916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

Legal notes from inside and outside the courtroom.

Ex-football player Erxleben arrested again on fraud charges

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Eight years after his release from prison on fraud charges, former football player Russell Erxleben was arrested Thursday at his Dripping Springs home. He is accused of defrauding investors through a Ponzi scheme that paid out more than $2 million in nearly four years.

In an indictment handed up Tuesday and unsealed Thursday, Erxleben was charged with five counts of wire fraud, two counts of money laundering and one count of securities fraud. He appeared, in black gym shorts and a T-shirt, before a federal judge hours after his arrest and asked for a court-appointed lawyer.
Full story.

Jovita’s owner Pardo, accused of heroin trafficking, dies of cancer

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
The prominent restaurateur at the center of a federal drug and money laundering investigation died Wednesday — nine days after he was released on bond because he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Amado “Mayo” Pardo, 64, was one of 15 people netted in a raid last summer at Jovita’s Restaurant and Bar on South First Street. All were charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin, punishable by a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison.
Full story.

Trial begins for outspoken detainee

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Rama Carty stands trial for the alleged assaults against two officers at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Bayview.

A federal jury will determine this week whether a man born in the Democratic Republic of Congo is guilty of assaulting two officers at Port Isabel Detention Center in Bayview.
Full story.

Camacho takes witness stand

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
In court Thursday, Angela Camacho testified she did not remember much of what took place the night of March 11, 2003, the date her three children were beheaded.
Camacho, 30, pleaded guilty to three counts of capital murder in July 2005 in the deaths of the children. Her common-law husband, John Allen Rubio, 29, is on trial this week to determine whether he is presently competent to stand trial on capital murder charges for the killings.
Full story.

Municipal judge released from psychiatric facility

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
A Brownsville municipal judge was ordered released Monday afternoon from a mandatory stay at a psychiatric facility, where he had been held since his arrest earlier in January.

In a two-day hearing, Municipal Judge Phil Bellamy was found to be mentally unstable, but a Cameron County judge said there was not enough evidence to suggest he would be a danger to himself or others if he were released.
Full story.

Personalities who move and inspire.

Austin data buff gives civilians tools to help fight crime in their communities

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
In his fight against crime, Jack Darby doesn’t sport a cape. The creator of krimelabb.com wields a keyboard.

An information technology analyst with more than 20 years of experience, Darby has worked for six technology consulting startups in Austin, modeling and converting data and forecasting trends. He is a numbers buff.
Full story.

The Working Life: Mina Thornton, 47

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.

The Working Life: Jason Macias, 40

As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
 
A police officer is the first stopgap against crime. We patrol areas with high levels of illegal activity, and we write tickets—lots of them. These are often for minor offenses, but they are the first measure when we can’t, say, catch a drug dealer in the act. Our citations enable investigators to build a case that allows for a raid. I have friends, for instance, who go out to the areas known for being rife with drugs. They keep busting the same people, helping narcotics detectives zero in on who’s selling and who’s buying.

I oversee the shallow West Side of San Antonio, which officers used to call the “wild, wild West” back in the day. The area has calmed down, but it remains one of the rougher parts of the Alamo City. In my square, where Guadalupe Street crosses South Sabinas, there’s a lot of prostitution. There are several closed-off roads where guys go to pick up the prostitutes. Even though I have probable cause to stop all of them for being there, and I know what they’re doing, I can’t always arrest them for prostitution. It’s difficult to prove. So I bust them for other things, such as walking in the street or other traffic violations. I try to keep these women and their johns away from the neighborhoods, but there are a lot of narrow alleys and empty lots, and these people are pretty unashamed. The tickets I issue pile up for the frequent offenders, and detectives—say, on the vice unit—can later break up the larger sex rings.
Full story.

Family remembers victim of fiery crash

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
When Francisco Perez wed his wife almost 25 years ago, she knew how to cook only one dish, he recalls.

“Arroz con pollo,” he said in Spanish with a faint chuckle. Rice and chicken. “Practically every day for the first two months of our marriage that is what she prepared for me: arroz con pollo. Arroz con pollo. Arroz con pollo.”

