916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

“¡Hasta la madre!” — “We have had it!”

By Jazmine Ulloa

Mexican poet Javier Sicilia and fellow activists under the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity are expected to descend upon the steps of the state Capitol Sunday in protest of U.S. drug policies.

Their stop in Austin is one of 26 in an estimated 6,000-mile journey — from the Mexican border city of Tijuana to Washington, D.C. — where the group hopes to draw attention to the role they say the United States has played in fueling a struggle that has cost the lives of thousands, including Sicilia’s son and other loved ones.

The mission seems so far removed from a city that prides itself on live music festivals, green measures and shopping local. But it’s not if you look a little harder.

Back home in El Paso, where on Tuesday the caravan held a vigil for drug war victims, the effects of this battle are everywhere. There are students in classrooms coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. There are business owners who have opened shop on new ground after fleeing Ciudad Juarez. There are entire families who have been cut off from part of their culture after generations of living on both sides of the Rio Grande.

The news first came back to me in snippets, conversations with my family or pieces of Mexican newspapers snail-mailed by my grandmother. Gore in photos and headlines splashed across the front pages of newspapers. Decapitated heads, limp bodies and blood, pools of it, bright red spilled on the streets.

That is the sexy story. That is what some media outlets only seek to cover. Narco lords and their inconceivable wealth. The ruthlessness of the latest execution. And it is always Mexico’s Drug War.

But in recent months, I have been writing about this little corner in East Austin, where police say a trade of mostly marijuana and cocaine has for decades thrived. The steady stream of crime the business brings tends to be petty rather than fierce and a stark contrast from the shootouts that break out at all hours of the day in many Mexican cities. The players – both buyers and sellers – are typically the ones at the lowest rungs of the game.

And yet, every major city in the United States has a 12th and Chicon. The drug hub, like those across the country, provides another glimpse, another layer of the people most affected by this vicious, unrelenting monster. It is our burden in a shared fight.
For more on Javier Sicilia click here.
For the latest on 12th and Chicon click here.

A Night at Chico’s

Savoring an institution from 9 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.

By Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly

Chico’s Tacos sits on Alameda Avenue in a humble area of El Paso known as the Lower Valley. Though a chain of five eateries now share the Chico’s name, el original is this one. Here, wedged between a graveyard and a small park where the homeless often congregate, the city’s most famous hangout has been sustaining El Pasoans with its processed cheese and soupy tomato sauce since the day that late boxing promoter Joe Mora opened its doors, on July 4, 1953.

As a kid, this was my favorite place to go on Friday evenings with my grandmother. I’ve since moved away—for college, for work—but as anybody from El Paso can tell you, Chico’s leaves a greasy imprint, and one cool night this past November, I returned with friends. The restaurant looked radioactive in the darkness, a humming beacon with fluorescent lights that turned the beige brick walls yellow. Inside, the booths were the bright-red vinyl I remembered. Arcade games, the same ones I’d begged quarters from my grandmother for as a rotten eight-year-old, blinked in the corner. It was almost nine at night on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but it was as busy as a lunch-hour rush. An employee rattled off orders over a crackling intercom as families, trailing children in pajamas, pushed through the doors. A group of teenagers giggled by the counter.
Full story.

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

Narcos, drugs and the toll of a war

Major narco leaders not among FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted?

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – the man labeled the world’s most powerful drug trafficker — is not among the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.

Neither is his rival, Heriberto Lazcano, though he is said to run one of the most vicious illicit networks to move tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States. Nor is Miguel Ángel Treviño, believed to be Lazcano’s second in command.
Full story.

Residents near 12th, Chicon say momentum turning

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
At the corner of 12th and Chicon streets, where gentrification is transforming the demographics of a historic neighborhood, new and longtime residents have found common ground: a demand for public safety.

For more than 40 years, authorities say, empty businesses and blighted houses have sustained a bustling sale of pot and crack cocaine along the streets and alleys of an intersection marked by a stubborn notoriety. The trade runs night and day, and efforts to stymie the ensuing stream of prostitution, theft and occasional violence have fallen by the wayside through the decades, leaving what some say is a stinging residue of bitter relations with police.
Full story.

Does shipping drug cartel heads north work?

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
MEXICO CITY — There were 15 of them, some in tan jumpsuits, all in
shackles. It took three flights and throngs of law enforcement officers to transfer them.

Major players in the Mexican underworld, they landed on U.S. soil Jan. 20, 2007, to face charges from Texas to New York, from Colorado to California. Among them was Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, one of the most ruthless and feared drug lords in the Western Hemisphere.
Full story.

Border and Immigration

Dispatches from the southern tip of Texas.

Seeking asylum to escape government persecution

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
Jorge Luis Reyes Salazar remembers when soldiers arrived in March 2008 in Guadalupe, a small Mexican farming community along the border in the Juárez Valley about 50 miles from Juárez.

