Saul Reyes Salazar is a man who understands loss.
In January 2010, his sister Josefina was shot in the head, following a botched kidnapping in their hometown of Guadalupe los Bravos, across the border bridge from Tornillo, Texas. She was, at the time, one of the best-known activists in the Juarez Valley, the agricultural region that follows the Rio Grande river east of Ciudad Juarez.
In the years before her death, Josefina became one of the strongest critics of the Mexican army’s role in policing the drug war. Five thousand soldiers entered Juarez and the Valley in May of 2008, bringing along with them a wave of murders and kidnappings. Miguel Ángel Reyes Salazar, Josefina’s son, was kidnapped by soldiers in August 2008, and released a month later. Following his kidnapping, Josefina didn’t back down. Not until she was killed, that is.
The Reyes Salazar family came together and declared that Josefina’s killing was not a coincidence. She was killed, they said, because of her political activities. Eyewitness testimony fed the family’s suspicion. Before he pulled the trigger, one of Josefina’s assassins said, “You think you are tough because you are with the organizations,” according to someone who saw the killing.
Seven months passed, and Saul’s brother Rubén was murdered in Guadalupe. His body was shot through with 19 rounds from an AK-47. According to Saul, Rubén had been the loudest voice calling into question the official story that Josefina’s killing was a random act of violence.
That year, the Reyes Salazar family celebrated Christmas and the New Year as best they could, in a haze of sadness and mourning. Then, in February 2011, tragedy struck again. Saul’s sister, Magdalena, and his brother, Elías, were kidnapped, together with Elías’s wife, Luisa Ornelas. All three were kidnapped from Guadalupe.
The remaining siblings set up a protest camp at the State District Attorney’s office in Juarez, demanding the safe return of their disappeared family members. They stayed for two weeks, during which time the house of their mother, Sara, was set on fire while she was out. Once the family moved their protest to Mexico City, the governor agreed to meet with Sara Reyes Salazar. Shortly thereafter, the bodies of Magdalena, Elías, and Luisa were found in shallow graves. All exhibited signs of torture.
The news devastated the family. Leaving behind their houses, cars, and possessions, Saul and his wife, together with their children, decided to leave Mexico for good.
I met Saul in an El Paso café on a windy weekday morning. We set up the appointment through his attorney’s office – even in the US, the Reyes Salazar family takes great precautions. I was familiar with his family’s story, and knew that around 30 of his relatives had sought amnesty in the US, which Saul, his wife and kids had been granted.
Clearly, Saul Reyes Salazar knows about loss. In less than two years, four of his siblings and his sister-in-law were brutally murdered. He lost his home and his livelihood.
From time to time, Saul speaks to the media about his family’s plight. But there is so much more that goes unsaid.
Before the killings and kidnappings started, before former president Felipe Calderón launched a war on drugs with US backing, before 10,000 soldiers and police arrived in Ciudad Juarez, the Reyes Salazar family was known for other things.
They helped organize a massive campaign against a proposed nuclear waste dump in Sierra Blanca, Texas, a small town near the border that already received much of New York City’s human waste. Sierra Blanca, a small town known mostly for a migration police checkpoint that has landed numerous celebrities in jail on drug charges, is located 15 km from the US-Mexico Border. The drought-ridden desert region is economically depressed and most of the population is of Mexican descent. Resistance to the nuclear cemetery, as opponents dubbed it, began in Texas and quickly spread to northern Mexico.
“In Mexico, [our family] participated by trying to wake up peoples’ environmental consciousness, and building acts of resistance. Like closing the US-Mexico border for one hour during one day – we closed the whole border, all international bridges were closed for more than one hour, all of them. With participation from other groups, we did a walk called ‘The Walk for Life,’ from El Paso, Texas to Sierra Blanca, a bi-national walk. Americans walked on the American side, and Mexicans on the Mexican side,” reminisced Reyes-Salazar.
The March 21, 1992 border blockade protesting the nuclear waste dump was and remains the first time every US-Mexico border crossing – from San Diego to Brownsville – was closed by activists. The bi-national organizing around Sierra Blanca led to the cancellation of the project and a promise that it would not be revived.
