Juárez, Chihuahua—–The city of Juárez, Mexico across the border from El Paso, Texas has long been a migrant gateway to the US. In a May 17 2019 statement to Mexican media, Mexican authorities said at least 14,500 hundred people have come to Juárez in recent months to wait to apply for asylum in the United States. A large share of the migrant flow is coming from Central America and Mexico. Juárez however has now become a destination for people fleeing any number of conflicts and oppression around the world. That includes people from Africa and Cuba.
“As soon as they get my story they will believe me and I’ll make it there. So I have a lot of faith. That’s my power,” said Florant, from Cameroon.
CANDELARIA, Texas—In a reversal of stereotypes along one rugged stretch of the Rio Grande, it is US citizens who are breaking border laws. It is, of course, illegal to enter the US without passing through an official border crossing. Along one stretch of the Rio Grande, the artery that marks the US border with Mexico, US citizens are doing just that because of a shortage of basic services in rural Texas, such as health care.
Informal, unregulated crossings have been a fixture of life for generations in rural communities on the river. It is a scene that’s been replayed over the generations. Today, however, with the unrelenting focus on border security, this kind of unfettered back and forth by US citizens is rare.
MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The United States has levied sanctions against Nicaragua in response to alleged electoral fraud and human rights abuses. More than 300 people have been killed since April 2018. Hundreds of others, many of them college students, are in jail. The chaos is triggering large scale flight with human rights workers in Nicaragua’s capital of Managua saying that at least a thousand Nicaraguans are either applying or planning to apply to come legally to the US.
In scenes replayed across Nicaragua. Unarmed anti-government protests over corruption and repression have repeatedly been met by police violence. Much of the international community, with the notable exceptions of China, Russia, Venezuela and North Korea, has condemned the regime of Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega but the cycle continues. Ortega’s police are now hunting for dissidents, especially students who initially triggered the protest movement.
One of them, 19-year-old Elsa Valle. “We were intimidated every day and it continues now,” she said.
In June, Valle was giving food and medicine to students when police burst in. She says officers threatened torture and death as they drove her to a notorious jail known as El Chipote. Human rights defenders say torture’s commonplace there. Valle says she was brought into a room of machine-gun toting men. She says they ordered her to admit the students had received arms to fight the government. “I couldn’t do that because it’s not true,” she said. After that interrogation Valle says a guard threatened her. ‘‘I am going to rape you,’ Valle alleged the guard threatened. She said she also was forced to sleep naked at times. At night, she said guards clicked AK-47s outside her cell.
“There was a lot of psychological abuse in there,” Valle said.
Valle was pregnant when she was taken away. Stress took its toll. She suffered a miscarriage in jail. She was released in September without explanation. Her boyfriend was shot dead by paramilitaries days before she was arrested. Her father is still in jail, taken in after being at a march.
Terror is not confined to jail. Thousands of people, many armed with machetes, have been dispatched by Ortega’s government to take over lands owned by the regime’s opponents. Close to 17 thousand acres of acres of Nicaraguan farmland are under armed occupation. And you can’t call the police to help you.”The whole world has seen what happened here, how human rights are violated day-to-day,” said Michael Healy, head of Nicaragua’s Union of Agricultural Producers. Between farmers, ranchers, their workers and families, Healy’s union represents approximately one in three Nicaraguans. He explained that armed squatters are just one footnote to a mosaic of state repression. “Unfortunately we’ve been tied up,” said Healy. “And we have to break those chains.”
IUS sanctions appear to be hurting an economy that’s been declining since April. However Healy welcomed the prospect of sanctions. “If we want to get rid of the regime, we have to pay a little price, we Nicaraguans,” he said.
At his rallies, President Ortega blames the crisis on the US. He does not offer evidence. The anti-US words resonate in a country with a long and often difficult relationship with the US. The US backed a dynastic dictatorship and when that dictatorship was defeated militarily, US financed the contras, a counter-revolutionary and often violent group that tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the Sandinistas from power. Ortega tells his audiences, which reportedly include government workers ordered to attend his public events, that Washington shouldn’t get involved.
