August 19, 2005

Bill Richardson Touches Off A Firestorm in Mexico

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s August 12 declaration of a state of emergency along the Mexican border with his state provoked sharp reactions in Mexico. Almost immediately, national Mexican newspapers posted stories about the declaration on their front pages, while the federal Ministry of Foreign Relations (SRE) and Interior Ministry issued a joint statement deploring the move. Leonel Cota, the national president of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution, called on Mexico’s federal government to not be pressured and reject the emergency declaration.

Gov. Richardson issued the declaration after touring southern New Mexico and hearing from residents about a deteriorating border security situation. The Democratic governor cited increased violence, drug smuggling, property destruction, and illegal immigration, as well as federal neglect, for his dramatic decision. He requested the Mexican government  bulldoze old buildings that serve as staging grounds for undocumented immigrants.

“I’m taking these serious steps because of the urgency of the situation and, unfortunately, because of the total inaction and lack of resources from the federal government and Congress,” Richardson said. The emergency declaration will allow the spending of $1.75 million dollars in state and federal funds on beefed-up law enforcement, a new cattle fence and a New Mexico Homeland Security Department field office, probably to be located in Luna County near the Chihuahua border town of Palomas.

The corridor between Palomas and Deming, NM, has been plagued for several years by narco-executions, kidnappings, robberies, and other mayhem-on both sides of the border. Two weeks ago, Deming NM resident Maria Guerra was shot by a Chihuahua state policeman while traveling on the Mexican side of the border outside Palomas. Guerra later died in an El Paso hospital. On August 9, Claire May, the police chief and only full-time officer in the New Mexico border town of Columbus near Palomas reported he was the target of gunfire while working on the U.S. side. May was uninjured.

Gov. Richardson’s emergency declaration was praised by some New Mexico border residents, but it was criticized by the Fox administration as contrary to the spirit of bilateral cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. Calling border crime “a complex phenomenon,” the Fox administration maintained security was being attended to by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials. The SRE ordered its consuls in El Paso, Texas, and Albuquerque, NM to contact the Richardson administration for talks.

A day after the emergency declaration, the office of Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza released its own statement, saying it understood the worries of Gov. Richardson but urged “a constructive dialogue.” According to Gov. Reyes’ office, “close and permanent communication between the authorities of both border states will be key to avoid the diverse situations that might have interpretations far from the acts that motivated the declaration of emergency.” Fernando Rodriguez Moreno, Chihuahua state government secretary, rated the declaration as exaggerated.

Gov. Richardson’s action drew even sharper rebukes from business leaders and elected officials in Ciudad Juarez, which borders the southern New Mexican town of Sunland Park. City councilors from the PRD and PRI parties considered the declaration a meddling in Mexican affairs, and another slap in the face potentially harmful to tourism. Ciudad Juarez Mayor Hector Murguia Lardizabal invited Gov. Richardson to visit Ciudad Juarez, where he claimed a climate of security generally prevails.

In the past, Mayor Murguia and other officials and business leaders have contended that their city is the target of a smear campaign concocted from abroad. But concerns over the safety of  visitors in the border city were most recently highlighted when two Juarez city policemen, Gerardo Hinojosa and Juan Jose Castorena, were arrested for allegedly raping a 24-year-old U.S. citizen in the back of a police camper outside a popular nightclub on August 6. The officers have denied carrying out the rape.

Gov. Richardson’s action came at a particularly sensitive moment in Mexico-U.S. relations, coming in the wake of the temporary of closure of the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, and the renewal of a U.S. Department of  State travel advisory to border travelers. Both actions caused consternation among Mexican officials. Garbriel Flores Viramontes, the president of the Canacintra business association in Ciudad Juarez, said he was surprised by the emergency declaration given Gov. Richardson’s close collaboration in cross-border economic development.

Although Gov. Richardson’s emergency declaration did not publicly play well in Mexico, it freed up monies that will be spent addressing the demands of New Mexico border county residents who have been demanding better security in recent months. And the emergency declaration could well give Gov. Richardson an added political benefit by taking some of the political winds out the sails of upcoming Minuteman-like patrols planned for the New Mexico-Chihuahua border in the coming weeks.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): an on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico

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