Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mexico drug crimes leave border at odds

February 28, 2009
Houston Chronicle
By Dudley Althaus

The bedlam and drug violence gripping Mexico has reached down even into the once somnolent villages bordering Fort Hancock, where Carr and thousands of others in the high desert find themselves in the trenches of turmoil.

“You have mass killing over there,” Carr, 42, said as he drove through seed-ready fields fringed and sometimes fractured by the new U.S. border fence. “You feel sorry for them.”

The violence has claimed more than 1,000 lives in Mexico so far this year, U.S. and Mexican officials said. About half have been killed in Chihuahua state, which borders West Texas, and many of those in Ciudad Juarez and the villages downstream from it.

The police chief and five of his officers were kidnapped from a community near Carr’s 3,000-acre farm a few weeks ago. Their detached heads turned up for days afterward, bearing threats against others.

Then, a handful of people were killed last weekend in Porvenir, the village that’s closest to Carr’s cotton fields. Talk ran of a list of 30 local residents marked for death. Hundreds of Mexicans lucky enough to have U.S. passports or visas streamed through the border post, seeking refuge.

Things will get worse

President Felipe Calderon insisted to an interviewer last week that Mexico is not a failed state and that he is winning the war. He ordered 5,000 additional soldiers into the Juarez area, reinforcing the 2,000 already there. “It’s either them or us,” he said.

Yet, things most likely will get worse before they get better.

“There is no indication that the situation will improve in the near future,” the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez noted in a new warning for Americans to avoid Porvenir and elsewhere south of the border.

The Rio Grande, a few yards wide and often no deeper than a man’s knees, flows through this stretch of high desert 55 miles southeast of the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez metroplex. Smugglers have gone through here — drugs and people flowing north, guns south — as long as the river’s been a boundary.

When he was a boy, Carr and his friends played in the stream and skipped over to Porvenir to watch movies or flirt with the girls in the plaza. But that was when the border was a region, not a rampart.

Now the new American fence blocks the river bank. And Carr and others in Fort Hancock haven’t crossed the short bridge to Mexico in years.

“Not on a dare,” said one of the farmers at the town’s cafe. “Not on a bet,” agreed another.

Call for more troops

Gov. Rick Perry last week called for another 1,000 troops to guard the West Texas border. Arvin West, the sheriff of Hudspeth County, which includes Fort Hancock, flew to Washington seeking more federal aid for his 15-deputy department.

But despite the violence south of the river, Carr and other residents say they don’t particularly fear the gangsters.

Indeed, they suggest they’re as much under the U.S. government’s occupation as its protection. Many resent the border fence and view the bolstered Border Patrol detachment, which has swelled from 19 agents to more than 200 — with disdain.

“Almost America,” they say of Fort Hancock, a village of about 1,700 souls.

“There’s really a strong conflict between our security concerns and our personal rights,” said Carr, who served with the Army in Germany when the Berlin Wall collapsed.

“When you give up liberty for security, you lose both and gain nothing,” he said, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin.

For all the crime in Hudspeth County — 90 percent of arrests are connected to the drug trade — the last murder here was more than three years ago.

“If it weren’t for the border, this would be Mayberry,” Sheriff West said.

Still, threats lurk.

The county made international news three years ago when sheriff’s deputies faced off with smugglers — some of them wearing Mexican army uniforms and driving a military Humvee — whose marijuana load had got stuck in the river downstream from Fort Hancock.

Hit squad suspected

At least five Fort Hancock residents have been killed south of the river or simply disappeared in the past several years, Chief Deputy Mike Doyal said. Sheriff’s deputies recently scrambled on reports that a drug gang hit squad crossed the river.

“Twenty years ago, I would never have imagined I’d be sitting here talking about hit squads and military incursions,” Doyal said. “In the last seven or eight years this border has changed drastically.”

Carr said the killings across the river have forced him to rethink his own resentments toward the fence.

“At first, I was very much against it,” he said. “But if they have a civil war over there, maybe it has value.”

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