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Futuro Media Probes Deadly U.S. Border Policy & NY Drug Trafficking Trial of Mexico’s Former Top Cop

StoryDecember 07, 2022
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Image Credit: Jess Alvarenga/Futuro Media

In “Death by Policy,” the newly launched investigative unit of Pulitzer Prize-winning Futuro Media reveals how the U.S. Border Patrol’s policies push migrants attempting to cross from Mexico to the U.S. into dangerous areas, especially the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The longstanding “prevention through deterrence” approach, which funnels people into unsafe migration routes, has contributed to thousands of deaths since the 1990s. For more, we speak to Futuro Media’s Maria Hinojosa, who hosts the new podcast on Latino USA and draws connections to the new bipartisan immigration Senate reform bill. We also speak with Peniley Ramírez, co-host of the unit’s new five-part podcast series ”USA v. García Luna,” which looks at Mexico’s former secretary of public security, García Luna, who will soon become the highest-ranking Mexican official ever to face trial in the United States for his alleged role in drug trafficking. “This person was at the same time, according to the accusation, working for the Mexican government, working for the Sinaloa Cartel and cooperating with U.S. agencies, especially the DEA,” says Ramírez.

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StoryJul 24, 2023The Intercept Reveals Border Patrol Is Caging Migrants Outdoors in Deadly Arizona Heat
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to a new investigation by Futuro Media that shows how U.S. border policies have created a deadly funnel that forces migrants seeking refuge into some of the deadliest terrain in the country, including the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. The investigation aired Friday on Latino USA, called Death by Policy, hosted by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa. This is how it begins.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Dear listener, a content warning: The next few minutes are of a 911 call with a person in distress. At about 11:30 on a Monday morning in July of 2021, a woman in southern Arizona calls 911 from her cellphone.

LOURDES: Estoy hablando de emergencia.

911 DISPATCHER: ¿Qué clase de emergencia? ¿Estás perdida?

MARIA HINOJOSA: She’s in the Sonora Desert. She is all by herself. And she’s lost.

911 DISPATCHER: ¿Viene sola o con otras personas?

LOURDES: No, yo sola.

MARIA HINOJOSA: The woman is put on hold. That’s because she’s a migrant crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. Then the dispatcher follows protocol and transfers her call from the local sheriff’s office in Pima County, Arizona, to the U.S. Border Patrol.

911 DISPATCHER: So, I have a Mexican phone number.

LOURDES: Ando perdida. Ando perdida. Oiga ayúdeme.

911 DISPATCHER: Espéranos, Lourdes.

MARIA HINOJOSA: She’s begging the dispatcher to send help. Eventually, she’s found and picked up by Border Patrol. But calls like this happen all the time in southern Arizona. In some cases, like this, the lucky outcome actually is the caller being located, then detained by Border Patrol and ultimately deported. But many other times, border crossers are never rescued by Border Patrol, and they succumb to the blistering heat in the Sonora Desert. As of November of 2021, Humane Borders, a local organization, has counted nearly 4,000 people whose remains have been recovered after dying trying to cross this vast stretch of land. Many more have died and have yet to be found.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the opening to Death by Policy, a new Latino USA podcast with Futuro Investigates. The report also looks at the work of volunteer groups that go to the most dangerous areas to search for missing people as the death toll at the border continues to rise. In this clip from Death by Policy, we meet the Blue Armadillos, a volunteer search and rescue team along the U.S.-Mexico border for people who have lost their way in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. Again, this is Maria Hinojosa, speaking with a volunteer named Gonzalo.

MARIA HINOJOSA: The Blue Armadillos say the number of people who reach out asking for help to find their missing loved ones is often just overwhelming.

GONZALO: Lo hacemos de una forma como en poder, como regresar un poquito de paz a esa familia que está desesperada buscando a su familiar.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Gonzalo tells us that groups like theirs are often the last, and sometimes the only, resort for desperate families who say they’ve called Border Patrol, they’ve called the Mexican Consulate, they’ve called the police, and they’ve gotten nowhere.