They swept through the streets of his hometown, he said, terrorizing families and ransacking homes in what they said were searches for drugs, guns and money.

“A war began, but not against narco trafficking — against civil society,” Reyes, 19, told an audience of about 70 people Wednesday at a forum held by the Texas Observer. “The people — people like my family — began to protest.”
Full story.

U-visa might take a U-turn

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
A police report that Patricia Martinez keeps folded in a large Ziploc bag tells some of the story she wants to forget.

A man, it states, walked into the small travel agency in Los Angeles where she worked, chatted her up, then grabbed her arm and thrust her against a wall, fondling her breasts and trying to disrobe her.
Full story.

Born To Be Barred

At the border, U.S. citizens are being refused re-entry because they were delivered by midwives.
By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer
It was just another sweltering Monday morning in August. Yuliana Trinidad Castro sat in her truck with her mother, sister, and newborn daughter, windows up and air conditioner on high, waiting to cross into Brownsville from the Mexican border city of Matamoros. That weekend, like so many before, they had visited family on the southern side of the border. The trip back home, a sluggish procession across the international bridge through curving aisles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, was frustrating but familiar. The Castro sisters did it practically every week. “It was just so routine,” Yuliana’s sister, Laura Nancy Castro, recalled months later.
Full story.

Seasonal workers sue agricultural giant

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
As a day laborer, Raul Salas would often have to wait for odd jobs that were never steady and barely allowed him to make a living.

So he says he jumped at the opportunity when, last year on a June day, a fellow laborer named Pensamiento offered him a seasonal job detasseling corn in Indiana.

“He came up to me over there,” said Salas, pointing to a spot in downtown Brownsville where day laborers were known to gather to wait for work.
Full story.

Boy struggling for life now faces mom’s deportation

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
Angel de Jesus Barrera will turn 3 next month. But at 22 pounds and eight ounces, he is fighting for his life as his mother faces deportation later this month.

He was born with congenital craniofacial dysmorphism, an abnormality in fetus development, which left part of his cranium and face disfigured. Barrera looks more like a 1-year-old given his size and weight. He has a whole list of medical conditions, some of which include Down’s syndrome, scoliosis, mental retar dation, seizure disorder and a serious case of glaucoma that recently caused the removal of his left eye.
Full story.

Mexican citizens looking for sanctuary

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
A middle-aged woman was driving along a busy street in Matamoros on her way to visit family, when she passed a Soriana grocery store barricaded by a throng of Mexican soldiers and vehicles. Gunshots cracked in the distance.

She kept her eyes on the road and pressed on the gas, following what many Mexican citizens consider unspoken policy: Look away. Mind your own business. Keep your mouth shut.
Full story.

U-visa applicants mired in bureaucracy

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
He erupted in rage one night, slamming her against the wall while she wrapped her arms around her stomach in an effort to protect her womb. He stormed through their home, yelling, cursing, “breaking everything in sight,” she recalls.

When he left, shattered glass and tears were riddled across the floor. She called the police, then made the decision — perhaps the toughest she has ever made — to press charges against her husband. An immigrant woman from the small Mexican town of Silacayoapan, she had no legal documents, no steady income, no family members nearby.
Full story.

The Kings and Queens of Brownsville

By Jazmine Ulloa

Texas Co-op Power Magazine

When it comes to chess, students in Texas’ southernmost border town make all the right moves

With foldable chessboards in small, oblong bags slung over their shoulders, armies of excited children squeeze through the halls of Filemon B. Vela Middle School on a winter Saturday morning. Everywhere, coaches, teachers and volunteers shuffle groups back and forth from one corridor to the next to gaming areas set up throughout the small campus in Brownsville. Alongside follow mothers and fathers, cousins and grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else the competitors’ families have invited to the annual Chess of Champions, one of 10 major chess tournaments held for students in kindergarten through high school in this border city.

Brownsville, with a population exceeding 175,000, sprawls along the southernmost tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. The lush city with tropical temperatures and palm-fringed, artificial lakes, known locally as resacas, attracts avid bird-watchers from around the world and serves as a winter home for thousands of retirees—typically from the Midwest and the North—dubbed Winter Texans or “snowbirds.”
But the city lies in an impoverished area, where the median household income is roughly $30,000, about 95 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and 34 percent have limited proficiency in English. When Brownsville and other cities in the Valley make national headlines, it is usually in connection with the politics of immigration or the atrocities of the drug war only a stone’s throw away in Mexico.

Yet, over the past two decades, a different story has attracted the attention of major media outlets, including Texas Monthly, The New York Times, CBS and HBO, as they chronicle the legacy of chess as a phenomenon in the region and the burgeoning of some of the world’s newest young talent.

At national championships, schools from the Brownsville Independent School District have placed among the top five in team competition since 2005. At the state level, they have dominated the Texas Scholastic Championships chess competition, winning about a dozen first-place slots at the elementary, middle and high school levels since 1993.
Tournaments like the one at Vela Middle School are family affairs. Parents, relatives and community members pitch in to raise money, contribute team snacks and meals—be it breakfast tacos or lasagna—and pack schools during competitions, so much so that in some instances, police have even been called out to unsnarl traffic jams.

