Doña Ena Becerra – True Influence

In 2022 we lost someone of true influence, Ena Esperanza Becerra S. You don’t know her, but everyone called her Doña Ena.  She lived for many years in the town of Quebrada Larga, about an hour outside of Danlí, in southern Honduras. She was a health care provider, an entrepreneur and a gem of a person.

I don’t think that she went to high school, but I don’t really know. People did not seek out Doña Ena because of her academic record. They went to her because she was a woman who helped and got things done.

When she saw a problem and there wasn’t anyone else to fix things, she figured out what she could do. She didn’t solve problems with money or political connections, because she didn’t have either.

My husband and I first met Doña Ena when we lived in Honduras in the mid-1980s. We didn’t have a washing machine and she scrubbed our laundry. She had kids to support and no husband to help, so she worked where she could. Doña Ena was a hard worker and had a terrific sense of humor. During that time, she started a small business selling batana, a hair oil made from palm nuts, door-to-door.

Being educated, yet ignorant, North Americans in Honduras, we owned a copy of “Where There is No Doctor.”  Pre-internet this was a must read for Peace Corps-types. When we moved on from the problems of Honduras, we left the book with Doña Ena. Many years later she requested another copy because hers had worn out.  She really used it.

For many years, there was no medical assistance available in her town. She took it upon herself to become a mid-wife. But she didn’t stop there. She studied the book and put it to use.  People from this rural community and surrounding countryside came to her home with their illnesses and injuries, like machete cuts they got while farming. She would clean the wound and sew them up. She learned to identify basic illnesses and provided injections and anti-biotics. She gave dehydrated people IVs. When she thought that a problem was beyond her capacity, she would try to get the sick or injured to go to a doctor or hospital in Danlí. But many couldn’t afford the journey or the doctor and begged her to help.  They called her la doctora del pueblo or the people’s doctor.

She stocked her house with basic medicines and provided them to those in need. At her memorial service, people joked that if she bought a medicine for US $1, she sold it to those she served for 75 cents. She didn’t do it for the money, she did it to restock for the next person.

About ten years ago, she and four other women in town, all in need of work, started making plantain chips for sale. It started as a very small business, but they figured it out. The company, called Del Racimo, now employs 20 people.  They make the best plantain chips I’ve ever tried.

I knew these things about Doña Ena and greatly admired her. But I did not know that other people did as well.

Doña Ena passed away in September. Her family received over 1,000 visitors upon learning of her death. As her coffin proceeded past the local school to the cemetery, the school children lined the street to sing her a final farewell.

At year’s end, as we contemplate endings and beginnings, I rejoice in having known Doña Ena, not a saint, but a woman of true influence and an example of how to live.

*First published in 12/31/22.

Hope is fleeing Guatemala

For many years Guatemala was a beacon of hope in global efforts to fight corruption. Not because it was the most successful, but because it was innovative and because of the dynamism of its citizens in taking on the fight. That was then. Now hope is fleeing Guatemala.

My theory of change is this. Change happens when people make it happen. That is what we saw in Guatemala – bravery, strategic thinking and commitment. So many people were involved, civil servants, human rights organizations, researchers, victims, judges, lawyers and elected officials. It was a battle whose results were hard fought, reaping concrete results. A former dictator was forced to confront the victims of the terror he brought upon indigenous communities. He was convicted. A sitting President and Vice-President were brought down and held accountable for corrupt acts, as were many others.

While corrupt elites were caught off balance as their political leaders began to fall, they have rallied with great effectiveness. They have returned the courts to their control and are jailing or chasing from the country whose who threaten their ability to do business as they please.

Today begins the trial of former anti-corruption prosecutor Virginia Laparra Rivas who has been held in pre-trial detention because she did her job. A UN Special Rapporteur called the criminalization of Laparra Rivas as “an attack on the rule of law.” Amnesty International lists her as a prisoner of consciences.

Then there is judge Miguel Angel Gálvez, who presided over high risk courts, handling cases involving drug trafficking, human right violations and money laundering. Reportedly based on the presentation of 8,000 pieces of evidence, he ordered the trial of 9 retired military and police officials charge with forced disappearance, homicide, illegal detention, and torture. Criminal charges have now been brought against Gálvez for pursuing justice for the victims.

The anti-corruption battle has many victims, and not the corrupt officials held accountable for their acts, but those whose job it is to prosecute corruption, those who have been the hope of a better future for Guatemala. With the justice system being unfairly used against them, they reach a point in their work where their only options are jail or exile.

I recently saw some of Guatemala’s hope at a gathering in the US. More than 20 former Guatemalan officials, all of whom had been integral actors in anti-corruption prosecutions, who had been forced to flee because of their work. These are not the faint of heart. They have dedicated their lives to this work and been chased from their homes by serious threats, attempts on their lives or false legal charges brought against them.

The pain in that room was palpable, and the guilt. They each reached a point where their personal calculus was a choice between death, jail or exile. They know that a handful of their colleagues remain, trying to carry on the work. Others are unjustly jailed. They have survivors’ guilt, the guilt of uprooting their families and the daily struggle of figuring out how to support their families while living in exile.

