Dental Tourism Industry Exploits Workers in Mexico

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.

By Krystyna Adams, Simon Fraser University

The town of Los Algodones in Mexico is nicknamed “Molar City”. It has a population of just 6,000 people and, shockingly, it has more than 500 practicing dentists. This has produced an intense clustering of dental clinics within a four block radius.

Many of these dentists chose to work in this town because of the tourist traffic, given its proximity to the Mexico-United States border. Thousands of Canadian and American tourists park their cars and walk across the border into Los Algodones to spend the day souvenir shopping, eating and drinking in the local restaurants, and purchasing alcohol, prescription drugs and dental care at lower costs than available back home.

In 2015 and 2016, I spent four months living in Los Algodones conducting interviews and participating in local events for a doctoral research project in health sciences at Simon Fraser University. My work investigates dental travel as part of the wider phenomenon of “medical tourism”—an industry that is growing rapidly as more and more patients seek access to new or more affordable medical treatments outside of their countries of residence.

My research raises concerns about exploitative industry practices in Los Algodones, Mexico. These include poor working conditions and discriminatory practices for employees in dental clinics, harassment of Indigenous street vendors and lack of access to dental care for local residents.

Inside ‘Molar City’

Most of the residents and employees I met during my research in Los Algodones were grateful for the much-needed economic benefits of the dental tourism industry. But I also heard concerns and frustrations from members of the local population. They felt that many of the industry activities were unfair and difficult to change.

One interviewee explained how dental tourists often come with prejudiced assumptions about Mexico, stating: “We see a lot of racism […] people trying to come here and saying, okay it is Mexico, I can ask for anything and pay you less.”

There are more than 500 dentists practicing in dental clinics like this one in Los Algodones. (Krystyna Adams/Author provided)

Local residents and industry employees felt that dental tourists’ perceptions of Mexico as unsafe and underdeveloped are driving poor working conditions and discriminatory practices.

For example, employees work long hours to promote Los Algodones’ reputation for their employers as an ideal site to purchase dental care. Some also said they had experienced harassment from dental tourists negotiating lower prices and faster care.

Harassment of Indigenous Vendors

Clinic employees and local residents also experience stressful interactions in the industry to meet the expectations of clinic owners. Some owners encourage employees to minimize their Mexican accents. This is done to distance Los Algodones from prejudiced perceptions of Mexico as an underdeveloped place with inferior medical care.

One participant described how a dental clinic owner offered to pay him to dump buckets of water on the heads of Indigenous souvenir vendors working near his clinic. Along with harassment, clinic owners also encourage Indigenous vendors to “stay cool, sell stuff cheap, and smile to people.” Many owners worry that the presence of Indigenous vendors might deter tourists by representing the underdeveloped Mexico of tourists’ imaginations.

Local Residents Struggle to Access Dental Care

My research also revealed that dental clinic owners’ concerns about reputation can decrease access to dental care for local residents. Clinic owners suggested they’re too busy marketing their services and treating foreign patients to treat many locals. Some owners are using free X-rays to entice tourists, who shop around for their ideal care.

Most of the dental services in Los Algodones are also focused on the provision of major restorative treatment rather than preventative care, given the needs of dental tourists. Most local residents cannot afford this type of care. This is concerning as there are limited publicly funded dental care options available in this region of Mexico.

Overall, the “dental Shangri-la of the Mexican desert” is only an oasis for those able and willing to travel and pay for dental care. For many, the industry provides much-needed employment. But this might be stressful, unfair work for individuals unable to use the dental oasis for their own health needs.

The Need for Global Regulation

Participation in the global medical tourism industry is increasing and research shows that this growth raises serious ethical challenges, at least in the industry’s current form. Researchers have raised concerns about the negative impacts on the health of local people who live and work in these medical tourism destinations.

My in-depth investigation of industry practices in the town of Los Algodones provides more evidence to support these concerns. It suggests the need for better global regulation of dental tourism and medical tourism more widely.

This regulation is needed to avoid competition between industry sites driving down labor standards in the global industry and diverting health resources away from populations in need. This regulation could enforce acceptable work conditions to avoid a race-to-the-bottom effect as industry sites try to attract customers to lower-cost, desirable medical care.

More information about these concerns could also help individuals participating in the industry to avoid harmful practices. It could remind medical tourists that cost savings for care might come at a cost to fair labor standards—and that they should allow sufficient time for treatment and be prepared to pay fair prices.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

The Highest Bidders in Puerto Rico’s Bankruptcy

By Joel Cintrón Arbasetti and Carla Minet

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — The same day Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico, Oppenheimer Funds questioned that the island’s government could not pay its $74.8 billion debt because in June it collected more taxes than estimated. A few days earlier, after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the company had said the municipal bond market could become a source of capital for affected municipalities that, “have to (or choose to) retrofit or replace critical infrastructure, or embark on a master plan to rebuild areas that were largely destroyed.”

Against all forecasts on the economic and fiscal situation of the island before Hurricane María, Oppenheimer painted an optimistic narrative. In December 2016, it assured clients that their investments in bonds issued by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico had helped them maintain the performance appeal of their funds compared to their competitors. “The Puerto Rico credit picture continues to evolve and, in our opinion, improve,” they said. Eighteen months earlier, former governor Alejandro García Padilla had publicly expressed that Puerto Rico’s debt of was unpayable. Despite that, Oppenheimer did not mention this in its report.

In contrast, the Franklin Templeton Mutual Fund assured its clients a few months ago that in 2012 it had begun reducing exposure to Puerto Rico-related bonds due to the financial scenario on the island. According to a 2017 report, they retained those investments they believed were in the strongest position and had legal and constitutional protections. However, in the General Obligation bond issue the government of Puerto Rico made in 2014, and which major credit houses rated as “high risk” or “junk,” Franklin requested to buy $200 million, resulting in a $60 million purchase.

Those two U.S. companies allied themselves with the local mutual funds owned by Santander Asset Management, known as the First Puerto Rico Family of Funds, to form the Mutual Fund Group, creditors who claim the largest amount of debt in the Puerto Rico government’s bankruptcy under Title III of the PROMESA federal law. The group calls for the payment of $7.2 billion in General Obligation bonds, Sales Tax Interest Fund Corporation (Cofina), Electric Power Authority and Highways and Transportation Authority (ACT). The mutual funds Goldman Sachs Asset Management and UBS also claim Title III debts, but are not part of the group.

Mutual funds are companies that manage and invest for their customers in different products (e.g., bonds, stocks or real estate) to generate profits for them and their clients. For years, they have been a favorite investment vehicle for “mom and pop investors,” seniors, and retirees with moderate capital who expect to earn long-term profits. Oppenheimer Fund says it has spent more than 20 years investing in Puerto Rico; Franklin, more than 30. Both point out that the appeal of the island’s bonds is the fact that they pay no federal, state or local taxes in the United States (the so-called Triple Tax Exemption.) Another incentive mentioned is that within the debt issued by the government, the Constitution gave priority to the payment of the General Obligation bonds, while a portion of the Sales and Use Tax (IVU) is used for the payment of Cofina (Sales Tax Financing Corp.) bonds.