At Vela, the parking lot is filled to the brink, and cars spill onto the side streets, parked brazenly under “No Parking” signs. Inside the gym, the commotion amplifies. Players search for their places among rosters taped to the walls and press their way through rows and rows of numbered, brown cafeteria tables. Hundreds of chessboards, checkered forest green and white, deck their surfaces, pieces at the ready: rooks biding time to topple kings, queens waiting to capture knights.

Gertrude Sharp Elementary School second-grader Eduardo Campella Rodriguez, or “Campy” as his friends call him, climbs onto his assigned metal chair. He sits on his knees to get a full view of the chessboard in front of him. The pint-sized 8-year-old with bright, chestnut eyes and a quick wit isn’t nervous, he says. Not yet. So far, he has always won his first round. “Maybe by the fourth or fifth I will be, but I get more confident when I win,” he later says with a sheepish smile.

He is good at winning, too. He beams when his teachers list his victories. He placed second in his division at his first national chess tournament. He was 5 then, and in kindergarten. But Campy’s triumph for such a young child does not surprise most Valley educators or chess coaches. There is no mystery—and more to it than luck—behind what has led to the rise of young chess stars like Campy.
It’s due to hard, hard work. It’s due to community effort. “To me, it comes down to expectations,” says Juliet V. Garcia, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville. Children from the Valley, predominantly Hispanic, are often clumped into stereotypes and assigned government labels, such as at-risk or low-income. But when it comes to the game of chess, educators and parents impel them to succeed—and they thrive.
“It’s a pretty powerful change of a paradigm,” she says.

Chess: What the Cool Kids Play

J.J. Guajardo has told this story at least 600 times to friends, family members and dozens of reporters, he estimates, chuckling. But he does not mind sharing it again. It is inspirational, he says, one of the few positive tales told about Brownsville, where the good is often overlooked or forgotten.
School officials and parents consider Guajardo the father of the city’s chess movement. He’s a figure they revere along the lines of Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles high school teacher whose mentoring of at-risk students turned a failing calculus program into one of the nation’s best. The true story played out in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.”
But Guajardo, a soft-spoken, large man with kind eyes, is more modest. On a warm November night, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a brown, tweed flat cap, he sits with his wife at a small pub in McAllen, a large Valley city about an hour from Brownsville. He is honored by the Hollywood comparisons, he says, but prefers the focus stay on the students. “I don’t think I picked chess,” Guajardo says. “Chess picked me.”

He was a teacher at Brownsville’s Russell Elementary School in 1989 when several children in his rambunctious group of sixth-graders were believed to have broken the gym coach’s vinyl square dance records as part of a prank. No outright accusations were made, Guajardo recalls, but the episode brought the principal marching into his classroom.
The principal urged him to create an extracurricular program that could keep the group of high-energy students busy in the mornings and stop them from causing trouble. She suggested chess.

Chess. The art form—or sport (it is often debated which)—is known as the “royal game,” in which the pieces, kings and queens, bishops and pawns, are moved across a checkered board to attack and capture. Its history spans centuries, a pastime popular among the echelons of the elite who have mastered the skills of strategy and analytical thought.
And Guajardo was charged with introducing all of this to a group of children who could barely keep still. But his students showed an interest, and he taught them how to play, even though he only knew the basics. All of the children built upon the foundations Guajardo taught them, and later, they could win in a match against their instructor.
The students raised about $500 (Guajardo paid most of it out of his own pocket) to attend their first state championship in Austin in the spring of 1990, he recalls with a proud smile. They did not win that year. But they did win two school years later—and every time after that for the next seven consecutive years.

Like the students, Guajardo improved with practice and started organizing competitions at the school. “I started learning the nuances of the game and how to run a tournament, how to read a wall chart, how to make sure the pairings were correct, and we began to become more sophisticated as we participated,” he remembers.
The chess team at Russell Elementary also gained participants, growing from a dozen students to more than 50 after the team won its first school title. Soon the school’s competitions were drawing hundreds. Students from across the country wanted to travel to Brownsville for a chance to compete against Russell players, and newspapers throughout the region began featuring its hometown heroes, Guajardo says. Chess became what the cool kids did.

Kings and Queens on Campus

Guajardo resigned as Russell Elementary’s chess coach in 1999, but the movement he spurred continued forward. More schools in the Brownsville school district and private schools across the area developed chess programs.

In 1999, Morningside Elementary School gripped media attention when a group of second- and third-graders placed second in the national championships. It was the first time a school from Brownsville had made it that far.

