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The Long Wars Against El Paso and Ciudad Juarez

Violence Foretold

Photograph Source: iose – CC BY 2.0

Perched above the Rio Grande with a splendid view of neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the Cielo Vista Mall is one of the commercial nerve centers of El Paso, Texas. On a normal weekend, the mall and an adjacent Walmart store bounce with shoppers, many of them middle-class customers from Juarez and northern Mexico who pump money into the local economy, support jobs and bolster Texas state tax coffers.

This routine went on for years without major incident until, suddenly, an invader came to town on August 3, 2019.

The intruder wasn’t one of the migrants from the south trying to cross the border here that Fox News, the President and his cronies rail about, but a young white racist who drove hours and hours from a Dallas suburb armed with an assault rifle and a mission to kill Mexicans.

Unloading his weapon at the Cielo Vista Walmart on a Saturday morning, the killer slaughtered 22 people and wounded 25 others before surrendering to police.

“It reminds me of the 19th century and early 20th, when the Texas Rangers would go hunting Mexicans, especially in the 1910s,” said Oscar Martinez, an El Paso historian, educator and author who grew up in Juarez but was educated in the Texas city.

Though racist killings of African Americans are part of the historic epistle, “there is little knowledge outside of the Chicano community that people were lynched,” Martinez added.

Published only days before the El Paso massacre, media stories commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Red Summer terror against African Americans, renewed attention on violence against Mexicans Americans in Texas and other parts of the U.S. Southwest during the same historical period.

An Associated Press story, for instance, recounted the long-forgotten 1918 massacre in Porvenir, Texas, when Texas Rangers kidnapped 15 men and boys and slaughtered them. A network of researchers and activists, Refusing to Forget(refusingtoforeget.org), is recovering the historical memory of Porvenir and similar human rights atrocities, making sure the crimes are not consigned to oblivion.

In 2019 El Paso resident Rita Davis and her six-year-old son, Jacob, declared in unison that the Walmart victims were slaughtered “because we are brown.”

The mother and son came to a community shrine erected for the victims above the massacre site, where on a Saturday afternoon dozens of people at a time turned out to pay their respects to the murdered. Featuring crosses, candles, flags, posters, mementos, photos, and messages in both Spanish and English convey grief, love, outrage and resistance.

According to the official list released by the City of El Paso and media outlets, the victims included: 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.

“This was a killing against Mexicans and Mexican Americans. It didn’t matter if you have papers,” commented David Dorado Romo, El Paso author, historian and activist.

An outpouring of solidarity characterized El Paso-and Juarez-after August 3. Vigils, memorials and benefit concerts were held, with more than six million dollars donated for the victims and their families. A local dentist pledged free services for life to survivors. Hundreds of “strangers” showed up for the funeral of Margie Reckard, whose husband was left alone by the murder of his wife and his predicament publicized by local media.

“I think the people have responded in a very positive way to help the victims and make it known that El Paso is a city that is caring and giving. All you have to see is the donations and the different events,” Martinez remarked.

A new slogan, “El Paso Strong,” was emblazoned on tee-shirts and splashed across bulletin boards, city buses and other public spaces across the city.

Thousands of El Pasoans protested when Trump visited the Sun City after the butchery, and recovering victims declined to see him in the hospital.

El Paso Firme (El Paso Strong in Spanish) soon emerged, uniting 21 activist groups against white supremacy and racist violence. The movement kicked off with a musical serenade for detained migrants, a procession in the historic Segundo Barrio of the city, and a concert-rally that attracted more than one thousand people to a city park.

Romo found irony in the involvement of politicians in El Paso Strong events.

“Like (El Paso Firme activist and head of the Border Network for Human Rights) Fernando Garcia said, it’s been coopted by the same people who’ve been behind Durangito and the Chamizal school project…and all the institutional racism,” he added, referring to local development and educational policies that are displacing residents and students.

Romo lambasted the city’s economic and political elite, Republican and Democratic, for manipulating public sentiments and casting themselves saviors.

A case in point was the August homage to the Walmart victims held at the Chihuahuas minor league baseball stadium, which was built in 2013 on the ruins of a razed city hall and amid public opposition. Speaking at the memorial was Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who only days prior to the massacre sent a fundraising letter to supporters warning of an “invasion,” a common dog whistle word in the anti-immigrant camp.

“How can you get more surreal than that?” Romo asked.

Martinez criticized Abbott for obstructing action on gun violence and saying he wouldn’t be rushed into signing new legislation. Meantime, another shooter went on an August 31 rampage in Midland-Odessa, Texas, killing 7 and wounding 22.

Among the victims were truck driver Raul Garcia and U.S. postal worker Mary Granados. Both were immigrants from Juarez with years in the U.S.

Prior to August 3, fresh rounds of activism electrified El Paso, illustrated by intensified migrant solidarity, the formation of the Community First Coalition that’s taking on developers, and last spring’s protests by University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) students and faculty against the imposition by the university regents of Heather Wilson as the new president of UTEP. A former Republican Congresswoman from New Mexico, Wilson served as U.S. Air Force Secretary in the Trump administration.

