Parting Shots from the FNS Editor: The Smoky, Slippery Highways of 2017

December 3, 2016

Editor’s Note:  In today’s piece, my last article for Frontera NorteSur, I update a  few of the stories FNS has covered to one degree or another over the years and the trends swirling around them that are likely to continue into 2017 and beyond. Again, readers can see stories from this one and previous years by going to the FNS website at the following address: https://fnsnews.nmsu.edu/.  We hope it will remain up for posterity.

Well, as I wrote in my November 20 farewell message, the autumn leaves here in New Mexico have now been blown to the ground. It’s time to sign off. Much love and many thanks go out to those readers who responded to the news of my departure from New Mexico State University. Maybe we’ll meet up again somewhere out there in cyberspace.

Kent Paterson

November 30, 2016

Befitting its home and regional base, Frontera NorteSur long devoted special attention to news developments in Ciudad Juárez, El Paso and New Mexico. As this news service signs off, both Albuquerque and El Paso are undergoing contentious makeovers that pit politicians against the public, corporations against community, gentrification against cultural preservation, and transparency versus secrecy. Local in specificities, the battles nonetheless are microcosms of countless 21st-century conflicts across the United States and the world.

In New Mexico’s largest but troubled city, the $120 million-plus Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project promoted by Republican Mayor Richard Berry and supported by a Democratic-majority city council moves ahead in the transformation of Central Avenue, the old Route 66 of lore, legend and lyric, into a fast bus corridor and a magnet of gentrification along the city’s main drag.

In 2016, ART stirred public passions, dominated packed and heated meetings, sparked lawsuits and inspired gobbles of media attention, including coverage in Frontera NorteSur. The Berry administration, with city council approval, contracted Denver-based law firm Kaplan, Kirsch and Rockwell, LLP for upwards of $200,000 in legal fees to defend the city government from citizen litigation against ART, which subsequently suffered early setbacks in the courts.
ART construction started this fall on Central Avenue, prompting bouts of traffic hang-ups and giving a glimpse of what “la avenida” might look like when it is permanently repaved into one lane of traffic each way later in 2017, according to the timetable announced by city officials.

Yet, the exact amounts and sources for construction costs as well as the post-construction revenue needed to keep the buses happily buzzing along have not yet been spelled out by city officials. While ART boosters claim the project will give the Duke City a much-needed economic shot in the arm, opponents contend it will hurt local businesses, spoil the aesthetics of historic Central Avenue and spout gnarly webs of traffic congestion and pedestrian hazards.

At an Albuquerque City Council meeting earlier this year, longtime community activist Mimi Lopez called on city reps to convene a public vote on the controversial project. The elected officials initially balked at the suggestion, instead voting 7-2 to go for a federal grant that would fund ART. Later, after a tortured path through the city council and Bernalillo County Commission, a non-binding question appeared on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Stated simply, it read: Are you in favor of giving voters residing in the City of Albuquerque municipal limits the chance to vote in support of or opposition to the proposed Albuquerque Rapid Transit Project?

Dutifully, Albuquerque voters cast their opinions, voting more than three to one in favor of a public vote. According to unofficial election results posted Nov. 18 by the Bernalillo County Clerk, 156,350 voters (76.47 percent) wanted a vote on ART and 48,117 (23.53 percent) did not.

As the heavy machinery on Central Avenue attests, no indication exists whatsoever that city officials will respect the public will for a vote.

Although ART-related roadwork was suspended over Thanksgiving and the post-turkey shopping days, another type of chaos gripped Albuquerque during the holiday break. Parts of the Duke City resembled a mini-Belfast as sirens blared into the night and fire engines, police patrols and spotter aircraft raced around or above the downtown, UNM, Nob Hill, Southeast Heights and lower Northeast Heights sections of the city.

In about a 72-hour period, beginning early on the morning of Nov. 23 and extending until early Nov. 26, explosions and/or fires, both large and small, successively struck  a downtown Latin-fusion style restaurant, the headquarters of an anti-abortion organization, a pricey new condominium complex, three Starbucks outlets, an Old Navy store, and a Barnes and Noble branch. Sometime during all this commotion shots were reportedly fired at five separate Wells Fargo ATMs. No one was reported injured in any of the incidents.

Ready to open smack dab in the future ART zone in the coming days, the new Carlisle condominium development facing Central Avenue was devoured in flames, resulting in losses in the neighborhood of $10 million. Built by local developer Kenny Hinkes, the upscale development advertised 34 units ranging in price from $186,480 to $462,330; most were in the $350-375,000 price range—far outside the budget of the average burqueño. Reportedly, some residents were ready to move in to the complex when it went up in smoke. Two adjoining businesses were forced to close, with a fence and guards deployed around the fire perimeter. Curiously, one of the Nov. 25 Starbucks’ attacks occurred practically under the noses of security personnel and police guarding or patrolling near the charred ruins of the Carlisle only two blocks away.

