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.”
Among the scrub brush and rolling sand dunes where townspeople once rode horses, Mexican officials made a grisly discovery in the Juarez Valley in November. They uncovered 15 shallow graves near an unfinished house on “La Colorada” ranch in Ejido Jesus Carranza. In those desert graves lay 20 bodies, which officials estimate may have been there since 2010—the height of the bloody war between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels (see “The Deadliest Place in Mexico”).
“They say those graves belong to El Diego,” said Gustavo de la Rosa, the Chihuahua human-rights ombudsman. De la Rosa lived just two miles from the ranch but fled to Juarez in 2009 because of threats from the military, which was patrolling the Juarez Valley at the time.
“El Diego” is Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, a notorious leader of La Linea, enforcers for the Juarez Cartel. A former cop, El Diego was arrested in July and extradited to the United States. Mexican officials say he ordered the deaths of at least 1,500 people, including two U.S. citizens linked to the U.S. consulate in Juarez. El Diego also allegedly gave the order to massacre students at a birthday party in Juarez’s Villas de Salvarcar neighborhood.
It was U.S. authorities who tipped off Mexican officials to the location of the clandestine cemetery just three miles from the Rio Grande and Texas. An examination of the remains found that the victims were shot, strangled or beaten. Their ages ranged from 18 to 40. Most appeared to be male, said Jorge Enrique Gonzalez Nicolas, regional state prosecutor, in a press conference afterward. “The next step is to begin the process of identifying their bodies,” he said, according to the El Paso Times.
There will undoubtedly be more gravesites, said de la Rosa. “We have so many missing and so many dead, there must be graves all over the valley.”
There was a military checkpoint on the road leading to La Colorada. “Many of those dead probably came from Juarez, so they had to pass through that checkpoint,” de la Rosa said. “I never heard of anyone being detained for transporting a body.”
Two years ago, Juan Fraire Escobedo sought political asylum in Texas after the assassination of his mother Marisela Escobedo and the murder of his 16-year old sister Rubi.
Marisela was shot and killed December 16, 2010, on the steps of the Chihuahua State Capitol where she was holding a vigil to bring her daughter Rubi’s killer to justice. Government authorities had refused to help the family even after Rubi’s former boyfriend, Sergio Barraza, confessed to killing her.
The family was forced to conduct their own investigation. Through sheer persistence they found Barraza in the state of Zacatecas and located Rubi’s partial remains. Meanwhile, his sister’s killer had joined the Zetas drug cartel, which runs Zacatecas. “We went to the chief of the federal police in Mexico City, and he told us ‘he’s with the Zetas. We can’t do anything.’”
Escobedo’s dogged pursuit of justice made him a target of death threats. More than the cartels, Escobedo blames a corrupt government system that allows organized crime to flourish. Nearly two years after his mother’s death, Escobedo joined at least a dozen other activists in Austin Thursday to protest in front of the Mexican Consulate against impunity and corruption in his homeland.
“After years and years of corruption in the government it’s difficult to get any justice in Mexico, especially because of the security situation,” he said Thursday. “And here in exile it’s like I don’t exist to my country.”
As more Mexicans like Escobedo seek refuge here a protest movement is building in Texas to exert pressure on Mexico. “We’re tired of living with the violence,” he said.
Escobedo, is a member of Mexicanos en Exilio a nonprofit composed of exiles who have fled Mexico. The nonprofit was started by El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector to bring attention to human rights abuses in Mexico. His daughter Alejandra helped organize the protest Thursday.
Protestors said they have little faith that Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto will combat the corruption and respect the rule of law. On December 1st during his inauguration in Mexico City dozens of protestors were arbitrarily detained and some were tortured, according to a preliminary report by Mexico City’s human rights commission. Some of the protestors are still being held in detention.
“Injustice moves me to come here today,” said 60-year old Angel Camaño who is originally from Guadalajara. “People try to protest in Mexico and they are being put in jail. The politicians talk about democracy and liberty but we don’t see it.”
In October, while finishing up my story “Kochworld” on oil refineries in Corpus Christi owned by billionaires Charles and David Koch I received an invitation to participate in a journalism conference in Lubbock, held by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), the nation’s oldest and most venerable journalism organization for reporters who cover the environment.
