Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Border’s Merry Pranksters

The Daily Beast
June 30, 2011
by Brian Curtis

A few months have passed without a peep from the feds, so it’s probably OK to talk about what happened down on the border on April 1:

A silver Dodge Caravan rolled through the hot South Texas plains. The last Border Patrol agents had drifted way, and the four men in the Caravan were feeling pretty good. True, Ron, the driver, had a puddle of sweat on his forehead. But that’s because, as one of the men puts it, “Ron is a white boy.” The van pulled within six feet of the border wall. Ron and his team slipped out. Their work took less than two minutes. Then they were driving north again, with a studied nonchalance that stopped just short of looking at the sky and whistling. Someone muttered, “Mission accomplished.”

Ron and his men aren’t gunrunners. They’re artists. They’d left a piece of art on the border wall. Politicians have called America’s 600-mile fence a snub to a friendly neighbor or a necessary roadblock against north-bound immigrants. Ron English, the New York street artist, sees it as a canvas. “It was a virgin wall,” English says proudly.

English, who is 52 years old, is like Banksy without the camera-shyness. A large man with white hair glaciating down the sides of his head, English invites me to his Beacon, New York, home to explain the details of the caper. The usual target of English’s art is a billboard. He seeks out a billboard with a corporate icon—Ronald McDonald, say—scales the thing, and replaces the image with one of his own wicked devising. Some people call this “culture jamming”; English calls it “billboard liberation.” After the English treatment, Ronald McDonald becomes a fatso. Joe Camel lies in state in a coffin. Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, which enlists poor Albert Einstein as a computer salesman, acquires a new face: Charles Manson.

English began liberating billboards in the 1980s in Dallas, where, to hear him tell it, he was defending the populace from “corporate ballyhoo.” English is a relentless corporate noodge; he has been called the “Robin Hood of Madison Avenue.” But since those early billboards, English’s work has gotten so skillful, so deliciously on the mark, that he has reached cultural jamming’s endpoint. These days, his billboards don’t lift from Madison Avenue as much as upstage it. English’s “Abraham Obama” poster became a totem of Obama’s 2008 campaign, while his John McCain spoof was arguably McCain’s most professional-looking ad.

English paints border walls, too. Back in 1986, he painted a sweeping mural on the Berlin Wall. In 2007, at Banksy’s invitation, English hung posters on Israel’s West Bank wall, working under the gaze of Israeli guards with rifles. "I wasn't that concerned with being shot," English tells me.

What’s with the wall-painting? “Nobody has any concept of a wall,” English says. “But if we go paint on it, then all these people will come photograph it.” The border wall, like a Mickey D’s ad, can no longer sit sedentary in the back of the American mind. Once the wall is jammed, it loses some of its metaphorical fearsomeness. You might even begin to wonder why the wall exists at all. After he’d conquered Berlin and Bethlehem, English’s friends asked him, “Why don’t you go paint your wall?”

The heretofore secret South Texas border-wall team can now be named: English; his assistant Beau Stanton; the Austin-based artist Antonio Reyna III; and Joseph Bravo, the executive director of the International Museum of Art & Science in McAllen. “We did it,” says Bravo, “so we as might as well confess to it.” Brian Wedgworth, a South Texas artist and sculptor, says he acted as a lookout down the road.

An English team comes together haphazardly. For instance, Antonio Reyna met English in a McAllen bar the night before the caper and somehow wound up in the van the next day. To run with English, you can’t mind being arrested. (English has been arrested several times.) Indeed, as the silver Dodge Caravan made its way to the border, Bravo, the museum director, announced he had pre-arranged his bail money. This was the moment Reyna began to envision himself being thrown into a hole by Homeland Security officials. “The whole time I’m thinking, Why are we here?” Reyna says. “For the sake of art, I guess.”

Reyna led the men to a section of the border wall between La Joya and Penitas, Texas, two specks on the map with a few thousand residents. This wasn’t the San Diego fence that pols like to pose in front of, or even the El Paso boundary, where a 15-year-old was shot by the Border Patrol last summer. This was a forgotten realm of America. “All the buildings on the north side of the wall are boarded up,” Bravo says. “All the businesses are boarded up. It was cryptic. There was something toxic. Life had existed, and then the wall happened. Now, everything was dying.”

The four men got out of the van. Earlier they’d seen Border Patrol SUVs parked like predators in the tall grass, and they knew they’d be back. “Our window was less than two minutes,” Reyna says. The South Texas wind was blowing so hard that Reyna and Bravo had to hold the flapping poster facedown on the ground, while English slathered the thing with wheat paste. Bravo caught a glop of paste right in the eye.

The poster was typical English. It featured a two-headed donkey, one donkey head decorated with a U.S. flag and the other with a Mexican flag. If the men had paused to consider English’s message, they might have thought the United States and Mexico are linked by historical destiny, but that mulish policies on both sides had created the current madness. But nobody had time to think of that. They slapped the poster on the border wall, took a photo, and hopped back in the van. On the road, they passed Border Patrol agents cruising toward the spot they’d just vacated. Later, the men celebrated by drinking Dr Pepper.