Although nearly 10,000 people signed a petition against Wilson’s appointment, regents didn’t budge and Wilson assumed office in August.

***

Although the Walmart bloodbath was the worst incidence of racial violence El Paso has experienced in memory, local events leading up to the slaughter foretold something bad, perhaps real bad, was imminent.

A rightwing paramilitary group, United Constitutional Patriots, appeared this past spring in neighboring Sunland Park, New Mexico, an El Paso suburb that also borders Ciudad Juarez. Controversy ensued when a video was circulated that showed the private group detaining Central American migrants attempting to enter the U.S.

Amid growing outcry against the group, the FBI and Sunland Park Police Department arrested the UCP’s apparent leader, Larry Mitchell Hopkins (aka Johnny Horton, Jr.) on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition.

Curiously, the charges against Hopkins dated back to October 2017 in San Juan County, New Mexico bordering the Navajo Nation, another entity that’s suffered historic racist violence.

According to the 2019 criminal complaint, Hopkins’ group of about 20 individuals in San Juan County was allegedly stockpiling arms, undergoing training and discussing assassinating George Soros, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, because of their purported support of Antifa.

Why Mitchell, who already had a felon record, and his cohorts were not arrested in 2017 is a big unanswered question.

A second man associated with militia activities, Jim Benvie, was subsequently arrested and charged with impersonating a federal officer. According to media reports, he had previously been charged in Oklahoma for vehicle theft and fraudulently using a cancer-stricken child’s name to raise money.

Benvie was spotted this spring around the construction site of a privately-funded border fence in Sunland Park that was touted as putting Donald Trump’s border wall on the ground.

Associated with Trump supporters Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach, We Build the Wall, Inc., rolled material-laden trucks into the small city without bothering to notify the locals and proceeded to construct a half-mile, 18 foot steel bollard fence outfitted with surveillance technology and a concrete roadway designed for Border Patrol vehicles on privately-owned land within feet of the Mexican border.

As workers hastened to erect the structure, the administration of Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea temporarily suspended construction because of permit issues.

Enraged border wall supporters then inundated Sunland Park City Hall with hostile phone calls and e-mails, reportedly including a threat to “shoot up” the local government headquarters; Mayor Perea declared that he and his family were personally threatened. Amid the hullabaloo, the suspension was lifted and the builders were granted a local permit.

Similar to the city government’s experience, intimidating emails and phone calls next deluged the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), the agency charged with overseeing U.S.-Mexico water and boundary issues, after We Build the Wall’s work crew built a gate section on federal land without the proper permit. “90 percent” of the messages originated from outside the El Paso, according to the IBWC’s spokeswoman.

For We Build the Wall and its funders, the Sunland Park fence is a huge success. Steve Bannon and Donald Trump Jr. have visited the site and the builders are reportedly eyeing other parcels of private land along the U.S.-Mexico border for new structures.

Following the Walmart massacre, We Build the Wall’s Brian Kolfage posted the obligatory messages of sympathy for a couple of days and the American flag at the fence was lowered to half-mast. But the group’s social media accounts were soon back to business as usual, replete with postings about immigrant rapists, drunk drivers, alleged human traffickers, and “locus” plagues.

An anti-Antifa hysteria was ginned up by the likes of Andy Ngo and others who screeched warnings about a purported national protest in El Paso against government immigration policies beginning September 1.

Picking up on the thread, El Paso media outlet KVIA ran a story but noted that the name Antifa was not even employed on a website promoting the action which, in any event, ultimately never materialized.

El Paso’s Republican mayor, Dee Margo, was nevertheless quoted by the ABC affiliate as saying, “We are aware of Antifa’s announced visit to El Paso and we will continue to monitor plans for the event…,’ The El Paso Police Department pledged likewise.

Two days later, El Paso suffered a public safety crisis, but it came from the right and not the left.

No direct connection between the El Paso Walmart shooter and/or United Constitutional Patriots and We Build the Wall has come to light so far, but the escalating chronology of guns, bullying, inflammatory rhetoric, and extreme violence is striking.

Romo is critical of post-massacre media coverage. He considers the local media’s obviation of the accused Walmart killer’s manifesto a whitewashing of a terrorist act couched in historic racist thinking that exposes white supremacy and not guns as the central issue of August 3.

“The guy’s telling the truth. He had all that history before Trump,” Romo remarked.

After the massacre, statements poured forth affirming El Paso as a peaceful, safe and accepting city. Bolstering this reputation are the border city’s low violent crime rates of recent years.

Romo agreed that El Paso is a safe place for its residents, but represents an entirely different reality for migrants passing through who are subject to mistreatment, detention and worse. “El Paso is one of the deadliest cities for people who are seen as non-human,” the border scholar affirmed.

One underreported story concerns migrants who’ve perished in this borderland. A largely silent violence plays out each spring and summer when desperate migrants attempting to skirt the Border Patrol drown in El Paso area irrigation canals. This year’s been a particularly deadly one, with at least ten migrants drowning between June and early September, including a little girl not yet of school age.

Additionally, two Honduran women died in the desert outside Juarez. Typically, the migrant deaths make spot news and then are pretty much forgotten.

