EL PASO, Texas — Carlos Spector sits in a second-floor office of his Yandell Street law firm, surrounded by newspaper clippings and affidavits of Mexican asylum seekers whose brothers were murdered, children kidnaped and businesses torched by drug cartel members.
And as he prepares for upcoming hearings in El Paso immigration court — one involving a bus operator whose son was murdered and vehicles burned by the Sinaloa cartel; the other a woman whose sisters-in-law were shot dead by federal police officers — he worries the drama surrounding survivors of Mexico’s drug wars will be forgotten.
“Everyone now is focused on the Central American migrants. But since 2008, we have seen increased drug violence and violations of human rights which have led to an unprecedented number of Mexicans seeking political asylum. That number has not diminished and the violence in Mexico continues unabated,” he says.
Spector points to a Juarez newspaper headline from Wednesday that screams “Mexicles and Gente Nueva go to war” — about a shootout between two rival drug gangs in Guadalupe, a farming community east of Juarez — and reflects on that city’s latest murder count: 4.6 homicides per day in May, 4.9 in April.
“Cartels are still fighting it out. Towns like Guadalupe and Villa Ahumada are again being decimated by organized crime and government violence,” he maintains.
About 200 Mexican citizens fleeing the drug violence have submitted asylum petitions in El Paso, and 158 of them a few years ago created an association called “Mexicans in Exile.” Its members have used the group as a forum to demand accountability from the Mexican government. They want their relatives’ murders solved and the responsible parties brought to justice. That includes the cartel triggermen and the government officials that abetted them.
Government collusion or official repression is an important aspect of asylum cases. Some of Spector’s clients say they have suffered both.
‘La Linea’ brought down his cheese empire
Hector Porras was one of the most successful businessmen in Villa Ahumada. The town, 70 miles south of Juarez, is a must stop for bus passengers because of its famed asadero-style cheese, and Porras owned the largest cheese factory, as well as a construction company.
Porras’ success included several incursions into local politics. He was a city councilman, public works advisor and local president of the National Action Party, or PAN.
But at the height of Mexico’s drug wars La Linea, an offshoot of the old Juarez cartel, began to consolidate its power in this large rural region south of Juarez.
Porras began to see signs of trouble when Mexican troops arrived in the town supposedly to arrest drug traffickers but ended up staying at a hotel owned by a member of La Linea, he says.
Then began the extortion calls. Porras and his brothers received telephone threats: “Pay up, or we will burn down your businesses.”
The brothers ignored the threats, but on June 17, 2012, Rodolfo Porras was gunned down at a party in a nearby town.
“We went there early the next day, but we were stopped by armed men. They searched us and told us to turn back. They were laughing at us. I believe they were the men who murdered my brother,” Hector Porras said in an interview.
There was no murder investigation. His brother was buried right away and things went from bad to worse. The next day, Porras’ mom reported vehicles circling the house and Hector’s nephew — Rodolfo’s son — was shot dead at the cemetery when he went to say goodbye to his father.
Porras called for a family gathering at his other brother’s house, but on the way there, he was chased by a municipal police vehicle, lights and siren on. “I knew the local police worked for the cartel. I wasn’t going to stop,” he said.
The dairy owner said he was able to escape, got on the phone and urged his entire family, all 22 members, to seek government protection in Juarez. “The federal police gave us two hours to leave town. They said it was only because we had small children,” he said.
The federal police garrison in Juarez couldn’t help them, either. Porras said the family was allowed to stay at the police station for four nights and then decided to seek asylum in the United States.
“We talked to Mr. Spector and to the head of U.S. Customs. The federal police cleared the streets for us all the way to the bridge, but that was all they could do for us,” Porras said.
The family left behind businesses, employees and several houses. The properties were taken over by people Porras surmises had ties to the cartel.
“We left with nothing but the clothes on our backs. It’s ironic that I had no economic needs back then, and now I cannot even get a job as a janitor,” Porras said over coffee at a fast-food restaurant on Zaragoza Road in El Paso. He says the ordeal has undermined his health — he has diabetes and hypertension — and that he will never go back to Mexico.
“La Linea still controls the region. None of the men in my family would last 5 minutes alive if we go back. If I lose my case, I will apply for asylum in Canada or Spain,” he said.
Earlier this year, his nephew Jorge Porras decided to go back to Villa Ahumada. Spector and Hector Porras say he hasn’t been heard of since.
The body count continues
Mexico has a new president who has pledged to put an end to corruption and insecurity. The official explanation for the recent spike in murders in Juarez is that street-level drug dealers are killing each other off. The state police say extortion has been all but eradicated.
However, Victor Manuel Valles recently found himself in Spector’s office, seeking help with his asylum claim.
Valles, the owner of a welding shop in south Juarez, was robbed at gunpoint in 2014 and began receiving extortion calls in 2016. The callers demanded money and said they would burn down his shop or kidnap him or his family.
He said he usually just hung up, but began to worry when one of his neighbors and the car parts store owner next door were abducted and held for ransom. Then in April 2016, armed men came to this shop and shot one of his customers dead.
“I went back to work… a few days later there were suspicious vehicles driving by the shop. My wife says she saw guns, so I stopped showing up to work for a few days,” he said.
But when he returned, the vehicles were still driving by. He said he thought about filing a police report, but he was afraid the cops would be in collusion with the criminals. Valles said he left for extended periods of time, first to the Juarez suburb of Zaragoza, where he had a property, and later to Dallas, Texas.
“When I returned they were still there. They would follow us to the supermarket, to other places. I thought about moving to Parral, Chihuahua, but crime is bad there, too. I’ve heard of kidnappings, murders, extortion,” he said.
Last month, he brought his family to the United States and began preparing for his asylum claim.
Alfredo Holguin is one of the founders of Mexicans in Exile. He and his brothers owned a prosperous transportation company in Juarez. But at the turn of the decade, the family began to receive threats from the Sinaloa cartel, which had taken over control of Juarez and the profitable “Valley of Juarez” corridor, which includes the town of Guadalupe.
The family did not give in, and members of the criminal group started to burn his buses and killed one of his sons.
“The sad thing is that recently there was a major shootout between criminal groups in Guadalupe, and they burned down the last remaining bus his family had. He feels they were sending him a message,” Spector said.
The El Paso lawyer says a clear and present danger remains for those Mexicans who left five, six or seven years ago after having run-ins with criminal gangs that sometimes operate with the support or complicity of government officials.
“We have won 12 asylum cases involving Mexicans and have another 50 to 60 still active in the courts. It’s a bit of a source of pride for this law office,” he said. “The renewed violence in Juarez certainly goes against any government lawyer’s position that Mexico has become a democratic paradise, therefore it’s safe. It’s definitely not safe for these families that were targeted by the drug cartels.”