Mexican exiles in El Paso can see their pasts across the river

They go about their lives here, trying to begin anew. They want to forget about the clean-shaven assassins, the sound of gunfire, the graves and the homes they’ve left behind in Ciudad Juarez.

A 41-year-old mother of three sees a Juarez neighbor shopping in the discount stores of downtown El Paso. She looks for a place to hide.

A year earlier, she’d been shot through the neck, rushed to a hospital in Juarez and then a second one in El Paso. She had never gone back to her Juarez home.


“All the neighbors think I’m dead,” she said, asking that her name not be published. She would prefer for the time being that they continue to think so.

Escapes to El Paso from Juarez and its drug wars are filled with such moments. There is safety, yes, but also loneliness, hardship and the psychological torment that comes with living within walking distance of a place to which you cannot return.

Juarez and El Paso are twin cities connected by bridges over the Rio Grande. For much of their history, the locals have thought of them as a single metropolis — until 1888, they even shared the same name. But today El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States; Juarez has seen more killings than Baghdad, more than 3,000 homicides so far this year.

Brenda Ramirez, a 28-year-old mom, saw the man who ran a neighborhood store in Juarez when she was headed to an El Paso church one Sunday.

He hugged her and joked with her the way he used to with Raul, her 7-year-old son, who was killed by gunmen last year. For a fleeting moment some of the good memories of Juarez came flooding back.

Sometimes, in her El Paso exile, Ramirez captures and holds on to those good Juarez memories and it’s as if Raul had never been shot and killed alongside his father, her ex-husband, as he drove Raul back to her house. As if Brenda had never had to leave.

“My son loved being with his cousins,” she said. “On Saturday and Sunday, they’d all play soccer. My house was always filled with children. I’d give them all food and have them all with me, playing their games.”

It was just a year ago, just a few miles away, but it was another world.

Now Ramirez lives with her 2-year-old son and husband in a two-room converted garage in an El Paso barrio of auto shops and taquerias. The front door faces an alley. She doesn’t know any neighbors. No one stops by to visit.

“Everyone is gone working all day,” she said of her neighbors. “It is very quiet here.”

On the wall and in boxes and albums she keeps pictures of her late son. Playing soccer. Dressed as an angel for a school Nativity play. In Juarez.

* * *

For years, the rich of Juarez have retreated to the United States for a kind of gilded, voluntary second life. Some have second homes on the El Paso side where they sleep at night. Their children go to school in the U.S. too. But they still keep businesses and property in Juarez. And they go back and forth as they like.

In Juarez now, the rich are shuttled around in armor-plated vehicles. Soldiers behind sandbags guard office buildings. Few go out at night. And thousands of ordinary working people are fleeing — some on valid tourist visas, some not.

Hundreds have applied for political asylum, which means they cannot return to Juarez for a day or even a minute. A return home voids an asylum application and risks deportation.

“You can’t go back to go to your father’s funeral, or to have a couple of beers, or to see the Indios play,” Carlos Spector, an El Paso attorney, said, referring to the Juarez soccer team. “You’re not going back at all. You’re going to be stuck here.”

In El Paso, people leave their front doors unlocked. For many, the absence of fear takes getting used to.

Alejandro Hernandez, a 41-year-old father of two, remembers his first week in El Paso in July: “I went to Walmart at three or four in the morning. And there were people there, shopping.” He stood on the store’s white floors, gleaming under fluorescent lights — all that American normality felt impossibly surreal.

In Juarez, you have to be alert to the movement on the streets, to the slow-moving cars and the paid street-corner lookouts.

In El Paso, you’re more likely to be ambushed by your fears.

Hernandez learned this when he got to El Paso, after five horrific days in the hands of a band of marijuana-smoking, drug-cartel hit men. He was a TV news cameraman, kidnapped on the job by a cartel that wanted to force his bosses to broadcast a message.

The kidnappers beat him, then threw him in a room. At one point, he said, he managed to lift the blindfold over his eyes: “All the walls and the floors were covered with blood.” When they suddenly let him go, he took his family and raced for the border.

They moved in with an El Paso relative. His children started school. All seemed normal. Then one day, as he stood outside his lawyer’s office downtown, a pickup truck made a U-turn in front of him. “I ducked down behind a car,” he said.

It was only after the pickup disappeared, after he caught his breath, that he realized no one was after him.

Fear, loss and death can color the smallest details of daily life.

Ricardo Chavez Aldaña, a onetime customs inspector and radio reporter, drives around El Paso in an old Buick with Chihuahua license plates that used to belong to his teenage nephew Luis.

It’s the car Chavez used to flee Mexico with his wife and five kids, and since he can’t work in the U.S. while his political asylum application is processed, he can’t afford a new one.