English’s team also crossed the border into Reynosa, Mexico, where they unveiled another piece of art. It was a cardboard Uncle Sam, designed to look like the signs you see next to roller coasters telling you the minimum height. The sign read, “You must be this color to enter this country.” A photo of that piece wound up on Boing Boing.

So: Can we consider the border wall jammed? Stanton: “As far as execution, it could not have gone better.” Bravo: “It was wonderful. Tremendous impact. It put wind in everybody’s sails in the art world down here. It’s a little anticlimactic that it’s over.” Reyna: “Ron did shake it up a little. He added fuel to the fire. He was the rock in a pond and the waves are still going, you know?”

A week after the caper, Brian Wedgworth, the lookout, went back to the border wall. He found English’s donkey poster had been mauled. Someone had torn off the Mexican half, leaving the metaphorical “America,” here at its most extreme point, cut off and alone. Now that was an artistic statement! Joseph Bravo says, “At which point I thought, Everybody’s a curator.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

US border security — expensive with mixed results

Associated Press / MSNBC
June 26, 2011
by Martha Mendoza

HIDALGO, Texas — Perched 20 feet above a South Texas cabbage field in a telephone booth-sized capsule, a National Guardsman passes a moonlit Sunday night with a gun strapped to his hip, peering through heat detector lenses into an adjacent orange grove.

Deployment of 1,200 National Guard soldiers for one year: $110 million.

This same night, farther west on the border, a haunting whistle blasts through the predawn quiet as a mile-long train groans to a heavy stop halfway across a Rio Grande River bridge. In a ritual performed nightly, a Customs and Border Protection agent unlocks a gate, a railroad policeman slides the heavy doors open, and they both wave flashlight beams under, over and in between the loads of cars, electronics and produce, before they pass through an X-ray machine searching for hidden people or drugs.

One rail cargo x-ray screening machine: $1.75 million.

On this night in southern Arizona, a screener examining tractor-trailer loads of charcoal spots something odd and asks for a closer look. Drug sniffing dogs bark. He finds 8,000 pounds of baled marijuana in several trucks.

Customs and Border Protection officer average annual salary: $75,000. Drug-sniffing dog: $4,500.

As Congress debates border funding and as governors demand more assistance, The Associated Press has investigated what taxpayers spend securing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The price tag, until now, has not been public. But AP, using White House budgets, reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional transcripts, tallied it all up: $90 billion in 10 years.

For taxpayers footing this bill, the returns have been mixed: fewer illegal immigrants but little impact on the terrorism issue, and certainly no stoppage of the drug supply.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists didn't come from Mexico, but the attacks led politicians to re-examine border security. Ten days later, President George W. Bush announced a new Department of Homeland Security, with tasks including the security of the nation's porous southern border.

Over the next 10 years, annual border spending tripled as the U.S. built an unprecedented network along the 1,900-mile border with Mexico: 165 truck and train X-ray machines; 650 miles of heavy duty fencing and sheer concrete walls; twice as many law enforcement officers along the entire stretch, and a small fleet of Predator drones. Also, remote surveillance cameras, thermal imaging devices and partially buried ground sensors that sound an alarm back at headquarters if someone steps on one in the desert.

"Our obligation to secure our borders involves a responsibility to do so in the most cost effective way possible, and we recognize that there is no 'one size fits all' solution to meet our border security needs," said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler.

Over the years, the goals of the border security measures have shifted.

Early concerns that terrorists could sneak weapons into the U.S. from Mexico were later overshadowed by worries about violent drug cartels slaughtering people across the Rio Grande. As the U.S. economy faltered, preventing illegal immigrants from sneaking north for jobs became the focus.

Story: Mexico president defends drug war tactics
"Border security is no longer just about responding to 9/11. It became very much a part of the immigration debate," said Jena Baker McNeill, homeland security policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, stopping immigrants at the border has become a bargaining tool for the last two administrations with Congress — fences and guards in exchange for reforming immigration laws, she said.

The buildup has dramatically reduced illegal immigration. Ten years ago, border agents caught 1.6 million illegal immigrants in one year. Last year they caught just 463,000. The drop is attributed in part to the U.S. recession which decreased jobs here, but it's also an indication, according to federal officials, that fewer people are attempting to illegally cross the border.

But the spending has not worked to stop the flow of illegal drugs. Last year, border guards seized a record 254,000 pounds of cocaine, 3.6 million pounds of marijuana, and 4,200 pounds of heroin. In response, Mexico's cartel bosses simply sent more: trainloads of marijuana, cocaine stuffed in fenders and dashboards, heroin packed into young men's shoes.

An estimated 660,000 pounds of cocaine, 44,000 pounds of heroin and 220,000 pounds of methamphetamine are on American streets in a given year, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. A fraction of that amount is seized at the border, a small operating cost for Mexico's drug lords, who will reap an estimated $25 billion this year from their U.S. sales.

