Monday, November 15, 2010

Alternative to Border Security Boom on Arizona-Sonora Border

(Part of a Border Lines series on border security on Cochise County and Agua Prieta.)

Pedro Maldonado of Café Justo in Agua Prieta/Tom Barry
Cochise County is the epicenter of border security.

The killing of prominent Cochise County rancher Rob Krentz last March by a suspected illegal border crosser precipitated a border security firestorm in Arizona – leading to Gov. Jan Brewer’s approval of the controversial SB 1070 bill, the governor’s creation (with federal stimulus funding) of the Border Security Enhancement Program, and the increased deployment of Border Patrol agents to southeastern Arizona border.

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever cofounded (with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu) Border and became a national voice for a border and immigration crackdowns.

While the killing of the rancher led to national attention to border security in Cochise County, this Arizona border county has been the focus of border crackdown campaigns since the 1990s. Leading the way were vigilante groups like the Minutemen, American Border Patrol, Civilian Defense Fund, and Cochise County Concerned Citizens, as well as the Texas-based Ranch Rescue.

As border control tightened along traditional crossing corridors in the mid-1990s, especially in the El Paso and San Diego areas, illegal border crossers sought other routes that weren’t as heavily patrolled and guarded. 

Responding to the surge of immigrant flows through southeastern Arizona, the Border Patrol launched Operation Safeguard 99, which included intensive Border Patrol deployment. Hotels in Douglas, the border town that hosted the Border Patrol’s district station, filled with Border Patrol agents in 1999.

At a time when border vigilantism and federal deployment were intensifying, there were other forces working to integrate the two sides of the border. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1992 boosted the maquila sector in Agua Prieta, the sprawling Sonoran town that lies opposite it much smaller border twin, Douglas.

The expanding maquila sector in Agua Prieta attracted thousands of women and men from southern Mexico, with an especially large number from Chiapas. As coffee prices plummeted in the mid-1990s, small coffee growers left their land to seek a livelihood in the only formal economic sector that was expanding in Mexico – the exported-oriented maquilas that assembled imported components destined for foreign markets.

Among those chiapanecos working in the maquilas, assembling car parts and seat belts, was Eduardo Perez Verdugo, who had left his mountain village near the Guatemalan border to come 2,000 miles to the U.S. border. Hurricane Mitch had devastated his town, and in 1998 he traveled north with his son, where they made $47 for a 48-hour work week. Seeking more income to support his family back in Chiapas, Perez unsuccessfully tried crossing the border to seek a job at a Phoenix golf course.

Both in Chiapas and in Agua Prieta, Perez had attended services at Presbyterian churches. After being deported, in conversations with Mark Adams, the minister of the Lily of the Valley Presbyterian Church in Agua Prieta, a vision of a cross-border economic integration project slowly emerged.
“To leave our land is to suffer,” Perez said, “If only we could control the sale of our coffee, we would be able to stay on our land.”

More than a decade later, the binational Presbyterian ministry, Frontera de Cristo, has made this vision a dynamic economic development project that turned despair into hope – and a sustainable livelihood – for dozens of coffee farmers in Chiapas. Across from the Lirios del Valle church in Agua Prieta now stands the roasting and marketing center for Café Justo/Just Coffee.
Frontera de Cristo Coordinators Angel Valencia and
Mark Adams/ Photo by Tom Barry

Visiting the Other Side of Border Security

A visit to the U.S.-Mexico border is likely to shock and depress.  At a time when debt and deficits are defining the political debate, the region oozes with federal dollars. No expense is spared to “secure the border.”

Border control costs the nation more than $10.5 billion annually (not including the $5.5 billion for immigration enforcement), and border security advocates in Congress pass measures to increase the number of Border Patrol and to bolster border fortifications.

A region, once prideful of its cultural diversity, is now being defined by the extremes employed to control the international divide.

But there are countervailing trends, while not necessarily more powerful, are certainly more hopeful – while costing nothing to U.S. taxpayers.

