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Last May, a riot in a private prison in Natchez, Mississippi, turned deadly when a prison guard was beaten to death. The riot was sparked by undocumented immigrants angered by poor food and medical care and abusive guards. It’s only the latest in a series of riots that have occurred in the booming immigrant detention system in the United States.

In Pecos, Texas, riots broke out in 2008 over medical negilgence after a detainee with epilepsy died in solitary confinement. Despite the riots, deaths and documented cases of abuse the number of detention facilities — many of them private jails — increased by 208 percent between 2002 and 2008. The industry has grown massive, fed by Operation Streamline a federal policy expanded in 2005 to detain immigrants who enter the country illegally. People who enter illegally for the first time can serve a 30 day sentence in jail while a repeat offender can serve anywhere from 1 to 20 years in prison.

Since 2001, it has cost U.S. taxpayers $5.5 billion to incarcerate undocumented immigrants yet research shows that it does little to deter immigrants from coming illegally to the United States. Thursday, Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership and other civil justice groups will testify at a Congressional Briefing sponsored by U.S. Representative Jared Polis. The briefing will examine human rights abuses and waste, which they say is prevalent in the Federal Bureau of Prison’s “Criminal Alien Requirements” private prison contracting program. “The federal government has another 1,000 beds budgeted for 2013,” says Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “Private detention facilities have grown exponentially but research shows incarcerating people doesn’t deter them from coming.The biggest determinant is the economy.”

So many immigrants have been incarcerated for entering the country illegally that it has radically changed the composition of the federal prison population. In 2011, for the first time Hispanics made up 50.3 percent of people sentenced for felonies even though they make up just 16 percent of the U.S. population. Libal and other advocates hope the federal government will consider less costly and more humane alternatives to jail. “We have less undocumented Mexicans entering the country than in decades and we’re still expanding the detention system,” he says. “There has to be a better policy.”

Read a new report released by Grassroots Leadership called “Operation Streamline:Costs and Consequences.”

Deaths in Mexico by U.S. Border Agents Becoming an Alarming Trend

2nd Man Killed in the Last Three Months
Melissa del Bosque

An U.S. Border Patrol agent has shot another man in Mexico – this time in Nuevo Laredo. Nora Isabel Lam Gallegos reported that her husband Guillermo Arevalo Pedroz, 36, was fatally shot on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande Monday at a popular park called “The Skating Rink.” Arevalo and his family were having a BBQ and celebrating a birthday, according to Gallegos who was interviewed by Laredo’s KGNS News.

Gallegos and other witnesses say U.S. Border Patrol agents in a boat were trying to apprehend a man swimming across the Rio Grande to Texas. The man turned back toward Mexico and an agent fired toward the Mexican side of the riverbank hitting Gallegos’ husband at the park. No Border Patrol agents were hurt in the incident.

In a statement from the Border Patrol, the agency said people in Mexico pelted the agents with rocks, reports KGNS News. The Mexican government has repeatedly lodged diplomatic complaints with the United States concerning the “disproportionate use of lethal force” by U.S. immigration agents. Both the FBI and the Mexican government are investigating the incident.

According to El Universal, a Mexico City-based newspaper, an U.S. citizen reportedly filmed the entire incident on a cell phone and turned it over to the Mexican authorities.

This is the second time an U.S. Border Patrol agent in Texas has fatally shot someone in Mexico in the last three months. In both cases, Border Patrol claimed they were being pelted with rocks, which required them to shoot in self defense.

On July 9, an U.S. Border Patrol agent fatally shot Juan Pablo Perez Santillan. The 30-year-old was standing on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros just across from Brownsville. In a lawsuit filed by his family, they claim Perez Santillan was standing on the riverbank while a group of people swam across the river to Texas. The group was spotted by U.S. Border Patrol agents. In a statement after the shooting, the agency says its agents were pelted with rocks and fired in self defense.

