Thursday, May 26, 2016

When Subcomandante Marcos came to the border

Diana Washigton Valdez in Juarez, Mexico, during 2006
visit by Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas.
Marcos spoke out against the femicides in Juarez, Mexico

Yoko Ono donated a painting to the 2010 ArtMarch in Phildadelphia in solidarity with the Juarez femicide victims. Yoko Ono easily can command thousands of dollars for a painting of hers.

The 2010 ArtMarch included a traveling exhibit. Back then, asked the ArtMarch organizers if they were willing to bring the exhibit to El Paso, where it made sense to display the artwork with such a theme.

The gentleman at the other end of the line said, paraphrasing here, 'we offered the exhibit to the el paso art museum but the (official) rejected it, saying it wasn't needed in El Paso.'

I wonder who will give the Norwegian visiting artist Lise Bjorne Linnert the cold shoulder because her artwork puts a spotlight on what has become an unpleasant topic for some. I am eager to see how community leaders react to her interactive Proyecto Desconocida exhibit, artwork that lends solidarity and invites the community to participate. I suggested to an El Paso elected official that he greet the distinguished international artist and perhaps give her one of those plastic "El Paso" pins that politicians typically hand out to visitors.

Philadelphia's mayor actively supported the ArtMarch project in his city. I saw him then, Michael Nutter, who served as mayor until January of this year.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reporting on the selection of UTEP President Diana Natalicio

Add caption
The newsroom circuit

In 1988, I was reporting for the features section of the El Paso Times. Josie Weber was the section editor. Tom Fenton, a former Associated Press newsman, was the new publisher and editor of the El Paso daily. The features section was different from the paper's successive lifestyle sections, because back then, in addition to softer lifestyle articles, features reporters also worked on hard-hitting, investigative stories.

 Anyhow, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) was in the middle of the process to select a new president, and it was believed that Diana Natalicio, a linguistics professor who had worked her way up the ranks, was an applicant.

Fenton told the newsroom's senior editors that the El Paso Times should be reporting on the process and identifying the candidates who were seeking the position. Ramon Renteria was the education reporter. I was yanked out of the features section temporarily to work with Renteria on the story that Fenton wanted, and Burt Wittrup, another former Associated Press newsroom and a talented editor, was assigned to work with me. Burt was kind in that he did not place an expectation on me that I would be able to find out the identities of the presidential contenders. He said we simply would do our best to advance the story. The university was relying on a search committee that included community leaders to help hire the new president.

The initial story that I helped with was more or less a process story, and we were given the list of all the applicants, not the finalists. I felt that it was my job to work to get those names. This involved old-fashioned reporting, such as hounding members of the search committee and others associated with the process to come up with the information. Since I was not the education reporter, I did not have ready sources for this in my Rolodex. At some point after the initial story, I stopped seeing Renteria in the newsroom. I asked what had happened to him, and was told by an editor that Renteria was on vacation. I exclaimed, "What!" And the editor just laughed. The pressure was really on me now to produce. That's how I saw it.

As with most such "search committees," there are members who are insiders and those who are appointed to serve as tokens. The insiders will have the inside track while the rest will follow the procedures to the letter trusting that the process will work itself out somehow.

The first breakthrough occurred when I came up with the names of the six finalists. It's not like someone had handed me a list. Different sources provided the names of different finalists. We did not have Internet in those days, and I consulted the original list of all the applicants to glean something about their possible current employers and or hometowns, and then I consulted other sources by telephone to gather further background. I bugged search committee members, knocked on their doors at their homes late at night, parked myself outside the board room were the committee members held their closed-door sessions. They were all sworn to secrecy.

The search committee took its job seriously and worked nonstop at the selection process, which was national in scope. Burt and I worked on the story about the finalists, which was published and beat the competition. Our competitors in those days included the feisty El Paso Herald-Post and the television and radio stations; it was a great time.

