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marisela
Marisela Reyes in a 2011 Interview

Marisela Reyes Salazar, a human rights activist from Mexico, has won her political asylum case in the United States. The U.S. government rarely grants Mexican asylum cases, approving less than two percent every year.

The case of the Reyes Salazar family made international headlines, after six members of the family, well-known activists from the Juarez Valley near Ciudad Juarez, were killed by masked gunmen from 2008 to 2011. The family repeatedly spoke out against forced displacements, murders and disappearances that began to skyrocket after the military occupied the rural farming region in 2008 to fight drug trafficking.

By 2009, the valley, with a population of 20,000, had one of the highest murder rates in the world—1,600 per 100,000 inhabitants—six times higher than Ciudad Juarez, which the media had begun to call the “deadliest city in the world.”

As members of her family were threatened and killed, Marisela Reyes Salazar took an increasingly public role protesting against corruption and the government’s failure to investigate murders in her community. Marisela and other family members, including her mother Sara Salazar, staged sit-ins and hunger strikes in front of the Senate in Mexico City and the attorney general’s office in Juarez after the kidnappings in February 2011 of three of their family members: Elías Reyes Salazar, his wife Luisa Ornelas and Malena Reyes Salazar. The three kidnapping victims were later found dead in their hometown of Guadalupe, located across the Rio Grande from Tornillo, Texas.

None of their murders has been investigated, much less solved. Last year, I documented in a 10,000 word feature “The Deadliest Place in Mexico” the destruction in the Juarez Valley and the persecution of the Reyes Salazar family. Since 2011, at least 40 members of the Reyes Salazar family have been forced to flee Mexico and seek asylum in the United States. Marisela was granted asylum in April 2013. Her nephew Hugo was also granted asylum. Other members of the family are still awaiting their court dates.

Attorney Barbara Hines, co-director of the UT School of Law Immigration Clinic, represented Marisela and Hugo in court. “Marisela was truly deserving of a grant of asylum. She was one of the most active members of the Reyes family, with a long history of human rights advocacy in the Juarez Valley. Although Marisela and her nephew Hugo have found safety in this country, the tragedies the Reyes family have suffered still remain.”

Despite living in exile, Marisela said she would continue fighting for justice for her family and her community. “We were forced to flee our country and I fault the government of Mexico for that,” she said. “We are in the United States but we won’t be quiet. We want the government to investigate the deaths in our town. We want the government to do their jobs. I’ve confronted every level of government in Mexico to try and get them to do something about the murders, the disappearances but they refused to investigate or solve the crimes.”

Marisela said it had been tough for the family to lose their loved ones, their businesses, their homes and ultimately their country. Now she is working to build awareness that there are a growing number of Mexicans seeking political asylum abroad. At least 70 percent of residents in the Juarez Valley were killed or forced to flee, according to estimates from former residents. (No official census of the displaced has been taken by Mexican officials since the drug war began in 2006.) Many of those who fled like the Reyes Salazar family are seeking asylum in the United States. “We want justice for all of the displaced people,” she said.

Since arriving in the United States, Marisela has traveled throughout the country speaking at universities and other institutions about the persecution of activists in Mexico and about the devastation of her community in the Juarez Valley. “My fight for justice doesn’t stop,” she said. “We came to the United States with nothing and slept on the floor and had to ask for food. We are starting over from zero, but we won’t be silenced.”

Drones
Homeland Security

In the past three years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has rapidly increased its use of drones for domestic surveillance, despite growing concern from civil liberties groups. But those drones may soon do more than just spy. A recently declassified government report reveals that the agency has also considered equipping its drones with “non-lethal weapons.”

“It’s the first I’ve heard of Customs and Border Protection considering using weapons,” says Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, the group that obtained the government report on drones after filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. “They’ve always said their Predator drones are unarmed and just used for surveillance.”

