La Linea

The Bremerhaven Theater's Sign Asking for Donations to Pay Roldofo's Kidnappers

Rodolfo Cazares, 36, had an up and coming career in Europe as an orchestra conductor. He served as orchestra director for the Vienna Conservatory from 2002 to 2007. Then in 2008 he moved to the German port city of Bremerhaven and became conductor of the city’s municipal symphony.

In July 2011, he went home to Matamoros, Mexico, just like in previous years, to visit his family. He traveled there with his wife Ludivine Cazares, 32, a French citizen, and her parents. In the early morning hours of July 9, eight armed men broke into his parent’s home. “They threatened us with Kalashnikovs. We were bound, we were blindfolded,” Ludivine Cazares told the German publication Bild. The family was forced into a car. Her mother was pushed into the trunk, she says. “We were barefoot and in our pajamas. It was like a bad dream. We were shocked. My mother had to lie down in the trunk. As she stretched out her arms, she felt corpses in plastic bags,” she told Bild.

The gunmen drove around Matamoros picking up 18 family members that night at various homes across the city, according to the The Wall Street Journal, which reported on the kidnapping in late February. “After taking valuables from the house, the men then bundled the eight family members into the family Suburban and drove off, even stopping to fill up for gasoline at a station where the attendants saw a car filled with tied-up passengers but were too scared to act.”

The gang, who were dressed in military fatigues and tennis shoes, then questioned Rodolfo’s father about his relatives, and within two hours had turned up at the house of Rodolfo’s uncle. “There they abducted four people, including a 10-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl. Within minutes, they arrived at yet another relative’s house, and seized six more family members, including two girls aged 13 and 17,” according to the Journal.

The family was held hostage in a safehouse with armed guards. The windows were covered. After two and a half days the family was released, with the exception of Rodolfo and three other male family members. “When the hijackers released me, I said goodbye to Rodolfo. I was sure that I would see him again,” Ludivine Cazares told Bild. But she never saw her husband again. Seven months have passed. The family finally decided to speak out last month in the media after paying ransoms on four separate occasions. Rodolfo still has not been released.

Rodolfo’s kidnapping case strikes me as very similar to the one I wrote about in my November 2011 story “No Safe Place.” In the story, Carlos, a businessman in Matamoros, was kidnapped and held for several weeks while his kidnappers drained his family of every possession they owned including his business, cars, jewelry and finally the title to his home. In Carlos’ case, the police were working in tandem with the kidnappers so there was nowhere for the family to turn for help.

The biggest difference with this case is the amount of time that Rodolfo’s kidnappers have held the conductor. The family has already paid four ransoms to Rodolfo’s captors and appealed to local, state and federal authorities in Mexico with no success. After keeping silent for several months, Rodolfo’s family is now going public with the kidnapping. The case has become well known in Germany where the arts community is helping the family raise more money to pay the kidnappers. After seven months Rodolfo’s friends and family still have hope that he is alive.


Read more about Rodolfo on a Facebook page created by his friends.

* Here is a You Tube clip of the Bremerhaven Theater’s version of the opera Tosca, which Rodolfo Cazares helped direct. In hindsight, the imagery of bound and blindfolded men in the opera is chilling.

U.S. Border Patrol in Montana

A few days ago I wrote a blog about life along the border since 9/11, calling it a “Constitution-free zone”—a term coined by the ACLU. Life in the “Zone”—defined as a 100-mile wide area that wraps around the external boundary of the United States—is like living in an occupied zone, border residents tell me. Where the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects Americans from arbitrary stops and searches, doesn’t always apply.

Unfortunately, the voices of residents living along the international borders seldom penetrate the Washington echo chamber. Today, in Detroit, more than 100 delegates from the northern and southern borders are meeting to “form a national picture of what’s happening along the border,” according to Ryan Bates, an organizer for the newly formed Northern Border Coalition. The goal of the two-day conference, which began February 23, is to hammer out a political strategy so that border residents can lobby Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to rein in U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents whom they say are out of control.

As the number of Border Patrol agents has skyrocketed, so has the confusion about their role in border communities. Residents are unsure of their rights when border agents stop them. Lawyer Ben Winograd, a staff attorney with the American Immigration Council in Washington D.C. wanted to clarify in an email the notion of a “Constitution-free zone” I’d written about in my previous blog.

When the ACLU said “authorities do not need a warrant or probable cause to conduct a ‘routine search,’” they were referring to searches at the border itself, i.e., at ports of entry into the United States.  They were not referring to searches conducted within 100 miles from the border, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly held must be accompanied by a warrant or probable cause.   In truth, the 100-mile zone represents a limit on – not an expansion of – the authority of Border Patrol agents to search for undocumented immigrants.