Last month, a Justice Department study reviewing the total cost of illicit drug use in the U.S., using cost-of-illness studies, federal crime and caseload statistics, and economic models, came up with a figure of $193 billion per year.

"You can't ever seal the border. You can never stop anything 100 percent. As long as there's a market, as long as there's a profit, there will always be someone taking a chance on getting that product through," says Democratic U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, a former Border Patrol director.

Despite the surge of violence just a stone's throw away — the death toll in Mexico's crackdown on cartels is more than 35,000 — the Obama administration reports communities on the U.S. side of the border enjoy relative peace. Nor have terrorists typically crossed the border to enter the U.S., officials note.

Still, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, warns against complacency.

"There is a disagreement about the definition of spillover violence and the extent of such violence, but there should be no disagreement about the threat we face and what will happen if this Administration continues to downplay the threat," he said. "So what should we do? For starters we should get out of our foxholes and lean forward against this growing threat. If we don't, the cartels will eventually attempt to take over our cities."

If Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano could talk to Mexico's drug cartel bosses, here's what she says she would tell them: "Don't even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response."

And if she could talk to would-be illegal immigrants, she'd say this: "There are more Border Patrol agents on that border than ever before. There are more customs officials. There is more technology. Do not throw in your lot with the cartels or the criminal organizations because the likelihood of getting caught, and the consequences of doing so are higher than ever before."

For 2012, the Obama administration's record high budget for border security proposes an additional $242 million to pay for high tech watch towers and movable screeners along the border, $229 million to raise border agents' pay, and $184 million to identify and deport criminal aliens in state prisons and local jails. That's on top of about $14 billion to support the ongoing infrastructure.

Over the years, budget allocations tell a story of a shifting border policy.

In 2002, as post-9/11 security checks created 4 hour waits on the border, the Bush Administration sought $380 million to construct a state-of-the-art entry and exit visa system.

In 2006, the federal government ended an immigration "catch and release" policy in which local police had been releasing illegal immigrants if they hadn't committed a local crime. Now they would be turned over to feds and face immigration charges. That year taxpayers spent $327 million for 4,000 new beds to hold the suspected illegal immigrants until they could be legally processed.

This January, the Obama administration dumped SBInet, an attempt to install a high-tech "virtual" border fence project that cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion but did little to improve security.

"From the start, SBInet's one-size-fits-all approach was unrealistic," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "The department's decision to use technology based on the particular security needs of each segment of the border is a far wiser approach, and I hope it will be more cost effective."


Are border priorities now matched by spending? The answer depends on whom you ask.

"At some point we got the misconception that border security means securing the border," said Andrew Selee, director of the Washington-based Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan think tank. "It's actually about something much more comprehensive, from reducing drug use to reforming immigration laws, all the while facilitating legitimate trade. The spending needs to match the goals."

Customs and Border Patrol's main job is to protect the U.S. from terrorism. But it's the U.S-Canada frontier — which taxpayers spent $2.9 billion securing last year — that is "the more significant threat" when it comes to terrorism, CBP head Alan Bersin told senators at a recent hearing.

Bersin said this is because the Canadian government won't use the FBI's no-fly terrorist watchlist. (Canada has its own.) "We are, more than we would like, confronted with the fact where a No-Fly has entered Canada and then is arrested coming across one of our bridges into the United States," Bersin said.

Just over 6,000 people were arrested — for all reasons, not just for being on the no-fly lists — at the U.S.-Canada border last year, compared to 445,000 arrests at the Mexican border.

In Texas, El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar calls the $2.6 billion, 650-mile border fence that winds through the south side of her city, "a rusting monument that makes my community look like a junk-yard." Even worse, the rows of 18-foot welded steel bars along the Rio Grande River don't do anything to address El Paso's costs from Mexico's drug wars, she says.

"Border residents have seen their communities used as a convenient backdrop to heated debates and political posturing about immigration and drug policies," she says.

For example, since 2008, when violence exploded across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, hundreds of near-dead victims have been rushed across the border to public emergency rooms where taxpayers have spent $4.9 million in trauma care for those victims to date. And local sheriffs are overwhelmed with policing transnational gangs. Jails, she said, are overcrowded. Prosecutors juggle cases that should be handled by feds.

"Where has some of the federal funding gone, if not to my trauma facility or increasing my law enforcement capacity?" Escobar asks, then answers her own question. " It's gone to a wall."

Nelson H. Balido, president of the Border Trade Alliance, questions whether federal border funding has shortchanged security at ports of entry, in favor of security between them.

"If there aren't enough inspectors to open up all the lanes at a land border port during a period of peak traffic, then shipments can get stuck waiting in sometimes miles-long backups, stalling just-in-time manufacturing operations and increasing costs," he said.

Nor does random vehicle inspection make sense, he said, comparing it to "a search for a needle in a haystack, often resulting in increased delays and congestion to residents and the trade."