This death in Nuevo Laredo is the fifth time an U.S. border agent has killed someone on Mexican soil in the last two years. Ramses Torres, 17, was shot in Nogales, Sonora, in 2011, and Jose Yañez Reyes was killed that same year in Tijuana. Sergio Hernandez Guereca, 15, was killed in Juarez in 2010 by U.S. Border Patrol, agent Jesus Mesa.

This a disturbing trend that doesn’t bode well for an already tense relationship with Mexico. With the increasing number of fatal shootings in Mexico by U.S. agents and the shooting of two CIA agents in Mexico last week by the Federal Police, Mexico’s incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto has not only domestic woes to contend with but international ones as well.










Sergio Hernandez-Guereca was killed in 2010.

Early on the morning of July 9, A U.S. Border Patrol agent fatally shot Juan Pablo Perez Santillan in Mexico. The 30-year-old was standing on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros just across from Brownsville.

Border Patrol says the agent fired in self-defense. At a press conference after the shooting, agency spokesperson Enrique Mendiola said two agents opened fire in separate incidents around the same time that morning. A group of Mexicans, trying to cross the river, pelted the agents with rocks, he said, while in the other incident a man allegedly flashed a gun on the Mexican side of the river. Witnesses in Mexico say Perez Santillan was unarmed.

The Mexican Foreign Ministry denounced Perez’s death as a disproportionate use of force. Both countries say the shooting is being investigated, but it’s doubtful anything will come of it. In June 2010, 15-year-old Sergio Hernandez-Guereca was killed in Mexico by a U.S. Border Patrol agent standing in El Paso. The boy’s parents filed a wrongful death suit in U.S. court, but it was dismissed. The federal judge said the family had no standing because Hernandez-Guereca was killed on Mexican soil. Incensed by the ruling, the Chihuahuan state government issued a warrant for the Border Patrol agent’s arrest. But the warrant is largely viewed as symbolic, since the chances of extradition are next to none.

Deaths like these are on the rise. The Perez Santillan case is the fourth time a U.S. border agent has killed someone on Mexican soil in the last two years. Ramses Torres, 17, was shot in Nogales, Sonora, in 2011, and Jose Yañez Reyes was killed that same year in Tijuana.

Undeterred by the setback in the El Paso ruling, Juan Pablo Perez Santillan’s family filed a civil suit in U.S. court in late July. “What happened is a terrible tragedy,” said Brownsville civil rights lawyer Ed Stapleton, who filed the suit for the family. “Arguing this case is going to be an uphill battle, but it’s important to keep developing it as a legal issue.”

The case probably won’t be heard any time soon, however. In early August, Stapleton’s suit on behalf of the family was rescinded, and he was replaced by Austin-based attorney Marc Rosenthal. Rosenthal has yet to re-file the suit.

Tom Hayden: If You’re Looking for a War to Oppose it Should be the Drug War in Mexico

A Veteran Peace Activist on the Road with Javier Sicilia and the Peace Caravan
Melissa del Bosque
Javier Sicilia at the Texas Capitol August 25

At this moment, one of the most significant peace movements in Mexico’s history is winding its way through the American South in a caravan of buses and cars. The movement, which has a long name, “The Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity,” is led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia and his fellow countrymen who have lost their loved ones in a drug war that has killed at least 120,000 since 2006. Since the movement began last year, its “peace caravans” have crisscrossed the Mexican countryside drawing thousands to their rallies and making international headlines. Sicilia and his movement have been called everything from heroic to sell-outs for opening a dialogue with President Felipe Calderon about changing the country’s drug war policy. And Sicilia’s political alliances have been called into question as he’s struggled to keep his movement apolitical.

