Political Intelligence. “Weed Patrol.” Texas Observer, April 03, 2009, http://www.texasobserver.org/article.php?aid=3000
When it comes to stemming illegal immigration along the Rio Grande, the U.S. Border Patrol is getting lost in the weeds.
Border Patrol officials contend that an invasive plant called carrizo cane is blocking their view of the river and of Mexico, and making it harder to catch smugglers and people crossing illegally. The patrol is proposing to spray herbicide along the river from a helicopter to wipe out the cane.
Brought to Texas by Spanish settlers, carrizo, scientifically named Arundo donax, sucks up river water and can grow four inches a day, crowding out native species and thwarting the most high-tech night-vision goggles.
The Border Patrol had planned to begin spraying on March 25 with a 1.1-mile pilot project in Laredo. Mexico, however, asked for a delay while it examines the herbicide’s safety.
The proposal has angered residents and divided Laredo’s City Council. For nearly a year, residents on both sides of the Rio Grande have protested the plan because of concerns about the long-term effects of the herbicide—known as imazapyr—on the environment and the region’s sole water source. Some critics have compared the plan to the U.S. military’s Agent Orange operation in Vietnam.
An environmental assessment by the Border Patrol concluded the spraying wouldn’t be harmful. But Tom Vaughn, an associate professor of biology at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, points out that the assessment lifted information from studies sponsored by BASF Corp., which makes the herbicide. “As a scientist,” Vaughn says, “that has me very concerned.”
Roque Sarinana, public information officer for the Border Patrol’s Laredo sector, says the $2.1 million pilot project includes three methods: cutting the cane manually and painting the stumps with imazapyr, using mechanical equipment to dig the cane out by the roots, and spraying herbicide from a helicopter. Sarinana says he can’t comment on the product’s safety.
Vaughn doesn’t have a quarrel with removing the cane. He just wants to see it done in a way that will be safe for the environment and residents on both sides of the border.
He points out that the herbicide will be dropped next to the south campus of Laredo Community College, near Nuevo Laredo’s water plant. The mayor of Nuevo Laredo, Ramón Garza Barrios, has protested the spraying.
If the herbicide works, the Border Patrol plans to spray up to 130 miles of riverbank. “There’s no doubt that aerial spraying is effective,” Vaughn says. “I just wouldn’t drink the water downstream.”
—Melissa del Bosque
Reeling in the Years
An Innocence Project Homecoming
On Friday, March 20, in a small conference room at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, amid colored corn chips, congealing queso and soda cans, men and women, proudly or with visible discomfort, stated their names, numbered the years they’d lived behind bars, and named the dates they’d been exonerated and set free.
In the room were more than 50 former prisoners, falsely convicted and eventually released, oftentimes with the help of a state affiliate of The Innocence Project—the pro bono wrongful conviction outfit founded in 1972 by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The Innocence Project of Texas hosted this year’s Innocence Network Conference of national (and international) IP affiliates. No one mentioned that beyond the walls lay Houston, the belly of the beast in terms of prosecutorial aggression and evidentiary ineptitude.
Inside were white women who’d served unearned time, white men, a few Hispanics. As in prison black men were disproportionately represented. They had served five years or 37 years, and a lot had spent 20-some years locked away for rapes and murders they didn’t commit. The lucky ones had girlfriends and wives by their sides.
Innocence Project staff attorney Vanessa Potkin described them all as inspirations. “We who do innocence work are in awe of you,” she said.
The low-key reception was an opportunity for exonerees to meet and mingle. The three-day conference was designed to educate and motivate the exonerators.
The first part of that mission took place in an atmosphere created by the National Academy of Sciences’ February release of a congressionally mandated report that found dramatic deficiencies in forensic sciences so often used to help convict criminal defendants. The finding gives substantial ammunition to lawyers working to overturn wrongful convictions.
The motivational mission got a powerful lift Friday evening, when Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton delivered the keynote. The two have just co-written a book, aptly but unfortunately titled Picking Cotton, describing their mutual ordeal. Thompson-Cannino, white, then in college, and now middle-aged, was raped by a tall, young black man. She identified Cotton, positively and repeatedly, as her rapist. Cotton went to prison on her testimony and spent 11 years there, until someone else’s jailhouse confession and a DNA kit set him free in 1995. Eventually they met, Cotton forgave Thompson-Cannino, and the healing began. They’ve become activists in the aftermath.
A question-and-answer period moderated by defense attorney Jeff Blackburn bent under the weight of the evening’s emotions when an impeccably dressed exoneree broke down in angry tears trying to ask Cotton how he’d dealt with his rage behind bars. Cotton was impassively—or impressively—mild in his handed-it-over-to-God response, as the man’s friends gathered around and walked him back to his seat. Getting out of jail may be the hard part, but when you’ve had the better part of your life taken away from you, the freedom isn’t always easy, either.