“And it really just took off. We started with six kids, and by the time we left Morningside, we had well over 100 kids playing chess,” says Rusty Harwood, one of three second-grade teachers at the time who, inspired by Guajardo’s success, started the chess team. Harwood, who now serves as the director for the chess program at The University of Texas at Brownsville, went on to teach at Americo Paredes Elementary in 2001. There, he helped start another chess team that advanced to win seven national titles through the years, including six under his direction.

The community rallied behind the students’ successes, and the chess movement grew into a citywide effort, with students and faculty working with families and local businesses to raise funds for tournaments and trips. For many children who had never left Brownsville, traveling to state and national competitions allowed them to explore other parts of the country for the first time. Parents later banded together to gain financial support from Brownsville ISD. Now, the program operates on an annual budget of $400,000.

As the program soared, UTB President Garcia was among its major proponents. While on a visit to Washington, D.C., to serve as chair of the Advisory Committee to Congress on Financial Aid, she told then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley about Morningside Elementary’s 1999 feat. It became the first example of success cited by Riley in his speech titled “State of the Union Address for Hispanic Education.”

And when a former college student approached her with the idea of launching a chess program at UTB, Garcia says she did not have to think about it twice. “It felt absolutely natural,” she says of drawing upon an existing pool of students who were quickly surpassing the levels of their instructors and seeking a higher platform to which to advance.

When the UTB chess team formed, one of its loftiest ambitions was beating The University of Texas at Dallas, known for its success at the national level. Now the college students are going head-to-head with Ivy League students from Harvard and Yale: UTB teams have advanced three times to Final Four competition—the country’s topmost collegiate tournament sanctioned by the United States Chess Federation—and have placed in the top five four times at the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships, the foremost intercollegiate team chess competition in the Americas.

Better training at the university level also has since trickled down to younger students, school officials say. The area had no grandmasters, the highest title a player can attain in chess, back in the 1990s when Guajardo’s students first started taking state titles. Now, the UTB chess team, including its coach, boasts four of roughly 1,250 grandmasters in the world.

Future Moves

School officials say they do not see enthusiasm for the game ever fizzling out in Brownsville. With university players now serving as coaches, and with former Brownsville ISD students returning to teach, younger students are developing increasingly higher skills.

Chess competitors in the Valley now span the ages. Most train in free, afterschool lessons held three to four times a week. Before violence escalated in Mexico, some families crossed over into Matamoros, only a few minutes’ trip across one of the city’s three international bridges, where they could pay less for coaching than on the U.S. side. There are still some brave enough to try, like the family of 12-year-old Edgar Santoyo, who was featured on HBO’s Real Sports. But most stick to private tutors and computer programs designed to increase proficiency, school officials say.

Many outsiders are amazed upon learning that Brownsville students are so good at chess. Back in the day, Guajardo remembers, intimidated opponents would spread rumors that students practiced instead of going to class—of course, that was not true, he assures. School leaders have more realistic theories; bilingual students, for instance, could have an edge when learning chess because it is a lot like learning another language.

To Garcia, the most important piece, she says, is that educators need to do a better job of tapping into students’ potential. “The discussion is not really about chess, is it?” she asks. “It’s about how the brain really works and how expectations work and how then, why aren’t we able to translate the success children are having in chess into other disciplines?”

Yet some educators have seen chess help students in other areas. It boosts self-confidence and develops high critical-thinking and memory skills, school officials say, requiring players to recognize and memorize elaborate patterns of attack. Teachers and coaches attest to students’ improvements in academics as well, noting higher state standardized testing scores.

And chess also teaches students life lessons, Guajardo says. “One of the basic rules of the game is ‘touch move,’” he explains. “That means that if you touch a piece, you have to move that piece. You can’t take it back.”

You can’t say, “Never mind.” So the children sit on their hands, until they absolutely know what their next move will be and can commit to it. They learn the virtue of patience and to calculate, to predict outcomes, to be self-sufficient. “They learn how to succeed using their own wit, without anyone’s help,” Guajardo says. “Because in chess, you are all alone out there.”

Across the street from Vela Middle School sits Cameron Park, a colonia, or humble neighborhood, considered one of the most impoverished areas in the nation.
But the disparities and struggles of the outside world seem far removed from the classroom where several children have their chessboards laid out on the floor, enthralled in last-minute practice sessions before their next match.

As published June 2012

The Working Life: Mina Thornton, 47

Thornton opened Tres Hermanos Ropa Usada thirteen years ago in Hidalgo. As president of the 25-employee business, she buys ropa usada, or used clothing, from around the country and resells it in South Texas and throughout Mexico.
As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
People always ask, “Does this color look good on me?” I never ask. There’s not a color I won’t wear. I’ve liked clothes since I was a little girl. I’d always mix and match shades and patterns. But I was the youngest of ten, and my parents could only afford to give us so much. So I grew up to be resourceful, even as I sought out expensive brands. I remember how, after those rare trips to the mall, my sisters would come home with double the number of outfits that I did. I was particular. I preferred having fewer garments of higher value.

