Exclusive: How El Paso became a natural target for a brutal act of white supremacist terror

Exclusive: How El Paso became a natural target for a brutal act of white supremacist terror
El Paso, Texas / USA - Circa August 2019 Flowers, posters, toys and other memorabilia left by an shocked supporters of the victims of the Walmart shooting on 3 August 2019.

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(El Paso, Ciudad Juarez and Mexico City): Marisela Ortiz is no stranger to violence. An El Paso resident who resettled in the border city after successfully petitioning for asylum in 2012, Ortiz’s harrowing description of the death threats she and her family received, as well as the conditions of Ciudad Juarez during its worst spasms of violence, is the kind of story that you might hear from many residents of this sprawling Texas border town.

“The situation was so horrible in Juarez that you’d see the dead corpses of men hung on bridges. When you were in a movie theater, you’d still hear the shootouts and later realize that three or four or more people were killed during them,” Ortiz told AlterNet.

Ortiz was granted asylum because of constant threats resulting from her activism against systematic violence against women in Juarez. She joined a wave of cross-border migration in 2011.

“Both factors counted a lot, the threats related to my activism as well as the security situation in general in Juarez, which was truly horrible,” Ortiz explained. One of those threats had been made at gunpoint.

The “security situation” in Juarez during that time was a turf war that peaked in violence between 2009 and 2011. Warring factions in La Linea cartel and the Chapo Guzman-led Sinaloa cartel, competing for control over the world’s most valuable and important “plaza,” left over 3,000 people dead in Juarez in 2010. No less than a quarter of a million Juarenses fled the city during that time, a sixth of the total population, and many of them, like Ortiz, sought refuge from the bloodshed in El Paso.

“Many people abandoned their houses. Even some whole blocks were emptied out because people left out of fear,” Ortiz told AlterNet.

A few weeks ago, a fair chunk of El Paso’s population was forced to revisit the violence it had fled when a resident of an uppity Dallas suburb, long known as a hotbed for racism and xenophobia, allegedly used an assault rifle to kill 22 people and injure dozens more, several of whom still remain in critical condition.

Many mainstream media depictions of El Paso in the wake of its worst massacre have been incomplete and left out an important reality that defines the border city: while its remote desert location has long served as a refuge of sorts, it has also been plagued by troubling and painful local realities wrought upon it by powerful external forces. At least in this sense then, the mass shooting and the media circus and politicization of the tragedy which followed, were part of a long line of abuses wrought upon El Paso by malign outsiders.

It had been over a century since a racially motivated massacre had taken place in these parts. The mass shooting itself was traumatic not only because of the number of innocent lives it took, but also because of its clear racial motive. The many striking parallels between the alleged shooter’s manifesto and the increasingly fiery rhetoric emanating from the White House in the weeks leading up to the massacre chilled many residents of this desert city.

El Paso has since been the focus of media attention in ways it never previously experienced. And most El Pasoans would readily agree with some of the descriptions of their city that have surfaced since the terror attack.

“A friendly, bi-lingual border community that consistently ranks as one of America’s safest cities,” the New York Times reported. The Times also described the scene of the crime itself as a “United Nations,” where one of the busiest Wal-Marts in the country joined two worlds together. Juarenses from one side of the border would join El Paso shoppers who often hailed originally from Juarez or are first, second or third-generation immigrants from Mexico.

“We liked a lot to go shopping in El Paso and we would stay a weekend in a hotel with a pool, to avoid a lot of time in Juarez because of the threats,” Ortiz told AlterNet.

In the wake of the massacre, politicians and pundits debated the causes of the mass shooting. They named culprits as disparate as video games, mental illness and racism. Most notable was the impassioned “connect the dots” rebuke of Trump’s own rhetoric by former local representative and current Presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke, which made the rounds on the internet.

It is far from the first time the city has been in the center of an issue playing out across the country. “El Paso has become the laboratory for what we increasingly see in general as taking place in the U.S.,” Carlos Marentes, the director of the Agricultural Border Worker’s Center, told AlterNet.

El Paso’s military base, among the largest in the world, is being utilized as a staging area for concentration camps and family separation practices.

The city has also witnessed an unprecedented increase in Border Patrol agents and a wave of abuses against citizens of both Mexico and the U.S., including a number of cross-border killings by trigger-happy but inexperienced agents. The city’s banks are used as a major launching point for international money laundering and its borders, both with Juarez and New Mexico, are the nexus of an ongoing political battle over whether Trump’s main campaign promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” will ever become a reality.

A privately built stretch of wall has already been constructed, expanded and commemorated via mostly outside support. Not long before the mass shootout, a white nationalist group, led and founded by an outsider, was openly organizing in the city.

