Mexican violence closes in on border states
The violence is not just in Juarez; it's also south of New Mexico, Arizona, and California
By Diana M. Alba
Alamogordo Daily News
LAS CRUCES, NM — Daily reports of drug cartel-related killings in Juarez may numb sensitivity to the severity of the situation just across New Mexico's southern border.
There is, after all, an international boundary lined with miles of fence and patrolled by scores of federal agents that separates Mexico from the United States.
Periodically, however, incidents like one last weekend in El Paso call to mind that the raging cartel war is just a stone's throw or a bullet's shot away.
A stray bullet from a gunfight in Juarez was suspected of striking a building Saturday on the University of Texas at El Paso campus. Another bullet may have hit a vehicle in El Paso. The incident prompted the closure of an El Paso street, a portion of West Paisano Drive, for about 30 minutes.
Guillermo Marquez, of Dona Ana, a legal resident who immigrated from a small Chihuahua town in 1984, believes there's reason to be concerned the violence could creep northward. The situation in his home country is "awful" now, he said.
"I see everything in the news daily," he said. "It's coming, little by little."
Marquez said he hasn't returned to Mexico for a visit in about three years because of the violence.
"I'd like to go, but I can't," he said.
Other Dona Ana County residents aren't so sure New Mexicans have cause for alarm.
Cruzita Herrera, 58, a Las Cruces native, said the federal government seems to be taking steps in the right direction toward combating violence, such as searching southbound vehicles for narcotics money. Plus, she said, the distance between Juarez and Las Cruces is a buffer.
But Herrera said that doesn't mean the U.S. government shouldn't be doing more to solve the problem, especially to help people in Mexico, who are exposed to the hazards each day. One idea, she said, is to lend technical support to Mexican officials.
"We are our brother's keepers," she said. "Had I been born 43 miles south of here, I'd be in the same boat."
Mexico has seen unprecedented gang violence since President Felipe Calderon stepped up the fight against drug trafficking when he took office in December 2006, deploying thousands of troops and federal police to cartel strongholds.
In 2008, a war began between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels. Since then, more than 28,000 people have been killed in violence tied to Mexico's drug war.
In our backyard
Dona Ana County with about 53 miles of international boundary is one of three New Mexican counties that borders Mexico.
Robert Ardovino owns a restaurant near Dona Ana County's southern and eastern-most point, which abuts both Texas and Mexico. He said he's not concerned about the proximity to the border and the Mexican cartel violence, mostly because the Border Patrol maintains a strong presence in the area.
"They're pretty highly visible and I imagine that has an effect," he said. "I'm actually amazed how unaffected El Paso and Sunland Park have been. You're bringing up stray bullets, but there haven't been many intentional bullets for the amount of people moving in from Juarez. That is pretty amazing."
A few miles west, within 200 yards of the international border, sits the headquarters of the New Mexico Border Authority. Andrew Moralez, the agency's director, said he doesn't feel threatened because federal and local law enforcement "do a good job of patrolling the area to make sure we feel safe."
Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison noted that stray bullets originating in Palomas, Mexico, already have been reported in Columbus, N.M. The communities are about a half hour's drive south of Deming. While El Paso County shares more urban boundary with Mexico, he said, "it's not contained in any one area. It could happen on any place along the border."
"It's something we need to be aware of," Garrison said. "Law enforcement has known this would be coming for a while, and it's definitely coming up."
State Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, whose district includes part of southern Dona Ana County, said she hopes federal authorities look thoroughly into the matter of the stray bullets.
"I think we're having a huge wake-up call with what's going on in Juarez," she said. "I got an e-mail the other day saying our borders are really safe. Well, I don't think those people are going to Juarez for dinner every night."
Papen said the problems stem from Americans' appetite for drugs, something that should be stemmed, and undocumented immigrants who haul narcotics into the country, which should be addressed by the U.S. government.
Ardovino said he feels both federal governments are to blame for the drug violence.
"I have a strong opinion the drug war is proliferated by the fact that cannabis should probably be legalized," he said. "It's a substance that doesn't cause as much damage as alcohol, but (officials) treat it like heroin, and it's unfortunate."
Garrison said while he doesn't have statistics, firearms thefts locally are a sign of the cross-border connections. Plus, he said, gang violence has risen.
"If you look back over the last 10 years, it's definitely been increasing," he said. "People that work for the cartel live on both sides of the border. It's just a matter of time before things start catching up."
Papen referred to the influx of Mexican residents from Juarez into El Paso, saying some of them have connections to the drug battle in Mexico.
"If (criminals) are after the husband in that family to think that some of that violence won't spill over in the U.S., I think we're not being realistic," she said. "I hope it doesn't happen, but I think we should be on the alert."
Garrison said the weekend's incidents are a reason for border residents to be cautious.
"In this day and age, we need to be aware of our surroundings because of the things that could happen," he said.
Several Dona Ana County residents expressed sympathy for families of Juarez who must cope with the troubles in their city.
Herrera said, if nothing else, residents should pay attention to the Juarez violence because of the victims.
"You see on TV everything about Africa, and Pakistan and China where people are in bad shape," she said. "Well, I'm sorry, people are in bad shape 43 miles away."
The Associated Press and El Paso Times reporter Diana Washington Valdez contributed to this story. Diana M. Alba is a reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News, a member of the Texas-New Mexico Newspapers Partnership.
Copyright 2010 Alamogordo Daily News, a MediaNews Group Newspaper