Q&A with Francisco Alarcon, director of new documentary: The Deportation of Innocence

Belen Chacon

 

Francisco Alarcon was born in Mexico City in 1979. He arrived to the U.S. at an early age when his parents left Mexico for the U.S. to carry out their graduate studies. He grew up in the bay area where he attended high school. Later he studied Film Directing and Writing at the University of California Los Angeles Extension.

He has worked with immigrants throughout his life and has seen the effects of deportation first hand. His film, The Deportation Of Innocence explores the lives of four families affected by deportation. In the documentary he shows the difficult situations children face when an undocumented parent is deported. 

During 2010 – 2012 more than 200,000 U.S. citizen children lost a parent to deportation and an estimated 5.5 million children live with at least one undocumented parent. The Deportation Of Innocence aims to answer the question so few ask: What happens to children after their parents are deported?

What did make you want to work on this documentary?

I grew up in California, and I came back to Mexico in the year 2000. In that period there were a lot of deportations, which was around 2010 to 2012. That was the height of deportations, and a lot of children were coming back to Mexico and they were having a really difficult time integrating into the Mexican school system. My mom showed me this article that talked about that, and I thought well, this is definitely something that’s worth exploring and showing in a documentary because you hear a lot of stories about people getting deported, but a lot of times they don’t take the time to show the stories visually. I understand because it’s difficult to tell those stories especially when it comes to children, it’s a very delicate matter. It can’t be taken lightly. Basically just showing these stories, that’s what really drove me to explore it.

You give a number of scenarios on your website on what can happen to a child when a parent is deported, can you elaborate on each of those cases and what do you hope to show with these particular cases in your documentary?

Like you mentioned, each story is different. Deportation affects families in different ways. We are trying to show a wide range of cases. One of the most common is when one of the parents gets deported and then the other parent has to work without any help. So it has a lot of strain on the family financially, and specifically on the children emotionally.

The other case is when both of the parents get deported and the child enters foster care. This is one of the most difficult cases because it can take six months to two years for the parents to get their children back in the country to where they’re deported. There are a lot of requirements they have to follow to get their children back, that’s why it takes so long.

For example, they need to have a stable job. They need to have sufficient income to take care of the child. They have to take parenting classes sometimes, they have to take drug tests…There’s just a plethora of requirements.

If you take into account that even getting a government issued I.D. where the parents first are deported is a difficult task, then you can imagine how hard it is to follow all these other requirements.

In the most extreme cases, if the parents don’t follow these steps and the process takes more than a year, the child can be given up for adoption. As you know the foster care system in the U.S. is not perfect, it really makes it difficult for the child to get out of that system and be successful going forward.

One of the cases in particular is very interesting because the dad got deported and he had custody of the children, so the kids entered foster care. He did get them back eventually, but they had to go away in Acapulco, which is one of the most dangerous places in all of Mexico because of the drug violence. We really have to ask ourselves if the U.S. government is really taking care of its citizens when they’re basically just throwing them into this very unfavorable situation.

What do you hope to show with these cases?

I think we want to portray this sort of double standard, you know? Like, leave these workers living for decades in the country and then when it doesn’t need them just dispose of them. We really need to show the American people what they’re doing because I really think there’s a lot of ignorance about what really happens to children.

A lot of people get deported, but I think it doesn’t really sink in, the real affect that it has not only for both countries – Mexico and the United States – and I think Trump is a perfect example. He’s saying, deport 11 million people, but that’s impossible in so many aspects. For example, to start with, there are 9 million people in the U.S. that live with mixed status families. What are you going to do? Deport let’s say the dad who’s not a citizen and then you’re not going to deport the mom who is a citizen? It’s just going to break up families. It’s just a big mess…

We want to show the real effect that this has not only on the people being deported, but on the U.S. itself. People need to know what they’re doing when they vote for people who are in favor of mass deportations.

Trump has also suggested that the children should be deported with the parents and not be given legal status. What do you think about that idea, and what should our country be doing to prevent this type of family separation?

I think the very first thing we need to do is recognize that these children are U.S. citizens, because Trump wants to say that they’re not. He’s saying that a lot of people go to the U.S. and that they use fraud, and you know that horrible term, anchor babies.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that if an undocumented person has been in the U.S. for a decade, then you’re a part of that society. There are many studies that prove that they do pay taxes and they do contribute to the economy. I think that’s a big contradiction because a lot of people call undocumented immigrants illegal immigrants, but we don’t call the companies that hire them illegal companies. I don’t see a lot of republicans criticizing the companies that hire undocumented immigrants. They just go after the weakest link.

And then there’s the fact that people benefit from undocumented labor, but at the same time they want to kick them out. The U.S. needs undocumented labor and yet it doesn’t want to give to those people who have been making a contribution, and they’re right, you can’t have it both ways.

I actually think that Trump just uses this fear. A lot of times I’m not sure if immigration is real. The problem I think a lot of people who are in favor of Trump are afraid the country is changing and they just want to target something, and immigrants are the perfect targets. So they use that and unfortunately it is working. It’s going to be interesting what’s going to happen going forward. Hopefully people will actually see that he has no real ideas and that he’s just exploiting this issue for political reasons that are not based in reality.

The documentary also features testimonies from lawyers, social workers, academics and priests. How do they all fit into the narrative of the documentary and what is their experience?

I actually volunteer at these migrant shelters in Tijuana. I do translation work, so we have a long-standing relationship with immigrants. Their experiences are probably one of the most important in the documentary because they’re in the trenches so to speak. They give a lot of validity to the documentary because they know the legal problems you have to navigate. They’ve seen how children and their parents have a difficult time coping with this problem, and they’re very passionate about their work. They can tell you what deportation means not only to the parent, but to the children, to society and to the city of Tijuana, because this is the city where most people are deported, and the way it’s changing the entire city.

Now, the Mexican government is scrambling to figure out what it’s going to do with all these people that are coming back forcefully.

They do have a deep insight as to what happens. There’s a direct contrast between what they’re experiencing and what the politicians say. Going back to Trump, he’s saying that all these people are crossing the border and that there’s a massive attack almost, a massive invasion. If you talk to the lawyers and all these people that are working with migrants you can actually tell the legality of it all, which is that these enforcement actions are having an effect on people. A lot of people are just unwilling to make the trip now because it is really difficult and if you’ve crossed before, you can actually go to jail.

So these perspectives, for the reality that you don’t really see, away from all of the political discourse of people talking about immigration and talking about an invasion and talking about how there’s this big problem which immigrants are causing, which is not necessarily the truth when you take it to the ground level where things actually happen.

How do you think people will react to a documentary like this? As you said, we don’t really get to see this topic painted in this light. We don’t get to see how children are affected by deportations, because people tend to stay away from that side of things.

I saw a video on YouTube where a child was being interviewed. Her dad had just been deported and this guy just put the camera on her and started asking her questions that were really painful. This child just started crying. I saw that and I thought it was very sad, and I thought, well I don’t want to make a documentary like that. I don’t want to ask these children about deportations and have them cry because it’s a really delicate matter, and obviously it is very difficult for children to talk about.

So what I mostly wanted to do is show the children playing and being happy and joyful and sort of the parents talking about the difficulties, so not to put children in this spotlight necessarily. Except for one case where there was this little girl who just kept saying, ‘I want to talk about my dad.’ In other cases we show them playing and being happy.

And the reason I wanted to do this, is that I hope that other people who watch the documentary will think about their own children… I want them to think, oh well that could be my kid, and hopefully that will not necessarily change their minds, although hopefully that will happen eventually, at least make them think about what this can do to children and have a little more compassion about this topic. That would be the end result that I would hope for when people finish watching this film.

Anything you’d like to add?

We’re going to go on tour. We’re going to tour universities and just show the documentary. We’re going to go all over the U.S. showing the film and talk about this topic. Hopefully people will come out to see where we go and support the film. If they have any questions or want us to show it at their university/college/community center we are always glad and open to those ideas. Like we always say, these projects are community based and they’re only possible because of the community behind them.

Acupuncture for healing in border communities: Q&A with Ryan Bemis of Crossroads Community Acupuncture

Ryan Bemis, DOM, is an acupuncturist and healthcare provider based in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Crossroads has trained dozens of community health promoters in the border region. You can write to Ryan @ crossroadsacu@gmail.com

Crossroads will host a fundraiser dance party on Friday September 11th at 8pm 130 S. Main to benefit their project Flores de Juarez.

