Oct 25, 2019

Narco Violence: Mexico's October Crises

Mexico's October Crises
Photo de AFP
Kent Paterson/Digie Zone Network
On both sides of the border media misinformation, contradictory reports and stunning declarations accompanied the recent, bloody episode in northern Mexico involving imprisoned drug kingpin Joaquin El Chapo Guzman's son and government security forces.
For instance, Santa Fe radio personality Richard Eedes informed his listeners of jolting, terrifying events unfolding south of the border on Friday, October 18. In a solemn tone, the KTRC broadcaster described violent mayhem he claimed overwhelmed Mexico City as the week drew to a close, advising attentive ears that reconsideration might be in store for that trip to our southern neighbor.
But Eedes' time and geography were completely wrong: the upheaval he spoke about occurred not in Mexico City on Friday but hundreds of miles to the north in the city of Culiacan on Thursday, October 17. The capital of the Pacific coastal state of Sinaloa, Culiacan is the cradle of Mexico's various drug and organized crime organizations. In fact, illegal drug cultivation and trafficking, intimately linked to the voracious U.S. market, has thrived in Sinaloa for generations. So has the violence associated with it, fanned by access to the easy and bountiful U.S. arms market. 
To put Sinaloa's violence in historical context, a few words from a 2004 article that appeared in the now-defunct New Mexico State University publication Frontera NorteSur (I was editor there from 2005 to 2016):
"In Sinaloa state, the birthplace of important border cartels, the press has reported close to 16,000 murders from 1980 to July 2002. During the first three weeks of 2004 alone, 45 murders were registered in the conflictive state, a place where rival bands of gunmen kill for control of the drug-producing Sierra. Analysts who 10 years ago once warned about the 'Colombianization' of Mexico now appear to have been not far off the mark."
Earlier, in the 1970s, the Mexican military conducted a sweeping, anti-drug campaign in Sinaloa that resulted in the displacement of  thousands and, according to some analysts, led to the formation of the first large-scale drug organization in the city of Guadalajara.
Nearly half a century later, Sinaloa is still a battlefield. What's more, labs that manufacture synthetic drugs like meth are today's truly profitable commodities as opposed to the old moneymakers of marijuana and opium poppies.
Sinaloa's narco-economy is embedded and dynamic enough to change with the times and regenerate the underworld organizations who maintain "shadow" governments that, as was witnessed October 17 when 40 members of Mexico's new National Guard and army troops reportedly attempted to arrest Ovidio "The Mouse" Guzman, openly flex their naked power when they so desire.  
The detention attempt horribly backfired, resulting in hours of violent attacks by pro-Guzman family gunmen who burned vehicles, blockaded streets and freed dozens of prisoners from a local jail.
Quickly surrounded by a superior force of gunmen, an impressive rapid deployment force that had the earmarks of a well-trained military elite, the Mexican federales let Guzman go free and the violence came to an end.  Some media accounts reported that Ovidio's brother, Ivan Guzman, was also detained but freed.   
The narco uprising paralyzed Culiacan, forcing the suspension of classes, the cancellation of a professional soccer match (Dorados vs. Atlante) and the disruption of normal business. 
According to numbers later reported by the Sinaloa Secretariat of Public Safety and published by the Reforma news service, 14 people were killed in Culiacan, including four innocent persons who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Twenty-one others were injured. The state casualty numbers differ from the eight dead reported by the federal government.
Culiacan unleashed a barrage of criticism directed at the nearly one-year-old presidency of reform-minded Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), posing serious questions about the Mexican leader's power vis-a-vis the underworld and his ability to restore peace and order, as he pledged during the 2018 presidential campaign.    
Poet Javier Sicilia, who led the violence victims' caravans across Mexico and the United States in 2011 and 2012 that raised the profile of Mexico's public safety and human rights crises, sharply criticized the Lopez Obrador's security and justice policies-or lack thereof- which he contended overshadow all other politically thorny matters.
"Let's forget about the (polemical) airport. Let's forget about Dos Bocas (the controversial refinery project)....The priority of the nation, and the present moment recognizes this, is peace and justice in the country," the intellectual was quoted in the Reforma news service. "Without this, everything else is broken, dead and doesn't serve anything."
Angel Avila, leader of the small opposition PRD party, acknowledged that AMLO wasn't responsible for the nation's legacy of violence but should admit that Mexico confronts a failed State and realize that his "hugs, not bullets" posture is a failure.