I still choose quality over quantity. I don’t have a closet full of shoes. I don’t wear many accessories. I keep it simple, classy. That’s what guides my ropa usada philosophy. Used clothing has long been a thriving industry in Hidalgo and all over the Rio Grande Valley. Like other ropa usada dealers, I buy my secondhand clothing by the pound from all over the country; I then sell the bales internationally, mostly in Mexico. But I also sell some of the clothes at my store. While most vendors traditionally focus on either selling wholesale, by the truckload, or retail, in a storefront, I was one of the first store owners in the city to do both.

Full story.

As published in the October 2011 issue

Photo by David Strohl


The Working Life: Jody Blackburn, 45

Blackburn is the founder of the Magick Circle, in Brownsville, where he offers card readings, cleansings, and spiritual healing.
As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
I FIRST LEARNED ABOUT folk healing from an elderly woman in my neighborhood named Rita. None of our neighbors in Brownsville liked her much. They called her la bruja. The witch. I was nine then and living with my father and grandparents, just down the block from her home. My grandparents would chide me for visiting her. There were lots of stories, like that she knew black magic and used it on ill-behaved children.
But I had a strange desire to be around her, and as we became friends, I realized that the rumors were just misconceptions. What I remember most about Rita are the plants she used to grow in pots inside her house and around the backyard. She taught me to connect with herbs, to know their scents, feel their textures. I learned how to brew ointments and concoct “kitchen witch” recipes with foods and teas. She taught me that every person, every animal, every plant has its own energy.

Full story.

As published in the March 2011 issue

Photo by Kenny Braun


Does shipping drug cartel heads north work?

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News

Story proposal selected for 2011 John Jay/HF Guggenheim Reporting Fellowship

MEXICO CITY — There were 15 of them, some in tan jumpsuits, all in
shackles. It took three flights and throngs of law enforcement officers to transfer them.

Major players in the Mexican underworld, they landed on U.S. soil Jan. 20, 2007, to face charges from Texas to New York, from Colorado to California. Among them was Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, one of the most ruthless and feared drug lords in the Western Hemisphere.

The handover was swift, unexpected and unprecedented in number, lauded as a “clean sweep” across drug cartel ranks and a triumph for President Felipe Calderón, who only a year earlier had pledged to use extradition in his all-out offensive against Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations.

Yet as 2012 presidential elections loom for both Mexico and the United States, analysts are taking a closer look. Shipping Mexican cartel leaders to U.S. judges might score immediate hits and headlines. But it might make affairs more dangerous in the long run, as the leaderless organizations splinter into violent offshoots competing over more fragmented turf.

And some question whether extradition really is bringing the two nations closer to a successful end of their multibillion-dollar shared struggle.

“It might be too soon to tell, but it certainly makes for good politics,” observed Héctor Ramírez Schulz, a penitentiary system official in Mexico City.

In 2007, the approach seemed promising. Cárdenas and four of the other defendants had been on U.S. law enforcement’s radar as foreign narcotics kingpins, a designation given by the president of the United States to only the most significant international players in the business.

Plucked out of their bastions, severed from their connections in their own country, their handover was hailed as the start of a new era of U.S.-Mexico cooperation. Since then, the number of accused narco-traffickers extradited into the U.S. legal system has surged, with more waiting in the pipeline.

The question is whether the policy has exacerbated the unintended consequences of Calderón’s tough measures — spreading and more brutal violence.

“The problem in our nation, most people don’t understand, is social, structural,” said a former official of Altiplano, the federal prison outside Mexico City where high-ranking traffickers are held, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We do not have legitimate authorities, our justice system lacks credibility. It’s hard to take any action when you have a corrupt system.”

Shipped across borders

The number of criminal suspects extradited from Mexico to the United States has more than doubled since 2005, from 41 cases that year to 94 in 2010, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Mexico has gone from handing over one criminal a year, since the extradition treaty between the nations went into effect in 1980, to a peak of 107 in 2009.

Only about 40 percent of them are extradited for drug-related crimes, slightly more than murder cases, estimates Ignacio Torteya III, a lawyer who has kept up with the transfers for years, first as a briefing attorney for a federal judge and since 1997 retained by the Mexican consul general in Brownsville.

For U.S. Marshal Robert R. Almonte, who heads that agency in the Justice Department’s Western District of Texas, the high cartel ranks, not only the numbers, make it a success story.

“We’re not just talking about the transport of low-level traffickers here. We’re talking about significant players within these organizations,” he said.

Mexico often received negative hype for its refusal to extradite fugitives in cases that might result in the death penalty. But a greater hangup came with an October 2001 Mexican Supreme Court decision that forbade extradition if a suspect faced life in prison — cruel and unusual punishment under the Mexican Constitution.

The ruling’s reversal in 2005 was “light at the end of the tunnel,” said Almonte’s chief deputy, Fernando Karl. It allowed drug-related extraditions to gain momentum under President Vicente Fox and to reach full speed under Calderón.

