Mexico drug war refugees escape to more bloodshed

December 4, 2011 - 9:50 AM
Mexico Drug War Refugees

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, DEC. 5, AND THEREAFTER - In this photo taken on Nov. 16, 2011, Rafael Echevarria, 50, left, stands inside his home with his son Christian, 23, second from left, Valeria, 8, third from left, and his wife Alejandra, 46, in the Gulf city of Veracruz, Mexico. The Echevarrias moved to the border city of Ciudad Juarez in 2004 in search of better opportunities but fled back to Veracruz due to the growing drug violence in Juarez. The family is one of thousands who returned to their Gulf home state on seven free flights organized by the Veracruz state government in an attempt to alleviate their pain with the promise of jobs, education and housing, which drew them to the border factories in the first place. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) — Rafael Echevarria had a steady factory job, a modest home of his own, and enough cash to occasionally take his family to McDonald's. It was a good life until the drug war hit Ciudad Juarez, followed by two robberies at his house, extortion at his daughter's school, and finally, the shootout on the bus.

When the firing began, 6-year-old Valeria dove to the floor, breaking a tooth. There was so much blood from her mouth wound, her parents thought she'd been shot.

The next day, the couple and their two children boarded a flight back home to Veracruz, along with 1,600 others who had once moved north for work in foreign assembly plants and now were fleeing south in search of safety. The Veracruz state government paid for the flights, and assured the drug war refugees that there would be jobs, education and housing.

At the time, it seemed to the Echevarrias like the only solution.

Then the drug war followed them home.

Military offensives against the drug cartels and turf battles among crime syndicates have pushed the war into areas once considered quiet. A year after their hopeful flight, the Echevarrias are not only caught anew in a crush of violence, but still without the promised help.

In Juarez, the Echevarrias had a house and a van. In Veracruz, they've had to pawn their appliances and move to a concrete hut to make ends meet. The trade of solvency for safety was a fake choice, because in Juarez, Echevarria said, "We would have been living well.

"Now we're in a hole. And it's very difficult to get out."

The Echevarrias are among thousands of Mexicans who make up the internal diaspora trying to escape drug violence that seems to migrate rather than cease, with more than 45,000 troops fighting cartels and more than 40,000 dead by many counts.

Recent survey results by Parametria found that 1.6 million Mexicans have moved because of drug violence since 2006. One study by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre put the number at 230,000 in 2010, estimating that half fled to the United States.

Another study, by demographer Rodolfo Rubio at Colegio de la Frontera Norte, says 200,000 people left Juarez alone for other Mexican cities between 2007 and 2010.

Many of the affected are working class or poor who can't leave the country.

"People who have status or small medium-sized businesses don't have a problem going to the U.S.," said Genoveva Roldan, a migration expert at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez. "That's not the case for workers in the maquiladoras. They don't have that option."

Veracruz is a steamy, tropical mountain state that cultivates sugar cane and coffee. Curling along the lower dip of Mexico's Gulf coast, it is known for its scenic beauty, rich farmlands and busy port, one of Mexico's largest. But it was the lack of opportunity there that drove thousands of Veracruzanos northward beginning in the 1990s, when border factories started recruiting assembly workers with above-average wages and benefits.

Echevarria had grown up poor and left school in the ninth grade to help his father support the family. He joined the navy for a while, he says, and later became a taxi driver. But it wasn't enough to pay the bills.

In 2004, he and his wife, Alejandra Duran, decided they could build a better life in Ciudad Juarez for their two younger children.

There, Echevarria and his son, Cristian, found jobs working in the assembly plants that largely produce goods exported to the U.S. Cristian rose to quality control inspector in a factory that made printer cartridges. Together the two made about 14,000 pesos a month, nearly triple Mexico's average salary.

They bought a three-bedroom house on the southeastern outskirts of town, as well as a van.

"Juarez was a land that helped people," Duran said.

By 2008, the drug wars shattered the peace. Two rival cartels — Juarez and Sinaloa — began fighting for control of the lucrative smuggling corridor to the U.S. The annual murder rate nearly doubled from 1,600 in 2008 to 3,100 in 2010.

President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers to curb drug violence, and later federal police to patrol the streets and lead counterattacks.