Alejandro Moreno, leader of the former ruling PRI party, was more measured, calling for national unity, support for the armed forces and "results from the federal government." 
In response to the critics, Lopez Obrador doubled down.
"Many people were at risk and it was decided to protect life. This isn't about massacres. The capture of a delinquent can't be worth more than the lives of people," AMLO said.
"The decision was taken to protect the citizens. That's the difference between this strategy and the ones of (previous) governments. We don't want dead people or war. The (anti-drug) strategy that was being applied converted the country into a cemetery and we no longer want that."
The Mexican president was supported by his foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, the governor-mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, and a host of political allies.
During a trip to Oaxaca Ebrard expounded on the government's Culiacan decision, insisting that the notion of "collateral damage" was not a part of the new federal administration's language or practice.
"Put another way, if an order had been given to continue the Culiacan operation, it's estimated that the number of dead, especially of the civilian population, could have surpassed 200, judging by the circumstances of the time," Ebrard was quoted by Reforma. 
Edgardo Buscaglia, a Columbia University professor and organized crime expert who's meticulously analyzed Mexico's security and human rights crises, saluted Lopez Obrador's government for having the guts to enter the "wolf's den" and go after the Guzman empire.
But in comments on Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui’s morning show the day after Culiacan, the former United Nations consultant also criticized the poor planning of the operation as well as the performance of National Prosecutor Alejandro Gertz Manero and Alfonso Durazo, AMLO's security czar, whom the scholar called "more a politician than a public security professional."
Additionally, Buscaglia gave bad grades to the new administration for failing to attack the financial networks of organized criminal organizations, the lifeblood of the underworld. Nonetheless, he supported the decision to free Guzman in light of the extreme circumstances of the botched detention.
Stunningly, the criticisms of Buscaglia and others were shared by Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval at a weekend press conference.
According to La Jornada daily, the armed forces chief admitted that the Culiacan operation was carried out in a "precipitous manner," without adequate preparation or consideration of the consequences.
Astonishingly, Cresencio said the chain of command wasn't properly informed about the operation. Nor was AMLO, according to the president himself, who told reporters at his October 22 morning press conference that it is understood in his administration that routine matters of arrests and extraditions should proceed as expected.
"I wasn't informed," AMLO continued. "They don't inform me in these cases because there is a general recommendation, a general policy that is applied. I have a lot of confidence in the Defense Secretary."
At the weekend press conference, Cresencio did not fully explain how an operation that involved the detention of two purported leaders of one of the largest criminal organizations in the world could have taken place without the sanction of superiors and a much larger task force. AMLO, however, told reporters that he thought Cresencio must have known about the operation, and probably did since there has been a team working on this matter, though he wasn't sure.
While Culiacan stands on its own as a major crisis of State, the issues at stake don’t stop at the  Sinaloa state lines. Though largely unreported in the U.S., myriad crises have erupted in different regions of Mexico during the month of October.
A sampling of bloody episodes reported in the Mexican press includes the killing of 14 police officers in Michoacan, the deaths of one soldier and 14 alleged gang gunmen in a purported Guerrero shootout, and the hanging of narco-banners in Taxco and Iguala (also in Guerrero), separately heralding more violence.
In Acapulco, three young men were executed and two city buses set ablaze, including one in broad daylight on the city's Costera main drag, which successive governments have pledged to protect, in an ongoing wave of violence linked to extortion gangs. The attacks temporarily brought public transportation in the old tourist center to a standstill.
In Michoacan, meanwhile, members of 50 indigenous communities blockaded five federal highways October 12, Mexico's Day of Indigenous Dignity, Resistance and Struggle, demanding  security in a region long besieged by organized crime. The protesters also denounced continued corruption at the official National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, according to La Jornada.
All the above and more serve as red flags that point to governmental blind spots, flaws and corruption that could well brake the Lopez Obrador government’s stated goals of peace, tranquility and justice.   
[U.S. author and journalist Kent Paterson is a contributor to the Digie Zone Network.]