We know what hope looks like. It looks like this room full of “formers” prosecutors, judges and activists. It looks like Laparra Rivas and Gálvez. Guatemalans, and those in the international community working to fight corruption and impunity, need to do their utmost to support support these brave individuals while they valiantly do their jobs, when they are persecuted and jailed, and when the decide that exile is the only option. This is how you feed hope. Once hope has fled, it is very hard to get back.

*First published in 11/28/22.

Not Fit for Purpose

The Mexican Senate has just overwhelmingly voted to keep the armed forces in public security roles until 2028. At the same time, the roles of the military keep expanding. Expanding the roles of the Mexican military to address myriad problems and now giving them more roles in government and business is a bad idea because the military is not “fit for purpose” for non-defense related tasks.

As a management consultant my first question is always: “What’s the problem you want to solve?” The definition of the problem should define the solution. Solutions need to be “fit for purpose.” In other words, they should be designed using the tools that that can best solve the problem. If a solution is not “fit for purpose,” it won’t work.

Militaries should be used to solve problems that are military in nature, i.e. require defeating an external enemy or occupying territory. Disaster response would be a logical exception to this rule, as getting people out of harm’s way, requires all hands on deck.

Because standing armies require a lot of people and resources, there is always a temptation to use them for non-defense tasks. This is not unique to Mexico. Militaries get used because they already exist and cost a lot to maintain.

According to Mexico City-based MUCD (Mexicanos Unidos Contra la Delincuencia) the Mexican military now has over 200 roles and half of them have nothing to do with defense or public security.

Using the military is often politically popular. A mystique around militaries has been created. We have made them our heroes, protectors of the nation, those who sacrifice for the greater good. I would argue that many other professions – including teachers, public health and social workers do this – but we don’t give them the same respect or benefit of the doubt. They lack the mystique.

According to the Latinobarómetro survey, the military is the most trusted institution in Mexico. The public trusts them more than, the police, the courts or the President. Only the church scored higher.

The military is also thought to be less corrupt. But are they? It is a hard case to make considering that the Mexican military is known for its lack of transparency.

Today the armed forces are called upon to address a broad range of issues like public security, a rampant homicide rate, drug trafficking, corruption and organized crime. These are complex problems that require institutions and approaches that should involve local government and national government, schools, social workers, financial institutions, police, and a functioning judiciary.

The military also has state responsibility for administering the ports, the airport, major construction projects – like the Mayan Train, even banking. Newly uncovered internal government communications reveal that the military is being considered for even more roles in tourism and possibly having their own airline.

The question should be, who is “fit for purpose” to address the complex problems facing Mexico? Solutions not fit for purpose are not efficient and generally don’t work. Right now, the military has so many roles that it is hard to remember what their purpose is.

*First published, 10/12/22, on Mexican newspaper La Reforma‘s English language site,

Blissful Ignorance: Migrant Kidnapping and Extortion

In the US, we have created a system that allows us to be blissfully ignorant of a horrible crime – the extortion of families whose loved ones have been kidnapped while passing through Mexico.

If you spend much time talking with those who work with migrants on the Mexican side of the border, they will describe it as “frequent,” even “common.” They learn about it after the kidnapping victim is released and seeks protection at migrant shelters or help applying for asylum.

It is next to impossible to track this crime on the US side of the border because the family members who pay the ransom, victims of extortion, have nowhere to turn.

Here’s how it works. Migrants traveling in Mexico, headed for the US are kidnapped by criminal organizations. Their cell phones are taken and used to call relatives, mostly in the US. The relatives are told to pay a ransom or their loved one will be killed. These calls are frequently accompanied by videos of people being beaten. In Mexico the crime is kidnapping. In the US the crime is extortion and illicit financial transactions.

Those on the receiving end of these calls panic. The kidnappers tell them not to call the authorities. Often undocumented, they fear reporting the crime to US authorities who might deport them. The families fear that local Mexican authorities might be involved with the kidnappers. They also have little reason to believe that anything helpful will happen if they report the crime. The extortion victims are often poor and try desperately to come up with the money, borrowing it or selling possessions.

If you were the victim of kidnapping related extortion in the US, where would you report the crime? If you were raised in the US, and watched crime shows on TV, you would probably call the FBI, or expect to be referred to them by 911. In the case of migrants, the FBI might take the case, but they might not. Operators at 911 might tell you, as they did to a victim that I recently accompanied in trying to get help, that the crime was in Mexico so there was nothing the police could do (not recognizing the extortion piece of the crime). The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a crime tip line, but what person with questionable immigration status would expect help from Homeland Security.

Because this crime is seldom reported in the US, there in no data about how often it happens. This leads to the conclusion that it is rare. But it is assumed to be rare because there is no clear conduit for reporting; and, because victims are not encouraged to report. Furthermore, immigrant service organizations in the US don’t ask about this crime. If no one asks, no one tells, again resulting in no data.

It requires delusional thinking to take what we know from the border, that migrant kidnapping/extortion is a common problem, to arrive at the conclusion that there isn’t a corresponding extortion problem on the US side.