  1. How did you first get involved with acupuncture and what made you want to work in underserved/border town communities?

I started out as an addictions counselor at a detox program where group ear acupuncture was a daily therapy for alcoholics and heroin addicts.  And as a counselor I had the chance to study in the South Bronx, NY at Lincoln Hospital where activists had developed this model of grassroots, community-based ear acu care. Health workers from anywhere could come to Lincoln to learn it: a standardized ear acupuncture technique as an alternative to drugs, a tool for recovery, and adjunct for community health clinics.  One of the students in my class, for example, was a peer HIV counselor from Kenya.

The protocol—known as NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association)–is safe and simple, and easily taught to community workers, and has been implemented in a variety of grassroots mental health and humanitarian aid contexts for the past 4 decades.  I saw what an effective non-verbal intervention it proved to be, especially for people who struggled with talk-therapy or 12 step groups or pharmaceutical care.  And the fact that it can be taught to health promoters and front-line providers makes the service delivery extremely cost-effective.

I went on to go to acupuncture school where I had the chance to write for a periodical that focused on researching the use of this protocol. One report I did was on a family clinic in Anthony, NM that was—in 2008—providing ear acupuncture for refugees from Juarez fleeing violence.  I returned in 2010 and visited a few different projects within churches in Juarez serving women and marginalized groups in the city, to learn more about the challenges in providing community care.

I was invited to do a community acupuncture session for some laid-off maquiladora workers. They were gathering regularly in a small church on the north side of Juarez to do breathing and relaxation and stretching exercises similar to taichi and yoga.

They liked the treatment, and asked me when I could come back. I told them that it would be much better if they could learn these techniques themselves. This led to many conversations with church leaders, who were able to organize a training in 2011 for pastoral workers serving in some of the fringe parts of the city.  At that time the churches were developing new programs specifically to serve victims of violence. Since then we’ve been invited back to offer several other trainings.

  1. What are some of the reasons people seek treatment at Crossroads? What are some common issues?

Like most community acupuncture clinics, pain and stress-related problems are the most common reasons why people reach out to us for help.  At our Crossroads clinic in Downtown Las Cruces we don’t specialize in any specific type condition or demographic.  We offer care in a group setting, using distal points in the hands, head and legs, as is traditional in Asia. So there’s no disrobing necessary, making it more comfortable for most people. The group setting, the “keep your clothes on” environment is essential to making acupuncture palatable for the masses. Community acupuncture strives to treat the largest slice of the population for everyday health conditions, from stress to migraines to sprained shoulders, and everything in between.

That said, we do offer care for patients who have diagnosed conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and we’ve helped some come off medications or deal with the side effects of the drugs.  We’ve helped people get off their blood pressure meds as well as cigarettes.  We provide support for people with chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s, kidney failure, Diabetes, and various autoimmune disorders.  As our clinic has grown, a large number of people diagnosed with PTSD and/or who have a history of trauma or domestic violence have come in for care. We had one patient from Juarez who had recently been shot in the head, survived, heard of our clinic and having access to our services several times a week over a month we were able to significantly help increase his neurological functioning.  Even though it’s a group setting we treat patients for very sensitive health conditions like menstrual problems as well as prostatitis or even a woman trying to leave an abusive spouse and struggling with trauma and depression.

Our students providing free ear acupuncture in the region have reported success in this specific ear protocol in providing support for people going through cancer, pain, anxiety, and depression.  Another program in Juarez offers ear acupuncture for homeless people with a history of violence and severe psychiatric illness, and they have reported that the treatment has reduced aggressiveness at the shelter.

By no means are these therapies and protocols a cure for all conditions and all people at all times. Acupuncture excels in treating any condition where stress is involved.  It’s no secret that stress makes most health conditions and psychiatric illnesses worse.  Back pain is made worse by stress.  Same with anxiety.  Same with asthma, diabetes: all common problems for people in the borderlands, whether they’re a maquiladora worker in Juarez, or a soldier returned from Afghanistan, or a sales clerk at Wal-Mart.  Acupuncture helps people calm down, which can help a variety of body organ systems to function better.  So it’s no surprise that we’ve found acupuncture to be helpful as an adjunctive component in managing a broad spectrum of health problems worsened by stress. People are extremely resilient with a few supports in their lives and a few safe spaces to take refuge in.  Acupuncture can be one of these supports.  Community acupuncture can provide one of those spaces.

  1. What are some of the biggest problems when it comes to providing accessible healthcare to citizens in low-income communities?

For Crossroads, accessibility to healthcare is limited in a few ways that we seek to remedy. The high cost of healthcare, community disempowerment, and lack of sustainability all present problems.

Our approach first and foremost has been about making healthcare affordable for everyday people—rich and poor and everyone in between.  Healthcare does not have to be expensive to be effective.  We have seen this to be true for acupuncture year in, year out.

We also work to empower communities with the tools and resources so they can work towards solving their own problems.  It would be great if everyone had a doctor, or if more people could afford to go to medical school so more people could have access to a doctor.  But that’s not reality, especially here in this region.  So we look at what simple, safe, and cost-effective tools we can teach health promoters working within local, community-supported projects.

Sustainability is also crucial.  Any healthy, accessible system of care has to be sustainable.    This is inherently challenging within a humanitarian aid context, when we’re the outsiders coming from a place of privilege and resources, assisting groups that are marginalized and living in poverty.  A nun in Juarez told me a story about an outside medical aid group that came in and provided free lab tests and consultations for several months. They also offered some therapies within an impoverished community.  People came and got a lot of help from this group. But then the group lost funding and left and now there’s nothing there for these people that the outside workers left behind.  There’s very little that has lasted as a result of that project.

So we hear stories like this and we ask: What can we learn? How can we go about this in a sustainable way, not a quick fix, band-aid, hit-and-run way?

Crossroads’ work has always evolved out of looking at what types development models have proven to last over time, and approaches to serving the underserved that don’t contribute to an unhealthy dependency.  We call our model Community Supported Healthcare.  We draw from various branches of grassroots acupuncture care including the NADA and the community acupuncture movements.

The Guatemalan Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project (GUAMAP) and the Pan African Acupuncture Project are two acupuncture training programs for health promoters working in humanitarian aid contexts, started decades ago and still going today.  These groups have offered us a template not only in how to implement acupuncture as a direct intervention in the aftermath of war and epidemics, but they have also proven to be long-standing, sustainable, and continue to offer grassroots care.

Another example:  We knew of a project in Uganda—MoxAfrica–training health promoters in a Japanese technique called moxa, which has documented astounding outcomes in treating drug-resistant Tuberculosis. We learned from MoxAfrica how we could start something like this in Juarez.  A volunteer came to conduct the training, and since then, over the past year and a half, our students have provided thousands of moxa treatments for free. This new tool has increased their skill sets in being able to address some of the common health problems in Mexico for people who lack access to other forms of healthcare.

We also look at social medicine models like the Barefoot Doctor model in China and adapted by the World Health Organization. Basically this model of care taught health promoters in Asia and the Americas simple, effective moxa and acupuncture protocols.  This is what our new school came out of:  Promotores Descalzos.  Barefoot Health Promoters.

We’ve been fortunate to have groups like GUAMAP and the Pan African Acupuncture Project, and community acupuncturists around the US lend support and mentorship to our project. Their wisdom helps us avoid the pitfalls of a hit-and-run humanitarian aid project.

We knew early on that if we—as outsiders—are the ones providing the care then it makes it less sustainable.  So we focus on training health promoters already working within low-income communities.

The great thing about acupuncture is that it can be very affordable. The cost of acupuncture supplies is extremely cheap when compared to drugs and surgeries and hospitals. The cost of needles for a community acupuncture treatment is less than 50 cents.  Moxa: half the cost of needles.  How many drugs are that affordable?

  1. From a medical perspective, how have citizens in these regions (i.e. Juarez) been affected by the violence? How do the acupuncture treatments help these patients?

The violence and these lasting wounds in Juarez, I’ve learned, have deep roots in poverty, destructive policies, and a failure of democracy and justice in Mexico as well as in the US.  These issues are intricately connected to killings and massacres and kidnappings.  In the grand scheme of things, medical services like acupuncture play a small but important role in healing. If any medical project can be empowering to a community, even better, then that’s one step towards getting to the root of the problems of economic inequality and social injustice.