But Matilde Perez, 39, killed in a fiery crash on the South Side early last week, had mastered the culinary arts and had been working as a caterer in the months before her death, her husband said. A vivacious woman who loved to dance, laugh and work with her hands, she made some mean chiles rellenos and a mole no one in the family could duplicate.
Full story.

The Working Life: Jody Blackburn, 45

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.

Gloria Brooks shares a few cooking tips

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Gloria Brooks is known in Brownsville for her sandwichón, a twist on your typical sandwich that looks like a cake and layers chicken or ham with bread and cream cheese.

She bakes a wide assortment of treats that have earned her the nickname the “Cookie Lady.” And she makes some mean empanadas that back in the day made her popular across the city.

But most requests coming into her kitchen during the winter season are for a traditional treasure — fresh, golden tamales.
Full story.

Meeting the ghosts of the past

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Thursday afternoon had all the makings of a ghost story. Wind rustled through the trees of Brownsville’s Old City Cemetery. Cloudy skies intensified the colors of the graveyard — flowers resting on the headstones, the green of the grass and the hint of gray in Yolanda Gonzalez’s eyes.

At 79 years old, Gonzalez is a petite woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s history and folklore and has long been associated with the supernatural. She became locally known as the “Ghost Lady” during the 47 years she worked as a librarian for the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. And she also has a collection of macabre stories about Fort Brown.
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.

Any infection could prove fatal, doctors say. Every medical and physical treatment is critical. But whether Barrera makes his next doctor’s appointment in Houston at the end of this month depends not only on his delicate state. It hinges on his mother’s immigration status.

Alma Lerma, his mother, crossed into Brownsville from Matamoros illegally in 1995 and has been fighting against deportation since last year. This week, a U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement official denied her request for permission to stay in the United States for another year based on her son’s medical case.

Lerma will have to voluntarily leave the country by April 20 or be forcibly removed. She has eight children, including Barrera, all of whom were born in the United States. Their future is now uncertain.
“My son’s life is hanging by a thread,” Lerma said Friday at her home in Southmost. “Doctors have told me he will not live much longer if I take him with me to Mexico. But I do not know of anyone who can take care of him for me if I leave.”

For immigration attorneys, stories like Lerma’s are not uncommon. Applications for Stay of Deportation or Removal, the requests illegal immigrants must file for permission to stay in the United States if ordered to be deported, are rarely granted, even in cases where the applicant has a child with a severe medical condition or who is terminally ill, attorneys say.

“You submit a document, like this thick, of all the problems that the children has and all the reasons why they can’t get medical care in their home country, and you get this back,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney in Harlingen, pointing to a copy of the one-page denial letter sent to Lerma. “It is a death sentence.”
Goodwin does not represent Lerma, but she said the response from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Lerma’s case was all too familiar.

“This is the exact same language that I have received in every single case that I have ever requested any type of discretionary action from the government,” she said. “It is the exact same boiler plate language.”

What is discretion?

All illegal immigrants ordered deported from the United States can file the Application for Stay of Deportation or Removal, or form I-246. A U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement officer evaluates the applications on a case-by-case basis and decides whether to enforce the law against an individual, using “his (or her) own discretion based on the circumstances of their case,” said Nina Pruneda, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

Individuals granted permission to stay in the country have cases that warrant a “favorable action of discretion” and meet the following criteria: the person’s removal is not imminent; the person is not a flight risk; the person is not a threat to national security and family safety; the person has family ties to the community.
Since January 2009, 76 people have filed the form for stay of deportation. One application is still pending, 26 have been approved, Pruneda said.

Lerma first filed I-246 form last April, after she was detained at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Sarita on her way to take her son to a Houston hospital for surgery. She was granted permission to stay in the United States for a year.