Gil Kerlikowske, the outgoing director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, said he doesn't think the country can completely stop drugs from crossing its borders and advocates a holistic approach that includes border security as well as prevention and treatment programs to lessen drug demand.

"I don't think we have a real choice but to make sure that we're putting the appropriate amount of money and technology into the border," Kerlikowske said. "But I also think when it comes to the drug issue that we need to be really focused on not just thinking about it from an enforcement end only."

Monday, June 27, 2011

Barrier Rebuilt: As a new wall is built through Nogales, well-known art is being relocated or destroyed

Tucson Weekly
June 23, 2011
by Margaret Regan

A man named Enrique was packing up his hot dog cart on Calle Internacional in Nogales, Sonora, late one recent hot afternoon.

Asked his opinion of the new border wall across the street, he looked up appraisingly at the 18-foot steel posts looming above him.

"It's más beautiful," he said, speaking in the Spanglish of the borderlands. Prettier than the old wall.

Not everyone agreed. At the bus stop down the street, an older man shrugged. The two walls were "igual." he said. Equally ugly.

The old landing-mat wall, covered with graffiti and grassroots murals, has been coming down for months, removed piece by piece by Granite Construction, a firm contracted by the Border Patrol. The graffiti has vanished along with the wall, but some of the wall's best-known artworks have been rescued.

The acclaimed Paseo de Humanidad, a cavalcade of painted metal figures, was moved last year, much of it to a gallery in Tubac. A painted mural of Chiapas was rescued just last week, after a last-minute campaign by supporters, and returned to artist Guadalupe Serrano.

The corrugated panels are rapidly being replaced by the towering new poles, which rise as high as 30 feet in some places, says Steve Passement, a Border Patrol supervising agent. The massive poles, 6 inches square and filled with concrete, descend 6 feet down into the earth. The $11.6 million project should be finished sometime in July, and when it's done will slice through 2.77 miles of Ambos Nogales.

The beauty of the new wall, from the Border Patrol perspective, is that it's see-through. The heavy posts are separated by four inches of open air, too small for a body to slip through, but big enough for la migra to look south into Mexico.

"Our agents need to be aware of what's on the other side," Passement said. "There's always the chance of being rocked"—hit by rocks thrown from the other side. "The new (wall) definitely gives agents an awareness."

But the open spaces cue in potential wall-crossers as well. As Enrique closed up his cart and prepared to head home, three likely migrants ambled down the street, equipped with telltale border-crosser backpacks. They could see right through the new posts to a Border Patrol agent stationed on the other side. They laughed when they saw him pacing just yards from the barricade they intended to cross, then turned and walked off in another direction.

The old wall was flimsier—coyotes routinely used torches to blast holes in its thin metal skin—but it was opaque. Neither crossers nor agents could see their opponents on the other side.

A rough patchwork of used helicopter-landing pads, it was hastily cobbled together in the 1990s when immigration was beginning to surge into Arizona. The Army had discarded the flats after using them in the Persian Gulf and in the jungles of Vietnam, and was only too happy to turn them over to the Border Patrol free of charge.

Rising up 12 to 15 feet—miniature compared to the new wall—the landing-mat fence was colored the purples and rusts of a bruise. It was unapologetically ugly, and its battle history provided an uncomfortable metaphor for an international border between two nations at peace.

But it had at least one aesthetic virtue: It was flat, and it was big, a perfect canvas for grassroots art of all kinds.

Naturally, there was plenty of graffiti, mostly consisting of angry rants against the United States. As of last week, one bit still survived, on a section of the old wall still up east of the DeConcini Port of Entry. Painted in white against red, it read: Mundo sin fronteras ya basta, which loosely translates as: "A world without borders. Enough walls already."

On the west side of the port, where much of the old wall has already been replaced, white crosses memorialized the deaths of migrants. (Coalición de Derechos Humanos counts 2,192 known deaths in Southern Arizona in the last 11 years.) Once nailed to the landing flats, the crosses are gone now.

Paseo de Humanidad was west of the crosses. An international project completed in 2004, the aluminum artwork was a collaboration between Serrano; the late Alberto Morackis of Taller Yonke in Nogales, Sonora; and Alfred Quiroz, artist and art professor in Tucson.

The Mexican team constructed colored figures of migrants and migra in the Arizona desert, offering warnings to would-be border-crossers of the dangers ahead. Quiroz added milagros, heads and hearts that were like prayers in aluminum. (See "Artistic Warning," May 13, 2004.)

Paseo was taken to safety long before the arrival of the demo crew the week of June 6. Since last November, the Serrano-Morackis portions have been on view in the sculpture garden at K. Newby Gallery in Tubac. Serrano said last week he's hoping to take it down by Wednesday, June 22, and store it in Rio Rico pending its next exhibition.

"I got an invitation to exhibit it at the UA in November, but it's not definite yet," Serrano wrote in Spanish in an e-mail. Quiroz's milagros are back in Tucson with their maker, he added.

