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PBS Need to Know footage

In April, the PBS show “Need to Know” aired a shocking piece of video footage taken by a woman’s camera. In the grainy footage recorded at night on the San Diego-Tijuana border Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, a Mexican migrant, is repeatedly tased and beaten by a group of as many as 20 U.S. Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side of the border fence. Hernandez is lying face down on the ground his hands tied behind his back screaming in Spanish, “Help me, please, help me.”

“I think I witnessed someone being murdered,” Ashley Young, the woman who shot the video told “Need to Know.” Young had been crossing back into San Diego after sightseeing in Tijuana and heard Hernandez screaming. When the agents didn’t stop beating him, Young took out her camera and began videotaping the assault.  

Hernandez died a few hours later. Afterwards, the San Diego Medical Examiner would label his death a homicide. The coroner’s report said Hernandez suffered a heart attack, had five broken ribs, a damaged spine and bruising all over his body.

Hernandez was killed in May 2010. Afterwards, the Border Patrol said that Hernandez had “become combative” and that batons and the stun gun were used to “subdue the individual and maintain officer safety.” The coroner’s report said Hernandez had amphetamines in his system.

No agents were charged for the assault, and the furor over Hernandez’s death largely subsided. After Hernandez’s death some very dark and grainy footage filmed by another witness was circulated on the Internet. In the footage you could hear Hernandez’s painful cries for help but see little of what was happening.

Frightened, Young never came forward with the footage she’d filmed of that evening. Fortunately, John Carlos Frey, a documentary filmmaker from California was able to locate Young and convince her to come forward with the evidence for the “Need to Know” segment aired in April.

Unlike other dark and grainy footage shot the evening of Hernandez’s death, Young’s footage shows clearly what went down that night. The ensuing public outrage has sparked a nationwide movement for reform and transparency in the U.S. Border Patrol, which in the last decade has become the nation’s largest law enforcement agency. And Hernandez’s case will now be scrutinized by a grand jury.

Since 9/11, Congress doubled the U.S. Border Patrol  from 11,000 agents in 2007 to more than 21,000 by 2012. In the effort to find willing recruits, the Border Patrol deferred background checks and relaxed its recruitment standards. Little has been done by Congress, however, to ensure that agents act with transparency and do not abuse their power.

After the “Need to Know” show was aired in April, John Carlos Frey, along with the Investigative Fund at the Nation and the nonprofit Investigative News Network, of which the Texas Observer is a member, contacted us here at the magazine to ask if we wanted to collaborate with them on expanding the coverage of border patrol shooting deaths along the border. Being the resident border reporter, I quickly signed on. Another investigative news organization, the Investigative Newsource in San Diego, also jumped in.

Most surprising to me was that not even the advocacy organizations knew exactly how many people had been killed by the U.S. Border Patrol. There was no definitive list. U.S. Customs and Border Protection publishes Borderstat Violence Reports that list deaths for each fiscal year, but the agency redacts any identifying information. The reports are difficult to find and are not publicized.

We started with a list of eight known and fairly well publicized cases in the media and I began filing Freedom of Information Act requests. After receiving a FOIA document from the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security, I found a few more cases. From 2010 to present we were able to tally 14 cases in total.

Most of the cases we uncovered were, not surprisingly, in Texas. Other than the highly publicized and tragic shooting of 15-year-old Sergio Hernandez Guereca in 2010 by an El Paso Border Patrol agent, many of these deaths in Texas only received a few words in local newspapers. In some cases the victims didn’t even have names and were simply referred to as “illegal aliens.”

One thing I discovered about Texas is that with the exception of the Border Human Rights Network in El Paso, there are no advocacy organizations looking into these deaths like there are in Arizona or California. With no prosecutions, no lawsuits and very little public scrutiny or oversight we have no idea whether their deaths were justifiable or not.

Also of note is that fatal Border Patrol shootings are now occurring at the northern border, with the expansion of agents along the northern border in the last five years. In rural areas, Border Patrol agents now staff 911 call centers and respond to domestic dispute calls and other incidents along with local police officers. In June, a 75-year-old man, Charles Robinson, was killed in Jackman, Maine, after allegedly shooting a Border Patrol agent responding to the domestic dispute call.

This is unprecedented territory for the agency and certainly something worth the scrutiny of Congress.

On Friday, the Texas Observer and other collaborators in the project will go live with a new web application listing the shootings that have occurred across the country since 2010.  The web application will list their names, details about the incidents and when and where the shooting occurred among other things. Also, the same evening, PBS’ “Need to Know” will air its second episode of the series “Crossing the Line” on alleged abuses by Border Patrol agents. Here in Texas, the Observer will keep pushing on the cases we have identified. Just last week, another death was reported in Matamoros after a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot into Mexico killing 30-year-old Juan Pablo Santillan. The agent reported that someone flashed a gun on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Agents also reported that rocks were thrown at them. Santillan’s family says that he was collecting firewood.

