No Road Home

After the presidential election, Mexico’s exiles long to go home but have little faith in their government.


A version of this story ran in the September 2012 issue.

It’s July 1, the night of Mexico’s presidential election, and on television it looks like democracy.

Expensively dressed, well-coiffed TV news anchors transmit live from Mexico City’s massive central plaza or Zocalo—the symbolic center of the country’s political life. They announce election returns as they roll in from across the country, and recap the day with footage of presidential frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto, the boyishly handsome candidate of the old ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, mobbed by cameras and supporters as he votes at his precinct outside the capital. The grinning candidate, flanked by his TV soap star wife, gives a thumbs up and pronounces the day “a festival of democracy” in which “the winner will be the people of Mexico.”

In El Paso, where a dozen Mexican exiles gather around the television, the election doesn’t feel like “a festival of democracy.” It feels like a wake. Across from me sits Saul Reyes Salazar, 43, a deeply thoughtful man, compact with wire-framed glasses. Six of his family members have been killed in the past four years. None of the murders was investigated. Next to him sits his friend Martin Hueremo, 44, a former city council member from the small community of Reforma that neighbors Saul’s hometown of Guadalupe, 35 miles southeast of Juarez. Hueremo fled Mexico after gunmen killed two fellow city council members and left an ice chest filled with decapitated heads outside city hall.

Between the Reyes and Hueremo families, 37 people ages 3 to 78 have fled Mexico and filed for political asylum in the United States the past three years. The giant-screen TV in front of us belongs to Carlos Spector, their lawyer, who now represents at least 153 Mexicans seeking asylum. Since a low-intensity civil war began consuming the country in 2006, an estimated 100,000 Mexicans have been killed, and at least 10,000 have been kidnapped, their bodies never recovered. Last year, violence forced at least 160,000 people from their homes. It’s estimated that 230,000 have left Ciudad Juarez—at least half of them to the United States.

We sit on sofas and chairs in Spector’s small guesthouse, which doubles as a workout room and now as a place to watch Mexico’s fragile democracy take yet another precarious turn. The mood is somber, pensive. Besides Martin and Saul there are Martin’s two teenage sons, Saul’s three adult nephews, Spector and his 23-year-old daughter Alejandra. Saul’s 78-year-old mother Doña Sara sits outside with Martin and Saul’s wives watching the younger children play. She has given up on the election. “It’s all lies,” she says.

A week earlier, Doña Sara had fled Mexico with her grandson after he’d received death threats. Deeply involved in social activism in Guadalupe, she had pledged never to leave Mexico, despite the murders of six family members. But now the matriarch says she’s filed for asylum. “Not for me but for my family,” she says. She would be the last of 32 members of her family to flee Mexico.

Mexico is less than five miles from where they sit. From a highway near the border, Martin and Saul can see the white steeple of the church in Guadalupe just across the Rio Grande. But the fear of being kidnapped or killed keeps them in Texas. Across the river, their family members and friends have been killed or disappeared, their cars, homes and businesses torched or stolen. Whole blocks of their hometown are charred ruins, as if in a war zone. It’s been like this for more than three years.

You would think the violence and forced displacements across the country would be a major topic of discussion leading up to the July 1 presidential election. But you would be wrong. The candidates rarely acknowledged the conflict ravaging the countryside or its victims. Instead they focused on differences in personality and leadership style. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota’s campaign motto, “Josefina diferente,” was a lackluster attempt to differentiate herself from President Felipe Calderón, in whose cabinet she had served. Peña Nieto’s campaign motto, “tu me conoces” (“you know me”), was laughable to Saul, Martin and the others because the PRI had done everything in its power to keep the candidate tightly scripted and rarely free of his handlers.

The exiles peer at the TV screen. There’s a mixture of puzzlement and despair on their faces. Pollsters have predicted for nearly two years that the 46-year-old Peña Nieto, who represents the former dictatorship of the PRI, will win by a healthy margin. He is the former governor of Mexico state—a heavily industrialized, horseshoe-shaped region that encircles Mexico City. Leading up to the election, he strove to present himself as the new, more democratic face of the party. Yet it is widely known that his most trusted advisors are the PRI’s old guard, whom many Mexicans call “los dinosaurios,” men who advised former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in the ’90s, a time when political dissidents were assassinated and the country suffered one of its worst economic crises.

