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Refugees From Mexico Drug War Flee to US | The Nation

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Refugees From Mexico Drug War Flee to US

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Andrew Becker
Andrew Becker is a staff reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization in...

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.

Guerrero fled, lost control and rammed his truck into a fence surrounding a housing development, the impact causing the bed of his truck to jackknife. One of the men in the Ford tried to open the truck's door, but Guerrero resisted and other cars approached. The man ran off. Moments later, a police car and tow truck appeared.

Rather than take a statement from Guerrero or pursue the Ford, the cop demanded $300 on the spot to cover the damage to the fence, Guerrero said. When Guerrero said he didn't have the money, the officer, who said he was with the anti-kidnapping unit, hauled him to jail. Afraid of police collusion, Guerrero paid $150 at the station. As he was about to leave, an officer said, "Think about it, Güero" (an insult insinuating that Guerrero was just a dumb American). "At least you're alive."

For about a year, Guerrero had contemplated moving away from Tijuana, where his family had lived for generations. The incident spurred him to buy a home in San Diego County.

"What is happening in Tijuana is happening to everyone. Social status doesn't matter," he said. "You can't go to anyone (in the police). They ignore you or laugh."

There is concern, voiced by intelligence officials, politicians and military leaders, of possible cross-border kidnappings or other violence, or a refugee crisis if the war and hostilities escalate. The situation has prompted local, state and federal officials to make plans to handle the issue of spillover.

Before he left his post as Homeland Security secretary in late January, Michael Chertoff told the New York Times that last summer he'd ordered the drafting of a contingency plan in the event there was "significant" border violence spillover. He said the department could muster a surge of its force to confront the issue and even work with the US military if necessary.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Roger Rufe (retired), director of DHS office of operations coordination, recently testified to Congress that the department has a four-phase response to increasing levels of border violence. He said the department is developing plans to respond to a mass rush of Mexicans fleeing across the border, including housing arrangements and caring for displaced people.

Fred Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism official, and others have questioned the effectiveness of the federal plan to deal with a refugee crisis, in the unlikely event such a response is necessary. Zapata County (Texas) Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, chair of the Southwestern Border Sheriffs' Coalition, says that no sheriff along the border has seen the federal contingency plan and that none of them know of a comprehensive strategy to deal with cross-border violence and Mexicans fleeing the war. DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said that the plan will be sent to local law enforcement agencies soon. She declined to elaborate on the details of the strategy.

Congress last year passed a $1.4 billion aid package, dubbed the Mérida Initiative, to fight the drug trade in Mexico and Central America, with the first few hundred million released since December, but there hasn't been a straightforward discussion between the two countries about collateral damage.

While there is a loud chorus of US support for the efforts of President Felipe Calderón, who has sent 8,500 troops to Juárez in an attempt to restore order, few have publicly weighed the human cost, including what to do about Mexicans fleeing the war. It's a delicate issue, as neighboring Mexico remains the United States' third-largest trading partner and a major oil supplier.

For now, the US focus is on the drug cartels, as well as a redoubled concentration on curbing small-arms trafficking and the flow of drug money to Mexico. That focus raises the question: what responsibility does the US government have to Mexicans fleeing a war that is fueled by US drug consumption, fought with firearms largely purchased in the United States and funded in part by the United States' giving money to a government that is not able to reliably protect its people?

The issue is being taken up in Washington. The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration think tank, last month organized a round-table discussion sponsored by the Army War College Strategic Studies Institute that gathered about forty scholars, policy analysts and US officials from the State, Justice and Homeland Security departments for the opening round of talks to recommend how to address Mexico's security problems and help manage the migration wrought by the war while dealing with this country's own border issues, including corruption and firearms trafficking.

Susan Ginsburg, who directs the think tank's mobility and security program, said there are unanswered questions about the nature of the violence, where it's coming from and what the motivations are.

"Some of these tactics are things we've seen in Middle Eastern terrorist organizations," she said. "Why are innocent people being caught up in it? It's something we've been unable to answer, but it's considered an important question."

José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas division director for Human Rights Watch, said the Mérida Initiative could help Mexico strengthen its democratic and judicial institutions and ensure that law enforcement agencies and the army do not engage in massive and gross violations of human rights. Mexican police officers, targets for corruption by drug lords, typically earn less than $1,000 a month, and crime goes widely unsolved in Mexico.

The battle in Mexico has primarily been between the powerful drug cartels vying for control of the lucrative smuggling routes into the United States. Shortly after taking office in late 2006, President Calderón launched an offensive against traffickers and police corruption, and has since sent some 45,000 Mexican troops across the country.