Aug 27, 2019

Everbody's Store: The El Paso Walmart Shrine

Everybody’s Store:

   The El Paso Walmart Shrine

By Kent Paterson/The Digie Zone Network

Photos special to the Digie Zone Network

Thousands pay tribute to the Aug. 3 victim at the memorial site.
El PASO, TEXAS - They file past rainbow rows of flowers, protruding bright crosses, clumps of stuffed and cuddly animals, collections of fluttering flags, and posters of smiling faces with sparkling eyes that seemingly talk to the passerby. Mostly in silence and with somber expressions the people take in the scene, dozens at a time. 

Young, old and middle-aged. Brown, black, white and red, entire families partake in the viewing. Immigrant and non-immigrant alike, the people form a cross-section of El Paso society, mainly of Latino origin but representative of the other ethnicities that inhabit this borderland as well.

All have come to the community shrine that’s emerged on the high ground above the Walmart store where a youthful white gunman from a Dallas suburb arrived the morning of August 3 with the apparent intention of killing Mexicans. Before he was arrested, the killer snuffed out the lives of 22 people and wounded 25 others with an AK-47-style assault rifle.

Displaying stunned looks, an older couple from the west side of the city, Mr. and Mrs. Bhakta, were among the floating crowd early in the afternoon of the third Saturday after the massacre.

“I’m very sad. God bless everything for our family. I’m very sad, heard the news,” the woman said.

“El Paso is a very safe city. People are very kind and gentle. We never thought this would happen here,” added the man, who explained that he and his wife had lived in the Sun City for ten years. “God bless their souls.”

Below the milling crowd, in the sprawling Walmart parking lot, workers dumped what appeared to be metal shelving in a garbage dumpster. A security guard stationed next to the shrine prevented the public from getting a better look. Flanking the site, two El Paso Police Department units stood watch.

Adjacent to the Cielo Vista Mall popular with middle-class shoppers from northern Mexico, the store overlooks neighboring Juarez, the big industrial city and beltway of the U.S. manufacturing sector where many of Cielo Vista’s and Walmart’s clients live, just across truck-laden Interstate 10 that funnels the cross-border commerce and the wrinkled pools of the Rio Grande that delineate a sort of international boundary. For many years, Mexican customers have trekked to the Cielo Vista Walmart, pumping money into the local economy, supporting jobs and bolstering Texas state tax coffers.

From the high ground behind the still closed store, the large barren mountain on the outskirts of Juarez stands out with its iconic message painted in big white letters: “The Bible is the Truth. Read It.”

Victims. Photo/Robert Chessey
At first described as a “makeshift community memorial” by one local media outlet, the shrine for the Walmart victims stretches out for yards and yards along a fence above Walmart’s parking lot. It sits directly below a Hooter’s restaurant and a Cinemark movie theater, where the front entrance is fronted by a vehicle barricade. In August, the remake of “The Lion King” was among the productions showing at the movie house.

In both Spanish and English, painted, written and scrawled messages of love, grief, hope, resistance and outrage adorn the shrine.

“Wow, how sad!” blurts out a woman with children as she gazes at a poster of the 22. A sign with a world map simply proclaims, “Believe there is good in the world,” while a painting depicting two tennis shoes stamping out automatic rifles poses a question: “How many more will it take?” Yet another message in Spanish and translated to English vows: “Your racism will not destroy my home. El Paso strong.” In a nod to local history, a homemade wooden game of Mexican lottery features a depiction of El Paso between pictures of El Minero (The Miner) and El Valiente (The Brave One).