We partner with churches because we’ve seen many people feel safe reaching out for help in their church.  The effectiveness of the service delivery, the cultural competence in which these health promoters offer care, happens because they are the ones healing their own people. It’s less about acupuncture and more about their resiliency, their resolve to serve their people week in, week out.

At a basic level of responding to violence and preventing violence from escalating, we’ve also seen our students’ efforts to be a humble unassuming facilitator peace-building. In a community setting, they create neutral, nonviolent, nonjudgmental, noninvasive, silent and meditative spaces for healing to happen, for people who have been hurt as well as and sometimes even alongside and sitting next to, those who have hurt others.

They have treated people who have experienced forms of violence.  For some, in their recovery, the focus may be alleviating anxiety and nightmares. For others, the group setting of our model of care helps victims to feel safe being around other people, preventing isolation, and providing safe space for them to reach out and get help.

Many people may not even recognize trauma as an experience. In fact, it’s not even necessary for the person to have insight into trauma or the nature or cause of their emotional pain in order to benefit from acupuncture. The acupuncture provider doesn’t need to know anything that someone has been through in order to help them.  The person doesn’t need to disclose anything or be diagnosed with PTSD or admit they’re a victim. They just have to be willing to sit and rest. Some people—even if they don’t like needles– find a great benefit out of just sitting quietly amidst a group of people receiving acupuncture. These groups hold space for people just to “be” without any cost to them to participate. Everyone needs access to activities like this to rest from society, yet connect with community.

Acupuncture—specifically this model of community acupuncture–works well as a mental wellness activity particularly in cultures where western talk therapy and psychoanalysis is rejected, inappropriate or inaccessible. In working with people with trauma, these types of cognitive based therapies can be ineffective, especially for recent events.  For someone who has had a recent traumatic experience, one priority is to help them get better sleep. If they don’t sleep for a few straight days after an event, then they may—no matter how healthy they are—start to experience psychosis or lose stability. And one of the first things that many people experience with acupuncture is sleeping better. That’s an important first step in the healing process.

There are also health problems that predated the violence.  Diabetes and tuberculosis have long been two of the top health problems in the border region. The fear and insecurity brought on by violence in Juarez affects access to healthcare for the people with these conditions.

We’ve witnessed their volunteer efforts to be a part of alleviating some of the burden of the local the healthcare system.

Many of our students report that people in general have a hard time asking for help for any type of condition, and that the violence has made this worse.  We work with them to help them figure out how to make it easier to come in for care. One of our students works in a town where 90% of the population has vanished, and few medical services are available. In response, she offers her own free services for those who have no choice but to stay.

  1. Can you tell me about the training and outreach programs Crossroads offers in Juarez? How have the people in this region benefitted from these programs?

We were able to conduct a qualitative study on patient reports receiving ear acupuncture in Juarez, and were able to see that 89% of patients report a positive experience, and 0% reported any severe negative effects.

More importantly, we measure success on the basis of community empowerment.  Are they able to carry on their own projects, through the support of their own communities? We’ve trained about 80 Juarez health providers so far. We always train with the goal of empowering them to be able to carry on their own projects, through the support of their own communities. For the 35,000 treatments we’ve tracked since 2011, they have raised their own funds from within their own communities to pay for their own medical supplies. They aren’t dependent on Crossroads in this aspect. This is a success. It’s very important for us that they reflect critically about and problem-solve locally towards self-sufficiency, even if they’re working in a very poor neighborhood.

They also offer massage and herbs and other alternative therapies. They’ve told us that the NADA ear acupuncture is now one of the most effective interventions they have for helping people calm down. One student told us before she learned this technique she didn’t know what to do for someone who came to her with really bad anxiety and lots of stress. Now she can apply this simple ear therapy and within minutes the person calms down and even can take a nap for an hour.  They leave looking a lot different than when they came in.

A lot of our students migrated from other parts of Mexico to Juarez with their families to work in the maquiladoras, and a lot of the people they help are employed in the factories (or used to be until they got laid off).  Our new school is inspired by another migrant and factory worker who is credited as the founder of acupuncture in the West: Miriam Lee. Back in the 70’s, she assisted other factory workers in California after she immigrated from China.  It’s fitting that we are teaching her techniques and her spirit of service has caught hold among our students.

  1. Are there other clinics like Crossroads in the US/Mexico border region that offer healthcare services on a sliding scale?

At this time there are no other community acupuncture clinics—that is, affordable full body acupuncture treatments (points in the head, ears, hands and feet) in a group setting– in our specific region other than our Las Cruces downtown clinic at 130 S. Main. Outside of the El Paso/Las Cruces region, there are 3 community acupuncture clinics in Tucson, and some in San Antonio and San Diego as well.

We have helped start up and offer ongoing support to other group-based ear acupuncture clinics that offer walk-in free services.  These clinics are by donation-only. Anyone can attend these free clinics.

There’s one in El Paso at Casa Vida on Saturday afternoons 2pm.

There’s one at Community of Hope at St Luke’s Health Clinic in Cruces, Tuesday mornings at 8:30am.

Families and Youth, INC in Las Cruces has a syringe exchange program for injection drug users that offers free ear acupuncture as well.  We’re hoping to train more harm reduction workers in the coming year, to help increase access for care to people struggling with addiction.

Anthony’s Desert Pride High School for at-risk youth has a social worker offering free ear acupuncture.

And then throughout the Catholic Diocese of Juarez there are many parishes that offer the ear acupuncture.

In the greater border region, ear acupuncture groups are offered for immigrants through GUAMAP in Tucson and women’s recovery programs at Shakti Rising in San Diego.

  1. You’ve worked with health promoters in Mexico to help establish free acu clinics. How can others get involved?

We’re throwing a Downtown Dance Party with Project Mainstreet and Shakti Rising on September 11, to help raise funds for our school.   DJ RiseOhm Shahid Mustafa from MountainView Coop will provide the tunes and the beats. So all you have to do is come and dance to the music and have fun!

Also, just by getting acupuncture at our clinic in Las Cruces, you can help. We share a percentage of our surplus revenues as a dividend for our project in Juarez.  So patients of Crossroads are making a contribution to people in Mexico getting care, by taking care of themselves.

Visit crossroadsacupuncture.com to learn more about our project, where you can find access to acupuncture in the borderlands, or donate and make a tax-deductible contribution through your credit card, or to stay updated on trainings we’ll be offering.

Shakti is now teaching at our school in Juarez. They’re another creative, innovative and grassroots project to get involved with.

Crossroads Community Supported Healthcare

crossroadsacupuncture.com

130 S. Main, Las Cruces, NM 88005

crossroadsacu@gmail.com

575-312-6569

funkthefallflyer.001

 

Q & A with Sally Meisenhelder of La 72

Sally Meisenhelder is a nurse who regularly volunteers at the La 72 shelter.
Boarding La Bestia

Boarding La Bestia

Can you give us a little background about the shelter?

The shelter began in 1995 as a parochial mission, staffed and funded by the Franciscan order. It moved to its new location in 2011 and was renamed La 72 Hogar – Refugio para personas migrantes in honor of the 72 migrants found in a common grave in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. It is intended to be a home and a refuge where people can receive information and legal services. As the number of people fleeing violence and poverty in Central America increased, the shelter has expanded.

It is probably the most comprehensive shelter in Mexico and the only one I know of where people can stay an unlimited amount of time.

Can you describe how the shelter functions on a regular basis? Who is involved?
Two Franciscan friars are the driving force behind the hogar. A few long term residents are also instrumental in its operation. Recently a couple joined and became volunteer coordinators and operations manager, taking some of the burden off Fray Tomas and Fray Aurelio. The migrants themselves do much of the work of cooking, cleaning and security operations. Doctors without Borders offers the services of a psychologist and a social worker, a worker from the UN provides entertainment and education for the children, Volunteers fill the gaps by staffing a First Aid clinic, an area where migrants can speak with their families and use the internet, receive money sent to migrants from their family, an intake area, a kitchen and the operation of two dormitories, one for men and one for women and children. A lawyer provides representation for those who wish to stay in Mexico and those who qualify for refugee status in Mexico.
It’s located in Tenosique, one of the first stops of La Bestia. How does this affect the shelter?
People arrive there because it is the beginning of the train line north from that part of Mexico.  Trains run on an irregular schedule and are several days apart.  The shelter fills up and empties when a train arrives.  Plan Frontera Sur has changed this dynamic.

