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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.)


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

Shrimpers head to Mexico to fuel boats

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
Fuel prices have more than doubled since 2001, when Pedro Purata bought a 16,000-gallon shrimp boat he dubbed the “Alma Marie.”

The wooden boat, coated in layers of peeling black and white paint, now rocks gently on the bayou waters – moored to the dock along with more than half of the Port of Brownsville’s shrimp boats. Although some need repairs, most simply lack the fuel to head to Louisiana, where shrimping season has begun.

“There has never been this many boats tied to the dock during this season,” Purata said in Spanish, pointing to boats along the Port of Brownsville Shrimp Basin. “We just can’t afford the fuel.”

But before the Texas coast kicks off its shrimp season July 15, Purata and many other shrimpers along the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline say they are sailing south.

Like other industries in the United States, shrimping businesses have been hit hard by soaring fuel costs and some are finding relief, if only temporary, by filling up their tanks on Mexican shores. And it’s legal.

“The bottom line is that if we weren’t going to Mexico for fuel we would be out of business,” said Carlton Reyes, president of the Brownsville-Port Isabel Shrimp Producers Association.

Diesel fuel sells for about $2.40 per gallon at Mexican ports, half the price along U.S. coastlines, where costs can reach up to $4.20 a gallon.

Reyes owns six 18,000-gallon shrimp boats and pays $45,000 to fuel each in Tampico, Tamaulipas, as opposed to $75,000 per boat in Brownsville, he said. That saves up to $180,000 for his entire fleet.

His trip to and from Tampico takes four days and costs $5,000 to $6,500, including fuel, port and customs charges. But shrimpers travel to the city from as far as Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, Reyes said.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association in Florida, said low fuel prices in Mexico are worth the trip even for Florida shrimpers.

“It’s available to them, and I hope it’s something that a lot of them do,” he said. “They can’t fish if they have to pay $3 or $4 a gallon. We’d have 80 percent of our boats tied to the docks at that price.”

A host of factors may lie behind Mexico’s lower fuel prices, said Michelle Michot Foss, chief energy economist at the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas at Austin.

State-owned petroleum company Petroleos Mexicanos, or PEMEX, distributes Mexican fuel, and the government sets prices. But labor costs and environmental regulations are also less in Mexico than in the United States, Foss said. Modern refining facilities in the United States also cost more to maintain, she said.

Although crude oil is imported from Mexico and refined in the Gulf of Mexico region in the United States, there is no way to track whether the same refined products are going back into Mexico to be sold at lower prices, Foss said.

The only joint venture in which this does happen is at Deer Park Refining in Baytown, Texas. PEMEX and Shell Oil Co. have a “swap agreement,” where crude oil is processed at Shell and sent back to Mexico.

Less than 11 percent of refined diesel fuel is imported into Mexico from the United States, said Eric Potter, associate director for the Bureau of Economic Geology at UT Austin.

Before considering traveling to Mexico, local shrimpers would typically fuel up at S&S Sales shrimping company at the shrimp basin. S&S would sell 8 million to 9 million gallons of diesel fuel a year to local and outside boating companies on credit, office manager Jack Snodgrass said.

The company has not done so this year, however, because it can no longer afford enough fuel in the United States, Snodgrass said. Even its own seven shrimping boats were filled in Tampico, he said.

Without credit, some shrimpers at the port can’t buy fuel up front – not even to get to Tampico. Reyes said some 70 percent of Brownsville shrimp boats remain docked because owners can’t afford the fuel.

Meanwhile, Purata said he was lucky enough to make the trip to Tampico but would sell his boat if anyone would buy it.

“The way the situation is right now, this is isn’t a business,” Purata said. “We know March, April and May are slow, but we also know that the price of diesel fuel won’t go up that much.

“This year is a different story.”

As published June 20, 2008

Photo by Jim Rob