“This car is in bad shape, look how dirty it is,” he said as he drove around El Paso. “My nephew kept it so clean.”

Luis, 17, his brother and two other teenagers were murdered at a friend’s party in 2009 in one of the home-invasion massacres Juarez is becoming famous for, symptoms of a lawlessness so widespread it can strike anyone, anytime. No one has been charged, and no official theories offered.

On the day Luis was killed, he and his uncle had spent hours trying to get the car to start so Luis could go to that party. “How many times since have I wished we didn’t get this thing started,” Chavez said.

Chavez was then a newly hired reporter at a radio station. He went on the air to denounce the authorities for protecting assassins ravaging the city. Within hours, someone called his home threatening “a massacre” if he kept talking.

His family of seven is now squeezed into two rooms in El Paso, sharing a home with relatives. Tensions are high. His 14-year-old son, especially, is having trouble with their isolated American existence.

“I feel like we’re being driven apart,” Chavez said of his family. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re crazy because of what’s happened to us, or because we’re all shut up in here.”

Mexico is visible on the near horizon. He sees the 320-foot flagpole just across the border when he walks to the corner store to buy bread and cereal in the morning.

“This store has everything I liked in Juarez, except for one thing,” Chavez said. “It doesn’t have the kind of chocolate cereal I like.”

Chavez could hop on a bike, pedal south and be at a store that sells that cereal in 10 minutes — but he’d be risking his life to do so.

Sometimes he takes a short drive to the hillside neighborhoods that rise over downtown El Paso. When he was a kid, he’d go trick-or-treating there — back then, the Border Patrol looked the other way as Juarez kids in Halloween costumes crossed the river.

From the scenic overlook at Murchison Park, feeding quarters into the binoculars, Chavez can see Colonia Obrera, the neighborhood where he lived 34 of his 36 years. It’s in a patch of Ciudad Juarez visible between two El Paso glass office towers.

“I can see the gas station where I used to stop,” he said. And his church. And a little shopping center. “I feel sick seeing all that,” he said.

The exiles also can see the Juarez violence play out daily on their televisions. They can buy the Juarez newspapers and read the grisly details of bodies decapitated or dumped on the street with notes left by their killers. And they can hear the Radio Cañon daily body count recited on their AM radios:

“It’s 11 o’clock and we can open the scoreboard, with the first killing of the day….”

* * *

The 41-year-old mother who was shot through the neck entered El Paso on a tourist visa that’s since expired. She sees Border Patrol agents in El Paso, and they make her afraid to go outside.

When her husband goes off to work now at El Paso construction sites, she stays inside the little apartment provided by a refugee assistance agency. In the living room is a four-foot-tall Christmas tree. On the walls are the drawings of the couple’s 11-year-old daughter.

But Juarez and its demons live in the apartment too.

In Juarez, one of the gunmen who ambushed their home pointed a gun at the young girl’s head. They shot her mother four times. Her father still has photos on his cellphone of her neck wound, before it healed.

The gunmen spared the girl, but killed her uncle and another relative. The family has no answers as to why — only that their house looked like all the others on the block.

Forced to leave their old homes, the transplants still pine for them, despite the dark memories they contain.

“My country is always with me and what’s happening to it makes me want to weep,” said Emilio Gutierrez Soto, 47, a writer. He remembers the garden, the mesquite tree and the friendships he left behind. “That’s all over now,” he said.

In the kitchen of his small, rented home, Gutierrez labors over pots of stringed beef, making burritos to sell. The walls are covered with mementos from his old life as a reporter for a Juarez paper, a job he was forced to leave after reporting on military links to organized crime.

Once Gutierrez earned his living with his words. Now he uses pots and pans — and his muscles, cleaning up brush at a local farm.

Even for those who can cross the border freely, going back home is not easy.

Brenda Ramirez has a U.S. visa and can travel to Juarez. But the one time she did since her son’s death and her flight to El Paso, she stayed just long enough to know there was no going back.

She returned to Colonia Angeles on a mission suggested by her psychotherapist — to retrieve a few of her late 7-year-old’s belongings and part with others for good. But as she entered her old home, she said, none of her old neighbors approached her: “They look at you strange. They look the other way. Maybe they think if they talk to us, something bad will happen to them too.”

In El Paso, she tries to be strong for Omar, her 2-year-old, and to “honor” Raul’s memory.

The routines of life with a toddler help her get through each day. So does the solitude of exile."You don’t live with your neighbors here,” she said, using a Spanish verb, convivir, that’s not easily translated. “Maybe that helps, I don’t know. People don’t know my life. They don’t know what happened.”

In the anonymity of El Paso, there is the beginning of a new life. Ramirez takes Omar to a park where he imitates the sounds of the ducks. “Cua, cua, cua.” No one stares. No one looks away. At the park, she is not a victim. She is just another mom.