The council wrote up a legal fact sheet, especially for the border conference today about what U.S. Border Patrol agents can and cannot do. Melissa Crow, director of the Legal Action Center with the American Immigration Council, is attending the conference today and gave a talk on “Civil Rights 101.” She also toured the Michigan-Canada border early Friday morning with a group of conference attendees where they met border residents. “We heard some horrific stories about U.S. Border Patrol agents stopping U.S. citizens because they looked foreign,” she says “I wasn’t aware that the use of racial profiling was so extreme.”

Christian Ramirez, a delegate from the Southern Border coalition, who is based in San Diego, said that northern border residents are just now dealing with issues such as racial profiling that the southern border has been experiencing for years. “We heard testimony about racial profiling and agents taking people off trains and questioning them because they looked Muslim or Latino. The most shocking testimony was Border Patrol agents staffing the 9-1-1 call center in Washington State and responding to calls.”

Ryan Bates, one of the conference organizers, said there’s no reason why U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents shouldn’t be held to the same standards as local law enforcement. “The agency is utterly opaque,” he says. “Records are not accessible. They don’t even have dashboard cams like police officers do. They should be protecting us from terrorists but instead they’re harassing people at food pantries.”

Residents along the border are as patriotic as any American and support a secure border, but they don’t want to give up their personal liberties or constitutional rights. I hear this often as I report stories up and down the Texas-Mexico border. The checkpoints, the random searches, the Border Patrol agents camped out on private property, not to mention the unmanned drone surveillance, has border residents wondering whether they really still live in the United States.

Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Border Patrol agents at a Detroit Bus Station

Since 9/11 I’ve noticed a recurring theme in the discussions I’ve had with people up and down the Texas-Mexico border.

The conversations go something like this “I’ve lived here for 50 years but every few months our town gets some new Border Patrol agents coming in who pull me over, search my car and put the drug sniffing dogs through my car. They treat me like I’m a criminal in my own hometown.”

One longtime border resident recently described an incident to me after he passed through the Sierra Blanca immigration checkpoint east of El Paso. He said he was sent to secondary inspection where he was surrounded by seven Border Patrol agents. The agents put a drug-sniffing dog in his car. “One of the agents was wound so tight, he had his hand on his gun and I told the other agents ‘get this guy away from me. He’s wound too tight. He’s going to shoot someone’.”

None of these residents is against having border agents in their towns. Border Patrol has been a part of border life for decades. Prior to 9/11, many agents were recruited from border communities and had deep roots in the region. The push after 9/11, however, to vastly increase the number of agents meant the federal government would have to recruit from outside the border regions.

Since 2000, the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled along the southern border from 8,580 agents to 20,119 agents by 2009. The northern border saw a similar increase from 300 agents to 2,069 agents during the same time period.

The Border Patrol’s high 10 percent attrition rate means that agents cycle in and out of border communities. They often view living in the region as a hardship. The massive increase in agents is amplified in border communities by a growing militarization along the border. In Washington D.C., politicians relentlessly call for more “boots on the ground” and unmanned drones. Texas Ag Commissioner Todd Staples — a hopeful for the Lt. Governor’s race in 2014 — even commissioned two retired Army generals to do a strategic military assessment of the U.S.-Mexico border. The assessment recommended turning border counties into “sanitary tactical zones.” And then there’s the 700 mile-long border wall running through people’s backyards on the southern border.

In short, what people tell me is that living along our nation’s borders these days is somewhat like living in an occupied zone. It’s not so much like the United States anymore as a grey area, a liminal space that the ACLU has dubbed the “Constitution-Free Zone.” This is a 100-mile wide zone that wraps around the external boundary of the United States. In the border zone, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects Americans from arbitrary stops and searches, does not apply, according to the ACLU. “Authorities do not need a warrant or probable cause to conduct a ‘routine search’,” says the group.

Turns out the northern border has similar complaints about the behavior of Border Patrol agents in their communities. They are forming a coalition to do something about it. In September, community and immigration rights advocates in the northern border states formed the Northern Border Coalition. Recently, they submitted a petition to Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection, asking that the federal agency:

 “…Take steps to ensure that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) exercise its discretion in a manner that is consistent with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) enforcement priorities and which meets constitutional safeguards. As funding for CBP has soared, the agency’s enforcement activity has drifted inland, often times many miles from the border or any point of entry. As this enforcement activity within 100 miles of the border has increased, so too have questionable practices that violate constitutional rights and standards. Such enforcement tactics do little to protect the border, and worse, they threaten constitutional protections that apply to citizens and immigrants alike, by inviting racial profiling, tearing apart families and burdening taxpayers with the cost ofdetaining individuals who pose no threat to our national security.”