The Chiapas mural had a much narrower escape. Its fate was still in doubt as late as early last week, when the wrecking machines were scheduled to knock down the portions of the old wall clinging to a steep hill along Calle Internacional.

A community group, led by Serrano and Morackis, had painted the mural directly onto the border wall in 2005, Serrano said. Officially called "Vida y sueños de la cañada perla¨ ("Life and Dreams of the Pearl Stream") and nicknamed the "Mural de Taniperla," it depicted indigenous people living an idyllic traditional life in the mountains of Chiapas. It was a copy of a 1998 work painted by Sergio Valdez and numerous Tzeltal Indians in embattled Chiapas, where the Zapatistas were in a standoff with the Mexican army. The army invaded the town and destroyed the original, Serrano said, and Valdez was jailed for six months.

To show their support for the people of Chiapas, artists around the world painted identical murals on their own hometown walls. The Nogales version was a community project, painted by people on both sides of the border, Serrano said.

Last week, a last-minute campaign by Serrano; Dan Millis, of the Sierra Club's Borderlands Campaign; Congressman Raúl Grijalva; Susannah Castro, of the Tubac Center for the Arts; Bob Phillips, of the Santa Cruz Community Foundation; and his counterpart in Nogales, Sonora, Alma Cota de Yanez, of Fundación del Empresariado Sonorense (FESAC), won the mural a reprieve.

"The Border Patrol was cooperative," Phillips said.

The Border Patrol "reached out to Granite," Border Patrol spokesman Steve Adkison said, and gave the construction company instructions to take down the panels carefully and turn them over to the artists. Early on June 16, the mural's 30 panels were gently felled. The pieces were hauled to Serrano's studio, where they are being held in safekeeping until a new location can be found.

It's unclear whether the new wall can accommodate art. Now that the agency has a clear view through the barrier, Agent Passement said, "We won't permit anyone to block it or hang things on it."

Crosses and metal sculptures might be out, but it's not hard to imagine artists painting the 6-inch wide posts, trailing designs across the openings.

In any case, enterprising families have already found a way to take advantage of the see-through new wall. A few days before Father's Day, several families were having a cross-border visit in a quiet district east of the port of entry. The mothers and children were on the Mexican side of the wall, and the dads were on the American.

One little girl had dressed up in pink to see her father. She sat by her mother, her legs dangling into the ditch created by the new wall. Her parents leaned into the poles, and her father listened intently as her mother spoke.

A few feet away, a little boy of about 5 or 6 had brought along a school paper—a drawing, perhaps?—to give to his father. The child was too small to push the paper into the United States, so his father thrust his own hand between the bars, and reached toward his child in Mexico.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Border shooting reignites use of force debate

San Diego Union-Tribune
June 22, 2011
By Sandra Dibble and Debbi Baker

SAN YSIDRO — The shooting death of a 40-year-old Tijuana resident by a U.S. Border Patrol agent Tuesday night has reignited a debate about the agency’s use of force in rock-throwing incidents.

Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat issued a statement from Mexico City Wednesday that strongly condemned the shooting, stating: “The use of firearms to repel rock attacks, which preliminary information indicates may have happened in this case, represents disproportionate use of force.”

Four other fatal shootings by Border Patrol agents who reported being under rock attacks have occurred nationally since 2008.

Not all the details of Tuesday night’s incident are clear.

According to the San Diego Police Department, the agent had spotted three men crossing at the border fence just before 7:30 p.m. about a half mile west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

The agent called for backup and when a second agent arrived they tried to arrest the trio. Two of them fled back into Mexico through an opening in the fence, said San Diego police homicide Lt. Ernie Herbert.

Agents caught the third man who resisted arrest and started to fight.

During the struggle, one of the other men leaned over the top of the fence and hurled large rocks and a piece of wood with nails sticking out of it at the agents, Herbert said.

The piece of wood hit one of them in the head, the lieutenant said.

As the man began to throw another rock, an agent opened fire, hitting him once. The man fell back into Mexico and died, Herbert said. Authorities identified him as Jose Alfredo Yañez Reyes.

The man involved in the scuffle was arrested.

The agent who opened fire has been with the force for three years. His name had not been released. The agent who was hit with the board was treated at a hospital and released, police said.

Ralph DeSio, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, issued a statement that said: “A thorough, multi-agency investigation is currently on-going after the agent-involved shooting death of a Mexican national.

“CBP regrets the loss of life and awaits the results of the investigation into this incident.“

Reyes was shot in the left eye, said Fermín Gómez, an assistant attorney general for the state of Baja California. He fell at the foot of a tree on the Mexican side of the border fence. Because of the cross-border nature of the incident, the investigation has been taken over by the federal Attorney General’s office, and that they are collaborating with U.S. authorities.

Born in the state of Sinaloa, Yañez Reyes described by Mexican authorities as a longtime Tijuana resident who lived with his 18-year-old girlfriend and their son in a western area of the city called Colonia Santa Rosa.

