Google+ Back to mobile

La Linea

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.”

Support the Texas Observer
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.”

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.

Photo from Sheriff Trevino’s Facebook page.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño and his sons Juan Carlos (left) and Jonathan.

In Hidalgo County, when it comes to law enforcement corruption,  the feds like to make their arrests right before the holidays.

On Christmas Eve, Commander Jose “Joe” Padilla, right-hand man to Sheriff Guadalupe “Lupe” Treviño was arrested on a seven-count indictment for drug trafficking and money laundering. Padilla’s arrest makes it increasingly difficult for Treviño—the county’s top lawman—to continue to deny any knowledge of wrongdoing by his deputies, his own son and now a top commander who many say worked as his chief enforcer within the border’s second largest law enforcement agency.

For months, rumors had swirled about Padilla’s imminent arrest. It was December 2012 when federal agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI arrested the sheriff’s son Jonathan Treviño, Alexis Espinoza, son of the City of Hidalgo police chief, and two other deputies who were part of the now defunct Panama Unit narcotics task force. The remaining three members were indicted in March of 2012.

Jonathan Treviño was assigned as leader of the task force at age 23 and he staffed the Panama Unit with his close friends. Multiple law enforcement sources say the Panama Unit brazenly ripped off local drug dealers for at least six years until their arrests in December 2012. The news that the sheriff’s son had run a corrupt task force shocked Hidalgo County, but more arrests were announced and it appeared that the corruption in the department ran even deeper. 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.

One by one they pleaded guilty and avoided trial—all except Jorge Garza. Instead of taking a plea agreement and risking 10 years to life in prison, the former Hidalgo County deputy wanted his day in federal court. He got his wish, over several days in August, and South Texas followed every minute of the trial over social media as the web of corruption in the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department slowly unraveled.

At the center of the damning testimony was Padilla, painted as the sheriff’s top enforcer who struck fear into deputies underneath him. On the witness stand, indicted Panama Unit member Fabian Rodriguez described Padilla’s role within the sheriff’s department. “Padilla has free rein and he puts the fear in people. I feared him even though I was part of his inner circle,” Rodriguez told the jury. “I’m afraid as I’m testifying right now.”

Rodriguez also testified that Padilla would send deputies to shine his shoes, pick up his dry cleaning and pay his taxes while on county time. Padilla would also tell deputies to alter their time sheets to say they had worked overtime. Then they would use the comp time to work for the sheriff’s campaign. “Padilla wouldn’t put his name on it [the time sheet] because he didn’t want it coming back to him. He would tell someone else to do it,” Rodriguez told the jury.

When Garza’s attorney subpoenaed Padilla, it was the talk of the town. Padilla strode into the courtroom in uniform, then promptly asserted his Fifth Amendment rights rather than answer any questions before a judge and jury. U.S. District Judge Randy Crane informed the jury that Padilla was being investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Despite the revelation, Sheriff Treviño said he would keep Padilla on staff.

Months passed until this week’s announcement of Padilla’s arrest. The unsealed indictment links Padilla with suspected drug dealer Tomas Reyes Gonzalez, known as El Gallo (the Rooster). The indictment alleges that Padilla provided protection for El Gallo and his associates. During the trial in August, witnesses testified that the alleged drug dealer was also a political donor to Sheriff Treviño.

The most fascinating piece of the case is the sheriff. With nine indicted lawmen—including seven sheriff’s deputies and his own son—Treviño has maintained on the witness stand and in the media that he had no idea his deputies were colluding with drug dealers. When contacted by The Monitor after Commander Padilla’s arrest on Tuesday, he told the newspaper, “Unequivocally, there’s absolutely no way I had any knowledge whatsoever about the allegations, if they are true, any more than I did about the Panama Unit.”

But clearly, federal investigators aren’t done yet with Treviño. Neither are former employees—who say the sheriff retaliated against them for failing to work his campaign re-election in 2012—and residents who say they were victimized by his son’s drug task force. Both parties have filed civil lawsuits against the sheriff. More damning evidence and testimony will undoubtedly come to light—and at this rate, it wouldn’t be surprising if the feds delivered another unsettling Christmas present next year.

Former Tamaulipas Gov. Tomas Yarrington Ruvacalba
Courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Former Tamaulipas Gov. Tomas Yarrington Ruvacalba

Former Tamaulipas Gov. Tomas Yarrington Ruvacalba was once considered presidential material, but now both Mexico and the United States have issued warrants for his arrest.