The Mexican anti-drug strategy calls for the relentless dismantling of cartel leadership through roadblocks and raids, arrests and shootouts. But sending the arrested leaders to the United States is key.

The Colombian government used the same approach against its cocaine cartels of the 1980s and ’90s, whose leaders preferred tombs to extradition. Several even formed a group to fight against it — the Extraditables, including the infamous leader of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar.

Corruption and incompetence in that nation’s legal system are mirrored today in Mexico: shoddy police work and dismal prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses, Mexican prison and law enforcement officials acknowledged. Recently leaked cables from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City state that only 2 percent of those detained ever are brought to trial.

North of the border, “it’s a totally different ball game because the United States prosecution team has all their ducks in a row,” El Paso criminal defense lawyer Joseph “Sib” Abraham said. “The U.S. federal court system is quite intimidating, and it’s rather forceful. They have the wherewithal to prosecute cases and they do it rather aggressively and successfully.”

‘El Mata Amigos’

Ideally, the accused should be tried where they made their criminal career, judged by their peers, said Daniel M. Brinks, a government professor with the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. But with de facto “narco states” operating parallel to the Mexican government, major drug figures fall like “heavy rocks into paper bags” in Mexican jails and courts, he said.

“It is not enough to put them in prison. Sometimes, you have to send them away,” Brinks said.
One of the heaviest of the heavyweights was Cárdenas.

A man of many legends and many nicknames — among them “El Mata Amigos,” or Friend Killer — he reached the apogee of his notoriety when he and his gunmen assaulted U.S. federal agents in 1999 in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville. As the Mexican journalist José Reveles describes it, the insult that he could — and if threatened would — strike again left U.S. officials with a sour taste.

Cárdenas was captured in the same city by Mexican soldiers amid gunfire and grenade explosions in 2003, but his true fall didn’t occur until his 2007 airlift to the United States, observers agree.

He had run the Gulf Cartel’s multibillion-dollar enterprise in the northern state of Tamaulipas while locked up with some of Mexico’s most dangerous and brilliant criminals in Altiplano, known then as La Palma — ousting underlings, forging alliances and throwing street parties— loud ones in Ciudad Acuña for Mexico’s Day of the Child, complete with clowns, cake and banners crediting him. So the stories go.

Cárdenas wasn’t the only one. Mexican newspapers trotted out examples of narco leaders living the good life behind bars, with plasma TVs, prostitutes and other amenities that, Mexicans quip, gave them a better quality of life than the average citizen. Sandra Ávila Beltrán, the “Queen of the Pacific,” had Botox injections at a maximum-security prison. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera ran Puente Grande prison in Jalisco state until he was smuggled out in a laundry truck.

It wasn’t until Cárdenas was extradited — without ever facing prosecution in Mexico — that his organization started to break up, Mexican officials said.

Cutting off a hydra head

In a secrecy-shrouded plea deal, Cárdenas was sentenced in 2010 to 25 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $50 million of drug proceeds. Public reaction in Mexico and the United States was mixed. Critics thought the sentence too light, the amount forfeited too low. Others speculated that he must have provided valuable information.

But whatever the case, the effect of his extradition in Mexico was perhaps only increased violence, Mexican academics and journalists say. The most common metaphor they use to describe the removal of major cartel leaders like Cárdenas is the hydra — lop off one head and another grows back.

Then there’s the analogy of metastasized cancer — the spread of smaller, more dangerous factions.
Cárdenas wasn’t the only leader of the Gulf Cartel, said Ricardo Ravelo, a Mexican journalist for Proceso magazine and author of a number of books on narcotics trafficking and the legendary kingpin. Before him came Juan García Abrego, sent to a U.S. trial in 1996. After Cárdenas came his brother Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, known as “Tony Tormenta,” killed in a Matamoros shootout last year, followed by Jorge Eduardo “El Cross” Costilla.

The narco organization “has demonstrated a lot of dynamic in Mexico and across the world because it can reinvent itself time and time again, whether its leaders are arrested, extradited or killed,” Ravelo said. The CEO of a company can walk away, but the power, the connections will stay with the business.

And a leader’s departure can lead to more danger, some Mexican journalists and officials argue. Cárdenas’ removal allowed the rise of the Zetas into a rival cartel. It had grown from a core group of Mexican army deserters he had recruited as a Gulf Cartel enforcement arm.

The exhibitionistic style of Zeta killings has spawned imitators among the shadowy groups that have since complicated Mexico’s drug turf map — epitomized in recent weeks by executed victims in Veracruz, some of them dumped under a bridge, who fell afoul of a new group, the “Mata Zetas” or Zeta Killers.

Similarly, “La Mano con Ojos,” or The Hand with Eyes, has escalated brutality in the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City. That gang, analysts said, formed after the 2010 arrest of Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez, a top assassin for the Beltran Leyva cartel.

