From Mexico, Drug Violence Spills Into U.S.

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 20, 2008

PUERTO PALOMAS, Mexico -- Javier Emilio Pérez Ortega, a workaholic Mexican police chief, showed up at the sleepy, two-lane border crossing here last month and asked U.S. authorities for political asylum.

Behind him, law and order was vanishing fast. In the four months he had served as Puerto Palomas police chief, drug traffickers had threatened to kill him and his officers if they tried to block the flow of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States, his former colleagues said on condition of anonymity.

After a particularly menacing telephone call, his 10-man force resigned en masse. His bodyguards quit, too. Abandoned by his men and unable to trust the notoriously corrupt Mexican authorities, Pérez Ortega turned to the only place he believed he could find refuge -- the United States, the former colleagues said.

As President Bush meets this week with Mexican President Felipe Calderón in New Orleans, the repercussions of Mexico's battle with drug cartels are increasingly gushing into the United States, giving rise to thorny new problems for Mexican and U.S. officials, as well as the millions of people who live along the border.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed in January while chasing suspected traffickers fleeing back to Mexico, AK-47 bullets have been found a half-mile inside U.S. territory after shootouts in Mexican border towns, and wounded Mexican police have been taken to the United States for treatment at heavily guarded hospitals.

Here in Puerto Palomas, a wind-swept desert town south of Columbus, N.M., spillover from Mexico's drug war is measured in bullet-pocked bodies. In the past year, at least 10 gunshot victims have been dumped at the border checkpoint -- taken there by friends or colleagues who believed their only hope of survival lay across the border.

In the calculus of U.S.-Mexican border relations, the living were rushed to medical treatment -- sometimes with law enforcement escorts -- but the dead were not allowed across. Either way, the fallout from Mexico's drug war was being dropped at the doorstep of the United States.

"Mexico's problem is Sheriff Cobos's problem," Sheriff Raymond Cobos, whose jurisdiction in Luna County, N.M., stretches to the border with Puerto Palomas, said in an interview. "No doubt about it."

Cobos ordered a major state highway closed after shootouts in Puerto Palomas and recently sent deputies to monitor the funeral in Columbus of a Mexican man killed in Puerto Palomas. His force goes on alert when drug gangs start shooting in Puerto Palomas, deploying with semiautomatic weapons to the lonely roads and cactus-dotted expanses on the U.S. side of the border. Gunfire is often heard by residents of Columbus, as well as by Border Patrol agents, who have significantly increased their vigilance.

More than 130 miles of rough driving from Ciudad Juarez, Puerto Palomas was once known as a placid outpost marred only occasionally by violence. But since the beginning of the year, more than 30 people have been killed in the town, Puerto Palomas Mayor Estanislao García said in an interview.

Puerto Palomas became strategically important because Ciudad Juarez, the traditional drug-trafficking hub, has been inundated with Mexican army troops sent to contain a war between the rival Juarez and Sinaloa cartels blamed for more than 200 deaths this year.

The cartels probably knew that the Mexican military was coming months before its arrival in late March and saw Puerto Palomas as an acceptable alternative, a high-ranking Mexican federal government official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the campaign against cartels.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company