No one solves a problem they cannot see. To see this problem, we need to develop clear channels for reporting. Outreach should be done to encourage reporting. Those who report migrant kidnapping related extortion should be accompanied by hostage negotiators; any payments demanded for the release of their loved ones should be tracked and companies used to process the payments held accountable; assistance will only be provided to the victims of this traumatic experience once we understand the scope of the problem.

I recently spoke with a person who had worked for years on the prosecution of rape cases. She described the history of the work, and there were a surprising number of similarities. A few decades back, the scope of the problem was not understood because women were not encouraged to report. The police had to learn how to listen to victims, respond to and document their cases. Attorneys and the courts had to learn how to prosecute cases without repeated re-traumatization of the victims. Wrap around services were developed. Over time, “victims” were given greater respect and became “survivors.”

Extortion related kidnapping is a long way from that kind of understanding. Let’s start by recognizing that this is a crime in the US, make clear conduits for reporting, and encourage victims to report. This is a horrible ordeal. Can you imagine going through it without any help? I can’t.

* First published in, the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site – 9/5/22

Go Big or Go Home

This is a pretty disheartening time. In the US people are getting mowed down by hate-filled gunmen at schools and civic parades. In Mexico, priests are mowed down inside of a church. We watch the war in Ukraine, feel the sting (more like a punch) of higher gas prices and inflation. And we go to bed with thoughts of impending famine and climate change.

It is in this context that our presidents, Biden and López Obrador (AMLO), will meet. The relationship between our two countries is critically important for each, really is second to none. Yet, it is fraught with history, asymmetry, posturing and veiled political threats.

AMLO scored this meeting by threatening not to attend the Summit of the Americas, trying to get Biden to invite all the hemisphere’s leaders. In the end, Biden did not send the invitations; AMLO did not attend the Summit; but somehow AMLO came out of the process with an invitation to the White House.

In preparation for this meeting both countries’ diplomatic teams are jockeying for position. In my experience, diplomats at this level think about what is possible in the moment, identifying the immediate “deliverables.” Presidential advisors, outside of the foreign service, think about how the meeting will play to a domestic audience.

Notwithstanding this norm, desperate times call for desperate measures. We need our leaders to stop limiting themselves to what is politically advantageous and immediate. That approach will not produce solutions to the enormous problems we face. Our leaders need to think big and inspire change.

The great educator and social change leader Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Our leaders should seize this meeting to project a different vision for collaboration. In that spirit, here is how I think our presidents should, not how they will, approach their upcoming meeting.

Both leaders should recognize the current state of affairs with a sense of humility and an understanding of interdependence.

We both have violence problems that we are unable to solve and are desperate for new solutions. The availability of guns is part of the problem, but there is something more societal and institutional happening. Be it racist extremists in the US or criminal organizations controlling swaths of Mexican territory, non-state actors are perpetrating violence on those just trying to go about everyday life. The results are terrifying on both sides of the border. Both should propose ways that we could share learning and potential solutions.

We need to re-envision migration. We need to stop seeing migration as a threat and recognize it as a fact of life. Humans move. Our goal should be to make that movement organized and humane. In particular, out leaders should make it easy for the people of our nations to migrate, especially to areas where work is available, and workers are needed.

We are experiencing a global economic crisis that is derailing any progress made in recent years. Recent statistics tell us that Mexicans are migrating, undocumented, to the US in the largest number in many years. At the same time, many sectors of the US economy are desperate for workers. There is supply and demand. Migrants aren’t the enemy. People want to work. Our governments should collaborate to get workers to where they are needed.

Our presidents’ discussion shapes our future. The inability of our political leaders to address our common problems head-on, with humility and cooperation only adds to our collective feeling of despair. Let’s ask our leaders to project a new vision for problem solving and to model it in their upcoming meeting.

*Originally published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site,, 7/11/22.

Time for a Summit Post-Mortem

The general hoopla of the Summit of the Americas has passed, making this the perfect time to reflect upon its value. An event of this magnitude, time and expense should make a real contribution to solving the region’s most urgent problems. However, the Summit of the Americas is not structured to be that kind of space and my guess is that most participants are just glad it is over.

Here is what happens at a Summit. There are official statements made by the national leaders (or their representative). There are declarations that are almost entirely pre-negotiated and presented as Summit products. There are accompanying but separate civil society and business sector meetings.

In my experience, much of a Summit’s value comes from “important” people being in the same place at the same time. Those attending care less about the content than their ability to lobby others on issues of importance to them. There are tons of receptions and dinners where this lobbying takes place. Schmoozing isn’t a bad thing, but does it require a Summit?

Because so many “important” people are in the same place, there is also a lot of press. The press, desperate for something to report, look for conflict. If you go by recent press reports, this Summit was about who was and wasn’t (Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua) invited. If all nations had been invited, maybe the press would have noticed some of the issues discussed, maybe not.

Between Summits, which happen every four years, the bureaucratic apparatus is housed in the Organization of American States (OAS). The Organization of American States (OAS) is an inter-governmental body – imagine a regional version of the United Nations, but where less happens.