Ruth Lopez, spokesperson for the coalition, says the goal is to get U.S. Customs and Border Protection to listen to border communities. “We want to create a unified plan and find ways to engage with CBP and have a conversation about what’s going on in our communities,” she says. Lopez cites many cases where it appears border agents have targeted people for searches and interrogations based on their race or religion, especially Muslims. The number of deaths perpetrated by Border Patrol agents against civilians also increased by 150 percent between 2008 to 2010 (the most current government data available). In 2010, agents killed five people and wounded eight. While in 2009, two people were killed and 11 wounded. In 2008, one person was killed and six wounded.

Lopez says it’s not uncommon for Border Patrol to respond to 9-1-1 calls alongside local law enforcement, engendering fear and sometimes anger among border community residents. She cites as an example a family birthday party in Nooksack, Washington, in 2011. A little girl had fallen in the driveway. Her mother called 9-1-1 asking for an ambulance. An ambulance, firefighters, the sheriff, and Border Patrol responded. While paramedics treated the girl, the border agents walked around the party asking people for their names and personal information.

Next week, the coalition will have its first conference in Detroit, Michigan, and on February 28th a “We are the Border” National Day of Action to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Alex Martinez, a U.S. citizen in Washington State who was shot and killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents and local law enforcement.

The southern border isn’t far behind in organizing its own coalition, Lopez says. A Southern Border Coalition is also being formed in San Diego, California. Delegates from the southern border will be in Detroit next week to swap notes and join the call to protect the individual liberties and rights of border residents. Let’s hope Washington D.C. will listen.


In Mexico, President Calderon’s drug war rhetoric is starting to sound like sheer lunacy as a mounting pile of evidence shows that the country’s military are killing civilians. A Human Rights Watch report released in November listed more than 200 investigated cases of soldiers killing, torturing and kidnapping civilians. The report, which took two years to complete, was extensive and damning to Calderon’s repeated stance that the biggest threat to citizens “is from criminals, not the government,” and that “criminals constitute more than 90 percent of the drug war’s death toll.”

After five years of fighting the drug cartels with the military, a troubling pattern has emerged of Mexican military forces committing crimes as terrible as those of the criminals they are supposed to be defeating. Yet, Calderon’s government has failed to punish military officials or soldiers charged with committing atrocities against innocent civilians. In the same Human Rights Watch report, the authors note that military prosecutors have only convicted 15 soldiers, out of 3,671 investigations from 2007 to June 2011.

Now we have yet another report of military atrocities out of Ojinaga – a small Mexican border community across from Presidio in the Big Bend region. This time, however, General Manuel de Jesus Moreno Avina and 29 soldiers under his command are being tried for several crimes including torture, homicide, and drug trafficking.

The Mexican newspaper Reforma first reported the case after gaining access to some of the soldiers’ court testimonies. According to the newspaper, at least 10 civilians were killed by soldiers or hit men under Moreno’s orders in 2008 and 2009.

Reforma and the Associated Press report that among General Moreno’s alleged victims was Patricia Gardea Gonzalez, a secretary at the federal prosecutors’ office in Ojinaga; a state police officer; a local police officer who stopped Moreno for speeding and driving while drunk; and a businessman who filed a complaint with federal prosecutors and human rights officials after soldiers ransacked his home and stole money.

The good news is that unlike many generals who have never been held accountable for their abuses, General Moreno and his soldiers will be tried for their alleged crimes. This is a step in the right direction. The bad news, however, is that the trial will be in military court, which has shown to be ineffective in the past. Legal experts and human rights advocates have long argued that soldiers who commit human rights violations should be tried in civilian courts. Last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court agreed by issuing a historic ruling that soldiers be tried in civilian courts. Yet, it still hasn’t been implemented. Until the military is held accountable for its abuses Mexico will continue to be plagued by historic levels of violence. Criminals aren’t the only ones who need to be brought to justice. So do government officials who betrayed the honest citizens of Mexico.

General Caldwell at the Fort Sam Houston Ceremony

Last week I made the short journey down to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to see Lt. Gen. William Caldwell officially take control of U.S. Army North, a subsidiary of U.S. Northern Command, which has been training Mexico’s armed forces in the drug war, especially Mexico’s navy which has been favored by U.S. officials because it’s seen as less corrupt than the army.

Caldwell has spent the last two years in Afghanistan with NATO training the Afghan national security forces. Prior to Afghanistan, he was the Commanding General for the US Army Combined Arms Center and responsible for the training and education of the Army’s 18 schools, centers and training programs.

So he knows a thing or two about training security forces. He’s also young, ambitious and well respected inside and outside the Beltway. I see his appointment to Army North as a sign that the United States is ramping up its involvement in Mexico. And I was hoping to get a word with the general about my hunch about the expanding role of Army North in Mexico and how he would apply what he learned in Afghanistan.

