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 (80 kilometers) 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.
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 would normally 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, two-year battle with the Juarez cartel.
The cartel, led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is now trying to show locals who's in charge, experts and Mexican officials say. Mexican soldiers who arrested four men on 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 towcouncil 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. Fort Davis High School canceled a baseball game at Fort Hancock because of security fears.
"We talked to the kids and they felt like they couldn't be assured of their safety, so we didn't go," said Larry Butler, superintendent of the Fort Davis Independent School District.
The region is perfect for smugglers, with miles (kilometers) 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. Smugglers have sent gunmen to tell government workers to halt plans for a highway extending from El Porvenir along the border to the east.
The terror in El Porvenir reached its height on Good Friday, when gunmen tried to break down the door of the church. They kicked in one panel of the door and set the facade ablaze. Locals managed to keep the fire from spreading.
"I think they thought, 'If we burn the church, all the people will leave,'" the Rev. Salvador Salgado said.
Soldiers and federal police stepped up patrols after the church attack, but few residents took heart.
"This place used to be wonderful," said Pancho, 48, who was getting a tire fixed in one of the four businesses still open in El Porvenir (the other three were a diner, a bakery and an auto parts store). "We would be out all the time. Sometimes we would walk over the border to the United States, and our parents never worried about us."
Across the street, the owner of a beer-and-soft drink store was packing up his belongings, including a small propane tank and a slushy vending machine. "We just can't operate like this," he said.
About a week after the church burning in El Porvenir, a commando of nearly 100 armed men took over the town of Maycoba, southwest of Ciudad Juarez, just over the border in Sonora state.
They forced inhabitants to leave, killed four people and left in a convoy of trucks and all-terrain vehicles. Residents hid in nearby ranches, stables and gulches until the gunmen left, the mayor told a local radio station.
On the outskirts of Placitas, a tiny town where a gate and a long access road has so far 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."
She was optimistic about their future in Placitas, but her mother, Jovita, was less sure.
"I guess we'll stay until the next threat comes," she said.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.