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This story was published in the Concord Monitor on July 28, 2016.

to detention

U.S. and Mexico Respond to Desperation with Detention and Deportation

(Editor’s note: In order to protect the identities of those profiled for this article, their names have been changed.)

Ricardo sounded desperate when we met him at a shelter for migrants in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca six years ago.  He was traveling north, trying to get to the United States for the second time.  The first time, he said, he was arrested by Mexican authorities and deported back to El Salvador.  “If I could stay in my country and make money, I’d never leave,” he said.

The dangers of the trail were well known: thieves, kidnappers, police, and perhaps a risky trip across the desert where plenty of people have perished from thirst and starvation.  “I could die on this journey,” he said, but he was willing to try one more time.  If he failed, Ricardo said, he would return to his mother’s home in El Salvador and “we’ll starve to death.”

In the past six years, the situation appears to have grown even more desperate for people like Ricardo.  But instead of taking action to support human rights and peaceful development, the United States is putting its weight behind enforcement and deportation on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

When unaccompanied children from El Salvador,  Honduras and Guatemala, also called the Northern Triangle, began showing up in large numbers at the U.S. border with Mexico two years ago, the Obama administration recognized “a humanitarian crisis,” to which it responded by opening new detention centers and stepping up the deportation of children and families.

In addition, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, “U.S. officials and members of Congress called for increases in U.S. assistance to help Mexico fortify its southern border, building on construction, equipment deliveries, and training support that began with the post-2007 ‘Mérida Initiative’ aid packages and intensified after 2011.”  gabriela with

“As you look at these children, they are all coming from Central America. If we can close the southern border of Mexico, that stops 99 percent of our problems here,” is how Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, characterized the situation at a hearing.

Speaking at a House budget hearing, Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), Chairwoman of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, stated, “Our neighbor, Mexico is on the front lines of combating the illegal migration issue and we must do all we can to help Mexico strengthen its borders.”

Mexico apparently got the message.  Since it introduced a new “Southern Border Program” (or “Plan Frontera Sur”), apprehension and deportation of Central American migrants has gone up.  In 2015, Mexico apprehended nearly 172,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle, up from 118,000 in 2014.  Apprehensions by Mexico of unaccompanied children from those countries went up by 70% during the same time. Meanwhile, U.S. apprehensions of unaccompanied minors went down by 42% from 2014 to 2015. 

So, while the program may reduce the number of migrants who reach the U.S. border, it worsens the real crisis.

Sandra’s case is disturbingly typical.  After her husband was killed by gang members in El Salvador, she fled to Mexico, where she was picked up and jailed for seven months.   Speaking recently in the safety of a church-related human rights group’s office in southern Mexico, she said she had produced proof that her husband had been murdered, even providing a letter from the local mayor.  Despite the evidence that her life, too, would be in danger if she went home, her request for asylum was denied and she was deported.  But with the gang threats still real, she was giving it another try.

We met Juan near another border crossing in southern Mexico.  He had fled Honduras with his pregnant wife and little boy.  After armed gang members stole the motorcycle he used for work, he filed a complaint with the police.  The gang responded with threats to kill him and his son.  

According to a recent report from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), “Increasing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras forced thousands of women, men, and children to leave their homes in 2015, mainly to Mexico and the United States. The number of refugees and asylum-seekers with pending cases in Mexico from these three Central American countries increased from 20,900 people in 2012 to 109,800 people in 2015.”

“The situation is so bad that people have no other choice but to flee,” a UNHCR representative told us.  By her estimates, some 400,000 Central Americans were crossing the Mexican border every year.  Half of them were probably in need of protection, but only 1% were even seeking refugee status in Mexico.  And of that small fraction, most would fail to get protection.  According to a staff member at the Mexican federal agency responsible for vetting refugee claims, only 3423 people filed applications for refuge in 2015.  Of those, only about 1100 were granted some form of protection by the Mexican government.

In addition to providing the Mexican military and police with millions of dollars of armaments, the U.S. is also stationing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents in Mexico to provide “mentoring” for members of the country’s immigration enforcement agency.

