As a drug war rages throughout Mexico and along its northern border, an increasing number of Mexicans are crossing into the United States to flee the killings, extortion and kidnappings that have plagued places like Juárez and Tijuana.
Unlike the traditional job-seeking migrants, whose numbers have dropped in part due to the slumping US economy and increased border enforcement, this new migrant class comprises business owners, executives and other professionals who choose safety in the United States–even if it means detention–over freedom in their own country.
The drug war, which has claimed nearly 10,000 lives in a little more than two years– more than 1,600 in Juárez in the last year alone–is a central component. But where most of those gruesome killings–including beheadings and mutilated bodies dumped in mass graves–involve criminals killing other criminals, rivals’ family members or police, a dark, secondary shadow of lawlessness is enveloping innocent men, women and children who are fleeing for their lives.
Officials on both sides of the border acknowledge these new immigrants but decline to make estimates of how many have fled. The tally could be in the thousands. The number of asylum-seekers has grown steadily in the past few years, according to the Department of Homeland Security, and is anticipated to increase. About 200 Mexicans applied for asylum at border posts last year and seventy just in the first quarter of this year. In addition, not all Mexicans fleeing the violence turn themselves in and ask for asylum.
Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, who tracks the drug trade and its effects on society in Mexico and along the border, doesn’t believe that Mexico is a failed state or even moving in that direction. Mexicans, however, are deeply frustrated by the lawlessness and police corruption that have some citizens rejecting the country.
“It’s the worst violence since the (Mexican) Revolution and the worst period of instability since the Revolution,” Campbell said, referring to the war against the Mexican government led by Pancho Villa and others that broke out nearly a hundred years ago. “People are giving up on the country, thinking it’s totally hopeless.”
On the night of January 10, Adolfo Guerrero, a 43-year-old father of one, who works in San Diego County but lives in a middle-class neighborhood on the edge of Tijuana, was driving home from downtown Tijuana. Guerrero, who was born in the United States but has always lived in Mexico, saw a white Ford pickup pull up behind him, its headlights flashing. Thinking the driver wanted to pass, Guerrero switched lanes as he descended a long hill. The driver of the Ford chased him, eventually pulling alongside. Guerrero saw the front passenger hold up a long-barrel rifle and gesture at him to pull off the road.