The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms got quickly involved, taking the investigative lead. According to court documents, an Albuquerque police officer, Kevin Sanchez, heard “timed booms, like little explosions but not gunshots” in the vicinity of the Old Navy store early Saturday, Nov. 26, leading him on the trail of 28-year-old David Hickman, who was arrested near the scene.

Hickman, who was said to have a five-year-old drug arrest and a slew of parking tickets on his record, was allegedly dressed in black clothing and armed with an AR-15 rifle, a pistol, a flare and explosive material.  The suspect was turned over to the FBI, but his name wasn’t made public until Monday morning, Nov.28. Hickman didn’t make his first court appearance until Wednesday, Nov. 30, when his legal counsel argued that their client had drug and mental problems and should be allowed to stay in halfway house pending trial. Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen disagreed, ordering Hickman held in jail.

In a criminal complaint released by the U.S. attorney’s office for New Mexico, Hickman is charged with the federal crime of damaging by fire or explosive a building used in interstate commerce or in any activity affecting interstate commerce. So far, he’s only accused of the Old Navy attack, but authorities strongly suspect he’s tied to other fires and explosions.

The rapid involvement of federal law enforcement in the fire/bomb spree contrasts with another episode that jarred the Duke City: the discovery of 11 murdered women and girls on the West Mesa back in February 2009. Though the FBI had early involvement in the West Mesa case, the investigation was left up to the Albuquerque Police Department to solve, which it has not done. Federal laws are more specific in criminalizing property destruction than the mass murder of women. No federal feminicide law is on the books.

Authorities are tight-lipped about possible motives behind Albuquerque’s 2016 Thanksgiving rampage, so take your pick. In any event, never a dull moment in Burque town.

A few hours down the Camino Real in old El Paso, visitors are in for big surprises. Travelers arriving after absence of a few years or more might ask themselves: “What city am I in?” Gone are the two towering American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco) stacks; the old city hall site is now a baseball stadium for the popular Chihuahuas team; longtime establishments like the downtown Tejas Café are a delicious memory of the past, and some historic buildings are rubble.

What’s more, road work slows Interstate 10 and makes accessing neighboring Sunland Park, New Mexico, a mission for the patient. Meanwhile, more torn up roads pockmark the Segundo Barrio as well as Stanton Street, paralleling the University of Texas at El Paso, where a new street trolley is under construction.  A landmark of El Paso that fell into disarray in recent years, the majestic Camino Real Hotel, has new owners and is due for a makeover.

The $158 million renovation of Interstate 10 is expected to last another 30 months, according to Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Wright. This means monumental traffic jams are likely to continue clogging Mesa Avenue, the main drag of the West Side, where a new condo tower is planned to rise.  As hassles spread and prices spike on the West Side, population and growth are also shifting to the East Side. Sprawling El Paso just keeps on sprawling.

Shut down in 1999 and its smokestacks demolished in 2013, El Paso’s old Asarco smelter overlooking the Rio Grande is on the verge of becoming a part of the University of Texas (UT) system. On Nov. 10, the Texas state trustee in charge of the property, Roberto Puga, announced that long-running negotiations to sell the property to the state university system had made significant progress, signaled by the willingness of UT’s Board of Regents to enter into a final purchase agreement worth up to $17 million.

“All net proceeds from the potential property sale will go directly into the Trust to be used for future environmental operations, maintenance and monitoring plans,” Puga announced. The environmental and labor controversies surrounding the smelter’s operations were extensively covered by Frontera NorteSur over the years. Indeed, perhaps this writer’s first memory of El Paso was gasping at the spectacle of black clouds then puffing away into the border sky from the smelter’s stacks.

Last summer, Puga and subcontractor Scott Brown hosted a community meeting in downtown El Paso aimed at updating Paseños on the final phases of their environmental remediation of the ex-Asarco property. Several community members expressed concerns about remaining contamination, which Puga and Brown insisted was cleaned up or safely contained. Some residents were doubtful, contending that a more thorough job could have been done.

“It’s like (Puga) putting on a crown and not getting a root canal,” quipped ex-Asarco worker Dan Arellano.

The final tab for the Asarco remediation will be at least $82 million, a sum far higher than the $52 million set aside by a Texas state court in the 2009 Asarco bankruptcy settlement. Puga told FNS he was only able to come up with the extra dough to pay for remediation by selling off Asarco assets he found left behind at the smelter property.

It’s important to note that Puga’s Project Navigator was contracted specifically to remediate the 464-acre Asarco site, not adjoining areas of El Paso, Ciudad Juárez and Sunland Park where, as reported by FNS during the last few years, deposits of heavy metal contamination linked to Asarco still persist but no integral plan is on the board to clean them up. Arellano and former co-worker Charlie Rodriguez were on hand for the meeting.  The pair told FNS that medical bills keep piling up for ex-workers who blame illnesses ranging from cancer to skin troubles on their years at Asarco, where they were exposed to heavy metals, PCBs and a mélange of mysterious hazardous substances the EPA determined were illegally incinerated by the company.