In early December, the United States indicted Yarrington on 11 counts of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. Most Mexican politicians under indictment typically keep a low profile, but Yarrington—a fugitive in two countries—has taken to social media to build his case of innocence.

Yarrington served as mayor of Matamoros from 1993 to 1995 and governor of Tamaulipas from 1999 to 2005. In 1999 he was honored with a Texas Senate proclamation. On his website, which features the 56-year-old hooking a prized game fish, Yarrington says his troubles in Mexico stem from “political persecution from the past administration,” referring to the presidency of Felipe Calderon, which ended in December 2012. Calderon is from the National Action Party, which ousted Yarrington’s Institutional Revolutionary Party from the presidential palace in 2000. On Twitter the politician said the accusations against him were coerced and false. “…I’m going to reveal the inconsistencies and contradictions of the protected witnesses who have accused me falsely,” he tweeted.

Allegations in the U.S. against Yarrington first surfaced in February 2012 after authorities arrested wealthy Mexican businessman Antonio Peña Arguelles at his home in an upscale neighborhood in San Antonio. An affidavit filed by the DEA alleged that Peña Arguelles had funneled millions of dollars from the Zetas cartel to Yarrington and other elected officials. In May of 2012, another wealthy businessman, Fernando Alejandro Cano Martinez, was indicted in absentia on money laundering charges. Agents allege that Cano funneled millions from the Gulf Cartel and Zetas to Yarrington and helped him launder money through land and property purchases in South Texas and San Antonio.

After the indictment announcement in December, Yarrington hastily called a press conference in Mexico City where his Mexican and U.S. lawyers presented his defense. The legal team told reporters they had no idea where Yarrington might be hiding. U.S. authorities revoked his visa in February 2012 and asked him to leave the country, said his U.S. attorney Joel Androphy. “I fully expect Governor Yarrington to be acquitted. He’s done nothing wrong,” Androphy said. “We have a saying, ‘In the United States you can indict a ham sandwich,’” he told the room of Mexican reporters. “But in our country you are also innocent until proven guilty.”

But first Uncle Sam will have to find Yarrington, who wisely turned off the geo-locator on his Twitter account. If he is detained or turns himself in, his trial will likely take place in federal court in Brownsville.

Yarrington isn’t the only disgraced Mexican politician on the lam and hiding from U.S. authorities. Texas plays a crucial role as both a place of refuge (world-class gated communities!) and a place to funnel the hundreds of millions gathered through dubious means while serving in public office.

In November, U.S. attorneys indicted Hector Javier Villarreal Hernandez, 42, former Secretary of Finance of the State of Coahuila, and Jorge Juan Torres Lopez, 59, former Interim Governor of Coahuila. The two men are charged with money laundering and bank fraud.

Last year police in Tyler pulled over Villarreal, his wife and kids as they were passing through town in a Mercedes SUV. A deputy found a rifle and more than $67,000. Villarreal and his wife were detained. But the Department of Homeland Security let the couple go because they had legal visas to be in the country, according to KLTV News. Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert opined that the two probably left Texas immediately. “I’m going to talk to someone in Washington … because they are giving awfully bad directions to law enforcement who actually knows what they’re doing.”

To date, neither man has been found—either in Texas or on Twitter.


Employees at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have been bilking taxpayers for millions in overtime pay for years, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates cases of government waste and ethical violations. Overtime abuse has become so endemic that agency employees refer to overtime as “the candy bowl.”  On Nov. 1, the office’s Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner sent a letter to President Obama expressing deep concerns about the “long-standing abuse of overtime payments by the Department of Homeland Security.”

In her letter, Lerner said the problem is the misuse of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime, or AUO, which agents can earn when tackling urgent work like a breaking law enforcement case. Among the allegations made by agency whistleblowers were that employees routinely reported working overtime when in fact they were “relaxing, joking, surfing the Internet and taking care of personal matters.”

The news was a blow to border business leaders and elected officials who were recently granted a five-year pilot program by Congress to allow them to form public-private partnerships to pay for additional agents or pay overtime during peak traffic times at international bridges.

For years border officials have begged the feds to hire more customs agents to relieve congestion at the international bridges. The long lines result in export and import delays causing produce to rot in transit, and pollution from idling trucks and cars. After nearly a decade of frustration for business leaders, Congress approved the public-private partnerships to help fund more agents in U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS.

“I’d be very supportive of CBP correcting this inappropriate behavior,” said Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company. Vale’s company is part of the South Texas Assets Consortium, which includes Cameron County and the cities of McAllen, Pharr and Laredo. The group is one of five public-private partnerships recently approved by Congress for the pilot program that begins in January.

