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The Ciudad Juarez Declaration And The New Wave Of Border Activism

by Kent Paterson

Nearly one thousand people gathered in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Oct. 12-15, 2006 at the first ever Border Social Forum (BSF). Modeled after the massive World Social Forum that draws tens of thousands of people every year, the Ciudad Juarez gathering featured dozens of workshops, a border “reality tour” and street demonstrations against the Bush administration's planned series of new border walls and the North American Free Trade Agreement. At the conclusion of the BSF, delegates from U.S. and Mexican non-governmental organizations issued a 23-point declaration that calls for sweeping changes in immigration, human rights, labor, economic, and environmental policies on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Packing into a van along with other New Mexico youths, Rodrigo Rodriguez and his friends headed south to Ciudad Juarez one brisk day this past fall with a serious purpose in mind: finding common ground with other young people from throughout the borderlands on immigration and other issues that affect their communities.

“The forum itself is just an awesome spot for people to come together from all over the place to network and work together to figure out ways, develop ways, to work together and further their causes," said Rodriguez, a youth intern with the Albuquerque-based Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). Dedicated to the empowerment of low-income populations and people of color, Rodriguez's group played a leading roll in New Mexico in organizing last spring's pro-immigrant protests.

Like other social forums, the Ciudad Juarez forum aimed to bring together a broad spectrum of people working in social movements to discuss, debate, and ultimately formulate an alternative political agenda under the slogan “Another World Is Possible.”

Not an organization per se, or even an attempt to form yet another coalition, the BSF showcased the struggles of dozens of NGOs in the borderlands and beyond. While many of the attendees had youthful faces, their movements mark time struggling for racial, social, and economic justice in the region. Veteran BSF organizers cut their teeth in previous cross-border mobilizations that fought NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, battled the proposed Sierra Blanca nuclear dump, and struggled for a halt to the femicides that became public in Ciudad Juarez in 1993.

Ruben Solis, co-director of the San Antonio-based Center for Justice, and leading BSF organizer, considered the BSF as representing a new stage in cross-border movements that picked up steam during the 1990s. “It's creating a new wave, but it recuperates and brings together all that's happened before in a phase of new development,” Solis said.

A key goal of the Border Social Forum was to merge often “competing” agendas of non-governmental organizations into a mutual solidarity front , according to Solis.

Among the numerous U.S. and Mexican groups participating in the Ciudad Juarez forum were the Southwest Public Workers Union, Center for Justice, Bracero Project, Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, Pastoral Obrera, Labor Studies and Action Workshop, Center for Research and Worker Solidarity, Grassroots Global Justice, Just Transition Alliance, Mexico Solidarity Network, and Justice for Our Daughters.

Signaling a new burst of activism, the BSF figured high in several significant movement initiatives that visited the Mexico-U.S. border during 2006. Other examples included the Indigenous Summit of the Americas held just days before the BSF, the growing transnational movement against the toxic dump at La Choya proposed for the Sonora desert on sacred Tohono O'odham lands, and the Zapatistas' Other Campaign that toured the northern Mexican border states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas.

In all the resurgent movements, mass actions including highway protests and international bridge blockades were prominent features. Organizing two partial closures of the Santa Fe Bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas, to protest of the Bush Administration's “Wall of Death,” the BSF was no exception. Cross-fertilization of the movements is evident in many aspects, reflected, for example, in across-the-board demands for immigrant rights, Native American sovereignty, and environmental justice.

Transcending regionalism, the BSF connected the struggles of African-American Hurricane Katrina victims to flood victims in northern Mexico, criticized border walls in both the United States and Israel/Palestine, called for the freedom of five Cuban prisoners held by the United States in maximum security prisons, and expressed support for the democratic struggle in Oaxaca waged by the Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO).