What is Plan Fronera Sure and has it been effective? Why or why not?
Plan Frontera Sur was announced in July, 2014 by the President of Mexico about a month after Obama declared an “urgent humanitarian situation” due to the apprehension of 38,833 children “on the run” and alone. At that time Peña Nieto claimed it was a program to protect the human rights of migrants.

To those on the ground the plan is obvious, it closely mirrors U.S. immigration enforcement. The goal appears to be to force migrants into more remote areas and to make passage as difficult as possible. The train now moves rapidly through Tenosique.  If it stops so that people can get on, it probably will stop in an isolated area or a train yard for immigration officials to try to arrest as many migrants as they can.
Plan Frontera Sur seems to be part of the “21st century border” funded by the U.S. government through Plan Merida.  The marines now patrol the rivers between Mexico and Guatemala. I have seen new equipment, identical to that used by U.S. Border Patrol at immigration checkpoints near Tenosique, Palenque and San Cristobal. Changes in Mexican immigration law have made it more difficult for people to receive permission to stay in Mexico if they have been victims of a crime in Mexico. This will make it even more difficult to prosecute corrupt officials and criminal who prey on migrants.

From a human rights standpoint, Plan Frontera Sur has been a disaster. This week there has been much discussion on Frontera list about an article by Valerie Espinosa and Donald Rubin  that documents increased homicide rates in areas where military-style interventions took place. Plan Frontera Sur uses the Army, two branches of federal police, and immigration authorities to enforce immigration law. If this article is predictive, murder rates of migrants will increase.

Each of these agencies has separate checkpoints and everyone, including local people are subjected to scrutiny and extortion along the routes.  There are 3 rings of enforcement, reaching to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. People are now walking into more remote areas to avoid these checkpoints. Forcing migration routes into more remote areas will increase the potential that organized crime will be involved and the cost in human lives and the transit cost to migrants will increase.  This happened in the U.S. as enforcement increased, people were forced into more dangerous routes, cost to the migrants increased and people became merchandise to be moved north.

What Plan Frontera Sur does is move the abuse of migrants away from the view of U.S. citizens. It is an attempt to avoid another public relations disaster like the one that occurred last summer.

You say 90% of those coming to La 72 are Honduran and this is in the wake of more than 70,000 minors crossing the border. What has it been like since then? Has the situation improved at all?

My impression is that the number of children on the run has decreased but this is only one point of entry and if children are coming with a coyote, they may stay in a hotel or safe house instead of in a shelter.  La 72 tries to keep out anyone involved in trafficking of human beings. The U.S. Border Patrol website has confusing information about the numbers of minors.  Always on the lookout for more money, they appear to be saying that they will face another “crisis” this summer.  However, the numbers on the charts show overall the numbers are down compared to last year.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, stated “The federal government has engaged in an aggressive, coordinated response to provide humanitarian care,” and that they have “heightening deterrence, enhancing enforcement, strengthening foreign cooperation and increasing border security.

As a result of these efforts, the number of unaccompanied children attempting to cross the Southwest border has declined precipitously, and the federal government continues to focus its resources prevent a similar situation from developing in the future,” he said.

The large percentage of Hondurans is influenced by the location of Tenosique. Migrants from El Salvador would more likely cross into Tapachula as would most Guatemalans seeking to come north.
Other factors seem to be pushing people out of Honduras.  A fungus, el royo, has decimated the coffee crop, or so many migrants told me.  They had previously been employed on coffee plantations but now there is no work.  I also expect migration out of  the highlands of Chiapas to increase. Lack of rain has ruined the corn crop and there will be no coffee harvest for many due to el royo.  See Christine Eber’s report of a recent trip to Chiapas.

What is the shelter most in need of? Are a majority of the residents families? youths?
It seems to me that donations of money are the most useful and can be used where most needed at the moment. Currently, La 72 is constructing a separate shelter for unaccompanied minors. They now live with the adults in a dormitory setting.  I think money to complete and furnish this is needed.  Also the diet is very unvaried, mostly beans and rice with tortillas.  Some vegetables and fruit are donated by local businesses but not enough.
The majority are men traveling without their families. There are some families and some unaccompanied minors.
What changes need to be made?

As a nurse and a fan of Paul Farmer, I join him in advocating pragmatic solidarity. In other words put your money and your body where your mouth is. Join with La 72 and demand an end to Plan Frontera Sur and by extension, Plan Merida.  Demand a right to migrate. Volunteer with local agencies serving migrants.

Donations can be sent to La 72 through this link

Reflections on a trip to Chiapas, February 2015, by Christine Eber

Christine Eber is an anthropologist, writer and artist who has worked with Maya communities in Chiapas for 30 years. Her most recent book (co-authored with Antonia), The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexico: Pass Well over the Earth is published by the University of Texas (2012) and is available here.

“Winning does not tempt this man. This is how he grows; by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.”

maya_normalistas_chiapas                            From “The Man Watching” by Rainer Maria Rilke

“We’re going to win!” I often heard my Maya friends say when I visited with them around their home fires in the 1990s. They were filled with hope in the aftermath of the Zapatista uprising. After centuries of being forgotten — remembered only when their labor was needed in fields or factories — they had finally made the Mexican government listen to their demands for justice and equality. During those years I was swept up in the surge forward and tried to accompany my friends from afar.

It is March 2015 and I have just returned from a trip to Chiapas after being away two years. Reuniting with Maya weavers and students I was moved as I always am by their quiet courage and perseverance. But this time I couldn’t contain my anger at the Mexican government for treating these people as obstacles to “progress.” Just a few months ago, 43 young indigenous men from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, studying to become rural teachers, disappeared while protesting the government’s neglect of their school. These students were on almost everyone’s minds when I was in Chiapas.

During my visit, tears poured out of me when I least expected. I am much older now and was sick much of my trip. But my biggest obstacle wasn’t age or illness; it was my inability to let go of the expectation that social change will necessarily involve my friends’ liberation from oppression.

Every day I was in Chiapas I kept asking myself how economic conditions could seem worse than when I first came to highland Chiapas in the 1980s. A couple things were different this year than in previous years. Two major crops failed. The corn crop suffered from lack of rain at a crucial time in its growth. Most households I visited had only half a burlap bag of corn, enough to feed the family for one month. Corn still constitutes the bulk of people’s diets and cash is needed to buy what cannot be produced. Where will they get the money to buy the rest of the corn for the year? Not from coffee, the other crop that failed. Throughout Chiapas and as far away as Honduras, coffee was hit by a plague called “la roya.” Most small farmers lost their entire crop, leaving them to sell their labor or products that they make in order to earn cash to buy corn and other necessities. For women who weave textiles, selling their work has become an important source of revenue. But not all women weave or know how to make artisan products. What is left? With scarce opportunities for employment in Chiapas, migrating to the United States or to farms in distant parts of Mexico or cities in the Maya Riviera has become a major survival strategy.

When I was in Chiapas in the 1980s, the Mexican government had not yet fully withdrawn subsidies and dismantled public works projects to pay back its foreign debt. Today these are all but gone and small farmers have little support for their land-based lifeways and must contend with misguided development projects. A few years ago, the people of San Pedro Chenalhó, where most of my friends live, mounted a well-organized protest against the government’s plans to build a rural city in their township. They succeeded in stopping the city from being built while knowing that any day they may need to defend their lands and lives again.

My best friend, Antonia, who joined a Zapatista support base in 1994, told me not long ago that despite hearing others in the movement speak of “winning” she doesn’t think about that. She just tries to live each day with respect for the earth, plants, animals, and her fellow humans, without being preoccupied about the future. She accepts that she can’t end poverty or control forces such as globalization. All that she can do is work with others in her community to strengthen their connections to the land, the ancestors, and each other, one day at a time.

Antonia’s philosophy may sound like something out of self-help literature. It does share elements with these, but one thing is distinct in how Antonia puts her ideas into practice. She moves through life as part of a something larger than herself. She belongs to several community groups that sustain her and that she in turn sustains. These include a Zapatista support base, baking, weaving, and general store cooperatives, and the Catholic community in her hamlet that draws its strength from Catholic social justice teachings. Antonia would feel bereft without these groups. They help her imagine and enact a better world.

