D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     August 2005

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On the Line

From Palomas, along the bleeding edge of the US-Mexican border, human-rights workers Manuel and Martha Acosta try to patch up what they can.

Story and photos by Marjorie Lilly

While members of Border Watch, the New Mexico offshoot of the Minutemen, took their posts on the borderline last month, two human-rights workers on the Mexican side were offering aid to desperate border crossers.

They are Manuel and Martha Acosta, and from Palomas they are trying to set things right on the border, one human-rights case at a time. They work out of a tiny two-room office, with a car seat as a sofa and air-conditioning you can hardly feel in the triple-digit heat.

As members of the Independent State Network of Human Rights, with offices in Juarez, Chihuahua, Cuauhtemoc and the Valle de Juarez, they get some legitimacy and technical support. But the Palomas office is very much a do-it-yourself operation. They've been there since February.

Manuel and Martha Acosta of the Independent State Network of Human Rights in Palomas.

Border-crosser issues are the passion of the Acostas. But they help anybody who walks through their front door. For example, the day of this interview they had driven a Palomas woman an hour south to Ascension to get birth certificates for her five children.

Manuel has given legal support to a poor woman when ejido officials took two-thirds of her tiny plot of land and sold it to someone for $2,500.

But the Acostas also can be seen feeding prospective border crossers on Saturday morning in the park. Crossers often go without eating for days. The Acostas have helped crossers who are penniless and hungry after being returned across the border by the migra, or who've had their money stolen by polleros, the men who bring crossers over the border.

Martha will whip up something for the would-be crossers in the Acostas' kitchen and they get to take a free shower. With the van they sometimes use to earn money transporting people, Manuel and Martha will drive the returnees to Juarez. There they get hooked up with some of the "pirate" buses that offer cut-rate transportation to the public and, to failed border crossers, a free ride home on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Twenty-two migrants have died so far this year in the El Paso sector, which includes southern New Mexico and two Texas counties, compared with 10 in 2003 by this date. This is mostly due to the heat wave, but the negligence of the polleros is always a factor. Along the entire border there's been a 56 percent increase in deaths over last year.

Manuel has had a close-up look at the corruption and violence of the polleros and the police. He's been threatened by both. According to Manuel, the leading polleros in Palomas work in collusion with the police. In exchange for weekly bribes from these men, police stop vans and buses belonging to other polleros and make the border crossers pay $100. From the polleros they demand $300 or more.

In the case of one crosser Manuel was defending, who had $1,500 stolen from him by a pollero, the police came and told him to "drop the case if he didn't want to have problems," according to Martha.

A father and son in Palomas have stood up to the harassment of another pollero to the point of having him attempt to burn their ranch in response. Manuel has represented them also, and all three have been on the receiving end of death threats.

Manuel even had an appointment in early June with President Vicente Fox in Mexico City, giving a report of the abuses of the police and polleros and general rights violations on the New Mexico border. "Any citizen has access to the president," he says.

He claims 90 percent of the polleros on the New Mexico border are from Palomas. They send people down to states like Puebla or Chiapas to recruit new border crossers and bring them back. Although some Mexicans say some polleros are good and some are bad, to Manuel they have no saving graces.

The Acostas are also opposed to the Minutemen. "They're distorting reality," says Manuel emphatically. "They think that Mexicans arrive to take away what is theirs, but they're mistaken. They're going in order to work. If someone goes to stay with a cousin or an uncle in Deming or wherever and doesn't work, he won't stay there long."

Manuel and Martha take me for a 15-mile-an-hour ride in their van over the extremely washboardy road to Chepas. This is a little settlement west of Palomas on the road where most polleros let out their clients to cross.

It's just before sundown, the hour when many Mexicans cross the border. Pick-up trucks pass us with their cargo of border crossers, some of them fresh-faced teenagers, lying down so the migra can't see them. "It must hurt so much to ride in those trucks," Manuel says. In vans they're just less visible. We stop to look at footprints at stopping points, and paths northward through the desert.

They cross at this time because the polleros know that the Border Patrol changes shifts at 7 p.m. and can't chase them then. They cross basically between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 or 8:00 p.m., according to Manuel. At about 3 a.m., there's another regular flurry of activity.

A truck drives toward us, flashing its left directional light. Manuel says the driver has dropped off his load of border crossers and is signaling to someone in the hills on the US side to come down and pick them up.

A parallel dirt road exists on the US side. We see a collection of various vehicles there where US military personnel are building a fence about three feet high, often working till 1 or 2 in the morning. The fence is intended to keep vehicles from crossing, but is useless to keep out foot crossers. A Border Patrol vehicle is parked there, but never moves despite border-crosser activity nearby.