The non-lethal weapons would be used to immobilize “targets of interest,” according to the report. Most likely weaponized drones would be used for border security, Lynch says. “What the targets of interest would be are unclear. They could be people, facilities or cars.”

The report also doesn’t specify what non-lethal weapons the agency has in mind. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have been known to use rubber bullets and pepper pellets in their arsenal.

Despite the recent revelation, this is not the first time the use of weaponized drones has come up in the realm of border security. In a 2011 interview in the magazine El Paso Inc., former Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes, then chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he wouldn’t rule out drone strikes in Mexico. “We have to do what we’ve done essentially in Pakistan, and that is start taking out the heads of the cartels,” he told the magazine.

Earlier in 2011, The New York Times revealed that the Mexican government was allowing U.S. Customs and Border Protection—under direction of the Pentagon—to fly drones deep into Mexico to conduct surveillance and gather intelligence on major drug kingpins.

Customs and Border Protection is also using drones to conduct surveillance for many other governmental agencies, especially state and local law enforcement, with scant oversight, Lynch says. She adds that the use of weaponized drones, even non-lethal weapons, on U.S. soil is cause for concern. “If they’re flying drones with weapons on them on behalf of other agencies in a program with little oversight—that really worries me,” Lynch says. “We’re going to start seeing weapons used for many different things.”

(Update: U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Mike Friel sent the following statement in response to the story: “CBP has no plans to arm its unmanned aircraft systems with non-lethal weapons or weapons of any kind. CBP’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) support CBP’s border security mission and provide an important surveillance and reconnaissance capability for interdiction agents on the ground and on the waterways. Current UAS were designed with the ability to add new surveillance capabilities, accommodate technological developments, and ensure that our systems are equipped with the most advanced resources available.”)

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño

The jury deliberated for three hours this afternoon before finding former lawman Jorge Garza guilty of conspiring to possess more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana. The verdict capped off an explosive trial that exposed the depths of law enforcement corruption in the Rio Grande Valley.

The former sheriff’s deputy was a bit player in a drug conspiracy that brought down members of the Panama Unit, a corrupt drug task force run by Jonathan Treviño, the son of the Hidalgo County sheriff. But Garza was the only lawman not to take a plea deal. His week-long trial often seemed like two trials: one centering on Garza’s role in the drug conspiracy and the other a deeper examination of law enforcement corruption in the border county, especially the sheriff’s office.

The drug conspiracy centered on the Panama Unit, investigators at the Hidalgo County district attorney’s office and deputies working in the sheriff’s crime stoppers program. The corrupt cops worked in tandem with three drug dealers to rip off other local dealers and then resell the drugs locally, splitting the profits.

According to testimony, Garza’s role was arranging fake traffic stops in his squad car to scare off local dealers so that other members in the scheme could steal their drug loads.

The trial became front-page news Thursday when Sheriff Lupe Treviño—a powerful and ambitious political figure in the Valley—was called to testify for the defense. Garza’s lawyer kept the sheriff on the witness stand for two days. The questions were wide-ranging but centered on how much the sheriff knew about the illegal and unethical activity around him, including pressure on his employees to allegedly raise money for his campaigns as well his his day-to-day knowledge of his son’s criminal activities in the Panama Unit.

Since his son was indicted in December, Treviño has maintained that he was oblivious. But throughout the trial witnesses, including Fabian Rodriguez, a former Panama Unit member testified that the sheriff received daily briefings on the Panama Unit. Rodriguez said the sheriff’s son ran the unit and made decisions about which officers got to participate in illegitimate drug busts. “Only the people who worked the bust got the money,” he said. “Jonathan would choose who came to the bust. And he would say how much money each person got.”

Commander Joe Padilla, the sheriff’s right-hand man, was also summoned to testify during the trial. Padilla arrived in court only to plead the Fifth Amendment after the judge advised him that he was under investigation by the U.S. attorneys. Throughout the trial, multiple witnesses described Padilla as the muscle for the sheriff, an intimidating enforcer who forced deputies to fundraise for the sheriff and sold protection and sensitive law enforcement intelligence to drug dealers.

