Officials consider relocating an entire neighborhood in Sunland Park

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Anapra is two — or three — communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. In Mexico, the grandiloquently named Puerto de Anapra is actually a dusty, ramshackle neighborhood on the northwestern outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. In the U.S, separated from its Mexican neighbor by a new border wall that replaced an older fence, Anapra is a section of Sunland Park, N.M., which in turn borders El Paso, Texas.

“My fence is what divides Texas and New Mexico,” said Lorenzo Villescas, a longtime resident of the New Mexico side of Anapra.

Sunland Park City Hall

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

Sunland Park City Hall

Political divisions aside, both Anapras are low-income by the standards of their respective nations. New Mexico’s Anapra, the original settlement of Sunland Park, could further be divided into two sections: upper Anapra, which kisses the high ground near the Mexican border and busy train tracks, and lower Anapra, which sits under Mt. Cristo Rey in a bowl-like basin below the banks of the Rio Grande.

For Maria Burciaga, lower Anapra represented a step up in life for her family.

Raised in public housing in neighboring El Paso, Burciaga recalled her father and mother struggling to raise a large family with two monthly paychecks: One was for the rent and the other for groceries.

Back in the early 1980s, Burciaga’s parents purchased an empty lot with a $1,000 down payment in lower Anapra from El Paso-based developer Robert Milkman, who was selling small parcels of undeveloped properties there. Though it took a few years, Burciaga’s family constructed its own home, completing it in 1986. It is now a tidy, four bedroom abode/brick house with a comfy feel.

“Even though it took us some time, we were living somewhere that was ours,” Burciaga said. “That was their greatest accomplishment, my mom and dad.”

Not only did Burciaga’s parents leave their family a patrimony, but they also gave their offspring a sense of personal freedom from the shackles of apartment rules and regulations in El Paso’s public housing, she said.

Yet Burciaga and some of her neighbors now worry their slice of the American Dream could be jeopardized. Talk is mounting of relocating lower Anapra’s residents because of their location in a flood zone. Since October, the issue has been broached at multiple meetings involving the Doña Ana County Flood Commission, the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), the Sunland Park City Council, and other agencies and individuals.

Although no concrete plan for moving the estimated few hundred residents of lower Anapra has materialized, elected officials and others are eyeing land owned by the State of New Mexico several miles away off McNutt Road.

In recent interviews, Burciaga and two of her relatives complained that the relocation question, though it has surfaced from time to time in the past, most recently came up without their input.

“They aren’t asking us. They didn’t even ask one citizen here in Anapra if they would want to (relocate),” Burciaga said. “I’m part of Sunland Park. Why don’t I have a voice?”

Seated at her kitchen table one evening, Burciaga and her brother-in-law Lorenzo Villescas expressed wariness about uprooting their lives for an uncertain, new home. First, they hadn’t seen the flood damage documentation justifying a relocation policy. Acknowledging that their streets flood during heavy rainfall, the pair insisted that neither their homes nor those of numerous neighbors Burciaga said she had polled sustained damage in previous events.

Villescas recalled how police evacuated lower Anapra during flooding in 2006 and moved the residents to Santa Teresa High School for several hours before allowing them to return to their homes.

“Everyone got mad at the mayor because he moved everybody from their house and nothing happened,” Villescas said.

Burciaga and Villescas raised doubts about the property appraisement and compensation a relocation would entail, evidenced by the varying sizes and values of residences. Burciaga said she recently counted 115 potentially impacted residences, seven of them across the state line in Texas. “In reality there are houses here, there are trailers,” she said.

Chimed in Villescas: “They’ve never said we’re going to give you money. … We’ve done roof remodeling. What we’ve done is enough to last a lifetime.”

Lower Anapra

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net / Built using screenshot from Google Maps

A map showing the lower Anapra neighborhood in Sunland Park

Public officials weigh in

The rationale for relocation was aired at a Nov. 7 meeting of the Sunland Park City Council. As a stop-gap solution to flooding, Sunland Park city official Hector Rangel reported on the progress of an improved water pump system for Anapra, which he said had been malfunctioning for at least three or four years — and possibly as long as 16 years.

According to Rangel, city officials plan to have a new pumping system in place by next summer’s monsoon season, with funding assistance from the state government’s New Mexico Colonias Infrastructure Fund.