The woman, Mayra Paredes Niño, gave a statement to the Mexican federal attorney general’s office Wednesday afternoon. She did not make a comment as she left the building.

Paredes, who is five months pregnant, said Yañez had not spoken to her of his intention of crossing to the United States, according Baja California’s human rights ombudsman, Heriberto García, who met with her following the shooting. Paredes said that Yañez worked as a tow truck operator and occasionally helped his father as a laborer, according to García. He was separated from his wife and three children, who live in Ensenada.

Christian Ramirez, national coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, called the shooting “another abuse of authority by Border Patrol agents.”

“We are very concerned by this pattern of violence along the U.S.-Mexican border,” Ramirez said.

He said he heard different versions of what may have happened.

Mexican human rights organizations have said that Yañez was walking toward a car impound lot, to recover his vehicle that had been stolen earlier in the week. He was to meet his wife there, Ramirez said.

“We have not confirmed whether Jose Alfredo was trying to enter the United States, was throwing rocks, or a passerby,” he said.

The four other fatal shootings since 2008 occurred in San Diego, Arizona and Texas.

In August 2008, a 23-year-old man was shot on Mexican soil west of the San Ysidro border when Border agents opened fire after being subject to a rock attack by a group of people suspected of trying to illegally enter the United States.

In 2010, an agent shot and killed a 15-year-old boy who authorities said was throwing rocks at him near the border in El Paso. In January, a 17-year-old who was also said to be throwing rocks was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent near Nogales, Ariz.

In March a 19-year-old U.S. citizen who was allegedly running from agents was shot and killed near Douglas, Ariz. after a rock throwing incident.

The Border Patrol reports that 20 agents in the San Diego sector have died in the line of duty since 1925 including Agent Robert Rosas Jr. who was ambushed and killed in July 2009 near the border fence in Campo.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Binational effort helps rescue border fence mural

Nogales International
June 21, 2011
by Jonathan Clark

A community mural painted on the border wall separating the U.S. and Mexico was saved from the scrap heap last week through a binational effort, and an artist who was integral to its creation and salvation says he hopes the artwork, which represents popular resistance, will one day rise again at its original location.

The 60-foot-long mural, titled “Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla,” or “Life and Dreams of the Perla Ravine,” was painted by people from both sides of the border in 2005 on the Sonoran face of the landing-mat fence running through Ambos Nogales, a few hundred yards west of the DeConcini port.

It’s a replica of a mural painted in 1998 by Tzetzal Indians on the façade of the community center of Taniperla, Chiapas to represent their lives and dreams after declaring themselves part of an autonomous Zapatista revolutionary municipality. However, on April 11, 1998, a day after the mural and the autonomous municipality were inaugurated, the Mexican Army retook control of the town, destroyed the mural and jailed the man who had directed its creation, university professor Sergio Valdez.

Nogales, Sonora-based artist Guadalupe Serrano, who along with his creative partner Alberto Morackis brought Valdez to the border city for the re-creation project in 2005, said that after U.S. crews replacing the 2.8-mile-long landing-mat fence with a taller, stronger barrier reached the downtown area last month, city officials warned him that the “Vida y Sueños” replica might also be destroyed.

At the same time, he said, he learned that wheels had also begun to turn in Arizona in an effort to save the mural.

“What happened was that in Tucson, there’s an organization called the Sierra Club, and a guy from that organization named Dan Millis got in touch with Congressman Raul Grijalva,” Serrano said.

In a letter dated June 8, Millis, along with Kim Roseman of the K. Newby Gallery in Tubac, Susannah Castro of the Tubac Center of the Arts and Bob Phillips of the Santa Cruz Community Foundation, urged Grijalva to investigate the status of “Vida y Sueños” and other nearby fence art and iconic graffiti, “and act to ensure that these cultural resources are protected for future generations.”

Grijalva responded by dispatching staffer Ruben Reyes to coordinate with the Border Patrol (a Grijalva spokesman said the agency was “very cooperative”), who then worked with contractor Granite Construction to arrange a safe takedown and handover of the mural panels to Serrano.

Early last Thursday, Serrano and members of his art collective Taller Yonke (Junk Studio) showed up at the border fence with a trailer and some tools to dismantle and haul off the mural panels after a Granite Construction crane lifted them off their footing in the United States and laid them on the ground in Mexico.

“We saved the whole mural,” Serrano said. “There were just two pieces at the end that were already gone.”

The other nearby iconography – a mural depicting a loteria card version of the floating eye pyramid, an array of white crosses representing migrant deaths and painted slogans including “Fronteras: Cicatrices en la tierra” (“Borders: Scars on the Earth”) – were not so lucky.

“Those things were in another area, and by the time we realized what was happening, ‘La Migra’ had taken them away,” Serrano said.

There was another important object, not attached to the fence but mounted directly in front of it, that Serrano was able to save: a bust of his collaborator and fellow Taller Yonke founder Morackis, who died in December 2008 from pneumonia, two days short of his 50th birthday.