Barbara Funkhouser, the editorial page editor, a post she was named to after Fenton replaced her as the top editor, called me into her office after the story ran. She told me that one of her sources contacted her about our story on the six finalists to confirm that we had the right information. She said her source told her that it was uncanny how my story had named the finalists in the same order that the search committee had interviewed them. I recalled that two of the community leaders who were involved in the process somehow, were former El Paso Mayor Judson Williams and Patricia Roybal Caballero, a social justice advocate who later became a state legislator in New Mexico. I recalled overhearing Williams state that he would not support any candidate except Natalicio. 

Soon after the story naming the finalists, insider sources told me that Natalicio, the vice president for academic affairs, was going to be UTEP's next president period. The search committee chairman was not one of those sources. I tried interviewing Natalicio about this at the campus, but she would not comment. I reported this development to Burt Wittrup and he advised the senior editors, among them Paula Moore, the managing editor. When I was in high school, Wittrup's wife, Carolyn, had been my freshman year English teacher.

Paula Moore appeared willing to go with such a story using unnamed sources until the search committee chairman called her and pleaded with her for the paper not to run the story. The chairman conveyed that it was his view that Natalicio's selection was not a done deal. Paula Moore honored the request to hold the story, especially since we would have to rely on unnamed though credible sources for the information. Later, university officials announced to the world that Natalicio was the search committee's recommended applicant for the position.

Ramon Renteria returned from vacation, and the paper flew him to cover the UT meeting that confirmed Natalicio as the new president of the university. I was sent back to my corner of the newsroom. Under Natalicio, an enormously successful academic, the campus grew exponentially. She was named to important national boards, and her leadership helped put UTEP on the map. She also thrived in a world that until recent years was dominated by men, and when many university or college presidents did not last long in their positions due to an array of academic and community politics. Over the years, she has served as a model for success to other women. After leaving the El Paso Times, Fenton started his own newspaper, the weekly El Paso Inc.

One of my next anecdotes will be about my coverage of the Texas beauty pageant that yielded a threatened court injunction against me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

"The Killing Fields" was my signature project

There are certain aspects of the investigations that led to the El Paso Times news series "Death Stalks the Border" and the books "The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women" and "Cosecha de Mujeres" that can be disclosed to the broader public. Here is a backgrounder that was prepared for me several years ago about the project. The editors who were key to the success of the newspaper series were Bob Moore, Dan Williams and Mary Benanti.

As time goes on, I will share more behind-the-scenes details, to include my meeting at Landry's  El Paso with two intriguing people, Mexican journalist and author Isabel Arvide, who was arrested in Chihuahua, and Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a high-ranking Mexican federal attorney general official, who was killed in a 2008 plane crash in Mexico City.

The cotton field murders site
Behind the “Killing Fields: Harvest of Women”

Diana Washington Valdez is a courageous career journalist who has dedicated her life to serving the public through her work. Her news articles, books, blogs, essays and collaborations with documentaries have given a resounding voice to the powerless.

She is known internationally for her investigative work focusing on the notorious death spree of women that began in 1993 in Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas. Her book “The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women” was published 2006 by Peace at the Border and released in 2007. An earlier version of the book in Spanish was published in 2005 by Oceano as “Cosecha de Mujeres.” The expose uncovered high-level corruption related to the women’s murders, the Juarez drug cartel and Mexico’s “dirty war.”

This journalist faced serious threats from corrupt police and prominent people (and a narrow escape from arrest in Mexico) because of her newspaper investigation into the murders. She responded by expanding her investigation into a book, by writing articles for foreign language media and blogs and by collaborating in numerous documentaries.

Sandy Gonzalez, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official in El Paso, told German filmmaker Klaus Wollstein that “Diana’s life is in danger” due to her investigative work. Frank Evans, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation official, called her “a witness to the truth.” Her groundbreaking and meticulous reporting has produced extensive exclusive material for her newspaper and for other book publishers and blogs.

Her investigation into the women’s murders uncovered corruption at the highest levels of government. The book caused such a sensation that it was sabotaged in various ways during its initial release. A Mexican official asked the U.S. government to conduct an inquiry into her book “because it contained information that was confidential” to the Mexican and U.S. governments.