It was no secret that “los dinosaurios” longed to retake the country after a stunning loss in 2000 to the conservative PAN. For decades the PRI had put on a show of democracy but functioned largely as a dictatorship that governed through a well-oiled system of graft, cronyism and media censorship. There was an election every six years, but real political power was orchestrated from within the party; the process was often referred to as el dedazo, “the big finger,” because the sitting president tapped his chosen successor.

On election night, after more than a decade out of power, the PRI seems poised to recapture Mexico, but the exiles still hold out hope for an upset win by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist candidate, with the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, who was narrowly defeated by Felipe Calderón in 2006. After that election, according to polls, at least 40 percent of Mexicans believed the election had been stolen from Lopez Obrador, whom Mexicans often refer to as AMLO. Hundreds of thousands of people jammed the streets of Mexico City and set up massive protest encampments in the Zocalo. Lopez Obrador vowed to carry on a parallel government, but eventually his movement lost momentum and splintered.

Back then, Saul and Martin were municipal PRD candidates who worked tirelessly for the party. In their community in the Juarez Valley, they and several others had formed an active, vocal block of voters who battled against the impunity of drug lords and for better living conditions. Six years later, most of those people are now dead or in exile, victims of the violence that engulfed the state of Chihuahua in 2008 after Calderón sent in the army. In the ensuing bloodshed among the drug cartels, hired pistoleros and soldiers had turned Ciudad Juarez and the agricultural corridor of the Juarez Valley into killing fields. In 2009, Guadalupe, with its 3,000 inhabitants, had the highest per-capita murder rate in Mexico. The press called it “the valley of death.”

For the first time in their lives, they tell me, Saul and Martin didn’t vote in the presidential election this year. They were not alone. More than a dozen people I spoke with in El Paso’s exile community—where an estimated 50,000 Mexicans have fled— hadn’t bothered to vote either, even though a law passed prior to the 2006 election allows Mexicans to vote abroad.

Their reasons for not voting are complicated, Saul tells me. “Those who have citizenship or legal residency believe that if they vote in the election they’ll lose their U.S. legal status,” he says. “It’s not true, and it’s a myth, but some believe that. Others who are here without documents are afraid the information will be used to locate and deport them.”

Others can’t get a voting card in Mexico because they’ve just fled for their lives. As we sit watching the election, a TV reporter arrives shouldering a video camera. He works for a local Spanish-language station and wants to film the exiles watching the election for a story to be broadcast that night. The reporter, originally from Mexico City, tells me he has a special interest in the topic because he, too, was recently granted asylum. When I ask whether he has voted, he smiles sadly. “When they kidnapped me, they took my wallet with my voting card,” he says. “And I can’t go back.”

Underlying all of these reasons, however, is anger and frustration toward the Mexican government. The day before the election, I visited with a woman who recently fled Guadalupe after her sister was kidnapped. The woman had gone from one law enforcement office to the next pleading for authorities to find her kidnapped sister, but no one would help. Her sister had been snatched in front of other family members in the middle of the day. The witnesses even recognized some of the kidnappers. Her brother-in-law, who had tried to intervene, had been beaten so badly he was hospitalized for several weeks.

After receiving death threats, the family—50 members in all—was forced to flee, she told me. They’d lost their homes, cars and businesses. Now, she lives in a dilapidated trailer in Texas with six other family members, trying to survive on odd jobs. Her husband, deeply depressed, wants to go home so he can work, but she’s begged him not to because she’s afraid he’ll be killed. Recently, they’d gotten a call from Guadalupe informing them that some men had cleaned out her husband’s auto repair shop and stolen $30,000 worth of equipment. The thieves hauled away everything in a municipal truck.