But last month, Lerma’s attorney, Jaime Diez, sent a packet to the federal immigration agency with Barrera’s medical documents and reasons why Lerma should be allowed to stay with her son for another year. He explained Barrera’s condition had not changed. The boy is still on numerous medications and uses a feeding tube to eat and an oxygen tank to breathe. He also stated Barrera needs the care of a nurse at his home
nearly every day.

The denial response faxed back to Diez on Wednesday stated no reason why Lerma’s application was denied.
“I have carefully reviewed your request and your client’s immigration history. Your supporting documentation was given full consideration. I have conducted an inquiry into your request and based on the documentation reviewed, I have determined that your client’s case does not warrant a favorable action of discretion,” stated the letter signed by ICE Field Office Director, Michael J. Pitts.

Due to the federal immigration agency’s privacy policy, Pruneda said she could not “provide any particulars regarding the individual’s case.”

Lack of discretion

Part of the reason, federal immigration officials limit their use of discretionary action is because it has been so “flagrantly abused” in the past, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington D.C. that favors tighter control on immigration. Through illegal immigration reform legislation in 1996, Congress tightened the flexibility of the system, he said.

“We had and still have an immigration policy that is just a collection of lots of exceptions,” he said. “With immigration lawyers committed almost fanatically to opposing immigration enforcement, it is hard to allow that flexibility (in the immigration system) because they will take advantage of it, and they do, all the time.”
Those who have suffered from what Krikorian described as immigration attorneys’ and judges’ “exploitation of loopholes” are “the people who need flexibility the most.”

But immigration attorneys said the mentality of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fill deportation quotas is tearing families apart and affecting the most vulnerable, hundreds of thousands of children. Like Lerma, many illegal parents ordered for deportation have no criminal history, attorneys said.

“Legally, technically, under the law, are those people here illegally? They are,” Goodwin said. “But legally, technically, under the law is that the kind of person you want to deport? Our country, which is based on family values, wants to leave children without parents when they are terminally sick?”

Once parents’ requests to stay in country are denied, Goodwin continues to fight for their cases pro bono, often filing motions to reopen their cases based on an asylum theory, which has kept her clients in the United States.

But she says she has never won a case; the proceedings only “drag on and on and on.” She has worked on some client cases that have lasted for nearly 10 years.

“Those are the cases that really make me depressed,” Goodwin said. “You want to fix their problem but a lot of times fixing their problem is not winning their cases, it is losing it as slowly as possible.”

Angel’s future

Lerma, 32, crossed illegally into Brownsville from Matamoros, where she was born, when she was seven months pregnant with her first daughter. She wanted to escape what she described as an abusive relationship with her former husband. She is currently unemployed and Medicaid covers all the medical expenses for her son.

Doctors first told Lerma the boy was going to have a congenital disorder five months into her pregnancy. They suggested abortion, but she said she wanted “to give him a chance at life.”

When he was born, they did not bring the baby to Lerma right away because they said he looked “like a little monster,” she said. And within hours of his birth, he was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Corpus Christi, where doctors “gave him minutes, hours to live.”

“They only brought him to me for a few minutes to say good-bye because he might not ever wake up from the surgery,” she said. “They told me to be strong.”

Almost three years later, Barrera is now interacting and can acknowledge the world around him, said Dr. Elsa Mendoza, who has served as the child’s primary pediatric physician since birth.

He smiles when his mother kisses him. He attempts to wave when someone says his name. In the last four months, he has also begun to grab his toys and is now learning to sit himself up.

“We have made a difference in the child’s life,” Mendoza said. She is unsure if in Mexico he would be able to receive the best care but moving him out of the United States is certainly not the best option, she said.

But leaving him in the United States on his own is also putting the child in danger. The child’s prognosis is poor, and the doctor says, “he would not be able to survive in the United States without his mother.”

As published on April 10, 2010

 

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.

“I felt I had nowhere to go, that he was my only salvation, that without him, I could not do anything,” she says, taking a deep breath. But she had been six months pregnant, and her son, then 16 years old, had witnessed the abuse.