If Congress doesn’t push for more accountability and scrutiny of the U.S. Border Patrol, Santillan’s death will become yet another statistic passed off without the investigation it deserves.

U.S. Senate Report Signals Shift in Drug War Strategy

But Will President Peña Nieto Listen?
A Mexican Highway Patrol

In April, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations sent a team of staffers to Mexico City and Monterrey to assess the state of Mexico’s police and judicial reform. The staffers spoke with Mexican and U.S. officials, policy analysts and human rights representatives.

The result is a 12-page report released Thursday that sums up President Felipe Calderon’s military deployments to combat organized crime as having “achieved limited success and in some cases led to human rights violations.”

While this may come as no surprise to most readers, it’s a strikingly different tone from the usual U.S. government narrative. Just two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Calderon’s military deployment against the cartels. “I’m a fan. I believe [in] and greatly admire what President Calderon is doing,” she told reporters.

Privately, U.S. government officials had grave concerns about Mexico’s deteriorating security strategy but publicly Clinton and other government officials were unflagging supporters of Calderon.  But after 55,000 deaths and as many as 30,000 disappearances it’s tough to keep up the rah rah speeches after so much suffering and bloodshed. Not even the U.S. government has the stomach for it anymore.

Though it was nice of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to release its report after the July 1 presidential election. I’m sure Calderon appreciated the courtesy.

Calderon’s militarization strategy has been partially funded by the U.S. government’s Plan Merida, which has provided $1.9 billion for training, equipment and technical assistance. The plan, devised in 2007 by former President Bush and Calderon, has four goals: disrupt the capacity of organized crime, strengthen the rule of law; create a 21st century border; and build strong and resilient communities.

Calderon’s government has mostly focused on hunting drug capos, while forgetting the other three goals. The judicial system and rule of law have deteriorated. Communities and civic organizations are being destroyed instead of strengthened. With Enrique Peña Nieto taking office in December and a new U.S. presidential term starting in January, the report recommends a different tactic: reform and strengthen the judicial system and reform state and local police forces.

The committee recommends that Congress keep funding Plan Merida at $250 million a year for the next four years and that Mexico spend the majority of it on these reforms. Even $250 million is still a pittance compared to the estimated $39 billion U.S. drug users send annually to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

The report’s authors warn the judicial and police reforms will be long and costly. “Simply put most Mexicans mistrust the federal and state authorities main tools to fight crime, the police and judicial system, given their record of pervasive corruption and ineffectiveness.”

Then they engage in some finger wagging. “These reforms are long-term, technically difficult, require political cooperation across party lines as well as cooperation between federal and state-level authorities, and therefore do not lend themselves to splashy public relations.”

It’s slightly ironic coming from U.S. Congressional members.

To further the goals of reform the U.S. government opened up a police training center in Puebla in May. U.S. law enforcement trainers are there working to train Mexican police officials. There are approximately 350,000 police officers across Mexico that the report estimates have little training or resources. It is a mind boggling challenge for Peña Nieto. It’s going to be a long, bumpy ride.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, won Mexico’s presidential election Sunday as many political experts had predicted for months. Enrique Peña Nieto, a telegenic bureaucrat married to a famous soap opera star won with 37 percent of the vote followed by Leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with 32 percent. MexicoElection

After six years of a protracted and violent drug war, voters signaled their disdain for the ruling party the National Action Party, or PAN, by giving Josefina Vazquez Mota, the party’s candidate just 25 percent of the vote.

Just 12 years ago, the conservative PAN swept into power signaling a new openess in government and democracy after 71 years of PRI rule, sometimes referred to as the “Perfect Dictatorship.” Reporting on Vicente Fox’s win in 2000 I remember most the sense of hope, especially from the younger generation in Mexico that their country would finally be an open and transparent democracy.

Now 12 years later we have the return of the PRI infamous for its authoritarian rule, cronyism and corruption. Enrique Peña Nieto, 45, promises Mexicans that the party has modernized and abandoned its old methods of government rule. “There is no return to the past,” he told the crowd during his acceptance speech. “You have given our party a second chance and we will deliver results.”

But with an estimated 60,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared in Mexico’s burgeoning civil war, spurred by the drug war many Mexicans see the vote for the PRI as an act of desperation. They hope that the PRI will be able to once again co-opt organized crime and bring the level of violence down to a tolerable level as they did before. But many think it’s too late for that and the old power structures have changed too much for the PRI to rein in organized crime. In his speech, Sunday evening Peña Nieto assured Mexicans that the PRI would not concede to the criminals. “There will be no pact nor truce with organized crime,” he said.

In El Paso, Martin Hueremo and his family watched the election results with rapt attention. Last year, they were forced to flee Mexico because of the violence and are now seeking asylum in the United States. Peña Nieto’s win was a disappointment for him, Hueremo told me. “I am extremely sad and scared for my country right now,” he said.

photo: A polling location in Mexico City. photo courtesy Wikicommons.

