No Escape

For Mexicans fleeing violence, the United States offers no refuge.


Eleven-year-old Ana was playing in the park near her house.

Her family sat on the front lawn and sipped cold drinks and talked about their day. Suddenly, the crackle of automatic gunfire rang out. With the chatter, the chirping and the sound of traffic muted by the blasts, Ana sped home on her bicycle.

There she found big men with big guns. The grass and cement had turned red with blood. Her aunt, her uncle and a cousin lay dying. Her mother, shot four times in the back, wished in silent agony that her daughter would run. But Ana, a long-limbed girl with dark hair to her waist, was frozen with terror. One of the gunmen held an AK-47 against her temple.

Time stood still.

The most remarkable event of that summer day in Ciudad Juarez was not that people were executed. No, that happens every day.

The most remarkable thing was that one of the killers showed mercy.

“One of them said, ‘Don’t kill her,’” recalled Juan, Ana’s father, who asked that his family’s real names not be used for fear of retaliation. Ana and her brother, father and permanently disabled mother survived. But they knew they had to leave Juarez.


The family had bought it’s home in a government-funded neighborhood 15 years earlier. Since then, they say, the neighborhood had become increasingly derelict. Strangers came and went at all hours. New neighbors moved in who weren’t like the working-class families who originally bought into the neighborhood.

Juan says that the gunmen on that day in 2009 pulled up in white SUVs. They said they were looking for the owner of a red truck. His brother-in-law had a red truck, and now Juan thinks he was the target.

“People were scared,” Juan said. “There was another red truck in the neighborhood, maybe they confused it. I don’t know. It happened so fast. There were more than 100 shots fired.” He was doing repairs inside the house when the shooting started.

“While all this was happening, there was a military checkpoint at the corner and they didn’t do anything,” Juan added. “The ambulance took 40 minutes to arrive.”

Afterward, Juan went to the police station to see if they’d done anything. He says they told him not to cause trouble or the gunmen would return to kill him and his family. “They said, ‘Leave it alone, let it all go, leave all your material things behind while you’re still alive,’” Juan said.

Juan, like thousands of other Juarez residents, faced a dilemma. Gunmen had attacked his family and could come back. The police offered no protection, telling him to leave town or die.

The 40-year-old had a “laser visa,” a border-crossing card that allowed him and his family to visit the United States. After spending weeks in hiding, and once his wife could be moved from a Juarez hospital, the family crossed the border to El Paso and safety. He took his wife to University Hospital for further treatment, where he slept in his car in the parking lot. The night guards found him and called Annunciation House, a shelter for asylum seekers.

Thus began Juan’s life as a refugee, caught in a purgatory grown from the worst in politics, crime and international law.


The relationship between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso is a complicated tale of two cities. They are linked by history, family and trade. A steel wall forms a barrier along parts of the border, but bridges connect the two inextricably. Juarez, home to 1.3 million people, once offered attractive shopping and a vibrant nightlife; its residents enjoyed the numerous city parks. El Paso, population 750,000, offered many American-style comforts and cheaper household goods.

For centuries residents of El Paso and Juarez considered themselves part of the same community, if not the same country. Over the last four years, though, drug wars have divided the cities like never before. Juarez businesses are boarded up, many with “For Sale” signs. No one is buying. After 5 p.m., only those with urgent business are out and about. Most people are hiding in their homes, praying that gunmen will not pay a visit. Juarez, the epicenter of Mexico’s drug war, has become one of the most dangerous cities in the world; El Paso remains one of the safest.

The violence started after conservative President Felipe Calderon took office on Dec. 1, 2006. Soon afterward, the United States put enormous pressure on Mexico to crack down on drug trafficking, and Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers to the border. Two years later, the U.S. gave Mexico $1.4 billion in military and intelligence equipment under the Merida Initiative, signed by President George W. Bush, to fight the cartels. Since then, the violence has escalated.

The focus has been on Juarez, where experts say at least 70 percent of the cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines consumed in America cross the border. That crackdown has sparked drug wars in Mexico that have claimed more than 25,000 lives since 2006—including more than 6,000 in Juarez since 2008.

