Valley of Death: Bolstering security as Mexican deaths continue
They can't keep burying the bodies here. Not just because the small cemetery in this remote desert town can't handle the volume — because somebody could get killed.
On a still, sunny spring morning in Fort Hancock, about 60 miles east of El Paso, two elderly Hispanic men sit on the tailgate of a pickup, surrounded by graves.
Francisco Estrada and Alberto Rosales munch on pieces of fruit, legs dangling above the dusty earth where many former residents of this rural outpost make their final repose. As caretakers for the Fort Hancock Cemetery, they put in about 20 hours a week.
It's mostly quiet work, meant to occupy their aging minds and bodies. This spring, though, as the drug war enveloped Fort Hancock's Mexican sister city, El Porvenir, their stress levels spiked. "What they're starting over there, they're going to finish here," Estrada frets.
Estrada and Rosales point to white and yellow silk flowers that adorn one of the most recent additions to the cemetery: the resting place of Manuel Morales Lerma, who was shot at his home in El Porvenir.
Fearing cartel leaders would next target his family, Morales Lerma's relatives moved his funeral to Fort Hancock's tiny cemetery. People here describe the ceremony like a scene out of a spaghetti western. Sheriffs' deputies from all around came to stand guard. Some mourners hid in the bushes with guns, says Hudspeth County Judge Becky Dean Walker.
Fewer than 20,000 people live in the Valle de Juárez, a 60-mile stretch of small villages that line the highway from Juárez to El Porvenir.
In what was once a peaceful if desperately poor farming community, more than 75 people have fallen victim to the raging drug war so far this year.
It's an astonishing death rate. If the pace of killings continues this year, the murder rate could reach 1,600 homicides for every 100,000 people (in New Orleans, the 2009 murder rate was 52 per 100,000, the highest in the nation, according to FBI data).
Cartel leaders have told entire towns to vacate or be decimated. They've burned homes and churches and left in their wake residents paralyzed with fear. The aftershocks extend far from the epicenter of the violence, bringing fear and confusion — along with legions of armed guards, and refugees from the bloodbath — to Fort Hancock and other rural Texas border outposts.
Morales Lerma's funeral passed without another murder; the slaughter to the south has yet to bleed across the border. Yet no one disputes the need to be prepared: As El Porvenir and the rest of the Juárez Valley have descended into chaos, law enforcement has crushed into the small towns of Hudspeth County.
More officers — state, local and federal — work more hours with more firepower during every hour of the day. Though Hudspeth County residents fret for their southern neighbors — especially family members who cannot escape to the United States — many welcome the protection from the nightmare just across the Rio Grande.
The number of uniforms in the Juárez Valley has increased, too. Mexican military troops set up checkpoints on the highway and patrol the villages with automatic weapons at the ready. Mexican federal police are ever present. But petrified residents say their presence has done little to curb the killing. Some believe the soldiers are at least complicit in the cartels' dirty work and may be actively doing drug lords' bidding.
"The population is fearful of the soldiers," one El Porvenir resident says. "They are always beating people up for information."
Valle de muerte
Death and terror rule Highway 2, or Carretera Porvenir-Ciudad Juárez — the stretch of road that links the small towns of the Juárez Valley. Just east of Juárez, the sign on the highway says "Colonia de Esperanza." It means Colony of Hope. Less than a hundred yards away, the blistered black shell of a pink cinderblock home sits idle. The frame of what used to be a single dining room chair sits outside the home, as if someone once sat there and watched the traffic fly by.
A block past, a single porch light illuminates an abandoned home; whoever fled must have left it on. Next door, the burned frame of another pink cinderblock home sits empty, ashes still piled on the ground. Across the street, another charred house. Black scars surround barred windows where flames licked out from within.
A small military convoy passes on the highway. A pickup loaded with soldiers gripping automatic rifles follows a drab olive-green semi-truck with military gear. Two women walk along the shoulder with three small children toting backpacks. They hardly notice. A couple of miles down the road, cars maneuver around two loose horses trotting along the road.
