Boots on the Ground

human traffickingThe auditorium was packed at last week’s Human Trafficking Conference at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. Most of the audience were students; most of the presentations were by academics.

The PowerPoint presentations and the discourses tended to be long on statistics. While the earnest professors kept the jargon to a minimum, the language shortcuts did little to soften the horrible insight that slavery is doing better than ever, even in the twenty-first century.

The blows to the soul sharpened, however, when the journalists took the podium. First up was Dawn Paley, a Canadian working for the past ten years in Mexico. She had just published Drug War Capitalism, a book in which she meticulously lays out a damning indictment of how all of us, intentionally or not, have been tied into a massive scheme that brings banks, politicians, arms’ dealers and mining concerns into a celebration of plunder.

At the end of her presentation, a fellow at the back of the room asked, “So, you are saying that in the name of the war on drugs, capitalists are basically waging war on poor people?”

She paused for a moment, and then said, in perfect Canadian, “Yup.” She appeared to think about whether she had more to say on that.

She didn’t.

Oscar Martinez came on a bit later. A Salvadoran journalist, he too had a book—La Bestia—which recounted his experiences over the two years he spent traveling with Central Americans who crossed through Mexico on their way north. Referring to the “surge” of children that immigrated to south Texas this past June, Martinez simply said, “When the children are sent out of a country, the country’s heart is being ripped out of its chest. . .no one would send their child on such a journey—if there were an alternative.” He added, as a side note, that migration was an import/export business. “We sent you immigrants” he said, “and you sent us Zetas.”

Then Melissa del Bosque, a writer for the Texas Observer, walked onto the stage. Melissa had published two long pieces for her magazine on the human costs of America’s militarization of the southern border. She looked out a the crowd of south Texan students, and smiled, and then said, “I want to show you some videos.”.

The first clip was a set of interviews with ranchers who had found the bodies of immigrants on their south Texas’ properties.  The piece featured two men who had different opinions about the immigrants crossing their land. One fellow like to hunt them down, and the other fellow saw the migrants as a tragic part of the landscape.

The ranchers were white. The immigrants were Latino.

The students watching this video, were, by and large, Latino.

The room was quiet.

The second video was footage from the Department of Public Safety, shot from a helicopter that was in pursuit of a pickup truck. The truck was speeding along a dirt road, and it appeared that the agents were under the assumption that there were drugs under a tarp that covered the bed of the truck. A sniper in the helicopter was asked to shoot out the tires of the truck. After the sniper fired 18 times, the truck rolled to a stop. Half a dozen men piled out of the truck and ran off into the brush. There were no drugs, just people.

In the bed of the truck, under the tarp, two men were dying, wounded by the gunfire.

The third video that Melissa offered was a photo montage with audio from an interview with the dead men’s families. The families are Kaqchikel Indians from a tiny village in the Guatemalan highlands. As thb2c92-dpsshootingpressconference41ey told their story, sadness wafted out over the auditorium. It seems that the men who had been shot to death were on their way to work, travelling from Guatemala to New Jersey, where roofing jobs awaited them. Their travel across Mexico and into the USA were just part of their jobs, just part of taking care of their families.

Melissa’s talk ran long, and there was really no time for questions. We all filed out for lunch, or for relief.

Afterward, I kept thinking of another shooting, from another decade, from the other end of Texas (near El Paso). In 1997 a Marine named Bañuelos shot and killed a high school senior named Ezequiel Hernández. The high school senior was just doing his job (tending goats); the Marine was just doing his job, following orders (shoot to kill). Eighteen years later and things have gotten worse, as the war on drugs morphs into a war on immigrants.

The saving grace of this day, however, was the courage of the three journalists. One of them lives in the belly of the beast (Paley works from Mexico), one of them actually travelled on the beast (Martinez), and one of them issued a straight up challenge to the State of Texas (del Bosque). All three of them, in their own way, made those present an offering of hope. They shared a sense of the enormous power in figuring out the connections, naming the profit makers, putting faces on the victims, and acting like our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. That work is noble, and good, and, more than ever, necessary.

Agua

El Valle del Río Grande se limita al este con el Golfo de México, al sur por el Río Bravo, y al norte y al oeste por un enorme desierto de arbustos espinosos.

Es el extremo oriental de la frontera sur de los Estados Unidos.

gene at checkpointsHay dos carreteras que cruzan esta región fronteriza. Alrededor de ochenta millas al norte del Río Grande, el gobierno de los Estados Unidos ha establecido retenes de inspección permanentes sobre estas carreteras, credo, efectivamente, una segunda frontera. Las personas que viajan hacia el norte por la carretera 77 o la carretera 281 son detenidos e inspeccionados por los agentes de la patrulla fronteriza, que forman parte del aparato de seguridad nacional.