That’s how these companies sold the island’s bonds to low-profile investors who reside in Maryland, Ohio, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona. Those seemingly guaranteed investments ended up in the biggest bankruptcy in the history of a U.S. jurisdiction.

Mutual Funds Under Scrutiny

“The people who invested in mutual funds, generally, are not terribly sophisticated. They don’t sit down and figure out what is this fund. They might examine what’s the rate of return, what’s the general description—if it is a conservative fund, is it a risk fund, they might look at things like that possibly, but they don’t get into the detail of what that consists of. So therefore they are relying upon the people who put the funds together to protect them. Those people who put the funds together, they are regulated by my office if they do business in Massachusetts,” said William Francis Galvin, Secretary of State of Massachusetts, in an interview with the Center for Investigative Journalism.

In 2013, Galvin accused 15 brokerage firms, including Morgan Stanley (MS)Merrill Lynch (MER)UBS AG (UBS) and Bank of America Corp. (BAC), as part of an investigation into the way they sold “esoteric high-risk products” to elderly people.

“They are usually small-dollar investors. They’re not multimillionaires usually. They are people who are looking for safety. Mutual funds tend to attract investors who have less financial worth, and are looking for safety as opposed to people who have a lot of money and take risks. So they tend to be more conservative investors. Generally speaking, they don’t have a personal financial advisor, they don’t have a strategy on how to save money or make some money on their investments, they are not people with a lot of money, so that’s what makes them all the more vulnerable to this situation and that’s why we were concerned,” Galvin said.

In early 2017, Galvin opened a new investigation into the practice of selling Puerto Rico bond funds to determine if investors had been informed of the product risks. As part of the investigation, he sent letters to Oppenheimer Funds, UBS Financial Services and Fidelity Investments, a U.S. pension fund.

“There was a good reason in the beginning for mutual funds to see the Puerto Rican bonds as a good investment because of the [tax-exempt] status. But as the problems emerged, and Congress really hasn’t dealt with the problem at all, they don’t seem to be providing the money that’s necessary to deal with it or to come up with a comprehensive solution, the risk of a default to these investors is pretty serious,” he said.

“That’s why we were concerned: to see what exactly these firms knew and make sure they were aware of our interest in supervising what the decision-making process was. We were looking at those two firms [Oppenheimer and UBS] because they have a large presence in Massachusetts, but it was not limited to them. Our interest is a general interest. It’s not specific to either of these two firms. The inquiry began some months ago, maybe even late last year, I’m not quite sure, but it’s been a while,” the Democrat public official said.

Puerto Rico’s Biggest Creditors Duo

Oppenheimer tops the lists of Mutual Fund Group’s firms, and among all those claiming Title III debts, with $4.9 billion. Of that total, $1.5 billion is General Obligation debt, $1.9 from Cofina bonds, almost $394 million in ACT bonds and $957 millions in bonds from the Electric Power Authority.

This mutual funds firm, along with Franklin, sued the government of Puerto Rico in 2014 and got the U.S. District Court in San Juan and the First Circuit Court in Boston to declare the “Local Bankruptcy Law” unconstitutional. Oppenheimer further lobbied Congress to stop any attempt to give Puerto Rico access to Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy law.

Oppenheimer is a subsidiary of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual) one of the largest insurance companies in the United States. As of December 2016, it handled approximately $191 billion in assets under management.

Oppenheimer has paid more than $64 million in fines to federal financial regulators, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for fraud and regulatory violations, from 2012 through 2016.

The firm’s CEO and President, Arthur Phillip Steinmetz, is a donor to the Libertarian Party in the United States, which enacts essentially Republican positions on minimal financial and regulatory intervention by the state, while promoting a progressive civil rights agenda. He also contributed to Republicans Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell, and Democratic senator Charles Schumer. Oppenheimer Funds established a Political Action Committee (PAC) for the last election cycle that raised $356,841, distributing 40% to Democrats and 60% to Republicans.

In its 2016 report, Oppenheimer added that one of the positive factors for Puerto Rico was the election of Ricardo Rosselló as governor. The report stated: “An ardent supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico, Governor-elect Rosselló campaigned, in part, on a platform that included his resolve to work with owners of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds to ultimately pay 100% of interest due on Puerto Rico’s outstanding municipal debt. While the success of any such effort remains to be seen, we believe that Governor-elect Rosselló stands to negotiate with bondholders in good faith, as he appears to understand the direct relationship that payment of existing debt bears to future access to municipal bond market borrowing. In total, we believe that Governor-elect Rosselló represents a positive factor for the future of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds.”

A month later, after the Rosselló administration’s swearing-in, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (“AAFAF” by its Spanish acronym), Gerardo Portela, sat down with Oppenheimer, Franklin and Goldman Sachs, the bond insurance companies, and several hedge funds.

Oppenheimer executives also expressed “hope” about the PROMESA law and the appointment of a Fiscal Control Board, which they characterized as “powerful.”

Perhaps now the firm sees it differently, as both the Rosselló administration and the Fiscal Control Board have earmarked less money to pay the debt than what the previous administration put on the table during negotiations. “The Certified Fiscal Plan (by the Fiscal Control Board) would require haircuts of between 62% and 79%, if implemented on a proportional basis. By comparison, García Padilla’s latest offer, which was rejected by the creditors, called for a weighted average haircut of only 32% across all credits,” says a June 2017 presentation by Millstein & Co., the García Padilla administration’s former restructuring advisors.

In January 2017, the firm made other comments to its bondholders, stating the following: “In a year when the phrase ‘fake news’ entered our national vocabulary, we believe that the media’s coverage of developments in and related to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico could best be described as ‘partial news’.” It then explains why everything is going well with its investments in the island, although in the end it warns that the deterioration of Puerto Rico’s economy could have an adverse impact on Puerto Rico’s bonds and the performance of Oppenheimer Rochester municipal funds.

Five months later, in May 2017, when Title III had been certified as the process to renegotiate the debt, Oppenheimer maintained its optimism and told its clients: “While the situation in Puerto Rico remains challenging, the market for bonds issued by the Commonwealth remains liquid and Puerto Rico’s revenues stand at an all-time high.”

A month ago, the picture changed. Hurricane María swept away the sources of debt repayment. The central government that issued the General Obligation bonds now directs its resources to address the humanitarian crisis left by the storm. The Sales and Use Tax, part of which pays for Cofina’s bonds, has been waived on prepared foods since October 8. For a month, the highway tolls, whose revenues are used in part to pay off the ACT debt, were not charged. Also, part of the infrastructure of PREPA, of which Oppenheimer and Franklin are also creditors, was totally destroyed.