Declarations are the substantive by-product of a Summit and negotiated in advance. This Summit produced one such declaration on regional migration. It is hard not to be skeptical about the Summit’s value when the State Department’s fact sheet on this declaration calls it “a suite of bold new migration-related deliverables.” Upon review, it is mostly an affirmation of existing policies and programs. It feels like someone collected a list of what everyone is doing and called it a “bold” deliverable.

My cynicism meter hit red when it came to the US commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas. It is not clear if this is over one or two years, but either way it is ridiculous – no insulting. The US is touting the resettlement of 20,000 refugees from this hemisphere as a bold deliverable when there are 5 MILLION REFUGEES from Venezuela alone. Then it has the audacity to say that as the US “scales up” refugee reception, it calls on other nations to do the same. Where does the US think the rest of the 5 million Venezuelans are? Almost all of them are in other South American countries who have been much more receptive to the Venezuelans than the US.

This Summit of the Americas needs a post-mortem. If it is determined that the patient is miraculously still alive, maybe hold one more, but only if the next Summit pushes BIG ideas that address the problems that are literally driving people from their homes.

Call me a skeptic, but I doubt that a Summit process best known for being an event to attend because other people do, and housed within the region’s dustiest of institutions, will generate the radical change we need. As a region we are desperate for bold new ideas that take into account how people will move over the next few decades and how that movement might be sustainably and humanely managed. If we have another Summit, let’s make it a space for that kind of thinking.

*First published 6/16/22 in, Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site.

Reflections from 2016 after a White House meeting with victims of gun violence

Yesterday I had an experience that will stick with me.

I was at the White House when President Obama presented his executive actions on gun policy.

WOLA has been working on gun violence issues, in particular weapons trafficking.  We started this work in response to the social movement in Mexico made up of victims of violence. The stories we heard from the families of victims were traumatic and moved us to act.  We wanted to find a way to do something here in the UnitedStates to help reduce violence in Mexico.

Our work on the effort to address gun violence is small compared to many others.

But because of that work (much of it done by Clay Boggs, who just moved from WOLA to work in Congress) I was invited to the White House yesterday for President Obama’s presentation of executive actions on gun policy.

Upon arrival, I made my way into the corner of the august East Room of the White House.  We were ushered into the room well ahead of the official event.  Within minutes I realized that I knew only a handful of people in the room.

But it was a friendly crowd and people began introducing themselves.  It didn’t take me long to figure out who surrounded me.  The man to my left was from Pittsburgh.  He had lost a son to gun violence.  In response he created a foundation and programs for kids in his community.  Others with whom I shared a row were from Arizona.  A couple next to me pulled out a picture and I realized that they were the parents of Christina Taylor-Green. I remembered her. She was the little girl who died when Gabby Giffords was shot.  The stories continued.

I was sitting amidst the survivors of gun violence and their families.

These people, who have the most legitimate reason to be hateful and disengaged, were there, all of them involved in some way in the efforts to stop gun violence.

The President spoke.  His words were heartfelt. It was a profound speech. We were all brought to tears. He referenced Martin Luther King’s phrase about the “fierce urgency of now,” and I felt it.

While the President’s words and actions were important, I am most affected by those who surrounded me. The man from Pittsburgh, at one point, speaking to himself said, “my cup runneth over.” There was such sorrow and such determination in our row, and such gratitude toward those who were willing to work to stop this madness.

When I explained to one rowmate why I was there, and what WOLA does, she thanked me for my work. It almost seemed absurd. Our work seems so small when compared to her pain.

As I reflect on that moment, I go back to the reason WOLA first looked for a role in the gun violence prevention work in the United States. It was because we talked with victims of violence in Mexico. We understood that violence is not a problem that you solve in one place. That illegal weapons used in Mexico are trafficked there from the United States, and that one thing we could do is to try to stop that trafficking.

I can’t say that our efforts have been a great success. Not yet.

I can say that I walked away from today’s presentation at the White House recommitted to the effort and recommitted to the idea that we all need to do what we can where we are to stop violence. For WOLA that means working on arms trafficking.

I wish that the whole country could have been in that room. If we all could have fit, I have no question that our country would change its gun policy.

*First published by WOLA 1/16/2016.

Summit of the Americas and Pariah States

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) recently created a diplomatic kerfuffle by declaring that he would not attend the Summit of the Americas if Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela – the current pariah states – were not invited. I agree with him. You don’t have to be friends with dictators to think that the hemisphere can benefit when all nations talk.

Held every four years, the Summit of the Americas is a meeting of the hemisphere’s leaders to discuss overarching issues. Starting during the Clinton Administration, the Organization of American States (OAS) houses the Summit’s administrative mechanism. Invitations to the Summit are sent by the host nation, which rotates.

While the Summit itself contains a lot of pomp and posturing, these events demand sustained diplomatic engagement about issues that matter to the region. The Summit itself is also a venue for bilateral and small group discussions between national leaders.