Sierra Blanca was just one of the struggles embraced by the Reyes Salazar family, whose success came from combining innovative organizing methods with their vast social network in the border area. They fought against the illegal disposal of contaminants, the pollution of water in Ciudad Juarez (located upstream from the Valley), and the use of outlawed chemicals by maquiladoras operating in Mexico.
Many of these struggles were precursors to what we now call environmental justice struggles. Community organizers, including members of the Reyes Salazar family, worked on combatting environmental racism, the exposing of poor people and people of color to dangerous toxins and hazards ignored by the general population.
“Today, there’s pretty much no one who talks about this, but the Juarez Valley is still contaminated by a 100 km canal that carries Juarez waste water, the farming lands are contaminated by chemicals by various maquilas who dump their chemicals in the waste, there’s oil from the mechanics shops, and of course all of the human waste from all of the houses in Ciudad Juarez end up in the Valley, which is basically the septic tank of Juarez,” said Saul.
Reyes Salazar estimates that in the state of Chihuahua alone, 40 activists have been killed since December 2006, something he likens to an ideological cleansing of environmental and human rights activists in the state.
Saul and his family are no longer active in environmental movements. Instead, they are scraping by in their new lives in Texas, forced to live with the devastating impacts of the drug war every day. Their family has also become an unfortunate example of the fate that can befall activists in Mexico-at-war.
“The violence, the situation we’re living, has made many organizations go dormant. It’s made us go on pause, no?” said Felix Leonardo Pérez Verdugo during an interview in Juarez in late 2011. Pérez Verdugo is a member of the Ecological Council of Ciudad Juarez. He also participated in the fight against Sierra Blanca. “Sure, some groups are working, but it’s not like before. I think there is a kind of fear, a fear of going out and participating,” he said.
Although homicide rates have fallen since we talked over a year ago, there is little proof that environmental organizing has re-emerged, despite ongoing ecological problems linked primarily to water and contamination.
The experience of returning to Juarez and crossing to El Paso to talk to Saul Reyes Salazar reminded me of the last time I had interviewed people who had lost multiple family members to state violence, in Rabinal, Guatemala. There, survivors of massacres that took place in the early 1980s continue to grieve and suffer the massive losses inflicted on their families during the internal conflict.
According to Guatemalan writers active at that time, the violence inflicted against the people of Rabinal and elsewhere prevented participation and organization on the community or group level.
According to a group of critical writers attempting to understand terror in Guatemala in the early 1980s, “With domination through terror, in addition to the physical elimination of those who oppose the interests of the regime, there is also the pursuit of ‘the control of a social universe made possible through the intimidation induced by acts of destruction… (and with) acts of terror, there is an overall impact on the social universe —at a social and generalized level— of a whole series of psychosociological pressures which impose an obstacle to possible political action.’”
Thirty years have passed since then, but there is no doubt that the Reyes Salazar family has been terrorized, along with hundreds of thousands of others throughout northern Mexico – terrorized by the army and terrorized by criminal groups. And while the terror has failed to generate silence, it has certainly caused a slow-down of organizing along the US-Mexico border.
Before we get up from the table at the café, I asked Saul who it is he would fear, should he go back to Mexico. “The government, the drug trafficking cartels, because attacking the government means attacking their associates,” he said.
I then asked him if he ever thinks about moving back to Mexico, back to his hometown, which is so close to the border he can see it across the river from Texas.
“Going back to Mexico, for me, would probably be, with everything that I have said there, and here, the surest way for me to die,” he said.
Dawn Paley is an investigative journalist from Vancouver, BC. More of her work can be found on her website at dawnpaley.ca, or follow her on twitter @dawn_.
 Gomis, R. Romillo, M., Rodríguez, I. “Reflexiones sobre la political del terror: El caso de Guatemala.” Cuadernos de Nuestra América. Vol 1. 1983. La Habana. Cited in: Equipo de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala. Las Masacres en Rabinal: Estudio Historico Antropológico sde las massacres de Plan de Sanchez, Chichipate y Rio Negro, 1997. 2nd Edition. 1997. Guatemala. P. 154.