For its part, Franklin Mutual Advisers LLC is the umbrella company that has 22 different funds distributed in General Obligation bonds, Cofina and PREPA bonds. In total, they have $1.8 billion in debt and rank second among all creditors participating in Title III. Franklin Mutual Advisers LLC is a subsidiary of Franklin Resources, which in conjunction with its subsidiaries is known as Franklin Templeton Investments, with $65 billion in assets under management.

By having Cofina bonds and General Obligation bonds at the same time, Mutual Fund Group firms have a conflict. In the event of a Puerto Rico government bankruptcy under Title III of PROMESA, some General Obligation bondholders hold that Cofina is illegal because it was created to issue debt above the constitutional limit, using as a source of repayment a portion of the Tax Sale and Use (IVU). While the Cofina bondholders maintain that this part of the IVU belongs to them by law, those with General Obligation bonds are protected in that the Constitution establishes payment priority for such bonds.

Franklin Mutual Advisers is also part of the Ad Hoc Group’s General Obligation Bonds, where it claims $294 million in that type of bond.

In addition to coinciding as the mutual funds with more bonds in Puerto Rico, and its successful opposition to the local bankruptcy law, Oppenheimer and Franklin have teamed up for another task: political investment. Both firms participate in the Investment Co Institute PAC, which raised $1.2 million for the last U.S. elections and distributes its donations among Democratic candidates (34%) and Republicans (66%). Franklin’s top managers, Gregory E. Johnson and Rupert H. Johnson, Jr., have also been regular donors to key Republican figures.

Santander in the Mutual Fund Group

The Mutual Fund Group also includes Santander Asset Management —which along with its First Puerto Rico Family of Funds— has requested the payment of $478 million in General Obligation bonds, Cofina and HTA bonds. Santander Asset Management is a subsidiary of SAM Investment Holdings Limited, which in February 2017 was handling $1.6 billion in assets. Frank Serra Cardona, president and CEO of Santander Asset Management, did not answer calls from the Center for Investigative Journalism.

Dennis Williams, SAM’s Chief Investment Officer, said in 2016 that the Fiscal Control Board’s operation, despite being “politically controversial,” could bring economic stability, financial transparency and fiscal discipline to the Puerto Rico budget process. “We note that Puerto Rico municipal bond prices have improved during the two months following the adoption of PROMESA,” he said.

In the same report, it acknowledges that the First Puerto Rico Family of Funds could be affected by the Board’s decisions. “Depending on the approach taken by the Federal Oversight Board, its decisions may result in favorable or unfavorable actions to creditors. The Federal Oversight Board may elect to honor bondholder commitments, or it may decide to prioritize pensions at the expense of bondholders. The outcome for Puerto Rico bondholders will ultimately depend on the fiscal approach favored by the members of the Federal Oversight Board.”

The First Puerto Rico Family of Funds is a group of funds that belong to Santander Asset Management.

The firm offers mutual fund shares only to individuals and businesses residing in Puerto Rico. Those funds are mostly acquired by people for long-term investments, such as the payment of their children’s college tuition or retirement income. The firm is obliged by law to invest two-thirds of its assets in Puerto Rico securities, and have invested significant amounts of money in the government and its public corporations.

Between 2001 and 2008, Fiscal Control Board member José Ramón González, chaired the Board of Directors of Santander Securities and its subsidiary Santander Asset Management, the company that manages the assets of the First Puerto Rico Family of Funds. According to his partial financial reports filed as Board member, José Ramón González’s wife liquidated her investments in the First Puerto Rico Tax Exempt Target Maturity Fund II and IV and the First Puerto Rico Tax Advantaged Target Maturity Fund 1, between September and October 2016, shortly after González was appointed to the Board. The value of the withdrawn investments is not precise, ranging from $1,001 to $15,000 each, according to the financial disclosure report. The reported gain per fund fluctuates from $201 to $1,000. None of the items mention whether there was any gain or loss in the liquidation of these investments.

In August 2016, Carlos García, another Fiscal Control Board member who also worked at Santander, liquidated his investments in five First Puerto Rico Family of Funds vehicles: First Puerto Rico Target Maturity Income Opportunities Fund II, First Puerto Rico Tax Advantaged Target Maturity Fund I, First Puerto Tax Exempt Target Maturity Fund III y IV and First Puerto Rico Tax Exempt Target Maturity Fund II. García’s financial report is equally imprecise and states the value of each fund was between $1,001 and $15,000 and the amount of gains per fund was between $201 and $1,000.

González’s and García’s financial reports that have been made public are incomplete but have been certified by the ethics officer hired by the Fiscal Control Board, Andrea Bonime Blanc, who is supposed to evaluate whether the financial interests disclosed represent or do not represent a possible conflict of interest that affects that entity’s integrity. In addition, the documents disclosed cover a period after being appointed to the Board, and not before or during their evaluation process to that position. In June 2017, the Center for Investigative Journalism filed a lawsuit against the Board in which it requested these documents, in full form and as they were delivered to the federal agencies that evaluated them.

Santander informed that it will donate $2 million to local aid and relief organizations, non-profit organizations and a fund to help Bank employees.

The Toro, Colón, Mullet, Rivera & Sifre law firm, which represents the Mutual Fund Group in Puerto Rico, did not respond the Center for Investigative Journalism’s attempts for questions about its client.

UBS Requires Payment for Fraudulent Bonds

The UBS Family of Funds are “closed mutual funds” managed by UBS. They are the third largest creditor of the government with $1.4 billion distributed in 89 funds with Cofina bonds, the Highway and Transportation Authority and the Retirement System.

The Center for Investigative Journalism found that all of the individual funds over which UBS is suing the government have been fined and reprimanded by the SEC for false representation and omission of data to its customers regarding the price of the bonds.

“Our shareholders consist primarily of individual retirees (and near retirees) that reside in Puerto Rico. These shareholders have invested their savings through the Puerto Rico Funds, and many of them depend on COFINA’s principal and interest payments to survive,” UBS’s motion in the Title III case stated.

In 2015, in one of the cases against UBS involving these funds, the SEC accused stockbroker José Ramírez, Jr. of fraudulently selling, through misrepresentation and omission of information to clients—approximately $50 million of the mutual funds. The SEC indicated that UBS lacked mechanisms to supervise the broker. However, an audio leak from a UBS executive board meeting point that the claims and fines the firm paid suggest fraudulent bond sales as an institutionalized practice within UBS.

Goldman Sachs Doesn’t Reveal Its Numbers

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs Asset Management (GSAM), which has General Obligation and Cofina bonds, is a division of Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s largest investment banks that the U.S. government bailed out by during the 2008 financial crisis, with $10 billion in federal funds. In 2010, the SEC indicted Goldman Sachs for fraud during the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis and in January 2016 the U.S. Department of Justice ordered it to pay a $5.6 billion fine.