Democracy is a central value for the Summit process. In 1994, the first declaration stated a commitment to, among other things, advancing democratic values and institutions. At that time, Cuba was considered the democratic outlier in the hemisphere and was not invited to attend. The first Summit was held in Miami and therefore it was the United States that sent out the invitations. Cuba’s exclusion reflected the US policy toward Cuba more than with a united hemispheric position on Cuba. In fact, by 1994, most countries in the hemisphere had restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, and Cuba was an active participant in the Ibero-American summits.

The first Summit that Cuba attended was in 2015 when the Obama Administration was taking broader steps at bilateral re-engagement with Cuba. Other nations, including Colombia pushed for Cuba’s inclusion. Obama Administration officials held the view that encouraging democratic change via isolation was not a constructive foreign policy approach. They did not see the inclusion of Cuba as the endorsement of a democratic partner. Their theory of change embraced engagement.

Once again, the US is hosting the Summit and therefore managing the invitation list and Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols recently said that he did not expect Nicaragua, Cuba or Venezuela to be invited to the Summit because they do not respect the OAS’s democratic charter.

I do not disagree that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are undemocratic. In its last elections Nicaragua jailed all of its main opposition candidates – and they are still in jail. It is appalling. Venezuela has systematically dismantled democratic institutions and pushed many of its political opposition into exile. Cuba continues to repress dissent. Following unprecedented street protests in July of 2021 over economic discontent and political stagnation, Cuban authorities detained hundreds of protesters. Trials have lacked due process and some detainees have received sentences of up to 30 years in prison.

It will take credible elections to bring all three countries into the democratic fold. If the question is, how do other nations help encourage credible democratic elections in these three countries – isolation is not the answer.

I support inviting all of the hemisphere’s nations to the Summit. That space should be used to push for democratic reforms, greater equity and equality, and protections for our fragile planet. Participants could push for the release of political prisoners. Bilateral side meetings could allow dialogue between diplomats who do not often meet. Space could be given to civil society actors who have little opportunity to be heard in their own countries. Protesters who might be detained in their own countries, could protest here.

AMLO was early to say that he would not attend the Summit if the three excluded nations were not invited. So far, he has been joined by CARICOM (made up of Caribbean nations) and Bolivia in refusing the invitation if others are not included. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has also said that he will not attend, although not why.

The Biden Administration is made up of many diplomats and bureaucrats who worked hard to get Cuba into the 2015 Summit. After almost 18 months in office, they have just lifted some of the Trump imposed restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. These changes lead one to believe that officials might not have forgotten the lessons taught by 70 years of US policy toward Cuba – that sustained isolation does not bring change.

AMLO and other leaders are sending a strong message that they want broad inclusion at the Summit. Let’s hope that invitations are in the mail.

*This was first published in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site 5/17/22.

US/Mexico Border Paradox

Trips along the Rio Grande, crossing back and forth, always leave me pondering what seems like paradox. I’ve just returned from one such trip. The national narrative about the U.S.-Mexico border is that it is overrun with migrants and that this lack of border control should make us all afraid. While a high number of migrants are crossing, the border region presents constant contradictions to that narrative.  (I will use the word migrants to cover both migrants and asylum seekers.)

•High migrant flows  local fear of migrants.  The area around Del Rio, Texas is where the largest number of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers crossed the border in recent months.  Following the national narrative, one would think that the local population would be greatly disturbed by this presence. Instead, we were told that the locals don’t intersect much with the migrants. The border control system is set up to keep the undocumented out of the public eye. That does not mean that there is no concern, but I heard concern not fear. Locals do get disturbed when migrants get stuck at the border, as happened with a large number of Haitians a few months ago.

•Increased U.S. National Guard and state police ≠ border control. Between Del Rio and Eagle Pass, TX, military vehicles are littered along the main highway. They just sit there. Nonetheless, migrant crossings remain high and the frustration of the Guardsmen with this non-sensical task is well documented. The military presence creates a perverse atmosphere. I felt like I was supposed to be afraid because there were troops there, not because there was something to be afraid of.

•Presence of the wall ≠ fewer migrants.  The national narrative is that we need a wall to stop migrants from crossing the border. The reality is more complex. In some areas the wall can limit crossings or funnel people into certain areas.  But it doesn’t seem to do much to lessen the overall numbers. We have more miles of wall now than ever before yet we are likely to see increased crossing in the coming months. Another border paradox around the wall is seen in the Texas border cities of Laredo and Eagle Pass, 125 miles apart yet philosophically light-years apart. In downtown Eagle Pass I counted four layers of wall, some chain link, some bollard (the massive posts cemented in the ground close to each other), and some were shipping containers placed next to one another.

•Presence of migrants  unsafe communities.  US border cities with a significant flow of migrants like McAllen and El Paso, Texas, are ranked some of the safest cities in the country.

•Violent crime on the Mexican side of the border  violence in the US. The US cities of McAllen, Brownsville and Laredo have sister cities across the river in Mexico called Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo.  All three Mexican cities are in the state of Tamaulipas, which has a US State Department “Do Not Travel” warning due to the threat of crime and violence.  This always seems so strange considering the safety of communities across the river on the U.S. side. But that is the reality.