The rate of killing continues to climb, with more and more innocent people in the crossfire. Competing gangs of narco-traffickers grow more and more creative in how they kill, maim and terrorize anyone in their way, or anyone who might be, or anyone who simply knows someone who may or may not be involved in the drug war. The trafficker’s dictum is simple, Plata o Plomo, “Money or Lead.”

On July 15, the cartels used their first car bomb in Juarez, apparently detonated by a cell phone, killing two police officers and a medic and signaling yet another escalation in tactics. Four days later, gunmen opened fire on a birthday party in Torreon, in Coahuila, a state on the Texas border. Seventeen people were killed, and 18 others were wounded in a hail of gunfire. They were reportedly in their 20s and 30s and had organized the party on Facebook.

At a meeting of Mexican and U.S. health officials in El Paso on July 21, Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferris said the drug violence “has become a public-health issue and is one of the main causes of death in the region.” No one knows how many Juarez residents have fled the city because of the violence, but estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000.

Mexican officials say the problem is not theirs alone. “The origin of our violence problem starts with the fact that Mexico is located next to the country that has the highest level of drug consumption in the world,” President Felipe Calderon wrote in a 5,000-word editorial printed on June 16 throughout Mexico. “It’s as if our neighbor were the biggest drug addict in the world.”

While Juarez’s violence was triggered by the troop deployment, and by funding from the United States, Mexicans seeking refuge in their sister city find that the U.S. government is unwilling to help the victims of the violence.


When Juan crossed the border, he didn’t tell the border guards his family was seeking asylum; his crossing card meant he didn’t need to. He also knew that sharing his fears could land his family in a detention cell. So he acted as if it was just a daily trip allowed by all laser visa holders. Then, he found refuge at Annunciation House, a shelter for asylum seekers established in 1978, when civil wars were spreading in Central America.

“We have nothing left in Juarez. We have nothing here either, but it’s safer,” Juan says. He works odd jobs as a carpenter, landscaper, whatever he can get.

“If immigration catches me, I will go to another country, but I can’t go back to Mexico because they will kill us,” he says. “The narcos, the Mexican government, they know everything. Everything’s corrupt.”

Technically, Juan has until September to apply for asylum. But he’s not sure he wants to attract the attention of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The process takes a lot of time and money. And he knows the U.S. rarely grants Mexicans asylum.

So far, 11,000 Mexicans have sought asylum, and tens of thousands more have crossed the border fearing for their lives. They include people with visas, people like Juan who overstay their visas, people who seek asylum and people who are afraid to seek asylum. They are rich, poor, professionals, students, journalists and police officers—in short, the people who make up any community anywhere in the world. They are the displaced, uncounted victims of the war on drugs.

Of those who have sought asylum in the United States, only 2 percent have gained permission to stay. That compares with 40 percent of Colombians who apply after fleeing drug-related violence in their country.

“There are four types of Mexican citizens in El Paso: those who have legalized their status, those who have resident visas because they are students, professionals or business people, and there are those with border-crossing cards who either live in El Paso and work in Juarez, or stay in El Paso illegally,” said Gustavo de la Rosa, the human rights ombudsman for the Mexican government in Juarez.

De la Rosa’s job is to investigate abuse accusations against government officials. He sleeps in El Paso for his safety but goes to work in Juarez during the day with bodyguards. Wealthy Mexicans, he says, usually have visas, resident status or relatives who are U.S. citizens. They can afford El Paso rents that are three times the rates in Mexico. (Since the drug wars began, real estate prices along the border are up 20 to 40 percent in urban areas.)

“You say you are going to visit family. You stay in El Paso and pay rent, but you’re not absolutely legal and (U.S. officials) know it,” de la Rosa said. “There are certain illegalities that are tolerated by the U.S.”

If you can afford it.

Poor Mexicans are not so lucky. So for now, Juan and his family are among 90 people from Mexico hiding in one of the homes run by Annunciation.


The numbers make it clear that not all of those killed and wounded in Mexico are drug traffickers. Pablo Hernandez Batista, a veteran reporter with the Juarez newspaper El Norte, says that at the beginning of the war in 2006, the murder of innocents was rare.

