Q & A with Andrew Kennis

Andrew Kennis is an international journalist, researcher, and professor at University of Texas, El Paso. Dr. Kennis is currently the border correspondent for teleSUR’s English division and has written for a variety of publications including Al Jazeera English, The Christian Science Monitor, Proceso (Mexico), Time Out, and emeequis (Mexico). Learn more about his work by visiting his profile and follow him @andrew_kennis

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Interviewed by Virginia Isaad

You’ve said that a lot of what you cover isn’t included in mainstream media. What would you say is an important story (or stories) that you feel the general public needs to know about regarding the violence in Mexico?

This is not an easy question, as there are so many stories in Mexico that the U.S. public deserves to know about, with accessible reporting and investigations. Yet, given the close relationship that the U.S. has with Mexico, and its importance as a client state, there is little that most U.S. citizens know about what is actually going on south of the border.

There is a principle about powerful nations which U.S. journalism should especially abide by: one can learn a lot about themselves by taking a close look at how one’s neighbors are treated. Mexico is one of the U.S.’s most important allies and U.S. policy is clearly fueling a lot of the violence in Mexico. A frightening, tremendous amount. Yet, we read little to nothing about these connections … or even just about the violence itself. When and if there is reporting, it depicts the situation as chaotic, anarchic, out-of-control and with little to no responsibility by high-ranking officials.

The most recent and striking example is what is being called the worst student massacre since 1968, which occurred in the drug war-torn and poverty-stricken state of Guerrero. If ever there was a more powerful display of the “narco estado” bearing itself full on, it was this one. UPDATE: Therein, the mayor and chief of police are already fugitives of the law for having fled soon after it was announced that they were leading suspects for masterminding this gruesome tragedy. It is understood that local officials facilitated a leading street gang to do the dirty work of the kidnapping, torture and eventually burning to death of at least 43 student activists and demonstrators.

Mexico is one of the leading recipients of U.S. weapons, training and crucial diplomatic support. The White House has barely breathed a word about this massacre and the rest of the U.S. news media is largely following in step. The outcry in Mexico is tremendous and the official admittances to crimes is also significant, which has resulted in a few op-eds and reports. But the White House reaction has been mum and thus, this has limited what should be far more extensive coverage and leading story investigations, and priorities. It simply has not been. Were it not for the strong reaction in Mexico, coverage would probably be even less significant and probing.

The U.S. itself is even cast off as a victim of Mexican spill-over violence or immigration or whatever nuisance can be conjured up, of course with the sole fault lying with Mexico itself. There’s little to nothing about U.S. culpability for the drug war being fueled by U.S. leading policies, or for too much of the violence that Mexico has to weather and endure.

I don’t want to mislead, Mexican officials indeed have plenty of culpability themselves, but the overwhelming amount of attention (if any) goes to just that … Mexican culpability, as opposed to the U.S. role. Instead, a wayward Mexican state is depicted, a “failed state,” as some U.S. officials have put it. If coverage was more accurate, the term “failed state” wouldn’t be the description … more apt would be, “a failed client state of the U.S.”

You recently wrote an article on the CBP where you mention “Over 8,000 new agents were brought into the ranks of the CBP over a three-year period, from 2006 to 2009. What were the standards they “relaxed” in order to hire so many new agents?

“Relaxed” is actually a conservative description. According to whistle-blowers such as the recently demoted and former Internal Affairs CBP chief, James Tomsheck, screening was all but completely gutted. Previously, a lie-detector test was a standard screening procedure for hiring practices and as many as 50% of applicants were filtered out. The rush to recruitment, to be sure, has been significant.

 Is there any through line with the civilian victims? Are they mainly youths like Jose Antonio?

The only consistency between the victims is that they were mostly accused of rock-throwing. But even U.S. officials have denounced their own allies for the use of fatal force against rock throwers, as was the case with Hillary Clinton in respect to Israel using fatal force against rock-throwing youth in Palestine. In plenty of the cases where video evidence was unearthed, however, it was found that there was no evidence whatsoever of rock-throwing having been involved.

Several other CBP testimonies have also been proven false, including one famous case which involved an unarmed man that was beaten to death and subsequent Congressional action. That case actually wound up being of significant importance, as it led to a snowballing chain of events that finally resulted in some reforms being implemented.

According to the lawyer of many of the families of many Mexican nationals killed by the CBP, whom I actually recently interviewed, significant precedents will be set by what is likely to be a Supreme Court case which will decide whether Mexican nationals have the right to sue the U.S. government when killed in Mexican territory.

Is the corruption directly correlated to the hiring of untrained agents or are there other key factors involved?

It is not just untrained agents, if not, discarded, suspended and literally fired and former policemen. But yes, between the discarded policemen hired and also the lesser trained agents, civil rights advocates, families of the victims and their lawyers all argue that this is very much the root of the problem … relating of course to the more general and long-running trend of the militarization of the border during the post 9-11 era.

What can you tell us about the cameras CBP has promised to start using?

I can’t tell you much at all about them, since a year after the first promises of their implementation by the CBP, they are still not in use. I was recently pulled over by federales in Mexico and was asked for an international travel auto permit when I drove a bit outside of Juarez. Interestingly enough, I noticed that there was a camera affixed to their car. Everything was being recorded. The cops were more nice, courteous, understanding and reasonable than any other Mexican law enforcement authorities with whom I have spoken.

