Friday, March 19, 2010

Fear Grips Juarez

Fear grips Mexican border families amid violence

The Associated Press

Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua - Elodia Ortiz drops her children at school in the morning, picks them up in the afternoon and makes an occasional trip to the supermarket. Anything else, she says, is too dangerous.

Parents in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, are afraid to venture into the streets amid a turf war between two powerful drug cartels that has left more than 4,500 people dead during the past two years.

Their fears spiked last weekend when hit men attacked two white SUVs leaving a birthday party, killing parents from two U.S. Consulate families in front of their screaming children.

The violence has risen to such levels in Ciudad Juarez that everyone feels at risk in the city of 1.3 million, where innocent people have been increasingly caught in the crossfire. Hit men have gone to wrong addresses or shot indiscriminately into homes, mowing down not only the targeted people but anyone nearby.

Mothers have driven into daytime shootouts, bending over their children to protect them. Toddlers have been fatally pierced by bullets while playing on the swings at city playgrounds. Waitresses have been slain for having the misfortune of serving marked men.

"We're shut in our house," said Ortiz, a mother of five, as she stood outside Vicente Guerrero elementary school, her 7-year-old daughter clinging to her as she shyly eyed other students walking by. "We have to get to school, we have to work. But we're afraid when we leave."

Families in Ciudad Juarez started taking precautions years ago. At night, some couples drive in separate cars so one spouse can call the other on a cell phone upon seeing something suspicious. Many restrict their children to socializing at the homes of neighbors and relatives instead of meeting up at cafes and discos.

But even those measures are sometimes not enough: In January, gunmen barged into a private party of youths inside a small subdivision and killed 15 people in what families say was a case of mistaken identity. State officials claim someone was marked at the party and have made arrests but have not said who the target was.

One of the boys was a schoolmate of Ortiz's teenage daughter.

"She has to travel alone to school and return alone, and I am very afraid that (one day) she's not going to return," said Ortiz, who works as a maid.

Selva Chavez, 30, even finds herself suspicious and tense when her 7- and 8-year-old boys go to places that, anywhere else, would be considered custom-made for kids.

"We try to stay home and make barbecues because it's not safe to be out — not even at Burger King," she said.

The two U.S. Consulate families spent their Saturday afternoon at a birthday party of a Consulate worker's child in a middle-class neighborhood. The party was held at the "Barquito de Papel," or "Paper Boat," a cheery, lemon-yellow building whose facade features building blocks — a place where parents should feel safe taking their children.

One of several lines of investigation being pursued by the FBI and Mexican officials is that the hit men staked out the wrong place and then followed orders to attack white SUVS when they saw two such vehicles leaving the children's party.

The FBI says it has not found any evidence so far that the assailants — believed to be from a street gang working for the Juarez cartel — directly targeted the two Consulate families.

Friends and relatives say the victims were upstanding parents, and there was nothing in their past to make people believe they would be targeted by cartels.

Jorge Alberto Salcido, 37, directed his church's choir and was praised as a good father. He was killed in front of his children, who were in the SUV. His wife, Hilda, trailing behind them in another car, screamed in horror and begged the hit men not to harm her children, 2, 4 and 7, as bullets and shards of glass flew by them, a family friend said. Two of the children were treated at a hospital and released.

In a near-simultaneous attack in another part of the city, gunmen fatally shot a pregnant U.S. Consulate employee, Lesley A. Enriquez, 35, and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, 34.

The couple lived across the Rio Grande in El Paso, where they would take walks with their 7-month-old daughter, Rebecca, in their quiet neighborhood. Rebecca was found wailing, strapped in her car seat, her parents slumped over in the SUV.

Such attacks have put Juliana Vazquez on edge.

Like many other migrants, the woman from rural Chiapas state in southern Mexico came to Ciudad Juarez looking for work.

"It's terrifying for us," Vazquez said, her 12-year-old son, Francisco, helping her to sell chips and candy from a stand outside a factory.

"It's terrifying for our children, but here we are."

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