Border art

Serrano and Morackis began using the Nogales landing-mat fence as a forum for socially and politically conscious art in 2003 when they unveiled “Border Dynamics,” a steel-and-resin piece depicting four, 14-foot human figures pushing against the wall. The artists initially hoped to place the figures on both sides of the fence, but the Border Patrol nixed the plan on the U.S. side, citing security concerns.

The University of Arizona later purchased “Border Dynamics” and displayed it on the campus mall in Tucson before moving it to an area next to the school’s Harvill building.

In March 2004, the artists mounted another provocative piece on the south side of the fence: a series of aluminum human figures and symbols called “Paseo de Humanidad,” or “Parade of Humanity.” Created in collaboration with Tucson-based artist Alfred J. Quiroz, the work represented the suffering of Mexican migrants as they traveled to and from the United States.

But as Serrano noted, “Border Dymanics” and “Paseo de Humanidad” were temporary exhibits at the Nogales fence. The “Vida y Sueños” mural was permanently affixed to it.

The idea for the mural project, he said, came when he met Valdez during a trip to Mexico City. Serrano knew the history of the original mural, and how communities from South America to Europe had re-created it in public spaces as a show of solidarity and resistance. So he asked Valdez to help with a re-creation on the border wall in Nogales, “for what the mural means and what the wall represents,” he said.

Aided by a patron in Hermosillo and an art collective called La Linea, Serrano and Morackis invited people from across Sonora and Southern Arizona to paint the mural in the spring of 2005.

“The only thing we did was coordinate the project,” Serrano said. “We didn’t participate in the painting – all we really did was get the paint ready and coordinate.”

The centerpiece of the colorful painting is a depiction of two doves holding banners reading “Chiapas,” “Peace” and “Mexico,” as a campesino man and woman walk toward them. Above, Emiliano Zapata, the land-reform hero of the Mexican Revolution, rides a horse and sports a bandana reading, “La tierra es de quien la trabaja,” or “The land belongs to the person who works it.”

Other images show an idyllic riverside village where people work the land and hold community meetings as ski mask-clad Zapatista guerrillas stand at the ready on nearby hillsides.

The mural’s political imagery perhaps didn’t have an immediate connection to Nogales and its border wall, Serrano said, but the history of its creation and the efforts to re-create it did.

“More than anything, it was that it was a form of resistance and a representation of what the community could accomplish,” he said. “The social issues don’t have a lot of direct relevance here, but as a representation of civil resistance, that makes it significant.”

Grijalva said the cross-border community effort that created it in Nogales, Sonora also made the local version of the mural significant, and worth saving.

“This mural tells the story of our border community just as strongly as any words,” the congressman said. “One day we’ll look back on this work of art and thank ourselves for preserving it when we had the chance.”

Future plans

As for the future, Serrano said, once the fence construction project finishes, he plans to return the bust of Morackis to its original spot in the border-side strip at the intersection of Internacional and Fenochio streets that’s informally known as the Espacio Cultural Binacional Alberto Morackis.

He’d like to mount “Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla” there as well, against the newer, bigger border barrier that replaced its original canvas.

“We’re going to wait for them to conclude the work, and then we’re going to have to talk with the Border Patrol to see if we'll be able to install it there again,” Serrano said, though he noted there may be resistance to the idea, since one of the reasons for the new, interconnected-pole fence was to allow Border Patrol agents to see clearly into Sonora.

“We’re going to talk with them to see if there’s any way that we can install it. If not,” he said, “we'll look for some other space to display it here in the city.”

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fence coming down in town

Nogales International
May 27, 2011
by Hank Stephenson

The old sheet-metal border fence in downtown Nogales is being torn down and being replaced by a see-through, bollard-style fence, but some people on both sides of the border are having a hard time seeing the difference.

The 2.8-mile, $11.6 million project, which Granite Construction has been building on the outskirts of town since March, broke ground in the heart of downtown on Tuesday, leaving a gaping hole just west of the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry and a lot of questions in the minds of residents.

To the Border Patrol, the difference is the new fence is stronger, taller above ground and deeper below ground, and, most importantly, agents can see through it to threats that may be waiting on the other side.

“Rockings” are a constant problem and agents at the Nogales Station were victims to 300 rock-throwing assaults last year, according to the Border Patrol. Or, as one agent put it, “any agent worth his salt has been rocked.”

The Border Patrol hopes the new fence will discourage people from assaulting the agents because they will now be able to see their assailants and fight back with non-lethal pepper ball guns.

But to Robert Castro, a pharmacy employee in Plaza de Pesquiera, located just west of the DeConcini port and with a clear view of the border barrier, the type of fence doesn’t matter much.

“What difference does it make?” he asked while watching the old fence being torn down by a backhoe and a bulldozer. “It’s still a wall.”

Castro said he initially thought the construction signaled a new port was being built to help ease the long lines he sees snaking south through the plaza and in front of his shop. When he found out it was just a new, see-through fence, he said, he thought, well, maybe now he can waive to his friends on the other side.

