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.

On the road with my crazy mother

My younger sister and I grew up in my mother’s red, beat-up little Escort, traveling the 15-hour plus ride between Texas and California, back and forth. Twelve childhood years packed up in brown, cardboard boxes.

First, it was my father’s new job that led us to the Golden State, and then it was the divorce that drove us back, followed by my mother’s new love and new marriage with a U.S. Marine that returned us to the Sun Valley in California. That didn’t work out. He left one cold morning, when the fog had just settled. He didn’t look back at us. Not a glance. And so we arrived again in El Paso, just the three of us.

For her sporadic changes of mind and heart and location, my mother has been described euphemistically as a “free spirit” and bluntly as, well, “crazy.” And maybe she is, a little. She likes to blast the music on the radio and revels in the open road. The odd jobs she has taken on have been as fickle and short lived as her hair color, which has gone from brown, to black, to red, to orange, to a mesh between dirty and metallic blonde. But she is beautiful, in my eyes, a curvy woman with disheveled tresses and soft painter’s hands. Don’t ask me why she does what she does. Like all else in her life, she just does.

And we have had our fights. Bitter ones. I have stormed out of the house in outrage. She has slammed the door in my face so hard the windowpanes shook.

Some times were rough. At 13 I thought I knew everything. I reproached her for everything. I wanted clothes and shoes and stuff she could not afford. I wanted her to be normal, whatever that was. To bake cookies or give me a curfew, or something. To stop moving us around. It wasn’t until I left for college that I realized she had given me more than I could possibly ever need. She gave me all her love, her adventurous spirit and her strength.

A few weeks ago, when I last visited my hometown of El Paso, she and I held each other close in one final embrace before I drove by myself from the western tip of Texas to the southern one, back down to Brownsville. All of our arguments and disputes were far behind us. It was only the two of us in my old room full of high school memories, a room that for a short while had stayed exactly as I left it, hoping for my return.

This year will be tough for my mother. My sister, now 18, also will leave soon to attend a university in Massachusetts. So many roads we have traveled together, and now we are each learning to travel them on our own. But we will always remain close.

On this Mexican Mother’s Day, I want to tell my mother that I love her, with all my heart, with everything I’ve got.

As published May 10, 2010 in The Brownsville Herald

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

(My mom is the beautiful one in blue.)

 

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

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.

Then they reached the checkpoint. As always, the sisters, both American citizens, rolled down their windows and handed their entry documents to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer on duty, Eliseo Cabrera. Laura Nancy handed over her U.S. passport. Yuliana presented her daughter’s Texas birth certificate and her own, along with a receipt proving she had applied for a U.S. passport. Their mother, a Mexican national, presented her visitor’s visa.

The officer, Laura Nancy says, scarcely glanced at the documents—except for Yuliana’s. He examined her birth certificate and application receipt for a few moments, then ran the information on his computer. He was especially interested, the women would soon learn, in the person who registered Yuliana’s birth certificate—a once-popular midwife named Trinidad Saldivar.

Midwifery was once a cultural institution and an economic necessity for many along the border. Since the 1960s, the practice has almost disappeared as regulations for midwives, or parteras, have become more stringent—and as they were increasingly accused of falsely registering children of Mexican families as U.S. citizens. Until the early 1990s, Saldivar was one of the most sought-out parteras along both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Following an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (as it was then called), Saldivar was one of more than a dozen Valley midwives accused of falsifying birth certificates. Some pleaded guilty—to avoid, they said, serving prison time. No one was asked which records they had been paid to forge and which were authentic, making it nearly impossible to determine which children had been delivered in the United States and which had not. Saldivar was never convicted, but her name was tarnished in the process—at least in the eyes of the U.S. government, which included her in a list of more than 230 “suspicious” midwives.

Maybe her name registered that morning with Officer Cabrera. But he appeared to be convinced from the start that the document was false, Yuliana has since stated in legal filings. He asked questions but ignored the answers, she says. He confiscated all four passengers’ documents, directed them out of traffic, and referred them for further inspection. What happened then, Yuliana’s mother says, “I would not wish on anyone.”

The three womens’ court statements tell the same story. They were taken into separate rooms and held for 11 hours. They were interrogated, mocked, harassed, and threatened with deportation or imprisonment—all, they say, to persuade them to sign confessions saying they held fraudulent documents. They were offered neither food nor water. Their requests to call for help or speak to relatives who’d come to the international bridge to look for them were denied. A cousin who wanted to see them was spirited away by officers, the sisters say.