Nonetheless, the Echevarria house was robbed twice. An uncle was attacked by a group of men trying to steal his car.

Then came the extortion. Valeria's teacher told the Echevarrias that gang members were asking for a weekly fee from the school.

It was hard to sleep, Echevarria said.

In early 2010, word got around that the Veracruz government was offering to evacuate the refugees and help them resettle.

The day after the bus shooting, the Echevarrias abandoned their house and left with a washing machine, a set of saucepans, a dining table, Valeria's dresser and her Disney princess chairs.

Once back in Veracruz, Cristian Echevarria got a job as a cashier in a convenience store, while his father decided to get a taxi driver's permit.

Valeria had stopped talking after the trauma of the bus shooting, instead spending her time drawing pictures of corpses in the graves that were found around their Juarez neighborhood. But she seemed to improve after enrolling in school.

Then-Gov. Fidel Herrera's administration also promised to transfer the title of Echevarrias' home in Juarez to a government-subsidized house in Veracruz.

That never happened. The phones to the offices set up to help the returning residents stopped working. A new governor, Javier Duarte, took office last December. Gina Dominguez, Duarte's spokeswoman, said the "social agenda" was going in a different direction.

"It was a good program on paper," she said. "But obviously the execution wasn't simple because it had to provide for everyone."

Herrera did not respond to requests for an interview.

Echevarria couldn't get help paying the 6,000 pesos for his taxi license plates.

Veracruz had long been a route for drugs and migrants coming from the south. For years it was dominated by the Gulf cartel, which had contracted with a gang of former army special forces — the Zetas. Because the state and the port were controlled by one drug gang, it was quiet.

In early 2010 the Zetas split from the Gulf cartel, triggering a vicious war in the border state of Tamaulipas, just north of Veracruz. This year a government offensive to stop that drug war spilled the violence into Veracruz.

The bloodshed worsened in the last few months, when a third cartel thought to be aligned with Mexico's most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, moved into Veracruz to try to take over drug operations.

The results of the cartel wars became visible to commuters in September, when a group of masked men stopped rush-hour traffic to dump 35 strangled bodies onto a main thoroughfare. Banners left at the scene claimed the dead were Zetas, though official reports have questioned their link to the drug gang. The victims included bricklayers, former police officers and a taxi driver.

The Echevarrias found themselves in a situation worse than the one they'd fled.

They had moved to a slum of concrete-block housing outside Veracruz to save 500 pesos a month in rent.

During a recent visit, Rafael came home looking pale, walked straight to the bathroom, and threw up.

"He has high blood sugar," said his wife. "He's under a lot of pressure because these are the worst years we've ever had."

The Echevarrias explained that they pawned their refrigerator and stove to pay for the taxi license plates, only to discover that driving a cab was no longer safe.

"They've kidnapped 10 taxi drivers. They asked me to sell drugs," Rafael said. "Yes, I'm scared. I need to provide for my family."

The Echevarrias now make far less than the average wage of $250 pesos a day, about $19.

Alejandra uncovered a saucepan filled with red rice. A loaf of bread sat on a plate. There was no milk. In a big black bag, they'd save plastic bottles collected from the streets to sell for 5 pesos a kilo.

Valeria, now 8, scratched at a rash on her neck. "I don't like it here," she said.

The family is ducking bullets again, but this time in their home.

Cristian said more than 20 men dressed as marines arrived a few weeks ago to their neighborhood, rifles in hand. Valeria heard the shots. Cristian pulled her into an inside room where the family waited.

In a separate attack, Cristian said, four of his childhood friends were killed and three others kidnapped.

The move to Veracruz was a mistake, he said.

When Cristian finishes high school in June, he will move back to their Juarez house and look for work. If he is successful, the rest of the family will join him.

The homicides there have dropped from 2,657 in the first 10 months of 2010 to 1,730 in 2011. They continue to fall.

Valeria doesn't remember the time when she wouldn't talk and only communicated with drawings, when she was a chipped-tooth girl who barely smiled.

But she has returned to drawing, this time a man dressed in a military uniform pointing a gun at another man with a pink spot on his belly. Three passers-by scream, "He's going to shoot!"

She titled it, "The governor saves the people."

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Adriana Gomez Licon is a Mexico correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/agomezlicon