The book was blocked from a South American country, but the journalist arranged to make it available online for free of charge, although it meant sacrificing book sale proceeds. FBI agents were present at one of her book signings in El Paso, Texas, and later revealed to her that the drug cartel planned to send people to the event to confront her. The FBI said the cartel people showed up, looked around but left the bookstore without approaching her.

Ms. Washington Valdez was the first also to publicly link members of the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel to some of the women’s murders, and to expose how similar murders were occurring in other parts of Mexico and in Guatemala, where the same cartel and their associates operated. Dr. Stanley Krippner, a psychologist in California with intimate knowledge of the Juarez crimes, attributed a decrease in some of the murders to her expose.

In 2007, a powerful citizen of Mexico reiterated a previous threat against Ms. Washington Valdez. Once again, instead of backing off, she decided to continue informing the rest of the world about what was taking place in Mexico. Once again, she extended her work and collaborated on two important documentaries about the deaths, one in English (“Border Echoes”/shown in Hollywood) and one in Spanish “Bajo Juarez”/shown at international festivals). She has traveled to more than 30 cities and to others countries to speak about the murders. She has written articles and essays for magazines and journals in other languages.

Her stunning series “Death Stalks the Border,” published by the El Paso Times in 2002, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and received a Texas APME First Place Award. It was the first journalism to develop significant lines of investigation and expose the extensive corruption that impeded official investigations in Mexico. The series went online in English and Spanish, and was read by people around the world, some of who eventually made their way to the border to do their own research - journalists, academics, students, artists, musicians and others. Even today, people who read the series and her books are amazed that one reporter could carry out such a vast project single-handedly. Her 2007 book was hard-hitting and went beyond the series.

Her reputation as a seasoned and respected journalist prompted Spanish-language news media and a book publisher to invite her to publish with them. La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine published articles by her. She also received a national journalism award in Mexico for her reporting on the murdered women.

Due to the expertise she had developed, Ms. Washington Valdez was asked to brief a U.S. congressional delegation led by U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, which traveled to the border to look into the slayings. Human rights investigators and law enforcement officials on both sides of the border have consulted with Ms. Washington Valdez for her knowledge about the crimes. She was also asked to provide testimony for an asylum hearing in Texas for a mother of one of the Juarez victims.

[Prepared by Suli Berg]

Friday, April 8, 2016

Were Texas lottery jackpots also rigged?

Mysterious caller alleged that Texas lottery jackpots were rigged

The Chicago Tribune and other news media outlets recently published stories about a scheme to rig multistate lottery jackpots.The case involved prizes that 'winners' collected in Oklahoma and Colorado, according to the investigators in Iowa that cracked the case.

The Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press reported that last year Eddie Tipton, ex-security director of the Multi-State Lottery Association, was convicted of fixing a $16.5 million Hot Lotto jackpot in 2010. His brother, Tommy Tipton, who served as a justice of peace judge and reserve police officer in Texas, is the latest to face charges in the ongoing investigation.

More than 15 years ago, a man who called the El Paso Times newsroom alleged that Texas state lottery jackpots were rigged. For some reason, I ended up with that phone call. I asked him how that could happen since the winning numbers were selected at random. At around that same time, a news story that originated elsewhere quoted an expert who questioned the 'randomness' of the lottery jackpots in Texas.

 A map and list of big jackpot winnings made it obvious that lottery jackpots were concentrated in certain large cities. I am not a statistical expert, so I could not conclude that lottery players in El Paso did not win many jackpots because the election of the winning numbers was truly not random. Television showed these bouncing balls, how the numbers were supposedly picked, and viewers assumed it was all a chance game.

The mysterious caller, who would not identify himself, claimed to be calling from Austin, Texas. He said a deal had been struck between banks and state officials to contain the big jackpots to certain large cities in Texas. The idea was that big money flowing into cities like El Paso and others could destabilize the state's economy. Yeah, right.

If this were true, then what it really meant was that major banks that handled lottery jackpot winnings did not want to see the money go to accounts in your home-grown banks or other financial institutions. The caller said he would explain how the rigging was done only if and when a grand jury subpoenaed him for the information. He said that to go public otherwise would get him killed.