During his State of the Union address last February, Donald Trump credited the Bush border fence as having lowered “extremely high rates of violent crimes” in El Paso. He falsely claimed that it had previously been “one of our nation’s most dangerous cities.”

A Refuge from Violence and Poverty

El Paso is a historic city which sometimes feels like a scene from an old western movie. It has long been a destination for migrants and refugees. That’s historically been a complicated matter for El Paso, in spite of (or perhaps, as a result of) it being a mere stone’s throw away from the border with Mexico.

Until the early 1990’s, Border Patrol agents were often known to harass undocumented immigrants in a well-trafficked plaza located in the city’s historic downtown area. Matters have changed significantly since that time thanks to three key developments.

First, a mid-1990’s Border Patrol chief filled the border with agents every few hundred feet or so to prevent undocumented crossings. Then the xenophobic politics which followed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks reshaped the border region. As stricter-than-ever immigration rules came into play, duly enforced by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), the days when Juarez residents could cross over with relative ease into El Paso without a visa came to an abrupt end.

And then, early on in his presidency, former Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched what would be a bloody drug war offensive which would catch Juarez up in a storm of violence.

More than 10,000 people were killed in Juarez during Calderon’s offensive in an area which, as a vital point-of-entry for drug shipments to pass smoothly into the most lucrative national drug consumption market in the world, had already long been victimized by cartel turf wars.

Many members of Juarez’s elite were in on the act too; in one incident, the former Juarez municipal chief of police, Saul Reyes Gamboa, was arrested in El Paso in 2008 for attempting to bribe a U.S. Customs officer to help him smuggle trucks full of marijuana over the border. The DEA alleged that Reyes was an accomplice to the Juarez cartel. Similar and more recent incidents continue to occur.

Meanwhile, while Juarez quickly became the world’s most dangerous city, El Paso became the country’s safest city and its population, and economy, boomed.

El Pasoans became terrified of Juarez. Many of those who once hailed from there themselves vowed never to return.

Mostly middle-class and upwardly mobile people formed the nucleus of the mass exodus that left Juarez in the shambles of a sweatshop-driven economy significantly burdened by the drug war. Local business owners, formerly residing in Juarez, resettled in El Paso and brought with them many of Juarez’s most popular restaurants and stores. El Paso underwent a mini-boom.

“Zero-Tolerance”

El Paso was first thrust into the center of the Trump’s war on migrants when the regime enacted an official policy known as “zero tolerance” in June, 2018.

Taking cues from a web site known for spreading conspiracy theories about the Parkland school shootings, Trump Tweeted in April 2018 that “more dangerous” Caravans” were coming. “Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws,” he tweeted. Shortly thereafter, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled the “zero-tolerance” policy, leading to an explosion of family separations with some 2,342 children being sent alone to detention centers. (It should be noted that the separations started under the Obama administration in late 2016. Data released by the Department for Homeland Security revealed that more than a thousand children had been taken from parents and guardians between October 2016 and September 2017.)

In a city with a large undocumented population, the reaction to these anti-immigrant policies was initially muted in El Paso because many El Pasoans feared retribution for speaking out. But Marantes told AlterNet that beneath the surface “general anguish” grew throughout the city as the practices slowly, but surely, became more widely well-known.

Public outrage peaked shortly thereafter in June 2018, when coverage of the “zero-tolerance” and family separation policy finally began to enter into the general public’s consciousness, . Photos of mothers in tears and separated children at the border were shared widely on the internet and covered by the news media. Local reporters began to describe concentration camp-like conditions in Trump’s overflowing detention centers, with sick children dying from curable diseases and horrifying scenes of families packed like sardines into razor-wire fencing.

Eventually, all four living former first ladies, as well as current first lady Melania Trump, expressed their opposition to the separations. By June 20, 2018, Trump released an executive order that effectively rescinded the policy. But since then, in what has been arguably the most significant reversal of Trump’s presidency, at least 900 children have been separated from their families since then for violations as minor as a traffic citation.

But the “crisis” Trump has used to justify these abuses—what he calls an “invasion”— is a fabricated one according to immigration activists and experts.

In the year 2000, after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had been in effect for five years, 1.6 million refugees came to the U.S. seeking asylum, more than six times as many as applied last year.

As if concentration camps weren’t enough of a burden on El Paso residents, white nationalism arrived just months before the Wal-Mart massacre. 

White Nationalism Arrives

The United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) arrived to El Paso in February 2019, initially claiming that they had come to “observe” migrant crossings and alert the Border Patrol accordingly. The ACLU of New Mexico found out differently, however.  After watching videos the group uploaded, which included members of the group detaining migrants at gunpoint, the ACLU described the group as “an armed fascist militia organization” composed of “vigilantes” who attempted to “kidnap and detain people seeking asylum.”