I asked her whether she thinks the election might improve things so her family can go home, and she shakes her head. “I don’t think anything is going to change with the election,” she says. “At this point, you can’t believe in the government. So many years and the same things repeating and repeating themselves, only now it’s worse, and they really are good for nothing. Before at least you had a little bit of faith in the authorities, but now nothing. Absolutely nothing,” she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. “We didn’t vote. One of my nephews said, ‘you know you can vote from here.’ I said, ‘No, what for? Why should we, if our own government doesn’t support us or value us as Mexicans?’”

The woman doesn’t show up at Spector’s house to watch the election even though she knows many of the people there. The exiles wait expectantly for the results. Within two hours of the polls closing, the TV announcers call the winner: Enrique Peña Nieto. Despite this being the predicted outcome, Saul, Martin and the others seem to be in shock as the vote tallies show the PRI winning with 38 percent of the vote. Lopez Obrador is second with 31 percent, and Vazquez Mota is third with 25 percent of the vote.

The loss for Calderón’s party is a stinging rebuke to his drug war strategy, which has spurred so much death and misery. The president appears on the screen from the presidential palace. Posed in front of a Mexican flag and an ornately framed painting of Francisco Madero, the first president of the revolution, Calderón announces that a rapid count by the federal election agency shows that Peña Nieto is indeed the “president elect.” Calderón assures viewers that Mexico values the democratic process. “All Mexicans count in the government. Mexico is a strong country with freedoms that we all should be proud of. I invite you to join us in demonstrating once more that we are a civilized and democratic nation.”

“Well, I guess we can all go back tomorrow,” Saul deadpans, then walks outside. “They’ve stolen the election again,” he tells his mother Doña Sara, who is sitting in a folding chair watching her grandchildren. She nods as if it’s a foregone conclusion.

Little more than a decade ago
, the dominant feeling in Mexico was hope. In 2000, for the first time in modern history, many Mexicans believed they’d finally participated in a fair presidential election. The PAN’s Vicente Fox ended the PRI’s reign of 71 years in the presidential palace. Young voters were especially upbeat that their country might finally have democracy. But what looked like a new era instead became a reckoning with the repression and corruption that had festered under the PRI.

A few days after the election, I meet with Carlos Spector, who in his asylum practice has interviewed hundreds of Mexicans fleeing violence, and for whom the conflict engulfing Mexico has become something of an obsession. A true fronterizo, or border citizen, Spector, 58, is as keenly interested in Mexican politics as he is in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. He is bilingual and bicultural. His father, a Jew from Brooklyn, fought for the establishment of Israel, then set out for Mexico’s Sierra Madre to pan for gold. He never found gold, but he did find love in the form of 17-year-old Dolores Calderón, the beautiful daughter of Guadalupe’s mayor. Sixty years later, in an odd twist of fate, their Jewish, Mexican-American, red-haired son would represent the majority of the town’s refugees seeking political asylum.

Spector said that since 2008, when the violence began to devastate Guadalupe and other Mexican communities, it was “like a faucet had opened,” with people calling or arriving daily in his office asking for help. The flow of new arrivals has only increased. Despite having recently been diagnosed with cancer, he’s just taken on another difficult asylum case. The Porras family, from Villa Ahumada in southern Chihuahua state, had just arrived in El Paso—20 family members in all. Gunmen for the Juarez cartel had killed the eldest son, 49-year-old Rodolfo. The police stood outside during the murder, Spector says, but did nothing to detain the killers. A week later, when his 19-year-old son went to put flowers on Rodolfo’s grave, the gunmen killed him, too.

The family begged federal police officers to escort them to Juarez, where they holed up in the attorney general’s office demanding an armed escort to the international bridge so they could beg for asylum. But the government refused and tried to convince the family to stay. For five days the family, with crying toddlers and elderly grandparents, slept on the floor in the government office. After a flurry of news coverage, the government finally relented. Local police escorted the family on the 10-minute drive to the international border. Before leaving the attorney general’s office, an employee handed the family Carlos Spector’s business card.

“I probably get at least 20 inquiries about filing for asylum every week,” Spector says. “Before 2008, if we had one asylum case every six months it was a lot.”