Vale said he is concerned about the report’s findings of rampant abuse of overtime pay. He emphasized that the consortium wouldn’t pay overtime until U.S. Customs had exhausted its overtime coffers first. “If a truck stays one day longer waiting at the port of entry, the value of produce is reduced by 10 percent. The importer and exporter have to eat the difference in cost,” he said. “It’s a business decision—do you pay the overtime and allow the truck to be cleared faster or not?” he said. “Most would pay the overtime.”

Lerner’s agency investigated six Homeland Security offices nationwide including the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters in Washington, D.C., where a  “whistleblower alleged that employees claimed 10 hours of overtime every week,” an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Houston, and a Border Patrol station in Laredo where employees charged overtime to conduct routine administrative tasks.

The overtime charges at the six offices alone cost taxpayers at least $8.7 million annually. Lerner said the misuse of funds was an agency-wide problem and probably “would be in the tens of millions per year.”

Support the Texas Observer
Photo by Marissa Barnett
A protest last June in front of the Polk detention facility

Back in 2009, the Obama administration promised reform of the massive, mostly for-profit U.S. immigrant detention system. Immigrant advocates are still waiting.

The number of deportees hasn’t diminished and private detention facilities continue to expand. Every year more than 400,000 people waiting for hearings with an immigration judge are housed in far-flung jails and grim detention centers across the nation. Many of the people in detention—sometimes for years—are legal permanent residents, asylum seekers or survivors of domestic violence or human trafficking. The detentions are costly for taxpayers and economically and emotionally ruinous for immigrant families. While languishing in lockup, detainees are sometimes subjected to physical abuse, substandard medical care and inhumane living conditions.

Last year, the nonprofit watchdog group Detention Watch Network issued a report on 10 of the most inhumane lockups in the nation, saying they should be closed immediately because of myriad human rights abuses. The group sent a letter and a copy of the report to President Obama outlining their concerns and calling for the closures. Two of the facilities are in Texas: the Houston Processing Center, a private facility owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, and the Polk County Detention Facility in Livingston operated by New Jersey-based private prison company Community Education Centers.

The 10 facilities were identified as the worst in the nation by a coalition of more than 320 immigrant advocate groups, community organizers, legal service providers and faith organizations. Bob Libal, executive director of the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, toured both detention facilities in 2012 and found detainees in crowded unsanitary cells without adequate medical care or edible food. Some detainees had been placed in solitary confinement for minor infractions.

A year has now passed and not one of the facilities has been closed. “The conditions haven’t improved at all,” Libal said. “They’ve actually gotten worse.”

The isolated Polk detention center now houses up to 400 to 500 asylum seekers from Latin America, said Libal. There are no legal services, no outside recreation. “People have to eat, sleep and use the restrooms in one enclosed area,” he said.

During the fractious debate over immigration reform in Congress, advocates like Libal feel that the crisis of mass detention of immigrants has largely been ignored. “People shouldn’t be locked up during immigration proceedings,” he said. Some alternatives to incarceration include supervised probation for immigrants waiting for their hearing dates.

To bring the problem back into the spotlight, Grassroots Leadership and the nonprofit Texans United for Families will hold a press conference Wednesday at 10 a.m. across the street from the Federal Plaza in Austin to call for the closure of the Polk County detention facility. “We want to continue to focus attention on a facility that is one of the most troubling detention centers in a very troubling immigrant detention system,” Libal said. ‘We shouldn’t have tens of thousands of people locked up every day across America.”

Courtesy of Southern Border Communities Coalition

In April 2012, PBS aired footage of as many as 20 border agents beating an unarmed man, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, to death. After viewing the shocking footage, congressional leaders demanded a review of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which some border residents say should be held to the same standards as law enforcement.

This week, the Southern Border Communities Coalition, which is a consortium of nonprofits and immigrant rights advocates, is in Washington D.C. to meet with congressional members and White House staff about the U.S. Border Patrol’s lethal force practices, and to let them know that local communities need more input on border enforcement.

“We want Congress to begin investing in the border region by supporting jobs, roads and schools not more guns, drones and walls,” said Andrea Guerrero, co-chair of the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

To get Congress’ attention, the coalition has formed a campaign called “Revitalize Not Militarize.” The group brought hundreds of quilt panels created by border residents to the National Mall in Washington, to highlight the damage that border militarization has done to local communities. The idea was inspired by AIDS quilts created in the ‘80s.

