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Drug war risk, cost exported to U.S.

More of the wounded are being sent to a top El Paso hospital.

August 17, 2008|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

EL PASO — Lorenzo de la Torre Torres was on the cusp of death.

Drug cartel hit men had pumped the deputy police chief with more than 20 bullets, and slightly wounded his boss, after a wild car chase in Nuevo Casas Grandes, the Mexican city the two were supposed to protect.

Paramedics airlifted the officers 130 miles to Ciudad Juarez. Within hours, however, hospital officials wheeled them into an ambulance, which sped off to the Bridge of the Americas over the concrete-lined stretch of the Rio Grande that separates Mexico from Texas. There, an American ambulance picked them up and whisked them to El Paso's Thomason Hospital.

For the next two weeks, De la Torre was treated at U.S. taxpayer expense. El Paso police and sheriff's deputies stood guard around the hospital's perimeter 24 hours a day, wearing bulletproof vests and holding semiautomatic rifles. Hospital officials closed off all but one entrance to the building and sent visitors through metal detectors.

It was neither the first nor last time the arrival of a gunshot victim from Mexico has sparked a lockdown at the publicly owned hospital, which is a prized institution for El Paso.

The only hospital within a 280-mile radius to offer state-of-the-art trauma care, Thomason has become an unwilling treatment center of choice for law enforcement officials and others in the vicinity wounded in Mexico's drug turf battles. The violence has killed more than 2,000 people this year, and more than double that number in the 20 months since President Felipe Calderon began deploying 40,000 troops across the country to crack down on narcotics trafficking.

Thomason has treated 28 people wounded on the other side of the border this year, spending an estimated $1 million, hospital administrators said. Nineteen were U.S. citizens or had dual citizenship, and the rest had legal permission to enter the country.

Most of their identities have not been made public. One of the most recent was a bystander: a 1-year-old Juarez girl who was crushed by a runaway pickup truck after gunmen killed the driver in an apparently drug-related hit.

Because of the security threat posed by the wounded Mexican officers, the hospital has had to post guards and limit public access three times this year. It has even adopted a color-coded alert system similar to that of the Department of Homeland Security, letting workers and visitors know of the danger posed by the drug war targets inside.

The lockdowns have served as a frightening reminder that El Paso may not be immune from the mayhem consuming Ciudad Juarez, its more populous sister city across the Rio Grande, where more than 750 people have been killed this year.

El Paso leaders are frustrated and angry at the cost and risks brought about by their unexpected guests.

"It seems we don't find out until they walk in the hospital door," El Paso Mayor John Cook said. "If I, as the mayor, cross the border, it takes me a lot longer than it's taking some of these wounded folks. Clearly, some deals have been made at a higher level of government, and we didn't know about them."

El Paso officials last month took their worries to Washington, where Homeland Security officials assured them that there was no diplomatic deal to bring the drug war's wounded to Texas. Still, some El Paso leaders note that such transfers do not seem to be happening elsewhere on the border. They want the federal government to reimburse their costs.

Mexican officials have fully repaid the hospital for only one of the Mexican officers it has treated, and made partial payment for another. Thomason has gotten about $314,000 from the patients, their employers, insurers, and state and federal funding, hospital spokeswoman Margaret Althoff-Olivas said. Thomason expects that most of its costs will have to be borne by the state and federal government, she said.

"If I got shot down there, do you think I'd get this kind of an escort? I'd be lucky to come back in a garbage truck," said James Valenti, the hospital's chief executive. "We don't know whether some of the people being brought here are bad guys or good guys. But the history south of the border is that these people [hit men] will go to the hospital to finish the job if they need to. We're not equipped to deal with threats like that."

Last year, gunmen stormed a Tijuana hospital in search of a wounded accomplice, killing two state police officers.

Thomason administrators do not want to accept the patients, but have no choice under federal law. About half -- including the Nuevo Casas Grandes police chief, who had a hand wound -- did not need the Level 1 trauma care for which the hospital is known, those officials say.

The number of injured with U.S. ties has surprised some El Paso officials, who privately questioned whether some of the wounded were working with the U.S. government to stop drug trafficking.

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