As for Elsa Valle, the student who suffered through three months in jail, the repression hasn’t ended. Elsa and her 17-year-old sister Rebeca were arrested Nov 13 2018. They were standing outside Managua’s Central Court House as their father Carlos made an appearance before a Sandinista judge. After an hour, the pair was released. Both say they were hit by police officers. However Elsa Valle said she won’t be intimidated.
“I’ve lost my fear after everything they’ve done,” she said. She added that for all those feeling Nicaragua, she and many more are remaining in place and who will continue their struggle.
MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua’s government and opposition are accusing each other of undermining the latest round of dialogue after police arrested more than 100 at a weekend protest. The protest took place March 19 2019.
The opposition Civic Alliance, a coalition of business leaders, student movement and human rights defenders condemned what the Alliance termed the government’s “violent repression” of the march. The Alliance claims 164 people were arrested even as the government said publicly it would pursue reconciliation talks with the opposition. The group said in a statement that it was frustrated that the talks had not produced the release of hundreds of people observers across the Americas Europe consider political prisoners.
The Nicaraguan government had freed dozens of people arrested crackdown on street protests hours before government and opposition were due to restart talks aimed at ending the crisis that has paralyzed the country since April 2018.
Nicaragua’s government has received international condemnation for killing at least 322 people since April 2018. In what seems a rare bipartisan move given the current political climate, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, two otherwise polar opposites politically, have been working together to shape US sanctions against Nicaragua.
Opponents say Daniel Ortega has betrayed the egalitarian ideals of the 1979 Sandinista revolution he once helped lead. That revolution overthrew a brutal US-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Ortega was previously in power 1984-1990 when he was defeated at the polls. He returned to power in 2007. In the last 11 years, Ortega has abolished presidential term limits, enriched his family and weeks ago, he made protest of any kind illegal. However protests continue where Nicaraguans chant ‘Ortega y Somoza Son La Misma Cosa.’ (‘Ortega and Somoza are the same thing.’)
Amnesty International reports that the vast majority of those who have died have victims of extrajudicial gov’t police and their hooded paramilitary allies. Simmering discontent over corruption exploded in April when the gov’t announced cuts to social security. An unarmed citizens movement led initially by students reacted with marches to show disdain for Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega.
‘It’s state terrorism,’ said Attorney Braulio Abarca at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, known by its Spanish acronym, CENIDH. In addition to killings, the gov’t has imprisoned hundreds of political prisoners. Abarca and his colleagues are also investigating 89 cases of people who have disappeared. “We’re living in fear,” he said.
Days after meeting with Abarca, Nicaraguan lawmakers allied with Ortega declared the legal status to operate of 10 non-governmental organizations invalid which means those groups can no longer legally operate in Nicaragua. In the eyes of the Sandinista government, CENIDH’s work on behalf victims of alleged government persecution was deemed to be intolerable. The interior ministry said in a statement on Friday their assets will be put into a “fund for the victims of terrorism,” without elaborating.
The government had described the people who took part in mass demonstrations against Ortega over eight months, many of which grew violent, as “terrorists.” It was partially in reaction to that vitriol that the US imposed sanctions on Nicaragua. Fabian Medina is the author of a new Ortega biography. He is also editor of La Prensa, an independent daily. “I applaud sanctions to punish these corrupt people,” Medina said. Later, I met Byron, a civil engineering student who asked that his last name not be revealed for fear of retribution. He worked with neighbors to maintain a makeshift barricade to defend against attacks by the police.
He said he stays in a different safe house every day
“If they catch us, they’ll kill us,” Byron said. We could only meet in a moving car with heavily tinted windows. Although Byron echoed many here who stay they’re undeterred, chaos in Nicaragua is spurring flight. More than 30,000 have left, many to Costa Rica. Human rights workers in Managua says that approximately a thousand are asking for or planning to ask for asylum in the US.
