This story was produced by Marfa Public Radio/West Texas Public Radio and Fronteras: The Changing Americas Desk. Fronteras is a reporting collaboration of NPR member stations in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California focused on the US-Mexico border. ———-
The image on a Bogotá home suggests violence has been raining down on Colombia for too long. (Lorne Matalon)
BOGOTA, Colombia—A peace deal is expected to be signed in March 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.
President Barack Obama welcomed his Colombian counterpart in early February. Now, Mr. Obama is pledging to push Congress to grant financial support for the peace talks. But in Colombia, the path to peace is under intense debate.
Visitors to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Juárez place votive candles with the image of Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, on a platform below the pulpit. Juárez residents interviewed for this story say the Pope’s use of his position to promote social change resonates here. (Lorne Matalon)
JUAREZ, Chihuahua — The upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Mexico marks the sixth Latin American country Pope Francis will have visited since his pontificate began in 2013. Francis will be visiting the border city of Juárez, a city recreating itself after years of bloodshed. That’s something Francis witnessed as a young priest during Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
His experience in Latin America, being the first Latin American leader of the Catholic Church, his decision to echo some of the precepts of the movement founded in Latin America within the church founded in Latin America known as Liberation Theology and his decision to beatify a murdered Salvadoran archbishop are all elements in the Pope’s focus on Latin America.
A burned home in Guadalupe, Chihuahua. Many homes and businesses here and elsewhere in Juárez Valley towns that lie in the path of proposed infrastructure development have been targets of arson. (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.
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.
“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 ahold 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.
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.
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 Juárez Valley.
Residents say violence rose in the Juárez Valley in 2010 after the murder of Josefina Reyes Salazar, killed on the outskirts 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 them.
“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.”
A refinery operated by Alon USA Energy in Big Spring, Texas. Alon is one of four US refiners that have formed a lobby to oppose major oil companies that want the ban on the export of US crude oil repealed. (Lorne Matalon)
originally published by the public media reporting collaborative Inside Energy
also broadcast on the Texas Standard, a state-wide daily news program led by NPR member station KUT-Austin—another version aired on KPBS-San Diego
MIDLAND, Texas — The price of a barrel of U.S. crude oil has plummeted by more than 50 percent since June 2014. U.S. producers claim that they’re at a competitive disadvantage because they’re restricted to selling their oil domestically at a time when they desperately need new markets to sell their mounting inventories.
Congress is now debating whether or not to lift the 1970s-era ban on crude oil exports that was made in the name of protecting national energy security.
Legislation to lift the ban has passed in the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Banking Committee will attempt to craft its version shortly.
The debate is hardly cut and dried because some of the major players in the American energy sector oppose the idea.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent greets an officer from Canada’s federal police, the RCMP, in Vermont steps inside the U.S. The two agencies cooperate closely on the northern border. Some analysts suggest the potential for terrorists to enter the U.S. is more pronounced on the Canada border than on the Mexico border. (Lorne Matalon)
MONTREAL, Canada — The United States has fortified the border with Mexico since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in large part in the name of thwarting terrorism.
However, some analysts believe there’s a greater potential threat of terrorists entering the U.S. from the northern border with Canada than from across the southern border with Mexico.
First a soldier was murdered in a deliberate hit-and-run near Montreal. Then days later came a second attack that traumatized Canada.
Gunfire erupted inside Canada’s Parliament, the seat of its federal government, after the murder of a soldier outside. A jihadist sympathizer had just killed a soldier at Canada’s War Memorial a few steps away. The shooter then entered Parliament after killing that soldier.
A woman wades across the Rio Grande into Chihuahua. She’s a US citizen on her way to see family in Mexico living a few hundred yards from the shore. It’s not illegal to exit the US here, only to return the same way. The nearest legal crossing is close to two hours away. (Lorne Matalon)
A version of this story also aired on the Texas Standard, a statewide reporting collaboration led by KUT in Austin Texas and KPBS, San Diego.
CANDELARIA, Texas — The United States and Mexico are pouring money into a showcase experiment to rescue damaged economies on the Texas-Mexico border.
But that experiment only involves two towns, Boquillas in Mexico and the community of visitors and National Park Service personnel at Big Bend National Park, a epic mosaic of desert, rock and sky that already draws hundreds of thousands of adventure travelers every year.
There are dozens of other towns along this section of the border, forgotten, struggling, where residents claim they’re forced in some cases to break the law to survive.
Oil and gas dominate the Texas energy market but wind is growing exponentially. Wind power now provides 10 per cent of the state’s electricity. (Lorne Matalon)
A version of this story aired on the Texas Standard, a public radio collaboration led by KUT, Austin, Texas.
NOTREES, Texas–Energy production in Texas is dominated by oil and gas — but the state also leads the United States in the production of wind power. Some energy analysts suggest that wind power’s success in the Lone Star state has now become its challenge.
State senators recently passed a bill that threatened to repeal a state law that required utilities to source a certain amount of electricity from renewables. For 15 years, that mandate has paved the way for wind power’s growth in Texas.
They are part of an initiative that used private sector investment in wind power production and government investment in transmission lines to bring in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to the Texas grid.
But the effort to eliminate what has been the backbone of the wind power industry’s financial model has sent a troublesome signal to investors who say wind generation needs support to compete with the fossil fuel industry.
Forensic anthropologist Kate Spradley holds the shirt of a deceased Salvadoran migrant. The shirt’s discovery set off a chain of events that ended with the successful but rare DNA confirmation of a migrant who perished in Texas after crossing the U.S.- Mexico border. (Lorne Matalon)
A version of this two-part story aired on the Texas Standard, KUT Austin
SAN MARCOS, Texas — Brooks County, Texas, — 70 miles north of the United States-Mexico border — has seen at least 365 migrant deaths since 2011.
Forensic anthropologists in Texas and Arizona are working to identify these migrants and repatriate their remains.
Behind an electronic gate accessed by a key card on a bucolic farm in central Texas, 100 cadavers donated for research by U.S. citizens lie on the ground in different stages of decomposition.