A polling station in Mexico City.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, won Mexico’s presidential election Sunday as many political experts had predicted for months. Enrique Peña Nieto, a telegenic bureaucrat married to a famous soap opera star won with 37 percent of the vote followed by Leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with 32 percent.

After six years of a protracted and violent drug war, voters signaled their disdain for the ruling party the National Action Party, or PAN, by giving Josefina Vazquez Mota, the party’s candidate just 25 percent of the vote.

Just 12 years ago, the conservative PAN swept into power signaling a new openess in government and democracy after 71 years of PRI rule, sometimes referred to as the “Perfect Dictatorship.” Reporting on Vicente Fox’s win in 2000 I remember most the sense of hope, especially from the younger generation in Mexico that their country would finally be an open and transparent democracy.

Now 12 years later we have the return of the PRI infamous for its authoritarian rule, cronyism and corruption. Enrique Peña Nieto, 45, promises Mexicans that the party has modernized and abandoned its old methods of government rule. “There is no return to the past,” he told the crowd during his acceptance speech. “You have given our party a second chance and we will deliver results.”

But with an estimated 60,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared in Mexico’s burgeoning civil war, spurred by the drug war many Mexicans see the vote for the PRI as an act of desperation. They hope that the PRI will be able to once again co-opt organized crime and bring the level of violence down to a tolerable level as they did before. But many think it’s too late for that and the old power structures have changed too much for the PRI to rein in organized crime. In his speech, Sunday evening Peña Nieto assured Mexicans that the PRI would not concede to the criminals. “There will be no pact nor truce with organized crime,” he said.

In El Paso, Martin Hueremo and his family watched the election results with rapt attention. Last year, they were forced to flee Mexico because of the violence and are now seeking asylum in the United States. Peña Nieto’s win was a disappointment for him, Hueremo told me. “I am extremely sad and scared for my country right now,” he said.

photo by Joanna Wojtkowiak

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down three provisions of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 as unconstitutional Monday, but upheld one contentious section of the bill that allows law enforcement to check the immigration status of “any individual, as long as they have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ the person is unauthorized.”

Opponents of the bill refer to it as the “show me the papers” provision. And it has spurred racial discrimination lawsuits and created headaches for law enforcement. Back in 2010, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Arizona’s Pima County, told a local TV station that SB 1070 was “the worst piece of legislation I’ve seen in 50 years,” pointing out that the law forces his deputies to adopt racial profiling.

Analysts at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court might make such a ruling after U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli said the federal government would base its case on the question of federal versus state power in immigration enforcement, and not on the basis that the law spurs racial profiling.

So expect the harassment and the lawsuits to continue.

On Friday, I spoke with Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson, who has long been a vocal opponent of SB 1070 and the “show me the papers” provision. “If the justices rule that the ‘show me the papers’ part is still valid and constitutional then we have a fight ahead of us both politically and in terms of lawsuits going before the Supreme Court,” he said. Grijalva said he expect more lawsuits based on discrimination, racial profiling and unequal application of the law. “Those are still going to come to the Supreme Court,” he said. “The judicial fight will come and when the law comes into effect more litigation will be generated.”

After the announcement Monday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, decided to overlook the fact that a majority of the bill was struck down and celebrate the “show me the papers” provision as a victory for “all Americans who believe in the inherent right and responsibility of states to defend their citizens.”

“Today’s ruling does not mark the end of our journey,” she said in a statement. “It can be expected that legal challenges to SB 1070 and the State of Arizona will continue.”

Brewer can count on that.

As a whole, SB 1070 has already been ruinous for Arizona and the bitter battle will continue with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Grijalva said SB 1070 has damaged his state both economically and socially. “The state now has a reputation of being politically a backwater state and petri dish for bills like SB 1070 and the elimination of ethnic studies, et cetera,” he said. “It’s driven this wedge along racial lines that will be damaging for us for generations.”

David Ramirez on the Mexican-Guatemalan Border in 2005

During his 27 years in federal law enforcement, David Ramirez posed as a high level drug smuggler, nearly suffocated in a car trunk on an undercover assignment as an undocumented immigrant, and was shot at several times. As a rookie Border Patrol agent, he arrested Amado Carrillo Fuentes—later released by federal prosecutors—before he became the infamous “Lord of the Skies” and kingpin of the Juarez Cartel.

