It was the mud that I first noticed as we were escorted into the holding cell at the Santa Teresita Customs and Border Patrol station. Dried mud, on the cement floor, in chunks, broken up, trails of dust; even on the hard benches, next to a small pile of woolen blankets and a muddy pair of sweatpants. Next to used apple juice containers, stacked one inside the other, which had given some small relief.
The mud in that detention center was our reminder that someone before us had endured the harsh desert conditions, seeking a better life, only to be stopped, detained and probably sent back across the border. We were released 3 hours after being detained; the charges of “entry without inspection” had been dropped. The challenges facing the previous detainees were higher. Would they try to cross again, risking imprisonment or even death in the desert? Or would they go back home, condemned to a life of poverty and violence?
On the US side, in El Paso, delegates met with farmworkers who told their story of how immigrants, their livelihoods in their home countries destroyed by economic policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, initiated in 1994), risked personal harm crossing the border in order to get a job that pays more than what they could get back home. For a onion picker to earn the federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour, $58 per day), they would have to pick close to 3,600 pounds of onion in one day. Many of those who provide food for us can’t make enough to feed their own families.
Activists explained how the $7.3 million-per-mile fence constructed along the border has caused immigrants to cross further into the desert, leading the deaths of hundreds, while the flow of drugs hasn’t been significantly affected. The border wall – a dusty, hot jail cell – is killing people.
In Ciudad Juarez, the violence rages on. Since 2008, when President Felipe Calderón sent in thousands of troops and federales (federal police), the number of murders has skyrocketed. Ruben García, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, which gives refuge to immigrants once they cross the border, estimate that this spring will see murders hit the 10,000 mark, a grim reminder of the effects of failed War on Drugs. Young women continue to be picked up and killed, or disappeared into the vast network of human trafficking.
One activist from the Villas de Salvarcar colonia (neighborhood) said that those who are dying in Ciudad Juarez are the unarmed, the defenseless. Those who benefit, as we were told, were the big business men and corrupt politicians with development plans for the area, and backed by the police and drug cartels.
Villas de Salvarcar itself became a symbol of the Juarez violence, when in February 2010, 16 –mostly young- people were massacred at a party. It also was a point of transformation of society. When Luz María Dávila, who lost two sons in the massacre, confronted President Calderón and called him a liar for saying that those who were killed were involved in the drug business, it emboldened the Juarez community to continue the fight for a new social and economic system. (Calderón later retracted his comments and apologized). We visited the autonomous library and popular education center in Villas de Salvarcar, and left inspired by the resistance.
NAFTA decimated the Mexican economy, and when the people rebelled, the military violence kicked in. Mexico began sending more troops to the SOA after the implementation of NAFTA, with over 4,000 troops trained. The Ciudad Juarez chief of police, retired army Lieutenant Coronel Julian Leyzaola Pérez, is a graduate of the SOA, and has been accused by the UNHCR as well as Juarez activists of arbitrary detention, excessive violence and torture. SOA grads from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, from Honduras to Colombia and Peru are leading the attack on social activists, under the guise of fighting the War on Drugs. The Zetas drug cartel, a notoriously violent Mexican gang, is formed by a core of Special Forces members trained at the SOA.
The history of economic and military violence in Latin America and the Caribbean seems to have been put on endless repeat. We must break that cycle.
When your house is on fire, you do everything you can to leave and find a new home. When immigrants flee the violence of poverty caused by structural adjustment policies, or the violence of the false War on Drugs, they will come to El Norte, looking for a better life. Not only must we address the issue of the militarization of Latin America, but we must bring down that wall and demand justice for all immigrants.
Where the border fence ends at the foot of the Cristo Rey Mountain in Sunland Park, New Mexico, close to 100 people gathered on February 19, as we remembered the names of those who died crossing or have died in the violence in Juarez. When Roy and I crossed the line the separates “us” from “them”, we knew that the risks of jail time were nothing compared to what people risk each day. We crossed over and hugged activists from besieged Lomas de Poleo, as brothers and sisters in struggle, undivided in our struggle for justice.
Postscript: Today, February 21 marks the 7th anniversary of the massacre of San José de Apartadó in Colombia. La lucha sigue!
(watch a video of the border crossing below)