In Guadalupe, one of the largest town in the Valle de Juárez with about 9,000 people, a group of young factory workers gathers at a bus stop, waiting for a ride into Juárez. Federal police sit on benches at the edge of a park plaza, where a few children shoot hoops and romp around on bright colored play equipment. The town's mayor, Jesús Manuel Lara Rodríguez, was shot down in Juárez last month. Two members of the town council were killed in 2009, according to the El Paso Times.
For decades, residents in these tiny, poor towns have toiled either in the cotton and alfalfa fields or in the giant maquilas of Juárez. If they wanted more than the paupers' wages of the farm and factory, they worked for the drug cartels. Yet these communities remained peaceful until early this year, when the Juárez drug war bled into the farmland.
The terror fell perhaps hardest on El Porvenir. Off the highway, the only paved street, stray dogs prowl dusty roads. Plywood covers the windows in modest houses, mostly stucco and cinderblock, painted in pastels. Drying clothes swing in the light breeze. A padlock shuts off the park. The closet-sized police station — dark and barred shut, with a foot-long hole in its side — houses no police. The church has been burned. Many here have seen family members perish at the hands of the cartels.
On a sunny May afternoon, two men sitting on a bench near the town square are among the few people out in the daylight. They agree, nervously, to talk with reporters. "No names," they say over and over again, constantly scanning the area for suspicious vehicles or people. A young man with a scraggly beard and a bejeweled Playboy bunny necklace says he has lived here all his life. All the soldiers, he says, don't make a difference. The killings continue; he believes the soldiers work with the murderers. "They don't do anything; they're just cruising," he says. He's married and he has a job here in El Porvenir, so he can't leave.
No one here knows who can be trusted, the older man says. Some work for the Army or the cartels as informants. And if anyone talks to someone whose name appears on a hit list, they risk having their own name added. Everyone here knows who is on the list, he says. Someone — he doesn't know who — writes up the names, copies them and distributes them on fliers strewn around town. "They say, we are going to kill you one by one," the older man says.
It didn't used to be this way. This used to be a happy place, the two men say. Music filled the streets every weekend. People drank and danced. Now, only fear remains.
Mayberry of yesteryear
When he was a little boy, Jose Franco would ride his bicycle across the border into El Porvenir to play with friends. Now, as superintendent of the 540-student Fort Hancock Independent School District, he sees young boys and girls who come from El Porvenir so traumatized they can't stand being in the same room with other children.
"Ah, these kids could tell you stories," he says, shaking his head. One teenager saw his mother shot and his grandfather attacked with an ice pick. A young girl getting ready for her quinceañera watched her father get executed while her grandmother was strapped to a chair, Franco says. A disabled elementary student saw television footage of his mother's beaten and suffocated corpse wrapped in plastic. "The violence," he says. "These guys are ruthless."
This year, the tiny school district has seen its student population grow more than 10 percent. Fifty-four of the 63 new students are from Mexico, Franco says. They come to his schools years behind academically, shredded emotionally from what they've seen, what they still see in their minds every day. The children imagine horrors befalling their uncles, their fathers, their sisters, those who can't come join them on the other side, Franco says.
He met with state officials to coordinate social services for the new students, and he hired a special teacher to help immerse them in their new language and academic culture. The district has also hired its own security, a constable who patrols the small campus. "I have a very compassionate staff," Franco says, "and they pretty much do whatever it takes to help these children."
The students are among dozens who call Fort Hancock their new home — at least part of the time. When the sun sets, a steady stream of cars make their way across the two-lane international bridge that joins El Porvenir and Fort Hancock, says Hudspeth County Deputy Sheriff Keith Hughes. One of the many ramshackle mobile homes that line Fort Hancock's unpaved streets becomes a haven for as many as 16 people each night. "It's hard to find a vacant house, and there are a lot of Mexican plates," Hughes says.