Now Sicilia has plunged even deeper into controversy by bringing his movement for peace across the border to the United States. Since arriving at the beginning of August he and at least 40 other peace activists from Mexico have met with divisive figures like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona to challenge his racist policies.  Yesterday, they protested in front of a gun store in Houston, where they melted down an AK-47 and re-sculpted it into a peace symbol. At every stop, hundreds have turned out and the participants have given heartbreaking testimony about their loved ones who have been killed or disappeared in the drug war. On Saturday, the caravan rolled into Austin for a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol. Sicilia called for U.S. and Mexican citizens to join together to demand an end to the drug war violence and the incarceration of millions in the United States. “We can stop the war by forcing our states and our governments to change drug policy into a public health policy. To control the trafficking of arms of destruction…and to lead a war against money laundering. The money made from the legalization of drugs should be given to the victims destroyed by the drug war.”

What Sicilia and the movement have to say is important, but will government leaders in the United States listen? As I was pondering this question, I noticed a gray-haired man sitting on the steps of the Capitol typing away on a laptop. He was entirely focused on Sicilia’s words. Next to him sat a worn leather briefcase decorated with a glittering Mexican flag sticker. It suddenly dawned on me that it was Tom Hayden, a founding father of the influential New Left student movement of the ‘60s. Now 72, Hayden’s life has been devoted to organizing and civil protest and “participatory democracy” — the notion that “each person has a voice in the decisions affecting his or her life,” which he helped define in the Port Huron Statement more than 50 years ago. When it comes to organizing a social movement, Hayden, also a former California state senator, has pretty much done it all. So I was curious about what this veteran peace activist had to say about Mexico’s burgeoning peace movement, and how Sicilia might find common cause in the United States with other groups trying to end the war on drugs. Hayden told me he has been closely following the movement in Mexico and had just recently wrote a piece about Sicilia for The Nation. Here’s what Hayden had to say about the movement.

: What do you think about Javier Sicilia and the Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity?

Hayden: You mean this civic milagro. It truly is a milagro. These social movements that appear suddenly are very difficult for academics and journalists to understand because they don’t have any causation. That means you can’t predict what they will achieve or why they will go away. All you know is that you are in the middle of something and from a moral standpoint it’s a blessing to be there. It only happens a few times in your life and it’s outside of your control. So that’s what it is. But if I were to analyze it, I’d say it’s a very important step toward making the militarized drug war untenable.

TO: Sicilia has been criticized for meeting with President Calderon. Some say he’s sold out. What do you think about this criticism?

Hayden: I never heard this except for people from the left in Mexico and journalists from the left. I met with Ronald Reagan. What does that make me? Who cares? This is not a left movement. But it is a movement the left should support.

TO: Do you think the message of the caravan will sink in with Americans? Will they pay attention?

Hayden: It certainly will with the immigrants, with Mexicans and Central Americans in particular. Along the way, the route of the march, generally speaking, is not the territory of white liberalism. It’s an area where great civil rights movements have been based historically. That’s part of what interests me about the route. It’s not in tea party country. It’s not in right wing country. It’s in brown and black communities that are enclaves inside the old Confederacy. I think it’s very important for a couple of reasons: the movement in the United States has largely been a white movement of my beloved potheads who want to legalize what they smoke. They have a historic grievance because millions of them have been unnecessarily incarcerated, marginalized and looked down upon. Their movement has been very successful around medical marijuana, which shows that there is a majority of voters in certain states like California and Arizona that are in favor of it. The backlash has also been severe because the drug warriors know that it’s a foot in the door. But there’s a real limit to a white movement because the victims of drug war are people of color more than white people. So, I think this movement can create some new dimensions and some new muscle for the movement here that is morally in favor of legalization.

Also, whatever happens in Mexico, the voter mandate was against the drug war. The mandate of the people in Central America is against the drug war. The presidents of Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador have already told President Obama and Biden that they would not meet with the United States in another Organization of American States meeting unless there was a change in the drug policy. I’m a big supporter of President Obama. He knows the drug war is crazy. He said so when he was a state senator like me. One thing you have to do when you run for the presidency of the superpower, if you are a Democrat and you’re black and have no experience, is you have to be tough on crime and tough on defense. And you also have to be sort of beyond morality, which a lot of people on the left don’t understand. Politics is only a little about morality. Obama has done something that might seem immoral on the surface that he continues the drug war, which he already said in Illinois he didn’t believe in, and that he thought was ineffective. He’s waiting for the anti-drug war movement to show that it can make a difference before he steps forward. But now it’s become very serious because the movement has gained the support of actual governments that the United States has to do business with.