Back home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I reintegrate into my more solitary existence while doing what I can to assist Maya weavers and students. As I come to terms with my limitations I find inspiration in poems such as Rilke’s, “The Man Watching,” and these words from the Nigerian poet, Ben Okri:

We are greater than our despair.

The negative aspects of humanity

Are not the most real and authentic;

The most authentic thing about us

Is our capacity to create, to overcome,

To endure, to transform, to love,

And to be greater than our suffering.

We are best defined by the mystery

That we are still here, and can still rise

Upwards, still create better civilisations,

That we can face our raw realities,

And that we will survive

The greater despair

That the greater future might bring.

From “Mental Flight” by Ben Okri (1999)

For more information about the organizations I work with on behalf of Maya weavers and students, please see http://www.weaving-for-justice.org and http://www.mayaedufound.org, or email Christine: ceber@nmsu.edu

Above photo of Carlos, Patricia and Aminadad, Maya normal school students supported by the Maya Educational Foundation. Photo by Carol Vanier.

Q & A with Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith is a freelance writer and photographer whose work can be found in the Denver Post, Santa Fe New Mexican, Denver Business Journal, New Mexico Business Journal, El Paso Inc., New Mexico Mercury and La Voz Colorado among others.

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By Virginia Isaad

  1. Juarez has a reputation as an impoverished war-torn city and yet you’ve written about and visited places like Vision in Action, El Árbol de Vida, and Reto a la Juventud. What do you think about the fact that such places exist in the midst of such violence and poverty?

What I discovered some five years ago is that there are a handful of very heroic and dedicated people who are committed to helping others, no matter what the danger to them might be. My first encounter was with a Mexican woman named Martina Ontiveros who had lived in Santa Fe but went to Palomas to live in and volunteer at an orphanage named La Casa de Amor Para Ninos. When I asked her if she was afraid – it was very dangerous in Palomas at the time – she simply said that this was her mission. The same is true for people like Elenita Porras at Reto a la Juventud or Pastor Galvan or Dr. Vicente Pantoja or many others I have met. It’s their personal dedication that keeps these programs going.

  1. What stands out to you the most when you visit such places? Why?

The physical conditions of these places is usually not what we would expect in the US but the spirit and the sense of optimism and caring is always extraordinary and I very much enjoy being a part of it and also trying to publicize it.

  1. Through the years, how has the government’s involvement changed, if at all? Has there been an increase in donations and awareness through the media?

I don’t see any additional government presence in the areas I go to. Traveling through poor colonias in Juarez, for example, I just don’t see the presence of whatever social services they might have. Pretty much all I see is the presence of these private, non profit humanitarian groups.

That’s a neutral comment, suggesting, for example, that the government does little for the poor. On the negative side, one on going frustration is the way the Mexican customs officials hinder the work of these organizations by often blocking them from bringing in food or clothing or building materials for housing construction.

  1. Have you ever seen or heard of a place like Vision in Action? What is it about patients caring for one another that seems to work in this case?

I have probably visited Vision in Action 60 or 70 times in the last 4 plus years and am always amazed at how effective many of the patients – some like Elia who can’t even talk coherently – are at calming and consoling others. It’s evidence that even people who are deeply disturbed or have committed serious crimes can and do respond to affection and an environment of caring. This is an important lesson for our US mental facilities where there are very strict rules about patients are allowed to do.

The basis of this is Pastor Galvan and his insistence that his patients be treated with dignity and the many things he does to treat them as we would treat people without illnesses. For example, I was there on February 14 when several patients got married.

  1. Do you think if organizations like Vision in Action had governmental aid that they would sustain the system as is? What you seem to be most in awe of is how the patients help each other but if more money were to come in that would probably change. How do you feel about that?

I was a member of the Colorado House of Representatives many years and Chairman of the budget committee. As a result, I came to know many state programs in the social services area. Although funding was always important, what set the really good ones apart was leadership, not money. Vision in Action would stay the same if it had government support but only if it had the leadership of someone like a Galvan. How do you find that leadership? That’s the tough question.

Last, I would add that these characteristics – providing work which makes people feel productive, organizing the same kinds of events that “normal” people have such as the wedding I mentioned, showing affection, focusing on dignity – seem intangible as compared to, for example, therapy sessions in US facilities but they work. So Galvan is not only responsible for the survival of his patients but he has also given us some new insights on what it takes to change human behavior.

Read Morgan Smith’s previous guest post on Vision in Action here

Work, pray, love…in Ciudad Juárez By Megan Cullip

This week’s guest posting is from Megan Cullip. A chaplain and mental health professional, she wrote this reflection on her time spent at Vision en Accion, the shelter for homeless, mentally disabled people in Juárez, Mexico.

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In 2008, when I was in my junior year of college, I saw a YouTube video about El Pastor, a man in Juárez, Mexico who had built an asylum in the Chihuahuan desert for those who are drug addicted, mentally ill, or developmentally disabled. I had a lump in my throat within three minutes of the video. I always had both an intellectual fascination and a tender-heartedness toward people with atypical brains. El Pastor, in the video, said that people referred to the residents at the asylum as: “human trash.” But what I saw, when I went there, was far from a dump.

Fast-forward about six years, the mental asylum in Juárez had been cemented in the back of my mind for some time. I had a deeply passionate compulsion to go.

I work in a state psychiatric hospital in the United States. We serve a wide variety of individuals with a spectrum of mental health issues: schizophrenia, bipolar, major depression, substance abuse, personality disorders. Because we are a state institution, we receive ample government funding. We are a multi-million dollar facility with about 1,200 staff members and, on average, 420 patients. We have professionals with lots of education and specialized experience. We have access to enough meds for everyone to receive whatever dose the doctor deems necessary, daily.

But we have codes daily. We have much conflict, patients fighting patients, patients fighting staff, patients harming themselves. We consider emergency restraints, where a patient has to be restrained in a chair or bed, “a treatment fail.” And it is.
Our patients are scheduled to attend groups throughout the day: psycho-education, medication management, spirituality group, individual counseling, music therapy etc.
But the patients rarely work with their hands, though some do get the opportunity to work in the greenhouse or the copy center.

Vision in Action has done something incredible without having millions of dollars to spend, nor teams of specialized professionals. I remember walking into the kitchen at the asylum. I was immediately handed a spicy dish of pork smothered in sauce and a plate of cheese quesadillas. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, the ladies and gentlemen who worked in the kitchen would offer me food-refried bean burritos with avocado slices, bottles of soda. They delivered their hospitality and quality cooking with broad smiles. They make 360 meals a day, and they don’t work in shifts.

During the day, people are working. They are cleaning, cooking, building, helping other low functioning patients perform their daily living tasks. When I was there, a new patient named Monica was dropped off from the local hospital. The other patients were at the gate waiting to receive her. She was placed in a cell for observation. She was despondent, when I asked her how she was. Monica appeared the same way many of our patients do upon their arrival at the hospital. But, as I looked around at the other patients at Vision in Action, I saw Monica’s potential. Monica would not meet with a treatment team. She would not be scheduled for groups. But I would not be surprised if, as I write this, she is putting her hand to cleaning, or laundry, or any of the other options. I wouldn’t be surprised if another patient is making friends with her and helping her adjust to this strange place of dignity and hospitality in the desert.

I had the privilege to speak at length with the medical doctor who works hard (for free) to try and give the patients the best quality of life possible. He showed me the supply of Haldol and Klonopin and other psychotropic medications that he locks in a tiny room in the asylum, out of reach from patients. If I were to take my own personal medicine cabinet, stuff it with psychotropic meds, and multiply it by three, that would be the maximum amount of medication that I found at the asylum. It was clearly not enough for 120 people, and definitely not enough for a consistent daily medication routine. The doctor told me that sometimes he has to cut one Haldol pill in half to serve two patients. It’s not enough. It’s inconsistent.

There is not a doubt in my mind that medication is helpful. And Vision in Action lacks the appropriate amount.

