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Author Archives: Lorne Matalon
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—María Isabel Delario is crying. Her body is bent, her face buried in her arms, her hands rest on the metal cast depicting the face of a murdered archbishop, a man nominated for sainthood by Pope Francis.
Delario is at the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez in the basement of the Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador. Some people around her wear shirts emblazoned with the words, “San Romero de América.” “For me he’s still alive” she says. Another worshiper, Carlos Martínez, adds, “Romero’s message was that the Church must work to end inequality. And that was a message that people in power did not want hear.”
Reverence for Romero is evident when you land in San Salvador. A massive sign facing the tarmac announces that you’re arriving at an airport named for Romero. As you enter the country, his image is stamped into your passport. This story is about how Romero’s image continues to be manipulated 36 years after his murder.
MONTREAL, Canada—The sixth round of negotiations on Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is underway in Montreal. Canada and Mexico made news as the talks opened by announcing a separate free trade deal, a newly revived Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 nations in the Pacific Rim. Withdrawing the US from that deal was one of President Donald Trumps’s first acts in office.
Mr Trump said the Nafta talks are going “pretty well,” but he has also said that he will withdraw the United States from Nafta should he feel that not enough progress has been made. Those two statements are framing discussions by delegates from Canada and Mexico who are bracing for the next move by the US.
As a border state, Vermont has a high stake in the outcome. From auto parts to food to apparel, Vermont manufacturers have leveraged Nafta to export their products to Canada and Mexico duty-free as part of an integrated North American economy.
In Vermont, business people like Jean-Marc Landry who depend on duty-free access across Nafta’s borders are watching events unfold in Montréal. He manufactures an automatic braking system that is added to a wheelchair to keep them in place when a patient stands up.
“One of the problems that we have with the wheelchair is that they kind of roll away,” as he explained the genesis of his technology.
MONTREAL, Quebec—The flow of people seeking refugee status in Canada has grown exponentially in recent months. More people have walked into the Province of Quebec since August than in all of 2016 across the entire length of the Canadian border. On one recent day, people from Yemen, Haiti, Burundi and Nigeria as they crossed illegally into Canada from upstate New York seeking refugee status. Had they tried to cross at a legal border crossing, they would have been sent back immediately. The net result is acontinued flow of migrants on foot who don’t use legal border crossings, testing a nation that historically welcomes refugees.
Canada’s refugee system has become overloaded since the U.S. presidential election. If you apply to stay in Canada as a refugee, you are supposed to get a hearing within 60 days. That just isn’t happening. There aren’t enough lawyers to process a mounting backlog. Now Canada is weighing its traditional welcome for refugees against the country’s ability to absorb them.
NEW YORK, NY—Washington has ended a temporary residency program for almost 60,000 Haitians allowed to legally enter the United States following an earthquake in 2010. The program is called Temporary Protected Status (TPS). It allows people from nations hit by conflict or natural disaster to remain legally but temporarily in the US for up to 18 months. TPS has often been extended so that some people have remained legally in the US for several years.
The decision to terminate TPS for Haitians mandates a deadline to leave the US by mid-2019. 5400 Haitians are currently living legally in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed his dismay over the decision noting that Haitians have long been “making our city better.”
Dr Jay Helias, a physician, was visiting the US when a 7-magnitude earthquake tore into Haiti. Helias was permitted to stay under TPS. She continued her career in New York.
CHAMPLAIN, New York—Washington has ended a temporary residency program for almost 60,000 Haitians allowed to legally enter the United States following an earthquake in 2010. The affected Haitians will have to leave the US by 2019. The program has also been revoked for two thousand Nicaraguans and it’s unclear if other groups including 300,000 Salvadorans will be allowed to remain. The net result is a continued flow of people crossing the border into Canada by foot. They are taking advantage of a footnote in a Canada-US treaty that says foot crossers won’t be turned back from Canada until their case is heard.
After cresting this past summer, the story continues to unfold at places such as Roxham Road, north of Champlain in upstate New York. The United States Border Patrol says illegal crossings on foot into Canada are also taking place in Vermont. Only now, before they cross on foot, people like Mansour, a 37-year-old engineer from Yemen, are met by a group of women, Canadians and Americans, that includes Janet McFetridge of Champlain.