The Scene in Juarez

Another common statement heard after August 3 was that El Paso is one with its big Mexican sister across the Rio Grande. Indeed, the two cities are historically, culturally, economically, and even politically interlocked. Besides the shared Rio Grande, the two cities draw water from two common, transboundary aquifers.

But the two sisters’ relationship has been a trying one in recent years, strained by forces from outside the region. Border clampdowns and time-consuming crossings at the international bridges have all but become semi-permanent features of the sister cities since the Border Patrol’s Operation Hold the Line of 1993.

A U.S. government built-steel fence fronting the Rio Grande now obscures the view from El Paso of Juarez neighborhoods. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes.

Nowadays, mobile clumps of barbed wire sit at the U.S. line on the Santa Fe Bridge, ready for deployment by U.S. border guards as a tactic to repel refugees.

From 2008 to 2012, two cartels battled for control of the Juarez drug-smuggling corridor, unleashing murder, extortion and other crimes. According to an estimate by border researcher Molly Molloy, at least 13,801 people were murdered in Juarez and the adjacent Juarez Valley between 2007 and 2017.

Many El Paso residents who formerly visited Juarez on a regular basis now stay away, like the El Paso couple that was amazed over this writer’s visits to the Mexican city during a conversation held, ironically, days before the Walmart slaughter.

After 2012 Juarez recovered to a degree, as homicides decreased and crimes like extortion and kidnapping diminished. Residents jammed bars and restaurants again.

Since 2017, however, the Juarez press reports that another 2,300 people or so people have been murdered in this city of an estimated 1.4 million. Violent competition flares for controlling not only drug smuggling to the U.S. but a thriving, domestic retail market for methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin as well.

Border wall boosters and immigration restrictionists decry the lawlessness of Mexican cities like Juarez but they omit the U.S. role in fomenting drug consumption north of the border and violence south of it.

While drugs flow out from Juarez, lots of guns stream in from the US, ensuring that the killings continue. Chihuahua State Prosecutor Jorge Nava claims that 90 percent of the guns used in recent Juarez homicides are of U.S. origin.

“The majority don’t even have 90 days of having been purchased in sporting goods stores and in businesses close to the border in Texas and New Mexico,” Nava was recently quoted in El Diario de Juarez.

Oscar Martinez, who grew up in Juarez and is the author of two classic books about the city, said U.S. arms trafficking is nothing new, dating back to the 1800s when U.S. arms dealers profited from Mexican political turmoil. The gringo arms conduit has been a lucrative “constant for more than a century,” escalating during the 1910 Mexican Revolution and later profiting from powerful organized crime groups, he added.

Mexican Chancellor Marcelo Ebrard has declared curbing the illegal arms exports a priority for the Lopez Obrador administration, promising that Mexico will begin monthly reviews of U.S. purchased arms linked to violence in his country.

In a recent press conference, Ebrard stressed that the issue of illegal arms trafficking is as important to Mexico as migration is to the United States. But immigrant advocates increasingly blast the Lopez Obrador administration for cow-towing to Trump by detaining more than 100,000 migrants-mainly Central Americans-so far this year, forcing asylum seekers to wait their dubious turn in line in Juarez and other border cities, and deploying Mexico’s new National Guard on the international line as a kind of “human wall” against migrant/refugee crossings.

Beginning last fall, Juarez was transformed into the flashpoint of the immigration showdown, when hundreds of Cubans and Central Americans began camping out at the Santa Fe Bridge connecting the Mexican city with its U.S. city, hoping for an asylum interview. Thousands and thousands more followed.

One year later, large numbers of migrants and refugees are stranded in Juarez, though nobody really knows for sure how many. Downtown Juarez has the air of a little Havana, with Cuban food on restaurant menus and Cuban clients making up the new renters in hotels and apartments. Many Cubanos work in the border city- with or without government permission.

“We’re waiting to get called when our turn come up, but I wouldn’t live here,” said a female Cuban asylum-seeker named Surama. “We’re working to get by. If you don’t, you can’t support yourself.”

The latest group of migrants/refugees to reach the international bridges are Mexican, more than one thousand of them since the summer, according to El Diario de Juarez and other press outlets. There are men, women and many children camped out waiting for a chance to argue an asylum case.

Invoking the fear of violence, the asylum seekers are reportedly fleeing the states of Zacatecas, Michoacan and Guerrero, all entities where guns from the north threaten and murder so drug production for the alienated burgs of El Norte and the street corners of Mexico can continue profitably uninterrupted. Quoted in El Diario, a young couple explained how they fled their homes because of narco threats against the entire family, including their newborn child.

In the borderland of Juarez-El Paso, the migrants can peer down from the Santa Fe Bridge and see the sickly Rio Grande paralleled by a big canal where predecessors have drowned. Near the middle of the bridge, barbed wire and U.S. border guards stand solid to make sure the migrants don’t rush over. U.S. Customs helicopters fly overhead while Mexican soldiers guard the banks of the Rio Grande. Not far away a community shrine exists outside an El Paso Walmart, where a white racist terrorist determined to halt an “invasion” of folks who believed there was still an American Dream gunned down scores of people out shopping one summer day in 2019.

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. 

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