: What do you think about the role that social media has had on civic movements in Mexico?

Hayden: I recently covered the Mexican presidential election. The #YoSoy132 movement is a very impressive student movement and it obviously has a future. It’s also somewhat different from previous left movements. Typical of this generation, the enemy is television and the monopoly of TV media. The means of producing images is the new generation’s target.  How to change the war is a very difficult issue. I believe this movement is very smart to frame itself as anti-violence, and I think the peace movement in the United States, if they are looking for any war to oppose, it should be this war. I think they need to focus on the war in the Americas and the front of that war is in Mexico and Central America. I don’t know why there can’t be another solidarity movement of the kind there was around the Central American wars in the ‘80s. I think it’s a problem of perception. In Central America, white people saw U.S. supported dictators with death squads chasing people to Los Angeles or over the Texas border. There was a massive underground movement and people took these refugees in and gave them food, shelter and medicine. The drug war narrative is a false narrative that makes it seem that 60,000 people have died in Mexico because they were all drug addicts. This is racism combined with false information and this march or caravan can dispute this false information because people don’t want to be racists. But I think they have a racist interpretation that the victims of the drug war sort of deserved it because they were dealing for the cartels or they were thugs. It reminds me of the civil rights movement which got stopped because of the false narrative that what was wrong in America’s cities had to do with drugs and gangs. And now we have 2 million people arrested and communities are devastated. The right wing argues that it’s the fault of these communities. Democrats argue that we have to stop people with police and jails first then rehabilitate them later with training and jobs. But what if it’s the other way around? The whole thing is because of neo-liberalism which started in places like Los Angeles, Philadelphia and in New York when corporations and banks disinvested from inner cities and invested instead in Mexico and Central America. Isn’t that the story? There’s a role for journalists. The story is false. It’s not simple but it’s a false story that needs to be corrected. It’s very smart what the caravan is doing—by just saying “stop the drug war,” it brings attention to something that is wrong, and a failure and expensive. But it doesn’t preach a specific answer which is good. Because here is the way it goes: If I tell you to stop doing something or else…you will naturally think of something else to do. This way we can have a debate. It’s truly historic what this movement is doing. I don’t think in my lifetime I can think of a peace movement from another country coming over to America to march.

Photo by Melissa del Bosque
Javier Sicilia at a peace rally in Ciudad Juarez June 2011

Javier Sicilia, like many citizens of privilege living in Mexico City, had largely ignored the drug war. Then on March 28, 2011, his 24-year old son, Juan Francisco, a business student, and six of his friends were killed by drug cartel members after a minor scuffle in a bar.

Overnight, Sicilia’s son had become a drug war statistic—one of the estimated 60,000 deaths since President Felipe Calderon launched his military offensive in 2006 against narcotraffickers.

The grief stricken Sicilia, 55, a well-known poet in his country, announced he would never write another poem. Instead, he poured his grief into protest, spearheading the Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity. Since his son’s death, Sicilia and the movements other leaders have crisscrossed Mexico in “caravans for peace” protesting the senseless deaths of their loved ones. In many parts of the country, thousands of protesters and victims of the violence have turned out to criticize the government for failing to solve the murders and kidnappings. At least 98 percent of these crimes are never solved, according to the government’s own figures.

Without a functioning judicial system and corrupted law enforcement agencies, Calderon’s military offensive against drug dealers has created chaos. The violence has spiraled into a low intensity civil war engulfing Mexico. Last year 160,000 were displaced from their homes because of the violence and another 220,000 are estimated to have left Ciudad Juarez in the last three years — at least half of them to the United States. Estimates of the dead range anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 since the conflict began in 2006 and at least 10,000 are estimated to have been kidnapped, their bodies never recovered.