All of the asylum cases Spector and his law firm have taken have been pro bono or sliding scale. Spector’s small law firm is already overwhelmed. But he has a hard time saying no, he says. The families arrive in El Paso traumatized, sometimes with only the clothes on their backs.

Spector has been handling Mexican asylum claims since the 1990s, and he’s one of the first U.S. immigration lawyers to actually win cases. He took on his first cases during the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, viewed by many Mexicans as a sort of bogeyman and embodiment of PRI corruption and impunity. During his term from 1988 to 1994, Salinas privatized government industries, handed out concessions to his well-connected friends, and helped spur the devastating devaluation of the peso. His eldest brother Raul was accused of the murder of his former brother-in-law and money laundering after more than $100 million was uncovered in a series of Swiss bank accounts. The millions were believed to be protection money from drug cartels.

Political repression also skyrocketed under Salinas. Leftist activists and political leaders were jailed or killed. The military was dispatched to quell the Zapatista uprising of indigenous communities in southern Mexico. In 1994, Spector represented an army captain who had been ordered to kill Zapatista prisoners but refused. In another case, in 1991, a political leader from the PAN, then the opposition party, was targeted for assassination and fled to El Paso. Spector began to get an idea of Mexican society as a pressure cooker. “From talking to people, we got a sense that the level of repression was very heavy, especially in the small towns,” he says. “Much of it was the daily type of corruption where the cacique (mayor or political boss) rules with impunity and there’s widespread abuse.”

It was only a matter of time before something had to give. “I had been expecting this would happen,” Spector says of the cartel violence and refugees. In a country where 50 percent of the population lives in poverty, Mexicans struggle to survive while being extorted by local police who often work for drug kingpins. The authorities are either on the take or look the other way. For years under the PRI’s rule, poverty and corruption festered. The party never built strong civic institutions; Mexico lacked reliable law enforcement or an independent judicial system. When the PRI’s rule finally ended, organized crime quickly filled the void.

Frustrated and angered by the violence and corruption, Spector encourages his clients to speak out publicly and protest the abuses committed against them back home. His efforts have earned him several death threats. He can no longer visit Ciudad Juarez or Guadalupe, his mother’s hometown. In that sense, Spector himself has become an exile.

After the July 1 election
, I check Mexico’s federal elections web site to see what the voter turnout was in Guadalupe and the Juarez Valley. The numbers show that between the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections, nearly 80 percent of the registered voters in the Juarez Valley have disappeared or been killed—exactly 13,340 people.

Saul, the former Guadalupe city secretary, estimates that perhaps 20 percent of the town’s population remains. Many of Guadalupe’s residents have been killed. Some were burned alive while others were massacred in the streets. One man was skewered and roasted over an open fire. It’s the same story all over the surrounding Juarez Valley, which spans 50 miles along the Rio Grande. It’s common knowledge that this territory belongs to the Sinaloa cartel. Before the army arrived in 2008, it belonged to the Juarez cartel.

When I visited Guadalupe in December 2011, many houses were charred ruins. Businesses were shuttered, and the town had a siege-like atmosphere. No one goes out after dark. It has been this way since the soldiers arrived in 2008 and converted the town’s gymnasium into a barracks.

Ciudad Juarez and Guadalupe seemed like a violent anomaly in 2008. They are now nothing unusual. The violence and forced displacements have spread to other towns in Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and more distant parts of the country. A few months before I arrived in Guadalupe, a former Mexican security minister told reporters that the government “has lost territorial control, and therefore governability” over at least 50 percent of Mexico.

This is the country that Enrique Peña Nieto inherits on December 1, 2012, when he moves into the presidential palace. Many see the vote for the PRI as an act of desperation in a crisis without a foreseeable solution. They hope Peña Nieto can at least reduce the violence. But Saul, Martin and the other exiles have little hope that the political regime that created Mexico’s problems will be able to fix them.

“We got involved politically because we had illusions that we could give our families a better future,” Martin says. “Now I feel like I’ve failed them because we didn’t accomplish anything. The country rid itself of Porfirio Diaz because he was a dictator, but from the revolution until today we have the same conditions. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. We don’t have a future.”