This post has also been published as an article in the January 4, 2008 issue of El Paso’s Newspapertree.com. A version also appears in the Jan. 1-15 issue of CounterPunch.
Lots of Americans have heard about the Mexican city Juarez, just across the river from El Paso, Texas, and the 400 or so female murders that have happened there since the 1990s. Many who’ve heard have flown to the border to hold press conferences and make movies or put on plays and offer help. Especially women – including famous ones. Jane Fonda, J. Lo, Sally Fields, Minnie Driver, Eve Ensler – all know of the killings, or at least those involving long-haired adolescents who worked in maquiladoras and went to church and were good daughters before they ended up in places like Lomas del Poleo as anal-raped mummies and maybe a tattered bra.
Lomas del Poleo. Some Godforsaken desert spot on the Juarez fringe where at least a dozen bodies were found in the sand from 1996 to 2003. Most never identified, but one was Veronica Castro, a teen working at a big, foreign-owned assembly plant when she disappeared. The corpse of another girl, Maria Sagrario Gonzalez, was found elsewhere near town, but at the time she was killed she lived in Lomas. Her mom, Paula Flores, is the first person who thought of blanketing Juarez utility poles with pink crosses to draw attention to the murders. As a result of such activism, the murders have come, internationally, to be known as feminicide. Embedded in that term is the idea that women are dying violently in Juarez precisely because they’re women. It’s a political concept, a theory, and thus awful but in its abstraction oddly comfortable.
The killing fields at Lomas del Poleo, on the other hand, are a hundred percent real, and straight-out scary to even think about. Don’t go there, the zeitgeist whispers: it’s isolated, desolated, gritty, scuzzy, a place only for cloak-and-dagger journalists, while the rest of us can just read about it and maybe march downtown with the stars, or sign Amnesty International petitions.
But now, something every bit as bad as the feminicides is occurring in Juarez, in the same area where Veronica et al were dumped. Yet few people in the US, or even El Paso, know or care about this new horror. And because they don’t, the murdered women of Juarez are being buried from consciousness.
How can they be resurrected? By digging into current events at Lomas del Poleo, where an entire community is being tossed for basically the same reasons the area’s females are blotted out.
A professor took me there years ago, when the feminicides was fresh news. She was studying the concept of border females as waste matter, in concert with the generalized phenomenon of illegal municipal dumping. Her theory included the fact that Juarez maquiladoras were organized and managed so the entire, mostly woman, workforce at the average plant would quit or be fired from their jobs – or “turn over,” the industry calls it — in less than a year. Massive turnover would quickly and efficiently dispense with labor once it was deemed worn out, or too expensive because of employers’ legal obligation after several months to give workers perks like health insurance and end-of-year bonuses. The professor felt that the maquiladora economy of female worker disposability was affecting the entire culture and that more and more in Juarez, all women were being defined as throwaways. That, she said, was fueling the brutal murders – and not just of scores of the long-haired, stranger-raped girls everyone talked about, but even of the many hundreds more victims who were being killed and dumped not by unknowns, but by their husbands, boyfriends, and neighbors.
This professor had ideas about why all those female bodies were ending up in the desert. She did not think it reflected some serial killer’s unique MO. Because municipal sanitation services are so lacking in Juarez, she said, everything unwanted – from household trash to human beings — gets thrown, sub rosa, in the outskirts. We poked with our eyes and some sticks in this parched, garbage-strewn place called Lomas del Poleo, where corpses had recently been discovered. We found only withered shoes, soiled Pampers, and bleached baby dolls. Not unexpected, the professor said. But what surprised me – I still remember after all this time – was the old man who ambled from behind a hill on a burro, herding goats and smilingly doffing his hat to wish us buenas tardes. “Where on earth did he come from?” I thought. Heretofore I’d assumed Lomas del Poleo was just some vacant, Boschian hell hole. Now I wondered if it was more inviting. Then I forgot the man, and Lomas. I moved away to the US interior.