Under the U.S. national migration narrative – migrants are dangerous, we need to keep them out by increasing security at the border and building walls – the border region is a baffling paradox.  As the U.S. moves into another round of national political discussion about migration and the U.S.-Mexico border, we must give more thought to why the national narrative is constantly challenged by local reality.

I look to border residents who do their best to communicate with the rest of us, like South Texas artist Scott Nicol.  As he walks the U.S.-Mexico border, he collects homemade ladders that are abandoned by those who use them to scale the bollard fence. He uses them to create works of art.  This one leads me to ask, “how does any of this make sense?”

*First published in Mexican Newspaper La Reforma’s English language site, 4/18/22. Photo by Scott Nicols.

Border Report

Vulnerable people, unmet protection needs, and a wasteful security buildup at the busiest section of the U.S.-Mexico border

By Adam Isacson and Joy Olson – Published 3/22/22 at

WOLA visited a large segment of the Texas-Mexico border, from Del Rio to Brownsville, during the week of March 7. Joy Olson, WOLA’s former executive director, and Adam Isacson, WOLA’s director for defense oversight, covered three of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border, crossing into four Mexican border cities along the way.

We were pursuing different research questions: Joy was looking at how the U.S. government could respond to ransom kidnappings, and Adam was looking at communities’ and migrants’ interactions with U.S. border law enforcement. Information about both topics is scarcer in this part of the border than it is from El Paso westward, and we wanted to know why.

We saw many longtime colleagues, for the first time since before the pandemic, who are doing important work throughout the border zone. We introduced ourselves to many others whom we’d never met before. We talked to service providers, shelter personnel, attorneys, and some government officials and experts—and we put a lot of miles on our rental car. Here are a few things we saw.

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Measured by migrant arrivals, Del Rio, Texas was the busiest of all nine of Border Patrol’s sectors in January, and in second place every other month of fiscal 2022 so far. As recently as 2018, it was eighth. The Del Rio Sector’s four border counties have a combined population of 117,000; between November and February, 125,000 migrants arrived there.

That does not impact daily life in the main border cities, Del Rio and Eagle Pass. Everyone we spoke with said that the average citizen doesn’t notice the arriving migrants because they don’t stay here. The exception was the mid-September 2021 arrival of more than 10,000 mostly Haitian migrants near the bridge between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, which made national news. Many of the migrants who came during that event were immediately expelled under the Title 42 pandemic order: since September 19, 2021, the Biden administration has expelled or deported nearly 19,000 Haitians back to their country by air. Nearly 8,000 of them were apprehended in Del Rio. Of those who weren’t expelled, virtually none stayed in Del Rio.

Border Patrol has used Title 42 to expel 42 percent of migrants encountered in Del Rio so far in fiscal 2022. That is less than the border-wide average (53 percent), because many migrants who arrive in Del Rio come from countries, like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, to which expulsion is difficult.

Above, a bus from a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contractor dropped asylum seekers at the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition facility in Del Rio. The Coalition helps more than a hundred migrant family members on a typical day. Dedicated volunteers offer clothing, snacks, and help with making travel plans to elsewhere in the United States (the migrants, or their relatives in the United States, pay travel costs), where most will pursue asylum cases in U.S. immigration courts. The Coalition has many items on its Amazon wish list and could use help.

Above, a bus from a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contractor dropped asylum seekers at the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition facility in Del Rio. The Coalition helps more than a hundred migrant family members on a typical day. Dedicated volunteers offer clothing, snacks, and help with making travel plans to elsewhere in the United States (the migrants, or their relatives in the United States, pay travel costs), where most will pursue asylum cases in U.S. immigration courts. The Coalition has many items on its Amazon wish list and could use help.

March 2021 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a conservative critic of the Biden administration’s border and migration policies, launched a big state-funded buildup of security along the Texas-Mexico border. “Operation Lone Star” has since sent over 6,500 Texas National Guard troops and thousands of state police to border counties. These forces have arrested and jailed thousands of migrants on state charges of trespassing, with dubious results. Abbott has funded the building of border fencing on state-owned land (or on the land of willing private property owners). Numerous media reports have pointed to National Guardsmen assigned to the mission having low morale and not much to do.

The Del Rio Sector is a center of activity for “Operation Lone Star.” The deployment is making parts of Val Verde and Kinney counties, and the Rio Grande Valley, look like occupied territory. We saw miles of concertina wire-topped fencing near the river, and National Guard vehicles posted every few miles along the highway between Del Rio and Eagle Pass.

Gov. Abbott’s “wall” can easily be defeated by ladders or power tools. And then, a few miles west of Del Rio, it just ends. We had the strong impression that it is more of a photo op than a deterrent, especially in a sector—very far from other Texas population centers—where most migrants are not trying to avoid being apprehended. They just seek to set foot on U.S. soil, turn themselves in, and ask for asylum. This fence, across a road about 100 yards north of the Rio Grande, doesn’t deter that.