I was happy to have been invited. Hundreds of environmental journalists were attending the conference which would be hosted by Texas Tech University. Some reporters had come from as far away as Europe and Latin America.
But first I’d have to finish my story. All I needed were the comments I was waiting on from Koch Industries. Imagine my surprise when I get an email back from Koch Industries’ spokesperson Katie Stavinoha: “I am working on it. Have been at a SEJ deal.”
My first thought was, “What’s Koch Industries doing at a conference filled with environmental reporters?”
Turns out Koch Industries was a sponsor. The SEJ and Koch struck me as an odd match. Not only are the Koch brothers top spenders on global-warming-denial organizations and Washington lobbyists, they also publicly attack reporters, on their web site KochFacts.com, who criticize their environmental record and business practices, and publish Internet ads on high traffic sites attacking reporters. (I would soon be subjected to this treatment.)
I probably wouldn’t have ever known the Kochs were sponsoring the conference if I hadn’t gotten that email from their public information officer. You’d be hard pressed to figure it out in the SEJ program. On page 33 of the 34-page conference booklet was a list of “generous contributors that made it possible for Texas Tech University to host the conference.”
Toward the end of that sponsor list was Matador Ranch. But no mention that the 130,000-acre ranch is owned and operated by Koch Agriculture Company, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. The ranch has hunting and deer breeding operations, as well as commercial and registered cattle, and Quarter horses.
The conference schedule included a tour of Matador Ranch to discuss conservation practices and “creative ways to find water,” according to the conference booklet. Nowhere in the description of the tour did it say the ranch was owned by Koch Industries or that the Koch brothers would be paying for a lunch for the environmental reporters on the tour. The only inkling was that one of the speakers listed was Jim Mahoney, executive vice president for operations and compliance at Koch Industries. (Checking online the SEJ schedule now mentions the Kochs own the ranch. I’m not sure when SEJ made this change to the tour description. I downloaded my program on October 18th and there was no mention.)
At the conference in Lubbock, I ran into longtime environmental advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith, executive director at the nonprofit Public Citizen’s Texas office, who had been invited to speak on a panel about a “clean” coal plant in Odessa. I asked whether he knew that Koch Industries was a conference sponsor. Smith was as surprised as I was. I also spoke with Houston environmental activist Bryan Parras, who was speaking on a panel about environmental injustice at the conference. He had no idea either.
I brought this up with Beth Parke, executive director of the SEJ while I was in Lubbock in October then again by phone last week. Parke arranges the agreements with hosting universities. Her duties include the implementation of board policies, strategic planning for the conferences, and budget and finance.
I raised the issue of Koch Industries environmental record and their aggressive treatment of reporters who write critically about their operations. In November, after my story “Kochworld” came out I experienced the wrath of Koch Industries firsthand. The company ran ads against me and The Texas Observer on Google and the Poynter media web site saying that we were “dishonest” and “deceptive” among other things.
So, my question to Parke was why does SEJ have a polluting company that publicly attacks journalists sponsoring its conference?
Parke said that SEJ had an agreement with Texas Tech, and it was the university that had raised the money from those sponsors to host the conference. This agreement was a “firewall,” she said, between the sponsors and the SEJ. “We don’t feel it’s our job to tell them [Texas Tech] who can or cannot give money. I don’t even want to know how the sausage was made honestly,” Parke said. “My job is get the agreements with the institutions and let them fill that account however they can.”
Texas Tech gave the SEJ about $150,000 for catering and other event planning for the five-day conference. Parke said on average the sponsors gave between $5,000 to $7,000. As far as she knows, she said, the Kochs only spent $600 on lunches for everyone who attended the tour of their Matador Ranch. She said she didn’t know why the ranch was chosen as a tour site for the conference.
“The lunch thing is like, OK it’s $600,” she said. “Is it really worth the hassle of us trying to find another way to cover the lunches?… It seems a little abstract.”
