Cartels empty border towns

Christian, 14, locks the front gate at his house as his family left El Porvenir, Mexico, for Texas, fleeing the drug cartels that have terrorized the Juarez Valley.

EL PORVENIR, Mexico -- The 14-year-old boy tied a few mattresses and a bedstead to the family pickup truck. He went back into his single-story yellow house for the cat and chained up the gate. Then he drove off with his family, which was abandoning home, jobs, school and country.

All because the drug smugglers told them to.

Hundreds of families are fleeing the cotton-farming towns of the Juarez Valley, a stretch of border 50 miles east of Ciudad Juarez. In a new strategy, Mexican drug cartels seeking to minimize interference with their operations are using terror to empty the entire area.

They have burned down homes in Esperanza ("Hope") and torched a church on Good Friday in El Porvenir ("The Future"). Wherever they strike, they leave notes ordering residents to leave.

"They were typewritten, and they said, 'You have just a few hours to get out,' " Christian, the 14-year-old, said as he set off for a new life in Texas. Like others cited in this story, he would give only his first name for fear of reprisal. Some were so afraid they wouldn't even give that.

Exodus

In El Porvenir, which normally has about 3,000 residents, only a couple hundred appear to remain. During Easter Week, when schools were closed and the plaza normally would bustle, the only things moving in the center of town were a few stray dogs.

The exodus appears to be the work of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful drug organization. The Associated Press, citing U.S. intelligence, reported last week that the group has seized control of smuggling corridors through the region after a bloody, 2-year battle with the Juarez cartel.

The cartel, led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is trying to show locals who's in charge, experts and Mexican officials say. Mexican soldiers who arrested four men Tuesday for allegedly torching more than 20 homes in the valley said all are connected to the Sinaloa cartel.

"The warning to El Porvenir was a warning to the Juarez cartel," said Tony Payan at the University of Texas-El Paso.

Laura Pallares, a clerk at a convenience store overlooking the bridge to Fort Hancock, Texas, said she has seen up to 20 pickup trucks heading to the border every day for the past few weeks, carrying families and their possessions.

"It's been an exodus," said Arturo Vega, the town council secretary in nearby Guadalupe, where gunfire rings out at night, shopkeepers have been killed and homes burned down.

Some are fleeing to Fort Hancock and Fabens, another nearby Texas farming community. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say requests for asylum have jumped since the fiscal year started in October, with 47 people asking for the protection of the American government, up from 11 the previous year. And those numbers don't count the people who didn't seek asylum or crossed illegally.

The influx of new residents -- nearly 50 new students have enrolled in schools in Fort Hancock, population 1,700 -- has made townsfolk afraid that cartel enforcers have followed them to Texas to intimidate them. Sheriff's deputies have advised local farmers and ranchers to be vigilant -- and armed.

Scorched-earth strategy

The region is perfect for smugglers, with miles of dirt roads that federal police and soldiers seldom patrol. The Rio Grande in the area is often so shallow that smugglers can walk or drive across.

At least one handwritten note, copies of which were tossed around the nearby town of Praxedis, denied the Sinaloa cartel was behind the abuses. It claimed a rival cartel -- apparently Juarez -- was staging the campaign in an effort to frame the Sinaloa gang, perhaps in an attempt to poison its victory.

The note was signed, "Sincerely, the Sinaloa cartel."

Whichever gang is responsible, the scorched-earth strategy is clear. All along the valley, burned-out concrete-block houses dot the roads.

On the outskirts of Placitas, a tiny town where a gate and a long access road so far has kept residents relatively safe, Lorena was unloading a sofa, an armchair and a bed from a pickup truck. She, her five children and her elderly mother had just fled Guadalupe.

"There used to be fiestas in the town square. Someone would have a birthday or a quinceanera or a wedding, and everybody would come," she said. "We miss that. Now, we don't go out after nightfall, and we can't even sleep because of the fear."