But there is also no question about the “success” (if you can ever talk about success when you talk about people) of this asylum. I did not see misery there. I saw sickness and poverty, yes. But I saw joy and community. I saw faith. I saw people who poured themselves out for others. I saw an energetic man in black slacks and a black blazer, named El Pastor. I saw him share the story and fundraise and care for his people, everyday crossing the border, praying to Jesus. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, when he marched to Montgomery during the civil rights movement, said: “I felt my feet were praying.” This is what I saw El Pastor, and all of those who help Vision and Action, doing.

Throughout the week I met many people involved in many different things: art dealers, curious givers, and a man with a landscaping business building an irrigation system for the asylum on his own dime. These people came and went, like the wind passing through from different directions. My last afternoon at the asylum, a pastor from Oklahoma came to pick up blankets. The asylum had extra blankets that they wanted to donate. The pastor from Oklahoma was going to take these blankets to natives on a reservation, who lived in caves. The poor were donating to the poor.

At Vision in Action, I saw a lot of my own values at work: faith, community, hard work, preserving human dignity. Many of my coworkers at the hospital feel similarly as I do about patient care and best practices. But the system is very overwhelming, with a lot of red tape and the like. It is frustrating. Change comes slowly. In many ways, it seems, we are slaves to liability. We are under fear of litigation or scrutiny from authorities. It is hard and almost unfair to compare a large state psychiatric hospital in America with a small faith-based asylum in the deserts of Mexico. My hope for state psychiatric hospitals in the US is that they would look a little more like Vision in Action. I hope that patients are allowed to use their hands, to do good work. I hope that everyone treats each other with dignity, treating people as whole people and not diagnoses’ on a page. I hope that programming and schedules would be seen as one of many tools and not a prescription that will magically heal every brain and heart. I hope that staff, at the end of the day, will be able to utter: “I felt my feet were praying.”

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Megan Cullip works as a chaplain at a state psychiatric institution in the United States. She can be reached at megancullip@gmail.com

Q & A with Jason McGahan

Jason McGahan is an investigative reporter who covers organized crime and drug trafficking in Mexico and the United States. His special investigative report “Drugs in Chicago” was awarded a 2014 Peter Lisagor Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Chicago Society of Professional Journalists. His work has appeared in Vice, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, Time, Texas Observer, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, The LA Times, and in Spanish in Proceso, M-X, SinEmbargo, and Spleen! Journal. Follow him @JasonMcGahan

By Virginia Isaad
 You recently wrote about anti-clericalism and the murders of priests in Tierra Caliente. Do you see the violence against priests escalating or do you think these are isolated to certain areas? 
Centro Católico Multimedia tabulated eight murders of Catholic priests and two forcible disappearances since the start of the Enrique Pena Nieto presidency in December 2012. I wrote about the Dec 21 murder of Father Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta. In the course of my reporting, I learned that Father Gregorio was the fourth priest murdered in the region of La Tierra Caliente since 2009, not counting two students at a Catholic seminary who were also murdered. Another priest was wounded, and yet another was kidnapped and managed to escape with his life through a very fortuitous incident that distracted his kidnappers. When my story about the priests of La Tierra Caliente came out, Chivis, the administrator of the news site Borderland Beat, commented that priests have also been murdered in Tamaulipas and Veracruz. So the danger does not appear to be isolated to any one part of Mexico.

The slogan for Ayotzinapa is, as you mentioned, “the cradle of social consciousness.” do you believe the cartels were trying to send a specific message by going after the 43 students?

I think the problem with the Ayotzinapa case is the lack of a verifiable explanation from the PGR as to what happened that night. Even though the massacre is more than 5 months old, the story is still developing, the search for the students continues, and highly qualified professional investigators continue to examine the evidence A major break in the case is liable to happen at any time. Certainly, the Ayotzinapa students are known for their political activism. Part of the reason the abduction of the 43 students resonated so strongly with the Mexican public was that the student victims had no ties to organized crime. The truly mobbed-up elements of the Mexican political class, and here I am thinking of someone like the First Lady of Iguala, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, tend to keep an especially virulent form of disdain for political idealism. They don’t understand it, they don’t speak the same language. At this point, what we can interpret about the “message” of the Ayotzinapa massacre is that three students can be murdered (one of whose corpse was found with the face sliced off and the eyes plucked out) and forty-three forcibly disappeared in the downtown area of a mid-sized Mexican city, without legal consequences for most, if any, of the individuals responsible for the crime.
From priests to young social activists/students, the violence knows no bounds. How do you feel the impassioned protests and heightened attention have affected the war against drugs? 

I think the protests have inspired individual Mexicans to risk taking a stand against the impunity of organized crime in Mexico. The parents of the disappeared students from Aytozinapa have played the most decisive role in that respect. Thousands of Mexican parents have walked the proverbial mile in their shoes, have seen their children disappeared in recent years. But other parents were too afraid of reprisals to demand answers, much less to take matters like the search or investigation into their own hands, the way the parents of the Ayotzinapa students have. They carry a tremendous moral authority in Mexico, both for the pain they have endured and the courage they have displayed in demanding justice. The parents have set an example that others are following, to take a crisis into one’s own hands and to challenge the climate of impunity that prevails in the Mexican justice system.

 

In your article about U.S. visas you talk about informants getting sideways: “Get sideways” is cop slang for breaking the law. It is most commonly applied to informants who want to have the thing both ways. They want the benefits of being an informant and the income from doing something illegal” How often would you say this occurs and how has the U.S. dealt with it? 
In my investigations, it seems as though the agencies of the United States Government charged with combating organized crime invariably seek to identify and enlist the help of insiders –criminals or corrupt public servants– as a way to study the architecture of a given criminal organization. Any DEA agent, in a moment of candor, will admit that confidential informants are the bread-and-butter of any investigation. Much more important, in the grand scheme, than things like electronic surveillance or wiretaps. What I found, in the investigation of mine that you reference in your question, is that the higher up in the chain of command that investigators reach for their informants, the better position the agents are in to influence the outcome of a conflict, like the turf war in Ciudad Juarez. I wrote about a situation where high-level traffickers and enforcers for the Sinaloa Cartel in Chihuahua were provided with visas to enter the United States and provide sensitive information on their enemies in the Juarez Cartel. But all the while these informants continued to work as active members in mid- to high-level management roles within an international crime syndicate that was the largest supplier of cocaine, meth, and heroin to the United States.

What would you say has been your most challenging story (regarding the violence in Mexico) and why? 

 

 

I recently wrapped up a six-month murder investigation in Mexico. I won’t get into specifics until the article comes out. But gaining the trust of sources who do not know anything about you, who have never met a reporter before, much less a reporter from the United States, and where the decision for them to talk can have immediate life or death consequences, is a challenge that can only be overcome with patience and understanding.

Q & A with filmmaker Mark Aitken

Mark Aitken is an award-winning filmmaker whose works include Forest of Crocodiles and Until When You Die. His latest, Dead When I Got Here, focuses on the Visión en Acción asylum in Juárez.  For more information, visit his website

 

It’s the only place I know in Juarez that gives me real hope- Charles Bowden

Photo via Twitter

Photo via Twitter

 

By Virginia Isaad

Ed Vulliamy’s “Amexica, War Along the Border” and the late Charles Bowden’s “Murder City, Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields” inspired you to make this film. What was it about their works that was so inspiring? 

I read Charles Bowden’s, Murder City in 2011. The book is about Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, a city that frequently trumps Mogadishu for being the most violent in the world. Juárez sits in the epicentre of global free trade, just across a line from the US. The most lucrative trade is of drugs and arms, although the clothes we wear, machines we use and people we employ are also traded. The trading causes the line between these two countries to be very porous. But we insist on the line. On one side there is the developed world. We’re told the other side is yet to be developed. On both sides, we insist on this line defining us in relation to them.

There is a character in Murder City called Miss Sinaloa. A diva driven crazy after being gang raped in Juárez by police and dumped in a mental asylum in the desert run by its own patients. The crazy place, where the lunatics are running the asylum.

I want to know more about these people from the city of death who look at each other and ask what they can do to help.

I visited the asylum in the desert. I meet Pastor José Antonio Galván, an evangelical street preacher from Juárez. I don’t share the Pastor’s beliefs but he is one of those believers who works with the problems. He isn’t waiting for a solution that promises to eradicate whatever sets us apart from them. His diagnosis is simple: people are in trauma. The way forward is for them to help each other as best they can. This is a beleaguered promised land populated by outcasts. An asylum from the madness.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this film?

