Rural towns across the border in Chihuahua bloodied by cartel violence.
El Paso Times
Fort Hancock, Texas -- People seem serene working the cotton and alfalfa fields in the rural community 50 miles southeast of El Paso.
Fort Hancock is a stark contrast to the rural towns across the border in Chihuahua, where residents are victims of brutal daylight attacks at their homes and shops and on their roads.
One of every four killings in and near Juárez has taken place in small rural communities that share a border with Texas towns like Fort Hancock. Because of fear, Mexican residents are fleeing these towns and seeking asylum in the United States through Fort Hancock's international bridge.
These border agricultural towns in Chihuahua are better known as the Valley of Juárez, an area the U.S. State Department has said should be avoided. The violence-plagued towns are also adjacent to Tornillo, Fabens and San Elizario.
On Thursday, two men were killed in the border town of Praxedis Guerrero, close to Tornillo. One was shot more than 40 times at a cell-phone shop.
The U.S. Border Patrol said these are "hot corridors" for drug and human smuggling. Both the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels are fighting to control these passages.
In December, a top member of the Juárez cartel, José Rodolfo "El Rikin" Escajeda Escajeda, was arrested in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, by the Mexican army. Escajeda was known for terrorizing the population to control the corridors in the Valley of Juárez.
Earlier this year, the Mexican army arrested 10 members, mostly teenagers, of a cell that worked for the Sinaloa cartel's Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán in the agricultural valley. They kidnapped and killed people for about $40 a week, Chihuahua state officials said.
No more than 18,000 people live in these communities east of Juárez. The area has seen 45 murders in March. About 180 people have been killed in Juárez this month.
U.S. law enforcement agencies have noticed an increase in asylum seekers crossing through the Fort Hancock international bridge.
Customs and Border Protection officials did not have data on people seeking asylum, but spokesman Roger Maier said more Mexican residents are fleeing through Fort Hancock. The agency is in charge of those requests.
"It has been busier than normal during March for asylum claims," Maier said.
When people claim asylum in the area, they are placed in detention centers in El Paso while they await interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The cases are then turned over to an immigration judge.
Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West said the increase in arrivals started a couple of weeks ago.
Sheriff's deputies conducted interviews on Saturday with residents crossing through the international bridge from El Porvenir in Chihuahua to Fort Hancock. They wanted to find out why more and more people were crossing to Fort Hancock.
West said criminal organizations in Mexico posted notices about two weeks ago that residents in El Porvenir had 30 days to vacate the community. If they didn't, they and their families would be kidnapped or killed, West said residents told him.
"It's a bleak situation," he said. "People are afraid over there. People are scared over there."
West has deployed every available man to the Fort Hancock area to be prepared for a possible spillover of violence.
"If they start trying to kidnap people in Fort Hancock, we want to be ready," he said.
The sheriff's office is working with the Texas Department of Public Safety to beef up security. The Border Patrol also has a heavy presence in the area, and its vehicles are all over the towns on Texas Highway 20.
Residents said they have noticed more patrolling.
Esmeralda Hernandez, who works in a pizza place in Fort Hancock, has noticed changes. "In the last two weeks, there has been a lot of police in the area, state troopers, sheriff's deputies," she said.
Other residents have seen an extreme change in surveillance on Highway 20. Marta, who did not want to use her full name because she feared retaliation against her family in El Porvenir, said people in Fort Hancock are fully aware of the violence across the border.
"There is panic, not fear," she said. "The situation is dreadful; the towns in Chihuahua are being abandoned."
Hernandez said she fears the newcomers she has begun to notice around town.
"We see people we don't know," she said. "We don't know if they are trustworthy."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has expressed concerns over the rising violence along the southern border. Last week, he wrote to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy to request an immediate committee hearing on the subject.
The district of U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, includes Fort Hancock, which is near the line that divides Hudspeth and El Paso counties.
"What's happening in El Porvenir is tragic and unacceptable. Nobody should have to flee their homes because of senseless, drug-related violence," Rodriguez said. "This dire situation is one more reason why we must continue funding border law enforcement efforts."