GUATEMALA CITY—A constitutional standoff between the Guatemalan president and a United Nations-led commission prosecuting corruption is triggering a crisis that Guatemala’s Central Bank acknowledges may damage the country’s economy and spawn more illegal migration to the United States. Guatemalans in Vermont are among many within the Guatemalan diaspora in the United States dismayed by an attack on political reform but buoyed by the response of thousands of their countrymen and women inside Guatemala.
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A banner left by Guatemalan prosecutors at a seized ranch owned by a now convicted politically connected drug trafficker reads "Evidence." Guatemalan and foreign prosecutors in the Int'l Commission Against Impunity In Guatemala (CICIG) are investigating multiple Guatemalans politicians. (photo: Lorne Matalon)
In 2007, the UN helped establish the International Commission Against Impunity In Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG. The commission’s mandate is the targeting and prosecution of deep-rooted corruption, a corrosive force in Guatemala’s politics, economy and judicial system for generations. CICIG’s investigations helped force the resignation of a sitting Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina in 2015. He is currently in jail awaiting trial while his case proceeds after CICIG charged him and his former vice president Roxana Baldetti in a corruption case. The case is known as La Línea (The Line) in which the Guatemalan customs agency offered companies bringing goods into Guatemala reduced import duties in return for money that was shared among dozens of government officials.
VERACRUZ, Mexico–American energy companies are looking to enter Mexico’s oil, natural gas and electricity markets which have been open since 2014 to foreign participation for the first time since 1938. Major US energy companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron have entered the Mexican energy space. However smaller companies such as drillers, rig operators and seismic surveyors, the nuts and bolts of an industry that Mexico’s politicians hope will lift the economy are hedging their bets because of a serious security threat that the Mexican government has said is rising, namely the theft of oil and gasoline from Mexican pipelines. (listen: Texas Standard)
REYNOSA, Mexico–2016 was one of the most deadly for Mexican reporters in recent history. Most press groups count at least nine killed, some as many 16. Reporters Without Borders annual report documents that Mexico was the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists after Syria and Afghanistan.
That said, what is happening right now to reporters in Reynosa, a city that borders Texas, is unusually difficult. In late April, Mexican marines killed the leader of a major organized crime group there setting off a wave of crime that reporters are struggling to chronicle without being threatened or killed.
Even before that take-down and its immediate aftermath, Reynosa had never been an easy place to be a journalist. The sprawling factory town sits across the Rio Grande from McAllen Texas. It has often been a staging ground for turf battles within organized crime where civilians become collateral damage and where journalists like Paco Rojas are often threatened.
LA GRULLA, Texas–Since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11 2001, the United States has spent over 100 billion dollars on border security technology—cameras, drones, aerostats (“blimps”) airborne patrols, fencing and walls. But in the U.S. Border Patrol’s most active sector in terms of arrests, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, horses and the agents riding them are patrolling terrain that technology alone can’t alone control. As politicians debate an expanded and expensive border wall, this kind of “old school” border security comes at a relatively miniscule cost to taxpayers.
Using horses to secure the border is not new. It began in 1924, the year what became the modern-day Border Patrol was founded. Today what is changing is where the horses now come from and how critical they’ve become in what statistics show is currently the Border Patrol’s most active zone. Supervisory Agent Manuel Torresmutt leads the horse unit.
“Going into such rough terrain in the dark hours, the horse will take care of the rider,” said Supervisory Agent Manuel Torresmutt, leader of the horse unit.
He and a handful of agents were patrolling a sliver of the Rio Grande one hour west of McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico. The horses are mustangs captured on federal lands in the west.
REYNOSA, Mexico–American-owned assembly-line factories known as maquilas that line the Mexican side of the border with the U.S. have been bracing for change since the election of Donald Trump. But not in the way you might expect. They clearly don’t want a border tax placed on their shipments to the United States, as the Trump administration has threatened. But they are embracing the possibility of an updated Nafta saying the current version makes it a harder to operate in Mexico compared to the U.S. It all has to do with time consuming paperwork.
Maquila managers and trade groups interviewed in both countries see regulatory uncertainty as an opportunity. “Nafta is 30 years old. It hasn’t kept up with today’s economy,” said Mike Myers, a Texan who runs a maquila owned by Metal Industries, a Florida company that makes vents for air conditioners and heating systems.