With stepped up enforcement by Mexico authorities, including shutting off the option of travel on the tops of trains, migrants have been forced into more dangerous routes.  According to Amnesty International’s latest report on Mexico, “Migrants and asylum-seekers passing through Mexico continued to be subjected to mass abductions, extortion, disappearances and other abuses committed by organized crime groups, often working in collusion with state agents.”

If they evade the odds and make it as far as the United States, they still run the risk of getting jailed rather than granted asylum.  Take Mario, a recent detainee at the Strafford County Jail in Dover.  He first came to the U.S. from Honduras when he was 14 years old, fleeing gang violence and direct threats to his life if he didn’t join. After he was deported back to Honduras and his father was killed, he returned to the U.S. and was deported once more.

Deportation did nothing to provide security from criminals at home, so Mario tried once again to make it to the United States.  This time he succeeded and not only found work in construction, he also fell in love, got married, and had 3 children.  But when he was arrested again, our legal system saw him only as a felon for crossing the border after deportation.  Once again he was sent back to Honduras, leaving his wife and children homeless and his own life in jeopardy.

The stories go on, each one unique but together painting a picture of widespread violence and governments focused on blocking migration instead of protecting those fleeing for their lives.

Though the recently announced expansion of the Central American Minors program is a step in the right direction, it will affect only a small number of the people fleeing violence in Central America and will not prevent the thousands of perilous journeys through Mexico each year.

Responding to past humanitarian crises, the U.S. has recognized and welcomed large numbers of refugees, successfully meeting our international obligations and often strengthening the communities where they settle.  There’s no reason we can’t do that once again with Central Americans instead of sending refugees back to their deaths.

Arnie Alpert is Co-Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program.  He recently participated in a two-week fact-finding trip to Mexico focused on human rights.

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The concrete under the nuclear reactor in Seabrook is rotting. (The official term is “alkali-silica reaction.”)  The nuclear reactor in Vernon, Vermont has outlived its useful life and is now operating outside the laws of the state.  It should be shut down immediately for safety reasons.  Hydro-fracking to produce natural gas is poisoning the air, water, and food supplies.  The burning of coal is changing the earth’s climate and some means of extracting it are destroying human lives and the natural environment.  The “Northern Pass,” a proposed network of power lines to connect the New England power grid with that of Quebec, will draw its electricity from reservoirs created by diverting rivers and flooding thousands of square miles of land, mostly land inhabited by First Nations people.  Whatever you think of the giant towers that have been proposed to transmit this electricity it’s not exactly “green energy.”

Having gotten that out, I have to say I’ve had generally positive thoughts toward plans to generate electricity from wind on New Hampshire ridges.  But it has not escaped my attention that objections to industrial wind farms in New Hampshire remind me of objections to similar projects in Oaxaca, Mexico.  And the cast includes some of the same corporate characters.

The December 11, 2012 NH Union Leader reports:

Opponents of a planned 37-turbine wind-power project on 6,000 acres of private land in Grafton, Alexandria and Danbury have started a petition asking state officials to stop the development.

"The negative consequences of this industrial wind farm development far outweigh the benefits. We the people want this stopped to protect our homes, our land, our communities," states the petition, which was written by Grafton resident Erin Darrow.

The project is planned by Spanish wind-energy giant Iberdrola Renewables, which recently built a 24-turbine, $120 million 48-megawatt wind farm in Groton.

Iberdrola also faces persistent resistance in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow part of Mexico between the Pacific and Caribbean in the eastern part of the state of Oaxaca, where it is one of the main developers of industrial wind farms.

A recent article by Jennifer M. Smith and published on Upside Down World states:

In April of 2004, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored a study to accelerate the development of wind projects in the state of Oaxaca, which found that the best area for wind project development was in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the heart of the ancestral Ikoots territory. 

Local residents have objected for several years to the terms of agreements between foreign windpower developers like Iberdrola, local landowners who cut private deals without community approval, and the far-off corporations that contract directly for the electricity.  Smith writes:

There are currently 14 wind farms built on land in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, with 4 under construction in 2012 and 3 more scheduled for 2013. According to the Declaración de San Dionisio del Mar, released on September 17 by the indigenous rights organization UCIZONI (La Unión de Comunidades de la Zona Norte del Istmo – The Union of Communities in the North Zone of the Isthmus), the communities affected by the 14 existing wind farms have not benefited from lower electricity rates; rather, the intention of the farms is clearly to serve the interests of transnational corporations such as Coca-Cola, Walmart, Nestle, Bimbo [Mexican manufacturer of a Wonder Bread-like product] and others. The wind turbines in San Dionisio are the first proposed turbines to be built in the sea. 

