Is it safe to travel to the Mexican border?

In its 10th year, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera is taking another delegation to MEXICO, Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, May 20-22, 2011 to meet maquiladora workers who share their stories about life under NAFTA.   Coordinator Judy Rosenberg has this to say about the question of safety:


Safety and Danger at the US-Mexico Border:
How can we really know what’s going on?
By Judith Rosenberg, December 2010

I’ve lived in Austin almost 13 years and still have many friends in my
hometown of New York who know I regularly visit Mexico at the border.
Lately when the subject comes up, they ask nervously: “Isn’t it dangerous?”
They seem to be wondering if I have become reckless or foolish. For my
part, I realize how daily media coverage of ‘death stalking the Rio Grande’
has scared news consumers everywhere and promoted assumptions that the
violence is viral, targeting everyone equally and even leaping out of Mexico.
From my perspective, the public has a real dilemma to get solid information
and accurate assessment of a great range of situations that exist in Mexico.
What can I say to my friends? Lamely I answer, “it’s complicated” and “I
could give you a better answer if you have the time.”
Though fear has escalated in the last few years, the “Mexico murder rate” is
actually down. A well-documented report issued by the Mexico Solidarity
Network on August 8, 2010, publishes the facts, for those who care to know
“[L]ong before the current narco-battles for turf captured national and
international headlines… the national murder rate in Mexico hovered around
20 per 100,000 residents.” “In 2009, the most recent year for which statistics
are available, the rate was 14.”
By contrast murder rates in many US cities are higher than in Mexico, for
example Washington (31.4), Baltimore (36) and Kansas City (25.5). It is true
however that the generally low average in Mexico is pushed up by three
border states, led by Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juarez is located, (74),
followed by Durango (60) and Sinaloa (47). I have not visited any of those
border states recently. Neither has Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, the
organization that I travel with. I do go to Mexico City. It is one of the
biggest cities in the world and, surprisingly, also one of the safest, 8 on the
scale of murders per 100,000. Another source reveals that El Paso is one of
the safest cities in the United States despite its proximity to Ciudad Juarez,
thus helping to skewer the media idea of “spill over violence.”
More important than citing statistics, the MSN report challenges readers to
dig deeper and question the media focus on violence. MSN editors warn,
“Uninformed, racist images… are permeating the consciousness of US
cities, largely because of the dramatic decontextualized media coverage of
Mexico. We are concerned that these images are impacting the current
debates around immigration reform, making overt racism acceptable in
places like Arizona.” When it comes to legislation, could Texas be far
Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera has an urgent concern too. Lurid news
stories lead the public to automatically and immediately associate violence
with the border, ignoring what is, in the long term, a more important threat
to social order— the injustice which unfortunately is historic, but which we
have watched accumulate fast at the border since the start of NAFTA. After
12 years of visiting maquiladora workers and their communities, we witness
how “free” trade impoverishes workers and migrants from the south and
how foreign-owned factories, known as maquiladoras, prosper frequently
depending on their ability to break laws and violate workers’ rights
mandated by the Mexican Federal Labor Law. On a material, cultural and
spiritual level, the maquiladora system is wasting border communities, great
terrain for the cartels. However, we also witness a grassroots social justice
movement that carries on, nimbly changes strategies with new economic
upheavals and scores important short- and long-term victories. All of this is
invisible to the press and public mesmerized by “war.”
To continue the discussion with my New York friends, my next answer to
their anxious question would be another question: who do the drug cartels,
the lawlessness, and the spiral of violence endanger? A recent Salvadoran
immigrant now living in Austin had a lot to say on the subject. Arturo’s
path led him through Piedras Negras, one of the cities that Austin Tan Cerca
visits frequently (in the state of Coahuila and not on the danger list). He
spoke graphically about how drug cartels work closely with human
traffickers getting immigrants across the border. Together they target
migrants, kidnap, torture, blackmail and extort them. It’s a business, there’s
money in it and not much risk, because they target the vulnerable with
precision. According to Arturo, they see everything in the street and even in
church-sponsored migrant shelters. They do not target visitors from the US
since, in their professional calculation, we are not among the powerless.
Meanwhile, in Austin, staff at immigrant shelter Casa Marienella hears the
stories and corroborates the systematic violence against migrants, especially
women. “No woman crosses the border without being ‘abused.’”
We all know that innocent bystanders can get caught in the crossfire. When
I taught adult education in Brooklyn in the 1980s, one morning the whole
class heard gunfire in the street and later learned that Mr. Daly, a devoted
elementary school principle, had been shot and killed as bullets flew
between youth gangs. That was during a period of high unemployment and
high drug activity in the Red Hook section, a dangerous area of public
housing that urban development policy created. I think I see some analogies
with the US-Mexico border today.
Perhaps we’ve been lucky but in 12 years of quarterly travel to the border,
Austin Tan Cerca has never experienced a violent incident or even a threat.
We have an advantage; we can monitor and assess conditions carefully
through the local and knowledgeable community members, the Comité
Fronterizo de Obreras/os, our Mexican partners in solidarity. They advise us
how to exercise caution. We know that they would tell us not to come if we
faced risks. We also know that we have privileges that protect us—of color,
citizenship, relative wealth and political connections. We do not want to
ignore the reality and the tragedy that is befalling Mexico, especially the
Julia Quiñonez, the Comité’s national coordinator, wrote in April, 2009:
“For many years, Piedras Negras has characterized itself as a safe and
peaceful city, in addition to being one of the cleanest in Mexico. Piedras
Negras and Ciudad Acuña have made considerable efforts to keep their good
reputations as a result of the demands of organized citizens. These
communities are able to organize themselves to bring changes to
improve working conditions, and they are also able to demand
accountability from their local governments.”
More recently Quiñones writes: We are confident that when you visit you
will be safe… [Y]ou will always be accompanied by people that we trust and
you will visit places where poverty is the main concern rather than
drugs or weapons. I hope that these are considerations that may assure
your families.
In solidarity, Julia Quiñonez
See the full Mexico Solidarity Network article:
Also see “A Different Kind of War: How do journalists convey just how
seriously upside down things have become?” Texas Observer reporter
Melissa del Bosque grapples with the difficulties of border news reporting:
Judith Rosenberg, PhD, is Board President of Austin Tan Cerca de la
Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border), an educational non-profit,
formerly a project of the American Friends Service Committee, that since
1999 has taken solidarity delegations to Mexico at the border four times a
year so that people from the US can see for themselves the conditions of life
and work in the maquiladoras and the impact of “free” trade and other global
forces. Delegations are hosted in Mexico by the Comité Fronterizo de
Obreras/os (the Border Committee of Working Women and Men), a
Mexican civil association dedicated to human and labor rights at the border,
with an additional focus on women’s rights and a commitment to democratic


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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