Maquilas are foreign-owned factories in Mexico, many American-owned, that produce goods for export. Mexican and Asian interests also own maquilas, which sprung up like mushrooms after the rain when NAFTA took effect in 1994. Maquilas leverage low labor costs in Mexico and duty free access to the U.S. market to produce everything from televisions to medical equipment to computer parts. Continue reading
ARRIAGA, Chiapas — The town of Arriaga in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas perfectly encapsulates how migration through Mexico has changed since 2014. Located three hours and 11 checkpoints north of the Guatemala border, it’s a former hub of trains known collectively as La Bestia, or The Beast.
But now, the train only comes here to bring in work crews who are repairing the tracks. Migrants who once lined the tracks have been replaced by police and Mexican immigration agents. They circle the town in trucks after months of raids, pulling migrants off trains and erecting concrete walls with barbed wire near the tracks to prevent access.
Migrants still show up here though, albeit in far fewer numbers.
CIUDAD HIDALGO, Chiapas — In 2012, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security declared that Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala was now essentially the southern border of the United States.
That was two years before the 2014 child migrant crisis that saw tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America crossing or attempting to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. Since then, the U.S. has in essence expanded its own border enforcement efforts by assisting Mexico on its southern border. In 2015, fewer Central Americans reached the U.S., though the numbers undulate from season to season.
This border is porous even after the U.S. pressured Mexico to start Programa Frontera Sur, its southern border plan, in July 2014. The plan was crafted after President Obama said the unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied children and families arriving at the U.S. border in the preceding months constituted an “urgent humanitarian situation.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees later warned of a “looming humanitarian crisis in the Americas.”
MEXICO CITY — The dream of a unified North American electricity grid could not have been contemplated until Mexico’s electricity market was opened to foreign companies in 2014.
Today, larger scale volumes of electricity are flowing in both directions across the Mexico-United States border.
The United States and Canada have long established interconnections, and proponents of a unified grid are heralding Mexico’s nascent energy reform as a potential pathway to seamless transmission between the three North American nations.
There are currently 11 sets of transmission lines straddling the Mexico-U.S. border.
Mexico’s senior energy decision makers and industry executives are working with American counterparts to expand that footprint.
MEXICO CITY — Every weekday, Antonio Godinez Vera turns imported American corn into feed for Mexican livestock. Some of that U.S. corn is also used to make tortillas, a staple of the Mexican diet. Corn is also a symbol of Mexico itself. Corn was born in Mexico 9,000 years ago. There’s even an expression here, “Sin maíz no hay pais,” meaning ‘without corn there’s no country.’ Legislation has been proposed in Mexico City to boycott U.S. corn in response to a suite of economic threats against Mexico voiced by President Donald Trump.
“A boycott could certainly hurt us,” Godinez told me in Spanish as the din of his corn mill echoed through a complex of machines and metal kernel grinders. Trucks laden with imported American corn sat in his lot. A boycott would also hurt U.S. corn growers from the Dakotas to the Midwest to Arizona, California and Texas. Mexico’s deputy economy minister Juan Carlos Baker told the Financial Times that negotiations are underway with Argentina and Brazil to offer them duty-free access to the Mexican market now enjoyed by U.S. growers under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). As a candidate, Trump called Nafta the “worst trade deal” ever signed in this country.
Mexican Sen. Armando Rios Piter has proposed the boycott. “Corn is from Mexico, from my country. So right now it’s an important position in nationalistic way but also in terms of trade,” he said at the door of the Senate chamber.
This story was commissioned by ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America.
GUADALUPE, Chihuahua, Mexico — People living in the Juárez Valley southeast of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas, allege that land speculators preparing for the start of oil and gas production have spurred a land grab that has forced what some claim is an exodus of local residents
People interviewed for this story claim they or neighbors have been burned out of their homes and that others have been murdered. They live in a string of towns along the Rio Grande in an area slated for energy production and rapid infrastructure construction.
One of those towns is Guadalupe, a few minutes from the United States border across from Fabens, Texas, but a world away in terms of security. Construction on a superhighway and a state-of-the-art international border crossing is underway here.
According to Mexican census rolls nearly 10,000 people lived here in 2005. The mayor — who declined to be interviewed — claimed in local media that this year only about 1,000 people remain.
One man, who like others asked not be identified for fear of retribution, explained what has happened. “The government sends people here to pressure landowners to get out of here, to say, ‘go away, we don’t want you here,’ ” he said in Spanish. The charge is vehemently denied by Chihuahua’s government.