[See this article in Noticias, a Oaxaca daily published in Spanish, for a list of the wind projects.]

The developer behind the San Dionisio project is Mareña Renovables, which is owned by Mcquarie, an Australian investment bank. 

According to Jennifer M. Smith,

The proposed Parque Eolico San Dionisio (San Dionisio Wind Park), a wind farm to be constructed in the ocean along the coast, would consist of 102 wind turbines in the water outside the town of San Dionisio del Mar (and 30 more outside neighboring Santa Maria del Mar), two electric transformer substations, six access paths and additional support structures. It would take up 27 kilometers of coastline.  The multinationals implementing the project have also informed the Mexican government that they will need to install 5 mooring docks in the Laguna Superior, a coastal lagoon that local communities heavily depend on for fishing.

Mcquarie, by the way, happens to own 55% interest in the company that owns the company that owns the company that owns the company that owns the company that operates the water utility serving Hampton, Hampton Falls, and Rye NH.  (The other 45% is owned by an entity called British Columbia Investment Management Corporation.  I don’t know whose investments they are managing in this case.)  One question that has surfaced in relationship to such arrangements concerns the possible impact of international trade agreements on attempts to regulate projects owned by foreign investors. 

Members of the indigenous Ikoots community, which has lived in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region for thousands of years, say they would not even benefit from jobs on the project, which puts their traditional fishing livelihood at risk.  They have organized local protests and gone as far as Mexico City to get the attention of government agencies.  

It will be interesting to see if local resistance in New Hampshire follows a similar trajectory.  In both countries it will be interesting to see if wind farms can be developed in ways that meet community needs for democratic accountability and also meet needs for sustainably produced electricity.  

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From February 25 to March 4 I was in Oaxaca, Mexico as coordinator of a Witness for Peace delegation exploring links between migration and economic conditions, and also looking at steps Oaxacans are taking to make it possible for them to stay at home.  The fifteen delegates included 11 New Hampshire residents, plus two from Massachusetts, one from Rhode Island, and one from Washington DC.  Here’s my first report.

feb 28 006 

In the city, you only eat if you have money

It was market day in the village of San Miguel Huautla, where Doña Anastasia Velasco Lopez greeted us when we got off the bus. She handed us bags of bananas and mangos to carry back to her house a few hundred yards away. Her friend, Doña Maria Lopez Espinosa, with three colorful sombreros stacked on her head, joined us for the walk.

Our 15-member delegation, accompanied by two members of the Witness for Peace Mexico staff, was glad to off the bus and out in the fresh air. San Miguel Huautla is a two-hour ride on bumpy dirt roads from Noxchixtlan, a small city on the southern side of the highland region of Oaxaca known as the Mixteca.

Oaxaca is Mexico’s second southernmost state, second most indigenous, and second poorest. According to the state government, a third of Oaxacans are now living in the United States. Many more have left for northern Mexico.

The Mixteca occupies much of the Oaxaca’s center. It is known for the deforested, eroded hillsides which have made farming a challenge for generations. Of the state’s eight regions, the Mixteca is the one which has sent the most émigrés out of Oaxaca.

Doña Anastasia and Doña Maria aren’t going anywhere. The two women are “promotoras,” grassroots educators, with CEDICAM, the Center for Integral Development of Campesinos of the Mixteca, an organization dedicated to restoration of food sovereignty for the region. Through a grassroots process that encourages reforestation, water conservation, and organic farming based on ancient indigenous practices, CEDICAM is helping communities produce food and livelihood for themselves. Phil Dahl-Bredine, a former Maryknoll Missioner who now lives in a small Mixtec village and volunteers with CEDICAM, says the methods practiced by indigenous Oaxacans represent a “foundation for an agriculture of the future.”

Speaking of resource depletion associated with the over-consuming North, Phil saidfeb 28 005 we need “a whole change of mindset” based on indigenous knowledge. “We can’t feed the world with industrial agriculture,” he told our group at the organization’s headquarters on the outskirts of Nochixtlan.