The diminishing group of ex-employees (many have already died) still struggles with getting the attention of officialdom, Arellano and Rodriguez said. As Rodriguez elaborated, the onetime good-paying jobs Asarco offered thousands during its long history in El Paso came with a heavy price.

“(Asarco) did a lot of good things, but they did a lot of bad things,” Rodriguez mused.

El Paso’s proverbial growing pains have translated into politically embarrassing and explosive ones. A scandal erupted this fall when it was revealed that the city government had been bilked nearly $3 million  in an e-mail “phishing” scam devised around street trolley contracts. Dr. Mark Sutter, El Paso’s chief financial officer, told local news media that more than half the money was quickly recovered, but questions chortled in cyberspace, chief among them, how could a government entity fall for such a well-worn ruse?

Reminiscent in many ways of the 1950s’ battle of Chavez Ravine, when Chicano residents of Los Angeles fought to save their community from demolition so Dodger Stadium could go up, El Paso residents of the Union Plaza District are fiercely resisting a city plan to displace them, in some cases from life-long homes, so an entertainment complex/stadium authorized by voters in a 2012 quality-of-life bond can be erected.

If the city prevails, the arena would join the Chihuahuas’ stadium as the second such facility in a redeveloped downtown zone. But residents organized as Familias de Barrio Union Plaza along with supporters like Paso del Sur, an organization that successfully resisted a redevelopment plan for the nearby Segundo Barrio a decade ago, are mobilizing to keep a stadium from replacing their homes and businesses.

“The City has tried to literally and figuratively ‘bulldoze’ this project in its rush to destruction, hoping that there would not be enough time to mobilize or show community opposition. The City took only five days to vote on eminent domain without even once holding a meeting within the Union Plaza neighborhood to find out how the community would be affected..,” reads a post on Paso del Sur’s Facebook. “…The grassroots movement that has risen up within the last four weeks in defense of the ‘abuelas de Union Plaza’ keeps on growing. We’re going to build one heck of a bonfire throughout this city. We need you to be a part of this!”

Opponents of the city plan contend better places already exist for a new complex, including Cohen Stadium on the northeastern side of El Paso. “Move the Arena, Not Our People,” is one of the slogans of the growing struggle. Union Plaza residents and their allies plan different activities in the coming weeks, including a community tour and forum set for 4:30 pm on Monday, Dec. 5, and a traditional but politicized posada on Dec. 16.

Shades of Standing Rock, a border conflict involving Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim and the same company pushing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), Energy Transfer Partners, has local environmentalists and residents of El Paso County’s semi-rural lower valley challenging the company’s Comanche Trail Pipeline, which is planned to ship natural gas over the border to Mexico.  Especially impacted are the denizens of San Elizario, a small incorporated city that was the scene of the Salt War of the 1870s between Mexicano inhabitants and new Anglo business interests. Nowadays, water and agriculture versus an energy commodity, natural gas, frames the fight.

Regarding Standing Rock, the first week of December will witness critical moments in the Lakota struggle to halt Energy Transfer Partners’ nearly 1,200-mile-long oil pipeline because of environmental, cultural and tribal sovereignty issues. Within the next few days, as many as 2,000 U.S. military veterans, both native and non-native, are expected to reinforce the peaceful resistance camp at Standing Rock, swept by a blizzard this week and under warnings from the Army Corps of Engineers and governor of North Dakota to disband.

More than 500 years after European conquerors swept into Mexico, the modern-day U.S. Southwest and all over the Americas, the Indian wars are back in force. The difference this time is that the cavalry on its way in is for the express purpose of assisting the original inhabitants.

Hold on to your seats in 2017. And a very happy new year!

Additional sources: Albuquerque Journal, November 23 and 30, 2016. Articles by Elise Kaplan and Ryan Boetel. Aljazeera.com, November 29, 2016. Krqe.com, November 25, 26 and 28, 2016. Articles by Chelo Rivera, M.Schmitt, Kayla Root, and staff.  Kob.com, November 16, 21, 23, 26, 28 and 30, 2016. Articles by Caleb James, Dominic Aragon, Jen French and staff.

Bsnorrell.blogspot.com, November 25, 2016. El Diario de El Paso, November 11 and 19, 2016. Articles by Sergio Salazar and Diego Murcia.  New Mexico Daily Lobo, November 7, 2016. Article by Jimmy Vizcaino. Albuquerque Free Press Weekly, November 2-8, 2016. Article by Andy Lyman. El Paso Times, October 18, 2016. Article by Marty Schladen/USA Today Network. Elpasoheraldpost.com, October 20, 2016. Article by Alexandra Hinojosa. El Paso, Inc., August 22, 2016. Article by David Crowder.

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