“We are at the point of losing the country. It’s not an abstraction but a reality…,” Sicilia wrote recently in Proceso, a national news magazine in Mexico. To raise awareness about the dire circumstances in his country, Sicilia and the Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity are now touring the United States and are holding speaking events this week in Texas. The peace caravan arrived in El Paso today and will be in Laredo the 22nd followed by McAllen the 23rd, San Antonio the 24th, Austin the 25th and Houston on Sunday the 26th.

Sicilia will be traveling with at least 40 other protesters who have lost family members to the violence in Mexico. Hundreds more protesters and supporters are expected to turn out for the event in front of the Texas Capitol Saturday beginning at noon. The group wants to raise awareness about U.S. policies that are spurring the violence in Mexico and what both countries can do to stop the killing.

Sicilia’s cousin, Maribel Zardain, who lives near Austin, says that the Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity is nonpolitical and comprised of people from “many walks of life.”

“He is a pacifist leader,” she says of her cousin. “He doesn’t want vengeance. He wants peace and justice.”

Ana Yañez-Correa, an organizer of the Austin event Saturday says one goal is to “create a space where the victims can be heard.” She hopes the event will raise awareness about U.S. policies that have negative consequences in Mexico. “The United States is the number one provider of arms to Mexico,” she says. “We need to stop drug consumption here and stop the corruption of officials which makes narcotrafficking so much easier.”

The problems are multifaceted, she says. “We need to use many different approaches to address the war on drugs.”

The Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity began its U.S. tour on August 12 in San Diego, California, and it will end in Washington D.C. on September 12. Along the way the caravan of buses and cars will stop at more than 27 cities to try and raise awareness in a country that has an oversized influence on its neighbor to the south. “The United States is such a big country,” says Zardain, Sicilia’s cousin. “I don’t think people here know very much about what’s happening to us in Mexico. He is just trying to create a dialogue and hopefully a bilateral agreement that we cannot continue this way. We have to find peace.”

The Austin event will take place Saturday, August 25, and start at noon and end at 3:00 p.m. It will be held at the south steps of the Texas Capitol. Austin singer/songwriter Gina Chavez will perform at noon followed by a legislative resolution and multiple speakers from the Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity. For more information or to volunteer contact Jane Ehinmoro at [email protected]
Learn more about the Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity.

Sponsors of the Austin event include The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, MORENA Austin, St. James’ Episcopal Church, Texas NORML, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, SOA Watch Austin, Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the human rights nonprofit Global Exchange.

UTMB Children's Hospital in Galveston, TX.

For nearly a century, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston was proof that the Texas health care system had a heart. UTMB, a state-subsidized nonprofit teaching hospital, treated uninsured, chronically ill Texans who had nowhere else to go.

Those halcyon days are over. In 2011, UTMB denied 91 percent of uninsured Texans seeking medical care, according to a new report from a nonprofit coalition advocating for Galveston County’s uninsured residents. That’s a sharp increase; in 2005, UTMB turned away just 35 percent of uninsured people seeking care.

Dr. Merle Lenihan, a coordinator with the Galveston County Free Care Monitoring Project, which co-authored the study, says UTMB acts these days more like a corporate for-profit hospital, except that “for-profit hospitals pay taxes.”

UTMB is not a corporate, for-profit hospital. It’s a tax-exempt public hospital that received $204.2 million in taxpayer funds and $8.4 million from the state indigent care fund last year. Yet UTMB spent just 3.3 percent of its revenue in 2010 on charity care, according to the new report co-authored by Dr. Lenihan’s group and Gulf Coast Interfaith, a nonprofit affiliation of faith-based and community organizations. Other public hospitals in Texas on average spent about 14 percent of revenues on charity care, while for-profits spend about 2 percent annually.