“It was as if we had been kidnapped,” says the mother, Trinidad Muraira de Castro.

“I was so scared,” says Laura Nancy. “No one knew what was happening to us.”

Yuliana remembers hearing her baby, Camila, cry uncontrollably outside in the lobby while an officer interrogated her. She insisted she was born in Brownsville, as the certificate said. Her citizenship had never before been questioned, she told the officer, and if permitted, she could retrieve more documentation, including her mother’s blood work from a Brownsville hospital after Yuliana’s birth. In that icy little room, none of that mattered. “The officer continued harassing me, yelling at me, and telling me that I was Mexican and that he was going to deport me,” Yuliana, then 25, wrote in her statement. “After a while, I realized I had no way out since he told me no matter what I did, to him I was Mexican.”

It was all too much for her mother. Trinidad says she was grilled at length about falsified birth certificates she had indeed obtained for Laura Nancy and Yuliana when they were children—certificates saying they were Mexican citizens so they could attend school in Matamoros. Out of fear and exhaustion, she says, Trinidad signed a confession saying she had falsely registered her daughters as born in the United States.

That was that. By the time Trinidad, her daughters, and granddaughter were released, the sky was dark. Their entry documents had been taken away, and the Castro sisters were stranded in Mexico. What began as a “routine” return home to Brownsville had turned into a nightmare—one that would stretch over months, landing the Castros in a protracted legal battle and separating family members in Mexico and the United States.

They were not, they soon learned, alone. The Castros have filed suit in federal court against Customs and Border Protection. Their attorneys are seeking class-action status for the case, which could broaden its reach and have widespread implications along the border. The Castros’ experience last Aug. 24, their attorneys allege in court filings, was not an isolated incident, but a symptom of a systematic problem—a “window into the cases of dozens, if not hundreds, of similarly situated persons.” It’s also a window into the human costs associated with the U.S. government’s patchwork “crackdown” on illegal immigration.

NOT LONG AFTER the Castros were denied entry, a group of their U.S. relatives showed up at the Brownsville law office of Jaime Díez. An immigration attorney who has worked in the Valley for 12 years, Díez has become well known in the region for his pro bono immigration work, his strongly opinionated columns in a Mexican newspaper, and his weekly television commentaries on border and immigration issues for a Matamoros station. After he discussed the passport problem faced by U.S. residents returning from Mexico on one of his television spots, people started showing up at his studio.

Díez and other immigration attorneys in the Valley have heard of countless experiences similar to the Castros’. “Most people are totally unaware of this risk, which is why they fall into this trap,” says Lisa Brodyaga, who is working with Díez as a lead attorney on the Castro case. “We still do not know how often it is happening,” she says, because “when it happens to someone they end up in Mexico, cut off from access to counsel.”

Jessica Garcia, a Brownsville lab technician, was among those sent back to Matamoros without her legal documents. A few weeks later, after seeing Díez on TV, the 22-year-old Garcia and her mother went to the station to meet the attorney. She told him about her experience at a Brownsville international bridge on Halloween morning of last year—a morning that, she says, “changed everything, turned everything around for me.”

Two years earlier, Garcia’s husband had lost his U.S. work visa, and the family had moved back to Matamoros. Garcia kept her well-paying job at a Brownsville plasma center to support the family, which meant crossing daily through the port of entry.

Like the Castro sisters, Garcia had been delivered in Brownsville by midwife Trinidad Saldivar. Her mother, Ana Maria, remembers shopping in downtown Brownsville one day when she came across a colorful board on Saldivar’s front porch advertising her services. It was decked with a stork delivering a baby, she recalls. “Partera,” it read.

For Ana Maria, it seemed like a convenient way to have her baby in the United States and give her more opportunities. There was no need to commit fraud, she says. “If I had paid for a false document for Jessica,” she says, “I would have bought one for her older brother as well. But he is a Mexican citizen.”

On the ever-hardening line between the United States and Mexico, customs officials have long been accused of mistakenly detaining, deporting, or denying entry to U.S. citizens. Since a heightened security measure called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect last June, most of those targeted for interrogation at ports of entry, immigration attorneys like Díez say, have been U.S. citizens who present birth documents registered by midwives—people like Garcia and the Castro sisters, born in U.S. homes, not hospitals. (See “Locked Out”)

The new mandate requires U.S. citizens to present passports, passport cards, or other “initiative-compliant” documents when crossing from Mexico by land. Even before it was implemented, the requirement brought to light a series of complications faced by people born with the assistance of midwives. For years, the U.S. State Department had been rejecting passport applications from people whose births were attended by midwives, citing the forgery convictions. The issue came to widespread attention two years ago, when an increasing number of border residents began requesting passports to comply with the new travel-security measures.

