Category Archives: Radio

US-Owned Maquilas Welcome Prospect Of Changes To NAFTA

Alberto Martinez welds steel at a maquila owned by Metal Industries of Florida. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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Alberto Martinez welds steel at a maquila in Reynosa, Mexico owned by Metal Industries of Florida (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

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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.

Mike Myers, a maquila manager in Reynosa, Mexico. He opposes a border tax but supports an updated Nafta. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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

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Program Frontera Sur: Migrants Running Gauntlet On Guatemala-Mexico Border

The words read, “Christ Lives.” Migrants and goods such as oil and foodstuffs are transported illegally on a raft below a bridge that is an official port of entry between Mexico and Guatemala. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

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Peace In Colombia: Progress But Challenge Remains In Highly Polarized Nation

This guerrilla who did not wish to be identified by name, said he lost his arm during the conflict in Colombia. He is painting an image that marks 53 years since the formation of the FARC, the Spanish acronym for the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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META, Colombia—Making peace after five decades of armed conflict in Colombia is a process fraught with challenges. The stakes for the United States stake are enormous both politically and economically. The two countries have a free trade deal and American companies like Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil are major players in Colombia. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is at the White House today to talk with President Donald Trump about protecting Colombia’s nascent peace process. After supporting the Colombian military for years—seven billion dollars since 2000 in its fight against leftist rebels —the U.S. is now helping to finance peace after a deal to end the conflict was signed in November. The U.S. Congress approved a 450-million dollar package earlier this month called Peace Colombia to help Colombia craft a durable peace. That number is likely to be reduced next year however as the Trump administration has been clear that it plans to reduce foreign assistance packages.

SEE: Full Screen Slideshow

Driving through the hills of Meta, where the Colombian Andes cascade down into a lush green valleys, where sunbeams dance on the bluest of skies, it is hard to imagine the bloodshed that once unfolded here.  Meta was ravaged by a war that pitted Colombia’s army and private militia against leftist guerrillas known as the FARC—-the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC began as a rebellion against economic inequality in the 1960s. It then entered the cocaine trade to finance the conflict. And sowed terror in rural Colombia, killing civilians and extorting businesses.

Colombian soldiers at a checkpoint in the mountains of Meta, Colombia. The army battled the guerrillas here but today, guerrillas are asking for a greater military presence here to protect the region from incursions by organized crime and private militia. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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Shot Across The Bow: Mexico Considers Boycott Of U.S. Corn

Rafael Avila harvests corn grown from seeds that trace their lineage to the Aztec and Maya cultures. In Mexico there’s a saying. “Sin maiz, no hay pais.” Without corn there’s no country.’ Despite that history, Mexico imports vast amounts of U.S. corn. (photo:Lorne Matalon)

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.

Corn mill owner Antonio Godinez Vera said a boycott of American corn would raise prices for Mexican consumers and damage the Mexican corn market. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

“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.

Corn imported from the U.S. is used primarily in animal feeds but market uncertainty has historically translated into elevated prices for tortillas, a staple of the Mexican diet. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

Corn has been cultivated in what is modern-day Mexico for nine thousand years. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

 

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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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US-Mexico Intelligence Cooperation Braces For Possible Change

Mexican soldiers work in the mountains of Sinaloa burning this marijuana field, part of an eradication program supported by the United States. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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.

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Fraying At The Seams: The Challenge Of Fair Trade Coffee In Mexico And Guatemala

photo: Lorne Matalon

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Paulino Agustín and Sinael Altamirano prepare ground in the mountains of Chiapas state, a prime coffee growing region in Mexico. They are digging before planting coffee trees which typically don't produce coffee beans for three years after planting. (Lorne Matalon)

CACAHOATAN, Chiapas — The lives of thousands of small-scale coffee growers in Latin America and Mexico are better off because of fair trade. But the system is fraying at the seams in one of the world’s most important coffee-growing regions because of a perfect storm defined by low prices, a damaging fungus and unscrupulous middlemen.

Central America and southern Mexico are major parts of the fair trade coffee mosaic and 80 percent of the world’s fair trade coffee comes from Latin America.

SEE: Full Screen Slideshow

“They pay well,” said coffee grower Pedro Pacheco in Spanish in Chajul, Guatemala referring to the foreigners who buy his fair trade coffee beans. He is a member of a fair trade coffee co-op in which coffee growers sell their beans together sharing risk and reward. He said his co-op works well because its foreign buyers pay a fair price that is locked in and doesn’t change even if market conditions do.