Though she did not know it then, the police report she filed that night in 2006 would become her way out. By coming forward to the authorities, the immigrant woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her husband, became eligible for a U Visa, a temporary legal status for victims of violent crime in the United States who cooperate in criminal investigations.

The visa was created through the Victims of Violence and Trafficking Act in 2000 to encourage a vulnerable immigrant population to report crime without fear of deportation. But it took seven years for the Department of Homeland Security to issue the regulations that would govern the application process, a delay that has mired legal services agencies aiding visa petitioners in a bureaucratic tangle.

From 2000 until October 2007, while the rules were under negotiation, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not grant the visa, but “interim relief,” which had to be renewed every year and authorized work and travel but not legal status.

Next week, the interim relief period ends — meaning that by then, all who have qualified for the temporary status should have filed their paperwork again under the new application process.

That has tied back legal service agencies in the last two years. Before the formal rules were established, agencies had created their own forms, working out the process as they went along, said Celestino Gallegos, an immigration attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in Edinburg.

“It was a piecemeal, time-consuming process,” he said, and in a way “revictimized” immigrants by its sluggishness and unpredictability. Now the new regulations require additional documentation or records that some petitioners no longer have, putting victims through another long process, Gallegos said.

“Congress intended for victims to have immigration relief. I do not think Congress intended for them to be bogged down in red tape,” he said. “It should have been, from the very get-go, a simple process.”

Some immigration advocates said bureaucratic reshuffling after Sept. 11 caused the delay in regulations, others said the change in administration has now accelerated the process. But establishing criteria and training for immigration officials was a complex procedure, which took time, said Chris Rhatigan, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The national immigration agency is making progress, she said. It can grant visas for up to 10,000 petitioners plus family members each fiscal year, according to the limit set by Congress. While a little more than 50 were approved in 2008, about 6,000 were approved the following year, Rhatigan said. This year, the agency has begun to process more than 11,000 requests.

“We really have done a tremendous effort to reach out to those people who have not responded to our request for supplemental information (for the visa application),” she said.

Proyecto Libertad, an immigration legal services agency in Harlingen, has helped about 80 petitioners qualify for the visa and, like other area service agencies, has dozens of more applications pending. Despite the backlog, Juan Rios, an assistant coordinator at Proyecto, urged people not to become discouraged.

“We are helping people, not at the rhythm we want, not at the level the community is demanding,” he said. “But we want people to still come in and ask questions and to know what rights they have.”

Immigrants also should not be afraid to report crime to the authorities, said Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio. Law enforcement officials have viewed the U Visa program with skepticism in the past, believing it encouraged some to exaggerate crimes or create scams. But on the positive side, the program is a way for authorities to build trust among immigrant communities, Lucio said.

“People can come here and report a crime and they will not be questioned about their citizenship,” he said.

Like the woman from Silacayoapan, at least three-fourths of applicants from across the country and more than half in the Rio Grande Valley have been victims of domestic violence, according to immigration services agencies.

For many women, the choice to call the police comes with great pain, Maria Salas Aquino said. She endured an abusive relationship for more than a decade before she finally reported her husband to the authorities.

Her husband’s blows were first psychological, she says. He took away her pride, her beauty and her self-worth. The physical abuse followed.

She thought he would change — that she could change him. And she had withstood it all, she recalls, even his addiction to cocaine. But seeing him wring her teenage child’s shirt and lift him off the ground one day in June tore her apart.

She dialed 9-1-1 and arrived at local women’s shelter soon after. There, she learned she could apply for a U Visa even though she and her husband were in the country illegally.

The process was long, but it opened doors, Aquino said. The day she got her first job at a local tortilleria, she cried out of joy.

“At the shelter, we would have night discussions. We would think, ‘poor him,’ ‘poor him.’ That is when we learned to think, ‘poor me,’ why should I tolerate this?” she said. “I am very happy now, my children are safe. I am grateful.”

As published Jan. 24, 2010

 

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.

“These things don’t come out in the newspapers,” said the woman, who works as a housemaid in Brownsville and asked her name not be used out of concern for her family’s safety.