“It was a very effective way of getting the message across,” said Ricardo Favela, spokesperson for the coalition. “We want people to pay attention to the border region.”

Favela said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s lethal force policies are one of the biggest problems along the border right now. “At least 20 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents since 2010,” he said. “The Border Patrol is out of control. They lack accountability and oversight.”

Family members of some of the victims—Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, Valeria Munique Tachiquin (a U.S. citizen fatally shot by a border agent), and Jose Gutierrez (beaten into a coma by customs agents)—spoke Wednesday during a press conference at the National Mall about the need for better training and oversight of the Border Patrol.

“We’re just asking that Border Patrol abide by the same best police practices that police departments follow across the nation,” Guerrero said.

Many people killed by border agents were accused of throwing rocks. At least six of the 20 victims were also fatally shot in Mexican territory. In September, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General released a report on the spate of fatal shootings and beatings by Border Patrol agents and found that “many agents and officers do not understand use of force and the extent to which they may or may not use force.”

A government-commissioned analysis by the Police Executive Research Forum recommended that the agency stop using lethal force against rock throwers. But in early November, Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher told the Associated Press that his agency would not implement the recommendation. “Just to say that you shouldn’t shoot at rock-throwers or vehicles for us, in our environment, was very problematic and could potentially put Border Patrol agents in danger,” Fisher said.

But Guerrero said something needs to change, because poorly crafted border enforcement policy and growing militarization is harming border communities. “Valeria Tachiquin was gunned down just blocks from my house by a Border Patrol agent who was fired by the sheriff’s office for misconduct,” she said. “We don’t need any more guns, drones or walls.”

A Facebook page started to alert residents about checkpoints


The Texas Department of Public Safety was warned during a legislative hearing in 2011 that they would “run afoul of the courts” if driver’s license and insurance checkpoints were used to determine citizenship status. Now checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley are generating fears that DPS is working with the U.S. Border Patrol to deport undocumented residents.

DPS set up temporary checkpoints around Hidalgo County last week. Immigrant families reacted almost immediately with confusion and panic, says Juanita Valdez-Cox, director of the nonprofit community organization La Unión del Pueblo Entero. “The checkpoints are supposedly to check for driver’s licenses and insurance,” she says. “But our members say they’ve seen border patrol working alongside DPS.”

Valdez-Cox said her organization received a call from a woman who was questioned by DPS at a checkpoint about how long she had been living in the United States after she was unable to produce a valid driver’s license. That woman received a citation but was not deported. DPS already regularly calls border patrol after routine traffic stops if a driver is undocumented. Valdez-Cox says her organization is still trying to verify and document whether people are being deported after being stopped at the DPS checkpoints.

One thing for certain is that the checkpoints are creating havoc in Hidalgo County. State Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) told the Monitor that his office had received more than 100 calls related to the checkpoints. A Head Start instructor told Canales that there had been an estimated 35 percent drop in attendance since the checkpoints began in the county. People have stopped going out, says Valdez-Cox. Sales at grocery stores have declined. A therapist for autistic children told Valdez-Cox that parents aren’t bringing in their children for their therapy appointments. “People are too afraid to go out,” Valdez-Cox says. “Many families here have mixed citizenship. The parents may not have documents but their children are U.S. citizens.”

To avoid the checkpoints, Valley residents are using Facebook and the app Zello, which operates like a walkie talkie on a cell phone, to report checkpoint locations. These are some of the same social media platforms used to report checkpoints and gun battles in Mexico. One Facebook page called Alertes de Retenes 956, or Checkpoint Alert 956 in English, had more than 50,000 likes in little more than a week.

In a written statement published in the Monitor, DPS Director Steve McCraw emphasized that the checkpoints are solely for the purpose of checking for driver’s licenses and insurance.

“It is important for everyone to know that these regulatory checkpoints have not and will not be used to ascertain immigration status. Moreover, reports that Border Patrol agents are present at these checkpoints are blatantly false. Such false allegations do a disservice to the public by spreading inaccurate information to their communities and unnecessarily alarming the public,” said McCraw.

Plans to conduct the DPS checkpoints along the border have been in the works since at least 2011. During the 2011 legislative session, checkpoint legislation was part of a massive homeland security bill, S.B. 9, authored by Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) along with other controversial provisions like allowing the agency to use GPS tracking devices without a court order and installing license plate readers in police vehicles.

McCraw and lawmakers discussed the legality of setting up the checkpoints during a March 30, 2011, hearing on S.B. 9 in the Senate Homeland Security and Transportation committee. During the hearing Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) asked whether it would be legal for DPS troopers to ask citizenship questions at the checkpoints.