On Sunday the Monitor reported that Padilla had previously been interrogated by U.S. Attorney Jim Sturgis and was offered a recommendation of probation if he cooperated. But Padilla refused to cooperate.

During the trial other law enforcement agents were also implicated in the conspiracy. Charlie Vela, an investigator for the district attorney’s office was summoned to the court to testify. Vela pleaded the Fifth Amendment rather than incriminate himself. The district attorney fired Vela the same day.

After a week of testimony about police corruption in the border county, Garza was described by the defense as a lawman trying to survive in a corrupted sheriff’s agency. But Sturgis, lead prosecutor in the Garza trial, admonished the 12-member jury not to forget Garza’s active role in the conspiracy. He also hinted that there would be further indictments in the drug conspiracy.

“We’re not here for all the other stuff that was testified about, and that needs to be dealt with,” Sturgis said. “That is for another time, another place.”

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane said Garza’s sentencing would be held in October along with members of the now disbanded Panama Unit drug task force.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño was back on the witness stand today in a federal trial in McAllen. On his second day of questioning, he was repeatedly asked about his involvement with his son Jonathan’s corrupt drug task force, the Panama Unit. The sheriff denied any knowledge of the unit’s day-to-day actions.

The sheriff was first called to testify for the defense on Friday. But instead of being asked questions about his former employee Jorge Garza, who is on trial for drug conspiracy charges, the defense attorney questioned the sheriff about a wide range of allegations from campaign fraud to his employees accepting money from drug dealers in exchange for sensitive law enforcement intelligence.

On Monday, Gutierrez’s questions shifted to how much the sheriff knew about the Panama Unit, his 29-year old son’s rogue drug task force. All Panama Unit members have since pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. The sheriff has maintained for several months that he had no knowledge of the Panama Unit ripping off drug dealers and reselling the drugs to local dealers.

The sheriff testified that it was his idea to create the task force to arrest street level dealers in the city of Mission. The unit was supposed to work primarily in western Hidalgo County, he testified, but they could work in other parts of the county if they notified local law enforcement first.

Previous witnesses in the trial, including former Panama Unit member Fabian Rodriguez, testified that the sheriff kept close tabs on his son’s unit. But on the witness stand, the sheriff said he rarely spoke with his son, although they live together, and that the unit was under the jurisdiction of one of his deputy sergeants and the Mission police chief. “I had no knowledge of their daily operations,” he testified.

His testimony was often contradictory. The sheriff said that on December 12, his son immediately called him after seizing a car-load of cocaine and realizing the drugs had GPS  trackers embedded in them. When the sheriff arrived at the scene he said there was a woman screaming hysterically that the cocaine belonged to the Sinaloa Cartel and that she would be killed.

But the sheriff said he had a gut feeling that it was a government sting. “They [Panama Unit members] were young, stupid and inexperienced, but it was obvious to me the transmitters belonged to the feds,” he said.

“Unless you had some prior knowledge that the Panama Unit was doing bad things why would you suspect a sting?” Judge Randy Crane asked. “If they’re honest police officers just doing their job, why not think that they just came upon another police operation that was tracking a drug load, rather than thinking it was a sting?”

The sheriff testified that he cut the wire for one of the GPS trackers, then authorized a deputy to cut the rest of them,  just in case the cocaine belonged to the Sinaloa Cartel. His son was allowed to return to the sheriff’s office where he interrogated the woman who had been driving the car.

But Treviño was right. It was a sting targeting the Panama Unit. And the feds were looking for Jonathan and their confidential informant, whom they later found at the sheriff’s office. “The FBI and DEA showed up an hour later and explained the sting operation. I said okay. They took the woman, the drugs and the transmitters,” Treviño said. And Jonathan was indicted by the feds that same day.