At the ceremony, cannons boomed. Fort Sam’s resident peacocks squawked in protest. Afterwards, Caldwell’s young sons were presented with “Texas knives” and his wife and daughters got flowers. 

The general takes up his post during a very difficult and rapidly changing landscape in Mexico’s drug war. In the final lame duck year of Calderon’s administration, the chaos created by Mexico’s militarization strategy continues to spread into new territories of the country. The Mexican government, much like the U.S. government, appears to be at a standstill as the presidential elections heat up. Nevertheless, the U.S. military/industrial complex moves at its own steady pace getting further entrenched in Mexico like an iceberg moving under its own unstoppable girth.

At the ceremony for Caldwell, three Mexican generals were in attendance including Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos an envoy for SEDENA, Mexico’s Ministry of Defense.

During the ceremony Caldwell addressed the generals directly: “To the Mexican delegation … This command will continue its unwavering resolve in our mutual fight against Trans-national Criminal Organizations and I personally look forward to getting to Mexico City and building upon our trusted relationship.”

Hmm…that was about as far as I got on my quest for information. I was informed that the Mexican generals would not be available to speak to reporters. But I was promised a few moments with Caldwell. Then that too was scotched. After the ceremony, Caldwell with family in tow was spirited away to a tent where a private party was taking place before I could corner him. Reporters, I was informed were not allowed in the tent.

Such is life. I’ll have to save my questions for another day. I did overhear that Caldwell already has Army North working much harder than in the past. They had 60 meetings in the last year with Mexican military officials. Last month, I wrote about a heavily guarded convoy in downtown Matamoros that caused a stir along the border. It was U.S. military officials and Department of Homeland Security officials on their way to meet with their Mexican counterparts about the ongoing security crisis.

Even more of these meetings will be scheduled for 2012.

But just as I thought I was on to something, it could be that I’m looking in the wrong direction. The BBC’s Spanish language edition reports this week that the Pentagon wants to outsource more of its drug war duties to private security firms such as Blackwater, now called Academi ( and headed by none other than former U.S. Attorney General John “Let the Eagles Soar” Ashcroft), as well as Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

The “no bid” contracts are issued through the Pentagon’s Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office a murky government shop, started back in 1995, that outsources global counternarcotics and counterterrorism duties to private firms.

In 2009, Blackwater received a $1 billion contract to train Afghanistan’s police, which had been formely handled by the U.S. State Department. This was the same year Caldwell started training Afghan security forces for NATO. According to Spencer Ackerman at Wired magazine, “CNTPO received the funding and chose Blackwater for the contract, even though Blackwater guards in Afghanistan on a different contract stole hundreds of guns intended for those very Afghan cops.”

So perhaps Army North’s duties are going to be increasingly parceled out to private firms. In order for the United States to police the world it takes a lot of cash and a lot of boots on the ground. Sometimes those boots aren’t military issued. So, as we’ve seen since the days of President George W., the U.S. military force has increasingly become a murky, opaque mixture of mercenaries, trained military and private contractors.

Outsourcing allows the Pentagon to move its growing drug war expenses off its books and in to the nether regions of private contracting.They surreptitiously want to reduce the anti-drug budget by transferring it to private agencies,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in the BBC report. “The drug war is unpopular and has no political weight except in an election year like this, so the Department of Defense wants to remove that spending from their accounts.”

Bruce Bagley, head of International Studies at the University of Miami, warns in the BBC report that the whole outsourcing idea is really a bad idea. A lesson the U.S. government has had ample time to learn over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Here we enter a vague area where the rules of engagement are not clear and there is almost zero accountability to the public or the electorate,” he says. Not to mention a violation of national sovereignty that could “generate a nationalist backlash if the public realizes what is happening.”

Outsourcing the drug war. What could go wrong? I am reminded again of the oft quoted line from Albert Einstein about the definition of insanity: repeating the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results.

A Little Immigration Fix that Makes a Big Difference

New Rule Will Relieve the Suffering of Mixed Citizenship Families
Photo by Eugenio del Bosque
A Memorial in Reynosa to Migrants who Died in the Rio Grande

I never thought I’d have the pleasure of writing this, but the Obama Administration proposed an immigration rule change Friday that will relieve the suffering of hundreds of thousands of families with mixed citizenship in the United States. The impact will especially be felt along the U.S.-Mexico border where a large number of mixed citizenship families reside.

Since stiffer immigration laws passed in 1996, undocumented spouses or children of U.S. citizens can’t become legal residents — and eventually U.S. citizens — without leaving the country first to petition for a waiver from a three-to-10-year ban on entering the country.