But, U.S. officials contend, those who replace the heads of the beast generally aren’t as powerful, not as well-connected, not as insulated.

“There are a lot of ripples that occur at a lot of different levels once you take out the leadership element,” said Paul Craine, assistant special agent in charge at the Houston division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “It launches internal infighting by creating a vacuum where players try to determine who is going to take over as leaders, disrupting the criminal networks.”

Over time, the pressure erodes a gang’s influence and power, Craine said. As DEA officials put it, it’s not a sustainable business model.

The whole head of the snake must be targeted and extradition is only one method of many — U.S. and Mexican law enforcement must target the flow of dirty money and weapons, DEA officials said. The Mérida Initiative, a $1.4 billion U.S. assistance package, has poured money into training, equipment and other counternarcotics efforts in Mexico and Central America.

Still, law enforcement officials and legal experts said the drug war has increasingly centered on the capture of narco leaders, whose removal can take years and occur haphazardly. After working dozens of extraditions in a 32-year FBI career, retired special agent Peter Hanna said: “You just never know who you’re going to get.”

Synchronized elections

Mexico and the United States both hold presidential elections next year, and for the outgoing Calderón, the results could be a referendum on his legacy, the drug war — its effectiveness and Mexico’s willingness
to continue it.

Drug analysts and law enforcement officials in both countries also worry about what will come next. Some argue Calderón’s extradition strategies have failed because other tactics didn’t evolve in tandem, such as better federal police, cleaning up judicial system corruption, fighting money laundering more aggressively and controlling military abuses.

Reveles, who has followed the illicit drug trade for decades, asked, “Where are the billions of dollars attached to these heads? Where does the money go?”

Ravelo, the writer for Proceso, said the fight should continue. Many analysts agree. Progress might take decades but few want a return to the old days, when the government formed pacts with the cartels.

The United States needs to do more — Merida funds “are certainly a step in the right direction, but they are woefully short,” said Michael A. Braun, a former DEA assistant administrator and chief of operations.
Then there’s the larger part of the equation — demand.

“Perhaps it’s too soon to tell whether the extraditions, among other tools, are working,” said David Shirk, a University of Southern California professor. “We might be dousing the flames but leaving the fuel. As long as there are billions of dollars to be made, there is always going to be someone to sell.”

As published Oct. 10, 2011

Photo collage created by Jazmine Ulloa


U-visa might take a U-turn

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
A police report that Patricia Martinez keeps folded in a large Ziploc bag tells some of the story she wants to forget.

A man, it states, walked into the small travel agency in Los Angeles where she worked, chatted her up, then grabbed her arm and thrust her against a wall, fondling her breasts and trying to disrobe her.

More than eight years later, in the living room of her San Antonio home, Martinez, now 27, could still recall his face, disheveled hair and ragged clothing. He was larger than her and stronger, she said. The struggle seemed to last hours. Then he fled and she sank to the floor and wept, more from her feelings of impotence than anything else.

Martinez, a petite woman with short, brown hair from Monterrey, Mexico, was living in the United States illegally when the assault occurred on Dec. 28, 2002. To call police seemed “well, illogical,” she said.

But she did. It led to something she hadn’t expected — a U-visa, temporary legal status for crime victims who cooperate in criminal investigations, especially cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. Some recipients can apply for permanent residency after three years.

Holding up the police report, Martinez said, “This has changed my life.”

Most of the 5,825 U-visas granted in 2009 and 10,073 in 2010 have stemmed from domestic violence cases, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Congress approved the U-visa through the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, almost unanimously in 2000 to encourage immigrants to report crime without fear of deportation, forge trust between them and local authorities and thus strengthen crime fighting in their communities.

But a push among Texas lawmakers to prohibit “sanctuary cities” and other measures that would link local police work to immigration enforcement could derail those efforts, critics say, creating ambiguity for officers and crime victims who don’t want to be questioned about their citizenship.

HB 12, expected to hit the House floor early next month for debate, would not require officers to check the immigration status of individuals they detain but it would prevent local governments from denying them the ability to do so, at the risk of losing state funds. Proponents say the bill aims to stop local jurisdictions from protecting illegal immigrants but wouldn’t threaten efforts to help crime victims.

“Contrary to arguments made by some, there is no conflict between U-visas and banning sanctuary city policies,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Illegal immigrant victims of crime will not be prevented from obtaining U-visas if sanctuary city policies are banned.”

Some Texas police chiefs and sheriffs, including San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, have lobbied against HB 12, meeting at the state Capitol in February to denounce a slew of what they termed “Arizona-style” bills they said would undermine cooperation between officers and otherwise law-abiding people who are here illegally.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles said local police have a more urgent need to build partnerships with the public than federal law enforcement.

“We need the whole community to trust and respect us and to call us and help us to prevent crime, and we don’t want to tear that down,” Wiles said in a recent interview while at a border sheriffs’ meeting in San Antonio. He called HB 12 “just a political smokescreen because we already have plenty of room under the existing laws to do what we have to do.”

