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Posts Tagged ‘U.S./Mexico border’

It’s hard to tell some stories in less than four minutes.

In a recent piece on NPR’s All Things Considered, there was a lot of detail I left out on account of time. The story was about how residents in the northern Mexican town of Ascension literally took justice into their own hands by beating two suspected kidnappers who eventually died.

Mexican military outside the state police office in Ascension.

I arrived in Ascension in the company of Adriana Gomez Licon, a young, yet enterprising reporter from the El Paso Times. We figured we’d be safer making the trip together. Because car jackings are a problem in Mexico, we opted for a 2 ½ hour bus ride from Ciudad Juarez to Ascension. That put us in town at 1 in the afternoon. By then we’d missed a big city hall rally where residents demanded that the mayor fire all 14 remaining police officers. About half the force had already resigned the high risk job.

The event that set off the public’s fury was the kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl. Adriana and I visited the girl’s aunt, Mari Cruz. The following account is her version of the ordeal:

The girl worked at another aunt’s seafood restaurant in order to pay for her high school. Tuesday morning she was apparently counting money behind the counter when the kidnappers entered the restaurant and mistook her for the owner. Then they took her at gunpoint.

Supposedly, there was a total of six kidnappers traveling in two separate vehicles. One was a stolen truck allegedly snagged the day before from a Mennonite farmer in the neighboring town of Buena Vista. Word about the kidnapping spread quickly and soon an angry group of about 200 townspeople gave chase.

One of the cars got a flat and the three men inside were captured by the Mexican military and taken to Ciudad Juarez. They are charged with kidnapping and illegal weapon possession. The other car ran off the road and the three inside fled on foot into side lining cotton fields. The girl was left behind in the truck where residents were able to retrieve her.

When the three young men in the truck took off, an incredible pursuit ensued. Residents say the group of 200 combed the cotton fields determined to find them. A local farmer even flew out in his crop plane to assist in the search. Within 30 minutes the people found two of the young men.

The fate that awaited them was brutal. The people of Ascension carried with them pent-up coraje, a Spanish word that means something like resentment mixed with rage. One man, a local kitchen cabinet maker, took us out to the site of the first beating. It was a soft soil road in between two cotton fields. The cabinet maker, who will sit on city council next month, gave us his first person account.

This is the spot where two suspected kidnappers were caught and beaten by residents.

“When the people got a hold of them they began to beat them and they began to shout at them about how much harm they’d caused and how much they suffered because of them,” he said.

In the crowd, he said he saw the faces of brothers, fathers and cousins who had all had a loved one kidnapped or had been kidnapped themselves.

People recognized the two young men, he said. They grew up in the community.

“I yelled at them too,” said the cabinet maker. He said he didn’t participate in the beating and that he didn’t agree with the people’s actions. “But it was hard for me to say ‘okay, that’s enough’ because I’m not the one who’s loved one was kidnapped.”

After about 10 minutes of beating, the federal police arrived and took custody of the two young men. At least one is under 17 a state police representative told me. The feds supposedly took the young men in someone’s pick up truck to a small nearby military base. A group of townspeople rode in the back of the pick up to supervise the feds.

But police didn’t hold onto the two young men for long. Residents say that soon a larger, angrier mob of at least 1,000 arrived at the military base. They broke down the gate and got their hands on the two suspects and beat them yet again. The story gets a little unclear at this point, but I was told the feds were able to get the two suspects into a federal police car which the townspeople then surrounded and prevented the feds from accessing again. A seven hour standoff followed. Residents say the townspeople were even able to prevent a federal police helicopter from landing near the base by obstructing it’s landing space. Meanwhile the two young men remained locked in the hot police car, badly beaten. According to the autopsy report, they eventually died of their injuries.

Part of the public’s anger has to do with the fact that they’re drowning in crime and never see justice. One resident told us that over the past year this town of about 15,000 experiences on average three kidnappings a week. Even if the kidnappers are caught she said they are typically released within two weeks, especially if they are minors.

She said one of the young men who was beaten was a minor. Once at the military base, she said he yelled at the crowd, “See you in fifteen days!”