César Ulises Roblero (R) and Carlos Galves Hernandez (L) sell beans they acquire from growers from this small processing plant near the Tacaná volcano, a source of rich soil that imparts a distinct aromatic taste to coffee produced near here. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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Fronteras Desk In Colombia: Key US Ally Debates Peace Accord With FARC Guerrillas

The image on a Bogotá home suggests violence has been raining down on Colombia for too long. (Lorne Matalon)

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.

SEE: Full Screen Slideshow

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.

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Pope Francis And Juárez: Latest Symbol Of Pope’s Focus On Latin America

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)

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.

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El Salvador & Central American Migration: New Concerns As Numbers Rise One Year After Unprecedented Influx

Two members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) stand in a prison in El Salvador. MS-13 was founded by Salvadoran immigrants in California in the 1980s. Recent intelligence gathered by US federal agents shared with the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC show that many Salvadorans cite gang violence as a prime motive for leaving Central America. (Lorne Matalon)

Two members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) stand in a prison in El Salvador. MS-13 was founded by Salvadoran immigrants in California in the 1980s. Recent intelligence gathered by US federal agents shared with the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC show that many Salvadorans cite gang violence as a prime motive for leaving Central America. (Lorne Matalon)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The line of the hopeful forms every weekday morning at the American Embassy in San Salvador.

The scene is both intense and poignant. A line of several dozen families snakes its way along a sidewalk across the street. Infants are wailing in their parents’ arms as clouds of black diesel spewed by passing trucks envelop the crowd. A few feet away, heavily-armed Salvadoran police patrol the embassy perimeter.

The would-be migrants are waiting for their turn to launch a formal application to enter the United States.

SEE: Full Screen Sideshow

That scene unfolds against a backdrop of new statistics from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that some analysts believe may portend a new surge of Central American migrants.

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Experts Say Look North Not South On Border Security

 

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)

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.

The Islamic State (ISIS) urges supporters to carry out attacks against Western countries, including Canada, that are in the U.S.-led coalition fighting it. Following that call, two Canadian soldiers were murdered in October 2014.

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.

Imagine a gunman killing an Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and then invading the U.S. Capitol.

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US Citizens Skirting Border Laws To Survive On Rio Grande

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 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)

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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. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

A version of this story also aired on the Texas Standard, a statewide reporting collaboration led by KUT in Austin.

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.

SEE: Full Screen Slideshow

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.

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Mexico Midterms: Implications for Peña Nieto & US

The party of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is expected to retain its majority in the lower Chamber of Deputies. But numerous legislators who lobbied for his reforms will leave due to one term limits in Mexico. (Lorne Matalon)

The party of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is expected to retain its majority in the lower Chamber of Deputies. But numerous legislators who lobbied for his reforms will leave due to one term limits in Mexico. (Lorne Matalon)

A version of this story aired on the Texas Standard, a public radio collaboration led by KUT in Austin, Texas.

Here’s a link to a panel discussion on NPR member station KPBS, San Diego analyzing the results.

CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — Midterm elections in Mexico, as in the United States, are a referendum on a president’s performance.

On Sunday, Mexicans will elect an entirely new congress along with 17 state legislatures and a host of governors and hundreds of mayors. The results will set the tenor for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s final three years in office.

President

Lorne Matalon
President Enrique Peña Nieto greets citizens, Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Nov 28, 2013. His mandate will be strengthened or diminished in Mexico’s midterm elections and there are implications in the results for both Mexico and the United States.

Congressional representatives in the lower Chamber of Deputies are limited to a three-year term. Senators serve a single six-year term, as does the Mexican president.

The new congress will support, or stall, the second half of Peña Nieto’s term. And the election outcome has implications for United States-Mexico relations.

After a 12-year absence, Peña Nieto led his PRI party back to Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House, three years ago pledging to change the national conversation.

Eighteen months ago, Peña Nieto was hyping economic and political reform. Mexicans loved the message.

He had arrested the corrupt head of the politically powerful teachers union and he was crafting energy and telecommunications reform in an unprecedented attack against state and private monopolies. And he said he would confront corruption. But today, opposition election ads focus on one theme.

“Zero tolerance for corrupt politicians,” an opposition party’s radio ad exclaims. It castigates Peña Nieto, saying his anti-corruption rhetoric is hollow and cosmetic.