GONZALO: Si ya, pues si se encontró con vida pues que bueno, gracias a Dios, pero sí se encontró muerto, por lo menos regresa a su país y saben a dónde está.

MARIA HINOJOSA: The reality is conditions on this stretch of the border are so extreme that a person can die from heat exhaustion in just days or even hours. But Gonzalo says it’s important to go out and do the search anyway, even if only to help get a missing person’s remains home.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Maria Hinojosa, who you just heard. She has just won the Pulitzer Prize. She’s founder of Futuro Media, host of Latino USA, including their new investigative unit’s podcast Death by Policy and, what we’re going to talk about soon, a podcast series called USA v. García Luna. She’s also co-host of the podcast In the Thick. Her memoir, Once I Was You, has just been published as an adapted edition for young readers.

We are also joined by Peniley Ramírez, Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist. She’s the executive producer of Futuro Investigates and the co-host of their first podcast series, USA v. García Luna.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Maria, let’s begin with you. Once again, congratulations on your remarkable series and your Pulitzer Prize. Let’s talk about this new production that you are doing, Futuro Investigates, this investigative series, and particularly Death by Policy.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Amy, it’s great to be back with you. And hey, Juan, as well, it’s great to be with you and with my co-executive producer, Peniley Ramírez.

Look, you know, at the highest levels in the journalism — and, Amy, you know, and I love to say this to you and to Juan, I am inspired by the both of you. You both have just, you know, done this thing where we’ve taken control of the means of production, as it were, and said, “We have voice. We have power. We have agency.” So, that’s why Futuro Media is created in 2010, just going out on a limb, just kind of scary times. And, right, at this point now, we won the Pulitzer. And the next kind of evolution in terms of being a journalist of conscience in the United States is to create an investigative unit, right? To really take the power that we have, and hold those in power accountable. And, you know, I make this joke, like the movie, “I am the captain now.” I like to say, “I’m 60 Minutes now,” because I learned how to do investigative journalism and was inspired to do investigative journalism by 60 Minutes, but it’s a different media landscape now. And we are able to do that same kind of work with our particular perspective. That’s why it’s so important that this is the only investigative unit run by two Latinas, Latina journalists in the United States, myself and Peniley Ramírez.

Why is the first report that we decide to do about death on the border? You know, some people, our colleagues even, said, “This is an old story. There’s nothing to report.” And actually, it’s more intense than what you even said in your promo. It’s not so much that the Border Patrol is just funneling people into dangerous parts of the desert. That’s bad enough. But it’s actually that every single policy that they are enacting is actually leading to more death. For example, they disperse people now. They disperse when groups are crossing the border, many of them groups of refugees. Before, the Border Patrol would “round them up” — that’s their language — and manage them this way. Now they disperse. They send helicopters, ATVs, cars, dogs, horses, etc., to disperse the group. That means that somebody is now alone in the desert, separated, maybe with a sprained ankle. The chances of that person dying are higher. And this is just one example of the policies that they’re creating — by the way, both Republicans and Democrats. A pox on both of their houses.

Sadly, you know, Amy, it’s not going to be a surprise to you and Juan that, you know, the Border Patrol, once they gave us a ride-along, but then, after that, they wouldn’t speak with us. The Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas would not speak with us. President Joe Biden would not speak with us. We asked to speak to President Obama, former President Clinton, former President Bush. They wouldn’t speak to us. So, for me, the big question is: If the United States is creating policies that are leading to death, who holds the United States accountable, if they are not participants in the international court of — tribunal of human rights? And this is where we are at. In the world’s greatest democracy, we have policies that lead to people’s death, and they know that that is the outcome they want. So, what does that mean for us as a society?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to ask Peni Ramírez, in terms of — as part of your series, you go through the Devil’s Highway. Could you talk about what the Devil’s Highway is? And also this — it’s been now decades that the United States has been having this policy of actually forcing migrants to go into the desert by putting up their main border wall construction in the major — around the major cities and actually making it more and more difficult for people to cross, so that they’re forced into the desert and then end up, so many of them, perishing.