But it wasn’t abstract for a lot of environmentalists and reporters who have dealt with Koch Industries. “Anytime sponsorship comes along there are all kinds of conditions and requests for special treatment that go along with that,” Tom “Smitty” Smith said.
Parke said there was no such special treatment at the conference. “We draw the line very clearly. If someone wants to be present at the conference they should buy an exhibit table. What we don’t sell is influence, and we’re very clear about that to the universities too, and we have to push back sometimes.”
Smitty brought up the other SEJ conference sponsor he found problematic—Waste Control Specialists (WCS)—that operates a massive radioactive waste dump in West Texas. The dump and the company is owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons. Kent Hance, chancellor of Texas Tech, has a financial interest in the dump and is the company’s former lobbyist. A tour was arranged for journalists to visit the radioactive waste site. But nowhere was there any information about Hance’s role in the company, or an opposing perspective on the panel of the tour, Smitty said.
Karen Hadden, executive director of the environmental group Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, or SEED, was dismayed to see a tour for out-of-state journalists to the WCS radioactive dump with few if any opponents included on the tour. Hadden is a longtime, vocal opponent of WCS.
When Hadden approached SEJ about her concerns they invited her to ride along on the bus and go on the tour. But WCS said Hadden could not go on the tour, though the company did allow someone from Sierra Club to tour the site. “I heard (WCS) said I would be too disruptive,” she says. “Which means I would ask questions that they didn’t want to answer.”
So Hadden asked if she could ride along on the three-hour bus ride and stay on the bus while the reporters toured the radioactive waste dump. WCS said, “no” to that as well, Hadden said.
“It was kind of a shock to be told I couldn’t go,” she said. Hadden added that in the end, she rode part of the way on the bus so she could give her perspective to the reporters. “I had to get off the bus halfway there,” she said. “ I had to arrange for somebody to follow the bus and pick me up.”
“What did the reporters say when the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and you got off?” I asked.
Hadden laughed. “One of the reporters asked. And an organizer of the tour said ‘they don’t want her there’. The reporters quickly understood. But I am very thankful that the reporters let me ride along on the bus.”
SEJ’s Beth Parke said she wasn’t sure what happened with Hadden and the WCS tour. “I heard that it might have been an ID issue. She didn’t do what other people did in time to get clearance.”
Parke said they’ve had many critical journalists lead industry tours during the conferences. “We had a situation with Abrahm Lustgarten from ProPublica who isn’t a favorite person of the fracking industry leading that tour.”
At the end of our conversation. Parke conceded that she could see how reporters should have known the Koch Brothers would be picking up the tab for lunches before arriving at their remote Matador Ranch. “I appreciate what you’re saying, and we probably should have told people. We’ll put it under advisement for the future,” she said.
It’s not easy funding a five-day conference every year, especially in the age of downsizing media organizations, she said. “Our members want the ethics, but they don’t want to pay for that. If you wanted to go to a conference totally paid for by journalists and organized by journalists it would be $850 per registrant … and people just won’t pay that and so it comes down to a devil’s bargain. And the universities are over that same kind of barrel trying to educate people and keep their institutions afloat,” Parke said. “They end up in some tricky places… It’s just hard for us to police every relationship we make and get entangled with in these conferences. But we’ll do what we can do.”
Before retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales even stepped up to the podium, it was clear he was in a combative mood. Scales was in Austin in early November as an invited speaker for a security summit at the University of Texas at Austin’s Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. “Get ready, y’all are going to get it,” a law enforcement official warned me and another reporter in the auditorium. He looked supremely amused.
Scales, who has the pugnacious face of a retired boxer, didn’t disappoint. “The media has utterly failed in covering the border,” the general said, though, oddly, he excepted Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren from his indictment. Scales also excoriated the federal government and “all those three-letter agencies that are cooking the books and hiding the truth” for their failure to secure the southern border.
It turned out Scales was still smarting from criticism he received last year from both Texas congressmen and the media after releasing his report “Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment,” which he’d co-written with retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, drug czar under President Bill Clinton.
“We wrote a report last year and had our coming-out party at the [Texas] Capitol, but the media chose to eviscerate us,” he said. “I wish they’d read the report.”