The sheriff also testified that his son told him that a Panama Unit member and sheriff’s deputy, Claudio Mata, had stolen jewelry from a home in Pharr during a drug bust last July. Mata confessed to the theft, but the sheriff didn’t arrest or fire Mata.

After the sheriff, Miguel Flores, a sheriff’s deputy who recently resigned, took the witness stand. Flores testified that he had worked as an informant for the FBI to build a case against the Panama Unit. (In May, he revealed his status as an informant publicly for the first time to the Observer.)

Flores testified that Gerardo Duran, a member of the Panama Unit approached him about working with the rogue task force. “He told me they were very well protected,” he testified. “Because they were working with Jonathan Treviño and protected by [Commander Joe] Padilla and the sheriff himself. If anything went wrong they would clean it up.”

Tomorrow will be closing arguments and then the 12-member jury will deliberate. It’s been a wild trial full of allegations of corruption and chummy relationships between drug dealers and cops.  The defendant, Jorge Garza, looks like a small fish swimming in a large sea of corruption.

Veronica and her son Damian
Jen Reel
Veronica and Damian

On Tuesday morning, Veronica Ayala, 33, stood next to her three-year old son Damian in a parking lot across the street from the J.J. Pickle Federal Building in Austin. Surrounded by a dozen immigrant advocates with signs, Ayala was making a last ditch effort to stay in the United States.

After interviews with the media, Ayala marched across the street to the federal building to present a petition with more than a thousand names to Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett. If congressional leaders like Doggett don’t intervene on her behalf, Ayala could be deported to Mexico Thursday and be forced to leave her son with her family in San Antonio where he receives therapy for a developmental disability.

Ayala’s story is all too common. Protests like hers have become frequent and will only become more common as long as Congress fails to act on immigration reform. Last year, deportations were at an all time high of more than 400,000 people. Despite the Obama administration’s pledge to only deport “criminal aliens,” at least 45 percent of the people deported in 2012 had no criminal record like Ayala.

Veronica Ayala’s odyssey began in 2010 when she left her son with a babysitter in San Antonio. “I had to work, so I had no choice and she had been recommended to me,” Ayala said. While in the babysitter’s care, her son’s ankle was broken. Ayala immediately took her son to the hospital and officials called the police, which they are required to do by law. The police investigated Ayala and the babysitter. The babysitter accused Ayala of being responsible for the accident, which she strongly denied. Child Protective Services investigated Ayala but found no evidence against her and she was cleared.

In the meantime, however, police had reported Ayala to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She was sent to an immigrant detention facility in McAllen where she stayed for two weeks until her family was able to pay a $1,500 bond for her release. The young mother has been fighting deportation ever since.

“I’m very afraid,” she said. “I don’t want to go. I want to stay here with my family and see my son get his treatment and get better. He is supposed to start school in August.”

Comprehensive immigration reform could help Ayala but after she’s been deported there will be little the legislation can do for her. And there’s no chance Congress will act any time soon. Immigration talks are moving at a glacial pace in the House of Representatives where Republican legislators are emphasizing border security measures over a path to legalization. Instead of embracing a comprehensive bill like S. 744 which already passed in the Senate, Republicans are filing piecemeal immigration bills and also emphasizing border security over a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.

“Things are moving far to slow,” said Carolina Canizales, a coordinator with the immigration reform group United We Dream which helped organize the protest in front of Doggett’s office. “We don’t want legislation centered around militarization, we want it focused on legalization.”

Another organizer of the protest, Deborah Alemu, vice president of the University Leadership Initiative, which advocates for undocumented students was upbeat about the meeting with Doggett’s office Tuesday. “The congressman wrote a letter of support,” she said. “The letter along with the calls to ICE and the petition means that an immigration judge might reopen her case.”