The length of the ban depends on how long they’ve resided in the United States without legal entry documents.

Many times reentry into the United States is denied anyway. People waiting for their paperwork to be processed in places like Ciudad Juarez—where most Mexican immigration cases are processed—have been plunged into nightmare scenarios of extortions and kidnappings in the violent city. In other cases, families have filed for bankruptcy after a spouse has had to move back to his or her home country, or they’ve endured medical crises while separated.

David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, calls the current process “A bizarre Catch-22. Undocumented spouses are eligible for legal status, but if they leave the country to apply for it they are barred from reentry to the United States.”

So, most families never go as far as applying to fix a spouse or child’s legal status once they hear it will mean being separated for years. And even if they do go overseas, they might be barred from coming back.

Now the new rule will allow families to petition for the waiver while residing in the United States. As before, only those who do not have criminal records can obtain the waiver. They must also prove that their absence will create an “extreme hardship” for their citizen spouse or parent. Then they can return to their home countries to apply for their visas, which should only take weeks instead of years. And they won’t risk being denied reentry into the United States.

Eleanor Pelta, the current president of AILA, called the change “smart enforcement” in a press statement.

“It’s a move that will be less destructive to families and bring about a fairer and more streamlined waiver process. Right now people who have accumulated unlawful presence in the U.S. who leave the country to apply for a green card have to wait abroad, often for months or years,” Pelta said.

“This adjustment to the rule is important because it will literally save lives. Unfortunately, most waiver applications are filed in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border, an extremely dangerous city these days, and more than one applicant has been murdered or seriously harmed while waiting there.”

Hopefully, it will bring many families out of the shadows. I think of one 16-year-old teenager I met in Reynosa in 2010 while reporting my story on unaccompanied minors. Pedro was living at a government shelter in the border town trying to get back to his family on the U.S. side of the river. He’d endured intimidation from drug gangs, a near drowning in the Rio Grande and had already depleted his family’s savings paying smugglers. His family lived just 35 miles away in Harlingen but it seemed like another world.

His stepfather was a U.S. citizen but his mother didn’t file for legal residency because she would have to return to Mexico and more than likely be barred from re-entry and her other children. And so his family was trapped. If this rule had been enacted years ago, Pedro would never have found himself desperate and alone in a Reynosa immigrant shelter. He would have been a high school student living in Harlingen with his family. He more than likely would have been a legal resident. I don’t know if Pedro ever made it home, but I hope he did. Ultimately, this simple rule change will be about saving lives, literally.

Photo by GT Distributors, Inc.
Two of the machine guns on a DPS gun boat

In early December, the Texas Department of Public Safety unveiled its new armored gun boats. The fact that DPS now has a tactical marine unit received scant news coverage. There was also little mention that each boat is equipped with anwhere from four to six machine guns. That’s right, one or two machine guns just doesn’t cut it for DPS when it comes to fighting the “War on Drugs.”

If you’re curious, that’s two machine guns on each side of the boat. Then another gun positioned in the front and one in the back. Not bad if you’re patrolling the Suez Canal for Somali pirates. But these are for the Rio Grande, according to DPS spokesperson Tom Vinger. The boats will also be used to patrol Falcon Lake – where David Hartley was allegedly killed last year by drug smugglers — and the coast of Texas.

The Rio Grande is already patrolled by Border Patrol boats, agents in vehicles, predator drones and helicopters and aircraft operated by the Department of Defense. On the coast there’s also the U.S. Coast Guard making the rounds. But now we’ve got six heavily armed DPS gun boats that will also be out there patrolling.

DPS is in the process of training 40 cadets that will operate these armored gun boats, which are scheduled to be launched in early 2012. Let’s hope they don’t have itchy trigger fingers. Why DPS has launched its own marine tactical unit has not been fully explained. In a press statement from DPS, the agency says that drug cartel operatives have unlimited resources to buy weaponry. “Officers have been fired upon by cartels while trying to interdict drug loads along the Texas-Mexico border,” writes DPS. “Our marine assists will be used to protect the citizens of Texas and law enforcement personnel. We want our personnel to have the protection they need to come home safe after each mission.”

Steve McCraw, director of DPS told the media during a photo op in early December that the boats will be used to seize drugs and immigrants.

“It is fully capable of taking whatever threats they’ll encounter. And there will be a full spectrum of threats, because we will be using this as an interdiction tool. The cartels continue to exploit, move ton quantities of drugs or humans across that river and those waterways. We need to be able to interdict those,” McCraw told KXAN news.

So, is DPS going to start blazing away at women and children crossing illegally on inner tubes? Do they need six machine guns to nail some dope smugglers crossing kilos of marijuana? Also, the area of Falcon Lake where David Hartley was allegedly killed was on the Mexican side of Falcon lake. DPS can’t patrol in Mexico.