But Mario Infante, an engineer for Sunland Park city contractor Wilson and Company, cautioned that a new water pump should be viewed as a temporary remedy.

“We have to look at a permanent solution,” he added. “It’s going to continue to flood no matter what you do.” Infante said $150,000 would be required to do a comprehensive study that would involve groundwater testing, identifying land for new residences, or examining less drastic options that include raising the base of existing homes — a solution engendering many skeptics. The study would take three or four years to complete, Infante said.

City Councilor Ken Giove later criticized the study idea. “There’s no way we’re going to pay $150,000 for what we already know,” he said. “You can’t fix Anapra. It’s in a bowl.”

For its part, the IBWC is examining an improvement of the local Rio Grande levees.

“The cost is likely to be $10 million, but we don’t have a final design yet. We don’t have a date when the final design will be completed,” Lori Kuczmanski, public affairs officer for the IBWC in El Paso, wrote in an e-mail sent before the Christmas holidays. Kuczmanski said the project will continue into the coming fiscal year.

The argument for moving

Sunland Park City Councilor Olga Nuñez represents Anapra, a place her family moved to nearly 45 years ago. Like other residents, she recalled her dad building a family home on land purchased from Robert Milkman. But unlike some of her constituents, Nuñez is ready to pack up. Her home did experience damage during the 2006 flooding, she said.

The elected official laid out manifold reasons why relocating the community is the best option for the future — for starters, the geographic location. “We can’t have insurance,” she said. “You don’t qualify for flood insurance here. No company will cover it.” Worse yet, Anapra’s streets are sinking and water seeps up from the ground, she added.

In addition to the possibility of the Rio Grande jumping its banks, low-lying Anapra receives run-off from Mt. Cristo Rey and McNutt Road, one of Sunland Park’s main thoroughfares that passes by Anapra.

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Complicating Anapra’s dilemma, federal and state agencies recently declared that the budget-tight Sunland Park city government is responsible for maintaining drainage on McNutt Road, according to the city council representative.

“You can imagine we don’t have that kind of money,” Nuñez said. Other governmental entities “seem to agree that they don’t want to spend money on Anapra.”

“Long-term solution? We don’t have one. We’re looking at possibilities where the residents can be relocated,” she said. For such a plan to work, “it would have to be the majority of people being for it,” the elected official stressed.

A cancer survivor, Nuñez argued that environmental health reasons favor a relocation as well. Past studies by the New Mexico Environment Department, Environmental Protection Agency and IBWC have all documented significant amounts of arsenic and lead contamination in the soil of Anapra, which is located about three miles from the old Asarco smelter in El Paso.

Nuñez described many residents in her community as grappling with cancer or just trying to keep food on their tables.

“They can’t afford a flood,” she said. “We have people who have been here for five generations, and they can’t afford to be flooded.”

Nuñez’s position is shared by at least two other city council members and city staff. In an e-mail to Burciaga, Councilor Francisco Jayme recalled growing up in Smeltertown, an old El Paso neighborhood once inhabited by Asarco workers that was nestled practically at the base of the smelter, before it was demolished in 1973 for public health reasons and the residents relocated.

Because of flood risks, environmental hazards and lower Anapra’s location “below the nautral flood level of the Rio Grande, there is very little that can be done to minimize the flooding problem inside Anapra and even less with the lead and arsenic contamination,” Jayme wrote to Burciaga.

Councilor Giove, who represents another section of Sunland Park, identified state land in his district he said could be suitable for a New Anapra, if you will. That is, with a caveat: If the land went up for sale, the state land office would want to sell it to the highest bidder, he said.

“If you could give them a nice new house that they could afford, that they wouldn’t have to pay for, I believe the majority would like to move,” he said. “The idea is to do it step by step, and every step you’re asking the people of Anapra if they are cool with it.”

Meantime, it is the responsibility of the city government to cover its liabilities, which officials are currently doing by making sure the water pump system works and examining alternative options for Anapra, Giove said.

“If people still don’t want to move, so be it,” he added.

Seeking a long-term solution, Councilor Nuñez reached out to housing and community development experts like Mary Carter. A former Sunland Park city official who is currently the executive director of the nonprofit Women’s Intercultural Center in nearby Anthony, N.M., Carter took a recent tour with Nuñez to assess Anapra.