Un inmigrante que no tiene la documentación que el gobierno de Estados Unidos requiere para su viaje al norte puede optar por salirse de la autopista en un punto antes de los puestos de control, y intentar evadir los oficiales.

Este desvío implica entrar en el desierto, un lugar poblado de vegetación espinosa, y con víboras de cascabel, y caminar sobre una superficie suelta y arenosa que provee su propia forma de tortura a los caminantes.

De todas formas, muchos de los inmigrantes logran hacerlo.

Y hay muchos de ellos que no sobreviven el intento.

Hace un mes recibí una llamada telefónica de una mujer que estaba desesperado por saber si había alguien que pudiera ayudarla a encontrar a su hijo. “Uno de los compañeros que viajaba con él, dijo que mi hijo se había enfermado, y que habían tenido que dejarlo en la sombra de bajo de unos arbustos. . .me dijeron que el lugar era aproximadamente de dos horas a pie de este lugar llamado Falfurrias. Podrías ir a buscarlo? “, Preguntó, y luego empezó a llorar, dando como respuesta su propio dolor.

El sábado pasado, fui a visitar este lugar de tristeza. Estaba en la compañía de un grupo de estudiantes de medicina, buenas personas cuyos corazones no se han endurecido por el miedo que tanto domina nuestro país. Fuimos en coche, pasando el puesto de control de la Patrulla Fronteriza para llegar al pueblo de Falfurrias, Texas. Íbamos a las oficinas del Centro de Derechos Humanos del Sur de Texas, donde el Sr. Eddie Canales y Hermana religiosa Pamela Buganski, los administradores del proyecto, nos dio la bienvenida, y nos dio una visión general de su trabajo . Entre muchas cosas, Eddie y Sor Pamela mantienen cuarenta y siete estaciones de agua colocadas a lo largo de los senderos que se suponen que los migrantes utilizan. Estas estaciones son grandes barriles azules de plástico. Se ponen dentro varias botellas selladas de agua, y luego marcan el lugar con una bandera de la Cruz Roja.

Eduardo también recupera los cadáveres de los migrantes que muren en el matorral. Muy de vez en cuando, él ayuda en un esfuerzo de rescate.

Como Eduardo habló sobre los desafíos de crear alguna amistad con los ganaderos locales (los senderos migrantes cruzan la propiedad privada), Sor Pamela repartió un cuaderno que tenía fotografías de algunos de los pobres que murieron en el desierto, y que Eduardo había recuperado. Mientras tanto, la hermana compartió varias pizzas y refrescos.

Comer pizza y beber refresco de naranja mientras ver a los restos de los que habían muerto de sed. Ni siquiera sé cómo hacer un comentario sobre esa experiencia.

A continuación, la hermana nos puso a trabajar: cargar los tambores grandes, varias jarras de agua de un galón, y algunos tramos de tubería a una camioneta. Los tubos se utilizaron levantar una bandera de la Cruz Roja que indica la presencia del agua.

A medida que nos preparamos para salir, Sr. Pamela dictó, “Todo el mundo tiene que tener una botella de agua en la mano. Usted necesitará agua en dónde nos vamos “.

Con eso, nos fuimos desierto adentro, pasando por una carretera comarcal que se convirtió en dos carriles de arena compacta. Durante viaje, Eduardo no hizo ni una sola referencia sobre el mandato bíblico de ofrecer un vaso de agua a uno de los más pequeños, ni sobre el privilegio de salvar una vida anónima. En cambio, nos habló de la Constitución de los Estados Unidos.

“Cuando me pongo el agua y levanto esa bandera, me estoy expresando mi opinión, que es mi derecho hacer. Y con esa bandera, les estoy diciendo a todo el mundo, “Estas son personas, son seres humanos”, y luego agregó: “Si nos olvidamos de esto, entonces, como país, estamos desechos.”

La importancia del trabajo de Eduardo y la hermana va mucho más allá de las vidas que salvan, o el recordatorio que presentan y que es necesario que los inmigrantes son personas. Ellos, y los muchos, muchos otros que abogan por un modo de vida más humano a lo largo de la frontera, son de un especia muy diferente a los muchos, muchos otros de nuestro país que temen, estigmatizan y cazan a los inmigrantes.

Para Eduardo, la pérdida de las banderas es doloroso—y costoso. “Por alguna razón,” Eddie comentó, “a los vándalos les gusta robar la bandera. Supongo que no aguantan el hecho de tener que ver que el inmigrante en un ser humano, alguien que merece la protección de una Cruz Roja.”