As the former El Paso County Attorney, Rodriguez was well acquainted with the controversial checkpoints. In 2006, El Paso’s former sheriff, Leo Samaniego, faced a slew of lawsuits accusing the agency of racial profiling and civil rights violations after his department set up driver’s license and insurance checkpoints around the county. Residents said that people were being picked up by border patrol and deported after being stopped at the checkpoints.

Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, who was testifying on the legislation and sitting next to McCraw at the time, said officers asking citizenship questions would be against the law. Sen. Williams asked Kepple to elaborate.

Williams: “…so someone is pulled over and unable to produce ID or insurance and the officer says, ‘are you in the country legally?’ Is that problematic for that to happen?”

Kepple: “I think it is. I’m not sure how one question follows the other. There are a lot of other questions that could be asked to establish someone’s identity.”

At this point, El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza, also testifying on SB 9 and the checkpoints, jumped into the discussion.

Esparza said that there was enough case law on the books to show that DPS could legally conduct driver’s license and insurance checkpoints. But anything beyond that would be a problem, he said.

“What Mr. Kepple is saying is really important…if you’re going to ask questions to find out whether someone is in the country legally you’re going to run afoul of the authority granted to law enforcement,” Esparza said.

During the hearing, McCraw said he felt that a Supreme Court ruling had given his agency enough authority to go ahead with the checkpoints and that he didn’t really need the legislation. Ultimately, S.B. 9 didn’t pass in 2011. Ironically, the only part of the bill that did pass was legislation making it illegal for undocumented people to get a valid driver’s license.

McCraw shouldn’t be surprised by the reaction in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s already well known in the valley that if DPS troopers pull over an undocumented immigrant for even a minor traffic infraction, often it’s only a matter of time before border patrol arrives on the scene. Immigrants can’t be blamed for expecting the same at a DPS checkpoint.

“It Took Twenty Lives To Get Us To This Place.”

Says Border Civil Rights Advocate About CBP Announcement On Use of Force Policies
Anastasio Hernandez Rojas surrounded by agents

In the wake of a federal report released last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Wednesday new measures to address a trend of lethal beatings and shootings by Border Patrol agents in the last three years. Civil rights advocates were encouraged by the announcement but said the agency still has a long way to go to institute real change.

U.S. CBP said it will give agents more non-lethal weapons options, better training in use of force tactics and conduct better tracking of excessive force complaints. The agency also said it will begin a pilot program to install mounted video cameras in patrol cars and provide lapel cameras for agents.

Since 2010, at least 20 people have been killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents, which spurred Congressional leaders to request a review last year of the agency’s use of force policies. Besides a report released last week by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, U.S. Customs and Border Protection also underwent an internal review as well as an independent external review by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum.

In the DHS OIG report, reviewers noted that many agents and officers in the field “do not understand use of force and the extent to which they may or may not use force.”

In a press statement Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection clarified its use of force policy. “CBP agents and officers may use deadly force only when the agent or officer has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the agent, officer or to another person.”

Congressional leaders requested an investigation of U.S. CBP after viewing footage aired in April 2012, during the PBS show “Need to Know “ of an unarmed and subdued man being beaten by border agents. The video shot at night on the San Diego-Tijuana border shows Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a Mexican migrant, being tased and kicked by a group of as many as 20 U.S. Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side of the border fence. Hernandez died from his injuries.

Christian Ramirez, director of the nonprofit Southern Border Communities Coalition, said the agency’s acknowledgment that it has a problem is a good first step but that a lot more needs to be done. “It took 20 lives to get us to this place,” he said. “The agency has taken a bold first step but a whole lot of work still needs to be done not just by CBP but also by Congress to ensure that someone is at the helm of the agency to make sure these changes trickle down to the agents in the field.”

In the last five years, the agency has had four commissioners, Ramirez said, and suffered a number of corruption scandals, as well as numerous allegations of using deadly force on unarmed migrants. “We have a very serious problem when Congress continues to focus on border enforcement but there are no steps taken to make sure we have good strong leadership at CBP to change the culture of an agency that has become accustomed to abuse and a lack of transparency.”

On Wednesday, Ramirez and his organization met with the interim director of U.S. CBP, Thomas Winkowski, and White House staff to express their concerns. Ramirez said the meeting went well. “The White House is taking reform at the agency seriously and CBP is finally acknowledging that it has a problem,” he said. “We’re getting there, but it’s going to take some time. The agency needs strong, consistent leadership from the top to make real change happen.”