“It boils down to public safety,” Carter said, framing the issue as one of community respect and not repeating disasters like the 2006 flooding in El Paso.

According to Carter, about 100 families would be impacted by a community-wide relocation. She agreed that a mass move would be costly, but it is feasible if different private, foundation and government sources are creatively tapped and leveraged.

“We’re piecemealing in different ideas with organizations and corporations that have built housing and federal funding. There is a way to combine this. It’s a huge venture,” she said.

Carter said the goal of any relocation plan should be to move residents into new homes they would own. As for specific cost estimates of a relocation, Carter said realistic numbers can’t be added up until land is obtained.

“We won’t be able to make an assessment until there is land there,” she said.

Google Maps

A satellite view of the lower Anapra neighborhood in Sunland Park

The diamond steps to lower Anapra

The story of lower Anapra is also the story of Milkman, who was a colorful El Paso jewelry store owner and land developer. Milkman got into the public eye in the late 1940s because of the fallout from the Cricket Coogler scandal. The still-unresolved death of the 18-year-old Las Cruces waitress, who went missing and was found dead weeks later in a rural area south of Las Cruces, blew up into a broader scandal involving alleged Mafia personalities, New Mexico politicians, law enforcement officials and gamblers.

Milkman’s Valley Country Club in southern Doña Ana County was one of four establishments raided by a Doña Ana County grand jury investigating illegal gaming on June 23, 1949, according to Las Cruces author Paula Moore’s book Cricket in the Web. Milkman was indicted but acquitted the next year on the grounds that he merely owned the land, and not the gaming machines that were discovered on the raided property, the old El Paso Herald Post reported.

As depicted in Cricket in the Web, Milkman seemed to know every power broker in Doña Ana County and up the chain to the state capital in Santa Fe at the time. His contacts included Lt. Gov. Joseph Montoya, New Mexico State Police Chief Hubert Beasely and Doña Ana County Sheriff Happy Apodaca, among others. Beasely and Apodaca later served federal prison time for torturing a suspect and scapegoat in Coogler’s murder, African American military veteran Wesley Byrd.

In her book, Moore cited three confidential FBI informants who alleged that Milkman acted as a bagman, paying off politicians and other officials with cash and diamond rings to look the other way so illegal gambling profits would keep flowing. The tint of gaming scandals extended to other parts of New Mexico such as Ruidoso as well.

In the 1950s Milkman was running a jewelry store and liquor outlet in El Paso. He had residences in downtown El Paso, including a spot at the Hilton Hotel, and in the lower valley of the growing Sun City in Clint and Ysleta.

He made the news again in 1960 when an “inadequate cesspool” on property he owned that was leased by the Carousel Supper Club was blamed for polluting the Rio Grande. In 1976, Milkman was immersed in litigation with 25 people and their spouses over Anapra land sales. New Mexico state officials also intervened, charging that the water table under the land was too high to put in adequate water and sewerage systems. According to a 1976 article in the Las Cruces Sun-News, more than 30 buyers agreed to reimbursements for their lot purchases from Milkman while six others planned to hold on to their land; Milkman’s lower Anapra land sales continued in subsequent years.

“He screwed us,” Olga Nuñez contended, adding that Milkman didn’t bother to plat, zone or even include alleyways.

Milkman’s controversial land dealings put him in the vanguard of developers who sliced up properties without infrastructure improvements and resold them in affordable packages of small down and monthly payments to home-hungry buyers, thus ushering in the era of the colonias, or underdeveloped communities, in New Mexico and Texas. In the beginning there were no sewage hook-ups in lower Anapra, and Burciaga also recalled residents having to purchase the poles where electricity could be connected.

As lower Anapra grew, many social, political and environmental issues surfaced. Located close to the old Asarco smelter, the community was likely exposed to lead and arsenic contamination drifting from the stacks, as was determined by the New Mexico Environment Department, the federal EPA and testimony at a 2005 El Paso hearing over Asarco’s application for a Texas state air permit.

