What's the Beef?
Outdated worries about USDA staff safety cripple Palomas' stockyards.
Driving in the sun-ripened evening through the streets on the west side of Palomas, I noticed a family outside their white-stucco house within the white walls of the stockyards, which were scheduled to be mostly closed down in just a few days.
A young man came out to my car and then motioned to his father, Cesar Acosta. The man explained that he was the mayordomo, or foreman, at the stockyards.
About 15 workers were going to be fired on Monday, he said. He made it clear this meant the loss of income for 15 families, in a country where those workers are not going to be able to line up for unemployment checks or food stamps.
Acosta had the steady eyes of a man with an innate intelligence but without a whole lot of education, probably. He claimed that at this time the ganadero, or stockyards, was the largest single employer in Palomas. There are 20 employees as of this writing and about 15 are going to lose their jobs. "God wants it to be open," Acosta said.
I had read about this situation in the Deming Headlight. The authorities had said it was too dangerous for USDA veterinarians to go to Palomas to inspect beef cattle.
This decision would seem out of sync with reality to anyone familiar with Palomas over the past few years. Last year's level of violence was down to the level of what it was six years ago or more. Since 2008, when there were 70 or more killings, the number has steadily gone down.
One man remarked that it's so quiet in Palomas now that there are two women in the municipal police force, not just men. In the evenings, young people drive back and forth on the main street for hours in an imitation promenade, instead of holing up in their houses for fear. The town just feels safer.
After four years of extreme danger at night, things have really quieted down. It doesn't make any sense at all to suddenly declare that Palomas is dangerous. You wonder why they didn't shut down the stockyards in 2008.
There's a lot of speculation about what the real motivations are for closing the stockyards. Some people say the people of Sunland Park want the business for themselves at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry. I heard one elaborate, unconfirmed story about a big rancher in Chihuahua who used his political clout to close the stockyards so he could benefit somehow.
I asked the general manager of the Palomas stockyards, Ignacio Montoya, if this was a cost-cutting measure, and he said the USDA is not claiming that. He said he doesn't know the reason behind it all.
"I've worked with Udall and Bingaman and their people — also Congressman Pearce," he said in his straightforward, open way. "They all feel the same way we do. Everybody is trying to help us out." Montoya is a dual citizen and thoroughly bilingual.
He has talked to USDA officials but said, "We haven't gotten any straight answers out of them. We can't get anything in writing. They've done everything by phone."
The stockyards people have proposed that they arrange a way to bring cattle to some enclosed area on the US side before the cattle are inspected by the USDA, but that idea was rejected.
So, as of April 23, three-fourths of the work crew are out of a job. In the spring and fall the ganadero also used to hire a dozen extra workers for the intense trade that goes on during those seasons.
Several of the workers in a shed were lounging around on big plastic sacks that they had just filled with pulverized cattle feed. Yes, they were worried about the future.
The mayordomo had said there were other ranchers in the area who might have work. These workers looked doubtful about that. I suggested they might be able to get food distributed at several churches in town, and they were doubtful about that, too. Ibán Reyes in the mayor's office said people have been having trouble bringing food across at the Port of Entry because of a new administration at Mexican Customs.
One young guy named Javier led me over to where we could see the metal gate through which cattle walked over the border in the past to the stockyards in Columbus, after having a health inspection.
In recent years about 50,000 head of cattle passed through this gate every year. The stockyards have been open at least since the 1950s, Montoya said. Cattle ranching has been important in Chihuahua since the late 1800s, when the Terrazas family owned the largest herd of cattle in the world on their various haciendas. These haciendas were mostly broken up during the Mexican Revolution.
But the cattle pens in Palomas are now completely empty of cattle. Javier's face was filled with shadows.
He said he has no children, but was supporting his mother and other family members. He would probably just get work here and there. When people he knew were out of work, he said they eat about half of what they normally eat.
Getting work at the proposed maquiladoras probably won't be a possibility any time soon. The hope expressed by Mayor Miguel Chacon that three maquiladoras would appear in Palomas in 2012 has not begun to materialize.
Roman Alvidres, now the director of the Rural Junta of Water and Drainage, was Chacon's campaign manager when he ran for mayor. He believes Chacon was not really lying about the new factories but was just being a politician. But he said the prospective companies have not even come to him to scope out the water situation in Palomas. He thinks that probably one factory will open this year. The outlook for employment is still bleak.
The economic relationship between Mexico and the US is close, but that between Palomas and the US, and especially between the stockyards on either side, is excruciatingly close — like a tongue and groove joint.
The US is the lifeblood and the breath of Palomas' economy and has a direct bearing on whether people eat or not.
The US recession put the AAMSA car parts factory in Palomas out of business a year after it was opened. Palomas also relies on US tourists, especially health tourists. It always seems as if Palomas' fate is just endless economic torpor, and then more torpor.
One idea that Montoya has come up with to keep the Palomas stockyards open is to promote the processing of imports into Mexico at the current facilities. But no one knows how this whole situation will shake out.
For a list of ways to help the people of Palomas, see www.desertexposure.com/palomas/index.php.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.