The Year of Smoke, Ashes and Rebellion

Editor‘s Note:

Frontera NorteSur is generally loathe to join the annual media ritual of regurgitating the year’s stories and classifying them in order of importance. The editor will make no such arbitrary  judgments, but by any measure 2011 was an extraordinary year and some  reflection seems called for at this time. So in the spirit of 2011, here are a few of the editor’s picks. The list is far from exclusive, and  focuses on the US side of the Paso del Norte borderland as well as  New Mexico in general.

1. Climate Change.

Temperatures plummeted and the land froze up like an Artic blade of grass. Hardy cacti shriveled up, natural gas supplies mysteriously dwindled and residents of north-central New Mexico got a taste of what it is like to live in Ciudad Juarez, where dwellings have no built-in heating systems.  Deprived of heat,  while the Gas Company of  New Mexico attempted to explain a sudden energy,  people endured days of bitter cold. The Great Freeze of 2011 was followed by epic winds and dust storms, an unforgiving heat and the smoke of forest fires that shrouded Albuquerque in ashes and haze. The birthplace of the atomic bomb,  Los Alamos was evacuated for the second time in 11 years, while nearby the sacred land of the Santa Clara indigenous people was scorched.

Drought scratched deeper into a dusty land,  Rio Grande water for farming grew scarce and growers resorted to pumping not-so-easily rechargeable groundwater. The mighty river of legend and lore resembled a sickly puddle clinging to life. Mountain lions, bears, skunks and other critters descended on the streets in the Land of Enchantment and El Paso.

The freaky weather dovetailed with predictions of climate scientists and other scholars who have been warning of drastic transformations due to the human-induced release of greenhouse gases. Quoted at an Albuquerque seminar sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society,  University of New Mexico  Professor David Gutzler said average temperatures in New Mexico were now warmer than at any time in the past century, and could lead to reduced snow pack,  agricultural shrinkage and desertification. Even though most world governments have long recognized the necessity of drastically curbing greenhouse gas emissions, global carbon emissions actually increased  5.9 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to the Global Carbon Project.

2. The Real Job Killers

Positive reports of decreases in  unemployment in both New Mexico and El Paso notwithstanding, legions of people continued without work at the end of 2011.

According to media accounts, Albuquerque hemorrhaged 6,300 jobs from April 2010 to April 2011, while Las Cruces shed another 1,100 in the same time period. Despite the  ballyhooed expansion of Fort Bliss and an injection of business capital from Ciudad Juarez, 31,000 El Pasoans, or 9.8 percent of the local workforce, were counted as unemployed in November 2011.

Two aspects of the job crisis got little media attention. First, the constriction of government employment certainly  had a disproportional impact in a state like New Mexico where between 20 and 25 percent of the labor force works for a government agency. In 2011 alone, an estimated 3,700 government jobs were lost in the state.

The evaporation of stable, relatively well-paid jobs from this sector surely had impacts in others, ranging from real estate and auto sales to the restaurant and leisure industry and on down the chain.

Decades of bipartisan strategies to diversify the economy through tax breaks, hiring incentives and other perks to wealthy New Mexicans and a parade of out-of-state corporations did little to forestall or alleviate the jobs crunch.

Second, the steady automation of work pealed away opportunities that once existed for unskilled and young workers. From the modernization of garbage trucks to the replacement of  “customer service“ representatives with talking machines, tasks performed by humans are now done by machines. If anything distinguishes contemporary capitalists, it is their drive for labor-saving devices.

According to the maquiladora trade industry journal Juarez-El Paso Now, Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics contractor and whose huge factory serves as the nexus for the development of San Geronimo-Santa Teresa on the Chihuahua-New Mexico border, plans to increase its robotic, assembly-line “personnel” from 10,000 machines to one million during the next three years.

By the same token, the food giant Kraft is reportedly on the verge of installing in-store machines that dispense free product samples in return for a scan from a  customers’ smartphone. In one fell swoop, the company would eliminate or reduce the need for television advertisers, commercial video producers and even the friendly, smiling faces that long greeted shoppers with free samples of cheese and bologna on a Saturday morning.

Since futuristic investments have less and less use for expendable humans, will the 21st  century captains of industry figure out a way to make robots the new consuming class for their products?

3. The Law Enforcement/Human  Rights Crisis

Self-righteously, US government officials and media commentators sometimes berate Mexico and other countries for police corruption and human rights violations. But a quick  scan of the New Mexican press this year revealed plenty of abuses and even crimes committed by persons sworn to uphold the law. In a high profile case, the police chief of the border town of Columbus pleaded guilty  to federal charges related to Mexico arms trafficking.

In Valencia County, a former Albuquerque Police Department (APD) officer faced trial for the murder of his wife in an alleged cover-up that could involve another cross-border criminal enterprise. Throw in Mexico’s end-of-the-year arrest of  reputed El Pasoan Arturo “Thousand Loves” Bautista, accused of leading the La Linea criminal organization in Ciudad Juarez,  and the question of the origin and ultimate victim of so-called, border spill-over violence gets flipped on its head.

On a weekly and sometimes even daily basis, the APD made the news for scandals involving individual officers, controversial shootings and lawsuits that drained the public treasury in a supposed time of austerity.