In its most recent June 2017 report, the head of the Municipal Bond Portfolio Management division at Goldman Sachs, Ben Barber, anticipated that the Title III proceedings would be handled through a mediation process and ensured: “If the Court is obligated to certify a plan that both parties have not agreed on, we will probably enter into a long process that could last several years.”

Goldman Sachs has other interests in Puerto Rico. For example, its Goldman Sachs Infrastructure Partners II LP division, along with Abertis Infrastructures, won the bid for the privatization of the PR-22 and PR-5 highways that former governor Luis Fortuño’s administration carried out in 2011, earning them a contract of more than $1.4 billion for 40 years.

Also, Goldman Sachs Realty Management, a limited liability company incorporated in Delaware, completed a certification of authorization to do business in Puerto Rico on January 11, 2017.


Laura Moscoso collaborated on this story.

The “The Creditors That Control Puerto Rico’s Bankruptcy” series of the Center for Investigative Journalism digs into in the characteristics and the background of the investment firms that until now have dominated the government of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy case. A new round of stories will be publish this week and next week.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.

Peace Makes Strides in Colombia, but the Battle Is Far From Won

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.

By Fabio Andres Diaz, International Institute of Social Studies

One year after Colombians initially rejected a peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla group, today the outlook for peace seems almost promising. On October 10, the country’s constitutional court shielded that accord from any changes for a period of 12 years, removing fears that future governments could water down or undo the controversial deal.

With this much-anticipated decision, nine judges made it possible for the country to institutionalize peace after 50 years of internal conflict.

But for all the speculation among scholars about the FARC’s transition from armed rebellion to political party –my own included— the end of the conflict remains uncertain. Colombia’s violence was never just about the FARC, and peace won’t be, either.

Not Just the FARC

On the one hand, there are positive signs of calm in the country. On Oct. 1, a ceasefire went into effect with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the FARC’s lesser-known rebel sibling.

Established in Colombia in 1964, the same year as the FARC, the ELN aimed to promote a Cuban model of armed revolution in Colombia. This set them apart from the FARC, with its Marxist-Leninist approach to social change. So did the ELN’s less militaristic approach to violence. The group didn’t shy away from ambushing Colombia’s armed forces, but its preferred methods were sabotage – bombing oil pipelines, laying landmine fields—and extortion.

The ELN still has 1,500 to 2,000 troops stationed across the country, in territory that intersects with areas once occupied by the FARC. Thus, any narrative of the Colombian conflict that touts the FARC’s centrality risks missing the key role that the ELN must play in building a lasting peace.

As such, the ELN ceasefire is an important step in its peace process, which started in February 2017. On Oct. 5, the U.N. announced a mission to verify its implementation.

This opens the door to broader deescalation of violence in Colombia, which remains high since the peace agreement. At least 200 human rights activists have been killed over the past two years, and drug cartels, organized crime groups and paramilitary organizations continue to operate in the country. This dangerous dynamic does not miraculously disappear along with the FARC, or the ELN for that matter.

Recidivism is another threat: In past peace efforts in Colombia, demobilized fighters from one rebel group simply rejoined other armed organizations. This fueled the war, giving it a continuity that went beyond particular organizations to become a kind of generalized social phenomenon.

Spoiler Alert

Despite recent advances, implementing the FARC agreement is still a significant challenge: The accords are ambitious, and they must be carried out in a country whose populace voted against the peace agreement by a thin margin just one year ago.

There were numerous conspiracy theories floated during the peace talks, including allegations that the negotiations’ inclusion of gender and LGBTQ issues would promote a “homosexual agenda” in Colombia.

But the deal’s opponents raised valid claims, too. Some wondered whether conflict victims would actually see justice served, while others expressed concerns about former rebels joining the political process.

In the end, many Colombians were profoundly uncertain about how the principles of the FARC agreement would be interpreted and implemented. Just over 50 percent of them rejected the peace agreement, which ultimately had to be approved via a fast-tracked passage through Congress.

As the 2018 presidential election season heats up, some candidates and parties have found that attacking the accords is now a good way to mobilize votes.

This, in my assessment, is a dangerous electoral strategy. FARC fighters could interpret such political bluster as the state reneging on its commitments, which could in turn produce a spike in recidivism: Why should guerrillas hold up their end of the deal if the government won’t?

Indeed, there are already reports that demobilized fighters are being recruited by other armed groups. This has real potential to foil the peace process.

The court’s decision has now shielded the agreement from populist proposals of renegotiating a “better deal.” But there are other reasons why the Colombian government could fail to keep its commitments to the FARC – namely the ongoing challenges of implementation.

From delays in disarming rebels and underfunded mental health care for ex-combatants to setbacks in passing the laws necessary to activate components of the peace deal, the process has been fraught.

Colombia, a middle-income South American nation, may simply lack the institutional capacity necessary to fulfill its own landmark agreement. After all, a weak state unable to deliver on promises made to its citizens is one reason that warlords and armed actors got so powerful there in the first place.

Political Tensions

There have been remarkable achievements, of course. In June, the FARC surrendered its weapons to the U.N., and its guerrillas are now concentrated in reintegration camps. The government has even managed to keep demobilized fighters safe throughout this process.

But the next big hurdle is just around the corner: the phases of transitional justice and historical reckoning. Colombia’s Congress is now debating legislation detailing how FARC fighters will be punished, or not, for their transgressions.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commander Ivan Marquez (C) and members of the former rebel group’s secretariat offer a press conference after registering as a new political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, at the National Electoral Council in Bogota on October 9, 2017. (JOHN VIZCAINO/AFP/Getty Images)

Lawmakers must also set up the Colombian Truth Commission, which will allow Colombians to understand, for the first time, the full extent of the atrocities committed in their country.

At present, this legislation is being filibustered by some right-wing politicians, who want Colombia’s transitional justice to be more punitive. Meanwhile, members of the Cambio Radical Party stand accused of seeking bribes from President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration in exchange for their votes. As the May 2018 election nears, such political tensions are likely to rise.

Peace-building often looks like this. It’s messy and long and nonlinear, a national process that takes political leadership, sacrifice and no small dose of patience.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
The Conversation

Who Owns Puerto Rico’s $74 Billion Debt?

As a follow-up to reporting by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) and In These Times that listed the top financial firms who own Puerto Rico’s $74 billion debt and how this debt crisis is impacting the island’s recovery process after Hurricane Maria, journalists involved in reporting these stories made an appearance Wednesday on Democracy Now!

Fans Dance, Cry and Smile as Selena Becomes a Google Doodle

“Wow! The Google Doodle today celebrates Selena! I was so moved by this, I cried,” said Favianna Rodriguez, an activist and artist with the art collective >Culture/Strike. Rodriguez was one of many who woke up to an animated Google Doodle honoring Selena Quintanilla, “The Queen of Tejano.”

The release of the doodle on October 17, celebrates the 28th anniversary of the release of Selena’s debut studio album, “Selena.”