It’s hard to say what is fueling the kidnappings in Ascension. The mayor blamed it on people formerly employed by the drug trade. He said that with all the border security on the American side it was getting harder for them to cross their merchandise. So now they’ve turned to other criminal activity. I’m sure the bad economy could also be a reason.

Residents told us that most of the time the kidnappers release their victims once the ransom is paid. They say most survivors aren’t seriously harmed by their kidnappers. But a lot of people don’t have the money to pay ransom. Some go door to door asking their neighbors if they can spare a little cash to help them collect enough money.

“Don’t give them too much money” the neighbors say, “Otherwise they’ll go out and buy bigger guns.”

Now the residents of Ascension are forming a sort of neighborhood watch committee. They’re joining up with the nearby LeBaron community, also known as a town that made self-protection it’s own responsibility. It will be interesting to follow what becomes of this little town in the coming weeks.

An indigenous woman breastfeeds her daughter in the central plaza of Ascension.

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September 15, 2010

I refused to let Mexico’s 200th anniversary pass me by.

Yes, the country is in the worst state I’ve ever seen. People are dying horrific deaths. There is no justice. Corruption abounds and people live in fear. Life is not the same.

Local cartoonist, Jose Luis Gonzalez, plays the part of Padre Hidalgo and shouts the cry of independence before his neighbors.

One can easily and rather bitterly say, “There’s nothing to celebrate in Mexico right now.” I agree, but at the same time I don’t.

I celebrate the Mexico I know exists underneath the bloody muck that’s choking the country right now. I celebrate the Mexico I grew up in– on holy week at the springs near my great grandmother’s town and summer vacations playing with my cousins in the plaza. I celebrate the colorful and exciting culture of a people born from a meztizaje of Spanish and indigenous roots. I celebrate Mexico’s beautiful landscapes, her spectacular deserts, her mystic waterfalls, and breathtaking beaches.

We must not forget this Mexico, because this is the Mexico we have to fight for. If we don’t remember her and celebrate her, where are we supposed to draw the inspiration or strength to continue the fight? To me, not celebrating is like giving into the evil. I don’t want to give in. I want to fight for Mexico.

So I celebrated Mexico’s bicentennial. I chose to celebrate the country’s 200th anniversary in Ciudad Juarez at a simple fiesta organized by a local neighborhood association. I had the honor of being accompanied by poet and writer Benjamin Alire Sanez. He barely hesitated when I extended the invitation. Ben preferred to celebrate at a small neighborhood fiesta than accept a haughty invitation from the Mexican consulate in the United States.

“I want to be in Mexico,” he told me. Que hermoso.

I was certainly happy to have his company. After all, beneath my fighting spirit I was scared. I was terrified of driving back home from the fiesta on the deserted streets of Juarez in the early morning hours. But there was no way that was going to stop me. I was headstrong about celebrating.

The entrance into the neighborhood association.

Ben and I arrived at the entrance to the neighborhood association, a wrought iron gate decorated with a Mexican flag and barbed wire. A guard asked what was our business then took down my name and an ID. We continued through the gates wondering just how capable these apparently unarmed guards were of truly protecting the neighborhood.

The fiesta was in a park a few blocks behind the entrance. Red, green and white streamers were hung across the length of a concrete basketball court. Underneath, tables and chairs were set up where families sat, laughed and chatted. To the right was a space for karaoke. Behind it, a jumping balloon and a tent under which kids and grandmas were playing loteria, a game similar (but far more fun) than American Bingo.

Ben and I spent most of our time on the other end of the basketball court where women in frilly blouses and aprons were cooking all kinds of Mexican antojitos. There were enchiladas, taquitos, corn in a cup and pastel de tres leches.

Shortly after stuffing ourselves with a heavenly plate of red enchiladas, an elder man called everyone’s attention. It was time for el grito, or the traditional cry for independence, given at 11 pm on September 15. The man who gave el grito is a cartoonist for one of the local papers. He would tell me after the ceremony that he was chosen for el grito because of his physical likeness to Father Hidalgo, the rebel priest that who gave the original grito back in 1810.

The cartoonist’s words were inspiring.

