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Border violence spills onto Mexican ranches, farms

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Associated Press
July 7, 2010
— Mexican rancher Isidro Gutierrez watched with disgust as federal inspectors here chalked a long stripe on his steer’s hindquarter. The animal could not be imported because its breed can be vulnerable to disease.

If inspections were still being done across the Rio Grande in Mexico, routine rejections like that would be just an inconvenience. But drug violence in the border region has chased American cattle inspectors back to the U.S. side, so Gutierrez has to pay brokers in both countries and hire a truck to take back rejected animals.


“It’s cheaper to kill him here,” Gutierrez said.


The drug violence along the U.S.-Mexico border is now spilling into the region’s agriculture, threatening the safety of ranchers and farmers, slowing down what was expected to be the best harvest in years, and raising the risk that some crops will rot in the fields.


Ranchers like Gutierrez have trouble getting their animals to market. Farmers who once toiled long hours in the fields now fear being attacked in the dark. Some are even being forced to pay protection money to keep from being kidnapped or having their harvest stolen.


“There are thousands of producers who work all year to harvest the fruits of their labor, and it is the only income they have for the year, so we have to prevent extortion,” said Eugenio Hernandez Flores, the governor of Tamaulipas, the Mexican state bordering Texas from Brownsville to Laredo.


In late 2007, the Mexican military tried to curb violence by entering urban areas along the eastern end of the border, a region prized by drug traffickers for its valuable smuggling routes near Tamaulipas.


The stepped-up military presence pushed more traffickers onto ranches and farms. In February, the fighting intensified after two allied gangs split and went to war with each other.


“It’s you against them, and you’re a person of work against people of crime,” said a cattle rancher who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation. “In Tamaulipas, ranchers and farmers, we don’t have security with what we’re doing. We don’t know if tomorrow we’ll be able to keep working, or if tomorrow we’ll even come home from work.”


Tamaulipas is a key point of entry for Mexican produce and livestock, with major border crossings in Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. The area’s top crop is sorghum, a grain used primarily for animal feed. Other large crops include corn, okra and cotton.


For six weeks this spring, gang violence closed U.S. cattle inspection stations in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo. That forced Mexican ranchers to transport their animals more than 100 miles to the northwest. The inspection sites reopened in May at temporary locations in the U.S.


Karla Regina Baeza, an import broker who counts Gutierrez among her clients, said she nearly went out of business when Laredo’s cattle-import business shut down. Since imports resumed, she has regained only a few clients.


She used to import 15 to 20 truckloads of cattle per week, but in a four-week stretch spanning May and June, she’s imported none. Baeza has laid off staff and cut hours for those who remain. She joined a Mexican delegation to Washington last month to ask USDA officials to provide a full-time inspector and to move the inspections back to Mexico.


Not only do rejected steers have to be re-imported to Mexico, but the ones that make it through are worth less because they have lost weight, Baeza said. The temporary inspection site in Laredo does not have food or water, so the cattle spend several hours in transit to the scales without anything to eat or drink. In a business that pays by the pound, that cuts into ranchers’ already slim margins, she said.


Elsewhere in Tamaulipas, farmers worry about whether they will be able to bring in what could be the biggest sorghum harvest in many years.


Because violence has restricted farmers to daylight harvesting, they had hoped for a long, dry stretch to bring in the crops. Instead they got Hurricane Alex, which dumped as much as a foot of water in some parts of Tamaulipas.


“I think we were about to pick a hell of crop,” said one large-scale farmer, a leader in Tamaulipas’ agricultural community, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. “These guys won’t let us farm the way we want to farm, and now we get hit with this.”


And that’s not the only obstacle. The operators of huge harvesting machines are staying away out of fear they could be hurt or have their expensive equipment stolen.


Meanwhile, gangsters are profiting. Some farmers pay protection money to criminal gangs to keep their workers from being kidnapped. A woman who exports aloe vera said her father pays protection money just to be allowed to conduct business.


“Everyone does,” the woman said in an interview at a sprawling produce warehouse complex in McAllen, Texas. She spoke on condition of anonymity, too, because she feared retribution from the gangs.


In some areas, farmers have difficulty finding truck drivers to transport their produce because truckers have been forced to pay similar fees to keep their loads from being stolen.


To protect their loved ones, some farmers have moved relatives across the Rio Grande to the U.S. while continuing to run their businesses in Mexico. The fear is enough that many are considering leaving the land and the only way of life their families have known for generations.


Last month, Jose Mario Guajardo, the owner of an agricultural supply store, was gunned down with his son and an employee at his business in Valle Hermoso, about 30 miles south of Brownsville, Texas. Guajardo was running for mayor, and officials from his party said he had been threatened to end his candidacy.


In response to farmers’ concerns, state and federal officials have ordered more patrols in rural areas during the harvest.


Agriculture experts say it is too early to know what, if any, effect the violence will have on food prices. If the violence persists, agricultural investment could shift away from Mexico, and American consumers might notice a change in where certain items come from.


C. Parr Rosson, an economist at Texas A&M University, said Mexican exporters will face higher costs in the short term because tighter security at the border means longer wait times, a killer for perishable goods.


But if the violence continues, “in the next two to three years, I think we’ll start to see people who farm down there look for other options,” first in more peaceful parts of Mexico, then in the U.S., Rosson said.


Mani Skaria, a professor at the Texas A&M University-Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco, said long-term violence could cause farmers to consider moving operations to the U.S. Some of those businesses were once in south Texas, but moved to Mexico for cost savings.


“There was a time when a lot of people left the (Rio Grande) Valley to the south for cheap labor,” Skaria said. “Now you might have a reversal.”



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