But last month I was visiting El Paso for some winter fun in the sun. Another friend, a border community activist, took me to a meeting in a sparsely furnished green building across the river with no heat and everyone huddled in jackets and soberly talking in turn. Some were students from downtownish Juarez who had nice glasses and OK wardrobes. Others were “colonos” – the flea-market dressed residents of Lomas, many of who have lived there over 30 years. They’d walked a mile down from a mesa to reach the cold green building, because they are not allowed to hold public gatherings in their own neighborhood. Nor can they bring in friends or guests, for meetings or anything else resembling politics. To enter their own community for whatever reason, they must pass a guard house staffed by snickering male thugs with guns.
The thug checkpoint and all the rest of Lomas are enclosed by concrete posts, barbed wire and trained dogs. People cannot pass unless they live inside. Trucks supplying basics such as tortillas,
Photo by Detritus at Flikr.com
water and milk, are also disallowed. At the meeting in the green building, I talked with two women who appeared in their seventies. One was stringy and gnarled; the other squat, with white, lusterless hair like cheap twine. They both lurched slightly with old age or fatigue. They said there used to be many stores up in Lomas, but now hardly any remain. To get groceries each day, they must walk the mile downhill, then make their way back to the armed punks and wire and canines.
Sometimes when people leave the area to get food, or to work in maquiladoras, they return and find their houses razed to rubble by bulldozers. One of the women said this happened to her middle-aged son, and it made him so apoplectic and heartbroken that he died. She described such things and wouldn’t let me take her photo or use her name. She and her neighbor were terrified of reprisals. Their fear sickened me.
This is all going on a few miles from El Paso, Texas, just across the border from Barnes & Noble, StarBucks, and the bikini waxing day spas of upper Mesa Street. What is happening in Lomas del Poleo is not unlike the logistics and doings of a concentration camp. Yet practically no one in the US – even those who’ve marched for and donated to and worried about the murdered women – seems to know. Or care.
The reason, perhaps, is that the barbed wire and dogs have nothing to do with how the feminicides are presented: as crazy, titillating speculations about serial killer conspiracies, rich-boy mafias, narco orgies, Satanic rituals and the black market vending of kidneys. Rather, the current disaster is connected to much greyer, more tedious speculation: the kind involving real estate. Plats, deeds and mortgages are not quite the stuff of Who-Done-Its. They turn even more arcane when combined with Mexican tenancy statutes. But these topics –
land and law — are back story to the border’s little modern-day terrordrome. Because it’s closed to people like me, I haven’t actually set foot in it. But to understand the awful things I heard of and saw at that community meeting last month, I’ve explored the web, talked with people including Lomas residents and organizers, and watched documentaries on Youtube. This is what I’ve learned.
It goes back to 1945. That’s when the Mexican government seized thousands of acres of desert from a mining company just south of the border, not far from the West Side of El Paso and what is now the town Sunland Park, New Mexico. Shortly after this expropriation, corrupt, profiteering Mexican bureaucrats sold the property to private owners, though doing so was illegal. These owners sold to others. One eventual purchaser was a prominent Juarez businessman, Pedro Zaragoza, Sr.
Years later, in 1975, Mexico’s President Luis Echeverria declared part of this vast acreage to be federal land. Now things were really confused, because the boundaries of the national holdings were not surveyed: they were still mixed with areas that private buyers – including Zaragoza – considered his property. Even so, the problem seemed inconsequential. President Echeverria notified the private purchasers that if they wanted to argue he’d wrongly designated their holdings as federal land, they should file legal claims. No claims ensued. Apparently the buyers didn’t care one way or the other because the land was considered scrubby, remote, and of little worth.
But not all felt this way. In the early 1970s, fifty or sixty poor families came to a mesa they named Granjas Lomas del Poleo – Poleo Hills Farms — in search of country living. Most had earlier immigrated to Juarez from destitute rural areas farther south. They wanted to escape urban chaos and raise goats, pigs and chickens. Word got out about Lomas and one man appointed himself community leader. He helped new settlers pick out five-acre plots, where they built houses, grazed animals and tilled the land.
