The Occupation of the Bridge of the Americas

The Bridge of the Americas, also known as the Cordoba Bridge or Free Bridge in borderland parlance, carries more than just commercial trucks and routine travelers between the northern Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. Over the years the border crossing over the Rio Grande has also served as a bridge between social movements and political ideas with transcendence in Mexico, the United States and across the globe.

In the 1990s the Bridge of the Americas was the scene of joint protests staged by U.S.-employed farmworkers and Mexican small farmers against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as well as environmental and community activists from Mexico and the United States united in their ultimately successful opposition to a nuclear waste dump proposed for Sierra Blanca, Texas.

On October 26, 2015 the Bridge of the Americas was once again at the center of international protest. Reminiscent of the NAFTA protest days, small Mexican farmers from the state of Chihuahua led an occupation of the crossing, renewing a movement against economic conditions prevailing in the Mexican countryside.

While the campesinos’ demands have deep roots in Mexico’s political and economic history, they also connect to international trade pacts like NAFTA and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

El Barzon Chihuahua, the small Mexican farmers’ organization that helped organize the occupation, distributed a statement that summed up many of the demands vented on a beautiful fall day. The message took issue with predictions by the Pena Nieto administration that the 2013 energy reform approved by the Mexican Congress would lead to lower energy and food prices.

“Those of us who work in the countryside confront a grave economic crisis. The high prices for electricity, diesel, gasoline and fertilizers that we use for producing food for the whole population are very expensive,” the farmers’ message read in part. “This situation affects us all: those of us who plant and produce food, the transporters, and those of us who pay for electricity in our homes, businesses, factories and workshops.”

Alfonso Ramirez Cuellar, national president of El Barzon, told reporters the campesinos were calling for a reduction in the price of agricultural inputs and a change in national agricultural policy, demands which have long reverberated across rural Mexico. “We are tired of presenting our proposals,” Ramirez said. The Bridge of the Americas occupation, he said, was part of national struggle, with other protests underway in the states of Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Sinaloa, and Chiapas.

Ironically, even as the campesino movement was occupying the Bridge of the Americas, spots on Juarez’s public radio station run by Mexico’s federal Secretariat of Agriculture were boasting of “historic investments” in commercializing crops to benefit producers, especially avocado and tomato growers who export their produce abroad.

In contrast, a placard seen at the October 26 occupation conveyed a far different view: “The Countryside is in Agony.”

Led by a score of riders on horses and farmers driving about as many tractors, El Barzon and its allies surged past a concentration of Mexican Federal Police, marched up the bridge and halted near the point where Mexico and the U.S. touch noses. There, a formidable wall of horses and tractors blocked the lane used by commercial trucks coming from El Paso into Juarez, halting commerce for hours.

Numbering in the hundreds, the protesters splashed a mosaic of humanity from the interior of Chihuahua and the Paso del Norte borderland. There were indigenous Raramuri in long and flowing garments, campesinos in checkered shirts and jeans, veteran farmworkers with sombreros, students in sunny t-shirts and factory workers in second-hand clothing.

Besides El Barzon, among the organizations participating in the October 26 protest were the Democratic Campesino Union, Morena, the Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly, the Revolutionary Socialist League, Left Youth, La Mujer Obrera, and the University of Texas at El Paso’s Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan chapter.

In addition to the farm question, the October 26 action served as a platform for many other causes that, at least for one day,  resonated in a single voice. In the 13 months since 43 Mexican rural teacher students were forcibly disappeared in the state of Guerrero, the 26th of every month has become a day of protest in Mexico and October 26 was no exception.

The faces of the 43 Ayotzinapa college students were unmistakable on a banner displayed at the Bridge of the Americas. “They took them alive! We want them back alive!” roared the crowd, repeating the words of what might be regarded as the contemporary age’s street anthem.

Placards and slogans took a stand against the disappearance of girls and women in Juarez, as well as a mine planned near the community of Samalayuca outside the border city.

A group of fired workers from a Juarez factory, or maquiladora, showed up protesting against the Commscope company. Speakers addressed the imprisonment of Michoacan self-defense movement leader Jose Mireles, the financial state of the Mexican Social Security Institute, and much more.

Lety Padilla, member of Mexico’s National Nurses Association, linked professional  concerns and the Samalayuca project.

“As nurses, we of course are concerned about health,” Padilla said.

A woman bore an intriguing message on a t-shirt. Roughly translated from the vulgar Spanish words printed on the front it read: “A foolish protest is worth more than a fool who doesn’t protest.”

All in all, it was as if the campesinos’ grievances detonated equally deep demands smoldering away in the heart and soul of Mexico.

Wearing the mugs of stubborn dignity, Modesto Zurita and Asenscion Hernandez represented the cause of the old braceros, Mexican guestworkers contracted to work farms and railroads in the United States from 1942 to 1964. The survivors have been attempting to recover money deducted from their paychecks and supposedly funneled into saving accounts for decades now.