In recent months, she and other residents say, sporadic shootouts in broad daylight, like this one, seem to have become more common in Matamoros, once one of the quieter cities along the Texas-Mexico border.

With little trust in authorities and few reports from the media, it is difficult for Mexican residents to discern what is fact from hearsay. But to be caught in the crossfire is a legitimate fear, families say — even more distressing, is constantly seeing their schools shut down, their news outlets silenced and their streets blockaded by Mexican soldiers and military trucks.

Such concerns are driving Matamoros families away from the border city and into the Rio Grande Valley, residential and commercial real estate agents said. The migration follows a steady stream of Mexican nationals, including journalists, officials and business leaders, who have relocated to the United States since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a sweeping battle against drug cartels in 2006.

But families from Matamoros have only been moving to the Valley in higher numbers since last year, real estate agents said. And some brokers noted calls from Mexican nationals had become even more frequent in the last six months.

“They call and tell me, ‘I need (a home) fast. I want to take my children out of school. There is too much danger here,’ ” said Sandy Lee Galvan, a real estate agent with Century 21 Johnston Company in Brownsville. “Many want to pay cash upfront.”

‘Violence escalates, migration escalates’

Drug war violence along the Mexican side of the lower Texas borderline began to intensify in late February, first after a bloody turf battle erupted between the Gulf Cartel and its former armed wing, the Zetas, and now has amplified as drug cartel men increase their assaults against the Mexican army.

“As the violence escalates, the migration escalates,” said Mary McGowan, broker and owner of All Star Realty in Brownsville.

Real estate agents are taking inquiries from Matamoros, Monterrey, Victoria and Valle Hermoso, and even from families living farther in the interior of Mexico. Many Mexican nationals are not stopping in the Valley but choosing to go farther north, to San Antonio or Austin, and even into other states, agents said.

But those who do stay prefer gated communities and condos throughout Brownsville and Rancho Viejo. Near McAllen, the sweetest deals are in the Sharyland community, said Leanne Richards, broker for Trendsetters Realty in McAllen.

“Everyone wants to get their children into the Sharyland school district,” said Richards, who has worked in real estate in the Valley since 1994. In the past, Richards recalls few Mexican families calling in to inquire about homes in the area. When they did buy, it took time and they purchased expensive $500,000 homes, she said.

Now people are buying properties costing between $80,000 to $120,000 because they want to move out soon. Many also choose to rent.

“They tell me, ‘We are not going back to Mexico, we are afraid,’” Richards said.

The high number of asylum applications from Mexico in part shows this increase in migration. The number of people applying for asylum under “credible fear of persecution,” jumped from 179 in 2007 to 312 in 2008, and increased again slightly to 338 in 2009. These figures were based on people who pleaded for asylum at the nation’s southern ports of entry, according to U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Separate statistics collected from U.S. immigration courts showed an increase in the number of asylum petitions from Mexico in the first two years since Calderón initiated the drug war offensive, from 2,793 applications in 2006 to 3,459 in 2008, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review under the U.S. Department of Justice. But the number of petitions dropped to 2,816 in 2009.

Hard to keep count

Nonetheless, tracking the number of people coming into the Valley, Texas or the United States from Mexico out of fear is difficult, experts said. No agency seems to be keeping count.

Part of the reason is because the way Mexican families are moving into the country runs the gamut. Some Mexican nationals have double citizenship, others apply for investor visas or asylum, and some come in illegally.

To judge the economic impact, thus, is much tougher. But Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso points to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as an example.

Between 30,000 to 500,000 people have fled from Juarez to the United States, according to estimates based on the number of abandoned homes and the assumed number of people per household, he said. The number may be exaggerated, and it is uncertain how many of these people reside in the bordering city of El Paso, “but the impact is tangible. You can see it,” Campbell said.

“It is very sad and tragic but the suffering in Juarez is contributing to the economic stimulus of El Paso,” he said. “There is also a cultural side. There is a sort of rejuvenation and reincarnation of Mexican culture in the United States.”