“These conditions started changing around 2008 when the trained gunmen of criminal organizations were either killed or arrested,” Batista said. “The cartels started hiring people with little experience firing automatic weapons, or people from other parts of the country. Many new sicarios (hired gunmen) are young gang members with no knowledge of an AK-47, and that’s when the rate of innocent victims started to climb.”

El Paso immigration lawyer Carlos Spector points to another factor. He says the violence escalated after the United States lifted a 10-year ban on 19 types of assault weapons in 2004. Since only the police and the military are allowed to own guns in Mexico, the United States became the most convenient place for cartels to buy illicit weapons, with large quantities on offer for low prices.

“There’s so much money, so much opportunity in drugs and guns,” Spector said. “The drug traffickers haven’t changed the rules of the game. They play by them. … These guys are evil geniuses.”

Batista says the cartels use indiscriminate violence to strike terror into the civilian population. Like any violent insurgency, cartel leaders want to demonstrate that they are in control, with more powerful weapons than the government. They want to prove that the drug war is futile. “It’s the premeditated murder of people who have nothing to do with drug trafficking. It’s narcoterrorism,” said Batista, who covered the car bombing in Juarez, which wounded a colleague. “Their objective is to terrorize the population and create the perception in the community that anyone can be a victim of the cartels.”

With every escalation by the cartels, President Calderon must respond in kind to demonstrate his government’s authority.

“The government declares a war against the cartels, who respond with more executions, kidnappings and extortion to recuperate capital,” Batista said. “And that’s what began the human exodus.”

Nonetheless, the Mexican government and the U.S. State Department insist that most of the dead belong to drug-trafficking organizations. This is an important declaration by both governments, because if they admit that the violence in Mexico involves more than just the government and criminals, then international law could require the United States to treat the victims fleeing for their lives very differently.


The U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, an international treaty signed by the United States, requires governments to provide shelter and safety to international refugees until their fears are no longer justified.

The convention defines a refugee as a “person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The United States denies Mexicans refugee status by arguing that they aren’t fleeing communism or a civil war, and that their only “political” opinion is fear of traffickers and their henchmen or the military and police. The convention doesn’t mention criminal violence. So while the United States has recognized that the drug violence in Colombia is linked to a civil war, the Obama administration views the Mexican violence as purely criminal. Thus, Mexicans fleeing for their lives have to prove to an immigration judge that they have suffered past persecution, or have a well-founded fear of future persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Fear of death is not enough.

Some observers of the Mexican drug wars not only believe that civilians fleeing the violence should qualify as refugees, but also see the cartels’ violence becoming more political. Neither Mexico nor the United States wants to admit to a political dimension in the drug war or to admit that Mexico can’t protect its citizens. And since immigration is a big issue in U.S. politics, the Obama administration has no interest in admitting Mexican refugees.

“They’d have to acknowledge there’s a war going on and that Merida is not working,” said Eduardo Beckett, the head lawyer at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.

Beckett says more than 400 people have asked him for help since January. “They are asylum-seekers, people who fear they will be killed, people who were shot or were wounded. Many are police informants or failed informants. Women with children, business owners and workers. They have received threats from cartels or criminal organizations that have ties to corrupt Mexican government officials,” he said. “We can get some of them non-immigrant visas; some go to shelters or with family. They say, ‘Give me a hand.’ For us on the border, El Paso and Juarez are the same city, so they come and they hope they don’t get caught.”


One case that illustrates the difficulties of receiving asylum, and how things may change, involves Emilio Gutierrez Soto. A journalist, he fled his hometown of Ascension, 98 miles west of Juarez, last year with his 15-year-old son after the military threatened his life for writing about their abuses. He requested asylum at the small border crossing of Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

Gutierrez landed in ICE detention in El Paso for seven months. He was separated from his son, who was locked up for two months. Because of an outcry by journalist organizations,
he was ultimately released, pending a hearing next year on his asylum eligibility.

“The overt policy of the U.S. government is to discourage Mexican asylum applicants,” said Spector, the immigration lawyer who is representing Gutierrez. “The judges here have a learning curve because they don’t believe what they’re hearing. They say, ‘How can this be, this nightmare you’re presenting?’ And then there’s the fear that the floodgates will open, as with the immigration debate.”