AMY GOODMAN: Peni, I think you have to unmute yourself. Maria, why don’t we put that question to you while we fix Peni’s audio?

MARIA HINOJOSA: The Devil’s Highway is one of the most dangerous stretches of transportation in the United States. Let me put this so that people understand, because, you know, what you’re going to hear on the mainstream media is, “Oh, there’s a crisis at the border.” There is a crisis of humanity at the border. There are not tens of thousands of people trying to break down and break into the United States. That is not the crisis. The crisis is the overmilitarization of the border writ large. Part of that is the border wall. Juan, I don’t know the last time, or, Amy, the last time you were down at the border wall, but, you know, it used to be that it’s 15 feet high. It’s these massive slabs of steel that have four inches in between so you cannot put your head through. They just went down and increased the border wall to 30 feet high. What’s crazy is that the border wall is not a wall. It is not continuous. So, you have — I think it’s 19 miles, but you have 21 openings in those 19 miles, precisely leading into the Devil’s Highway.

Now, the thing is, is that, Juan, you know, if people cross — if people are in the desert hiking, there is a chance that you might perish. But the kinds of deaths that we’re seeing now are deaths that are entirely avoidable. They do not need to be happening. And that’s, I think, the most just disheartening part of all of this, is that every single one of these deaths does not need to be happening.

And, you know, I used to say that I was obsessed with this story because I’ve been crossing the border since I was born, because I was born in Mexico. I’m no longer obsessed with this story; I’m haunted. And as I wrote in my essay, I want every single one of us to be haunted, as well, the way we are haunted in this country by so many deaths that we have seen their murders on camera — may he rest in peace, George Floyd. These deaths, though, are happening, and we never see them. And that’s intentional. We never — we can never see them. You can never — when have you seen the Border Patrol filmed?

So, this is the reason why we chose to make this our first investigative piece, to shed light on the largest law enforcement agency in the United States of America, that is majority Latino and Latina, that has very — if any, oversight, and that continues to have their budgets increased, even though we are showing that those budget increases are not leading to saving lives the way they say they are.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip from Death by Policy, when Maria Hinojosa speaks with Elena Gonzalez, whose mother Maria left to come to the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Elena’s mom tried to cross through a known path in Texas. Elena waited, and waited, and waited for her mom’s next phone call.

ELENA: Tuvo que haber pasado algo por la razón de que mi mamá no viene. No, no, no aparece.

MARIA HINOJOSA: As months passed, Elena became more and more desperate. She didn’t know who to call or how to ask for someone to look for her mom.

ELENA: ¿Cómo una persona se puede desaparecer así del mundo?

MARIA HINOJOSA: Elena wondered: How could her mother disappear just like that?

ELENA: Ahí era que mis esperanzas iban cayendo poco a poco, cayendo.

MARIA HINOJOSA: She began to lose hope that she’d ever know what happened to her mother.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Maria Hinojosa, you said you didn’t get to speak with Biden. You didn’t get to speak with Bush, Obama. They wouldn’t speak to you. But have things changed? When did you do this interview? Under President Trump or under President Biden? And have things changed? And also address the Blue Armadillos.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Yeah. So, we did this interview under President Biden. Have things changed? No, not really. Not qualitatively. As far as I’m concerned — and I have said this more than once to the Biden administration — the crisis of humanity on this border has given President Biden more than one opportunity to say, “It stops here, on my watch. I will no longer allow the Border Patrol to exist where you are trained to be on horses with whips against Black refugees, Haitian refugees. I will no longer support and endorse a Border Patrol that lies to refugees and says, ’We’re going to take you to Miami,’ and then you deport them to Haiti.” So, multiple opportunities for this president actually to break — to break with the entire narrative of this crisis of being overrun by migrants and refugees at the borders that is not happening.