Many of the people fleeing Juarez are some of the wealthiest in the city and have injected a lot of money into El Paso’s economy, the professor added.

Business boom

Real estate agents in the Valley said Mexican nationals moving in are helping keep the housing market afloat. Richards, for instance, estimated Mexican nationals to make up between 40 to 50 percent of Trendsetters’ clientele in Hidalgo county.

Many families also are “realizing it is a great time to make investments in the United States,” said Norma Rasco, a real estate agent with Rancho Viejo Realty.

“Mexican nationals are cash buyers, and in this economy, cash is king,” she said.

The stimulus is true of business in the Valley as well, financial leaders said. Larry Jokl, a commercial real estate agent with Brownsville Real Estate Management Company, said he helped six Mexican clients move their businesses to the Valley last year.

“In the first three months of this year, I have had a dozen clientele from Mexico who have looked to locate their businesses here, two of whom already have,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Brownsville Economic Development Council has hosted about half a dozen prospects, or companies serious to relocate in Brownsville, from Mexico since January. On any given year, that number would have been about two, said Gilbert Salinas, spokesman for the city’s development council.

“A recurring theme has been that due to security issues in their country, they are now putting their plans on a fast track to break into the U.S. markets,” he said. “Business men and women always have that — breaking into the U.S. market — in the back of their mind. Now they are making it a priority.”

As published April 3, 2010

 

Proposal calls for upscale businesses

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

Ropa usada stores are ubiquitous in downtown Brownsville. They are the hole-in-the-wall places where shoppers rummage through bundles of second-hand clothes to the murmur of portable fans, items are often sold by the pound, and bargains can be negotiated.

But these run-down little shops might not mesh well with revitalization plans the city is considering for the area. The city’s planning consortium, United Brownsville, is looking to transform downtown into a tourist draw and a cultural and economic boon for the city. And that signals the need to attract more upscale businesses to the area.

In the works is a proposal to create an entertainment district centered on Adams Street/Market Square. City leaders aim to spur the development of entertainment along the street by cutting fees for coffeehouses, brewpubs, bars, dancehalls, nightclubs and restaurants among other approved establishments.

The city will not shutter ropa usada stores by mandate. But with the revitalization plan, rents are expected to increase to the point where many vendors will be forced to shut their doors. If a ropa usada shop closes, another will not be allowed to open in its place, as second-hand clothing stores are not on the list of approved entertainment establishments for the area.

Still, many ropa usada vendors along Adams Street said they welcome the proposal, even if they have to close their stores. As Nena Garza, manager of Nena Ropa Usada, said, “It may affect our businesses, but the district, if it ever is created, would be an overall good for the city.”

Others, however, lamented the demise of the used-clothing trade in Brownsville, which once thrived and sparked an entire culture, where small-time entrepreneurs with backyard businesses in Matamoros and Reynosa would come to buy clothes, rubbing shoulders with big-time traders with space at large flea markets in Mexico City who were on the same mission.

Maria Rangel, a cashier at RYB Ropa Usada, said she was skeptical the high-end businesses city leaders were hoping to attract would even survive the tough economic climate. Like other used-clothing retailers in downtown, most of her customers are Mexican nationals, many with large families and low incomes.

“They are looking for cheap stores where they can buy clothes for the whole family. If you bring in all these expensive stores, they are going to be empty,” Rangel said. “If we have to close these secondhand stores, it would be outrageous.”

The only large retail chain that has opened downtown in recent years has been Ross, whose catch-phrase epitomizes what this demographic is looking for: “Dress For Less.”
Virtually all the used-clothing vendors said business has been tough the last few years. Increasingly stringent immigration policies at international bridges and escalating violence in Matamoros have discouraged many families from making shopping trips to the United States.

Marta Hinajosa, co-manager of Hinajosa’s Ropa Usada, said she and her sister have already been planning to move their store out of downtown and deeper into the city because of the drop in sales.
“The (ropa usada) business in the city is just not what it used to be,” said Hinajosa.