Immigration attorneys say they began to see a stream of cases in which the U.S. State Department sent applicants in bureaucratic loops, asking them to provide all sorts of supplementary proof of citizenship—including newspaper birth announcements and high-school yearbook photos. Rejected applicants included children, senior citizens, U.S. military veterans and federal employees. The process was so arbitrary, says Díez, that some siblings in the same family would get their passports while others were denied. The Castros were a case in point: While Laura Nancy received her passport within weeks of applying, Yuliana had been asked to provide additional proof of citizenship—and was still waiting when she was denied entry last August.

In a class-action lawsuit against the State Department, the ACLU and immigration attorneys representing citizens whose applications had been rejected claimed that the department had “adopted a blanket suspicion toward one group of passport applicants.” In a settlement last year, the department agreed to initiate new procedures and training for officials taking passport applications. The settlement helped some, but many others’ requests remain in limbo, says Díez. Customs officers at ports of entry, like the ones who sent Garcia and the Castros back to Mexico, are not bound by the agreement.

“These are issues that should be handled in a courtroom, not the port of entry, where people do not have access to counsel, nor their constitutional rights,” Díez says. For many U.S. citizens still awaiting passports, border checkpoints are where their fates are decided, with customs officers serving as judge and jury.

Citing ongoing legal proceedings, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials declined to comment about their procedures. Eddie Perez, public affairs liaison for ports of entry in Brownsville, would not say much, either. “CBP officials are not at liberty to discuss any cases under litigation,” he told the Observer. Perez said the issues can be difficult for customs officers to deal with. “We try to cover every base. We want to make sure every person we process is clear to enter,” he said. “Sometimes that process is long; sometimes it is short.”

For Yuliana and Laura Nancy Castro, the process has been long. Since their ordeal at the international bridge, a federal judge has granted the sisters permission to re-enter the United States, where they live with their husbands. But they can no longer visit their mother and extended family in Matamoros. Christmas and New Year’s were gloomy holidays, they say, spent around the dinner table in Laura Nancy’s Brownsville apartment, cut off from the celebrations of their Mexican family. Their mother is depressed, family members say, and has trouble eating. The separation has been especially tough on Laura Nancy, who was pregnant when she was denied entry and last month gave birth to a daughter. “My mother has not seen the baby,” she says, “only photos my husband has taken of her.”

Her husband and 3-year-old son, Polo, can still visit Trinidad Castro. Laura Nancy has trouble explaining to Polo why she can’t accompany them. “I tell Polo, ‘I can’t go. I am going to the doctor.’ I am always at the doctor,” she says.

Her son does not understand. Her teenage niece does. She planned to have her quinceañera this month. The coming-of-age ceremony is held on a girl’s 15th birthday. Her niece, Elvira Alexandra, had a band and dance hall booked in Matamoros, but she doesn’t want to have the party without her aunts, whom she calls her second mothers.

“Now the date is open,” says the girl’s mother, Maribel Ramirez de Castro. “It may seem like little changes, but they really affect your life.”

As published May 13, 2010

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

 

Women play major roles in the drug trade

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
At the lowest level of the illegal drug trade are cases like that of Laura Trevino, her mother and two sisters.

The four women arrested in June allegedly stashed approximately 37 pounds of cocaine packages inside “girdles” three of them wore underneath their clothes. Authorities said they attempted to smuggle the narcotics through the B&M International Bridge.Court testimony later revealed Trevino had admitted to organizing the operation and would be paid $2,000 after they had crossed into the United States, a small percentage of the nearly $1 million estimated street value of the drugs.

The case was the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley. But among the roles women play in the illegal drug business, a majority of them, like Trevino and her family, still take a huge risk for a small cut of their load’s worth.

Women have had long-standing roles in Mexico’s illicit drug trade despite presumptions that in the country’s macho society the business has been entirely male-dominated. Many have also historically held powerful positions, though they have had to “pay their dues twice as hard” to move up the drug syndicate, officials and researchers said.

In the past, women in the narcotics trade tended to fall behind-the-scenes, but their roles have grown more prominent in recent years as their participation in all areas of the business has increased – and continues to rise.

