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.
“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)
A tugboat advances toward the Miraflores Locks near the Panama Canal’s Pacific entrance. A vessel that can pass through the locks is classified as a Panamax, for the maximum size that can fir though the canal’s existing locks. (Lorne Matalon)
“Time now is money, and a lot of money,” said Panama Canal tug captain Luis Estribi as sunlight danced on the water near the Panama Canal’s Pacific entrance at Ciudad de Panamá.
Estribi was guiding a vessel from China, the Tai Prosperity, through the canal’s Pedro Miguel locks to the Port of New Orleans. The Tai Prosperity, a carrier of bulk commodities such as grain, is classified as a Panamax ship.
Panamax is a worldwide maritime shipping measurement that refers to the maximum-sized vessel that can pass through this canal.
But today, Panamax is passé. Now, it’s all about post-Panamax, vessels that can carry up to three times the cargo as Panamax vessels. But post-Panamax vessels are too wide for the existing Panama Canal.
This sign in Marfa, Texas is one of several seen in west Texas since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted construction on the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline in North Dakota. Both it and the Trans Pecos Pipeline in Texas are being built by a consortium of companies led by Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas. Mexico is paying for the Texas pipeline. (photo: Lorne Matalon)
MARFA, Texas — Six landowners in west Texas have won a series of awards totaling in the millions of dollars against a company building a controversial natural gas pipeline. A seventh case was adjudicated in favor of the company. The landowners are part of a group of approximately 40 people or landholding entities that are contesting compensation offers from Trans Pecos Pipeline, LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas.
The pipeline has been designated by state regulators as a “common carrier,” meaning it will transport, in this case natural gas, for any natural gas producer willing to pay for the service.
With “common carrier” status comes the notion that a given project is in the public interest. With that designation comes legal power of eminent domain, the power to seize private land. Companies that exercise that power are obligated to pay compensation to affected landowners in recognition, in this instance, of the change to their lands that construction and installation of a 143-mile pipeline implies.
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.
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.
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 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.
Congressional Representative Will Hurd (R-Texas) on the left with the Mayor of Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Miguel Carreón in Mexico. Hurd sits on the House Committee on Homeland Security. He says he’ll ask the State Dept for data on how it determined that Ojinaga be listed on a travel advisory. The State Dept has told the Fronteras Desk that organized crime poses a threat here. (Lorne Matalon)
The BJ Bishop Wetland in Presidio, Texas, lies between a water treatment plant and the Rio Grande. The man-made wetland is filled with treated waste water from the plant. Construction is funded by Congress. A bipartisan bill before Congress proposes to extend funding for wetland construction. (Lorne Matalon)
PRESIDIO, Texas — A man-made wetland is now under construction on the Rio Grande, the first on the Texas-Mexico border.
Terry Bishop stands beside the wetland named for his father, BJ Bishop. The younger Bishop plans to replicate this man-made wetland on a nearby ancient floodplain where the Rio Grande joins the Rio Conchos at Ojinaga, Chihuahua. (Lorne Matalon)
And this new wetland will be the first on the Rio Grande to use treated wastewater to restore habitat. This comes as Congress is considering a bipartisan bill to extend funding for the construction of wetlands.
The Rio Grande has lost huge swaths of bird and wildlife habitat because water has been diverted for farming and human consumption and the population of the Southwest has grown exponentially.
The new man-made wetland leverages geography and a blend of private and federal funding.
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 also 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.
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 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 toLos 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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)
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.
The proposed Trans Pecos pipeline would run from the energy-rich Permian Basin of Texas through this ranch near the U.S.- Mexico border. There the line would connect with a series of planned Mexican pipelines. (Lorne Matalon)
Story originally published at
A version of this story aired on Texas Standard from KUT Austin.
Mexico’s Comisión Federal de Electricidad, its federal electricity commission, has awarded a contract to a group of Texas companies to build two pipelines, including a 143 mile natural-gas pipeline from the energy-rich Permian Basin of west Texas to the border with Mexico.
The line, known as the Trans Pecos Pipeline, would run through ranch land where some landowners vehemently oppose the project.
In Texas, pipeline builders can seize private land because many pipelines are classified as being in public good because they carry natural gas, crude oil or other commodities to customers who might otherwise not be served.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signs an update to the 1999 U.S.-Mexico Wildfire Protection Agreement with her Mexican counterpart, Juan José Guerra Abud, Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) on her left. (Lorne Matalon)
Story originally published at
A version of this story aired on Texas Standard from KUT Austin.
BOQUILLAS, Coahuila — A border crossing that’s seen as part of a template to rescue damaged, rural economies along the Rio Grande has marked its second anniversary.
The symbolic importance of the crossing that links Big Bend National Park in Texas to Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, was heralded by a visit from cabinet secretaries from the United States and Mexico. The United States ambassador to Mexico was also on hand.
After 9/11, security concerns translated into enforcement of laws that had rarely been largely overlooked before. That meant the age-old practice of walking across this sinewy slice of the Rio Grande was banned.