Water quality was and remains an issue in the community. Although the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority (CRRUA) that services Sunland Park assured earlier last year that it had fixed treatment problems blamed for excessive levels of arsenic detected in the community’s water supply in 2016 and before, residents like Burciaga and Villescas don’t trust the tap water and prefer to spend extra money purchasing their own. They are also concerned about a possible rate hike in the near future.

“We’re keeping an eye on that,” Burciaga said. “The word is getting around.”

Another problem cropped up in 2015 when the Texas Department of Transportation closed off Paisano Drive, which connects Anapra’s residents to school and work in El Paso. Consequently, residents had to loop around Sunland Park, costing them time and gas money. Bus service was temporarily disrupted.

The closure, which is related to Texas’ border highway expansion, was originally pledged to last a year but wound taking more than twice that. Paisano Drive finally reopened last November, to the relief of locals.

Guillermina Nuñez-Mchiri, director of women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas-El Paso, is familiar with the Sunland Park area. A former CRRUA customer who lived with her husband and son in a Santa Teresa neighborhood bordering Sunland Park, Nuñez-Mchiri’s family moved to El Paso several years ago after getting fed up with water quality problems and notices to not drink the water.

She called the large swath of binational desert that extends from scenic Lomas de Poleo — just above Puerto de Anapra on the Mexican side, where femicide victims were dumped in 1990s and a land dispute later pitted members of Ciudad Juárez’s prominent Zaragoza family against residents — to Sunland Park and the industrial section of Santa Teresa near the border crossing of the same name “a very hot space, a contested space,” populated by marginalized communities, or colonias, where the future of the Paso del Norte borderland is being defined.

“In the name of development, a lot of money has been pumped into Santa Teresa on that part of the border,” Nuñez-Mchiri said. “Now there’s attention to development.”

Adequately informing residents who are “disconnected from urban amenities” about meetings and events that will determine their lives is a must, she said.

Burciaga and Villescas suspect someone covets lower Anapra’s land — minus the residents. Councilor Nuñez, however, is skeptical that could be the case, especially considering the presence of environmental contamination.

“A lot of people think someone wants to buy this and get rich, but there’s no way. You have to fill it and spend a pretty penny,” she said. If vacated, lower Anapra would revert back to a wetland, she predicted.

What now?

Dozens of lower Anapra residents turned out to a small neighborhood church in November to hear about the future of their community. Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea was in attendance, as were Councilors Nuñez, Giove and Jayme. A proposal to petition the State of New Mexico for land was left up in the air, as there was no consensus reached at the time.

Maria Burciaga and Lorenzo Villescas later said many unanswered questions remained on the table. Signing on to a letter requesting land would be akin to “signing our death warrant,” Villescas asserted. “I want my house or I want to decide where I want to live. I don’t want anyone to come and tell me, ‘This where you are going to live.’ ”

For the two residents, many intangibles that can’t be defined in dollars or cents, building blueprints or a brand new subdivision are at stake in a possible relocation. Over the years a community has evolved in the Anapra lowlands, inhabited by extended families that help each other with chores and child care. “When you have a party everyone is invited,” Villescas said with a smile.

Anapra’s residents watch out for each other, including an autistic boy who freely wanders into homes unannounced to watch television. Would his wanderings be tolerated in another environment?

“We have a lot of ears here, and I bet we’re going to lose that too,” Villescas said.

But overhanging lower Anapra is the specter of a catastrophic flood — an event that grows more likely in the region, according to the projections of climate scientists, but possibly mitigated by long droughts. In a way, planning for lower Anapra’s future in an era of climate chaos is almost like the type of activity Milkman and his associates were once accused of sponsoring.

Giove said he expects that a letter will be sent from the city government to the New Mexico state land commissioner asking about land availability for a relocated Anapra once the hiring of a new city manager and assistant city manager is settled, possibly in January.

“We’re doing our part, because at the end of the day we don’t want to be left holding the bag if something goes wrong,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. At least we tried.”

Burciaga, who has gathered dozens of petition signatures for fixing the water pump, wants specific answers about flood probabilities, environmental contamination, cancers and other matters. Burciaga reiterated that she and some of her neighbors won’t support a letter to the state government until they know what “options” exist for their lives and properties.

“We want to know exactly what’s going on before we can authorize it,” she said.

Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region. This story was made possible in part with support from the McCune Charitable Foundation. Research assistance came from Bob Chessey.

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