Organized in the months following last spring's huge pro-immigrant rallies supported by millions of people in the United States, the BSF likewise came on the heels of a backlash by conservative forces that witnessed the U.S. Congress approving a 700-mile series of new border walls, as well as the passage of local ordinances in municipalities from California to Pennsylvania that seek to deny undocumented workers housing and other services. At the same time, a number of U.S. state and local governments are enlisting state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws.

Ciudad Juárez: Laboratory of the Future?

Moreover, the BSF was held at a time of increasing polarization, violence and environmental contamination in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands. Once dubbed the “Laboratory of Our Future” by author Charles Bowden, Ciudad Juarez was an appropriate place to convene the BSF. Marked by great contrasts of wealth and deprivation, the city was slammed with widespread flooding in the weeks prior to the forum and many poor neighborhoods were washed out. Since the 1990s, wages in the hundreds of foreign-owned maquiladora plants have decreased, narco-violence has gone unabated, and scores of sex-related serial killings have remained unpunished. First noticed in Ciudad Juarez, the femicides have since spread to other parts of Chihuahua state and different states of Mexico.

Adriana Carmona, a lawyer for the Chihuahua City-based Justice for Our Daughters and the Women's Human Rights Center, said national and international protests have forced the Mexican state to take new reports of disappearances of young women seriously, and also begin addressing some cases of domestic violence, but that impunity reigns in femicides suspected to be committed by members of organized crime. “We still don't have a systematic, permanent campaign in Ciudad Juarez directed against violence towards women,” Carmona said.

Prior to the passage of NAFTA in 1993, the U.S. and Mexican governments pledged to begin cleaning up the border environment and improving substandard infrastructure. Labor and environmental side agreements attached to the trinational pact were supposed to protect the environment and workers' rights.

Almost 15 years later, backsliding is everywhere. Schemes for new toxic dumps, leftover contamination from old industrial sites, and air pollution from overly-congested border crossings are just a few of the negative border realities today.

“We don't believe the environment is getting better,” stated San Diego-Tijuana activist José Bravo, the executive director of the Just Transition Alliance. Bravo criticized both the U.S. and Mexican governments for not prioritizing environmental justice and not putting adequate resources into environmental protection.

As for labor rights, Bravo pointed out that corporations simply threaten to move to Asia if the costs of doing business on the border are perceived as too expensive. “Maquilas will move around the world to see which country will offer the best deal,” he said. Bravo's group provides an excellent example of binational agenda-building, working with five different networks of people of color and environmental justice in the United States, as well as with the United Steel Workers Union.

Challenges for Cross-border Movements

The immigration reform policy debate has been recast by the mass media and U.S. government circles from a human rights issue to a “border security” problem.

While the Nov. 7 Democratic Congressional victory and budget shortfalls jeopardize Bush administration plans for new border walls, elite trade-offs on the border security issue are in the works that involve exchanging border walls for a virtual border of high-tech military surveillance , strict travel controls and the massive deployment of Border Patrol and National Guard troops.

Prospects for immigrant legalization face watered-down proposals for lengthy citizenship eligibility requirements, narrowed eligibility pools, and temporary guest worker programs. Growing outbreaks of xenophobia and racism are reported in the United States, both on the local and national levels.

Global trade and economic justice issues, which were submerged by 9-11 and the Iraq war, still rank low on the international policy agenda.

The environmental and labor deficits of NAFTA and other international trade pacts are worsening.

The final lifting of tariffs on corn and other basic grains portend renewed crisis in the Mexican countryside by 2008.

An increased tendency towards governmental repression is readily visible in both Mexico and the U.S., as exemplified by Washington's continued raids on illegal immigrant workers and their families, as well the Mexican government's implementation of a virtual state of siege in the state of Oaxaca.

Official corruption, most often publicized in Mexico but also a factor in the United States, impedes environmental, social, and economic justice.

Sometimes “competing” NGO agendas hinder joint actions, requiring fluid but non-hegemonic, unified forms of coordination, cooperation, and action.