Many of us had read the report—all 59 pages of it. It struck many as heavy on inflammatory rhetoric and light on evidence. It argued that “narco-terrorists” are turning Texas border counties into “sanitized tactical zones,” and that living on the border is “tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”
The report was commissioned by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw. They’re among the many Texas Republican officials who increasingly equate the war on drugs with the war on terror, a conflation that helps trigger not only more federal spending but more military intervention along the border.
Many border residents, including congressmen Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, didn’t like having their hometowns characterized as war zones. In a heated congressional committee meeting last year, the congressmen strongly criticized the generals’ report as based on anecdotal evidence and as politically motivated. They grilled the generals about how much they’d been paid ($80,000) and where they’d gotten their information.
A year later at the security summit in Austin, Scales was still upset. The worst thing, he said, was that he had invited his wife to the congressional hearing, telling her it would be a low-key affair. “It was an ambush,” he said. “In all my years of military service I had never been so humiliated. My wife wanted to kill Cuellar.”
Scales said he stands by the report, in which he linked Mexican cartels to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. “If you think it’s just crime and not terrorism, you’re just fooling yourself,” he said. Asked to describe specific incidences of the cartel-terrorism nexus he said, “It’s an existential ideology … the flow of narco money tied together by criminal enterprise, kidnapping, white slavery and other horrible criminal acts.”
The bottom line is this, he said: “The people guarding the border have been poorly chosen and poorly trained, and they have ridiculous rules of engagement. The FBI are notorious for cooking the books. The [crime] numbers are probably half of what it is. The terrorists have gone retail and are in our major cities—it will take generations to root them out.”
With that, General Scales sat down, a sour expression on his face. Next up was Greg Thrash from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “I hope we’re not one of those three-letter agencies you were referring to,” he chuckled. Scales stood up with his briefcase and headed toward the exit. “I hope it’s not something I said,” Thrash quipped.
“Gotta catch a plane,” Scales shrugged, walking out.
After the general had left, Thrash said his agency hadn’t seen any of the border-violence spillover mentioned in Scales’ report. “From our offices along the border, we don’t see any evidence of any massive spillover,” he said. “Our cases don’t support that.”
On February 15, 2011, ICE agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila were ambushed by gunmen on a Mexican highway. The 32-year-old Zapata died that day but Avila, who was injured, survived. That much is certain about the fateful event.
To this day, however, Zapata’s family and Victor Avila still don’t understand why they were sent, unescorted, to San Luis Potosi into territory controlled by the brutal Los Zetas drug cartel. As the months progressed after the fatal ambush, media reports revealed disturbing details about weapons bought in the U.S. and traced to the shooting. Now, Zapata’s parents in Brownsville wonder whether the gun that killed their son was part of a botched U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun-walking operation called Fast and Furious, which allowed hundreds of guns to be trafficked into Mexico.
New York-based writer Mary Cuddehe is, to my knowledge, the first to take an in-depth look into Zapata’s fatal shooting and its aftermath, in a story released today by the digital publishing house Atavist. Through extensive interviews, reporting and travel from violence-torn Nuevo Laredo to Zapata’s hometown of Brownsville, Cuddehe pieces together a compelling and heartbreaking story of a family devastated by the loss of their son and a government unwilling to give them answers that will help them find peace.
Atavist was kind enough to share an excerpt of “Agent Zapata” with the Observer. As someone who follows events along the U.S-Mexico border closely, I was intrigued to finally see an in-depth piece about this puzzling and tragic murder. Naturally, I had a lot of questions for Cuddehe about her reporting. Following is our conversation about her really excellent story—for a couple dollars, you can download the entire story to your mobile device or computer. You can read an excerpt from “Agent Zapata” here.
Observer: Why did you decide to write this story?
Cuddehe: One day in a conversation with Evan Ratliff, the editor of Atavist, he mentioned that he’d never seen a big piece on the Fast & Furious operation. I had lived in Mexico for a couple of years, and I remember the attack (on Zapata) very well but I hadn’t followed the story very closely. So when I started doing the research into Fast & Furious I found myself drawn into the mystery.