Two months ago when Ayala contacted the University Leadership Initiative for help she had nearly given up hope, said Alemu. “She’s working with a great lawyer now and feeling empowered. She’s doing everything she can to remain with her son.”

UPDATE:

Congressman Doggett’s office sent a written statement on Ayala’s case late Tuesday afternoon. “I have provided my full support. I have just been notified that she has been granted a temporary stay of deportation. We don’t need another mother separated from her child. This case shows why we need to overcome Republican opposition in Congress to the approval of comprehensive immigration reform. I want to solve this problem for her and the many other families in similar situations.”

Pat Ahumada
Cameron County District Attorney's Office

Internet sweepstakes parlors have become such a lucrative business in the Rio Grande Valley that even the former mayor of Brownsville, Pat Ahumada, opened his own. Ahumada called his sweepstakes parlor Goldmine 777. In early May, police raided the establishment, carting away 200 computers and escorting the former mayor out in handcuffs.

After his release on a $2,000 bond, Ahumada told The Brownsville Herald that he did nothing illegal. But Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz calls the Internet sweepstakes and eight-liner businesses a “criminal epidemic” (eight-liners are video gaming terminals). Saenz estimates there are at least 200 such businesses in his county. In Texas, eight-liners and sweepstakes games generate as much as $300 million annually, Saenz said in a written statement to the Observer. “This is revenue known to benefit organized crime. It doesn’t benefit our community, because it’s not being spent in our community.”

Ahumada and other sweepstakes owners contend that their business is perfectly legal, and that Cameron County has been issuing permits for the machines. They charge for Internet time on their computers, but they don’t charge customers to play the game. This distinction, they argue, makes their actions techincally legal. The former mayor told the Herald that Goldmine 777 offers one daily free entry per person, but participants are not required to play.

Saenz says the parlor owners are breaking the law. The problem is the way customers use the machines. “There is a gross misconception that a sweepstakes is legal gambling either because they utilize a computer system and/or they benefit a local charity,” he wrote. “Bottom line: If a sweepstakes is paying out at least $5 in cash, it is illegal.”

Law enforcement in Cameron County has shut down five eight-liner businesses in recent months. The crackdown is part of a countywide criminal investigation into illegal gambling called Operation Bishop, which, according to Saenz, is aided by the Department of Homeland Security and several county law-enforcement agencies.

After the former mayor’s arrest, the county decided to pass an eight-month moratorium on issuing permits for gaming, building and zoning permits that could be used by sweepstakes or eight-liner businesses. Brownsville city leaders say they’ll study ordinances in other cities in hopes of crafting one that both officials and business owners can embrace. An agreement will likely come too late for the former mayor, whose 200 computers were seized under Operation Bishop and will either be salvaged or destroyed.

MiguelLopez
Jen Reel
Miguel testifying at an Austin conference on press security in Latin America

One year ago, 31-year-old photojournalist Miguel Angel Lopez Solana fled Mexico because he no longer felt safe in his homeland. His father, the noted columnist and author Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco; his mother Agustina; and his 21-year-old brother Misael, also a photojournalist, were murdered in June 2011 in the port city of Veracruz by unidentified gunmen who broke into their home as they were sleeping. Miguel lived with his wife in another part of town. It was a fellow reporter, Gabriel Huge — a friend — who broke the terrible news. Within months, his friend would be murdered too.

Lopez’ father wrote about crime and politics for the Veracruz newspaper Notiver. Miguel and his brother worked for the same publication covering crime. The murders were part of a wave of assassinations of reporters that has yet to cease in the state of Veracruz, which has been engulfed by organized crime. In the last two years, nine journalists have been killed in Veracruz, and several have fled the state.

On Friday, Lopez’ immigration attorney, Carlos Spector, announced in an El Paso press conference that Lopez has been granted political asylum in the United States. Spector said in a press release that Lopez’ case marks the first time that the Mexico City office of the international organization Committee to Protect Journalists has assisted a Mexican journalist in seeking political asylum.