Now in their 70s and 80s, Zurita and Hernandez are part of a dwindling group of men that may never see any compensation for the deductions made from meager paychecks.  Although the Mexican government has made payments of about $2,300 to many ex-braceros in recent years, Zurita and Hernandez are among those who insist that they still haven’t received their share.

“We feel very bad and lost,” Hernandez told us. “We are almost ready to die. Who is going to pay us?”

We  spoke with veteran rural activists involved in the October 26 protest about the action and how it stacked up to similar ones dating back to the days leading up to the signing of NAFTA.

Victor Quintana, longtime campesino movement adviser and former elected official from Chihuahua, said there was a lot of production of different crops in the Mexican countryside this year but high production costs were squeezing growers.

On top of high energy costs, the devaluation of the peso in relation to the dollar  means higher prices for machinery, fertilizers and other imported inputs, Quintana said. Government farm assistance programs like Procampo, a subsidy scheme for certain crops, are “insufficient,” he maintained.

Additionally, the “dumping” of apples produced in Washington state is another big issue for Chihuahua producers, he added.

Carlos Marentes, founder of the El Paso-based Sin Fronteras Organizing Project and the Border Agricultural Workers Center, noted political similarities and differences between the beginning of the NAFTA era and now.

“Clinton was president then and the free trade agreement was approved. Now the principal candidate is Clinton and the campesinos are struggling. This says that there is a struggle that hasn’t ended,” Marentes said.  “Now we see that there is a campesino insurgency. The difference between the 80s and now is that many (campesino) organizations have lost strength or been coopted.  Back then it was NAFTA and now it is the TPP. It seems like this a second stage of struggle.”

Another veteran campesino leader from Chihuahua, Gabino Gomez, outlined both both continuities and changes in the socio-political scene since NAFTA. “We continue being victims of giveaway governments,” Gomez insisted. Nobody matters to them, the campesinos or anybody else. (Mexican officials) are rulers for neo-liberalism, transnational enterprises.”

According to Gomez, rural Mexico confronts additional challenges from mining and other environmentally hazardous activities. In the Juarez Valley, he further elaborated, the so-called narco war was a “perverse way of driving people out” and leaving their lands for the taking, as private “appropriators” took advantage of unpaid back taxes to scoop up properties in a region where a new international bridge and gas pipelines are shaping up.

Perched atop an old tractor like a hawk, a farmer from Chihuahua detailed some of his problems to us.

For fuel alone, he figured he spends as much as $80 per day. While government assistance programs don’t adequately cover his expenses, conflicts over water usage pose another special problem, the small grower said. Like many other producers in an arid land, he said he is at the mercy of rains that are captured by a reservoir.

“If it doesn’t rain there is nothing, no harvest,” he said. “I’m struggling with all my family and friends. If we don’t struggle nothing will happen.”

For security reasons the man preferred that his name not be mentioned for this story, pointing to a picture hanging from another tractor of Ismael Solorio and his wife, Manuela Martha Solis Contreras. Large pictures and paintings of the couple were prominently displayed on the Bridge of Americas, as were demands for justice.

A founder of El Barzon,  Ismael Solorio and his wife were assassinated in the state of Chihuahua on October 22, 2012. Present for the bridge occupation, Solorio’s younger brother, Joaquin Solorio, recalled his sibling as a man who was “always struggling for the countryside in Mexico, to give it more competitiveness.” The couple left behind three children, he told us.

According to Solorio, two strong leads emerged in the murder of his brother and sister-in-law. The first lead involved Ismael’s leadership role in a conflict with a group of Mennonite farmers over water; the second line of investigation was connected to Ismael and Manuela’s activism in opposition to a Canadian-owned mine.

“The government of Chihuahua doesn’t want to act against the murderers, because the government is involved,” Solorio contended. “There is no political will on the part of the government to detain the murderers.”

In the days after Ismael and Manuela’s murders, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued protective orders for members of the couple’s family and  leaders of El Barzon, Solorio said.

“We are going to continue actions like this one,” as a means of keeping the demand for justice alive, he vowed.

By October 27, the campesino blockade of the Bridge of Americas had ended. Reportedly, negotiations between the farmers’ movement and Mexican government could be in the works for the days ahead.

In El Paso, meanwhile, border activists plan on analyzing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and related issues raised at the October 26 Bridge of the Americas occupation and blockade at a forum scheduled for Monday, November 2, at 5:30  pm.

The event is scheduled to take place at La Mujer Obrera’s Café Mayapan, which is located at 2000 Texas Avenue in south-central El Paso.

Moderated by El Paso journalist Diana Washington Valdez, the invited speakers, in addition to Carlos Marentes and Victor Quintana, include Lorena Andrade, director of La Mujer Obrera, an organization of women which has worked closely with El Paso garment industry workers displaced by NAFTA; and Maria Luisa Rosal, School of the Americas Watch organizer and member of a Guatemalan exile family that was granted political asylum in the United States.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.