The facts account for an unlikely truth. A city of 1.5 million where eight people are murdered every day with impunity should not herald people of light. Yet here they are – generous, kind, loving, crazy people who allowed me to make a film about them. They set an example for us all.

What was the most challenging aspect?

Presenting these people with the dignity they deserve rather than as pitiful beggars in need of our help.
What was your goal in making this film and what did you do to ensure that you achieved that vision? 

See above in terms of goals. I worked very hard and to shape a complex story and place into something that wasn’t going to scare an audience away or make them feel disgusted. Mental illness, death and Juárez are difficult subjects to broach in a film.

How did you orchestrate the reunion of Josué Rosales with his daughter? What was that experience like for you? 

I was inadvertently the catalyst for their reunion. Josué asked me to look for his daughter in California but she found me and my film online. I then spent 8 months carefully planning the steps to get them together. It was strange to be privy to such a family gathering, especially with a camera but I think the film was a part of their reunion and in some ways, might have made it easier. There are no scripts for absent parents and deprived children.
Considering the poverty and violence that pervade the area, what do you think about the work Pastor Galvan is doing?
I think Pastor Galvan’s work is essential. Those 120 patients would all perish if Galvan was to stop his work. But they are not solely dependent on him. They are dependent on each other. This is the most progressive and special thing about Vision and Action – the asylum.
 What would you want the audience to take away from this film?
Compassion and kindness can be found in the most unlikely places. We need to overcome our fears and delusions of comfort and privilege to fully comprehend what it means to be alive.
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The film was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. To learn more about screening the film contact Mark.
See also: Susana Seijas’ take on the film here

Susana Seijas’ take on the film Dead When I Got Here

Susana Seijas is a London-based journalist, producer and media consultant whose work has appeared on CNN, BBC, PBS NewsHour, Slate, and The Times of London among others. She was previously based in Mexico where she reported on the drug war. To learn more, visit her website. Follow her @susanaseijas1

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Raúl, a teenager with teeth like a shark, bites part of another boy’s ear off.   Milena, a beautiful 21-year-old woman can’t stop sobbing. She was raped after leaving work in one of Juárez’s infamous maquiladoras.  There’s someone wailing in a caged room. Outside, in the sunlit cement patio, a young man flashes a toothless grin while an elderly woman brushes the same floor, over and over again.

Welcome to “Visión en Acción,” a mental asylum in the Juárez desert run by its own patients. Mark Aitken, a London-based filmmaker, spent several weeks living in the asylum – capturing the daily lives of people with varying degrees of mental health disorders. Outside the asylum, the desert scenery is strewn with abandoned tires, discarded plastic bags and homeless dogs rummaging in garbage.

What Aitken saw inside the asylum was “something out of your darkest nightmares,” he says of his time filming people who had at one time or another experienced extreme trauma and violence. Yet what he captures in “Dead When I Got Here” is hope and compassion in the most challenging of circumstances. “I learned that upsetting people with extreme imagery was going to compromise any possibility of empathy” he said.

Josué Rosales, a former heroin addict, was brought to the front gates of the asylum on a stretcher, his fingers black with gangrene and “nearly dead” when he got there. After months of recovery Rosales now manages the asylum with a compassion he never knew he had when he was taking drugs or sleeping rough. The asylum was founded by Pastor José Antonio Galván, a swashbuckling, born-again Christian, who now dedicates his life to picking up people most of us would turn away from.  The asylum runs on about  $10,000 USD per month of fundraising money to feed and house its 100 plus patients.

Apart from revealing the drudgery of maintaining an asylum in the Chihuahua desert, Aitken’s lens exposes the devastating consequences of decades-old government corruption, impunity and neglect – where the poor and destitute fend for themselves, their plight worsened by Juarez’s drug-related violence.

Many of the people who end up at the asylum have experienced the worst of Juárez.  There are women who were gang raped, left for dead and dumped in the desert. Men who fell prey to the narcos pushing drugs in their barrios, became addicts and arrived deranged.

In 2010, when Juárez was the “murder capital of the world,” 10 or more people a day were gunned down. Former President Felipe Calderón’s (2006-20012) military deployment to Juárez spiked violence to levels never seen before anywhere in Mexico.

Towards the end of 2014, the average death tally was about 1.2 per day, according to the Diario de Juárez, as reported by the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office.

Today, the daily death count may be down, but the ravages of impunity, poverty and a sense of hopelessness are unmasked when Aitken films the local police force picking up the body of a patient who died after 17 years in the asylum. Ironically, one of the policemen calls Rosales out for not having the adequate professionalism and experience to run the place, “to leave here is to be a coward,” Rosales responds.

Some of Aitken’s carefully edited footage makes for uncomfortable viewing – it is all asylum all of the time. Thankfully the film is gracefully interspaced with delightful, unexpected sequences, such as the conversation between two women cooking in the asylum’s kitchen. Their chitchat ranges from the look of  “a pretty potato” they happen to be peeling to whether “poor people will fit in hell.”

In the end, “Dead When I Got Here,” is a story of resurrection of Rosales remaking himself. When he first got to the asylum, Rosales says he felt “like a piece of wood” and couldn’t even speak. He needed diapers and had to lay on a bed for months. The pain in his gangrenous fingers was so acute he pleaded with others to pull them off with pliers. They asked him if he was crazy, “yes of course,” Josué recounts later, his humor unscathed: “I’m in an insane asylum!”

Not only is Rosales the film’s hero and guide but, by nothing short of a miracle, Rosales is reunited with his daughter, Vanessa, who he last saw when she was five years old, over 20 years ago.  Aitken films their reunion, adding yet another layer to the film and to Rosales’ character.  Aitken happened to be the catalyst in this father-daughter reunion after he posted information on Rosales’ whereabouts on the Internet.

Rosales emerges as a full man – a man who lost his family only to regain it, a man who had nothing and is now giving his all, every day, to help a handful of the forgotten people of Juárez help each other overcome impossible odds.

Aitken was inspired to film the asylum after reading two books – Ed Vulliamy’s “Amexica,” who wrote a chapter on the asylum entitled “Human Junkyard,” and the late Charles Bowden’s “Murder City, Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.”

Bowden, to whom “Dead When I Got Here” is dedicated to, died just before the film was completed but commented on much of the material. He captured the sentiment of the film best of all:

“What’s going on there is a model. It’s the only place in Juárez that gives me real hope. But it’s a hard hope. It’s not sentimentality. It’s a hard future to face but it’s the best future I know of there. That asylum has done more for those 120 people than any American factory in Juárez has ever done for its workers. Because this asylum has given people who have lost their lives, their lives back. It’s taken human garbage and reconstructed it.”

 

 **Next Week: Q & A with director Mark Aitken

Q & A with Andrew Kennis Part 2

How do you feel about the decriminalization of marijuana and how do you think this will affect Mexico?

Decriminalization of just marijuana, according to drug policy experts, peace activists, victims of drug war violence and even most recently the Global Commission on Drug Policy – which is filled by an array of ex heads of state, many of whom hailing from Latin America where drug war violence and victimization has been at its most intense in the world – is simply not sufficient reform. Portugal has quietly been the drug policy reform example over the course of last decade and running, as leading scholarly research has duly shown. Drug consumption has not risen, and in some ways has actually fallen, since the all-out decriminalization policy was instituted. That’s not insignificant news and something from which many countries, the U.S. and Mexico being the most among them, could and should learn a lot.

Nevertheless, the sweeping nature which characterizes rampant marijuana drug policy reform in the U.S. is definitely a step in the right direction and one that has marijuana reform advocates quite content, as I reported before the mid-term election. At that time, already 26 states had adopted some reform measure or another, decriminalizing, outright legalizing or providing medical provisions for the permitted consumption and cultivation of cannabis. By now, 5 more states can be added to the growing list for a total of 31, with Florida almost becoming the 32nd state to adopt a marijuana reform measure.

It is pretty clear that prohibitionist drug laws are as vulnerable as they have ever been before. At the same time, it is unclear when other drug laws going beyond marijuana will be reformed. Much depends upon the extent that the issue can continue to attract grassroots activism and successful voter referendum initiatives, which overwhelmingly has been the lone means with which marijuana drug reform advocates have been able to realize success. In the meantime, the drug war will most certainly continue, with the most pervasive victimization still falling squarely on the backs of the Mexican people.