Lopez told me he feels relief and gratitude that his asylum has been granted, but that he is extremely frustrated and worried that nothing has been done in Veracruz to investigate the murders of his family and other journalists. “How is it possible that American justice can grant me asylum in one year and Mexican authorities have still not been able to solve the murders of my family, and it’s been two years,” he said. “I want justice for my family and all the other journalists who have had their lives ripped from them.”

Lopez said that “narcopolitics” has consumed his home state, and that the media is censored so that reporters cannot tell the truth. “My father always told me the journalist’s job was to uncover injustice. He was very passionate about his work,” Lopez told me when he first arrived last year. Now, he and his wife are struggling to make a new life in the United States. They continue to hope that things will get better in their homeland. “It’s a hard physical and mental process to survive all the trauma that we suffered in Mexico,” Lopez said. “We are still recovering from it and trying to adjust to a new culture, a new language.”

Veracruz has been deemed the deadliest Mexican state in which to practice journalism, according to CPJ. The national Mexican magazine Proceso recently reported that officials from the state of Veracruz have plotted to kill Jorge Carrasco, a Proceso journalist who has reported extensively on the murder of journalist Regina Martinez Perez, the magazine’s Veracruz-based correspondent. Martinez was murdered in her home last year.

The U.S. government deported 387,790 people in 2009, one of them a frightened 22-year-old victim of domestic abuse known, in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, as “Laura S.” Despite having a restraining order against her abusive ex-boyfriend—she warned immigration agents he’d kill her if she returned to Mexico—Laura S. was deported without ever seeing an immigration judge.

Within days of being deported the young mother of three was abducted in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, by her ex-boyfriend, a member of a notorious drug cartel. On June 14, 2009, her body was found in a burning car in downtown Reynosa.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the South Texas Civil Rights Project filed the civil lawsuit on behalf of Laura S.’s three young children, against the U.S. immigration agents who deported their mother. According to the lawsuit, a despondent Laura S. begged ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials not to send her to Mexico, telling them her ex-boyfriend would kill her if she returned.

Laura S. told the agents that she had a protective order from the U.S. court against her abuser and that she had three small children at home in Texas, according to the lawsuit. Despite her pleas, within hours of being stopped for a minor traffic violation in Pharr, Texas, Laura S. was sent back to Mexico.

Lawyers representing her children say she was denied due process and ultimately sent to her death. “She was clearly eligible for relief from removal under several different standards,” says Jennifer Harbury, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who is representing the family. “This woman was a victim of violence and someone who had helped with the prosecution of a dangerous person. If she would have had a hearing in front of an immigration judge—as she had the right to have—she would have never been removed from this country and she would not have had to die.”

The family are not releasing their last name in the lawsuit because Laura S.’s killer is still at large, living just across the border in Mexico.

Harbury says she’s seen a recurring problem in South Texas with people being wrongfully deported. She represented another family whose son, a legal permanent resident with a mental disability, was deported without due process. “He was sent to Mexico with no change of clothes, no documents and no medication for his illness,” says Harbury. “He tried to swim back across the river to Texas and drowned.”

Harbury says the problem of wrongful deportations has become more dire with the rapid increase of deportations by the U.S. government and the ongoing cartel wars in Mexico. “Deporting people without the full due process of law and without fully listening to what their situation is can have lethal consequences.”

In Laura’s case, her deportation had tragic consequences. Harbury and a legal team spent several months interviewing witnesses and gathering documents regarding Laura’s deportation and violent death. Harbury says that Laura’s attacker nearly bit her ear off during a vicious attack on a Reynosa street, then abducted her and strangled her in a hotel room. Laura’s mother pressed charges in Mexico but Laura’s attacker escaped from prison. Eventually, Laura’s mother found Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and asked for help. “She literally came into our office weeping and said ‘Is there nothing that can be done for my daughter?’ Harbury says. “The case was so egregious. Of course we wanted to help any way we could.”