The CBP has claimed that implementation of what would still be a pilot program has been “complicated” and “expensive.” That sounds like mere excuses to me. In any case, even with cameras, given the CBP’s proclivity to redact and/or simply not release important information to the public, the cameras may only be of limited, internal use. Again, the lawyer I spoke to today said that the clearest video showing that Sergio Adrián Hernández did indeed not throw any rocks, contrary to CBP testimony, is still under wraps and unreleased by the Department of Justice. We only know what the video’s footage reveals from the DOJ telling the family, verbally, that this was the case, when it met with them to deliver the sordid news that it would not prosecute the CBP agent that killed their unarmed son on Mexican soil.

What cameras should be utilized for is for publicly accessible and transparent access by at least the human rights community, if not the public at-large. As of now, it does not seem that there are any indications that this will be the case and as incredible as it may seem, even cameras may not be enough to eliminate a long-running problem of CBP impunity.

Considering that it seems no CBP agent has been punished for civilian deaths, what reforms needs to be made in order to rectify this?

For a while, we had to write “it seems” in respect to no CBP agent being punished for civilian deaths. But just last month, Tomsheck’s replacement to head up the Internal Affairs department confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that no prosecutions or even punitive measures of any type have been undertaken toward any agent. As anonymous sources both inside the CBP and the State Department confirmed to me … there is most certainly an air of impunity within CBP … an embattled agency these days given increased attention and criticism of its often trigger-happy agents.

First things first then, impunity must be stopped. But eventually, the militarization of the border, as well as the public health problem of drug addiction, both need to end. No solutions for border-based issues, immigration and the illicit drug issues will ever be realized through militarization. Drugs need to be treated as a public health problem, not as an issue of war. Immigration needs to brought out of the shadows and guest-worker / path-to-citizenship programs must be established. Finally, and as important as anything else, NAFTA must be ended so that Mexico can develop its own economy and not be at the behest of multinational capital and investment which continues to flee toward China, anyhow. As Chuck Bowden would often say, Juarez is a laboratory of the future and the future is now. The results are in: NAFTA doesn’t work, as Laura Carlsen elegantly explained in a rare granted entry into the New York Times.

You’ve covered the trial of Vicente Zambada which isn’t covered extensively in mainstream media. What do people need to know about Zambada and how has his trial affected the drug trade?

Most U.S. people don’t even know who Vicente Zambada is, much less his more well-known father, Mayo Zambada (while the opposite is nearly the case with Mexico-based citizenry). Some people recognize the name El Chapo, but on the tip of everyone’s tongues should also be Vicente Zambada too. Given the paltry amount of news coverage on the trial, however, I am not surprised that this is not the case.

That notwithstanding, the Zambada trial was still dubbed as the drug trial of the century by leading U.S. officials, the most important mafioso trial in Chicago since Al Capone himself was tried. Why was this the case?

One measure which shows the importance of the trial to the government is the simple fact that the trial never actually happened. The government’s worst fear was that this case would actually go to trial. For years, the trial was stuck in “pre-trial” phase and went through endless motions to stay the actual trial, the prosecution and defense finally came to a plea agreement which is still in effect to this day. After having attended several of these pre-trial hearings myself, I was struck by how much the court room was controlled by the prosecution and how Judge Castillo, a Clinton appointee and recently promoted, seemed to follow their lead more than anything else. This was a DEA-controlled legal case, it clearly seemed to me.

The plea agreement conditions Zambada’s eventual release on how useful he is as a DEA-informant. This is ironic because Zambada’s whole pre-trial defense rested on being a protected informant. Curiously enough, shortly after the plea agreement was finally announced, which was in actuality a year after the agreement had actually been brokered, El Chapo himself was arrested. Was there a connection between the two? Most of us narco-journos presume that there was.

More than just presume, however, there is some compelling evidence behind Zambada’s claims. One of the most interesting claims is that one of the benefits of his agreement and service to the DEA as an informant was to receive “Fast and Furious” weapons in exchange for his intel on rival cartels. There is sworn testimony under oath, which supports these claims. An investigation I’m in the midst of finalizing will be published next month with some more details about this. Finally, during pre-trial discovery, the prosecution admitted that the Sinaloa cartel’s leading lawyer was a DEA-informant for no less than ten years (from 2001 to 2011). Interestingly enough, this lawyer was present with Vicente Zambada the night both of them met with DEA agents. Later that same night, Zambada was arrested in an apparent DEA double-cross.

Provided Vicente continues to prove useful as a behind-bars DEA-informant, he will be out of prison within a handful of years and will be a free man again. Perhaps at that point, he will be a high-ranking deputy again in the Sinaloa cartel, running it along with his father. It will be interesting to see what happens there.

About virginiaisaad

Virginia is a journalist based in Los Angeles who's written for publications including Los Angeles magazine, Upworthy, and Elite Daily. She was born in Argentina and raised in the San Fernando Valley along with her three siblings. Fun fact: She took a Chicanas and Feminism course with Eva Longoria while studying for her master's in mass communication at California State University, Northridge. Follow her on Twitter @virginiaisaad

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