The military equipment often looks out of place, like this National Guard fuel truck in Eagle Pass, across the river from people washing clothes in Piedras Negras, Coahuila.
Tall border walls are less common in Texas than elsewhere along the border. Here, the Rio Grande is the boundary and much border-front property is privately owned. In Eagle Pass, barriers consist of concertina wire, then empty shipping containers, and some bollard fence behind that. (And in between the layers, a golf course.)
Most of the Del Rio Sector’s Title 42 expulsions—hundreds per day—send migrants from Eagle Pass, Texas into Piedras Negras, Coahuila. Here, the municipal government has cited the pandemic as a pretext to close most migrant shelters, reducing them to providing meals, legal advice, and similar daytime services. The thousands of migrants stranded in Piedras Negras must find somewhere else to sleep at night. Humanitarian workers told us that many are inhabiting abandoned buildings.
In some parts of the border, we saw a heavy presence of Mexico’s new, militarized National Guard, which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador created and has used extensively to control migration. These guardsmen were posted under Bridge 2 between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras.
Laredo may be the largest border-front U.S. city to lack a big border barrier. There’s no wall here, just a 3-foot fence by the riverfront park. This is thanks to the good work of effective organizers in Laredo, who fought Trump’s intended use of Defense Department money to build a tall downtown wall.

Border Patrol’s Laredo sector is sandwiched between the agency’s two busiest sectors, but even without a wall, it ranks seventh in migrant encounters so far in fiscal 2022. The reason for the relative lack of migration here, according to the consensus of people we interviewed, is the power of organized crime on the Mexican side of this part of the border.

Across from Laredo is Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. The city has a nice riverfront park, but sources told us that nobody is allowed to use it. The Northeast Cartel, a remnant of the Zetas cartel that has maintained monopoly control of criminality here, has made the park off limits because it’s a strategic point. We were told that the people we did see in the park, like the truck in the bushes here, are cartel-affiliated.

This was taken 5 days before Mexican soldiers arrested and extradited Juan Gerardo “El Huevo” Treviño, the Northeast Cartel’s maximum leader. Mayhem broke out following Treviño’s March 14 arrest, with firefights and vehicles set on fire around the city. As of this writing, the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo, which was hit by gunfire and grenades on March 14, remains closed to visitors.
The area around Nuevo Laredo’s border bridges is tightly controlled by organized crime. A humanitarian worker said that cartel-affiliated vehicles constantly patrol here, around the Gateway to the Americas Bridge, looking for migrants who haven’t paid their “toll,” and kidnapping them. It is extremely common, all sources told us, for migrants to be kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo after CBP uses Title 42 to expel them. Criminals then hold them, often torturing them, until the migrants’ relatives—usually in the United States—transfer ransom payments.

CBP expelled 12,404 non-Mexican migrants, most or all of them into Nuevo Laredo, after encountering them in the Laredo Sector during the first five months of fiscal 2022. The actual number of expulsions is probably larger: when things get busy in the adjacent Rio Grande Valley Sector, CBP moves migrants from there to Laredo and expels them into Nuevo Laredo.

The “Remain in Mexico” program, which the Biden administration is reviving under court order, began operating in Laredo on March 3. As of March 16, 57 asylum-seeking migrants had been sent from Laredo to “remain” in Mexico. Because of Nuevo Laredo’s security situation, most or all of them have chosen to be transported three hours’ drive south, to the city of Monterrey.

Most of CBP’s migrant encounters in the Laredo sector are with single adults from Mexico and Guatemala, so we were surprised to see shelters in Nuevo Laredo full of families, with many children. While many were Mexican citizens displaced by violence elsewhere in the country, we met people from a variety of countries, particularly South America.

Further to the east, south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley led all of Border Patrol’s nine sectors in migrant encounters between March 2013 and December 2021. Del Rio was number-one in January 2022, but Rio Grande Valley took the number-one spot back in February.

The Rio Grande Valley Sector has a heavy border security presence, augmented by “Operation Lone Star.” Above, in La Joya, Texas, was one of the “tethered aerostats” or “persistent threat detection systems,” blimps that hover over the area looking for smuggling activity. A $52.5 million Defense Department contract supports 18 of these blimps along the border. Below that, a Border Patrol boat raced up the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, one of a large number of federal and state police vessels operating in the Rio Grande Valley. Including state police and game warden boats, we saw eight pass by in just over an hour.
Though candidate Joe Biden pledged not to build “another foot” of border wall, a great deal of “levee wall” is under construction in the Rio Grande Valley. This is next to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission.

CBP has plans to build up to 86 miles of border wall in the Valley’s Starr, Hidalgo, and Cameron counties, using about $1.9 billion appropriated for that purpose in the 2018 and 2019 Homeland Security appropriations bills. The Biden administration and the Democratic majority in Congress had sought to rescind that past-year money, but Senate Republicans dug in and appear to have prevailed in the 2022 budget fight that just concluded last week. So construction must now go forward.

The REAL ID Act of 2005 included a rider allowing CBP to waive all other laws, from the Endangered Species Act to laws protecting sacred indigenous sites, in order to build walls like this. The Trump administration invoked waivers of up to 42 laws, 27 times. This is likely to happen again unless the Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wisely decides not to invoke the waivers.