Luckily, Ramirez survived to tell us about it. In his new book “Beneath the Same Sky,” the 53-year-old Ramirez offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of federal law enforcement, and the lives of the men and women on the frontline of the war on drugs. His book presents narrative vignettes from his decades in the field first as a young Border Patrol agent patrolling the vast Big Bend region in the early 1980s, and later as part of an elite group of covert agents in the now defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services. In his final years, before retiring in 2009, Ramirez served as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Attache assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

Growing up in El Paso in a government housing project in the ’70s with Juarez as his backyard, Ramirez witnessed the ebb and flow of people and illegal drugs across the Rio Grande. Rejecting the gangster life, he joined the U.S. Border Patrol in 1982. He  became a covert agent with the INS who traveled the world busting international criminal organizations. After the 9/11 attacks, his agency, INS, was dissolved and repurposed into U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the massive new U.S. Department of Homeland Security. His focus became the war on terror, and he dismantled Middle Eastern smuggling rings and money laundering operations.

Ramirez began writing “Beneath the Same Sky” while he was stationed in Mexico City. The longer he fought the war on drugs, the more cyclical and hypocritical it seemed. Ramirez was proud of his service, but he’d been around long enough to see that despite 40 years battling the illegal drug market, the United States hadn’t made any significant headway. “Whatever we’re doing in this war on drugs it’s not working,” he says. “And it doesn’t mean that we have to stop doing what we took an oath to do; but the reality is that supply and demand is the bottom line.”

RamirezBookCoverHis book is an important testimony to border life, and to the men and women enmeshed in the quixotic “war on drugs.” Ramirez’s book, he says, was an exercise to help him find peace. Intermingled with the grittier law enforcement sections are lyrical, narrative sections in which he describes vivid sunsets and exotic locales he visited as an agent. He did this, he says, because he wanted to focus on the more positive aspects of life, which were so often eclipsed by his work. Now out of the game, Ramirez advises agents still in the field to not sacrifice everything to a war that can never be won.

“Clean up, wash off the soquete (mud) and move on with your real life. If you don’t, you will find that the drug culture coupled with the border life is but a cruel illusion, the true purgatory. … There has always been and will always be crime, dope smuggling and the money and death that comes with it. …We no longer much care about the top-echelon of the cartels nor keep score on the war on drugs. …we experienced it and we were fortunate to survive it.”



Texas Observer: What made you write this book, because it’s so rare to read about federal agents’ experiences in the field and about this world from the inside and it’s one of the great things about your book.


David Ramirez: First of all, my intent was never to write a book or publish. When I had some down time and I was in Mexico City … not knowing the city or the people there, I started writing little vignettes, just jotting down my thoughts and it was never meant to be shared. It was more for my benefit. And then an incident would happen similar to what I had experienced years back, and journalists like yourself or authors would comment on that particular incident, I would share with them incidents from the past that were replicating themselves, and it’s a cycle. So they (other writers) encouraged me to pursue it, to get it published but it was never intended as a book. 


TO: So you never thought you’d write a book, you just started writing because you wanted to figure things out on the page — life as you were living it? 


DR: I just started writing, whether to track what I had done or to track what the agency as a whole had done or track things that kept replicating themselves. In other words we weren’t learning from our experiences so I think that had a lot to do with it. But it was for my benefit and I don’t know whether you’re going to believe it because you’ve read the book, but I’m a very private person. A lot of those notes were personal thoughts and feelings. It was never meant as a political statement of any sort; that’s the life that I lived these years along the border, and take from it what you want but that’s what I lived. 


TO: Did you have to get any kind of clearance from the Department of Homeland Security to talk about your work, and when you mention other agents names, did you talk to them about it first? 


DR: Most of the agents I mention are close friends and the ones that I talked to didn’t have an issue with me naming them. Another thing being that I’d say 80 percent or more of the actual cases are public record; in other words there are indictments … there’s not anything that was not public information. The other thing [is] the agency that I wrote about for the most part has been abolished. I’d say 90 percent of what I wrote about is Immigration and Naturalization Services and that agency no longer exists. It’s been abolished so there was no need to ask permission to write public information or my thoughts on a specific case. As you can see, some of the more sensitive cases, which was when we were addressing 9-11 and the action that we took after 9-11 in Latin America; most of my vignettes don’t mention names, they mention the general scenario and … [they] include newspaper articles that highlight what I was talking about. 


TO: So you actually arrested Amado Carrillo Fuentes way back when he was just getting started with the Juarez Cartel, what was that like?


DR: It was…at the time, you’re on high alert and you detain this individual and you try to get him prosecuted. At the time you could tell he was not your typical smuggler that you arrested every day; you could sense it. As a person – he was a personable guy and not until later did I find out who he was but you could tell the guy carried some weight. I would travel across the border to Ojinaga (Mexico) and I would see him there with the (Mexican) customs director, the immigration director and the state and local cops. So you knew that he carried some weight. He wasn’t somebody that just showed up one day, he had connections.


TO: And were you the only one who ever arrested him?


DR: That I know of, yes. My partner was there as well, we were the only two that ever encountered him, that ever had any interaction with him, and [he] was arrested on U.S. soil.