Some vendors pointed to dismal sales as further evidence that downtown revitalization plans need to go forward. Maria Cordova opened Sueños Outlet just a few months ago and barely makes ends meet, she said. But if the rent goes up and she too closes her doors, she said she would be flexible enough to open an entertainment business.

“I think the district will inspire other people to open different kinds of businesses other than ropa usada stores,” she said.

Miguel Tavera, owner of Supertienda Miguelina II, said he too would be quick to adapt. Brownsville needs an entertainment district like 17th Street in McAllen or 6th Street in Austin, he said. It would give the city an economic lift and bring a new customer base to downtown, including many young people.

“We do not need to frighten ourselves — progress is good,” he said.

As published July 02, 2010

Municipal judge released from psychiatric facility

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

A Brownsville municipal judge was ordered released Monday afternoon from a mandatory stay at a psychiatric facility, where he had been held since his arrest earlier in January.

In a two-day hearing, Municipal Judge Phil Bellamy was found to be mentally unstable, but a Cameron County judge said there was not enough evidence to suggest he would be a danger to himself or others if he were released.

“Mr. Bellamy, I am concerned about you…Whether you agree or not, it does not matter, but I do think you need some serious help on this. I hope that you, for the sake of your family and yourself, get these things straightened out,” Cameron County Court-at-Law No. 3 Judge Menton Murray Jr. said at Monday’s continuation hearing.

Bellamy, 46, had been at Valley Baptist Medical Center East Campus since Jan. 11, when Brownsville police officers arrested him after a customer service dispute at Sam’s Club, according to court testimony. Police said he was taken into custody on charges of disorderly conduct and terroristic threats for arguing with two Sam’s employees and a manager and yelling expletives before leaving the store.

At the hearing, psychiatrists testified that Bellamy had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and described his refusal to take medications, “flight of ideas” and manic episodes of “grandiosity,” in which Bellamy likened himself to fictional characters Spock and Spongebob.

Daniel Villarreal, the lead psychiatrist at the medical center, testified that Bellamy had tried to escape from the facility last week and had made several threats to sue hospital staff. Francisco Torres, another psychiatrist at the medical center, said Bellamy had been aggressive and irritable, describing one instance in which Bellamy tried to prevent staff from treating another patient.

But in an impassioned response, Bellamy defended his behavior, claiming the medical facility maltreated patients and forced them to take psychoactive drugs they had a right not to accept.

“I was acting like a caged animal, which is exactly what I was, held against my will, brought in unconstitutionally and illegally,” Bellamy said, when asked about the day he was first transported to the medical center.

And although Bellamy had expressed outrage, not once had he tried to cause another person bodily injury, said Noe Garza, Bellamy’s attorney. Threats against hospital staff, for example, had been legal not physical, Garza said.

Bellamy said in court he would set up appointments with two of his own doctors upon his release. It is still unclear whether he will return to his position as a municipal judge. But City Manager Charlie Cabler said part-time judges are handling his cases to allow the city to make a decision.

“We are going to have to evaluate the situation,” Cabler said. “We are giving him time to handle his personal situation right now and any concerns he may have. We need to make sure he can handle the operation of a municipal court.”

As published Jan. 25, 2010

Photo by Brad Doherty

Meeting the ghosts of the past

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

Thursday afternoon had all the makings of a ghost story. Wind rustled through the trees of Brownsville’s Old City Cemetery. Cloudy skies intensified the colors of the graveyard — flowers resting on the headstones, the green of the grass and the hint of gray in Yolanda Gonzalez’s eyes.

At 79 years old, Gonzalez is a petite woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s history and folklore and has long been associated with the supernatural. She became locally known as the “Ghost Lady” during the 47 years she worked as a librarian for the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. And she also has a collection of macabre stories about Fort Brown.

But on Thursday, she was not out hunting for ghosts — at least not the kind in storybooks. As one of the most sought-out genealogists in the Rio Grande Valley, she is interested in the spirits of the past captured in the names, dates and epitaphs etched into the tombstones.

