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Borderland Exodus: Towns Near Path Of Proposed Mexican Pipelines Suffer Rash Of Violence

This story was commissioned by ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America.

A burned home in Guadalupe, Chihuahua. Homes and businesses that lie in the path of proposed infrastructure development in the Valley of Juárez have been targets of arson. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

Shattered glass marks the entrance to an abandoned dance hall in Guadalupe, Chihuahua.
There are charred and destroyed buildings throughout the town. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

A view from the Mexican side of construction of a state-of-the-art border crossing connecting Guadalupe to Fabens, Texas. The crossing will help to move energy-related goods and services between both countries. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

“Obviously this land is being re-consolidated in the hands of a few,” said Tony Payan, Director of Rice University’s Mexico Center in Houston.

“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.

Former Chihuahua Governor César Duarte visited in 2015. The mayor ordered vandalized homes on the main street to be painted in festive colors. One man said the paint is a metaphor for a smokescreen meant to cover up what residents allege has happened here. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

This damaged home is steps from the repainted facades on the town’s main street. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

Julián Cardona is a photographer from Juárez. He was the photographer on a story about the Juárez Valley with Mexican journalist Ignacio Alvarado Álvarez published by Al Jazeera America.       

“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.

Miguel Murgia’s wife was taken from a family gathering in Guadalupe four years ago. Murgia theorizes criminals were after his nephew who was related to a human rights activist. Both Murgia’s wife and nephew are unaccounted for. He is in the United States while his application for asylum is considered. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

A family chart of the Josefina Reyes Salazar family. Josefina Reyes was a human rights activist who was murdered near Ciudad Juárez in 2010. Red under a name means a Reyes relative has been murdered. Blue indicates an asylum seeker. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

At the destroyed dance hall, words on the upper right read, “no minors, no weapons, no drugs.” (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.”

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Harvard Revista: Building a Template for Sustainable Forestry

Revista is published by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. Fall 2014 is devoted to Peru and includes the photo essay, Building a Template for Sustainable Forestry: Hope in a Landscape of Corruption.

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Jairo Huarash and Armando Espinosa stand on their raft of cut logs or boya. They lived on the raft for three days transporting their wood to a mill. Rio Ucayali, Atalaya Province.

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Narco Killer Sought By U.S. Sends Letter To Mexican President

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MEXICO CITY — Rafael Caro Quintero, a once-powerful Mexican cartel leader who is now a fugitive from United States justice, has sent a letter to Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto claiming the United States wants revenge for a crime the convicted killer says he has already paid for.

Caro Quintero was convicted decades ago in Mexico for the drawn-out torture and murder of Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. The crime ruptured U.S.-Mexico relations in the 1980s and its aftermath echoes to this day.

On Aug.9, 2013, a Mexican judge ordered the release of Rafael Caro Quintero on a technicality.

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Peña Nieto, US Condemn Texas Execution Of Mexican Citizen

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Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto said the execution Wednesday of convicted killer and Mexican national Edgar Tamayo in Texas sets “a bad precedent” that flaunts international law.

Peña commented while speaking with Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

His government had lobbied for a stay of execution while the case was considered, hoping the United States Supreme Court would issue a stay of execution. The high court reconsidered then rejected a stay Wednesday.

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Bloomberg Editorial: Legal US Pot Won’t Translate Into Peace In Mexico

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MARFA, Texas — There’s been a great deal of speculation about the impact in Mexico of marijuana legalization in some American states.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox, current Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molino, former Colombian Defense Minister and current President Juan Manuel Santos and Uruguay’s President, whose country has legalized the recreational use of marijuana, have all called for marijuana’s legalization or, at the very least, a reconsideration of existing law in their own countries and elsewhere.

For most of these politicians, the rationale is that legalization will weaken the drug cartels’ grip on their nations and lessen drug-related violence.

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Harvard Revista: The Challenge of Inequality

Revista is published by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. Spring 2013 is devoted to Panama and includes the photo essay, The Challenge of Inequality.

Southern Darién Province, an emerald maze of rainforest and a crucible of indigenous life, personifies inequality in wealth in modern Panamá. “We’re alone here,” says Grimaldo Contrera, a 40-year-old cacique with jet-black hair and weathered hands that testify to life in rugged Darién.

“The state pledged to help us rebuild our schoolhouse. Nothing has come here but words,” he says showing a visitor his correspondence with authorities. The school has only one shabby room for fifteen children. In 2008, one student in the village was awarded a university scholarship. Contrera says Panamá has money to spend. He says he knows so from listening to the drumbeat of upbeat business stories on radio stations broadcasting from the capital.

Contrera family children swimming ; their family wants to educate them in a better schoolhouse. (Lorne Matalon)

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Forbes Releases List Of 10 Most Corrupt Mexicans In 2013

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Dolia Estevez, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, has published a list of the 10 most corrupt Mexicans in 2013.

The list follows the release of Transparency International’s annual corruption index for 2013.The index shows that Mexico ranked 106 out the 177 countries sampled and on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (clean), Mexico scored 34.
Among the Forbes’ list is union boss Elba Esther Gordillo, who was arrested earlier this year.

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Riding La Bestia, The Immigration Train

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Story originally published at EDITOR’S NOTE: Mexico has repeatedly accused the United States of mistreating Mexican immigrants — legal or otherwise. But immigration experts in Mexico say that accusation is hypocritical. They charge the treatment of Central American immigrants entering … Continue reading

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Cartel Shootout With Mexican Police Linked To US Grenade Walking Scandal

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CBS News is reporting a link between a drug cartel shootout with Mexican police last week and a controversial case in the United States.

A Justice Department report obtained by CBS News says the link is a grenade apparently traced to an American who has been under surveillance for some time.