TO: So you started with U.S. Border Patrol first in 1982, at the age of 23 and then moved on to the INS. President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs back in 1971 and your life and career has basically spanned that war on drugs. So what did you learn from your experience on the front line fighting that war?


DR: Once again, the book was never intended as a political statement. But whatever we’re doing in this war on drugs it’s not working. And I’m not saying legalize drugs or give life sentences or chop off hands — I definitely don’t have an answer on how to fix it, but whatever we’re doing is not working and we need to regroup. And it doesn’t mean that we have to stop doing what we took an oath to do; I’m still doing it, but the reality is that supply and demand is the bottom line. That’s my point of view.


TO: The drug violence has gotten worse since the turn of the century. Why do you think it’s gotten worse?


DR: I think it’s gotten worse because … first of all we’re working it the same way we have been for 40 years. We know it’s not working, or that we have limited success and we keep taking the wrong approach. And of course we know the demand is stronger here in the states. It kind of reminds me of immigration back in the ‘70s and ‘80s – nobody took it seriously when in reality it’s homeland security, it’s border security, it’s counterterrorism efforts on protecting our borders. And then 9-11 happened. Before 9-11 we took it (immigration) so lackadaisically and that’s the same way we’re viewing drugs now. Eventually, it’s just going to progress until it blows up. It’s just going to get worse if we keep addressing it the way we’ve been addressing it for 40 years. There’s got to be deterrence and it’s not out there – whether you’re squeezing the demand through education, therapy or the deterrence of life in prison.


TO: There’s a lot of great scenes of you growing up in El Paso, in the barrio and right near the Rio Grande and you would see people passing through from Juarez, bringing cigarettes or whatever to sell in El Paso. So you pretty much grew up with people crossing back and forth illegally, trying to make a living – did it give you more empathy for the people that you were detaining when you were an agent?


DR: Not necessarily empathy because we all live and die by our decisions. You make your own decisions, so those people decided to smuggle rather than find a normal job, that was their decision. So I had no empathy for them. I could sympathize why they were doing it but I mean that was a decision they made – so it’s live and die by their decisions. We all do. For example, to me the concept of their own crooks (in Mexico) taxing their territories was nothing new because I saw it when I was in my early teens – they (Mexicans) went through — I say our because I lived there — our territory and they got taxed. So I understood that concept, when I was assigned as a diplomat in Mexico City with the state department. But many of our people couldn’t understand the concept of the Mexican drug traffickers taxing un “cobro de piso” to the alien smugglers. That lesson I learned when I was 12 or 13.


TO: Corruption is also a real problem on both sides of the border, right, which you tackle in your book. The amount of profits that are made from trafficking are so huge that I think you mentioned a U.S. border agent you knew who was offered $50,000 just to wave a car through at an international port of entry.


DR: That person who was offered $50,000 per wave was my brother and he came to me and we went to the proper investigative agency within his agency at the time and they wanted him to wear a wire and of course he wouldn’t because I told him he wasn’t going to because those people, even though they [were] a childhood friend they knew our entire family. So that individual was, I don’t know where he’s at now, but he was offering my brother $50,000 a wave and they guaranteed him five vehicles or five waves a week, so you’re talking a quarter of a million dollars a week. And then you’re talking an U.S. Customs inspector, not a high level [position], who had the potential of making a quarter million dollars a week.


TO: So the temptation then is huge for people who are offered that kind of money.


DR: Correct, because they’re not bribing you with a bottle of liquor or even a car; you’re talking a quarter of a mil a week, so I mean it’s not like they’re trying to tempt you. It’s blatantly telling you, “This is what you can make.”


TO: Was that the Juarez Cartel that made the offer?


DR: At the time, it was the Juarez Cartel. The cartels – I don’t know who came up with the term “cartels” but at the time it was just known as Amado’s trafficking organization.


TO: When you talk about your undercover work, it’s pretty amazing – I mean, you’re locked in a trunk, or you’re posing as a smuggler to bust some Chinese organized crime syndicate. How do you pull that off, making them believe you’re that person you’re pretending to be?


DR: First of all, getting myself in the trunk, I don’t pride myself on that. I call that more stupidity than anything else. I attribute it to where I grew up and how I grew up. I was able to play a believable role when I was dealing with significant crooks. Another thing was that I knew enough to know when I was over my head or it was too risky and I would back off. Because the crooks are going to be there forever, and even though we take dumb, silly risks when we’re doing undercover, I had to kind of acknowledge it’s just a job. We pour our heart and soul into it, but at the end of the day it’s just a job. And we can’t let it consume us completely – but to answer your question I think it was where I grew up and how I grew up that helped me. Plus at the time the people that grew up with me would vouch for me as well and say, even though they knew I was law enforcement, “yeah that guy’s a crook.”


TO: It’s interesting in the book how you juxtapose the scenes from your work with the more lyrical narrative sections where you’re traveling the world. And you and your girlfriend are eating really great food and you make your job sound pretty fantastic, because you’re in these really wonderful places like Costa Rica or Italy. So why did you choose to add these sections to the book?