Spector says Gutierrez is his strongest asylum case. A victory could set a precedent by proving that the Mexican government can’t protect one of its citizens.

Threats against Gutierrez began in January 2005, when he wrote about soldiers accompanying a known kidnapper to storm a lodge in Las Palomas. They stole jewelry and other items from the guests and threatened to kill them. After he wrote the story, a senior military officer threatened to kill Gutierrez if he wrote another story about the army. His newspaper, Diario del Noroeste, ran the headline “High-ranking officials threatened to kill the correspondent in Ascension.” For the next two years, Gutierrez filed formal complaints with the state and the national human rights office.

“I was naive. I had confidence all that time that the government would help me, because we have institutions that protect citizens,” Gutierrez, 41, said in an interview in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The threats mounted, and one night the military ransacked his home, taking files and documents and destroying furniture.

“They told me, ‘Get on the floor!’ and they said this will be the last time I write about them,” he says. “I realized then that if I hung on, it would be the end.” That night he drove with his son to the border and asked U.S. officials to help him, never realizing he would be jailed.

Now on Saturdays Gutierrez runs the desk at the El Paso bureau of Juarez’s El Diario. But mostly he sells burritos that he and his son make in the mornings. They take them door to door to businesses in Las Cruces, where he awaits his hearing. When he can, he travels the United States telling his story, and that of other Mexican journalists.

Thirty-three journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2006, and 17 went missing this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“I have to survive,” Gutierrez said. “None of us wants to leave Mexico, our lives, our jobs. But those who are able to cross the border have no other alternative … The worst is knowing I can probably never go back. They took my country away.”


Spector, like many lifelong El Paso residents, believes the United States can’t continue to seal its borders while it finances a war that Mexican citizens can’t escape.

“What is it going to take to stop this? Another revolution? Brace yourself,” Spector said. “It’s all a fraud and it’s coming unglued, and each month, every day, it’s worse.”

Many Mexicans and Americans believe the solution is to decriminalize some drugs, but that is a far-off possibility. In the meantime, Calderon—with U.S. backing—remains intent on violently cracking down on the cartels.

“I think Mexico is going through the most violence since the Mexican Revolution,” said Anthony Payan, a political scientist and border expert at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“It’s a bi-national problem, but essentially it’s an American war being fought in a foreign territory, like all our other wars,” he said. “The war on drugs that began with Nixon is an official policy of prohibition. And it’s our longest war, but it doesn’t mesh with America’s social tolerance and attitude toward drugs.”

With no lessening of violence in sight, what will the U.S. government do to help the victims of its war in Mexico? Under pressure from human rights organizations, the Obama administration issued a new policy for ICE in January to change the formula for arresting and jailing asylum applicants fleeing persecution. It allows discretion in determining what happens to someone with “credible fear” of persecution in their native country.

ICE officials now say they will “generally release arriving asylum seekers.” Thus, if a Mexican citizen at a U.S. border checkpoint tells an officer he or she wants asylum, the officer may allow entry without formally admitting the person or assigning them an immigration status. The officer can also grant “automatic consideration for parole.” But that’s the case only if the officer believes the asylum seeker. No matter what happens, the immigrant will still be detained, often in solitary, and still have to appear before an immigration judge, who will determine whether a credible fear exists.

While these reforms are important, they still leave ICE agents and immigration judges enormous leeway, and it is too early to tell whether Mexican refugees are actually being judged any differently under the new policy.

In the meantime, Ana and her family wait in limbo in the shelter in El Paso, not knowing where the future will take them. The Mexican government’s attacks on the cartels appear to have had little influence on the availability of drugs in the United States. Drugs move north, money changes hands, and guns and profits go south. The violence gets worse. And a little girl hides, developing ulcers and growing depressed.

“We’re just grateful she’s alive,” her mother said.

Susana Hayward spent 10 years covering Mexico for the Associated Press, Knight-Ridder newspapers and the San Antonio Express-News. She is a freelance reporter based in San Antonio.

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