In one of our previous interviews one author mentioned that the arrest of a drug kingpin (like El Chapo) really doesn’t change anything since there is always a replacement available to keep the drug trade going. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Just last month, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the drug kingpin of the Juarez cartel was arrested. I was interviewed on a local El Paso newscast and wrote-up a report about the arrest. High-profile arrests like these have been going on for years with indeed, little to no impact being made on the drug trade.

In terms of replacements being available, that’s been a known practice for quite some time now.

Years ago, Mayo Zambada, the still at-large Sinloa cartel kingpin and Vicente’s father, gave a very well-known interview to Proceso’s founding editor, Julio Scherer. [Here is the original Spanish version.] Proceso is Mexico’s most investigative and hard-hitting magazine weekly. In the wake of El Chapo’s arrest, Proceso re-printed the Mayo Zambada interview earlier this year. It was clear as to why it did so: at the end of the interview, Mayo confidently proclaims that any and all cartels are always prepared to fill in any void left behind by their captured or killed kingpins and capos with ready-made replacements. The claim was a bit of an exaggeration, however, as it is well-known that capos being killed or detained sometimes results in power struggles and increased violence.

It is true though that most of the time a new capo steps in and business as usual continues to be conducted. After all, there is no larger drug consumer market in the world than that of the U.S., with 2010 having set all-time records for importation and consumption. Interestingly enough, 2010 was also the height of Calderon’s drug war offensive and also of the turf war for control over the most lucrative drug corridor in the world: that of the El Paso / Ciudad Juarez plaza.

Whether or not the high-profile arrests of drug kingpins as a security strategy has actually made a dent into the drug war on behalf of the officials purportedly fighting it is scarcely in doubt though. In fact, the policy was so criticized, that the Pena Nieto administration pledged to either get rid of it entirely or at the very least to move away from it. The only substantive change that has happened, however, was the decision not to parade around captured drug kingpins after they were arrested, as was the custom during the Calderon administration. It was said that such public displays and spectacles added to the allure and appeal of narco culture, providing a basis for many narco corridos and the like.

However, the high-profile arrest strategy is apparently here to stay. Its origins date back to Calderon having drawn inspiration from U.S. military occupation policies in regard to the Hussein regime. Some readers may remember the use of playing cards to identify Iraqi leaders to U.S. soldiers for capture or kill hunts. That’s where this policy first started. During Pena Nieto’s administration, he has arrested not only El Chapo but other prominent cartel leaders too, such as El Viceroy. Curious to many of us drug war journos, however, was the release of Rafael Caro Quintero in August 2013 because of some legal technicality. The legal decision was reversed within a week of his release after some intense DEA pressure, but the kingpin continues to be at-large and may be filling a power vacuum of sorts in the wake of Chapo’s arrest. At the same time, the Sinaloa cartel has long been run by two capos, not just one, and Mayo Zambada continues to also be at-large. Finally, an anti-Sinaloa cartel alliance is also being organized too. That may result in some increased violence and challenges to plazas or it may simply result in different territorial control without increased violence. When cartels can avoid violence, they do, as it is very costly and dents into their profits.

More than anything else though, extreme drug war violence is generated from the instability of government intervention into the illegal drug trade, as was displayed prominently during the start of the Calderon administration, initialized with a huge offensive into Michoacan. Continued impunity also strongly fuels drug war-related violence, as the Iguala massacre has shown us in harrowing ways.

It is probably hard to imagine to most U.S. citizens that a Mayor and his wife would be so embroiled into narco politics and crime, that they would routinely undertake massacres against their political opponents. But this was apparently the case, as mass graves are showing up all around the town in which the student massacre was recently undertaken, for which the Mayor has been accused of masterminding. But that’s the extent to which impunity reigns in Mexico, with strong fuel being drawn from supportive and provocative U.S. policies, including vital arms supplies and training of the same military officials which are often knee-deep involved with narco politics and crime.

As seen by the widespread solidarity actions and political resistance organized and held last week, however, in Mexico and beyond, and even here on the border (in a very rare display of cross-border organizing and simultaneous protests being held on the same issue), there is most definitely a growing opposition and awareness to the impunity and corruption which characterizes the drug war. In Mexico, the issue has been long known and understood, which is why such an explosive increase of activism and resistance happened so quickly and so decisively over the presumed massacre of 43 students in Ayotzinapa. Other places are starting to catch on too, including even here in the States; hence, the global actions in solidarity with the Mexican struggle against the drug war and narco-state repression.

What is a misconception that you find people tend to have regarding the drug war?

I’d say on a few matters. One is about the very deep and extensive involvement which U.S. policy plays in fueling drug war violence in Mexico. In terms of policy, there is a significant lack of familiarity with decriminalization drug reform, such as that of Portugal.

Perhaps there will be a growing awareness of this, however, in light of the sea change that has happened with marijuana reform policies that we just spoke about.

Then again, it could work either way: marijuana reform could be seen as sufficient and thus stultify further efforts to decriminalize other drugs. “This far, but no further,” could be the damaging logic that comes as a result of marijuana reform. The leading marijuana reform organization steers way clear of taking a position on decriminalizing more drugs, or not, for example. Or, if luck will win it, marijuana reform could lead to further decriminalization policies.

While polls are running strong in terms of citizen support for marijuana reform policies, most activists and policy experts I spoke to didn’t credit a shift in the public consciousness as the leading factor for the policy shift. They credited the ongoing recession as one of the strongest motives to decriminalize marijuana and give states a much needed opportunity to balance their budgets, which have long been struggling against decreased tax revenues as a result of the recession. Will additional reform policies also be fueled by a desire for states to gain more public tax revenues? It’s possible. Only time will tell.

What do you propose as a possible solution for the violence in Mexico?

There is a famous saying that pretty much everyone knows in Mexico: “so close to the United States, but so far away from God.” Mexico needs to distance itself from the U.S. in political, economic and diplomatic terms. It needs to stop fighting the U.S.’s “war.” It needs to stop selling its most prized natural asset to multinationals. It needs to scrap the NAFTA agreement, which has had devastating effects on its agriculture sector, resulting in tons of out-of-work campesinos taking on low-paying jobs in the U.S. or dying in attempts to cross the scorching Arizona desert.

Surprising as it may seem, most Mexicans now eat tortillas with corn grown in the U.S. by subsidized agri-business, often sold at less than the cost of production.

All of these policies are nothing short of tragic. So yes, Mexico needs to focus on its own domestic problems in order to carve out a more effective and independent route toward development. Mexico, in spite of half of its territory being taken by force by the U.S., is still a large and resource-plush country. If it began to use and develop its resources for the needs of its own people, it could go far in terms of poverty reduction and could become a leading force in Latin America and beyond. After all, only Brazil has a larger population and a larger territory than Mexico in Latin America. There’s no reason why Mexico can’t be sporting the kind of tremendous growth rates and poverty reduction seen in Brazil during the course of the last decade. Or even the poverty reduction that has been seen in Venezuela.

However, there is something to be said about understanding the significant political and economic pressure which Mexico is subjected to by the U.S. There are consequences to carving out an independent, Latin American route. Cuba knows this all too well. So does Venezuela. So does even Ecuador and Bolivia, to a certain extent. Even Argentina was recently punished by U.S. courts for litigating independent economic policies which protect its own interests.

Because of all of this, under more ideal circumstances, U.S.-based activists and solidarity movements, such as maybe a revitalized Occupy movement, may succeed in pushing for and realizing more Mexico-friendly policies. Decriminalizing all drugs in the U.S. would go far to help Mexico end the drug war once and for all. Drug addiction could finally be treated as a public health issue, as opposed to a militaristic one, which is ironically the very stance that ex-Mexican Presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo now support and favor. More than just that is needed, however, and in general, more independence from the U.S. would likely in turn serve to lessen the imperialistic pressures to which Mexico has long been and continues to be subjected.

In respect to the drug war, the price has been quite high for agreeing to fight the U.S.’s war: up to 120,000 Mexican civilians were estimated to have been killed during the Calderon administration alone. And with the recent student massacre, it is now clearer than ever that the Pena Nieto administration too is as embroiled as Mexico has ever been with narco-state politics and corruption. Sad, but true, is that even a century later the revolutionary saying “so close to the United States, but so far away from God” remains relevant to contemporary U.S.-Mexico politics.