Eventually, Lomas boasted about a thousand inhabitants, a small church, a kindergarten, a grade school, and some ten stores. The community was still parched and desertified, and many homes were little more than hodge-podges of wood pallets, with rusted box springs for front yard fences. But the view was gorgeous: to the east a long range of mountains; on the west the Rio de Janeiran majesty of a peak topped with a giant statute of Christ. Residents knew there was an issue about exactly which land in the area was federal and which was already privately owned, but they weren’t much concerned. According to Mexican law since the Revolution, if land is unoccupied and undeveloped, poor people can gain title just by living on it a few years, as long as the owner does not dispute their tenancy. This is par for the course in Mexico. Indeed, according to those familiar with Lomas, many residents went to government agencies and courts and got papers recognizing them as owners of their tiny plots.
The affable man on the burro whom I ran into way back when was one of these Lomas people.
But in the late 1990s, big, private owners like Pedro Zaragoza’s widow and sons – one of them also named Pedro — realized Lomas was getting valuable. Real estate interests on both sides of the border were hatching grand plans for a new international port of entry and a NAFTA-esque, binational community. It would straddle the international line at Santa Teresa, New Mexico, and include extensive manufacturing parks, as well as passage for cargo trucks and lots of brand new housing and stores.
As Juarez attorney Carlos Avitia has since explained to the Paso Del Sur community activist organization in El Paso, Mexican entrepreneurs like the Zaragozas decided their city’s growth would take place on outskirts that include Lomas del Poleo. “These are huge investors,” notes Avitia. “They plan to turn this into a suburb… All of a sudden they’re very interested in every last sand dune.”
Indeed, since the 1990s a highway has been built linking the Mexican state of Chihuahua west of Juarez to New Mexico’s Santa Teresa, where all that transborder development is set to take place. So far, very few people live in Santa Teresa, but its port of entry has been operating for years now. And in late 2007, part of yet another big road opened in northwest Juarez. Called the Camino Real, it has so far cost almost a million US dollars, and when it is done it will connect downtown Juarez to Santa Teresa. Right across from Santa Teresa will be a Mexican twin town called Jeronimo. The two will be be foreign trade zones with people living in them. The spanking new, binational development is currently almost uninhabited. But it’s projected to grow to 100,000 residents in the next decade or so.
The two main developers of Jeronimo and Santa Teresa are, respectively, Eloy Vallina – one of Mexico’s richest entrepreneurs — and Bill Sanders, a major international realtor (more here) who heads a controversial redevelopment plan for downtown El Paso. It aims to replace acres of historic but run-down buildings, mom-and-pop shlock shops
Bill Sanders lectures at Cornell U.
and poor residents with big box stores, mall-type businesses, and mixed-income housing that will not provide public rental subsidies for the many undocumented immigrants who currently live in the area.
Vallina is a member of Sanders’ development group for Santa Teresa. His son, Eloy Jr., sits on the board of private consortium which sprang the redevelopment plan on El Paso two years ago and has since provoked great controversy there. Vallina Sr.’s plans for the foreign trade zone Jeronimo are as strongly contested in Juarez as Sanders’ designs for El Paso are on the north side of the border.
Jeronimo opponents note that because the development is so dependent on massive infrastrucure – like the Camino Real highway — public taxes and resources are improperly being diverted from Juarez to one man’s private suburb. A major concern is the future of municipal water. The bolson that supplies Juarez is running out, and the only way to recharge it is from another aquifer, which sits beneath Jeronimo. But if that water is pumped by Vallina’s project, Juarez won’t get it and the city could go dry.