Ah, but who cares — have you seen the bad-ass machine guns?

DPS isn’t the only law enforcement agency going Rambo on military-grade gear. The militarization is part of a worrying trend that took off after 9-11. Since then the military industrial complex has supersized. It’s estimated that the homeland security market for state and local agencies will reach $19.2 billion by 2014, up from approximately $15.8 billion in 2009, according to a recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Nevermind that public schools are laying off teachers and renting out the sides of school buses for corporate ads to pay for bus routes, yet DPS has enough in its government coffers to fund not just one $580,000 armored boat with machine guns – but six. The boats were paid for with federal and state Department of Homeland Security money.

This blurring between military and law enforcement can only signal trouble for our democracy. The Montgomery County sheriff’s office now owns a $300,000 drone — the kind used by the military to hunt Al-Qaeda. It’s not uncommon for Texas police departments to own armored personnel carriers and military grade tactical gear. On the first day of the Occupy protests in Austin, SWAT team operatives in army green uniforms ringed the buildings looking down on protesters as they congregated at city hall. They scanned the crowd with binoculars. I thought they were National Guard soldiers but it turned out they belonged to the Austin Police Department. It felt like we were in a Third World country.

It used to be that the mission of law enforcement was to prevent and solve crimes. The military’s mission was to fight the foreign enemy on the battlefield. But now the two have become dangerously muddled. Who is the enemy and what exactly is the mission? DPS’ mounted machine guns and armored boats are something more akin to weaponry used by the U.S. Navy not civilian law enforcement. Armed soldiers fighting the “War on Drugs” have already proved disastrous even lethal.  More than a decade ago the U.S. government suspended armed military from operating along the Rio Grande after the death of 18-year old Esequiel Hernandez in 1997 in Redford, Texas. The high school student was shot and killed just a few meters from his house by a U.S. Marine who was part of a covert group monitoring drug smuggling in the region. The U.S. government ended up paying a $1.9 million settlement for a tragedy that could have been prevented and the Hernandez family lost their son.

Will we have to learn the same lesson all over again?

News Wednesday evening that U.S. military officials had arrived in Matamoros went viral over Twitter and other social media sites along the Mexican border and by Thursday morning Mexicans were talking of an U.S. invasion.

Video footage filmed by Univision’s Brownsville affiliate, KNVO-TV 48, showed a convoy of Mexican military trucks escorting armored SUVs through the streets of Matamoros in the early morning hours. An U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter hovered overhead as the convoy sped through downtown Matamoros.

The city of Matamoros has been under siege since 2010 when the Zeta Cartel officially declared war with its former ally the Gulf Cartel, which has long controlled the smuggling territory from Matamoros to Reynosa.

Was this meeting of U.S. and Mexican military officials a new twist in the increasingly disastrous and bloody drug war, which has already killed upwards of 50,000 people?

With the 2012 elections nearing and Mexico’s drug war worsening, U.S. politicians have been advocating for a deeper involvement in Mexico’s military campaign. Republican candidates like Rick Perry have advocated for a military intervention in Mexico. Congressional Republicans such as Texas’ Mike McCaul and Florida’s Connie Mack have been lobbying heavily to label narcotraffickers as “narco-terrorists.” Congressman Mack filed a bill in November, HR 3401 called the Enhanced Border Security Act that would replace Plan Merida with, according to the bill’s summary, “counterinsurgency tactics under a coordinated and targeted strategy to combat the terrorist insurgency in Mexico waged by transnational criminal organizations…”

In September, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples released a report written by retired U.S. generals Barry McCaffery and Robert Scales that called for a military intervention on the border.  The “military assessment” refers to drug cartel operatives as “narco-terrorists” and U.S. border counties are referred to as the “sanitary tactical zone” where military operations can push back the “narco-terrorists.”

Local law enforcement agencies along the U.S. border are bulking up with military grade weaponry. DPS recently purchased six armored gun boats. The boats cost $580,000 a pop. Each boat has six mounted machine guns. They look like they should be hunting Somali pirates in the Suez Canal. And don’t forget the drones that the U.S. military is flying over Mexico.

Thursday morning I called Col. Wayne Shanks, Chief of Public Affairs with U.S. Army Northern Command in San Antonio. Shanks said three U.S. military officers and approximately nine U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officials attended the meeting Wednesday at the Mexican Army base in Matamoros.

Shanks said meetings like the one in Matamoros are not new but an ongoing effort to coordinate with Mexico.

“It’s a fairly regular occurrence on both sides of the border,” Shanks said. “What was new was that CBP (Customs and Border Protection) came along.”