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, attorneys are asking for the names of the six immigration agents who deported Laura despite her repeated pleas that she would be killed if she was sent back to Mexico. Laura’s mother, who is now raising her daughter’s three young children on her own, is also seeking damages in the lawsuit for pain and anguish.

“It’s an incredibly sad case,” Harbury says. “Laura didn’t have to die.”

(Correction: Laura S. received a protective order but not a U visa as previously implied in the article. The Observer regrets the error.)

debris in San Pedro border wall August 2012 Scott Nicol-1
Photo by Scott Nicol

In early May, Ruben Villarreal, Mayor of Rio Grande City, channeled the frustration of many residents in Starr and Hidalgo counties, where a proposed 14-mile border fence is slated to be built through the middle of his community. “I think it’s going to happen but they have us in limbo,” he said. “The federal government needs to give us the facts so we can be prepared. So if it is coming we can make a plan.”

A fence was first proposed in 2008. As the federal government served condemnations to Rio Grande Valley residents up and down the border, some residents in Rio Grande City, Los Ebanos and Roma were also taken to court but told the fence wouldn’t be built any time soon. U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar told the McAllen Monitor at the time that it was due to “engineering and hydraulic” problems. “Realistically and practically, they’re basically passing this decision to the next administration,” he said. “Certainly, for my constituents, we have a victory.”

The “engineering and hydraulic problems” the Congressman alluded to was the vexing problem of reality – and how to ignore it so that the Department of Homeland Security can sign off on the construction of an 18-foot fence in the middle of a floodplain. Building a fence that costs an estimated $4.5 million a mile in a floodplain sounds like a joke. It would be funny, too, if we weren’t paying for it, and if it wasn’t common practice for DHS to defy common sense and build fences in washes, floodplains and riverbeds just to fulfill its border fence quota with Congress.

As I noted back in 2011, at least 40 feet of steel border fence washed away during a flash flood in the Arizona desert. Arizona park officials warned the Department of Homeland Security that the fence would be washed away during the summer monsoon season. Despite their warnings, Border Patrol issued an environmental assessment saying that the fence “would not impede the natural flow of water or cause flooding.”

Scott Nicol, chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, has been following the issue closely since he saw mention of the fence in a 2010 government report. “I had thought they’d given up,” he told me back in 2011. “But apparently they were really pushing to get it done.”

After filing several FOIA requests, Nicol received several documents showing plans to move businesses and homes in the path of the fence. In Rio Grande City, the government’s proposed route would go right through a nursing home. Mayor Villarreal says there are only two nursing homes in the rural border county so it will be extremely difficult to find another facility for the displaced residents.

In September 2012, a representative from DHS and another from the International Boundary and Water Commission held a community meeting but failed to tell residents anything of substance, said Villarreal. The meeting was barely advertised, but even so, he said, at least 80 people showed up from the various small border towns that will be affected.

But the government meeting only created more confusion and frustration. “I would describe the meeting as the most shoddy, unorganized and insensitive meeting of that type that has ever been organized in my 13 years as a public official,” he said. “They were not forthcoming with information. They talked about hydrology studies in jargon nobody could understand and wouldn’t talk directly to the people about their concerns.”

Villarreal said after five years, city leaders and residents need the federal government to advise them on what they have planned for the communities. The Observer asked for an interview with Congressman Henry Cuellar about plans for the proposed fence. The Congressman sent a written response that he had spoken with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS, and they had “advised that due to the lack of funding in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, there will be no additional construction of a border fence at this time. CBP plans to execute the fencing project should funding become available at a later date.”

Congress has already proposed $1.5 billion for a “Southern Border Fencing Strategy” as part of its immigration reform bill, which is making its way through Congress. Conservatives have demanded more border fence as a contingency for any type of immigration reform. Villarreal is frustrated by how little Washington listens to people who actually live on the border. Increasing the number of Border Patrol agents would be much better than a fence in a floodplain, he said. “When we had a flood in 2010 my resources as a city were strained and Border Patrol helped us. People help solve problems in emergencies. An inanimate object like the fence just sits there.”