And this is an opportunity for this president to say, “We’re shutting down the Border Patrol. We’re going to redo this entire thing,” because this is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States of America. The number of abuses that we document — and, by the way, the number of suicides of the Border Patrol, the number of officers who are charged with corruption. The Border Patrol, the whole entire policy behind it, is an opportunity for this administration to say, ”No más, se acabó.” By the way, you know what that would do. That would guarantee his reelection. It would absolutely guarantee his reelection, because immigration has been the centerpiece of the political debate, and he’s done, frankly, nothing new.

Your second question, I can’t remember it, but I will —

AMY GOODMAN: The Blue Armadillos, the groups —

MARIA HINOJOSA: Oh, the Blue Armadillos, OK.

AMY GOODMAN: — and how important they are.

MARIA HINOJOSA: So, the Blue Armadillos — so, here’s what happens, Amy and Juan. The Border Patrol has all of these — these huge budgets and ATVs and helicopters and all of this, but somehow they can’t seem to find people who are desperate. Like, they did find the woman at the beginning of the show, but the number of calls that we scanned and decided not to run, where the outcome is not the same, is extraordinary. So, you would think that the Border Patrol, with all of these — with these agents, with everything, that they would actually be out combing the desert at all times. The desert is huge. They don’t do that. You know, I’ve been to this border area a lot. It’s not like you see Border Patrol everywhere, kind of like — no, they’re not. So, what does that mean? That means that human beings who get lost on the border, who are human beings like you, me, Juan, our families — there but for the grace of God go I in this desert, in this extraordinary heat.

And so you have people like the Blue Armadillos, many of them who came in the same way to the United States. Most of them are based in California. They drive twice a month from California into Arizona, and they themselves go into the desert to look for people, to look for remains. They’ll get the phone call. They’ll get the coordinates of the last time this person was heard from, and they will go out to do this work. And you know the money that they need to do this, because they’re all-volunteer, they raise it by selling tamales or by giving of their own salaries. Many of them work in construction in Southern California.

You have that, that group, and they’re actually doing the humanitarian work, but you have the Border Patrol taking credit for that and saying that they’re saving lives and saying that they are out there, you know, going in and protecting lives. And what we show in the piece is that they have these beacons, these light beacons, that they say is like a major part of their lifesaving efforts on the border. If you’ve been to this part of the Organ National Pipe — Organ Cactus National Pipe, you know that there’s — it’s vast. And these beacons are a tiny little light that you’re supposed to see from miles away? And then you get there, and you push a red button, and that’s it? There’s no water. There’s no nothing there. So, the Blue Armadillos are not putting beacons like they’re in the middle of nowhere and saying, “Hey, come to us.” They, on their own volition and because of their humanity — which is what I hope returns to this country — they are the ones that are doing that work.

AMY GOODMAN: Maria, we want to get your second series, that’s so astounding. We’re talking to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa, winning — she is founder of Futuro Media. And we will be joined by Peniley Ramírez, who is executive producer of this new unit, Futuro Investigates. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “El Jardin” by Hermanos Gutiérrez. This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we speak with Maria Hinojosa, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, founder of Futuro Media, host of Latino USA, co-host of the new investigative unit’s five-part podcast series USA v. García Luna, which is years in the making and begins this Friday. Also with us, Peniley Ramírez, Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, executive producer of Futuro Investigates, who co-hosts the new series that looks at Mexico’s former secretary of public security, García Luna, who will soon become the highest-ranking Mexican official ever to face trial in the United States. This is a clip from the first episode.

PENILEY RAMÍREZ: So, what’s really striking about García Luna is that he came from a very unremarkable background, but he was able to rise to power very, very quickly. García Luna is now in his fifties. He was born in Mexico City in 1968. And in the late ’80s, when he was 21 years old, he entered the CISEN. The CISEN is the Center for Investigation on National Security, which is the equivalent to the CIA in Mexico. He started as a security agent, which means basically a low-ranking spy. But from there, in just about a decade, in the year 2000, the guy becomes the head of the Federal Investigative Agency, so the equivalent to the director of the FBI. And just six years after that, he was appointed secretary of public security by then-President Felipe Calderón. This was the highest point of his career.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Peniley Ramírez, the executive producer of Futuro Investigates, co-host of this five-part podcast series, joining us with Maria Hinojosa, these two executive producers, one Cuban American, one Mexican American, bringing us these series of investigations.