Making the Broader Connections at the BSF

A highlight of the BSF was a "reality tour" of low income Ciudad Juarez neighborhoods and industrial sites. Halting on the banks of the Rio Grande in the Felipe Angeles neighborhood, reality tour guests peered directly across the river at the mothballed Asarco copper smelter located in El Paso only a couple of miles from the southern New Mexico city of Sunland Park.

The old smelter is a rusting emblem of how environmental issues affect communities on both sides of the border. Shut down in 1999, the plant is at the center of a fight between Asarco's owner, Grupo Mexico, and environmental groups and political leaders from Mexico and the United States over the company's plans to renew its Texas state environmental permit and restart production. The Carlyle Group, associated with George Herbert Walker Bush, is a principal investor in Grupo Mexico.

Asarco opponents maintain that a revived smelter will degrade an already polluted binational airshed, and they blame the transnational company for decades of lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals contamination of neighborhoods in El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, and Sunland Park. The company flatly denies any responsibility. Immediately preceding the BSF, the Sierra Club released a memo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that reported Asarco had been illegally incinerating hazardous wastes during the 1990s. The document did not spell out exactly what Asarco burned. “I felt violated, and actually it wasn't a surprise either that the city has covered this up and that these environmental agencies that are supposedly out there to watch out for our health aided in covering up this terrible secret," said Jacqueline Barragan of the University of Texas at El Paso group Students Against Asarco.

Leading the reality tour was former maquiladora worker Veronica Leyva, the Ciudad Juarez representative of the Mexico Solidarity Network. Leyva gave outsiders a close-up look at the two faces of Ciudad Juarez: the glimmering city of shiny new boulevards and chic strip malls on one side, and the dusty, mean burg of shantytowns and low-wage factory jobs on the other. Similar to downtown redevelopment projects in El Paso, Albuquerque, and other U.S. cities, the Juarez city and Chihuahua state governments are earmarking public monies for gentrification while many other community needs remain underfunded.

“It's important for you to see the channeling of economic resources by the government to the big industries, big capital,” Leyva told visitors. “This channeling of resources has not permitted the development of the popular colonias.”

Making the connections between geography, people and issues, SWOP's Rodriguez noted the similarities between Ciudad Juarez's colonias and Pajarito Mesa, a windswept mesa community approximately 10 miles southwest of the Duke City's downtown. There, approximately 1,500 people live mainly in trailers without paved roads, utility services or running water. “People don't realize that there are people living like that in Albuquerque right now,” he added.

Following the reality tour, the BSF delegates attended an agenda-packed round for workshops and plenary sessions. Co-conducted by Kat Rodriguez of the Tucson-based Human Rights Coalition, the session on immigration painted a grim picture of death from dehydration, creeping militarization, and entrapped populations. Rodriguez detailed the human cost from tightened border controls that force would-be crossers into remote desert crossings where extremes of heat and cold leave a bigger and bigger trail of bodies. She said her group has documented the deaths of at least 689 people in the Arizona-Sonora border region during the last three years alone. Of 317 unidentified victims, 17 of the remains are so deteriorated it is impossible “to know if they were male or female,” Rodriguez said.

Proposals and Demands:

  • Reject border walls and militarization, femicide and violence against women, pollution, free trade pacts, Plan Puebla Panama, attacks against the Oaxaca popular movement, and the official treatment of flood victims in both Louisiana and Ciudad Juarez.
  • Adopt comprehensive immigration reform laws that legislate full rights for all immigrants, including social services and amnesty.
  • Binational boycott of Kimberly Clark, a company associated with Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner, congressional sponsor of HR 4437 that paved the way for the Secure Fence Act.
  • Just compensation for veterans of the 1942-64 Bracero program of Mexican guest workers in the United States.
  • Oppose privatization of water resources, and support the food sovereignty concept promoted by the global Via Campesina movement.
  • Demand a revision of the agricultural provisions of NAFTA, and a halt to the use of proprietary hybrid seed and the patenting of seed stock by multinational corporations.
  • Solidarity with the families and workers of the Pasta de Conchos mine in northern Mexico's Coahuila state, where 65 miners were killed in an explosion blamed on leaking gas in February 2006. The mine was operated by Grupo Mexico, also the owner of the old Asarco smelter in El Paso. Support the demands of workers for accountability.
  • Demand the immediate release of five Cuban nationals held in U.S. prisons and accused of spying by the U.S. government.
  • Uphold gender equality, support the dissemination of adequate information about sexual and reproductive rights.
  • A call for international observers to monitor Lomas de Poleo, a Ciudad Juárez neighborhood that is the site of a land ownership conflict between long-time residents and members of a prominent local family.

  • The Arizona activist challenged the economic underpinnings for the phenomena of mass migration and community dislocation. “I think the first thing that we need is to demand a renegotiation of the free trade agreements, NAFTA, and CAFTA,” she said. “Nobody asks why people are coming here.”

    After three days of neighborhood tours, speakers, small group dialogues, and plenary sessions, the BSF participants issued a 23-point statement calling for fundamental changes in economic, social, environmental, and immigration policies. The statement declares: “We are part of the formidable force of struggle and hope that came about throughout the world with the initial World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001. The World Social Forum is part of a social movement against the neoliberal agenda, the modern form of colonialism and imperialism. We are citizens of the planet and as such we are the bearers of a set of economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental rights, which all in authority must uphold equally for all people regardless of our age, gender, social class, ethnicity or migratory status.”

    Cross-Border Organizing Spreads South

    Energized by the first Border Social Forum, organizers plan a similar gathering for the southern Mexican border. Bordering Guatemala and Belize, the region shares many of the characteristics of the Mexico-U.S. border, including human trafficking, drug smuggling, and gender and social violence. Washington has long demanded that the Mexican government crack down on its southern border, and a new initiative launched by the Calderon administration is underway, with still unforeseen consequences.

    Meanwhile, the months ahead promise to be busy ones for popular struggles that now transcend borders. Activists who attended the BSF have a full plate of upcoming gatherings in the Americas and Africa.

    Reaffirming their commitment to the migrant cause, the BSF delegates endorsed a call for a mass protest and national strike planned for May 1, 2007 in both the United States and Mexico. Participants of the Ciudad Juarez gathering plan to carry their cross-border spirit of solidarity to the first-ever U.S. Social Forum scheduled for June 27-July 1, 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia.

    Additionally, the BSF's veterans are involved in organizing the third “alternative people's summit” outside the U.S.-Mexico Border Governors Conference in Nogales, Sonora, also set for next summer, where members of non-governmental organizations will draft a list of demands to be presented to the 10 Mexican and U.S. border governors.

    Organizer Ruben Solis, who attended a social forum in Puerto Rico after the Ciudad Juarez event, arrived at this initial assessment of the impact of the October forum: “It carried out what we intended in terms of creating an [intersection] and convergence between the movements,” Solis said. “It has a multiplying effect; it's very positive.”

    Ciudad Juarez Border Social Forum Declaration of October 15, 2006

    United States Social Forum

    Center for Justice
    Tel: 210-222-1704

    Southwest Organizing Project
    Tel: 505-247-8832
    fax: 505-247-9972

    Just Transition Alliance
    Tel: 619-474-4001

    Mexico Solidarity Network
    Tel: 202-544-9355

    Justice for Our Daughters
    Tel: (011-52) 614-411-0960 /4 14 73 52 /4 19 34 01

    Human Rights Coalition
    Tel: 520-770-1373

    Published by the Americas Program at the International Relations Center (IRC, online at ©Creative Commons - some rights reserved.

    About The Author

    Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque, NM, and a frequent contributor to the IRC Americas Program.

    The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.