Doña Anastasia and Doña Maria aren’t feeding the world, either, but they are immensely proud of the vegetables and livestock they grow to feed themselves and members of their community. Doña Anastasia showed us her new cistern, which will collect water during the rainy season and enable her to irrigate during the dry months. She showed us the peach trees she had planted, her worm farm, and the beds where she plants radishes, tomatoes, “everything.”

Like other CEDICAM members, Doña Anastasia is devoted to organic methods. “If I buy cilantro in the market, I don’t know how it was grown,” she said.

Doña Maria returned, by then wearing only one sombrero. Reminding me of anyone showing off her garden in New Hampshire, she showed us around the plots of land Dona Maria - Martha photo. where she raises radishes, greens, amaranth, cilantro, squash, green beans, peas, garbanzos, fava beans, mint, chamomile, barley, wheat, and cajete, an ancient variety of corn well suited to dry climates. She also raises sheep, but said sometimes the price of wool drops as low as one peso (less than eight cents) a kilogram and it’s not worth the trouble. “The way of life here is very difficult,” she told us.

So that her kids could go to school, she washed clothes and left home to work in Nochixtlan. Later she was able to buy livestock, and started selling tomatoes and candies. But hard as it is, she told us “I always say you can make a life here.”

Doña Maria’s idea of “a life,” though, might not be enough to keep the kids at home. Sometimes she sells food to construction workers, like the men who rebuilt a bridge near her fields. She also weaves hats in her home and sells them in the market. Doña Anastasia explained that while they can grow enough to feed themselves, young people leave because they want more: clothes, shoes, school supplies, and cash to help their families.

The village has only a few phones and there’s no regular TV reception, but some homes do have satellite dishes. (Doña Anastasia says she only watches DVDs.) The outside world may be a couple hours or more away by bus, but its shoes, clothes, and other attractions can lure the youth away.

Tomasa Velasco Sanchez tomasa y florencialives up the slope from Doña Anastasia. Her mama,  Florencia Sanchez, said they only plant a little because they have so little water. But Tomasa told us they plan to plant beans, corn, and wheat. The CEDICAM promotoras invited them to join a study group and attend workshops. That’s when they started working their fields and raising their own food. They have to haul water from a ditch, and in the hot season the ditch is empty.

Tomasa tells us that if she ever has kids, she wants to raise them in San Miguel Huautla. “In the city, you only eat if you have money,” she explained.

 

 

Thanks to Martha Yager for the photos of Doña Maria and of Tomasa and Florencia.

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See my report on a recent visit to New Hampshire by Kiado Cruz, from Oaxaca’s Autonomous Network for Food Sovereignty, on the AFSC web page.

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Amnesty International has just issued another call for an investigation into violence in the Triqui region of Oaxaca, especially violence committed against supporters of indigenous autonomy.

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Ollin Tlahtoalli Center for Mexican Language and Culture

A beautiful valley surrounded by mountains. A pleasant climate year-round. A vibrant arts scene. A center of civilization for more than two thousand years. A lively, picturesque city center with sidewalk cafes and street musicians. All these factors make the city of Oaxaca, capital of Mexico’s second southern-most state, a great place for foreigners to study Spanish. The Pacific beaches are only a few hours away. And what’s more, according to one school, “In the state of Oaxaca there is a large and diverse indigenous population. Even today it’s possible to appreciate their beautiful handicrafts, their colorful dresses, and to listen to their native languages.” It’s all true, and those areoaxaca 2010 08 12 044 among the reasons we decided to make a return trip to Oaxaca as language tourists.

We had been in Oaxaca before for Spanish classes in 2001. The school we chose, like all the others, promised small classes, experienced teachers, a variety of class levels, homestays with local families, and opportunities to learn about the region’s rich culture. My most pungent memory is a conversation period following the morning grammar lesson. “What should we talk about?” asked the teacher. “Let’s talk about beer,” answered my classmates, most of whom were students from the University of Dallas studying Spanish for credit. As much as I like beer, I was more interested in discussing Mexican history, Oaxacan politics, and the strike by thousands of teachers which had shut down the picturesque city center.

