Waiting for Rain
Drought in Chihuahua, plus helping hands in Palomas.
The state of Chihuahua, in its most extreme drought in its modern history, is still waiting for rain.
US ranchers in western states have been going through a lot of angst because of the drought there. Mexican ranchers in the same weather system, but without all the safeguards US ranchers enjoy, have had to watch their cattle die and leave their rumpled bodies throughout the landscape.
The Mexican agency that produces national statistics, INEGI, recorded that 350,000 cattle died in Chihuahua in 2012.
Betty Jurado, who helps distribute food in Palomas, told me friends of hers saw 20 cattle dead in Madera, a couple hours southwest of Casas Grandes. But the director of the stockyards in Palomas, Ignacio Montoya, says most of Chihuahua's cattle are near Chihuahua City, so you don't see dead cattle near the border. And a lot of ranches are located far from the main roads.
Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte has announced that according to the National Water Commission, Chihuahua is the Mexican state hardest hit by drought.
As a sign of the tensions produced by the drought in Chihuahua, Ismael Solorio Urrutia and his wife Manuela Martha Solis were gunned down on Oct. 22. They were found in a field near a Mennonite colony in Cuauhtemoc, a city about an hour west of Chihuahua City.
Ismael was a founding member of the Chihuahua chapter of the small farmers' group called Barzonistas. He and his wife lived in Buenaventura, a half-hour or so south of Casas Grandes. They had driven from their home to Cuauhtemoc that day.
Longtime leftist activist Victor Quintana wrote that Solorio had just about a week earlier been a vocal protestor of the mine that Canadian MAG Silver Corp. operates in his ejido called Benito Juarez. He was afterwards beaten by mine employees. Quintana calls Solorio and his wife "the first two victims of the war in defense of water and natural resources."
He claims that Solorio was "subject to a media and political lynching" before he was killed.
There's also speculation that their death had to do with the conflict brewing over Mennonites digging wells in Chihuahua, especially since that's where the bodies were found.
The conflict had been brewing throughout the summer. Mennonites living near Cuauhtemoc have always been known to be well off. But in recent years their farms have turned into high-tech agrobusinesses that are still expanding and creating new wells, even during the drought.
The Mennonite colonies near the border are poorer and the people are less educated, with five or six years of school being the norm. But Ignacio Montoya told me that the colony of Buenavista, west of Ascension, has been booming economically.
In the past when I've asked poor Mexicans what they thought of Mennonites, they invariably answered, "They're very hardworking." They've been liked and respected, but the relationship may be wearing thin.
The Barzonistas claim the wells are illegal and have on several occasions, with the support of the state water agency CONAGUA, shut down Mennonite wells and broken their dams because other wells were going dry. The Mennonites respond that they've paid tens of thousands of dollars to get the permits but CONAGUA employees have pocketed the money.
On July 2, Pinos Altos writer Tom Barry, a Desert Exposure contributor, was present at one of the well shutdowns. A number of police were there and asked him to give them his camera. Several Barzonistas came forward to protect Barry, and the police shot in the air and at the farmers' feet. The situation is hot and isn't likely to cool off soon.
There are good things going on in Palomas now and all year, more than can be included in this article. For anyone in Palomas or the US who wants to come, there will be a dinner on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 8, at the Casa de Amor, run by a coalition of New Mexico churches. Afterwards they'll be a gift giveaway for children.
This is what used to be called the "orphanage," until the Mexican government got on their case because that's not what it ever really was. The Casa de Amor will now be called the "Refuge for Abused and Abandoned Children." The place was shut down for a while and the kids will come back after some changes have been made.
In Palomas there are government programs of despensas, or food portions, that are given to some poor families, and the Columbus elementary schools sometimes send home food with Palomas kids who especially need it. All the organizations listed by Desert Exposure can always use donations. The need is bottomless.
There's a new organization listed called the Asilo para Ancianos. Reina Cisneros years ago started taking elderly people into her own home to care for them, and she's always in need of a whole list of things — food, adult diapers, sheets, detergent, Clorox, soap, toilet paper and so forth. Send to: Reina de Cisneros, PO Box 981, Columbus, NM 88029.
The Casa de Amor always trucks down at least 1,000 pounds of beans from Santa Fe every month. They give out a despensa of beans, rice, sugar and cooking oil to many families, and leave what's left over at a few churches. But I've often heard people in Palomas say they get to the churches after they've run out of food.
Casa de Amor has a new program of scholarships for children in elementary school through high school — 128 for Palomas and 36 in the three little towns a half-hour south of Palomas. Individuals donating to a child will be paying for tuition, a school uniform and shoes, and will get a photo of that child.
Some people say the food situation is the same in Palomas as it has been for a few years, and some say it's a little worse, partly because of the drought. But either way, people are very tired of not having work.
Some are lucky and catch a ride on trucks to do fieldwork in other states — Sinaloa, Guanajuato or maybe Veracruz. But most stay put.
I've asked a few people if anybody goes to work in the growing maquiladora industry in Juarez, and they wrinkle their noses and say, "Es muy feo" (it's very nasty).
The growth of factory work and tourism appears to be the only hope for economic growth in Palomas. Until then they'll be soaking up donations like a dry sponge.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.