The animation includes her 1994 No. 1 single,“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” and the images celebrate Selena’s love of music. The cartoon shows a montage of her as a young girl practicing with her dad and growing up to become Selena the artist. The animation elevates the dedication placed on becoming the Selena fans grew to know.

Still of young Selena and her father from the Selena Google Doodle animation.

“It’s so rare that Latinxs artists get such widespread recognition. Although we make up about 17% of the national population, there are few stories of Latinx artists in the mainstream.” Rodriguez told Latino USA.

Perla Campos, Google Doodle’s Global Marketing Lead, spearheaded Google’s Selena homage, which was two years in the making. As a Latina from Texas, she has a special connection to the doodle’s release. Campos is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant single mother, when recalling Selena’s influence she wrote in a letter on the Google Doodle page, “Selena taught me that being Latina was a powerful thing, and that with hard work and focus, I could do whatever I set my mind to.”

The doodle is accompanied by a virtual exhibit that offers an in-depth look at Selena’s iconic outfits, awards, and fan art. The Selena exhibit can be found on Google’s Arts and Culture site. The exhibit was curated by The Selena Museum. The museum is operated and curated by the Quintanilla family.

In a statement to the media regarding the Google Doodle, Suzette Quintanilla, Selena’s sister said of the project, “This [is] a testament to the power of Selena’s legacy, which is still going strong 22 years later. Selena has always transcended cultural boundaries and having this Doodle featuring a strong, Latina woman on the homepage of Google around the world is a perfect example of that.”

Here are some of the social media reactions about the Selena doodle:

Puerto Rico’s Dilemma After Hurricane Maria: Rebuild or Pay the Debt?

By Joel Cintrón Arbasetti and Carla Minet

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Hearing room #3 of the U.S. District Court in San Juan is full—the words heard among the collective murmur are in English. They are pronounced mainly by white men in dark suits who become silent all at once, when a Black woman enters: federal bankruptcy judge Laura Taylor Swain.

It is August 9, forty minutes before the session begins, the third one under Title III of the federal PROMESA Act (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act of 2016), where the government of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy case is being discussed. Here, you can feel the tension for the legal battle to collect $74.7 billion in debt, the biggest in history for a U.S. jurisdiction, expected to create repercussions on the entire population and people not on the island. This debt is added to the pension system obligations, which reach $49 billion.

The crowd of more than 100 lawyers in this hearing room do not accurately reflect the representation of the majority of the people the case impacts. Many of the people holding government debt do have voices speaking for them. For example, the so-called individual bondholders: rookie investors who trusted their savings to mutual funds such as Franklin Advisers and Oppenheimer Funds, or brokerage houses such as Popular Securities, UBS or Santander Asset Management.

On the contrary, the legal battle for public funds under Title III is carried out by specialized investors: mutual funds companies, hedge funds experts in litigating to collect debt, and bond insurance companies (monolines) responsible for paying their clients’ total debt. Assurers are jointly claiming $21 billion, according to the certified Fiscal Plan.

The litigation by these companies’ lawyers —as large amounts of money are being placed to win or lose on Puerto Rico’s debt— sometimes becomes violent.

“I’m from Queens, [New York] and I remember that when you don’t pay, there are consequences,” said Susheel Kirpalani, attorney for the investment firms that comprise the Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition, in obvious reference to the underworld’s common practice, where the debtor is threatened or murdered. In this case, the debtor is the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which is supposed to be represented by the Fiscal Oversight Board (imposed by Congress a year ago through PROMESA) that is charged to make the government pay and be able to issue debt again.

If the scenario was complicated, four weeks after Hurricane Maria struck the island, a new bill for the government of Puerto Rico could surpass the current debt: damages caused by the storm could fluctuate between $45 billion and $95 billion, according to estimates from Moody’s.

According to governor Ricardo Rosselló, only $2 billion is left in the Treasury Department’s account, so the government warned that it could run out of money in October. Since June, the Fiscal Control Board warned that the government could run out of money to pay public employees in November or December.

The question everyone has in mind is whether investment firms claiming millions in debt will go ahead with their claims in the country’s new landscape. Nearly one month after the storm, more than 5,000 people are still in shelters, food and potable water is being rationed, the majority of hospitals are in partial operation, around 83% of the island is without electricity service and general failures in all communications continue.

“We have to look at all their debt structure. You know they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street and we gonna have to wipe that out. You know, you can say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is you can wave goodbye to that. We have to do something about it, because the debt was massive on the island,” President Trump told Fox News after a quick stop in Puerto Rico on October 3. The next day, the director of the White House budget office Mick Mulvaney said in another interview: “I think what you heard the president say is that Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out a way to solve its debt problem.”

In fact, Goldman Sachs Asset Management (GSAM) bought $120 million in the General Obligation junk bond issue made by the government of Puerto Rico in 2014, while Goldman Sachs & Co., another of The Goldman Sachs Group divisions, was one of the banks in charge of selling the issue. In 2015, GSAM had $1.3 billion in bonds from the island.

The Oppenheimer Fund claims the largest amount of debt under Title III of PROMESA, according to a list generated by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) from documents submitted by lawyers of the firms in the Puerto Rican government bankruptcy case. Oppenheimer claims $4.9 billion in General Obligation bonds, Cofina, Highways and Transportation Authority and the Electric Energy Authority (known as PREPA), through 16 funds belonging to the Mutual Fund Group.

Franklin Funds, a mutual fund belonging to the same group, ranks second with $1.8 billion in General Obligation bonds, Cofina and PREPA, distributed in 22 funds.

Although they are also mutual funds, the UBS Puerto Rico Family of Funds, managed by UBS Asset Managers of Puerto Rico, are not part of the Mutual Fund Group. They are in third place, with $1.4 billion distributed in 89 funds with Cofina bonds, the Highway and Transportation Authority and Retirement System bonds.

Puerto Rico government’s top three creditors between 2013 and 2016 —Oppenheimer, Franklin and UBS— paid $378 million in fraud fines to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). In the case of Oppenheimer and UBS, the SEC fined them for “improper sale” of island bonds.

Aside from the fines from the regulatory agencies for which UBS has had to pay millions, the amount they have paid individuals for lawsuits and settlements outside of court regarding the sale of Puerto Rico bonds could be close to a billion “and growing,” one of the lawyers who brought cases against the brokerage house told the CPI.

Due to the hurricane, Judge Swain postponed until further notice the general view of Title III that would take place on October 4 in San Juan’s federal court. But the case continues, with an argumentative view held September 27 and on October 4 in a New York court. And while almost all of the island is offline, lawyers of the parties interested in the process have not stopped submitting motions in the digital docket of the case.

Consequences of PROMESA

PROMESA is a new type of social experiment whose consequences are beginning to show: a Control Board that claims the territory’s laws do not apply to them, but then ordered a furlough. And though it went to court to enforce it and then gave up after Hurricane María, there are still cuts in services like education and health, public assets are being privatized, water rates keep increasing, and general austerity measures continue, without the board consulting on or showing studies or arguments that support the benefits of all these policies.