Shanks said it was a “coordination meeting to discuss topics of interest between the two parties.” He said he had no further details of the subject matter of the meeting. But he did say that Army North has had 60 meetings in the last year with Mexican military officials. Shanks said even more meetings are scheduled for 2012.

He added that the U.S. military and law enforcement officials were unarmed. “It is up to the host country to provide the security,” he said.

By the looks of the heavily armed convoy of Mexican Army humvees and armored SUVs, Mexico wasn’t taking any chances with its invited guests. Neither was the United States, with a Dept. of Homeland Security helicopter flying overhead in Mexican airspace.

With the security situation worsening in Mexico, Army North seems to be taking a stronger interest in our neighbor to the south. In 2012, U.S. Gen. William Caldwell will take over command of Army North in San Antonio. He’s spent the last two years training Afghan security forces. Caldwell is relatively young and very well respected inside and outside the Beltway.

It doesn’t seem logical that the U.S. Army would send Caldwell to San Antonio unless they had an important operation for him to command. Northern Command has already been tasked with training Mexican security forces for the past three years. With Caldwell in charge the question is will U.S. Northcom ramp up its efforts in Mexico? Anybody vaguely familiar with U.S.-Mexico relations knows that no Mexican politician who wants to win an election would ever allow armed and uniformed U.S. soldiers onto Mexican territory. But how far will they allow U.S. officials to operate covertly?

Mexico’s security crisis is serious. Local police have long colluded with drug cartels, as have some members of the federal police and the Mexican Army. In many border cities like Matamoros, local police have long worked as enforcers for the cartel.

But what’s ailing Mexico is institutionalized corruption wrought from 71 years of rule under the PRI party – the so-called ‘perfect dictatorship.’ Calderon’s militarization of Mexico has been a disaster. Reports show that soldiers unleashed in Mexican cities have tortured and murdered civilians. Mexico doesn’t need more soldiers; it needs an army of honest judges who will try cases and honest police who will conduct investigations that lead to arrests. And it needs political leaders who don’t collude with drug dealers.

With U.S. Predator drones flying overhead, the recent assignment of the U.S.’ former Deputy Ambassador of Afghanistan to Mexico City and General Caldwell to San Antonio, Mexicans have a right to wonder: what’s the next chapter in Mexico’s drug war? Does the War on Drugs become a counterinsurgency? Does it become Mexistan?

West Texas Man Finally Free after Juarez Prison Ordeal

Shohn Huckabee Returns Home After Two Years
Shohn Huckabee in Juarez

The last time I spoke with 24-year old Shohn Huckabee was June 2011, and he was in a cramped Juarez jail cell waiting for his final appeal to be decided in a federal court in Sinaloa.

Nearly two years earlier, Mexican soldiers had stopped Huckabee and his friend Carlos Quijas as they were driving toward the international bridge to cross back into El Paso. Huckabee had just had his truck repaired in Juarez. The soldiers said Huckabee and Quijas were carrying two suitcases of marijuana in their truck. Huckabee says the Mexican military planted the drugs and then tortured them. The men got five years in jail.

Shohn’s father Kevin had worked tirelessly to prove that his son was innocent. He’d lobbied every government official on both sides of the border and generated international attention on his son’s case in the media.

Kevin would go at least three times a week to visit his son in jail and keep up his spirits, and deliver him food and clean clothes. This was not an easy journey to make during Juarez’s darkest days when the murder rate shot up like mercury in August. The day I visited with Kevin and Shohn in June at the prison, I was impressed with Shohn’s quiet maturity—he seemed a full decade older than his 24 years. 

A few weeks later, Shohn would lose his Mexican federal appeal in Sinaloa. Shortly thereafter, a deadly prison riot erupted in the Juarez jail resulting in the death of 17 inmates. Shohn survived the riot. The Huckabees finally got a break when Shohn was transferred into U.S. custody three months ago. Last Friday he was finally set free. The Department of Justice’s Parole Commission determined that Shohn had been tortured while he was imprisoned. And so his sentence was reduced from five years to time served—26 months.

His friend Quijas has been transferred to La Tuna federal prison in Anthony, Texas. But has yet to be released.

I reached Kevin Huckabee this morning at his home near El Paso. “Life’s not on hold anymore,” he told me. “This will be the first Christmas we’ve had in two years.”

Kevin Huckabee said that they’re not done trying to clear his son’s name. They’re considering taking his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. “Our main interest is to expose the corruption and torture of people incarcerated in Mexico,” he said.

Inmates were frequently tortured and beaten. Kevin said his son witnessed Julian Leyzaola, Juarez’s police chief brutally beat an inmate with a 2-by-4 after the riot in July. Inmates were also beaten by the federal police. At one point, inmates phoned the Chihuahua Human Rights Commission to come and investigate, but the representatives were denied entry to the prison, Kevin said.