One cardboard sign is directed at the killer: “If you only got to know our people, our streets, our culture, then you would’ve seen how precious our city is. You chose hate without knowing us. Our love will follow you for eternity.”

Religion and politics are intertwined in another message:

“Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Kill)” or Amendment (2)The Right to Keep and Bear Arms).
“When God created this he meant it for all people and all generations. When our forefathers created this they did not intend this to include radical weapons of war.
Obeying one will help get you in Heaven.
Obeying the other will help get you into Hell.”
Translated from Spanish to English, another message says “I am going out…I am with God if I don’t return.”

"El Paso Strong" - the city's adopted slogan after the attack.

Photos of the 22 murder victims are sprinkled throughout the shrine. According to lists released by the City of El Paso and assorted media outlets, their names and ages include: 

Andre Anchondo, 23; Jordan Anchondo, 24; Arturo Benavidez, 60; Leo Campos, 41: Maria Flores, 77;

Raul Flores, 77; Jorge Calvillo, 61; Adolfo Cerros Hernandez, 68; Alexander Hoffman, 66; David Johnson, 63; Luis Juarez, 90; Maria Eugenia Legaretta; 58; Elsa Mendoza, 57; Maribel Loya, 56;

Ivan Manzano, 46; Gloria Marquez, 61; Margie Reckard, 63; Sarah Regalado Moriel, 66; Javier Rodriguez, 15; Teresa Sanchez, 82; Angelina Silva-Elisbee, 86; Juan Velazquez, 77. 

Of the victims, 13 were U.S. citizens, 8 Mexican, and one German.

The Anchondo couple was reportedly cut down while reportedly trying to shield their 2-month old son from the butcher’s bullets; the baby survived, together with two siblings who were not at the store. Who will explain to him, and at what age, why he doesn’t have parents?

Rita Davis and her 6-year old son, curly-haired Jacob Davis, said the August 3 assassin did his dirty work “because we are brown.”

Facing a stark and hard decision in the shooting’s aftermath, the El Paso mother was forced to lay out the uglier realities of life to her son. Mother and son have been to the shrine so far twice. The boy, whose demeanor exudes an age far beyond his tender years, has developed an affinity for the victims, confiding to mom that he misses the 22 even though he didn’t know the individuals personally. “I feel real sad,” he said.

Jacob’s newfound sense of compassion is something his mom said she wants to keep going.

Davis, who works near the Walmart and used to frequent the store for last-minute items before dropping her son off at school, said that she found out about the slaughter first on Facebook and then via a mass text that was sent by authorities the fateful morning of August 3.

She said her ex works at the store but wasn’t on shift the morning of the massacre.

“I think El Paso has been kind of a gem in the desert for a long time and we haven’t experienced this kind of level of violence,” Davis said, articulating a common sentiment in this border city. “It scares me as a parent because this is the environment my son is growing up in...it’s senseless.”

The El Paso native detailed how August 3 has changed the lives of her family and loved ones. She’s talked to Jacob about respecting all people but also maintaining an alertness of his surroundings.

Items at the memorial site. Photo/Robert Chessey
Concretely, she’s mapped out a store evacuation plan and along with relatives enacted other changes in their routine behavior. “We’ve even stopped wearing sandals and the flip-flops when we’d go the store,”  she remarked, just in case an unexpected and rapid exit becomes necessary.

The massacre compelled a mother to examine things she previously had “zero interest” in, including obtaining a concealed handgun permit and signing up for an active shooter class, which Davis said had no room for additional students at the moment. Admitting she was terrified of guns and doesn’t even like fireworks, Davis nevertheless stressed, “As a mother I need to protect my child at all times.”