Fronteras Desk Senior Field Correspondent Michel Marizco has followed the flow of weapons from the U.S. into Mexico as part of his extensive coverage of Operation Fast and Furious. The Justice Department believes the import of grenade parts into Mexico from the U.S. is related.

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Photo Gallery: Re-Opening The Border At Boquillas

This gallery contains 13 photos.

Story originally published at An unmanned border station in West Texas has opened almost 11 years after the border was sealed following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The border station is remotely operated, meaning citizens entering the U.S. will … Continue reading

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Harvard Revista: The Challenge of Inequality

Revista is published by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. Spring 2013 is devoted to Panamá. The Challenge of Inequality is a photo essay that delves into the double edged sword of a soaring economy in Panamá.

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Click here to read full PDF of photo essay.

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Children playing soccer in a downtown street, Colon, Panamá

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Mexico Election Debate Upstaged

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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s electoral authority apologized to voters on Monday after a sober presidential debate was upstaged by a former Playboy model and her revealing outfit.

Clad in a tight-fitting white dress with a cut below the neckline to show much of her cleavage, Julia Orayen was working as an assistant on the televised debate, which focused on the economy and the drug-related violence ravaging Mexico.

Former Playboy model and presidential debate assistant Julia Orayen (white) hands out cards to the four candidates during a televised debate at the Federal Electoral Institute in this handout still image taken from video, in Mexico City, May 7, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Instituto Federal Electoral/Handout/ via Reuters TV

Former Playboy model and presidential debate assistant Julia Orayen (white) hands out cards to the four candidates during a televised debate at the Federal Electoral Institute in this handout still image taken from video, in Mexico City, May 7, 2012.
(Reuters)

At the start of Sunday night’s debate, Orayen walked in front of the camera to hand out cards to the four candidates, and created an immediate stir on online social media.

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Mexican Congress Backs Bill To Support Drug War Victims

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(Reuters) – Mexico’s lower house of congress has approved a bill that will require the federal government to provide financial support to victims of the country’s brutal gang violence.

The lower house said congress unanimously backed the bill, known as the General Victims Act, which will provide financial, legal and medical aid to Mexicans caught up in the turf wars between drug gangs and their clashes with security forces.

By Lorne Matalon

(Lorne Matalon)

More than 50,000 people have died in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to crush the cartels soon after taking office in December 2006.

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Peña Nieto Survives First Debate

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(Reuters) – Mexico’s presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto was forced onto the defensive on Sunday by his rivals who accused him of corruption, lies and being a pawn of the media during televised election debate.

Pena Nieto, of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has led opinion polls for months and his two main opponents repeatedly turned on the 45-year-old, albeit without airing any new accusations against him or his party.

Handout of presidential candidates posing before attending their first televised debate in Mexico City's World Trade Centre

Handout of presidential candidates posing before attending their first televised debate in Mexico City’s World Trade Centre.

Pena Nieto’s debating skills had been questioned in the run-up to Sunday night, but he hit back against broadsides from Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

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Interviewed by PBS NewsHour: Mexico Drug Cartels Moving In On Guatemala Routes

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Mexican drug cartels are carving out new territory in northern Guatemala, adding another layer of violence and crime to a country with one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere.

Guatemalan soldiers check a car for at a checkpoint, Coban, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.

In December the Guatemalan government declared a two-month state of siege in the rural province of Alta Verapaz, bordering Mexico, in order to crack down on the growing influence of the notorious Mexico-based Los Zetas cartel.

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Shark Fishers Try to Reel in Cash, Turn to Conservation

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Israel Ritchie, known as Tolon, is a 37-year-old shark fisher from López Mateos, Mexico. His family has hunted sharks off the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula for generations, selling the meat these days for around U.S. 70 cents a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and the shark fins for 50 to 100 U.S. dollars a kilogram.

But relying on shark for an income puts Tolon in a precarious place.

“Our situation is drastic,” Tolon said. “The shark population has fallen sharply in the last ten years. Now I must travel farther offshore to find them.”

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Mexico’s Poor Seek Relief From Tortilla Shortage

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Part six of a special series that explores the local faces of the world’s worst food crisis in decades.

During a protest in México City in January 2008, 28-year-old secretary Anibel Ordonez was one of many chanting “Tortillas si, Pan no!” while waving some of the flat corn disks in the air.

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Patrolling The Border With Mexico

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Patrolling the border with Mexico

Last year the United States deported a record number of undocumented Mexicans, but authorities along the U.S. -Mexico border say Mexicans seeking jobs continue to cross into the United States every day. As well, people from other countries including Russia, Bangladesh and South Africa have also been caught trying to get into the U.S. From south Texas, The World’s Lorne Matalon reports.

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Wine Boom Threatens Native Argentine Water Source

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Agronomist Esteban Jobbagy takes a water sample from the Rio Mendoza, Argentina.

The underground water table in central Argentina’s Monte Desert is falling, leaving the fate of the centuries-old indigenous Huarpes culture hanging in the balance.

Demand for high-quality and still relatively inexpensive Argentine wine, combined with an abundance of land to grow grapes, has become a problem for the desert-dwelling Huarpes.

Vineyard owners are diverting increasing amounts of water from a network of channels and streams originally crafted for irrigation centuries ago by several of Argentina’s indigenous groups.

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Aw Shucks? State Recycles Oyster Shells to Boost Births

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North Carolina restaurants can now toss oyster shells into the recycling bin rather than the trash can.

Following a three-year pilot project, the state is funding a long-term effort to create new reefs from recycled oyster shells.

Lawmakers hope the initiative will regenerate North Carolina’s coastal oyster population and, in turn, stabilize the state’s fishery. The state has classified oyster reefs as “essential marine habitat.”

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