Meyer said. “They know the risks but they feel there’s no other option and it’s horrible, but it’s a risk they are willing to take.”
I’ve written before about the surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America which left government agencies and nonprofits scrambling last summer to find beds and resources in Texas for the children. People working with these children also pointed out that rampant insecurity and poverty were compelling many of the kids to come to the United States.
I still wonder, however, whether the growing business of human trafficking also has something to do with the uptick. In a November report from Insight Crime, analyst Steven Dudley writes about the the new landscape of human trafficking, which now involves street gangs, transnational organized crime groups, corrupt officials and independent smugglers.
Trafficking migrants has become big business for organized crime. The feared Zetas cartel largely control this dangerous and lucrative route from Central America to the Rio Grande Valley. “They have remained faithful to their central mission,” Dudley writes. “To control the territory where they charge a fee to organized crime groups and increasingly to legal businesses.”
Smugglers must pay $500 per migrant to the Zetas just to pass through the Texas border area, according to WOLA. This was what the Gulf Cartel was charging per migrant, I was told in 2010, for the right to cross the Rio Grande into Texas. These cartels shoulder none of the overhead or risk of moving and storing contraband—all they have to do is collect their money for each migrant who passes through their territory.
If human smuggling has become so valuable to organized crime, it makes sense that they might invest in recruiters in Central America to help convince migrants to take the perilous journey. Organized crime is now trafficking in hope, and the market is endless.
“I’m an honest-to-God conservative. I even have a dog named W,” said Brad Bailey by way of introduction. In his mid-30s, with close-cropped, sandy blond hair and dressed in a suit and tie, Bailey looked like one of the dozens of newly elected Republican state officials milling around the lobby of the downtown Austin Hilton during a conference for conservative policymakers in early January.
But Bailey, who runs a chain of family-owned catfish and seafood restaurants near Houston, said he felt like an outsider. “I’m not a politico. I’m in the hospitality business,” he said. The Texas Republican Party could learn a thing or two from the hospitality business. “At one of my restaurants, if I were to turn my back on my customers or treat them rudely, they wouldn’t come back,” he said. “That’s how the Republican Party treats Hispanics.”
Bailey had never felt a calling to get involved in Republican state politics until last year, he said. His “aha moment,” as he called it, was when a longtime employee, who is Hispanic, came to him one day at the restaurant and asked whether it was true that Republicans hated Hispanics. “This guy had worked for me for 10 years,” Bailey said. “He’d seen the Republican bumper stickers on my car and he said, ‘You and your family seem like good people. So why do you hate Hispanics?’
“There wasn’t anything I could say to convince him otherwise,” Bailey said. Alarmed, he went to his local representative, who advised him to get involved in the next Republican state convention. So last June, the restaurateur found himself in Fort Worth among the state’s most die-hard Republicans, trying to convince them to endorse a guest worker program as part of the state GOP’s immigration platform. After that, Bailey went to the Republican National Convention in Tampa. His lobbying of delegates there proved successful; the platform called for a guest worker program.
Bailey said he’s worked mostly with Hispanic conservatives to convince the party to soften its divisive rhetoric toward Latinos. Hispanic conservatives recruited Bailey to speak to his fellow Anglo Republicans about their immigration hang-ups. “They said, ‘It’s going to take a white guy like you appealing to other white guys to get the GOP to turn around.’ It’s unfortunate but true,” he said. “There’s Hispanic outreach and then what I do—we call it ‘gringo inreach.’”
Bailey said he’d already spoken to 30 Republican clubs across Texas. On this day, he was in Austin to take part in an immigration panel at the conservative conference held by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.Republicans know they need to appeal to Hispanics if the party wants to remain in the majority, but that doesn’t make Bailey’s gringo inreach any easier. “I had a guy tell me the other day that there were 30 million illegal aliens living in the United States,” he said. “There’s just no way that’s true, but it was hard to convince him otherwise.
“We need to change, and I think Texas can be a leader for the nation,” he said. Then Bailey excused himself, eyeing a group of legislators across the lobby. “Better go,” he said. “I’ve got work to do.”