The first lockdown occurred after Fernando Lozano Sandoval, commander of the Chihuahua State Investigations Agency, was shot multiple times by gunmen who ambushed his sport utility vehicle Jan. 21 in Ciudad Juarez.
Lozano, who has dual citizenship, was taken to a Mexican hospital and kept under military guard. Two days later, ICE officials helped transfer him to Thomason. El Paso police and sheriff's deputies posted guards outside the hospital around the clock for three weeks.
Six months later, Thomason administrators locked down the hospital again, for the Nuevo Casas Grandes officers. Last month, the hospital was locked down after a Juarez police officer who was shot multiple times July 11 was allowed to cross the border to seek treatment.
Sylvia Zamarripa was visiting her father-in-law during the most recent lockdown and found the show of force disturbing.
"That's why I left Juarez, to get away from things like that," said Zamarripa, 65, who moved to El Paso more than a decade ago. "It looked like Colombia during the reign of Pablo Escobar," she said, referring to the late drug lord.
El Paso County Sheriff Santiago "Jimmy" Apodaca said he did not like having to pay deputies overtime to guard the hospital, but he had to ensure the safety of El Paso, which was named the second-safest city in the U.S. last year in an independent ranking of cities with more than half a million people. Apodaca said he saw little reason to worry that drug war violence would cross the Rio Grande. But he was taking no chances.
"Bordering on Juarez, the most violent city in Mexico and one of the most violent cities anywhere besides Iraq, you're always vigilant," Apodaca said. "But those people [hit men] down there know who they're after, and they know how to get them."
Drug cartels have traditionally assassinated U.S. targets discreetly, if at all, avoiding the type of Wild West gunfight that has become commonplace in Mexican border towns such as Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo.
Still, some law enforcement officials have long worried that the close relationships between cities on the border, and the drug distribution networks on both sides, could bring open violence to Texas cities. An e-mail message circulating in Juarez in June warned of impending violence at three El Paso nightclubs deemed narco hangouts. Similarly, a list obtained by U.S. officials named about 20 people in Texas and New Mexico who were alleged to be targets of the drug cartels.
El Paso County Commissioner Veronica Escobar said she hoped that Thomason stayed out of harm's way. The hospital has prospered while other county hospitals have struggled, she said. Voters last year approved a $120-million bond issue to build a children's hospital at the site.
"There is no doubt that in at least some of these cases folks were fleeing Mexico to be under the safe umbrella of the United States, and I can't blame them for that, but that poses problems we never had to deal with before," she said. "We may be on the front end of a trend here."