It's hard to know which of the nightly residents are victims and which are running from their own involvement in the drug trade. The uncertainty has made Fort Hancock's residents a vigilant bunch. Though the violence has not crossed, Hughes gets calls all the time from people worried about suspicious vehicles and activities.
Hughes is one of 17 Hudspeth County deputies — up from 12 five years ago — who are working 16-hour days seven days a week to patrol the massive border county. Sheriff Arvin West has received grants from Gov. Rick Perry totalling nearly $3.6 million to hire more deputies and pay them for overtime patrols, and he's used those dollars to beef up security as the violence in El Porvenir gets ever closer.
In May, a shootout erupted right on the river. One person died on the Mexican side; four others were injured. The wounded made it across the river and had to be transported, with a sheriff's escort, to the hospital in El Paso. West has moved all the men and money he can to Fort Hancock, he says. He has told the cotton farmers whose fields line the Rio Grande to arm themselves — not that they needed the prodding. "This used to be Mayberry," says West, his own pistol perched in a holster around his paunchy waist.
The U.S. Border Patrol has surged here, too. Hundreds more agents in green uniforms man highway checkpoints and patrol back roads. Doug Mosier, spokesman for the Border Patrol's El Paso Sector, which encompasses most of Hudspeth County, would not disclose the total number of agents in the area, but West estimates about 400 agents patrol here, twice as many as a few years ago. The increased presence has made a difference, Mosier says. Drug busts have slowed to a trickle, and agents are apprehending only about five illegal crossers a day.
Unlike the feared police presence in El Porvenir, the infusion of law enforcement comforts most of the residents of Fort Hancock. But some of the officers go too far, says Bill Addington, whose family owns farmland in Sierra Blanca, another tiny Hudspeth County border town.
"Everywhere we go, we're stopped," he says. County Commissioner Jim Ed Miller says agents have repeatedly torn up his farm property by driving through it. And though he's lived here for decades, farming cotton and alfalfa in the now majority-Hispanic town, agents regularly pull him over and ask if he's a citizen. "I was stopped for making a 'suspicious turn,'" he says. "Seven units put the habeas grabbus on me."
No room in the cemetery
Estrada and Rosales slide off the back of the pickup to resume weed-pulling and flower-tending duties at the cemetery. Estrada, only half-joking, tells Rosales in Spanish that they need to start getting the place ready for all the new residents. "They just spray bullets; they don't care who's around," Estrada says of the cartels.
The two have lived in this area for decades. Estrada says he used to do his shopping just across the bridge in Mexico, where goods were cheaper and more plentiful. Now he travels to El Paso. Rosales used to live in El Porvenir. His son still lives there, and Rosales fears for his safety. Recently, when his son came to Fort Hancock for a visit, he returned to Mexico to find his home had been set on fire, though federal police doused the blaze before it engulfed the whole house. Rosales says his son can't seek asylum in the United States, because he has a family, a job and a home he can't sell in El Porvenir. "I'm scared for him, but what can I do?" he asks in Spanish. "Nobody's going to buy that house."
In a way, Estrada hopes the violence in Mexico continues, because he worries that the cartel leaders will bring their fight north. Already, he says, they have buried too many people from El Porvenir. "It's hard over there, but poor people can't come over here," he says. Since the Morales Lerma funeral, Estrada and Rosales say the number of uniformed officers in the region has spiked. And the board that oversees the cemetery has for the most part stopped burials from Mexico. The two say they feel safer.
The cemetery board now enforces a longstanding rule that only people who lived in town, or had a relative there, could be buried in the Fort Hancock Cemetery, says Mary Miller, a member of the board. "It's real sad, because I have friends over there who … encourage people from here not to come over there, because they're shooting people at funerals," Miller says.
No one's real sure how many people are buried among the tall, skinny pine trees and sparse brush of the cemetery. In the 1950s or 1960s, Miller says, a flood exhumed many of the bodies, and they floated away. What they do know, she says, is that the cemetery is too small to accommodate the death toll across the border. "The way they're killing 'em in Juárez and El Porvenir," she explains, "there wouldn't be any room left."