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.
"They have their own intelligence operations," the official said of the cartels. "For them, it's like a chess game."
The cartels quickly brought daylight gunfights to the streets and dumped victims around town. In March, Eddie Espinoza, the Columbus mayor, was in a dentist's chair in Puerto Palomas when armed gunmen stormed the office, making off with $2,000.
"They're getting brazen down there," Espinoza, who was unhurt, told reporters.
In the past two years, as cartels spread terror, the population dropped from 12,000 to 7,500, García said. Row after row of abandoned houses line eerily quiet neighborhoods. Tourists, the town's lifeblood, have stopped coming.
"When people stay here, they don't go down to Mexico anymore," Martha Skinner, a former Columbus mayor who owns a bed-and-breakfast three miles from the Mexican border, said in an interview. "They're afraid."
On March 17, several Puerto Palomas police officers quit after being threatened by drug traffickers. García said the officers believed that they were targeted because of an inaccurate Mexican newspaper article that implied they would confront drug gangs.
Within several hours, the entire police force had resigned, rendering the town lawless. Even Pérez Ortega, the stern police chief, left to seek asylum. He awaits a decision in a federal detention center and could not be reached for comment.
Palomas recently recruited a new police chief and nine officers, but they have only two revolvers and two assault rifles for the entire force. The drug traffickers tote automatic weapons and grenades. "Trying to fight the drug traffickers would be like a race in which I was on foot and they were in a car," Salomón Baca, Puerto Palomas's new police chief, said in an interview.
Baca, like his officers, has refused to move his family to Puerto Palomas. The officers all sleep on cots crammed into a backroom of the police station.
Baca, who hopes to move to the United States, is hopeful that his old friend Pérez Ortega will get asylum. For many here, especially as border towns have become shooting galleries, flight to the United States is an ever more pressing dream. But moving north sometimes creates as many problems as it solves.
In 2000, Mauricio Rubio, then a Puerto Palomas police officer, sought asylum. He had been arrested by Mexican state police after helping a New Mexico sheriff's official arrest two men outside Puerto Palomas. The men were suspected of killing a woman in Deming, N.M., and presumably were being protected by corrupt Mexican police.
Rubio and the New Mexico sheriff's official, who also was detained, were released after U.S. diplomats intervened. Afraid that corrupt police would kill him, Rubio and his family asked for, and were granted, permission to live in the United States. But within days, his family was falling apart.
"My daughters were crying all the time, yelling at me and saying, 'Why did you have to get involved in things you shouldn't have been getting involved in?' " Rubio, who now lives in New Mexico, said in an interview.
His wife left him six months later. Since then, he has pined for the cozy feel of his Mexican neighborhood, where everyone knew him. But he is afraid to return -- in the months before he fled, 11 friends in the Ciudad Juarez police force were murdered.
Cobos, the Luna County sheriff, said it is likely that more Mexican police will seek asylum in coming months and years, as the war between drug cartels that has cost more than 5,000 lives in the past two years shows no sign of abating. Asylum requests are long shots at best -- of the 2,611 requests from Mexicans in 2006, the most recent year for which figures are available, 48 were granted.
Cobos considers Mexican police officers, especially those who assist U.S. law enforcement in drug cases, perfectly suitable candidates for asylum. But he also worries that increasingly brazen drug cartels will simply slip across the border in pursuit of Mexican police given refuge there and that he is not equipped to combat them.
For that reason, Cobos has a blunt message to any Mexican policeman who wants to live in his county: "I don't want you around."