Carmen Villanueva, a life-long resident of Nogales, Ariz., who was born here in 1922, said she remembers the days when the fence was nothing more formal than the chain link fence in her yard now.

She said the landing-mat fence is “ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly. Just ugly.” But that doesn’t mean she thinks the government should be spending the money to build a new one.

“That’s tough that they can’t see through this one, they should have thought about that when they built it," she said. “We don’t need to spend that money to build a new one. Someone needs to tell that to Uncle Sam.”

In the end, Villanueva said, it's not going to stop anyone from coming to the United States and seeking a better life, as her parents did in 1918.

“I don’t care what type of fence they build,” she said. “Those people who are determined to cross will. They might die in the process, but they’ll keep crossing.”

In the dark

Businessmen on the U.S. side of the border also have some confusion as to what the project entails.

Greg Kory, owner of Kory’s Department Store, said he understood that Border Patrol contractors would be tearing down the beige decorative wall in the downtown area – a move he opposed. When he found out the concrete wall would remain intact through construction and only the steel fence would be replaced, he was relieved.

“I’m glad to know the concrete one is staying because it’s the better one of the two,” he said. “As far as the landing-mat fence, I think the new one they’re putting in is better looking.”

Kory, whose store faces the border on the corner of Morley and Robbins avenues, said he had had no contact from Border Patrol regarding the project.

Border Patrol just finished construction on a staircase on the corner, and Kory isn’t excited to see more construction tying up traffic in the area, he said. But his real complaint is that the wall is another sign that the government is willing to spend money keeping people out, but not invest a way to bring more legitimate travelers in to the state.

“I don’t put a whole lot of importance on the fence exactly, but I think or government should work on trying to put out a welcome to Mexico instead of putting up a barrier,” he said. “We’re all very much affected by them not coming it’s a hassle to cross the line.”

Back across the line, Simon Castillo, another pharmacy employee in Nogales, Sonora, looked through the 20-yard gap in the fence at the construction workers, Border Patrol agents and private security hired for the project. Castillo said it was hard to say if a new fence would be a good or bad thing, but he was sure of one thing: He liked the new view of the United States.

“It’s been many years with no view like that,” he said

Friday, June 3, 2011

Border Patrol: Pupfish doesn't hinder job

Alamogordo Daily News
May 26, 2011
By Milan Simonich

SANTA FE - Is the 2-inch-long desert pupfish endangering the lives of U.S. Border Patrol agents?

A conservative publication called Human Events made that claim last week. Then the press secretary for New Mexico's Republican congressman, Steve Pearce, distributed the story as evidence that "excessive" environmental regulations had put lives at risk.

The story began this way: "Federal agents must abandon their vehicles and chase drug smugglers and illegal aliens on foot through 40 acres near the Mexican border because of a pond that is home to the endangered desert pupfish."

The truth is much different from that description, said Lee Baiza, superintendent of Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where the rare pupfish is found.

For starters, the pupfish's area amounts to a single acre, not 40 acres, Baiza said.

More important, the pupfish's pond rests amid dense vegetation and oak, mesquite and ironwood trees.

Neither border patrol agents nor anybody else can drive a car or truck there, Baiza said.

The woods and muddy pond, 5 feet deep in spots, are accessible only by foot, horseback or all-terrain vehicle, he said.

"A bad guy's not going to be able to drive there, either," Baiza said of allusions to drug runners or people who cross illegally from Mexico into the United States.

The rough, rustic area of the pupfish is not an easy place for lawbreakers to navigate.

"It is not considered a hot spot for illicit cross-border activities," said Victor Brabble, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Nonetheless, Tucson sector agents patrol every area surrounding the pupfish's pond, Brabble said.

Baiza, a native of Carlsbad, said politics has become an everyday part of border life, often obscuring realities that federal employees deal with on the ground.

The national monument that he supervises covers 516 square miles, and many of its wooded areas, canyons and arroyos are not accessible by car or truck. This means border patrol agents and everybody else are limited in where they can drive.

"It's not flat, open desert. It's mountainous terrain," Baiza said. "An indefinite amount is accessible only by foot, horse or ATV."

Pearce's press secretary, Eric Layer, distributed the story blaming the pupfish for agents' lack of mobility. It was headlined: "Desert pupfish forces border agents to patrol on foot."

Layer sent along a personal note with the story: "For those of you who have been covering the dunes sagebrush lizard issue, I thought you might be interested in yet another example of the consequences of extreme environmental regulations. Though environmental groups continue to argue that their actions do not have consequences, here we see that excessive regulations compromise our border security and threaten lives."

After being told about the pupfish's habitat being inaccessible by vehicle, Layer sent another note.

"To be clear, we were just sharing a piece we thought would be of interest. Congressman Pearce has not made any statement about this issue or the article."

Brabble said the pupfish is no hindrance to safety or border security.

"With the combination of technology, manpower and infrastructure, agents are able to effectively detect and apprehend individuals in that area," he said.