His presidency has been tarnished in the past year by violence and evidence of continuing corruption.

Last September, in the most shocking incident, 43 students were taken off buses in a small town in southern Mexico and murdered, allegedly on orders from an elected mayor. The mayor allegedly ordered his local police to hand the students over to assassins who may have been told the students were members of a rival cartel.

Peña Nieto was widely criticized for a slow and inept response to the crisis triggered by those murders. The slaughter was and is still seen as a symbol of the historical nexus between government and organized crime inside Mexico.

More recently in April, criminals murdered 15 police officers, shot down a military helicopter and set at least 15 banks on fire. One news report in Mexico called it an “unprecedented attack.”

And in May the government was again on the defensive after a shootout that left that 42 purported cartel members and one policeman dead.

Some Mexicans have stated publicly that they believe the dead were executed, a contention based on preliminary forensic data compiled by families of the deceased.

“Making change without spilling blood isn’t easy,” said Raul Acosta in Spanish.

He’s a retired political science professor. He said Peña Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderón also wanted change that ended in violence. Calderón thought he would stabilize Mexico by confronting organized crime. It didn’t work.

The violence seen today has its roots in Calderón’s war.

Now, Acosta said the biggest obstacle facing all parties isn’t disdain, it’s apathy.

“People have no motivation to vote,” he said. “There’s general discontent out there.”

Roberto Grado, a local leader of the opposition PAN party in Chihuahua, agrees.

“People are despondent,” Grado said in Spanish. “They don’t have faith in any political party.”

That’s also because in the last three years, there have been a series of allegations of corruption raised against every party.

The voices of political analysts are echoed by people on the streets of this northern Mexico state. Alan Salvador Andrade is a clothing distributor in Ojinaga.

“I don’t trust them, they’re all the same,” he said of politicians in general.

His worst fear, he said, is that nothing will change and that violence and corruption will continue to scar Mexico.

“I’m afraid of what’s going to happen,” he said looking ahead to the vote.

In some states, some voters have said they will not participate in the election. And in some regions, election supervisors have said they are afraid to staff polling stations because of actual or implied threats of violence from any number of disaffected interests.

There’s currently a movement to annul or destroy votes by leaving ballots unchecked. Activists have blocked roads urging drivers to annul their votes to signal dissatisfaction.

Salvador doesn’t like that strategy.

“Our vote is the most important weapon that we have to change this situation,” he said.

Turnout in midterm elections in Mexico is notoriously low and this time around may be even more so. National polls suggest flagging support for Peña Nieto.

“There is a story here for us in the United States,” said Andrew Selee.

Selee is a Mexico and Latin America specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He said there are fundamental questions the U.S. hopes are answered on Sunday.

“Is Peña Nieto going to come out of this election strengthened? Is he going to come out being seen as a leader who has a mandate, who has control of congress, in which case he’s in a very strong position to look at some of the international issues including issues of economic opening with the United States, issues with migrants in the United States and lot of things that have to do with our country,” Selee said.

There are other issues of importance to the U.S. For one, American energy companies are also monitoring this election campaign. They’re eager to enter Mexico’s domestic energy sector.

Peña Nieto helped change Mexico’s constitution to allow foreign companies in. He overcame the opposition of Mexican nationalists who maintain that outsiders have no place in Mexico’s energy market.

If the Mexican president is rebuked at the polls, some of those companies will undoubtedly revisit and refine their plans for their prospective operations in Mexico.

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Identifying The Nameless: Advancing The Science Of Human Decomposition To Identify Deceased Migrants

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)

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

Part One

Part Two

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.

Forensic anthropologist Kate Spradley heads a relatively new project called Operation ID at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center.

Markers once tied to deceased migrants' bodies form a makeshift graveyard. The markers note what clues were gleaned after the bodies were discovered. (Kate Spradley)

Markers once tied to deceased migrants’ bodies form a makeshift graveyard. The markers note what clues were gleaned after the bodies were discovered. (Kate Spradley)

“When someone dies on U.S. soil, it is our responsibility to identify that person,” she said while walking in the shade where cadavers lay on the ground, protected by metal screens.