DR: Once again, it was not intended as a book, so what I wrote about was life. Our lives are so consumed by the negative that we have to step back and say there’s more to life than the negative, and appreciate the little things like the shoe shine boy [in Guatemala] … and I don’t want to romanticize it but it’s life and we have to enjoy it and we get so consumed by the negative and that’s not what we’re here for. What I wrote down was there’s a beauty to life and we’ve got to live life, and not just the negative.


TO: Did it take you a long time to come to that realization or have you always had that outlook?


DR: No, I think as you get older you realize life goes by quick and you lose people that are close to you and dear to you and we’re too quick to take life for granted. And another thing that made me open my eyes was Latin America – people who savor life and look at life differently than we do in America. Not that Americans don’t, we value family dearly, but for some reason the work –the 9 to 5 — are not as important [in Latin America] as enjoying life. And for me, growing up in El Paso, Mexico was Juarez. And I when I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, I realized what a beautiful country Mexico was and that Juarez was not Mexico.


TO: What do you think about the course of things in Mexico now – it’s gotten so violent. What do you think the future holds in store for Mexico?


DR: Again, I don’t want to get too political, but I think that what the future holds for Mexico, a lot of it has to do with what the future holds for us Americans. Because it’s not like Mexico hits a switch and it’s done. They’ve been trying. I’m not just talking about the drug situation, even if the drugs leave there’s going to be corruption in their country as well as in ours. I think they’re trying to find a solution and it’s not happening; I really couldn’t tell you what the future holds, but I can tell you whatever the future holds for them it holds for us as well.


TO: I think you talk about this a little in the book, do you think we’re so focused on the Middle East that we sometimes don’t focus on Mexico and the rest of Latin America which is right next door to us?


DR: Definitely, but I think that’s the politics of the matter and for whatever reason that’s where the politicians want to put the focus on. Most Americans I would say, do not have that insight that you as a journalist, or I who have lived and traveled the border [have] – since it’s not affecting them personally it’s not their priority and I think it’s the same for politicians, since it’s not affecting them it’s not really a priority. I see it much like immigration was in the 70s and 80s, we should’ve jumped on it back then and we didn’t pay attention to it and now this is where we’re at; and now it’s the problem with drugs – we downplayed it or worked it the same way for 40 years and eventually something’s going to give.

A Dream Act Student at UT Rally

President Obama emphasized today in a press conference that deferring deportation for thousands of undocumented students and military personnel is only a “stopgap measure” and not a “path to citizenship.”

In his speech from the White House, Obama praised hard working undocumented students and military personnel but made a point that ultimately it’s up to Congress to grant legal status for up to 800,000 immigrants who may qualify under the DREAM Act – legislation that would allow young undocumented students or military personnel to live and work legally in the United States.

“This is not a path to citizenship or a permanent fix. It’s a stopgap measure…in absence of any immigration action from Congress,” said Obama who called for congressional leaders to pass comprehensive immigration reform. “ Six years ago President Bush, Senators McCain and Kennedy championed this reform. There’s no reason why we can’t come together again and get this done.”

The Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin this afternoon explaining in greater detail the new policy change. The take home message: the process could be long and arduous, which is no surprise to anyone who’s dealt with U.S. immigration law.

Loren Campos, 23, a DREAM Act advocate and graduate of UT Austin, watched Obama’s press conference with growing excitement. “I think I qualify under the criteria,” he said. “But I still have a lot of questions.”

Campos said many DREAM Act students are hopeful but apprehensive that Obama’s policy change will be carried out by immigration agency officials. Campos pointed out that immigration directives from the White House often find little traction in the day to day operations of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In 2011, ICE agency director John Morton directed immigration agents to enact “prosecutorial discretion” focusing more on the deportation of criminals instead of undocumented people who had no criminal records. The policy change found little success, however, and is seldom enacted. “We need to be watchful and make sure that it is carried out correctly,” said Campos of Obama’s new directive.

Since early Friday morning social media sites have been flooded with questions about who can qualify and where to apply for the deferral. Some key points to note from DHS’s bulletin this afternoon are the following:

Who is eligible to receive deferred action under the Department’s new directive? 
Pursuant to the Secretary’s June 15, 2012 memorandum, in order to be eligible for deferred action, individuals must:

Have come to the United States under the age of sixteen;

Have continuously resided in the United States for at least five years preceding the date of this memorandum and are present in the United States on the date of this memorandum;

Currently be in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a general education development certificate, or are honorably discharged veterans of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States;

Have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety;

Not be above the age of thirty.

Individuals must also complete a background check and, for those individuals who make a request to USCIS and are not subject to a final order of removal, must be 15 years old or older.


