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Mexican exiles in El Paso can see their pasts across the river

They come from Ciudad Juarez, fleeing the drug violence that has claimed 3,000 lives this year. But their new lives, though far safer, are marked by loneliness, hardship and psychological torment.

December 31, 2010|By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from El Paso — They go about their lives here, trying to begin anew. They want to forget about the clean-shaven assassins, the sound of gunfire, the graves and the homes they've left behind in Ciudad Juarez.

A 41-year-old mother of three sees a Juarez neighbor shopping in the discount stores of downtown El Paso. She looks for a place to hide.

A year earlier, she'd been shot through the neck, rushed to a hospital in Juarez and then a second one in El Paso. She had never gone back to her Juarez home.

"All the neighbors think I'm dead," she said, asking that her name not be published. She would prefer for the time being that they continue to think so.

Escapes to El Paso from Juarez and its drug wars are filled with such moments. There is safety, yes, but also loneliness, hardship and the psychological torment that comes with living within walking distance of a place to which you cannot return.

Juarez and El Paso are twin cities connected by bridges over the Rio Grande. For much of their history, the locals have thought of them as a single metropolis — until 1888, they even shared the same name. But today El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States; Juarez has seen more killings than Baghdad, more than 3,000 homicides so far this year.

Brenda Ramirez, a 28-year-old mom, saw the man who ran a neighborhood store in Juarez when she was headed to an El Paso church one Sunday.

He hugged her and joked with her the way he used to with Raul, her 7-year-old son, who was killed by gunmen last year. For a fleeting moment some of the good memories of Juarez came flooding back.

Sometimes, in her El Paso exile, Ramirez captures and holds on to those good Juarez memories and it's as if Raul had never been shot and killed alongside his father, her ex-husband, as he drove Raul back to her house. As if Brenda had never had to leave.

"My son loved being with his cousins," she said. "On Saturday and Sunday, they'd all play soccer. My house was always filled with children. I'd give them all food and have them all with me, playing their games."

It was just a year ago, just a few miles away, but it was another world.

Now Ramirez lives with her 2-year-old son and husband in a two-room converted garage in an El Paso barrio of auto shops and taquerias. The front door faces an alley. She doesn't know any neighbors. No one stops by to visit.

"Everyone is gone working all day," she said of her neighbors. "It is very quiet here."

On the wall and in boxes and albums she keeps pictures of her late son. Playing soccer. Dressed as an angel for a school Nativity play. In Juarez.

* * *

For years, the rich of Juarez have retreated to the United States for a kind of gilded, voluntary second life. Some have second homes on the El Paso side where they sleep at night. Their children go to school in the U.S. too. But they still keep businesses and property in Juarez. And they go back and forth as they like.

In Juarez now, the rich are shuttled around in armor-plated vehicles. Soldiers behind sandbags guard office buildings. Few go out at night. And thousands of ordinary working people are fleeing — some on valid tourist visas, some not.

Hundreds have applied for political asylum, which means they cannot return to Juarez for a day or even a minute. A return home voids an asylum application and risks deportation.

"You can't go back to go to your father's funeral, or to have a couple of beers, or to see the Indios play," Carlos Spector, an El Paso attorney, said, referring to the Juarez soccer team. "You're not going back at all. You're going to be stuck here."

In El Paso, people leave their front doors unlocked. For many, the absence of fear takes getting used to.

Alejandro Hernandez, a 41-year-old father of two, remembers his first week in El Paso in July: "I went to Walmart at three or four in the morning. And there were people there, shopping." He stood on the store's white floors, gleaming under fluorescent lights — all that American normality felt impossibly surreal.

In Juarez, you have to be alert to the movement on the streets, to the slow-moving cars and the paid street-corner lookouts.

In El Paso, you're more likely to be ambushed by your fears.

Hernandez learned this when he got to El Paso, after five horrific days in the hands of a band of marijuana-smoking, drug-cartel hit men. He was a TV news cameraman, kidnapped on the job by a cartel that wanted to force his bosses to broadcast a message.

The kidnappers beat him, then threw him in a room. At one point, he said, he managed to lift the blindfold over his eyes: "All the walls and the floors were covered with blood." When they suddenly let him go, he took his family and raced for the border.

They moved in with an El Paso relative. His children started school. All seemed normal. Then one day, as he stood outside his lawyer's office downtown, a pickup truck made a U-turn in front of him. "I ducked down behind a car," he said.

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