The Title III process, which is the last chance PROMESA offers the unincorporated territory to negotiate and pay its creditors, treats the island as a guinea pig, testing a bankruptcy code that has never been implemented in the United States. After being tested on the island, it could be applied to other territories.

So far, the bankruptcy cases being heard in court are those of the central government, the Sales Tax Financing Corp. (Cofina), the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and the Retirement Systems Administration. The bonds issued over the years by each of these entities are now the object of a giant legal battle.

The investment firms that lead the race have formed groups, according to the type of bonds they hold. They hire law firms and act as an alliance that can vary in membership (some enter, others leave) during the process of trying to collect their debt. It also happens that depending on how convenient, not all the names of the firms belonging to the group are made public.

The Mutual Fund Group is the one that claims the largest amount of debt with $7.2 billion in various types of bonds, and is comprised, in addition to Franklin and Oppenheimer Funds, Santander Securities (First Puerto Rico Family of Funds), that accounts for $478 millions in General Obligation bonds, Cofina and Highways and Transportation Authority bonds. Santander Asset Management paid $8.4 million for two fines, one in 2011 and one in 2015, issued by FINRA.

Among the groups represented in the Title III process are the Mutual Fund Group, the Cofina Senior Bondholder Coalition, the Ad Hoc Group of General Obligation Bonds, the ERS Secured Creditors, and the QTCB Noteholders Group. There are firms that don’t belong to any group, such as Goldman Sachs and UBS. Also, there is the Puerto Rico Electric Energy Authority’s group of bondholders. The insurers Insured Guaranty, National Public Finance, Ambac Insurance, Syncora and Financial Guaranty are also part of the litigation, but are not in a group.

The Ad Hoc Group of General Obligation bonds began with more than 30 firms, and now the group in court reportedly has seven firms, while the Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition has been adding members, with 44 so far. Both groups were formed before the start of the Title III case, perhaps in anticipation of what was coming, and are now the main rivals within the case. The Cofina Coalition requires $3.2 billion in bonds and the Ad Hoc of GO’s claims $3.3 billion.

The Employee Retirement System (ERS) Secured Creditors claim $3 billion in bonds from the Government Employee Retirement and Judiciary Retirement System (ASR). The approved Fiscal Plan and a Control Board memorandum on retirement pension reform include a 10% annual reduction in pensions. According to these group of bondholders, government contributions to pensioners are the source of repayment of their bonds.

On the other hand, the QTCB Noteholders Group says it has $690 million in bonds from the Public Building Authority.

All these groups are dominated by vulture funds, with the exception of the mutual funds and its groups.

A 2016 report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development warns that vulture funds can undermine the orderly restructuring of sovereign debt. And although Puerto Rico’s debt is not considered sovereign because of the colonial relationship between the island and the United States, the strategies deployed by these investment firms in the purchase of Puerto Rico bonds and in the bankruptcy process are just the same described in the UN report and by other experts to define the vulture funds.

“In the context of the restructuring of a public debt, its role is essentially that of vultures,” the report says.

“The vulture funds are ‘patient bondholders’ in the sense that their legal and financial power allows them to oppose restructuring and any reduction in the value of their bonds that this may entail.” By opposing a restructuring, “they make the process slower, more difficult and uncertain, causing economic and social costs for the debtor country in need of debt relief. The prey of these funds is the debtor country, but in the process, they can hurt other creditors by rejecting some form of burden sharing among bondholders,” according to the report, prepared by Paris-Dauphine University senior economist Edgardo Torija Zane.

Fighting for Payment

Using these parameters, the CPI identified at least 24 vulture funds distributed among the groups that have been formed to fight for the payment of debt under Title III in Puerto Rico.

There are firms of international fame for their aggressiveness when it comes to collecting debts from countries in crisis, such as Aurelius Capital, who opposes any debt cuts and in a lawsuit argues that the PROMESA law violates the U.S, Constitution, and therefore requests that the Title III case be dismissed. They oppose restructuring and argue that the government must use all its resources to pay off General Obligation’s debt.

Tilden Park, Värde Partners, Whitebox, and Autonomy Capital, are firms belonging to the group in the Tittle III that appear in the 2016 Top 100 Hedge Funds (Barron’s).

Apart from law firms and legal tactics in the negotiation process, there are individual bondholders. They are not part of organized groups or official committees, and if they decide to enter the case, they will have to pay for their legal representation.

“We are not members of any organized group,” an agricultural worker referring to his family who asked for anonymity said. He has Cofina, General Obligation and Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) bonds.

“There are Senior and Subordinated Cofina bonds; everybody has everything, because at that time, when I bought it, I did not know what was subordinated or Senior, or anything. You bought what was available… I bought them from Popular Securities, I liked them because they are from here,” he said before emphasizing his preference for that bank.

The worker and his family hired a lawyer who already submitted a proof of claim for each of the cases where his clients have bonds. “That proof of claim is the claim of each individual that is being filed for the purpose of stating that they have that claim, so that when the time comes for a distribution [of money], they are not left out,” said the lawyer, who asked not to be identified.

“Right now [my clients] have no participation in the negotiations, because the Control Board submitted a document for the approval of the judge to appoint a representative for General Obligation bonds and another for Cofina; with the purpose of carrying out a mediation procedure aimed at reaching an agreement regarding the controversy between these two types of bondholders. I imagine that when the time comes for this mediation, the organizations that are established and have their representatives and groups formed (in Title III), they will participate in them and at that time if we believe we must participate, I would do so on behalf of my clients,” he added.

Meanwhile, although it costs him, the lawyer is observing the process at a distance.

“The judge gives us the opportunity so that if one has an interest in any of the controversies and wants to be heard, a motion may be filed to that effect, so that you can participate during the hearings. Another way to participate in the hearing, but as a listener, to know what is happening, is that we can do it by phone and you have to sign up. I’m not going to appear, but I’m going to listen. The call costs $70, but you can hear the procedure as if you were in court.”

Attending in person to be heard is even more expensive, since one has to pay $300 to the Court to submit a motion of appearance.

“Individual bondholders are not really represented [in the Title III case]. It is too expensive and it takes too much time for them to get involved and try to influence a solution. It is different for institutional investors who have made bigger bets, like portions of their companies’ assets. The exception is hedge funds, bond insurers and some mutual funds, for whom it makes sense to get involved,” said Matt Fabian, a municipal bond market analyst and a partner at Municipal Market Analytics, in an interview with the CPI.

The Mutual Fund Group and the Ad Hoc Group of General Obligation bonds have conflicts of interest in the Title III case because they have several types of bonds that are in dispute with each other. For example, the Franklin mutual fund, which is part of that mutual fund group, is also in the Ad Hoc Group where it adopts the same legal strategies that characterize the vulture funds that dominate the group.

The Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition is represented by individual and retired bondholders, but is controlled by vulture funds such as The Baupost Group, one of the biggest of the world, Canyon Partners, GoldenTree Asset Management and Tilden Park Capital Management, which require its clients a minimum of investment that fluctuates between $1 million and $5 million.

On the other hand, there is the case of the UBS and Santander Asset Management funds, which claim in Title III that they be paid debts related to bond issues for which they have been sued.

The Lawyers in the Case

Lawyers who intervene directly in the bankruptcy case come to the Federal Court before 8 a.m., pass the checkpoints, and eat lunch at the cafeteria on the 7th floor, segregated like tribes at the lounge tables. Many work for the most quoted firms on Wall Street, and for every foreign firm there is a local firm hired. For now, more than 55 law firms on the island have been recruited by creditors to represent them under Title III of PROMESA. If any sector will experience economic development during the crisis, this will surely be one of them.

“Some people or entities hire a law firm in the U.S., in which two, three, or four lawyers from the same firm advise and represent them. Such law firms cannot come to Puerto Rico to practice and appear in court if they are not admitted to the practice of law here, or in the U.S. District Court, since it is necessary to pass an exam to be admitted to practice there. Therefore, they have to hire attorneys in Puerto Rico admitted to that court to endorse their request to be allowed to appear pro hac vice [for this case or for this occasion],” said Carlos Rodríguez-Vidal, of the Goldman, Antonetti & Cordova law firm that represents insurer Syncora in the Title III case.

In the court lobby, Arthur González, a member of the Oversight Board, talks to Jaime El Koury, legal counsel for that entity. The voices sound like rumor in the void. You hear shoe soles sticking to the floor, the sound of heels and the rattling of briefcases that roll full of documents.

Some law firms may also have conflicting interests.

For example, Puerto Rican law firm McConnell Valdés was hired as a lobbyist in the House of Representatives in 2016 by two firms from the Ad Hoc Group of General Obligation bonds, Aurelius Capital and Stone Lion Capital. At the same time, it is a legal representative of Autopistas de PR, LLC, Autopistas Metropolitanas de Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Telephone Company (Claro) and Rexach Hermanos Inc, in the Title III case. Any collection claims by these companies to the government could contrast the claims of Aurelius Capital and Stone Lion that the state must use all available resources to pay General Obligation debts.

Lawyers and advisors to these firms enter Judge Swain’s chamber, including Matt Rodrigue (without z), general manager of Miller Buckfire Bank, which advises the Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition, along with Rafael Escalera, of the local law firm which represents that group, Reichard & Escalera. Wearing a bowtie, Hermann Bauer, a lawyer at the O’Neill & Borges law firm, joins stateside firm Proskauer Rose on behalf of the Board; and Andrés López, a lawyer for AAFAF, who was mentioned last year as one of the possible candidates to join the Board and who has his office in San Juan. The AAFAF also has an $18 million contract with U.S. law firm O’Melveny & Myers for Title III.

When the judge enters, all go silent and stand, as if in church. Swain says “Good morning,” in Spanish, and the hearing begins, in English. Almost seven hours later, a black SUV with a sliding door and darkened windows picks up the lawyers from the U.S. law firms and transports them in groups to the hotel, or directly to the airport.

Before Hurricane María, The Intercept contacted 51 Puerto Rico creditors to ask them if they would support a moratorium or cancellation of the debt, due to the humanitarian crisis of the people living in the Island. They also asked if they would do any donation because of the emergency. From the 51 bondholders contacted, only Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Scotiabank answered. Together, they donated $1.25 million for Puerto Rico and other zones in the Caribbean. Also, the Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition sent a press release where they say that they will make a donation to the American Red Cross, Puerto Rico Chapter, without specifying the amount.


The “The Creditors That Control Puerto Rico’s Bankruptcy” series of the Center for Investigative Journalism digs into in the characteristics and the background of the investment firms that until now have dominated the government of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy case. The latest round of stories will be published this week and next week.

Laura Moscoso collaborated on this story.

Attorney Carlos Rodríguez-Vidal is chairman of the Board of the Center for Investigative Journalism.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and is part of a collaboration between In These Times and Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

The Latino USA Playlist for ‘Latino Heroes of Rock & Roll’

If you love the music as much as your love our show, then you’re in luck. At the start of each week, we’ll be sharing some of the songs featured in our latest episode.

This week we feature some of the music highlighted in Latino Heroes of Rock & Roll.

Warning: you might become obsessed with an artist or two.

The Playlist

“Gloria” by Thee Midniters

“Psycho” by The Sonics

“Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen

“Louie Louie” by Richard Berry & The Pharoahs

“El Loco Cha Cha Cha” by René Touzet

“Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry

“Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash

“Wooly Bully” by Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs

“Land of a 1000 Dances” by Cannibal & The Headhunters

“Come On, Let’s Go” by Ritchie Valens

“Donna” by Ritchie Valens

“Hippy Hippy Shake” by Chan Romero

“Headstrong Crazy Fools” by Alejandro Escovedo

“Slippin’ Into Darkness” by War

“Wipeout” by The Ventures

“96 Tears” by ? & The Mysterians

“Smokes” by ? & The Mysterians

“Girl (You Captivate Me) by ? & The Mysterians

“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

“Manimal” by Germs

“We Will Bury You” by Bags

“Creatures” by Adolescents

“Babylonian Gorgon” by Bags

“Testify” by Rage Against The Machine

“Where Did Our Love Go” by The Supremes

“Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud” by James Brown

“Starman” by David Bowie

“Fame” by David Bowie

“Young Americans” by David Bowie

“Lovely” by Suicidal Tendencies

“Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne

“Enter Sandman” by Metallica

“Don’t Put Me Down (If I’m Brown)” by El Chicano

“Nos Vamos A Encontrar (Acoustic Version)” by Jumbo

To view the full playlist on Spotify, click here.

In Mexico, Undocumented Migrants Risk Deportation to Aid Earthquake Victims

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.

By Luis Gómez Romero, University of Wollongong

After two earthquakes that left more than 450 dead and 150,000 houses damaged, my home country of Mexico faces huge challenges in recovery.

According to official estimates, the country will need more than 30 billion pesos (around U$2 billion) to rebuild. The resources required for Mexico’s recovery are almost double the country’s annual gross domestic product, according to World Bank figures.

Manpower, at least, has not been an issue. Search-and-rescue teams from several countries —including Chile, Colombia, Israel, Japan, Panama, the United States and Spain— arrived in the days after the earthquakes to dig survivors out of the rubble. Dozens of foreigners who reside in Mexico also joined the Mexican volunteers in their rescue efforts.

Among these international brigades was a group of undocumented Central American migrants who, interrupting their travel northward to the U.S., stayed in Mexico to help clean up debris and assist the victims.