“Nicaragua’s future is leaving,” lamented Carlos Tunnermann, a former ambassador to Washington.”To be a young and a student is a crime in the eyes of the government.”
Stephanie Leutert studies Central American migration as the leader of the Mexico Security Initiative at theUniversity of Texas at Austin. “It’s a volatile situation and it could increase exponentially,” Leutert said. She explained that many Nicaraguans hunkered down in other countries want to go home. However Leutert said that may change.
“If this grinds on, if it gets worse, you’re going to have more people making the decision of, ‘no I really want to resettle and so I’m going to head north through Mexico and try and reach the United States.’ “
Business sector leader Juan Sebastian Chamorro said violence has been a staple of modern Nicaraguan politics, but not on this scale. He recalled the 1959 killing of four students in León, the second largest city in after Managua. Chamorro said those killings were the beginning of the end of the dictatorship that Daniel Ortega helped topple. The student killings of 1959 are still a frame of reference for modern day Nicaraguans. Chamorro contrasted the event with what is unfolding in 2018.
“We have hundreds of people, hundreds of students, being assassinated. That gives you perspective of what kind of tragedy we are living now.” Willie Miranda took part in a street protest. He says intimidation by government thugs followed.”Chasing us for the last three months, phone calls, you know, ‘We’re going to kill you, burn down your house, kill your sons.”
The Nicaraguan government does not appear to be listening to the multiple calls from governments, civil society and the Nicaraguan diaspora to restore peace.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, tells supporters that the supposed economic benefits of reform such as lower gasoline and electricity costs haven’t yet materialized. June 3 2018, Mexico City (photo: Lorne Matalon)
MEXICO CITY — Antonio Godinez Vera makes his living turning golden kernels of Mexican corn into a mash that becomes tortillas. People like Godinez, a small business owner with four employees, are part of a wave that powered Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the Mexican presidency when voters elected a new head of state July 1.
The campaign and its aftermath are being closely watched by U.S. energy companies that have operated in Mexico since the country’s 2014 energy reform. That reform was an opening that allowed foreign energy companies to bid on offshore blocks in the Gulf of Mexico, onshore oil and gas fields, wind and solar production and distribution and electricity generation contracts.
Maria Isabel Delario, bent and crying, prays at the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez at Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador. (Lorne Matalon)
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—María Isabel Delario is crying. Her body is bent, her face buried in her arms, her hands rest on the metal cast depicting the face of a murdered archbishop, a man nominated for sainthood by Pope Francis.
Delario is at the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez in the basement of the Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador. Some people around her wear shirts emblazoned with the words, “San Romero de América.” “For me he’s still alive” she says. Another worshiper, Carlos Martínez, adds, “Romero’s message was that the Church must work to end inequality. And that was a message that people in power did not want hear.”
Worshipers kneel before Romero’s tomb. The purse in the foreground reads, “May my blood be the seed of liberty, my death is for the liberation of my people and a testimony of hope in the future.” These words are attributed to Romero though it is unclear he actually he said them. (Lorne Matalon)
Reverence for Romero is evident when you land in San Salvador. A massive sign facing the tarmac announces that you’re arriving at an airport named for Romero. As you enter the country, his image is stamped into your passport. This story is about how Romero’s image continues to be manipulated 36 years after his murder.
The Canada border at Roxham Road near Champlain, New York. Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police staff this unofficial crossing 24 hours a day. (photo: Lorne Matalon)
CHAMPLAIN, New York—Washington has ended a temporary residency program for almost 60,000 Haitians allowed to legally enter the United States following an earthquake in 2010. The affected Haitians will have to leave the US by 2019. The program has also been revoked for two thousand Nicaraguans and it’s unclear if other groups including 300,000 Salvadorans will be allowed to remain. The net result is a continued flow of people crossing the border into Canada by foot. They are taking advantage of a footnote in a Canada-US treaty that says foot crossers won’t be turned back from Canada until their case is heard.