“What do you find in a cemetery?” Gonzalez asked, running her hand on the surface of a marble grave marker. “You find names, dates, sculpture, poetry…You find surprises.”

The cemetery is a place of reverence and history for Gonzalez, who has spent countless hours walking through graveyards in her quest to link family names. And the Valley is riddled with cemeteries, said the Brownsville native, because the area was once made up of ranches, each with its own burial ground.

For anyone from the Valley hoping to look into his or her family history, the cemetery is a good place to start, Gonzalez said.

“I would come here with people and they would show me their grandfather’s grave,” Gonzalez said. “Then they would realize (another relative) was buried here also, and then another relative.”

Gonzalez would write down names and dates to later comb city records and find the connections, she said. Reading epitaphs throughout the graveyard would also help her know more about a certain time period, such as if there was a disease or a plague, Gonzalez said.

“I transport myself to the time in which I am doing my research,” she said. “I know what people ate, what they wore, who they were.”

Gonzalez began studying ancestral “ghosts” at the UTB-TSC library, where she began working in 1954 as a student. She picked up the treasured hobby from her father, who was also a prominent genealogist.

Tucked away in the Hunter Room of Archives at the Arnulfo L. Oliveira Memorial Library, Gonzalez would help families research their roots daily before she retired in 2001.

“Eight years later, we still get people calling for her,” said John Hawthorne, the manager of the Hunter Room, who has Gonzalez’s telephone number memorized after all the times he has been asked for it.

At the library, janitors and students also remember Gonzalez as the woman they would share their ghost encounters with, Hawthorne said.

And Gonzalez says she even had a few eerie experiences of her own. She remembers seeing the door of the Hunter Room open and close on its own and books topple off of shelves when no one was around.
“I have some very friendly ghosts,” she joked.

As the holiday season approaches, now is the time for people to communicate with their own ghosts, she said.
“Knowing your history allows you to value who you are,” she said.

As published Oct. 30, 2009

 

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

Restaurants taking no risks with salmonella outbreak

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
When customers ask Fidela Montelongo whether she serves tomatoes, she points to a large eraser board hanging on a wall of her restaurant. In red letters, it reads in Spanish:

“If you wish for tomato to be served with your food, please ask for it…for your health.”

Montelongo, owner of Refresqueria and Taqueria Montelongo on Southmost Boulevard, isn’t the only restaurateur in Brownsville to take the red fruit off the menu after a multi-state salmonella outbreak was linked to raw Roma, red plum and round red tomatoes.

Other businesses are not giving customers an option when ordering.

Jason’s Deli, El Pollo Loco and Whataburger all have signs alerting customers they will not serve tomatoes until further notice. Carino’s Italian Grill has stopped using them in every dish, including salads and sauces, and Taco Palenque is only using tomatoes in their salsa, which is heated to kill bacteria.

But the city also has local fare specializing in Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes that have stopped adding tomatoes to flautas, tortas, tacos, tostadas and salsas. Customers haven’t complained, restaurant owners said.

“I’ve had no trouble with customers,” said Yolanda Barrientos, as she prepared cheeseburgers at her small taqueria on Southmost Boulevard. “In fact, they ask me not to serve them tomatoes. Who wants to get sick?”

Barrientos, owner of Taqueria Mely, said she doesn’t buy tomatoes even though some grocery stores have been authorized to sale them. Other restaurants, like Kikis2, have temporarily switched to using canned tomatoes.

“The food doesn’t taste the same,” owner Marco Martin said. “But what can I do about it?”

The Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed 68 cases of salmonella in Texas as of June 12, according to its Web site.

Salmonella bacteria cause diarrhea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration. The bacteria are spread by tainted soil or water and can only be killed effectively with heat.

No city ban on tomato exists because the exact source of the outbreak hasn’t been pinpointed, said Arturo Rodriquez, director of Public Health for the city. Health officials have only recommended restaurants not to use thethree types of tomatoes that have been linked to the outbreak, unless cooked at 145 degrees.

Health officials also advise consumers to properly wash tomatoes.

As published June 12, 2008