By Margaret Wright
— As promised, here’s the second installment of U.S./Mexico border stories that caught my eye this past year, curated in no particular order:
Mexicans in Exile — Saul Reyes Salazar’s voice trembled with emotion when he addressed a group of concerned locals, clergy members and activists in a church in El Paso, Texas early this year. “To demand justice in Mexico—to simply demand justice for one family member—is to take on a huge risk,” said Salazar. Dozens of human rights and social justice activists have been killed in the state of Chihuahua alone, he said, and the Mexican government always reports that they were involved in narcotrafficking. Six members of his own politically outspoken family were murdered in the small town of Guadalupe outside of Juarez after criticizing the government and its security forces. Salazar began receiving death threats. He decided to flee and petition for political asylum in the U.S.
Since I heard him speak in February, Salazar and other Mexican nationals who sought U.S. asylum banded together to form their own organization, Mexicanos en Exilio. Their aim is to raise awareness about human rights abuses in their home country. “What I’m doing now is the same as what I did in Mexico,” said Salazar, “trying to create peace organizations.” Unfortunately, he added, meaningful action to heal his country may have to come from outside. “For activists that are struggling to improve conditions in our country—the ones of us who are still alive—we are, for the most part, living in exile.”
Peace, Justice and Legalization — Early in 2012, the highest-ranking Mexican military chief said in a statement that “of course there have been errors” in the fight to stamp out drug cartel violence. Poet Javier Sicilia, who publicly traded his writing career for activism after his son was murdered, tried to address the violence head-on. He led a binational caravan to shed light on the effects of drug war policies in both countries. Members of the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity linked their message—that the War on Drugs has failed—with drug legalization activists in the U.S. Meanwhile, new Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has promised security improvements. He also opposes the legalization of marijuana.
High-tech “security” measures — We often hear about drones conducting surveillance or air strikes in distant places like Pakistan and Yemen. Unmanned military gliders also have a growing presence here at home. The Department of Homeland Security added vehicles to a Predator fleet that makes radar sweeps along the U.S./Mexico border and alerts security officials to possible illegal activity. Heavier drone activity in the border region could be a sign of things to come nationwide. In part due to a well-funded Congressional “drone caucus,” the federal government this year took action to allow widespread use of the aircraft, including by police departments and private companies.
Fast and Furious fallout — Fatal flaws of a gunwalking program carried out by an Arizona branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives continued to reverberate throughout 2012. The Fast and Furious operation was designed to trace illegal sales and smuggling of U.S. weapons to drug cartels in Mexico. But law enforcement didn’t do proper follow-up on the sales and trades they were monitoring. Thousands of guns continued to flow across the border, and many have since been used to commit crimes, including the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Congressional lawmakers released a scathing report that took ATF agents to task for mishandling the Fast and Furious operation, and the House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for not handing over documents related to Fast and Furious. Meanwhile, U.S.-linked weapons continue to surface at crime scenes in Mexico.
Downriver drought — Rocky Mountain watersheds suffered through another thirsty year. Agreements forged decades ago guarantee that the U.S. gives Mexico a percentage of water from the Rio Grande and Colorado River tributaries, but a prolonged lack of rain and snow has squeezed everyone’s supply. Activists stressed the crucial need for conservation and preservation of the Colorado River, which supplies 33 million people on both sides of the border. With their sights set on worsening drought, officials began signing off on revisions to old water-sharing rules. Along the Rio Grande, tensions flared when allotments for farming irrigation were drastically cut by water authorities.