The man said wealthy buyers then show up to grab the vacant land.
Analysts suggest buyers are arriving because Mexico’s state-owned oil company PEMEX is exploring for oil and gas in northern Chihuahua. The region shares geological characteristics of the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico, the highest-producing oil field in the United States.
“Many of these politicians will have interests in the shale development in the future and will likely get hold of that land no matter what.”
With oil and gas development and plans for pipelines, desert land no one cared about is now valuable. Chihuahua’s Secretary of Public Works told a Juárez newspaper in September that he won’t reveal the exact routes for new roads because the government doesn’t want to fuel land speculation.
I asked another person about that. He laughed derisively. “It’s always about power and money,” he said in Spanish. He alleged that bureaucrats and politicians are now in the real estate business, acting at the very least as a middleman to sell land to investors.
“They are using, it is quite clear to me, that information for themselves in a way that they can position themselves as a political class to profit from this industry in the future, oil, gas and the pipelines themselves,” Payan said.
Back in Guadalupe, physical evidence suggests that someone doesn’t want people here: burned houses, shattered glass and very few people on the street.
The narrative in Mexican media is that the violence is a consequence of turf wars between cartels. But some residents are skeptical. They sense, but can’t prove, that outside investors are working with organized crime to terrorize people into fleeing, leaving their land to be scooped up. The state can legally seize land and homes for unpaid property taxes.
Residents said repeatedly that no economic activity, legal or otherwise, takes place without the government knowledge and tacit sanction.
“The valley is a lawless place,” another man said in Spanish. “It’s the sad truth.”
Mexican authorities cited in media reports say at least 300 people have been killed in Guadalupe since 2008 — mayors, police, city councilors, business owners and human rights activists. People are learning hard lessons about real estate.
“You know the rule. Location, location, location,” Cardona said.
He’s watched a slow-motion depopulation unfold here. He said residents tell him that authorities do nothing.
“Every time there was a killing, every time there was a burning house, the soldiers were a block away,” Cardona said. “They didn’t stop the killers or the people burning the houses.”
Pipeline companies in Texas are historically granted the right of eminent domain, to seize private land because the transport of energy is deemed to be in the public’s interest.
“In the United States, it’s a lawful eminent domain. In Mexico it’s outright violence,” said El Paso lawyer Carlos Spector. He represents 250 former residents of the Juárez Valley, many from Guadalupe, now seeking asylum in the U.S.
“Investors are getting very aggressive,” said Spector, founder of Mexicanos En Exilio, or Mexicans in Exile.
“All they have to do is get a list from the mayor of a small town, who is under their control, as to who hasn’t paid the taxes. And if they can match up who hasn’t paid the taxes to where the gas and the freeway is coming, then you go after that property. It’s very, very scientific.”
People who remain in Guadalupe say that former neighbors who have fled are anxious to sell their now-abandoned land for cents on the dollar because they’re too frightened to even contemplate coming back.
Fear in The Juárez Valley: A Case Study
Martín Huéramo is one of 250 former residents of the Mexican border town of Guadalupe, now seeking asylum in the United States. “I received several threats, not just one,” he said in Spanish.
Huéramo was a city councilor in Guadalupe in 2010. He had opposed the mayor’s resolution that would allow the local government to expropriate land to sell to energy speculators.
The week after he entered the United States, two women on the city council were killed. They had opposed the same resolution. This was confirmed by two independent sources.
The year before, two of his brothers-in-law were murdered.
“Families in the Juárez Valley have lost loved ones,” he said. “It’s a message saying they have to leave the Juarez Valley.
Residents says violence rose in the Juárez Valley in 2010 after the murder of Josefina Reyes Salazar killed on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez.
She had led the Mexican side of a successful binational campaign to stop a nuclear waste dump in Sierra Blanca, Texas, just across from Guadalupe. And she had spoken out about land displacement in the Juárez Valley.
An art gallery administrator from Ciudad Juárez, Gabriela Carballo, compares opposition to pipelines in Guadalupe to conflict in the U.S. over the proposed Trans Pecos Pipeline. It would ferry natural gas from Texas into Mexico.
There is intense opposition on the part of some Texas landowners and ranchers.