UTMB has treated fewer and fewer of Galveston’s uninsured residents since Hurricane Ike ravaged the town in 2008. Now, many ER patients are shunted to Mainland Medical Center in Texas City, a 30-minute drive from the island.

Part of the problem is a stalemate between Galveston’s county commissioners and UTMB officials over the county’s indigent health program. Neither can agree on a contract to cover the uninsured. In 2009, commissioners imposed a tax that locals refer to as the “UTMB tax” to pay for uninsured patients. The tax raised $11 million; $8 million has yet to be spent.

A spokesman for UTMB told a Houston Chronicle reporter that Galveston County officials had asked UTMB to turn Galveston residents away. The county’s health district spokesman said they’d done no such thing.

Meanwhile, uninsured patients are desperate to find any hospital that will take them, says Dr. Lenihan. “It’s a very haphazard system that’s in place,” she said. “The result is a lot of unnecessary suffering.”

Photo by Jen Reel
Members of the HRT from L to R: George Antuna, George P. Bush, Juan Hernandez, Juan Roberto Hernandez

Texas Republican political consultant Juan Hernandez is calling the July 31st runoff a “great moment for the Hispanic Republicans of Texas.”

Hispanic Republicans of Texas, founded by George P. Bush, business man George Antuna and Hernandez poured considerable time and money into several Hispanic Republican candidates in the runoff election. It seems to have paid off with wins by Ted Cruz, and state House candidates J.M. Lozano and Jason Villalba.

“This proves that Hispanics have a future in Republican politics,” Hernandez says.

For years it’s been an accepted wisdom that Hispanic surnames don’t win in Republican primaries in Texas. In 2010, incumbent Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo famously lost the Republican primary to an unknown candidate named David Porter. Afterward, Carrillo said his Hispanic surname had been a “serious setback.”

Hernandez sees the wins last night as a sign that the times are changing for the Republican Party in Texas. And it could be that younger Republicans really don’t care what a candidate’s surname is.

Take Cruz for instance. His win in the closely fought, expensive race for the U.S. Senate against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was a shocker for some. But according to an analysis piece today by political consultant Jason Stanford there’s a generation gap when it comes to Republicans supporting Hispanic candidates especially in a run off in which voters are better informed and hyper partisan.

Stanford writes, “Polling showed that Dewhurst did have a solid base among elderly Republicans. Voters above 75 years of age were ‘solidly with Dew’ while Republicans ‘55 and younger are absolutely and outrageously with Cruz,’ said Perkins. ‘There was clearly a generational gap.’”

But Trey Newton, director of HRT,  says he doesn’t think it’s so much a generational division as it is a case for better informed, energized Republican voters who turn out for runoff elections. “Yesterday proves that Republicans vote for the best candidate regardless of the surname,” he says.

Newton pointed to Jason Villalba’s win in the runoff for House district 114 in north Dallas. “The voters there are mostly Anglo and older, yet they supported Villalba,” he says.

Since 2010, HRT has been working to recruit Hispanics to run in Republican races. Last year, I wrote a feature about HRT and one of its principal founders Juan Hernandez and their efforts to recruit, advise and raise funds for Hispanic candidates.

It was HRT that convinced J.M Lozano to switch from a Democrat to Republican last year. They also recruited Jason Villalba to run for State Rep. In 2010, the group also met with Ted Cruz. “George P. Bush goes way back with Ted Cruz,” Newton says. “We connected him with our network of contributors.”

Newton says the hard work is paying off. “J.M. Lozano won in a rural, largely Hispanic district while Villalba won in a mostly Anglo district,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you are Republican values are Hispanic values.”

Last month, Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar joined Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas for a demonstration of a ShadowHawk drone at a Laredo fire training facility.

The drone, a 50 pound helicopter about seven feet long — operated remotely from a laptop and steered by a joystick — whirred above the elected officials. The unmanned helicopter can fly up to 50 miles per hour and hover at 700 feet taking video or infrared pictures.