El atardecer empezó a crear sus largas sombras, y nos fuimos, dejando a esta buena gente terminar su trabajo. A medida que el viento gemía a través de este lugar tan solitario, me di cuenta de cómo la bandera de la Cruz Roja que exponía contra el cielo azul. Se estaba diciendo, en Humano, “¡Oiga! Detente, y toma una copa de agua. Para llegar a donde vas, los vas a necesitar.”

A Drink of Water

The Rio Grande Valley is bounded to the east by the Gulf of Mexico, to the south by the Rio Grande River, and to the north and west by an enormous desert of thorny shrubs.

It is the eastern edge of America’s southern border.

(Photo by Mara Posada)

There are two highways that cross this border region. About eighty miles to the north of the Rio Grande, the US government has set up permanent inspection stations on these highways, effectively adding a second border to the Rio Grande. People travelling north along highway 77 or highway 281 are stopped and inspected by border patrol agents, who are part of the national security apparatus.

An immigrant who does not have the documentation that the US government requires for their travel north may choose to leave the highway at a point before these checkpoints, and set out through the brush country in an attempt to slip past the agents.

The area surrounding the checkpoint is an endless desert country, featuring low, thorny vegetation and a loose, sandy surface that, insult to injury, is as hard to walk on as beach sand.

Many immigrants manage to make it through this desert.

Many of them do not survive the journey.

A month ago I received a phone call from a woman who was desperate to know if there was anyone who could help her find her son. “One of the fellows who was travelling with him said that my boy had collapsed, and that they had had to leave him under some bushes. . .they said that the spot that they had left him was about a two hours’ walk from this place called Falfurrias. Could you go and find him?” she asked, and then broke down in tears, answering her own question with her grief.

Last Saturday, I went to visit this place of grief. I was in the thoughtful company of a group of medical students and physicians, good people whose hearts have not been hardened by fear. We drove up past the Border Patrol checkpoint near Falfurrias, Texas to the offices of the South Texas Human Rights Center, where Mr. Eddie Canales and Sister Pamela Buganski, the administrators of the project, welcomed us, and gave us an overview of their work. Amongst many things, Eddie and Sr. Pamela maintain forty-seven water stations placed along the trails that the migrants are known to use. These stations are large blue barrels filled with sealed, one-gallon water bottles and marked by a Red Cross flag flying about thirty feet above the barrel. Eddie will also recover the corpses of migrants who died in the scrub, and, on occasion, assist in a rescue effort.

As Eddie talked about the challenges of befriending local ranchers (the migrant trails cross private property), Sr. Pamela passed around a binder that had color photographs of some of the bodies that Eddie had recovered. She also shared out several pizzas and sodas. Eating pizza and drinking orange soda while looking at the remains of those who had died of thirst. I don’t even know how to comment on that experience.

We then helped Sr. Pamela load up seven large, blue plastic drums that had “AGUA’’ stenciled on the sides, several one-gallon water jugs, and some lengths of pipe into the back of a pickup truck. The pipes were used to fly a Red Cross flag that marked out the location of the water.

As we got ready to leave, Sr. Pamela dictated, “Everyone needs to have a bottle of water in their hand. You will need water where we are going.”

With that, we set out into the Wild Horse desert, taking a long drive along a county road that became two lanes of hard-packed sand. During the drive, Eddie didn’t make a single reference about the biblical mandate to offer a glass of water to one of the least ones, nor about the privilege of anonymously saving a life. Instead, he spoke of the United States Constitution.

“When I put out the water and raise that flag, I am expressing my first amendment right. With that Red Cross flag, I am saying loud and clear ‘these are people, they are human beings’”, and then he added, “If we forget that, as a nation, we are in a mess of trouble.”

The significance of Eddie and Sr. Pamela’s work goes far beyond the lives they save, or the needed reminder that immigrants are people. They, and the many, many others who advocate for a more human way of life along the border, are of a different cut than the many, many others who fear, stigmatize, and hunt down immigrants.

The most expensive part of Eddie and Sr. Pamela’s operation are the Red Cross flags. “For some reason,” Eddie remarked, “Vandals like to steal the flag. I guess making the immigrant into a human being, someone who deserves the protection of a Red Cross, is just too much.”

The afternoon sun began to cast its long shadows, and we left the two good people finishing up their work. As the wind whistled and moaned through the lonesome brush, I noticed the Red Cross flag marking the water station stood tall against the blue sky. It was saying, in Human, “Hey! Stop and have a drink. You will need water for where you are going.”

(To make a donation to the work of the South Texas Human Rights’ Project, follow this link).