Their efforts have been largely focused in two of the cities most impacted by the historic September 7 quake, Juchitán and Asunción Ixtaltepec, in Oaxaca. But after the September 19 Mexico City earthquake, some members also volunteered to help dig out survivors from the rubble of the nation’s capital

With anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise in both the United States and Mexico, which is now deporting Central American migrants in record numbers, these undocumented Good Samaritans are changing the Mexican narrative on migrants—brick by brick, rescue by rescue.

Layover on La Bestia

The nearly 50 Central American migrants assisting in Oaxaca’s earthquake recovery effort are staying at Hermanos en el Camino (Brothers of the Road), a Catholic-run shelter in hard-hit Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Felipe González, a volunteer at the shelter, told me via telephone that after the urgent rescue efforts ended, they have continued their work, distributing aid among those who lost their homes.

The migrants who organized this aid brigade are from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, and they have diverse backgrounds, but what they have in common —both with each other and with Mexican earthquake victims— is a history of hardship.

According to a May report from Doctors Without Borders, almost 40 percent of the roughly 500,000 Central American immigrants the organization surveyed in Mexico fled their countries after experiencing physical attacks, threats against themselves or their families, extortion or forced gang recruitment.

The Brothers of the Road shelter is located in Ciudad Ixtepec, one of the stops on the main route that Central American immigrants heading north used to follow through Mexico. Normally, the facility serves to provide relief to immigrants who ride atop “La Bestia” —that is, the Beast, the Mexican network of freight trains— to travel to the U.S.

Normally, any savvy immigrant passing through Mexico hopes to avoid detection. At the behest of the U.S., Mexico has been cracking down on undocumented Central American migrants, policing train tops with drones and increasing travel speeds from 18 to 37 mph. As a result, a new maritime route through the Pacific is now opening up.

Mexico has also stepped up deportations. In 2014, for example, Mexico “returned” 107,814 migrants, the majority of them from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. In 2015, deportations rose to 181,163. In 2016, it was 159,872.

The Trump administration has kept up the pressure. In a letter sent to Congress and Senate leaders on October 8, the U.S. president requested that the Department of Homeland Security be granted broad powers to assist “partner nations” in “removing aliens from third countries whose ultimate intent is entering the United States.”

Tough border enforcement isn’t the only reason that Central American migrants normally aim to hurry through Mexico under the radar. Nearly one-third of women surveyed by Doctors Without Borders in 2014 had been sexually abused during their journey, and 68 percent of all migrants were victims of violence.

Migrants are among the many victims of Mexico’s drug war. In 2010 and 2011, 265 migrants from Central and South America were murdered by the Zetas cartel in the northern Mexican town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, just 55 miles from Texas.

The North American Dream

Even knowing the dangers presented by both the state and the drug lords, the guests at the Brothers of the Road shelter risked everything to pitch into the rescue effort after the quake that hit Oaxaca and Chiapas, two of the poorest states in Mexico, in September.

“We’re immigrants in search of the American dream,” Denio Okele, an Honduran migrant, explained to NBC News. But, he continued, “we arrived in Oaxaca, and an earthquake occurred. We are thus helping the people who need assistance.”

Their reasons for helping range from solidarity and compassion to gratitude. “We have received a lot support from people, so we want to help them,” Wilson Alonso, also from Honduras, told the Spanish newspaper El País.

The sacrifice of this migrant humanitarian aid team has earned them hero status in Mexico. Like other volunteers who dug their neighbors free from the rubble with their bare hands, they have been lauded on social media and interviewed by reporters. And for once, the legal status of a group of Central Americans was not the story.

As José Filiberto Velásquez, a Catholic priest at the Brothers of the Road shelter, told one Mexican reporter, these migrants have shown Mexicans through their actions that, quite simply, “immigrants are good people.”

Pact of the Defeated

The Central American migrants’ story is just one example of the spirit of national solidarity that carried Mexico through the days after the two killer September quakes.

After Mexico City’s September 19 temblor, lines of citizens formed next to collapsed buildings to clear broken pieces of buildings covering victims. Brigades of volunteers offered food, clothing, water and other aid. Restaurants became relief centers.

Social media activists quickly organized, tweeting information on exactly what assistance or supplies were needed, and where, under the hashtag #Verificado19S.

After a frightful year in which citizens also lived through half a dozen high-profile government corruption scandals, one of the world’s highest murder rates and nonstop insults from the president of the United States, Mexico has emerged from its two natural disasters with a renewed sense of national pride.

Even though construction began on eight prototypes of Trump’s proposed border wall in San Diego, California, just six days after the second earthquake, the mood in Mexico today is almost optimistic.

The solidarity on display recalls what Argentinian writer Ernesto Sábato calls “the pact of the defeated.” In a world full of “horror, treason and envy,” Sábato writes in his memoir, “Antes del Fin,” it’s often “the most unprivileged part of humanity” that shows everyone else the path to salvation.

Right now in Mexico, earthquake-impacted locals and undocumented migrants alike are working together to rebuild their futures. In facing the years of hard recovery and U.S. antagonism ahead of it, a “pact of the defeated” may be as good a starting point as any.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Robert Trujillo: Metal’s Nicest Nastiest Bass Player

Whether or not you like metal, if you’ve heard any at all, chances are you’ve heard Robert Trujillo playing the bass even if you didn’t know it. Trujillo has been integral in most modern major metal acts. He first stepped into the spotlight when he played bass for the band Suicidal Tendencies. Afterwards, Trujillo earned his heavyweight status by playing for greats like Ozzy Osborne and Metallica—arguably the biggest metal band of all times.

But how has it been for him as a Mexican-American kid of color in a scene that sometimes can be very white? Robert talks about going on tour with Suicidal Tendencies and seeing skinheads at the show waiting to beat them up.

“They didn’t do anything,” he says. But just having them there said something to Robert about the scene.

After Suicidal Tendencies, Robert played bass for many major band, and now he’s still playing with Metallica. He described the audition process, which included heavy drinking and heavy riffs.

But because Robert grew up with flamenco guitar, his bass was fast and furious and he got the job.

Robert talks with Latino USA about his experiences.

Featured image: Courtesy of Robert Trujillo

Carlos Alomar: The Puerto Rican Guitar Hero Behind Bowie’s ‘Fame’

Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar is no stranger to the music scene. He started to perform on Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in New York when he was just a teenager, and at around that time, he befriended R&B singer Luther Vandross. They started a band called the Shades of Jade, and Carlos also played with the Apollo Theater band Listen My Brother. They even appeared on Sesame Street in 1970.

From then on, Carlos strummed with some of the biggest musical acts of the 60s and 70s: James Brown, The Main Ingredient, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen… and David Bowie.

Carlos came into playing with Bowie almost by accident. And it was through a friendship with the Starman himself—and an impromptu star-filled jam session—that Carlos’s life changed forever.

Featured image: Courtesy of Carlos Alomar