In 1984 the U.S. and Mexican Presbyterian churches joined together in a common border mission called Frontera de Cristo with six binational centers along the border.

Next to the Mexican customs and immigration office at the port of entry is the Centro de Migrantes, one of the numerous projects supported by Frontera de Cristo. Like most of its other projects, the immigrant center is a joint effort of other church groups, particularly the Catholic Church in Douglas and Catholic Relief Services, and community groups. “We always try to work cooperatively,” noted Adams. “Rarely do we do anything alone.”

In the case of its Water for Life project, which leaves strategically located barrels of water for migrants crossing ranch lands on the Mexican side of the border, the Frontera project even counts on the cooperation of the municipal government of Agua Prieta.

While most of its numerous projects are service-oriented -- like its New Hope community center, health clinic, and involvement in the city’s substance-abuse treatment center CRREDO -- Café Justo aims not just to serve but also to solve structural problems.

I visited Café Justo on the eve of what the staff call the “Día de Exportación.” It’s a time when the Agua Prieta members of the cooperative are preparing bags of coffee to meet the expanding U.S. market.
Preparing coffee for "Día de Exportación"/Tom Barry

It took a few years to turn the vision of Sr. Perez into a reality. The idea of a fair trade economic project that would unite small producers with U.S. consumers had been percolating for a few years. 

All started coming together in 2002 through additional brainstorming among Mark Adams and Daniel Cifuentes, another former coffee farmer who found work in the maquilas, and Tommy Bassett, a maquila manager who became excited about the prospect and offered his full-time management and business expertise to concept. Through a $20,000 loan from the Presbyterian Church USA, Café Justo purchased a coffee roaster.

The project currently supports 40 coffee growers in Salvador Urbina, the home village of Daniel Cifuentes. Now, rather than leaving for work on the border or to cross illegally into the United States,  to support their families, the women and men of this semi-tropical village are tending their coffee bushes.

Once harvested, the coffee beans are dried and then shipped in burlap bags to Agua Prieta. No longer obligated to sell their produce to coffee buyers, known as coyotes, the coffee cooperative sends their beans to its border branch facility, where their coffee is roasted and prepared for market.

Sitting on the porch the Frontera de Cristo house in Douglas, Adams told me that the obvious success story of Café Justo has been its ability to build a sustainable enterprise that supports its members and keeps them in their villages (the project has recently expanded to four other villages, three of which are in other southern Mexico states). 

“But the success is also making international connections real for our coffee consumers,” he said. “Fair trade is not just ideology but a real relationship that now exists between the cooperative members and those drinking Café Justo coffee. It’s not just fair trade, with growers getting a fair price, but it is real trade, a real relationship that makes people feel good.” 

It’s all part of Frontera de Cristo’s vision of sustainable and just binational relations through its Just Trade Center and other projects.

As Café Justo’s mission states:
“Café Justo's mission is to deliver the highest quality, organic, environmentally conscious, fresh roasted coffee to our customers at a price that is fair and just. We work to create a bond between the members of the coffee growing community in Salvador Urbina and our customers throughout the world.”
Back in Salvador Urbina, life has changed dramatically since the mid-1990s when the men and boys, and then the women, started leaving in droves. It used to be that ad-hoc bus companies would regularly announce by megaphone “Departures to Agua Prieta” and other border locations like Altar and Tijuana.

The stagnant U.S. economy and increased border control measures only partially explain that these advertised “salidas al Norte” are no longer the central feature of life in Salvador Urbina.

Thanks to Café Justo, these chiapanecos are staying home, finding ways to improve their coffee crops, fixing their homes, and communicating by internet with fellow cooperative members in Agua Prieta and other family members at the cooperative’s internet café.

(To get involved – buying Café Justo coffee, making a donation, visiting the project in Agua Prieta or in Chiapas -- and beat the border security blues, contact: To read more, read the inspiring story of Café Justo in Just Coffee: Caffeine with  Conscience by Mark Adams and Tommy Bassett, available from Just Trade Center.)

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