“As a Mexican I can say that we care as much about the environment as any one of these people that are fighting the Trans Pecos Pipeline,” said Carballo. As for alleged land displacement in the name of energy in Chihuahua, she said it’s not easy to take a stand under the actual or perceived threat of retribution. “If we speak out against it, we run the risk of our really extremely corrupt government murdering us,” she said.
There’s no way to verify such a claim. And Mexican officials are quick to refute it.
“Violence is minimal right now and no one’s been affected by plans for pipelines,’ said Arturo Llamas in Spanish. He’s Chihuahua’s pipeline and energy infrastructure regulator.
Llamas is also the state’s liaison with Mexico’s federal energy agencies. He said energy development in northern Chihuahua is a boon to local residents that will ultimately translate into lower electricity and gasoline costs.
“It will help the entire country, not just Chihuahua,” he said. He was emphatic that he and his staff are watching the Juárez Valley.
“It’s our responsibility to be sure that laws are obeyed and that everything that must be done is done properly,” he said. He also said he wanted anyone with a complaint to contact his office in Chihuahua City.
But few people alleging harm are likely to approach a government they don’t trust.
There are others beyond the alleged victims, who bear witness to a different reality. Mexican photographer Julián Cardona has catalogued the destruction of peoples lives in the Juárez Valley.
“I think they’re now realizing the value of their land, because now there are people buying their lands,” said Cardona. “Violence is linked to displacement of their families.”
He recalled a visit June 24, 2015, when Chihuahua Gov. César Duarte made a brief stop in Guadalupe.
“The governor visited in Guadalupe and the mayor ordered the empty buildings and house along the main avenue painted in bright colors — glowing yellow, green, blue, pink. The fact the houses were painted in bright colors is like a smokescreen of what’s really going on,” Cardona said.
As for Martin Huéramo — the former Guadalupe city councilor seeking asylum — he says he would have no issue with energy production or pipelines if they did not involve, in his words, people being forced out. He doesn’t believe government claims that laws are being followed and things are being done properly.
Then unexpectedly, he said he believes one of the government’s claims.”The government says violence is down in the Juárez Valley,” he said in Spanish.”I believe it,” he continued, “because there are no more people left to kill.”
AUSTIN, Texas–The U.S. Congressional Research Service says intelligence cooperation between Mexico and the United States has become closer in the last decade on issues important to both countries such as illegal immigration, border security, drugs and human trafficking.
But that critical intelligence relationship may be under examination in Mexico. The country is trying to fashion a response to a suite of economic threats issued by the new U.S. administration. And security is one serious chip to play. After alleged Mexican drug trafficker Chapo Guzmán Loera was arrested in Sinaloa, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration released a statement.
“The arrest is a significant achievement,” it said, “in our shared fight against organized crime.” There are published reports that U.S. intelligence on Guzmán’s whereabouts led to the takedown. Guzmán was extradited to the United States last month.
SEE: Full Screen Slideshow
But the former chief of Mexico’s National Intelligence Agency between 2007 and 2011 believes that kind of cooperation risks being diluted. “There will be no incentives to collaborate with the United States,” said Guillermo Valdés in a conversation in Austin, Texas.
MEXICO CITY—Mexicans are anxious about the future of the North American Free Trade Act, and how the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump may seek to change or even withdraw from the agreement.
Mexican officials are now speaking with Asian nations about how trade between Mexico and Asia might change in a post-NAFTA era.
Mexican analysts expressed concern that new investment may slow down due to uncertainty about the agreement. “It’s the chilling effect on investment,” said Federico Estévez, a political scientist at Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, a leading Mexican university. “We’ve basically turned into an industrial economy on the basis of NAFTA.”
BOGOTA, Colombia–A peace deal is expected to be signed in 2016 between the government of Colombia, a key ally of the United States in South America, and the largest guerrilla movement among several that have fought for decades to topple the Colombian state. The guerrilla group is known as FARC, the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The U.S. has spent billions of dollars in Colombia backing the government against the FARC and another guerrilla group known as the ELN, the Spanish abbreviation for the National Liberation Army, under the terms of Plan Colombia.
The plan is a multibillion-dollar security package, the majority of which has been deployed to combat drug trafficking, though critics of the government in Colombia are unhappy that much of the assistance from the US went to the Colombian army, which has been accused in the majority of human rights abuses during the armed conflict.