Here are a few more points also worth mentioning from the DHS bulletin:

 ** Only those individuals who can prove through verifiable documentation that they meet these criteria will be eligible for deferred action

 ** The use of prosecutorial discretion confers no substantive right or pathway to citizenship. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights.

 ** Under existing regulations, an individual who has been granted deferred action is eligible to receive employment authorization for the period of deferred action, provided he or she can demonstrate “an economic necessity for employment.” Deferred action can be terminated at any time at the agency’s discretion or renewed by the agency.



Update (Midnight): It’s looking like it could be a runoff in the GOP primary between J.M. Lozano and Bill Wilson. With 60% of the precincts reporting in District 43 Lozano has 41.6% of the vote and Wilson has 44%.


Update (10:30 P.M.):

In HD 74, it’s not looking good for former Del Rio Mayor Dora Alcala who’s garnered just 26 percent of the votes against her opponent Thomas Kincaid, a rancher from Pecos County who has won the last two Republican primaries in that distirct. With 56 percent of the precincts reporting Alcala would need a miracle to recover. In the brand new Coastal Bend district 43, J.M. Lozano with 43.8 % of the votes has inched ahead of Bill Wilson who has 42.3 % of the votes. Just 43% of precincts have reported so far. Whoever wins the GOP primary will run against Democrat Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles who won her primary by a landslide. Gonzalez represented the Coastal Bend from 2005 to 2011 and was ousted by Hispanic Republican Jose Aliseda in the 2010 sweep that ousted many Coastal Bend dems. Aliseda opted not to run for the seat this time around.

Update (9:25 PM):

Party switcher J.M. Lozano is lagging behind Bill Wilson an architect from Portland in the GOP primary 49.3% to 37.4%. Votes are still trickling in however, with only 2% of the precincts counted so far. In HD 74, the far west district represented by Democrat Pete Gallego for an eon, Hispanic Republican Dora Alcala is trailing Thomas Kincaid in the GOP primary –Kincaid 80.7% to Alcala 19.3% with 28 percent of the precincts reporting.


Can the Grand ‘ol Party win Latino hearts and minds tonight? The Hispanic Republicans of Texas founded by Juan Hernandez, George P. Bush and George Antuna think so. Tonight they’re closely watching the race in House District 43 which includes San Patricio County and slices of Bee, Jim Wells and Kleberg counties to see whether their chosen candidate J.M Lozano can win the Republican primary against two Anglo opponents. Not long ago Lozano was a Democrat so that may hurt him in a Republican primary.

In House District 74, another HRT chosen candidate Dora Alcala will run against her Republican opponent Thomas Kincaid a Pecos County rancher and real estate appraiser. Alcala is running with considerable name recognition. She served three terms as mayor of Del Rio.

If the GOP does want to make inroads, they’ll have to overcome a daunting history. There have been several infamous races in which Hispanic GOP candidates complained they lost their primary elections against lesser-known Anglos because of Republican voters’ hostility toward candidates with Spanish surnames. The most recent example was former Texas Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo, who lost his bid for reelection in the 2010 GOP primary to a virtually unknown candidate named David Porter.

We’ll see tonight whether the GOP is really making inroads with Latinos or just spinning its wheels.

Photo by Jen Reel
Miguel Angel Lopez Solana at the forum

In the battle for territory by organized crime in Mexico, the state of Veracruz has become one of the most violent and contested conflict zones. Local journalists, bearing witness to the brutal battle, are being systematically tortured and killed and the Veracruz and Mexican governments are doing nothing to protect them.

This was the urgent message on Tuesday in Austin, from former Veracruz reporter and photographer Miguel Angel Lopez Solana who made a plea for help for his colleagues in Veracruz at a forum focusing on journalism safety in Latin America, sponsored by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Open Society Foundations.

“They aren’t just killing us journalists, they are drawing and quartering us…We are living in terror,” he told an audience packed with Latin American journalists and international nonprofit organizations.

Lopez Solana, 31, announced at the forum in Austin that he and his wife Vanessa will ask for political asylum in the United States because they fear for their lives in Mexico and feel that the government has failed in protecting journalists under threat. Lopez Solana and his wife will be represented by El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector, who has represented several Mexican reporters in asylum cases since the drug war started in Mexico in 2006.

Lopez Solana had good reason to flee Veracruz. On June 20, 2011, his father, the noted columnist and author Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco, his mother Agustina and his 21-year old brother Misael, a news photographer, were killed by unidentified gunmen who broke into their home as they were sleeping. Lopez’s father was a longtime columnist who wrote about crime and politics for the Veracruz newspaper Notiver. Miguel and his brother worked for the same publication covering the police beat.

“My father always told me the journalist’s job was to uncover injustice. He was very passionate about his work,” says Lopez Solana. After the journalist buried his family, he flew directly to Mexico City because he was afraid he’d be killed at any moment, he says. “I literally drove from the cemetery to the airport because I felt I was in a very high risk situation.”