The impunity and the brutality inside the prison still haunt Kevin and his son. “So much happened,” he said. “You can’t forget it.”

Life, Death, Twitter

Wikimedia Commons

In the past it might have seemed like an awful prank by an anonymous poster. But since the recent murders of four people in Nuevo Laredo because of their social media use, a threat posted this week on #Reynosafollowa Twitter hashtag used by residents of Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande from McAllencreated a panic.

The message from an anonymous user called @Jarochitoenfugo was chilling.

 Nuestro amgo @theelteto fallecio el dia de hoy, lamentamos su partida fue uno de los mejores tuiteros de #reynosafollow

English translation:

 Our friend @theelteto died today. We lament his parting he was one of the best twitter users on #reynosafollow

Tuiteros, as Twitter users are called in Spanish, began sending a flurry of messages on the #Reynosafollow hashtag: Is @theelteto okay? What happened?

About an hour later @theelteto sent a message that he was indeed alive:


English translation:

Good afternoon to everybody at #Reynosafollow… And all of my hashtag brothers. Thank you for worrying about me.

Just months ago, the death threat would have been viewed as some macabre joke. That was before bodies with messages threatening social media users began to appear in recent months in the city of Nuevo Laredo, which is also in the state of Tamaulipas like Reynosa. The first two social media murders occurred September 13th, when two bodies were found hanging from a bridge. The third murder occurred on September 25th, when the body of a newspaper employee was found decapitated with a message saying that her involvement with a Nuevo Laredo chat room had led to her demise. In early November, another grisly death in Nuevo Laredo was accompanied by a message warning people not to use social media to report drug cartels to the authorities.

In 2010, Tamaulipas began to experience unprecedented levels of violence after the Zetas clashed with the Gulf Cartel over smuggling territories. The Mexican government sent in the military and gun battles in the streets became a common occurrence. Media organizations have been attacked with grenades and reporters killed and kidnapped. Increasingly, Twitter and other social media programs are the only way for citizens to get information about gun battles and other attacks going on in their cities. But now social media users are also being attacked and silenced.

A #Reynosafollow user with the twitter handle @MrCruzStar says people in Reynosa using Twitter to inform the community of gun battles and other crimes never imagined they themselves could be targeted. “I never thought I was in any kind of danger until the reporter and activist was killed in Nuevo Laredo,” he wrote in an email.

Twitter users using the #Reynosafollow hashtag are advised not to use their true identities on Twitter and to mask their IP addresses. @MrCruzStar doesn’t use his real name in his Twitter and Gmail accounts as a security precaution. “Many types of people are monitoring the #Reynosafollow hashtag,” says @MrCruzStar, “Including the narcos, the police and the media.”

In mid-November @MrCruzStar and other Twitter users in Northern Mexico circulated a manifesto online, asking for justice in the murders, and that the Mexican government protect their freedom online. They also asked for help from the international community of journalists and social media users to create an international organization that could function as a watchdog to exert pressure on the Mexican government to investigate the deaths.

“Please don’t leave us alone,” they write in the manifesto. “We need you now more than ever.” The group lists an email [email protected] for anyone interested in helping.

Sergio Chapa, the interactive editor with KGTB 4 news in the Rio Grande Valley, has been following the #Reynosafollow hashtag on Twitter since it first started in February 2010. “The growth has just exploded,” he says. “It’s one of the busiest hashtags in Mexico and it’s really set an example for many other cities in Mexico who now have city-based hashtags such as #Mtyfollow and #Matamoros.”

Since the inception of #Reynosafollow, Chapa says he’s seen leaders emerge such as @MrCruzStar who consistently provide accurate information and remind new users that the Twitter feed is used solely to advise citizens of gunfights in the streets and other dangers in real time. Sometimes cartel members infiltrate the site and insult people or even threaten users as they did earlier this week, Chapa says.“Usually those accounts are shut down fairly rapidly,” he says.

In Reynosa, @MrCruzStar says Mexicans have been abandoned by the media and by local authorities so social media has become one of the only means left to communicate and keep communities safe. “Anonymity and social media are our tools,” he says.

The threat this week against @theelteto, one of the more active members of #Reynosafollow, brought home the danger of the drug war not only in the streets but now also in cyberspace. @MrCruzStar said the group would try and take more precautions to remain absolutely anonymous. “We can’t dismiss it anymore as an idle threat,” he says of the recent death threat. “But we have to continue. We have to keep our virtual community strong because everyone else has abandoned us.”

Last night a gun battle raged in Reynosa for at least three hours. The next day it went unreported in Reynosa’s daily newspapers. #Reynosafollow had it, though—one user even circulated a video.

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