Since then, however, a wave of lawlessness has risen as some crime syndicates, such as the once-potent Tijuana cartel, have faltered due to arrests or killings of its leaders, and a crackdown on police corruption has weeded out some crooked cops. As a result, gangs have turned to kidnapping or extortion as other means to make money, and low-level criminals have jumped at the opportunity to prey upon victims in cities that lack a police presence.

Burton, the former counterterrorism official at State and an analyst with the Austin, Texas-based security company Stratfor, describes this as a third war waged "by criminals who may or may not be involved with the cartels" that target innocent citizens.

In a recent report published by Stratfor, Burton and Scott Stewart wrote that "Unlike the other battles, where cartel members or government forces are the primary targets and civilians are only killed as collateral damage, on this battlefront, civilians are squarely in the crosshairs."

Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney in Harlingen, Texas, less than twenty miles from the Mexico border, says she gets calls or sees people at least twice a week where they express a fear of living in Mexico because of the rise in drug-related violence.

"I never heard people say they were afraid to live in Matamoros or Reynosa until the last year and a half," she said. "It's hard to feel you have any protection when the people supposed to be protecting you are in bed with the enemy," she said, referring to Mexican police.

In El Paso, which shares the border with Ciudad Juárez, a city of more than a million people, Mayor John Cook said some Mexicans come over on weekends to get away from the violence or have moved because they find it safer in the United States. He noted that the 1,600-member Juárez police department has fired hundreds of cops who have failed drug or lie-detector tests.

"Some of the little gangsters in town have used that as an opportunity to kidnap and extort," he said. "Many people we have fleeing are not fleeing drug violence but the secondary level of violence."

Apartment managers in recent months have noticed more Mexican businessmen moving themselves or their families to El Paso, which for years has touted itself as one of the safest big cities in the United States. Suzy Shewmaker Hicks, board president of the Greater El Paso Association of Realtors, said that in the past year she's seen more Juárez residents inquiring about living in El Paso.

A woman who had recently returned to her Juárez home after fleeing to El Paso for a few months starting last summer recently talked at an El Paso coffee shop about her experience. Dressed elegantly and sipping a coffee drink at a Starbucks, the woman, who asked that her identity be withheld for safety reasons, said her family decided to leave after her husband felt threatened at his business. They had since returned to Juárez because they believe it's their duty to stand up for their city. (The family maintains a home in El Paso.)

Her husband has not returned to his business since he noticed a pickup truck packed with five suspicious men lurking outside late at night last summer, she said. Instead, he operates his business using a web camera and by phone.

While her family again lives in Juárez, many of her acquaintances and friends remain in the United States, where they've sought safety, the woman said. Meanwhile, she said she knows at least six people who have been kidnapped for ransom in the past five months.

"We don't want a failed state," the woman, who has dual American and Mexican citizenship, said. "We want families to come back."

To protect themselves against kidnappings and other attacks, people have taken to wearing disguises or changing cars, she said. The month-old coat of dust and dirt on her car gave a thin psychological layer of protection against would-be kidnappers. Even the mayor of Juárez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, who has owned a home on the US side for about fifteen years, relocated his family after receiving threats, according to press reports.

"It's worse than any movie," the woman said. "If you had told me ten months ago we'd be where we are now, I wouldn't have believed you."

Since returning to Juárez, the woman said, community efforts to create safe public places have begun through neighborhood, church and business associations.

Republican Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas said he saw evidence of the insecurity migration when a Mexican newspaper publisher moved into a nearby neighborhood.

"In my lifetime living in Texas, we have seen the increase of violence and lawlessness. It used to be you'd visit a (Mexican) border town--go shopping with your family, eat at a restaurant and then go home. You don't do that anymore," said McCaul, a member of the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees.

He acknowledged that Mexico is becoming more of a narco-state along the border but not a failed one. The United States must shoulder the burden by curbing drug demand and cutting off the flow of guns and cash into Mexico. US military involvement is on the table.

"It's a ticking time bomb about ready to explode, and I'm just very concerned what the next step is going to be," he said.

Still, Texas is better off than other states, Sheriff Gonzalez said, as the governor's office has developed a state contingency plan and the Texas Legislature has committed millions to bolster the state's border-area law enforcement. He said Texas sheriffs feel sorry for their counterparts in other states who don't have the money. But Gonzalez said he does have some reason for hope, as new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano met with local law enforcement officials in late February and indicated to them that she wants to talk by telephone at least once a month.

"We've finally been invited to the table instead of having to lick crumbs off the floor like we used to, and not very successfully," Gonzalez said.

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