Pedro Aguilar

Last year 23-year-old Pedro Aguilar left his home in Honduras to take the perilous journey north to the United States. His dreams for a better life in the north ended in central Mexico when the dilapidated freight train migrants refer to as “the beast” ran over him. Aguilar was saved by a fellow traveler from El Salvador who called an ambulance. Doctors were able to save Aguilar’s life, but he lost his left leg below the knee.

Aguilar and 25 other travelers, including Father Alejandro Solalinde, arrived in Austin Wednesday to raise awareness about the dangers that migrants like Aguilar face as they travel north. They are also advocating for immigration reform in the United States that they say will lessen the suffering of immigrant families. The travelers arrived in Austin in a caravan of several cars and vans they call the “Caravan of Hope.” It’s modeled after Mexican peace activist Javier Sicilia’s highly publicized “Caravan of Peace,” which traveled through the United States last summer.

Aguilar said that he, like thousands of other Central Americans, left his country because of growing poverty and violence. Aguilar said his 29-year-old sister was robbed and killed for a pair of tennis shoes in 2011. His 35-year-old brother was killed that same year by gunmen. “ I don’t know why they killed him. The authorities did nothing,” he said. “There’s so much impunity.”

Their murders finally convinced Aguilar that he should leave Honduras. “Since I was 9 years old, I had the idea of wanting to be in the United States,” he said. “I had seen how people who went to the United States, if they worked hard, they could get somewhere. In Honduras you kill yourself working from dawn to dusk, and you have nothing to show for it.”

The caravan arrived at the Mexican American Cultural Center in downtown Austin Wednesday evening for a screening of the documentary “El Albergue” about the migrant shelter run by Father Solalinde in Oaxaca that offers refuge to Central American and South American migrants. The screening was followed by a panel that included Aguilar and other caravan members as well as a brief speech by Father Solalinde, whose work protecting migrants has resulted in several death threats. The priest now travels with four bodyguards in Mexico.

Sixty-four-year-old Mercedes Moreno left El Salvador shortly before civil war broke out. She left behind two young sons in the care of her mother. “I had always thought I’d go back but then the war started,” she said.

After several years, Moreno was finally reunited with her sons in Los Angeles. Her oldest son, Jose, was deported after being ticketed for jaywalking. He was returned to El Salvador but had no identification. The police picked him up, and he was tortured for several months, Moreno said. When he was finally released, her son fled El Salvador to reunite with his mother in California. He never made it. Her 22-year-old son disappeared in Mexico in 1991 and was never heard from again.

“There’s no closure,” Moreno said. “I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. At night, I wonder if he’s gotten something to eat or if he’s been hurt. I’ve searched everywhere for him in Mexico.”

Father Alejandro Solalinde urged the audience of more than 200 people at the cultural center to embrace humanity instead of material wealth. Greed and corruption fuels organized crime, which preys on the poor, he said. “We are living through one of the worst crises in humanity because we have put God to the side and put money in his place.”

On Wednesday, Pedro Aguilar said he still couldn’t believe that he had finally made it to the United States. Just 11 months ago, he had been lying in a Mexican hospital at the lowest point in his young life. He never could have imagined that he would be an invited speaker on a caravan crossing the United States to promote immigration reform. Now Aguilar works in a nonprofit bakery in central Mexico that employs migrants who were maimed during their journey north. “I am trying to do my part. I feel like I carry the weight of other immigrants. Those who never made it. So I try to carry on with bravery and courage. I know that in this life you can make it. Under whatever circumstance you have to keep going.”

 

Pedro Aguilar has been unable to afford a prosthetic leg. Anyone interested in helping can contact him at [email protected]

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