Also troubling is that anticipation about Jeronimo and Santa Teresa has led to fevered land speculation in Juarez, according to New Mexico State University’s Frontera News Service. Tiny lots not far from Lomas del Poleo have lately increased by 26 times their original price, with buyers offering as much as
International port of entry at Santa Teresa, NM
$39,000 for each parcel. The Juarez real estate explosion really took off when Bill Sanders bought 21,000 acres in Santa Teresa and announced his binational development project. This happened in 2003.
Perhaps not coincidentally, 2003 is the also year when formerly peaceful Lomas del Poleo – walking distance from the tidy, democratic United States of America – started to resemble an armed camp, a zone in the Palestinian territories, a World War II ghetto, a place of chilling violation of civil and human rights.
Two years ago, a soft-spoken, understated-looking guy named Bill Morton wrote a piece (here) for the online newsletter of Annunciation House, a church-based refuge for undocumented migrants in downtown El Paso.
Camino Real Highway (photo by DN)
Morton is a Catholic missionary and priest – thoroughly gringo – who at the time was pasturing a little church in Lomas. In his article, he describes hearing rumors there in 2003 that he at first didn’t think made sense.
Just a year earlier, the government had finally – after over three decades — supplied Lomas with electricity. Posts and wires had been installed, and each house had a meter. Now, residents were telling Morton they heard that all this infrastructure was slated to be removed. Morton pooh-poohed their worries. Why would the government take out what it had so carefully put in just months ago?
But the rumors were correct. Lomas residents and the Zaragoza family were already in court disputing who owned the land. One Zaragoza, Pedro Jr., recently told former Texas Observer reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen Welsome (see here) that he considers Lomas inhabitants nothing but illegal squatters and land speculators. To up the ante and discourage occupancy of the area, the Zaragozas had gone to a judge and obtained a ruling to remove the utilities. Government trucks came in, accompanied by police. They pulled out all the posts and wires. Lomas was left without light, refrigerators, or fans.
The Zaragozas also obtained orders forbidding more building in Lomas so that new people wouldn’t there come to live, and current residents, unable to improve their homes, would feel pressured to leave. More ominously, existing housing was targeted for destruction. Soon after the electricity was removed, scores of menacing young men invaded the community. They were what Mexicans call guardias blancas, “white guards” -– privately contracted paramilitary goons. Their boss is a Catarino del Rio, who in the past has worked for the Zaragozas and is assumed to be on their payroll now. The thugs brought in heavy equipment, which residents assumed would be used to destroy their homes.
At first, people in Lomas dug ditches to block the tractors and demolition machinery. Complaints were also made to the Juarez police, who ordered the shock troops out. They left, but by spring 2004 were back, occupying a plot of land and building a camp with a watch tower, barbed wire, and a guard house. Ever since, Lomas residents have had to pass this checkpoint to enter their neighborhood – which is now completely fenced in by tall, concrete poles and wire. Many people complain that the guards have maced and kicked residents. They demolished a church and are said to have poisoned pet dogs. In the dark of electricity-less nights, they’ve prowled around and shone flashlights into houses. And people who leave to buy groceries or go to work come back to find their homes pulverized.
Some residents report that the guards carry AK-47s; others have seen rifles sticking out of their jackets. In Mexico it’s illegal for civilians to carry arms, never mind military-grade weapons. But when the Juarez police have been called they’ve done nothing. A resident got into a fight with Zaragoza’s thugs after a house was razed. He was fatally beaten. Not long afterward, a home caught fire. Two small children burned to death. Authorities and Pedro Zaragoza said the conflagration was due to a stove left lit when the mother went out, or to illegal electricity hookups connected to a line some distance from the house. Witnesses countered that the house had no power, and that goons had been seen walking around, possibly spilling gasoline, just before the home ignited.
