Fear grips Mexican families amid violence in border town

Thursday, March 18, 2010
Police stand at a crime scene where a woman was shot to death by unidentified assailants in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, March 17, 2010. The violence has risen to such levels in Ciudad Juarez that everyone feels at risk in the city of 1.3 million, where innocent people have been increasingly caught in the crossfire. (AP Photo/Miguel Tovar)

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- Elodia Ortiz drops her children at school in the morning, picks them up in the afternoon and makes an occasional trip to the supermarket. Anything else, she says, is too dangerous.

Parents in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, are afraid to venture into the streets amid a turf war between two powerful drug cartels that has left more than 4,500 people dead during the past two years.

Their fears spiked last weekend when hit men attacked two white sport utility vehicles leaving a birthday party, killing parents from two U.S. Consulate families in front of their screaming children.

The violence has risen to such levels in Ciudad Juarez that everyone feels at risk in the city of 1.3 million, where innocent people have been increasingly caught in the crossfire. Hit men have gone to wrong addresses or shot indiscriminately into homes, mowing down not only the targeted people but anyone nearby.

Mothers have driven into daytime shootouts, bending over their children to protect them. Toddlers have been fatally pierced by bullets while playing on the swings at city playgrounds.

"We're shut in our house," said Ortiz, a mother of five, as she stood outside Vicente Guerrero elementary school with her 7-year-old daughter. "We have to get to school, we have to work. But we're afraid when we leave."

Hiding from violence

Families in Ciudad Juarez started taking precautions years ago. At night, some couples drive in separate cars so one spouse can call the other on a cell phone upon seeing something suspicious. Many restrict their children to socializing at the homes of neighbors and relatives instead of meeting up at cafes and discos.

But even those measures are sometimes not enough: In January, gunmen barged into a private party of youths inside a small subdivision and killed 15 people in what families say was a case of mistaken identity. State officials claim someone was marked at the party and have made arrests but have not said who the target was.

Police arrested four more suspects in the case Wednesday, bring the total to eight, Chihuahua state Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez said. She said the four confessed to participating in the attack for the same street gang that authorities believe was behind Saturday's killings.

The suspects were paraded in front the media, and one told reporters he worked for the gang for $500 a month.

One of the boys killed in the attack was a schoolmate of Ortiz's teenage daughter.

"She has to travel alone to school and return alone, and I am very afraid that [one day] she's not going to return," said Ortiz, who works as a maid.

Selva Chavez, 30, even finds herself suspicious and tense when her 7- and 8-year-old boys go to places that, anywhere else, would be considered custom-made for children.

"We try to stay home and make barbecues because it's not safe to be out -- not even at Burger King," she said.

The attacks on U.S. Consulate families have put Juliana Vazquez on edge.

Like many other migrants, the woman from rural Chiapas state in southern Mexico came to Ciudad Juarez looking for work.

"It's terrifying for us," Vazquez said, her 12-year-old son, Francisco, helping her sell chips and candy from a stand outside a factory.

"It's terrifying for our children, but here we are."

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