The safety situation started deteriorating for Veracruz’s reporters in 2007, he says. The port of Veracruz is the country’s largest commercial port. Several drug cartels are fighting for control of the port, says Lopez Solana. Ex police and corrupt officials are also working with the cartels for control of the valuable smuggling territory. Organized crime controls everything in the port city, he says, from the sale of pirated DVDS to human smuggling and drug trafficking. “There is an intense struggle going on right now to see who will control the country,” he says. “In (Veracruz) they have co-opted business, politics and they’ve stolen land from many landowners. If they can’t take over journalists they will be killed.”

In May, four reporters were killed in Veracruz: Regina Martinez of the newsmagazine Proceso, and photographers Guillermo Luna, Gabriel Huge and Esteban Rodriguez, a cameraman. Martinez showed signs of being strangled in her home while the other three journalists, and a woman Irasema Becerra, who was reportedly Luna’s girlfriend, were dismembered, thrown into garbage bags and dumped in a canal.

Huge, Luna and Rodriguez had fled Veracruz last year after a number of police beat reporters were threatened or killed, including Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz, who also worked for Notiver. Lopez Solana said she wanted to flee the city but was afraid of losing her job. He said news media organizations in the state do not support their reporters after they receive death threats or are assaulted. Instead they are advised to leave the state, often without any severance pay.

Huge, Luna and Rodriguez had recently returned to Veracruz after struggling to find work in other states. Lopez Solana said after returning the reporters were blacklisted by the state, which is dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which financially supports most of the state’s publications through publicity funding. Within two months of returning the three journalists were killed.

Every time journalists are killed, state and federal officials promise publicly to investigate the murders and find the killers but then nothing is pursued, he says. After the latest wave of killings, the 31-year old reporter said he no longer felt safe in his own country. “My father always told me to trust my intuition above everything else,” he says. “One morning recently I woke up with the overpowering feeling that I should leave Mexico immediately.” Lopez Solana told his wife to gather some things and they left that afternoon.

Now the journalist and his wife are hoping to find asylum in the United States. “I feel like I’m trapped in a very long, dark tunnel and I am waiting to see the light at the end,” he says. The reporter told the international NGOs at the forum, which included such organizations as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, that things have become unbearable for his colleagues back home. “You should hold this forum in Veracruz,” he said. “They are very isolated and they don’t feel your support…They are traumatized and living in fear. It’s way beyond any fiction you could ever imagine.”

Photo by Jen Reel
Daniel Candelaria, Loren Campos and another Dream Act student

This week thousands of University of Texas students are graduating and looking forward to pursuing their careers. Among them are graduates who see nothing but obstacles ahead. On Thursday, more than 40 UT Dream Act students and their supporters held a protest on the UT campus to implore President Obama to grant executive relief from deportation for undocumented students.

The students held signs that read “I have the right to live my life without fear” and  “stop tearing families apart” and chanted “Up up with education, down down with deportation” in front of several TV cameras. The protest was part of a nationwide effort to draw attention to the plight of undocumented students who are graduating this month but can’t advance their careers because they lack social security numbers.

Loren Campos, 23, graduated last year from UT Austin but can’t work because he is undocumented. Campos came to the United States as a young boy, after his mother fled domestic abuse in Mexico.

Campos took Advanced Placement courses in high school and graduated at the top of his high school class. Despite Campos’ good grades, school counselors told him he couldn’t attend university because of his immigration status. Campos said he didn’t give up, however, and ultimately enrolled in UT Austin. He graduated with a civil engineering degree in 2011.

“As a child I didn’t understand the implications of my immigration status,” he says. “I always thought if I worked hard enough I could get ahead.”

Daniel Candelaria, 23, stood in the hot sun in the black cap and gown he’ll wear tomorrow for his graduation and addressed the crowd and the cameras. Candelaria will receive a diploma in social studies. His dream is to teach high school. Because he’s undocumented, he likely can’t fulfill his goal, he says. “I can’t work, travel or ever have a driver’s license,” he says.

Candelaria is the only member in his family who is undocumented. His mother married a U.S. citizen and applied for citizenship for her children. Candelaria turned 18 before the paperwork was processed so he had to apply again as an adult. The paperwork was filed in 2009. U.S. immigration officials just started processing requests from 1994. “It could be 15 or 16 years before they get to me,” he says.

Next to take the microphone was Edilsa Lopez who was orphaned in Guatemala as a child and brought to the United States by smugglers. Despite the hardships of her childhood, she graduated high school in Houston and will graduate from UT Austin tomorrow with majors in international relations, economics and business administration. “I would like to see my siblings in Guatemala someday, but I can’t because of my immigration status,” Lopez said breaking into tears. Afterwards she told me “Right now I’m happy, but I’m also upset because it’s taken so much to get to this day. It’s not been easy, but I’ve always thought that obstacles are not there to impede us but to be overcome.”

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