Programs such as Secure Communities, which compares fingerprints of those arrested to Department of Homeland Security and FBI databases, have the benefit of keeping local officers from having to enforce immigration laws, a job they’re not trained to do and that would be especially difficult in family violence cases, Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz said.

“Who do you ask (about their status)?” Ortiz said. “Do you ask everyone you come into contact with? Who knows? They could be from Russia or Canada, and those people are usually not targeted.”

Officers want to solve cases and keep the streets safe regardless “of who you are or where you’re from,” added his deputy chief for patrols, Dale Bennett. “There is an inherent propensity to shy away from law enforcement that makes solving cases difficult in our current population,” he said. “Adding the potential threat of arrest and deportation (to those who report crimes) increases that risk of never solving cases that much greater.”

Because of those concerns, state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, filed a bill that would keep authorities from asking victims and witnesses their immigration status, but observers say it is not likely to make it out of committee.

And if those people fail to come forward, investigators stand to lose valuable witnesses, said Lee J. Terán, a St. Mary’s University law professor. One of her clients was shot and severely beaten by drug traffickers who left him for dead, but survived and helped authorities capture his assailants, Teran said.
“In this case, as well as in others (with different witnesses), the police really needed him to prosecute the perpetrators,” she said.

Today, Martinez is studying for a graduate school entrance exam and will seek a part-time job when her two children are a little older. Because her U-visa’s benefits extend to her former boyfriend, now her husband, he is working at a local restaurant to support the family.

She remembers how stunned she was to see Los Angeles police rush to respond to her report of the assault. They even searched the streets for her attacker with dogs and a helicopter but were unable to find him. Months later, Martinez nervously picked him out of a photo lineup. She hadn’t even wanted to go to the station, she recalled.

“I was afraid he would come back one day to finish what he started,” she said

As published April 17, 2011


The Iron Canvas

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer

ON A WINDY, LATE-FEBRUARY SUNDAY in Brownsville, gallery owner Mark Clark and a dozen artists left the gallery carrying paintings and other pieces. They crossed the street, passed a lone Border Patrol van on the river levee, and arrived in Hope Park, a green space on the Rio Grande that celebrates ties between Mexico and the United States. In defiance of the Border Patrol, they began hanging artwork on the rusty, unfinished wall snaking its way partly through the park, the art’s colors popping against the gritty iron bars and overcast sky. It was a way to “beautify the ugly,” Clark says. “It lets people know that the wall has not gone away as a political issue and that we are extremely disappointed in the Obama administration and their decision to continue this idiocy.”

Clark has been fighting the wall since 2006, when former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his entourage first came to the border city. Clark picketed Chertoff’s press conferences, participated in citywide protests, and tagged the gallery’s roof with No Al Muro (“No Border Wall”) in charcoal. When Chertoff’s tenure ended in 2009, Clark threw him a retirement party at the gallery, where guests could pummel a piñata modeled after Chertoff and throw shoes at a George W. Bush impersonator.

Clark is still fighting, even though the struggle can feel doomed at times. Immigration reform has fallen on the nation’s backburner, and construction on the wall is rolling along at $12 to $18 million a mile. The rest of the country may have moved on to other topics, but Clark and his neighbors can’t because of the hulking reminder. He no longer rides his bicycle along the levee to work. “It used to be a quiet, serene ride through nature,” he says. “When you have an iron curtain on one side blocking your view, it is a little on the oppressive and depressing side.”

He says he is not going to let the United States forget it’s making a mistake. So on Feb. 28, he turned the wall into a canvas that displayed people’s frustrations with the metal divide. There were paintings of moonlit mojadas, female border-crossers, and the river view undisrupted by the fence. An illustration by Clark depicted dozens of Mexicans marching into the country through a hole in the fence. One Mexican was an unemployed Ronald McDonald selling helados, ice cream, on the corner. It is “every nightmare about Mexican immigration,” he says. There were conceptual pieces, such as a missing-person poster and a pile of stuff including a pair of shoes, a deflated flotation tire, and a water jug left behind by immigrants illegally crossing the border through Arizona. A 30-foot ladder of green bamboo and twine leaned against the fence, reaching toward the sky and swaying in the wind. Artist David Freeman, an arts instructor at South Texas College in McAllen, stuck salva-tree thorns on the rungs to symbolize obstacles faced by illegal immigrants in the United States.

Perhaps the brightest display was that of Susan Harbage Page, a photographer and lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Page designed a funeral wreath using colored ribbons and plastic flowers arranged like a target. It is a memorial to the lives lost crossing the border, “a beautiful thing that sucks you in but represents many harsh realities and losses,” she says.
The installation came and went quietly, without any clashes with U.S. Border Patrol or local authorities. “I plan to do this every year,” Clark says, “until the wall goes away.”

As published March 24, 2010, Texas Observer