This would be the same drone purchased by the Montgomery County sheriff’s office last year. The Conroe-based defense contractor Vanguard Defense Industries is making a push to sell the drones domestically to law enforcement.

The demonstration was at the behest of the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Martin Cuellar is the brother of Congressman Cuellar. And Congressman Cuellar is a big proponent of drones. He’s co-chair of the House Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, formed in 2009 by Republican California Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon.

The mission of the caucus according to their web site is to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”

Not surprisingly, the drone industry is a big fan of the caucus. The industry’s trade association the AUVSI worked with the caucus last year to hold a drone fair and it sponsored a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Action Day on Capitol Hill.

The drone industry also generously supports the caucus members. During the 2010 election cycle drone-related PACs donated more than $1.7 million to caucus members. From 2011 to 2012, Congressman Cuellar received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions by defense companies working on drones.

For a cash-strapped law enforcement agency, Vanguard’s drone copter doesn’t come cheap. It costs at least $340,000, according to the company’s CEO. Luckily, the federal government in many cases is willing to pick up the tab through homeland security funding. The feds paid for Montgomery County’s copter drone last year, which cost around $300,000.

Local sheriffs can apply for funding under a program called Operation Stonegarden which has the amorphous purpose of “enhancing coordination among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to secure the borders with Mexico, Canada, and international waters,” according to the DHS web site.

After the drone copter demonstration Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas said his city was interested in the technology but the feds would have to pick up the tab. “If they are committing to making the border safer…then show us the money,” Salinas told Laredo’s Pro8 News.

Not to worry Congressman Cuellar said. “I think we can. There is some money called Operation Stonegarden that the sheriff’s office gets and the mayor and I are talking about approaching the sheriff to ask whether maybe the city and county could use this money together jointly.”

The ShadowHawk Drone Copter.

Last month, Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar joined Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas for a demonstration of a ShadowHawk drone at a Laredo firefighters’ training facility.

The drone, a 50-pound helicopter about seven feet long, whirred above the elected officials—operated remotely from a laptop and steered by a joystick. The unmanned helicopter can fly up to 50 miles per hour and hover at 700 feet taking video or infrared pictures.

It’s the same drone the Montgomery County sheriff’s office purchased last year, built by the Conroe-based defense contractor Vanguard Defense Industries, which is making a push to sell the drones to domestic law enforcement.

The meeting in Laredo was put together by the sheriff’s office, where Sheriff Martin Cuellar also happens to be Congressman Henry Cuellar’s brother. Congressman Cuellar is a big proponent of drones, and co-chairs the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, which formed in 2009.

The mission of the “drone caucus,” according to its website, is to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”

Not surprisingly, the drone industry is a big fan of the caucus. The industry’s trade association, the AUVSI, worked with the caucus last year to hold a drone fair and sponsored an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Action Day on Capitol Hill.

The drone industry also generously supports the caucus members. During the 2010 election cycle drone-related PACs donated more than $1.7 million to caucus members. From 2011 to 2012, Congressman Cuellar received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from defense companies working on drones.

Vanguard’s drone copter doesn’t come cheap for a cash-strapped law enforcement agency. It costs at least $340,000, according to the company’s CEO. But in many cases, the federal government is willing to pick up the tab through homeland security funding. The feds paid for Montgomery County’s copter drone last year, which cost around $300,00.

Local sheriffs can apply for funding under a program called Operation Stonegarden which has the amorphous purpose of “enhancing coordination among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to secure the borders with Mexico, Canada, and international waters,” according to the DHS website.

After the drone copter demonstration, Mayor Salinas said Laredo was interested in the technology but the feds would have to pick up the tab. “If they are committing to making the border safer…then show us the money,” Salinas told Laredo’s Pro 8 News.

Not to worry, Congressman Cuellar told the station. “I think we can.” It can’t hurt that his brother, the sheriff, is eligible to apply for Operation Stonegarden funding. “The mayor and I are talking about approaching the sheriff to ask whether maybe the city and county could use this money together jointly,” Cuellar said.

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.

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