Juarez’s city administration does nothing about these outrages except support the Zaragozas by encouraging Lomas’ shell-shocked residents to move. Many families have gone to another community downhill. Others have been relocated to a row of tiny, concrete structures that the city offers as alternative housing but which provide no land for the livestock raising and horticulture that residents practiced on
Photo by Rachel Falcone, Flickr.com
their own holdings. Juarez lawyer Avitia has noted that the Juarez politicians have a stake in supporting the eviction project. They are friends and associates of real estate entrepreneurs like the Zaragozas and Eloy Vallina. (Eileen Wellsome interviewed Juarez mayor Hector Murguia, who confirmed that he and Pedro Zaragoza are friends.) Eviction helps the magnates by freeing up land for development related to Jeronimo, Vallina’s golden goose just south of Santa Teresa.
Once poor but bustling, Lomas has lost three fourths of its population and almost all its stores since the goons came in. About 55 families soldier on, braving the constant threat of their houses being demolished, and the nerve-wracking sense that they and their community are being disposed of, and few care. Still they stay, insisting on their right to the land. They have lawyers and their suit against the Zaragozas. Attorney Avitia has worked extensively on the case. He says the law is on the Lomas residents’ side and eventually they will win.
But in an escalating battle of one-upsmanship, the better the legal proceedings go for Lomas del Poleo inhabitants, the worse they are pressured to leave. Lately, political groups and NGO’s from
Photo courtesy Bruce Berman
both sides of the border have been trying to help. Attempts to hold organizing events in the neighorhood several weeks ago were met with the paramilitaries and their weapons, dogs, pushing and shoving and threats.
At the meeting I attended in the green building downhill, I asked if someone would take me up to see things for myself. “We can’t,” I was told. “It’s too dangerous.”
Amid this state of seige, it also seems risky to discuss the one thing that has brought international human rights attention to Juarez: those murdered, thrown away women. The people I spoke with at the meeting were like everyone who’s held on in Lomas — militant, determined to make a stand. But they also appear so demoralized and desperate to save their homes that they are willing to renounce the dead girls dumped on their turf.
I asked both the old women I talked with about the female corpses found in Lomas starting in the late 1990s. “Oh, no!” one demurred. “Didn’t happen.” “Lies!” the other added sternly. “There were no bodies here. Ever.”
I recounted this conversation later with my friend the activist, who explained the old women’s reaction. So many things have been done by the pro-eviction forces to
discredit Lomas, he said. Depicting it as crummy, slummy, and crime ridden. A dirty place that needs cleaning and vacuuming, even of its residents. What better way to bolster that claim than to talk of corpses in the sand? That’s one reason Lomas inhabitants deny the fact of the female dead.
My friend also pointed out that city and state government in Juarez and Chihuahua have for long been on a campaign to make people and social organizations feel guilty for speaking up about the murdered women and trying to connect their fate with other social problems. The old women, he said, “show how this campaign has permeated all walks of life.” Their silence is historically constructed, and understandable.
Understandable, but especially horrid, because to shut up about feminicide, Lomas residents must even mute their own blood. The white-haired lady I talked to: Early in our conversation, she said her son died after his home was demolished by Zaragoza’s thugs. Later, she grew more expansive. “It wasn’t just the house,” she confided. “It was also that his child – my 18-year-old granddaughter — disappeared four years ago. Went out one day with her boyfriend and was never seen again. The police found her ID card in the boyfriend’s pocket. But he works for the government. He was never charged or prosecuted. My son couldn’t do a thing. He lost his house and his daughter. Both losses killed him.”
We know what happened to the house. But how about the daughter? Like Veronica Castro, Maria Sagrario Gonzalez and so many others, was she tossed in the sand? Somewhere just a skip and a jump from Mesa Street, El Paso and Sunland Park, USA?
Please, Jane Fonda, Eve Ensler, J. Lo, Amnesty, and everyone who’s signed petitions, put on performances and marched for the dead girls of Juarez. Come back to the baggy-raggy border in your form-hugging clothes and fitting words. Come back and excavate the women by standing by their threatened neighbors – who also are being tossed and buried like garbage. Come back and dig up Lomas.