A tall woman with a proud poise, Davis could be the perfect spokesperson for El Paso: “We are scared but we’re not gonna let this overcome us as a community...I think it’s been great how the community has come together and support each other ... we have good people here.”
In El Paso these days, “strong” is the word of the year. The slogan “El Paso Strong” is visible on T-shirts, on business billboards, on Sun Metro buses, in murals, and even across the fenced off border line on the streets of sister city Juarez, Mexico.

“Solidarity” is a close second for the choice word, illustrated in part by the $5 million dollars raised to date for the victims and their families. Local media outlet KVIA reported on an August 25 joint fundraising effort “Tattoos for El Paso” organized by 11 shops in El Paso, Austin and New Mexico cities Las Cruces and Albuquerque.

At the shrine, words of love and support abound. Among them are messages from employees of various Walmart and Sam’s stores, the workers of Urgent Care Hospice Inc., people from Northwest Florida and Southwest Alabama, California high schoolers, San Diego church-goers, the Fronterizos motorcycle club of Tijuana, the League of United Latin American Citizens, State Tejano Democrats, the crew of Eptcruising.com, and the Vaqueros team of Sierra Blanca, Texas.

One message reads “Margie, Happy Birthday,” an apparent reference to victim Margie Reckard, who would have celebrated her 64th birthday on August 21. After local news media reported that Reckard’s husband was without family and confronted burying his wife alone, his invitation was answered by hundreds and hundreds of “strangers” who showed up to accompany the man for the final parting with his wife. 

“That’s El Paso. I think it’s something real sad. The unity, that everyone came together in the community. The innocence of those whose lives were taken, and the families who have to live it,” commented Ana Arciniega on the multi-dimensional nature of August 3, pausing from a walk up and down the shrine. “It’s still a state of shock.”

But Arciniega was impressed by both the official emergency response and the community outpouring of love. “I think it’s a great support system...even if it’s just bringing flowers and the messages,” she said. “We should be able to reach out a hand with our neighbors.”
Originally from Chicago but counting 20 years in El Chuco ( a nickname for the city), Arciniega called living in the city where she’s raised her children a “blessing.”

The behavioral health worker said that she had been on her way to shop at the Cielo Vista Walmart the morning of August 3 when an urgent call from her daughter warned mom to turn back.

Like Rita Davis, Arciniega also has since engaged in serious talks with her school age children, a 17-year-old and an 11-year-old, advising them to be aware of their surroundings.

According to Ariciniega, the school district her children attend has notified her that the issues pertaining to August 3 will be brought up at upcoming parent meetings. The beginning of El Paso’s 2019-2020 school year has been unlike any other in recent local memory.

Changes are in the wind at work too, Arciniega added, with previous active shooter plans now elevated to a higher level of importance, a “Code Silver.”

Asked about Walmart’s recent statement that the company would reopen the Cielo Vista store within a few months, Arciniega was in agreement but suggested that a section of the store property be set aside for a park and a memorial dedicated to the victims.

“I think it should continue. It was everybody’s store,” she opined.

Feet away from where Arciniega stood, 22 sculpted butterflies topped individual pedestals. “They tried to bury us but, they didn’t know we were seeds,” read the accompanying words. Only time will tell what seeds the butterflies bore.

People bring mementos like these to the memorial.
In El Paso the number 22 now has a meaning connected to an act of violence, similar to the number 43 in Mexico, which after 2014 is synonymous with the forcibly disappeared students of the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college, whose fate is still unclarified. Will a certain date here, August 3, remain forever etched in the memories of Paseños, like the dates of December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day), November 22 (JFK assassination) and September 11 were wired into the collective, generational memories of a nation and marked historical befores and afters?

Where were you when...?

As a hot and breezy Saturday afternoon picked up in the Sun City, as El Paso is also known, people continued to descend on the shrine, as if in an endless pilgrimage. A woman with sniffles and tears was consoled by another woman. Two older women departed the shrine holding hands, closely followed by a younger couple, a man and a woman, doing the same. 

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Kent Paterson, an author-journalist based in New Mexico, is a frequent contributor to the Digie Zone Network.