Sources I contacted said that lottery numbers were picked at random and so that therefore the jackpots could not be rigged .... People at the state lottery office said that rigging could not be done. One of the editors to whom I mentioned the caller's information, also said that rigging was impossible, and the matter was dropped. I never heard from the caller again and always wondered what became of him.

Apparently, as the Eddie Tipton case shows, it was possible for an insider using software to manipulate jackpot winnings in other states. Could it, did it, happen in Texas?

The New York Daily News has a good story that explains the Tipton case

Monday, March 28, 2016

Encounter at the Rio Grande, Joe Olvera and David M. Hancock

More on Joe Olvera

I first met Joe when he began working for the El Paso Times. He was constantly challenging other Hispanic journalists to fight for their rights. For example, he felt strongly that news media companies should pay Hispanic journalists a supplement if they were required to translate for the non-Spanish speaking reporters who needed help with their stories.

Joe, the Chicano activist of our profession, was right. He was a front-line advocate that helped paved the way for many who followed him, especially when newsrooms were still predominantly Anglo.

Encounter at the Rio Grande

Before Joe worked at the El Paso Times, an Associated Press (AP) reporter who was based elsewhere, not at the AP bureau in El Paso, called the newspaper asking for assistance with translation and photography in Juarez, Mexico.

Photographer Joel Salcido and I agreed to help the Associated Press reporter, and AP agreed to pay us $250. Paula Moore, the paper's managing editor at the time, said this agreement was ours alone and gave us permission to assist the AP.

I can't recall what news event had prompted the AP to want to cross the border and interview the "lancheros" along the Rio Grande, but there we were, me, Joel and the female AP reporter who did not speak Spanish. This was in the late 1980s, when I worked for the paper's features section under Josie Weber, the features editor. At the time, I was in charge of the paper's "Quien Sabe" consumer column.

The "lancheros" crossed undocumented immigrants on the river using rubber rafts for 25 to 50 cents per person. On the Mexican side, the river is known as the Rio Bravo, which at the time was full of water and sometimes swift and dangerous currents that led to drownings each year.

The modest ferry enterprise was carried out openly by numerous men and their rafts in front of the Border Patrol and the rest of the world. Those free-wheeling days were part of border life for years before "Operation Blockade" went into effect in 1993.

After crossing the border, the three of us walked up to a couple of the "lancheros" to ask them if we could interview them about their risky work. Actually, the interview and photographs were for the AP reporter. One of the "lancheros," who seemed out of it, became aggressive and picked up a broken bottle and waved it at me and the others.

Joel, who also spoke Spanish, tried to calm him down. The shirtless man did not end his threatening gesture until another "lanchero" approached and told him that we were all right. The second "lanchero" said he recognized me from my picture in the Quien Sabe column. I never would have guessed, not in a million years, that a "lanchero" in Juarez was familiar with that column. And of all things, it saved the day for me.

The gig went on and ended without further adieu. The AP reporter got her interview, and Joel and I headed back to the newsroom in El Paso. The Associated Press never did pay us for our troubles.

Latest threat

More and different threats followed me throughout my profession. A couple of months before ending my work at the El Paso Times, I received a telephone call that was meant to convey a message. The only sound I heard at the other end of the line was that of a firearm being reloaded. It was an anonymous call. I confided to someone that the call probably came from three or four likely sources. Of course, in our line of work, threats are not unusual.

A former El Paso Times reporter, David M. Hancock, used to cover Juarez, Mexico, for the paper. At some point, David upset someone in that city, and this led to someone plastering on a pole a flier with an image of him and his name on it, which also indicated that he was persona non-grata.

Eventually, reporters who report on events in Juarez with persistence tend to use up their usefulness when they become targets for irate politicians, drug dealers, corrupt officials and others. David had reached that point and faced an unknown danger.

