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.

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