Back in Palomas, we see small groups of hungry-looking young men headed west with their plastic gallon jugs of water. Manuel says many sleep in abandoned adobe houses with crumbling walls and get robbed by cholos. At the park, where it's almost dark, he points out how one person in the groups of sleepers stays sitting up to watch for robbers.

Manuel and Martha have both crossed to the US without documents, to work. They know first-hand the hardships of crossing the border and the abuses illegal migrants suffer at work, often from their fellow Mexicans. Both did manual labor despite having held professional jobs in Mexico. They say they know a lot of other educated Mexicans who have done this. "In the US, you're no one," says Manuel.

Martha had a career in journalism for about four years in her home state of Coahuila. She worked as a reporter for radio, television and newspaper all at once in Piedras Negras. "I loved it," she says.

But she left her job because of personal pressures and went to work in the US, mostly in Arizona. She cleaned offices in Phoenix for $4 an hour just a little over a year ago (the US minimum wage is $5.15), and worked in an office where for six days employees had to work 18 hours for a minimum wage daily salary, until they all quit in protest.

The most dramatic abuse was when she was raped while working as a domestic in the home of an Anglo couple in Milan, NM, near Grants. In Palomas Martha had heard about a housekeeping job in New Mexico, and after she was transported to Columbus, the Anglo couple themselves drove her to Milan. She said the man told her she'd be getting $300 a week, but she ended up getting just $50 a week. The man started raping her and threatened to call Immigration if she told anyone. She ended up calling police.

What Martha didn't know is that she had been bought for $600 through an Anglo in Columbus, according to Deputy Sheriff Harry Hall in Grants. He calls it a "human bondage" case. "This was the first time we had heard of this," he says. US officials estimate that 20,000 women are trafficked into the country every year, the majority of them for domestic work or prostitution.

After calling the police, Martha claims she never had legal counsel and couldn't make phone calls. She says she asked to go to Mexico, but Hall says she was deported. Martha returned to Palomas to Manuel, who was then her boyfriend.

Hall says authorities tried to inform Martha of the court date but that she didn't respond. She claims they called her parents in Mexico, whose phone was cut off because they couldn't pay bills. The man who raped her got 364 days probation. Deputy District Attorney Randy Collins in Grants says that with the charges against the man, he could have gotten a dozen years' jail time had Martha been present.

Four months after the incident, Martha married Manuel. Within another few months they opened their office in Palomas.

Manuel is from Veracruz, but left home when he was 14 and did miscellaneous jobs in Oaxaca. He says with fervor that he's tried all his life to learn as much as he can. He has a degree in business management and another degree as a paralegal.

Manuel's career has been extremely varied. In Veracruz he learned to be a radio announcer, hence the rotund voice that greets callers on the telephone. He's trained encyclopedia salesmen in Mexico and Central America. He worked at Customs in Palomas. He has set up a chain of shoe stores and a private police service. "I've done everything but steal," he says with a smile.

He was in the army for 11 years, including the elite Fuerza de Granaderos. This gave him the opportunity to be a police instructor at the state level, and he's also been a bodyguard in Juarez. At times it seems he's merely filling the void in law enforcement in Palomas. He keeps a .38 pistol in his office for self-defense.

He's a man who breathes out integrity. Because of his police experience, he says, he knows exactly how police corruption works. But, possibly because of his past immersion in military culture, he can sit watching the savage bloodletting of a Steven Segal video on the television in their office with no apparent sense of irony.

The Acostas are now receiving no funding from their parent organization, so all their services are self-funded, except for the small amount of money given to them by clients who choose to pay them. So they make money any way they can, with 70 head of cattle at their home and some lots of land to sell. They also own a mine with turquoise, gold and silver west of Chepas, but have no machinery yet to work it. They are sending away for formulas to make their own soap, toothpaste and bleach to sell.

If they had more money, they'd like to feed border crossers three times a week instead of just once. They have tried to get money from the Mexican Rotary Club for a Casa de Migrantes, but with no success. There border crossers could sleep and bathe without worrying about cholos.

They'd also like to set up a shelter for women and street children and find more funding for an orphanage in Madera, Chihuahua. Manuel has plans for setting up human rights offices in other Mexican states.

For now, like the hopes of the would-be border crossers the Acostas drive to Juarez to board the "pirate" buses home, those remain merely dreams.


Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming and writes the "Borderlines" column for Desert Exposure.

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