The Canada border at Roxham Road near Champlain, New York. Canada's Royal Canadian Mounted Police staff this unofficial crossing 24 hours a day. (photo: Lorne Matalon)
After cresting this past summer, the story continues to unfold at places such as Roxham Road, north of Champlain in upstate New York. The United States Border Patrol says illegal crossings on foot into Canada are also taking place in Vermont. Only now, before they cross on foot, people like Mansour, a 37-year-old engineer from Yemen, are met by a group of women, Canadians and Americans, that includes Janet McFetridge of Champlain.
A man from Congo speaks with RCMP officers after illegally entering Canada. (photo: Lorne Matalon)
The man from Congo was then frisked before being processed in the white trailer. (photo: Lorne Matalon)
US Border Patrol Agent Agent Leo Gonzales speaks with two migrants, a father and his five-year-old daughter, who said they had just crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico after an overland trip from Honduras. (photo: Lorne Matalon)
LA GRULLA, Texas–Since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11 2001, the United States has spent over 100 billion dollars on border security technology—cameras, drones, aerostats (“blimps”) airborne patrols, fencing and walls. But in the U.S. Border Patrol’s most active sector in terms of arrests, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, horses and the agents riding them are patrolling terrain that technology alone can’t alone control. As politicians debate an expanded and expensive border wall, this kind of “old school” border security comes at a relatively miniscule cost to taxpayers.
Using horses to secure the border is not new. It began in 1924, the year what became the modern-day Border Patrol was founded. Today what is changing is where the horses now come from and how critical they’ve become in what statistics show is currently the Border Patrol’s most active zone. Supervisory Agent Manuel Torresmutt leads the horse unit.
“Going into such rough terrain in the dark hours, the horse will take care of the rider,” said Supervisory Agent Manuel Torresmutt, leader of the horse unit.
He and a handful of agents were patrolling a sliver of the Rio Grande one hour west of McAllen, Texas and Reynosa, Mexico. The horses are mustangs captured on federal lands in the west.
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.
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 →
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.
CIUDAD HIDALGO, Chiapas — In 2012, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security declared that Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala was now essentially the southern border of the United States.
That was two years before the 2014 child migrant crisis that saw tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America crossing or attempting to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. Since then, the U.S. has in essence expanded its own border enforcement efforts by assisting Mexico on its southern border. In 2015, fewerCentral Americans reached the U.S., though the numbers undulate from season to season.
This border is porous even after the U.S. pressured Mexico to start Programa Frontera Sur, its southern border plan, in July 2014. The plan was crafted after President Obama said the unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied children and families arriving at the U.S. border in the preceding months constituted an “urgent humanitarian situation.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees later warned of a “looming humanitarian crisis in the Americas.”
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
CULIACAN, Sinaloa–A top boss of the Arellano Felix drug-trafficking cartel is now behind bars in Mexico. The man is a U.S. citizen. He was arrested yesterday following a joint intelligence operation by Mexican and U.S. agencies. American officials are praising Mexico’s determination in going after the traffickers. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has made it a top national priority. He’s ordered the Mexican Army to spear-head the fight. That means soldiers are heading into drug cartel territory to track down traffickers and destroy illegal crops. The World’s Lorne Matalon was an embedded reporter on one such mission, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Matalon: It’s early morning at the Sinaloa military base. Special Forces soldiers are getting their orders.
Matalon: Their Commander says, “Starting at 11, the first group will begin the mission, the second and third will block the entrances and exits.” The Mexican Army’s Special Forces–their faces covered by black balaclavas–are preparing to head out onto the streets of Culiacan, in Sinaloa state, home of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. Special Forces recently captured the group’s alleged money-launderer, while the son and brother of the cartel’s leader–Mexico’s most-wanted man–have just been sentenced to jail. The soldiers’ faces are covered because the Sinaloa cartel is killing soldiers, police and informants.