Meanwhile, since most riverfront land in Texas is privately owned, wall-building in the Rio Grande Valley may mean years of bruising court battles with property owners whose land the government would seek to seize via eminent domain.

We had dinner in Mission with artist and activist Scott Nicol, who finds so many ladders used by migrants to defeat the border wall that he used them to create an art installation.

One of the most disturbing and heartbreaking things we’ve seen in more than a decade of working on border policy is the migrant encampment packed into a public square in Reynosa, just steps away from the bridge from Hidalgo, Texas, south of McAllen. People living here are waiting for the opportunity to ask for asylum the “right” or fully legal way, by presenting themselves at the port of entry. That is impossible while Title 42 keeps the port of entry closed to all without documents.

Right now, more than 2,000 people—including many families with children—are living in the Reynosa encampment under tents and tarps, eating food cooked on wood fires at four makeshift “kitchens.” Medical personnel say many are in poor health, as contagions spread quickly. We talked to people who had been living in the square for seven months. Church groups operate at least two other shelter spaces, which are very full. Another, a converted baseball field, will soon open up; it is intended to house the people stranded at this plaza.

Many migrants in the square were Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran: the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, across from the Rio Grande Valley, is the part of the border that lies closest to Central America. Reynosa has also seen a recent increase in arrivals of Haitians.

Of Mexico’s six border states, Tamaulipas is the only one to have a level-four “Do Not Travel” warning from the U.S. State Department, “due to crime and kidnapping.” Despite that, CBP has expelled 138,807 migrants into Tamaulipas from its Laredo and Rio Grande Valley sectors since October 2021, and Mexico has received another 7,411 of its citizens who were deported, mostly from the U.S. interior, into Tamaulipas between October and January.

As it is territory disputed between criminal groups, Reynosa is reputed to be the most dangerous of Tamaulipas’s border cities, and it has seen serious recent flareups of violence. This city, and nearby Matamoros, are very dangerous for migrants: when we asked whether “maybe 20 percent” of migrants waiting in Matamoros had been kidnapped before, a humanitarian worker said “it’s higher than that.” In Reynosa, women and children get moved to the encampment’s more central tents because kidnappers, with guns drawn, raid the square often.

“Tent courts” are now in place for the revival of “Remain in Mexico” in Brownsville, Texas. As of March 16, 345 people had been sent from Brownsville into Matamoros and Monterrey. The first hearings for these people are to happen in these tents around March 26. Asylum-seeking migrants brought back from Matamoros or Monterrey will try to argue their cases before judges over a video feed.

This was a worthwhile but difficult visit. We made modest progress on our research goals of tracking kidnapping patterns and experiences with U.S. border law enforcement: we confirmed that information is indeed scarcer here. The few non-governmental service providers active in this part of the border are too overwhelmed—by the urgent needs of large numbers of migrants, and by the menacing security situation—to document either problem thoroughly. We are now clearer about next steps for this work.

This part of the border is seeing a great deal of cruelty and hardship. The status quo is unsustainable and must change quickly. Three of the most urgently needed changes that stood out to us are:

  • Title 42 needs to end immediately. So should “Remain in Mexico,” support for Mexico’s crackdown, and any other effort to block asylum seekers at a time of historic need and human mobility throughout the Western Hemisphere. As the public health situation improves across the United States, it is time to put in place the infrastructure necessary to process people making asylum claims, monitor them without detention, and adjudicate their claims as quickly as due process allows. We were troubled to see little evidence that the Biden administration is putting much of that infrastructure in place. The main exception is the recently completed renovation of a big processing center in McAllen, Texas, a project that began during the Trump administration.
  • Border security must focus on security threats, not asylum-seeking migrants. “Operation Lone Star,” wall-building projects, and similar security displays are a huge part of the landscape in this part of Texas. Yet a large portion of the migrant population—possibly a majority—are people who want to be apprehended in order to petition for protection in the United States. Resources that could be minimizing harm from organized crime or drug trafficking at the border, protecting the United States from actual threats, are instead going toward blocking vulnerable people from exercising their legal right to seek asylum. This is unnecessary and wasteful.
  • Humanitarian workers must no longer be so alone, especially in Tamaulipas. Whether because the area is remote, like Del Rio, or because the security situation is alarming, like Tamaulipas, this part of the border has relatively few humanitarian organizations, despite its very large migration flows. Groups like Catholic Charities, HIAS, the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, Global Response Management, the Sidewalk School, Team Brownsville, Doctors Without Borders, and several church-run shelters in Mexico are doing heroic work, as are pro-bono asylum attorneys on the U.S. side. The humanitarian and advocacy presence here, though, is much scarcer than elsewhere along the border, particularly the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez and San Diego-Tijuana areas.

As a result, not only do migrants’ urgent needs go unmet, we lack information about everything from assaults and kidnappings on the Mexican side, to experiences in CBP custody on the U.S. side. People doing good work here need much more accompaniment than they are receiving. We plan to come back soon.