A competent reporter, David went on to work at the Miami Herald. I recently found an article he wrote concerning an adventure he had had in Cuba. [The article he authored may be read at] David continues to do great journalism. We were fortunate that he is one of many greats that passed through the El Paso Times.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What to expect from this unraveling in El Paso, Texas

500 W. Overland, former site of Hicks-Ponder Co.

This blog's future takes will include items about El Paso's hidden history, local politics, not-so-local politics, and other meanderings. A memoir ought to reflect the winding course of life as it unfolds. It is in essence a testimony because it is unfiltered.

Most of my life took place in downtown El Paso, between West Overland at Paisano and Campbell at Mills. Although I traveled and lived away from El Paso for several years, in other cities and countries, I kept returning. Something kept bringing me back.

Ironically, my role in the formal workplace began in 1971 in the same building that housed the El Paso Times, the company I retired from in 2016. It is the same red brick structure that formerly housed the Hicks-Ponder Company. Back in 1971, Hicks-Ponder also occupied the annex building across the street from 500 West Overland, the annex where I also worked in 1972.

According to court documents related to a labor dispute, Hicks-Ponder manufactured and distributed men's slacks and had about 750 workers, "mainly female machine operators."

"The greater part of these women are poorly educated and circumstanced Mexican nationals with limited use of the English language who commute on a daily basis across the border to the factory," according to the court document.

"This plant has been the object of attempts at unionization for (15) years by Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The respondent is openly and without dispute hostile to unions and so far has succeeded in resisting unionization."

My personal experience with the firm was a positive one. The company had Anglo and African-American employees as well, and teens like myself who were just out of high school. I recall a teen who was tall and athletic "Sabrina," whose father worked at the factory. Shortly after I began working there, other workers pointed out a handsome fellow named "Mario," and said he was about to get married.

Another young man at the plant, whose name I don't recall, wore hippie beads around his neck and read during breaks from the book "Siddhartha" by Herman Hesse (in Spanish). It happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, one that influenced me greatly.

A slightly older woman, who lived in Juarez, said she came from a middle class family and worked in El Paso to earn more (in dollars), and that her boyfriend's skin was as "white as milk." Everyone who worked there was nice, including our supervisors. After a year on the line, I went across the street to work in the offices at the annex.

At one point, I was asked to testify in a labor-related matter involving plant employees. I had no clue what was going on, and I only recall answering a question about whether an employee was allowed to eat a burrito during a break, or something along those lines. I believe that Thomas A. Spieczny, a veteran labor lawyer, was involved in the proceeding.

It was at the Hicks-Ponder building that a co-worker was the first (and last) person to offer me a marijuana joint. I was surprised at the casual approach with which this was done.

It was my first brush with the drug trade, which has operated along the border for a long, long time.

Payday meant clearing about $45 a week, buying a new dress at the former Lerner's store or from other nearby shops, and taking home a bag filled with pastries from the old Queen Anne bakery on North Oregon, around the corner from the old Coney Island hot dog eatery.

I used the bus for two years to get to and from work. The downtown plaza was full of colorful characters, as well as hustlers and shysters. Hot pants were the "in" fashion for young women back then. On one particular day, a certain man kept approaching young women at the park to ask them if they were interested in starring in a pornographic movie.

The downtown public library became my haven during that time. I met many interesting people there, and ready a great many books, magazines and other publications. At the time, the Jesus Movement was also in the wings in El Paso.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Self-esteem in El Paso, Texas

El Paso Museum of History map of the city.

This is a picture of a map hanging in the El Paso Museum of History that shows how El Paso, Texas, saw itself in the past. Things seemed to changed after World War II. Old-timers say East Texas politicians kept the city on the border at bay. Over time, fewer resources were allocated to this region, and more formidable companies began a gradual but definite departure from the zone. El Paso could have become a Phoenix, Arizona, before Phoenix was Phoenix, a real economic powerhouse. El Paso had more going for it in its beginnings as a modern metropolis than many other U.S. cities. A medical specialist who is from another state commented to me once that "there used to be money" in El Paso. He could tell this from the quality of the construction and architecture of older buildings. As you moved farther away from the central part of El Paso, out into the early suburbs, less money was spent on the design and construction of new homes and other buildings. His observations were accurate.
Map of the city in 1925 at the Museum of History.