Oaxaca seethes with social, economic, cultural, and political conflicts, many related to the indigenous cultures the marketers want us to see primarily as “colorful.” Four years ago the conflict boiled over when the annual teachers’ strike was met by police violence. Instead of staying home, thousands of everyday Oaxacans joined the teachers in the streets. For months, popular grievances over government corruption, mistreatment of indigenous communities, and the impact of neo-liberal economic policies fed a large-scale uprising that was finally quelled by more government violence. As I contemplated a return trip to Oaxaca this year, I wondered whether any of the schools would help me understand the social movements which are part of what make the city so fascinating.

If you Google “Spanish language school Oaxaca” you can turn up tens of thousands of web pages with information about dozens of schools. Many of them advertise their proximity to the city center, cultural programs such as cooking and dance classes, tours to nearby archaeological sites, connections to local service projects, and wi-fi connections as well.

I’m glad I spent enough time Googling to find Ollin Tlahtoalli, which advertises no tours, cooking classes, or salsa dancing, and whose web site is hard to find unless you type the school’s name into your browser. Instead of amenities, Ollin emphasizes language instruction and connections to indigenous communities.

To say our classes were “small” would be an overstatement. When my partner and I were there for three weeks in the summer of 2010, we were pretty much the entire student body. Our three hours of class each day consisted mostly of one-on-one conversations on topics of mutual interest, such as racism in the USA and Mexico, the recently adopted immigration enforcement law in Arizona, the recent death of a prominent Mexican intellectual, the chronic water scarcity in Oaxacan neighborhoods, the upcoming state election, and the teachers’ union, which had once again shut down the city center to demand higher levels of support for public education. While we talked, my teachers would correct my grammar. Homeoaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 019 croppedwork assignments included grammar exercises and short essays on the issues we were discussing.

The school, whose name derives from Nahuatl words meaning “movement” and  “language,” is directed by Omar Nuñez, a linguist who grew up in Oaxaca. He and the other teachers are skilled, experienced instructors. In addition to teaching Spanish, Omar’s passion is for work with indigenous youth on issues of cultural identity.

Give Ollin a try if you’re looking for a small school with teachers who will tailor classes to your interests. I’ll bet Omar and the other teachers would even talk about beer, cooking, and salsa dancing if that’s what motivates you to study Spanish.

For more information, go to: www.ollinoaxaca.org.mx.

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oaxaca 2010 08 11 m alban triqui 037 

 Caravan to Mexico City Announced

OAXACA –Led by indigenous women from the Triqui ethnioaxaca 2010 08 11 m alban triqui 051c group, dozens of people marched through the rain June 11 to Oaxaca’s central plaza and began an encampment in support of San Juan Copala, a Triqui village that has been besieged for months by paramilitary forces and more recently by the Mexican army as well.

Speakingoaxaca 2010 08 11 m alban triqui 038 a press conference in Llano Park before the march, the women said their community has suffered more than 20  assassinations, which they blame on UBISORT, an armed group with ties to the political party of current governor Ulisses Ruiz Ortiz.  “If the government wants us to have negotiations they have to arrest the assassins of our comrades,” said Mariana Flores López.  She said the government knows who was responsible for the ambush of a human rights caravan in May, in which two human rights workers were killed.

A second caravan, in June, turned back before reaching the village due to the presence of armedoaxaca 2010 08 11 m alban triqui 047 cropped UBISORT forces. 

Yesterday’s march included Triqui street vendors who complained they have been treated unfairly by a corrupt city government.  The vendors are affiliated with the APPO, the assembly of organizations that emerged during Oaxaca’s 2006 uprising, which was violently suppressed by state and federal forces. APPO members continue to demand the release of political prisoners and for the governor to be held accountable for the murders, kidnappings, and assaults committed by his government.

Members of the Organización de Comerciantes Ambulantes en Resistencia 14 de Junio (June 14th Street Venders in Resistance) said they will keep the encampment going oaxaca 2010 08 11 m alban triqui 050until there is justice for the Triqui people. 

Also this week, women from San Juan Copala announced a 3rd caravan will take place at the end of August, from the Mixteca city of Huahuapan de Leon to Mexico City to demand federal government action to dismantle the paramilitary group which has besieged their community.

[Based in part on a report in the Aug. 12, 2010 issue of Noticias.]

 

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