Observer: At one point in your story you write that it’s a wonder that something like what happened to Zapata doesn’t happen more often. Could you explain this further?
Cuddehe: It’s striking to me given the presence of U.S. law enforcement in Mexico in recent decades, which has grown. There are such close relations between the U.S. and Mexico, and given the unique role of U.S. law enforcement (in Mexico) it is almost surprising that this hasn’t happened more often. But everyone I talk to says there’s this agreement that it’s ‘hands off’ on American law enforcement in Mexico.
Observer: I’ve heard that often as well. But do you think that agreement still holds? Because pretty much everything has changed in Mexico with regards to who is off-limits.
Cuddehe: That was a question people were starting to ask after the attack on Zapata. And then there was the attack on the CIA agents (in Mexico). It remains to be seen, but it does seem like all bets are off.
Observer: Typically, it’s very difficult to get any information from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. You got pretty amazing access to the ICE agents who worked with Zapata for your story. Was it difficult to get that access?
Cuddehe: It’s so funny that it seems like great access because I was so frustrated doing the reporting for the story. Basically, I just showed up at the (ICE) headquarters. They had a bust unveiling for what would have been Jaime’s 34th birthday. I had already been talking to Jaime’s parents and they told me about it. It was a quasi-public thing so I was able to get in and while I was there I hung around and waited until I could talk to people. It’s much more difficult to say no to someone in person. Just because of that, I was able to speak to the agents. But they didn’t really say anything. It was amazing to be in the building and talking to people, but on the other hand it was ridiculous because I didn’t really feel like I was getting anything.
Observer: You got more from the ICE agents than many reporters normally get.
Cuddehe: I had been calling them over and over and not getting anywhere. So it was just me being relentless. Driving to Texas and not taking no for an answer.
Observer: And you had to get permission from their supervisor.
Cuddehe: I was surprised when he gave me permission. And that’s been one of the interesting tensions of this story. On one hand the agency has been really great with the family and done their best to honor him with ceremonies but at the same time they’re not giving the family the answers to the questions that they seek.
Observer: I’ve never seen such a detailed account of the actual ambush and shooting. How did you get your information?
Cuddehe: Most of the information comes from interviews I did with Victor Avila’s sister. He is the only witness, obviously, other than the men who allegedly took part in the attack. So I had to trust his sister’s narration of the events. Victor Avila hasn’t given an interview since the attack. I also read some reports that had statements he’d given that afternoon of the attack but it wasn’t very detailed.
Observer: One of the big looming questions in your piece is the motive for the shooting. Why did it happen?
Cuddehe: I did my best in the story to lay out the different possibilities. My suspicion is that the attack happened initially because they did really think the people in this fancy SUV were rivals from another gang. Maybe they got going and realized they weren’t dealing with the Gulf Cartel but figured they’d finish what they started. That to me seems like the likeliest thing. But we may never really know the answer.
Observer: And are there still doubts that the people in jail in Mexico for the crime may not have done it?
Cuddehe: Well, that’s a given with any arrest in Mexico. That there’s going to be some scrutiny and questioning of the validity of the arrests. But the people I’ve spoken with seem pretty confident that they have the right people.
Observer: How is Jaime Zapata’s family doing after his death?
Cuddehe: The scrutiny and intense media interest and the way its been politicized has made the grieving process unusually arduous for them. But the last time we spoke they seemed to be looking for closure so they could move on.
Observer: What would be closure for them?
Cuddehe: That’s the interesting thing about this story. It has evolved for them over time. The questions around the case have become more complex. I think they would like to know why was Jaime sent to San Luis Potosi? They still haven’t even seen the autopsy report. There are still so many basic questions about what he was doing and why he was sent that they haven’t been able to get answers too. And I think some of those answers would help them move on.
Observer: What was the most puzzling thing about the story for you? What questions are still pending?
Cuddehe: There were so many questions. Initially, I spent a lot of time trying to find out what Jaime’s mission was in Mexico City and never got answers to that. I wasn’t able to ever get an interview with ATF. It still seems odd that ICE wouldn’t give any info about what Jaime was doing in Mexico City.