Peni, you have been working on this story for a decade. Talk about the significance of this trial that’s about to take place in the United States.

PENILEY RAMÍREZ: Well, we decided to do this series because García Luna was a close ally to the U.S. for a long period of time. As we just heard, he was part of the Mexican government. He was a high-ranking official in the Mexican government. But at the same time, Mexico was receiving a lot of money, more than $3 billion, from U.S. in aid to help the country to prevent drugs from coming to the U.S. And during all that time, according to the current accusation, here in New York, he was helping Joaquín El Chapo’s men and the Sinaloa Cartel to smuggle drugs, especially cocaine, into the U.S., mostly to Chicago and New York. So this person was at the same time, according to the accusation, working for the Mexican government, working for the Sinaloa Cartel, and cooperating with U.S. agencies, especially the DEA.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted asked Maria, because we have only a few minutes left — I wanted to ask you about a current issue, beside this case, is that we’re now — we’re now hearing that there’s a possibility in the lame-duck session of Congress for a bipartisan immigration reform bill. Now, of course, we’ve heard this story numerous times in the past, over the last 20 years or so, but Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Thom Tillis have a draft framework of this bill that would include a path to citizenship for the 2 million people known as the DREAMers, but also funds, according to The Washington Post, a big investment in removal operation of migrants and also border security. I’m wondering what you’re hearing about it, and your reaction.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Well, my first reaction is, of course, that always it’s going to be tied to this question of border security. And as I’ve just said, the problem at the border is the overmilitarization of the border. So they do not need more money, because we just showed you what’s happening with all of the money. The Border Patrol does not need more money. And the border is secure. What’s not secure are peoples’s lives down there.

So, next thing, Juan, is that we say in Mexican Spanish, ”Hasta no ver, no creer, “Until I see it, I won’t believe it.” And, you know, I think so much about the psyche, the mental health, the emotional health of our so-called DREAMers, who are no longer young. They are here waiting to buy homes and cars and send their own kids to college in this country, and they’re stuck in this situation. And they — we have all been with the expectation that something is going to happen, that something is going to happen, that it’s going to — and every time there’s this expectation, and then the bubble is burst. Immigrants and refugees in this country have been thrown under the bus by Republicans and Democrats time and time again.

Why do we do the work that we do at Futuro and Futuro Investigates? It is to centralize — center the humanity of these people, entonces. I hope that the reform comes through. It should not be piecemeal. That’s my problem. It should have never been piecemeal. There should be entire immigration reform. People, families should all be given the path to citizenship, and they should find a humane way to manage what this country says is an essential part of who they are — immigrants and immigrant flows.

So, hopefully, Juan, hopefully. But, you know, while I’m feeling a bit more optimistic about our democracy this morning, in fact, quite more optimistic, the history has shown that immigrants and refugees will again be toyed with. They will be used as political fodder. They will be — we become the threat of this country. And many of us are just tired of it, which is why we want to change the narrative entirely.

But definitely, after all of that, be sure you go and listen to USA v. García Luna, because it is mind-blowing, as we say. It’s true crime meets telenovela. It’s so crazy, we had to bring out a bottle of tequila, because there was just no way to understand this story unless we were able to have a little tequila along with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Maria Hinojosa, we want to thank you for being with us, as well as Peniley Ramírez. Your series are amazing. We will link to the new investigative podcasts Death by Policy and USA v. García Luna. And congratulations on your memoir for young people, Once I Was You, Maria.

That does it for our show. Juan, I can’t wait for Friday. Juan González is speaking at CUNY, City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies at 3 p.m. — you can check our website for the address — and also on Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the CUNY Graduate Center. We want to thank you, Juan, for these remarkable speeches. Also, a new Spanish edition of Juan’s classic book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America has just come out. Check it out.

That does it for our show. Special thanks to Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for another edition of Democracy Now!

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