The shootings of 20 mostly Latino men by APD officers between January 2010 and August 2011 prompted public demonstrations, community forums and city council protests by relatives of the slain men and community organizations. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and APD Chief Ray Schultz countered that they were taking measures to address any possible problems but family members pressed for a Department of Justice civil rights investigation, which may or may not happen in 2012.

As the year crawled to and end, a Corrections Corporation of America jail guard was arrested while smoking heroin with a friend on a Duke City street. Another controversial police shooting, this time in Las Cruces, made headlines. Five Metropolitan Detention Center (Albuquerque-Bernalillo County) were  slapped with charges stemming from an incident that amounted to the alleged torture of a prisoner. The Associated Press reported  a backlog of 115 New Mexico officers facing possible sanctions including license revocations from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy.

Does New Mexico need international human rights monitors?

4. King Heroin

Generations of New Mexicans have surrendered to the seductions of King Heroin. While the drug has been a scourge for decades, new spikes in heroin and opioid usage claimed the lives of more young people .

A New Mexico politician, Jerome Block  Jr., scandalized one face of the crisis. Elected to the Public Regulation Commission (PRC), Block was hooked on an opioid and used his position to improperly run up a state-issued credit card. Later, allegations surfaced of wider drug abuse occurring within the ranks of the PRC staff. At a time when struggling New Mexicans were hit with soaring utility bills, the shenanigans raised questions about a  agency entrusted with regulating utility and other vital services.

Based in New Mexico’s largest city and organized by parents of young overdose victims,  the Heroin Awareness Committee held public forums and lobbied elected officials to support prevention and rehabilitation efforts. Shamefully, no affordable residential treatment center is open for young New Mexicans trying to get the monkey off their back.

5. Immigrant Driver’s Licenses

Initially rebuffed in her attempt to repeal driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants residing in New Mexico, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez tried again during a special legislative session to get lawmakers to toss out a 2003 law that permits such licensing.   And once again, the new governor was turned down. On the same issue, the Martinez administration  suffered a court defeat when a judge ordered the suspension of a  residency  verification program ordering mandatory appointments in a state office for presumed holders of the licenses in question.

The driver’s license battle was New Mexico’s version of immigration battles that erupted at the state level across the United States in 2011. In New Mexico, pro-immigrant groups like Somos un Pueblo Unido rallied support from church leaders, elected representatives, labor unions and community groups in a grassroots movement to oppose the license repeal. They contended that allowing undocumented persons the ability to obtain driver’s  licenses was good for the overall public safety since it provided some form of documentation to a population living in the shadows and encouraged drivers to take out auto insurance.

The Martinez administration disagreed, insisting that the overwhelming majority of New Mexicans supported the governor’s stance. But a recent poll showed support for a compromise solution earlier backed by the New Mexico Senate, which proposed tighter restrictions for obtaining driver’s licenses while still permitting their issuance to otherwise undocumented persons. It’s a safe bet the issue will resurface in the 2012 New Mexico State Legislature, even though lawmakers have a doodle of other concerns in a short session.

The drivers’ license controversy sparked polemics over the role of Mexican immigrants in the state, the meaning of public safety and the historic relationship of institutions of faith to migrants. More than a few racist rantings crackled on the Internet. Ironically, the issue became a  personal one for Governor Martinez, when media stories focused on the immigration status of  her Mexican grandfather.

6. (Un) Occupy the Camino Real

Last but not least,  New Mexico and El Paso witnessed the emergence of  protests inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The protests slammed burgeoning income inequality, rampant joblessness, money in politics, environmental destruction, and spiraling military spending.

In addition to the bigger cities and towns of the region, protests were reported in smaller communities like Deming and Los Lunas. The larger protest encampments in Albuquerque and El Paso were forcibly or voluntarily dismantled as the fall wore on, but activists dug in  on different fronts. Similar to Mexico’s El Barzon movement of the 1990s, a growing current of  Occupy activists in the Southwest and elsewhere are organizing against  home foreclosures.

In a larger context, Occupy, or Unoccupy as one group is called in Albuquerque out of respect for Native Americans who involuntarily watched their own land occupied, was the domestic manifestation of citizen uprisings against the economic and political status quo. Stewing  in Puerto Rico, Chile and Greece, the world revolt boiled over in the Arab Spring. It then sizzled in Madison, Wisconsin,  rose up in Spain,  erupted across the United States and then riveted Russia.

Although history is still being written, the Occupy movement’s slogan “We are the 99 percent” shifted the terms of political debate in the United States as the 2012 elections loomed.  Contrary to early media speculations, (Un)Occupy is not going away soon.

New Mexico activists  plan a mobilization in the state capital of Santa Fe next month, when state lawmakers convene for their next session. And as 2012 fast approaches, Occupy El Paso and Occupy Las Cruces plan a January 1 action at the Paso del Norte (Santa Fe) Bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez to protest the anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“After 18 years of Free trade between the United States and Mexico, we have massive unemployment and underemployment, and poverty and human suffering in both countries. Corporations benefit while the 99 percent suffer..,” the protest organizers said in a statement. According to the activists, “Cross-border trade can be fair and just, but not under the NAFTA system. We need a new North American treaty focused on human development.”

Will 2012 bring the North American Spring?

-Kent Paterson


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