“We gather to celebrate our independence,” he said. “We may have locked ourselves up but it is still our independence. This is the first event where can see solidarity between us as neighbors. Here’s to our unity spreading and leading us to a better future.”


Neighbors forget their sorrows for a moment and celebrate Mexico's bicentennial.

The neighborhood association is only six months old. Prior to its existence, people only knew a small handful of their neighbors. Now there are 140 households who actively participate and interact with each other.

“We came together because of the terrible violence,” the cartoonist later told me. “But out of a disgraceful situation our people have responded with solidarity.”

It’s true there is no cause to celebrate in Mexico right now, he said. But we can’t live our lives in constant tension, he said. So we organized this fiesta so families could spend time outside, interact with their neighbors and forget for a second the situation under which we live. We need it to lift our spirits.

I agreed with his words. Looking around me I saw joy and ease in people’s faces. It was easy to forget that we were in the middle in one of the most violent cities in the world. We enjoyed the warm night, the food and the music. And we were able to taste again that Mexico we all adore.

Benjamin Alire Sanez and I celebrating with a family in Ciudad Juarez.

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July 19, 2010

I held a microphone in one hand and a drippy strawberry ice cream cone in the other. At the opposite end of the microphone was a 24-year-old gangster with a shaved head and a tear drop tattooed on the corner of his eye. We were sitting in an outdoor pizza parlor in the garden of the Azteca wing in the Juárez municipal jail. Yes, you read correctly, a pizza parlor and a garden in jail.

The Juárez jail is not a minimum security facility. Most are locked up here while their cases go through judicial proceedings. But people are also here serving time for murder. The entire cell block we visited is filled with dangerous gang members. When greeting a pair of American reporters, though, most of them seemed as tame as kittens.

Inmates in the Azteca wing of the Juarez jail hang outside their cell buildings.

For this visit, I was tagging along with NPR’s Mexico City correspondent. We arrived just before lunch under a blazing desert sun and 100-degree weather. I went to the jail with the expectation that it wouldn’t be like any jail in the United States. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the laid back, almost festive atmosphere. Despite being surrounded by thugs and killers I felt safer inside the jail walls than outside in the city.

In the Azteca wing, the grounds and cell buildings were incredibly neat and clean. It felt more like a neighborhood than a jail. There were concrete benches and tables each shaded by a canopy, in-house restaurants, an art workshop, a vegetable garden and classrooms. The inmates are free to move in and out of their cells during the day. Women and children, usually family members, wander the grounds as do ducks, geese and goats.

The young man we interviewed was a gun smuggler from El Paso, a U.S. citizen in a Mexican jail. He said he wasn’t the only one. His job was to cross guns over the border from El Paso into Juarez. He didn’t get or buy the guns himself, that job belongs to someone else.  One day he was caught on the Mexican side of the international bridge and ended up in jail.

“This is the life I chose,” he said. No regrets.

As soon as he gets out, he said he’ll go back to the same life. He doesn’t have a choice, really. Used to be that the only ways out of a gang was by turning to God or death. Not now, he said, with the ongoing “war” between different drug cartels it’s all hands on deck. The Azteca gang, which he is a member of, is allied with the local Juárez drug cartel.

An inmate at the CERESO jail in Ciudad Juarez sits in his cell.

The Aztecas are the Juárez branch of the Barrio Aztecas, a gang founded by El Paso inmates in a U.S. federal prison. The young man we interviewed was recruited into the gang when he was 17 and serving time in a Texas prison. He said the reason he joined was more about protection than free will. The Juárez Aztecas and the El Paso Barrio Aztecas typically work together. Members have a special wing in the Juárez jail to avoid conflict with rival gang members incarcerated in other areas.

While we interviewed the El Paso gangster, other inmates brought us each a double scoop of ice cream in a large sugar cone. It was a strange situation to be in, sitting in the municipal jail of one of the most dangerous cities in the world, interviewing a gangster, licking an ice cream cone.

When we left the jail we didn’t marvel too long on the leisurely atmosphere of the place. Our thoughts lingered on the gun smuggler from El Paso and on how this drug war could only be possible with cooperation from both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.

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