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Health Risks Of Living In US Border Colonias Prompt Funding Increase Proposal

A water storage bucket near Presidio, Texas. The Texas Secretary of State said 38,000 Texans living in border settlements known as colonias have no running water. The Obama administration proposes that the four border states receiving federal funding for low income housing increase the amount those states spend for colonia improvement. (Lorne Matalon)

A water storage bucket near Presidio, Texas. The Texas Secretary of State said 38,000 Texans living in border settlements known as colonias have no running water. The Obama administration proposes that the four border states receiving federal funding for low income housing increase the amount those states spend for colonia improvement. (Lorne Matalon)

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A version of this story also aired on the Texas Standard from KUT Austin

Thousands of mostly poor Hispanic people live in border communities called colonias with no access to running water or electricity.

Now, the Obama administration wants the four border states that receive federal funds for colonia improvement to increase spending there by 50 percent.

The announcement comes as scientists say potential health consequences of living in colonias are too severe to ignore.

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Mexican Venture Capital Seeks Gold In Rubble Of Oil Downturn

The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas, is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year. (Lorne Matalon)

The growing number of oil rigs pulled in from the oilfield and stored in this lot in Odessa, Texas, is a testament to the steep decline in the price of crude oil in the last year. (Lorne Matalon)

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ODESSA, Texas — Mexican venture capital is hovering over distressed energy companies in the Permian Basin of Texas, the nation’s highest-producing oil field.

Those companies — including oil and gas drillers, and service companies — crafted budgets when the price of crude oil was $100 per barrel. It’s now in the $50 range. And those companies need capital that banks in the United States are sometimes reluctant to give in an oil downturn.

“This is a buyers’ market right now,” said Carlos Cantú, an investor from Juárez.

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U.S. Junk Cars Sustain A Local Microeconomy In Guatemala

Story originally published at

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A version of this story aired on Texas Standard from KUT Austin.

 

MARFA, Texas — Old cars that have little resale value in the United States are being towed in caravans that begin in California, Arizona and Texas and end up in Guatemala.

The cars are also loaded up with old bicycles, recycled car batteries and clothing that have been jettisoned in the United States.

The vehicles are fixed up in Guatemala and sold across Central America.

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Solar Arrives In Mexico Border Town, Could Be Key To Rural Economy Restart

Story originally published at

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BOQUILLAS, Mexico — The sealing of the border after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, crushed connected rural economies in both Mexico and the United States.

Today in one swath of northern Mexico, a formal border crossing with Texas is the lynchpin of a plan to rebuild the post-9/11 economy in both countries on one rural section of the Rio Grande.

Wires distributing solar power flow from a utility pole, Boquillas, Coahuila (Lorne Matalon)

Wires distributing solar power flow from a utility pole, Boquillas, Coahuila. (Lorne Matalon)

But economic rebirth in one small, but strategically located, town is stunted because there’s no electricity in the area.

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Texas County Refuses To Accept Federal Checkpoint Drug Cases

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SIERRA BLANCA, Texas — A border county in Texas with two U.S. Border Patrol highway checkpoints is refusing to prosecute drug cases previously sent to it from those checkpoints.

The county—and all four states bordering Mexico—wants funding from Washington, D.C. to handle cases that federal prosecutors decide to send to state courts.

Cars and trucks heading east on Interstate I-10 east of El Paso pass through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Hudspeth County, Texas. The county, the first gatekeeper in the state legal system, is not accepting federally initiated drug cases sent to it from the checkpoint. (photo: Maiya Keck)

Cars and trucks heading east on Interstate I-10 east of El Paso pass through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Hudspeth County, Texas. The county, the first gatekeeper in the state legal system, is not accepting federally initiated drug cases sent to it from the checkpoint. (Maiya Keck)

But federal money has run dry.

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Mexico Consulates Issue Birth Certificates To Undocumented Migrants In The US

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Mexico has ordered its consulates to issue birth certificates to its citizens living illegally in the United States.

The move follows President Barack Obama’s executive action granting temporary reprieve from deportation to several million undocumented Mexicans.

Herlinda Lujan with her Mexican birth certificate at the Mexico Consulate at Presidio, Texas. In a major policy shift, Mexican consulates are issuing birth certificates to its citizens living in the United States regardless of their U.S. immigration status.

Herlinda Lujan with her Mexican birth certificate at the Mexico Consulate at Presidio, Texas. In a major policy shift, Mexican consulates are issuing birth certificates to its citizens living in the United States regardless of their U.S. immigration status. (Lorne Matalon)

Mexican officials say they wants to help undocumented migrants apply for a variety of programs, including immigration applications, triggered by Obama’s decision. And those programs require identification, starting with a birth certificate.

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