In one such incident, video depicts the UCP chasing a horrified migrant woman carrying a suitcase who fell down a hill and stumbled onto a pile of bricks.

As word got around of UCP’s disturbing videos, the vigilante group ran into legal problems. Its “commander” was jailed on weapons and hate speech charges, which resulted in Paypal and similar services shutting down its online donation accounts. A railroad company, which reportedly hadn't known that the group’s camp was located on its property, promptly evicted them.

After its commander was arrested, the UCP’s founder, Jim Benvie, was charged with falsely impersonating a Border Patrol agent. While a judge has since released Benvie from custody, the conditions of his release include banning him from within 10 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

By this time, the UCP renamed itself the “Guardian Patriots.” The newly renamed group has since toned down their activities and now tends to live-stream images of migrants who have already been apprehended by the Border Patrol, according to a locally reported in-depth profile piece. Nevertheless, several El Paso residents are reportedly still active members of the group, including a prominent one known as “Conservative Anthony,” who posts his own Guardian Patriot videos.

The videos depict “Conservative Anthony” closely following asylum-seekers, staking them out at hotels and shelters and at the El Paso downtown Greyhound bus station where migrants often congregate.

“Let the Dog Die”

A slender 15-year-old boy named Sergio Adrián Hernández Güereca, who loved soccer and aspired to be a police officer, was fatally shot through his left eye on June 6, 2010. The boy was a native of Ciudad Juarez. His killer? A Border Patrol agent who had been based in El Paso.

The Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) was responsible for at least a half-dozen cross-border killings during a bloody four-year span between 2010 and 2012. The victims were all Mexican nationals on Mexican soil, all were unarmed and according to background checks, only one of them even had a criminal record. Some of the agents who had pulled those triggers were inexperienced; others had been dismissed from previous law enforcement jobs. 

 In one of the killings, Juan Pablo Santillan’s brother took cover beside him as he lay wounded after being shot. When he asked the Border Patrol agent training a rifle at him for medical assistance, he reportedly heard the agent yell back, “Let the Dog die.”

Over the past 15 years, an unprecedented hiring drive has led the government to lower recruiting standards and rush agents through training, and activists say this is the root of a range of abuses by CPB agents.

An emotional seesaw ride of victories and setbacks has long characterized legal efforts to hold CPB accountable by families of the victims. their primary objective is to gain the right to sue border agents when they kill Mexicans on their own soil in cross-border shootings.

Araceli Rodriguez Salazar, the mother of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, an unarmed 16-year-old who was shot 10 times by an agent in Nogales, said of her family’s difficult pursuit of some accountability from CBP, “Maybe, just maybe because of the death of my son, all of this mess will change. I don't want any other parents to suffer in the manner in which I have.”

Bigger than Trump

For all of Trump’s rhetoric about El Paso and the rest of the border region being “invaded” by destitute refugees, El Paso serves as a blood bank of sorts for the drug war, which it helps fuel by laundering massive amounts of dirty money.

Professor Howard Campbell, the head of the Sociology and Anthropology department at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), told AlterNet that, “there's no question that El Paso is one of the most important money laundering hubs in the world.”

Campbell, who has lived in El Paso for several decades and has written several books on the drug underworld, explained that, “Corruption, drug trafficking, and money laundering is considered normal activity here and people don't even pass moral judgments here because it is so interwoven into El Paso's economy and society.”

Just how interwoven?

According to UTEP Associate Professor and native El Pasoan Richard Pineda, “the worst kept secret in town is that El Paso practically leads the country in total banking cash deposits, and only trails New York City” in that measure. That’s a notable aberration given El Paso's relatively modest metro population, which ranks 68th in the country.

As El Paso-based economist Carlos Aguilar told the El Paso Times, the city's lone daily English-language paper, money laundering cases, while numerous, are often hard to prove. And money laundering is so important to El Paso’s economy that to a large degree, authorities tend to turn a blind eye to it. “I reported an instance of money laundering once,” Aguilar told the paper, “but the authorities were not interested because they said the amount of money possibly involved was too small,” Aguilar said.

Professor Eduardo Barerra of the University of Texas at El Paso and a resident since 1990 explained to AlterNet, “El Paso has always been the target of many, many forces – not only recent federal policies but also trans-national and domestic capital. Outside forces have always targeted El Paso and have long had their own agenda with the city.”

Whether or not Trump pulls off another Electoral College victory next year, El Paso’s role as a money-laundering hub, magnet for white nationalists and testing ground for anti-immigrant initiatives is unlikely to change anytime soon.

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