To track the increase, researchers point to the number of women behind bars for drug-related crimes, which began to rise at alarming rates in the 1980s.

From 1990 to 1996, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 101 percent, according to a 1997 prisoner’s report from the Federal Bureau of Statistics. Since, the increase has slowed, rising only 3 percent by 2006, as the latest figures show.

However, the Sentencing Project estimates that the annual growth of female inmates, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasingly at nearly double the rate for men.

“Recently, women have been entering the business at increasing levels at every level of the drug cartel,” said Howard Campbell, anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “But most women in the trafficking business don’t get caught. So, incarceration and indictment rates may not fully speak to the issue of who is doing it.”

He found rising numbers of women incarcerated for drug-related offenses at U.S. and Mexican prisons, increases of women dying in drug violence and interviewed dozens of women for a study published in the winter edition of the Anthropological Quarterly.

Two key reasons account for the increases: Mexican drug cartels are at large and have grown in size and profitability, while poverty in Mexico and along the border remains high, Campbell said.

Women have then been able to expand their positions in the drug trade, where many find the lucrative opportunities to move up economically. Their position can serve as a vehicle to empowerment, Campbell said.
At the highest level of drug cartels in the recent limelight have been “queen pins” Enedina Arellano Felix and Sandra Avila Beltràn. Felix is alleged to have become one of the leaders of the Tijuana cartel across California’s border after her brothers were murdered.

Beltran, dubbed the “Queen of the Pacific,” was indicted on drug charges in Florida four years ago and is said to have developed smuggling routes through Mexico for a Colombian cartel. A beautiful woman, Beltran would ask to do her make-up before her court proceedings and gained even greater fame for her haughty and arrogant behavior.

More women have also become notorious brokers and money launderers. Large sums of money are laundered in a small street in Mexico City, where beautiful women in low-cut dresses provide currency exchanges for tourists, Campbell said.

However, the majority of women continue to fall into the lowest levels of the illegal drug trade, said Correctional Program Specialist Marueen Buell of the Prison’s Division for the National Institute of Corrections.
In the business, these women are known as “sirenas,” “las sanchas” and, as in the case of the allegations against the Trevino family, “mules.”

The most expandable and most essential group is the “mules.” They are the “laborers” who run the risk of moving the illegal narcotics from Mexico into the United States.

“There are risky, huge implications for carrying drugs, but there is a susceptibility among these women because they may not be as aware of these risks or the economic circumstances are so bad at home,” said Rosalie Pacula, director of Rand’s Policy Research Center.

Although not the case for all, the majority of women who enter the lower levels of the narcotics trade tend to be poor and living in desperate conditions, said Jasmine Taylor, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. As a growing number of them become the head of the household, they must provide for their families.

“So their life situation is used as an enticement to enter this line of work,” Taylor said. “Another way they join the drug trade is by being coerced by a male actors, husbands, boyfriends.”

While women might be entering the business in higher numbers, illegal drug organizations may have also increased their use of women as drug couriers in response to past law enforcement strategies, Pacula said. As technology becomes more advanced, smugglers need to find new, creative ways to get the drugs across.
Traffickers know women can play on gender stereotypes to avoid being questioned, researchers and law enforcement officials said. Women are also told to wear sexy clothing and flirt with officials.

“There have been more women, women with children and whole families [caught smuggling],” said Capt. Jack PeÐa with the Criminal Investigations Division for the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “Drug traffickers think that they can use women to cross the drugs because they may look less suspicious. But we are checking everyone.”

However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said smugglers are constantly changing their methods.

During various periods, teens and even senior citizens will be used to cross narcotics, said Roger Maier, U.S. CBP public affairs officer for El Paso.

“If you happen to see more instances of females caught with drug loads recently, it may not necessarily be indicative of an overall trend because we have seen it before and we will likely see it again,” said Rick Pauza, Laredo’s U.S. CBP public affairs officer.

Whether women are being used at higher rates also depends on the region smugglers are in and possibly the drug being crossed, Pacula said. The booming Mexican city of Tijuana across from southern California, for example, has a large population of young people from which drug-traffickers draw upon, she said.

Nevertheless, as the illicit drug trade expands in profitability, women are going to take the risk to enter into the trade by their own accord, Taylor said.

“Now in the last three years, the number of women searched has increased,” she said. “But money is still a strong motivator for women to join the business.”

As published Aug. 17, 2008