West Texas town bolsters security as Mexican deaths continue
By Brandi Grissom / Texas Tribune
Posted: 07/15/2010 07:19:41 AM MDT

FORT HANCOCK - They can't keep burying the bodies here. Not just because the small cemetery in this remote desert town can't handle the volume - because somebody could get killed.

On a still, sunny spring morning in Fort Hancock, about 60 miles east of El Paso, two elderly Hispanic men sit on the tailgate of a pickup, surrounded by graves.

Francisco Estrada and Alberto Rosales munch on pieces of fruit, legs dangling above the dusty earth where many former residents of this rural outpost make their final repose. As caretakers for the Fort Hancock Cemetery, they put in about 20 hours a week. It's mostly quiet work, meant to occupy their aging minds and bodies.

This spring, though, as the drug war enveloped Fort Hancock's Mexican sister city, El Porvenir, their stress levels spiked. "What they're starting over there, they're going to finish here," Estrada frets.

Estrada and Rosales point to white and yellow silk flowers that adorn one of the most recent additions to the cemetery: the resting place of Manuel Morales Lerma, who was shot at his home in El Porvenir. Fearing cartel leaders would next target his family, Morales Lerma's relatives moved his funeral to Fort Hancock's tiny cemetery.

People here describe the ceremony like a scene out of a spaghetti western. Sheriffs' deputies from all around came to stand guard. Some mourners hid in the bushes with guns, says Hudspeth County Judge Becky Dean Walker.

Fewer than 20,000 people live in the Valle de Juárez,a 60-mile stretch of small villages that line the highway from Juárez to El Porvenir. In what was once a peaceful if desperately poor farming community, more than 75 people have fallen victim to the raging drug war so far this year.

It's an astonishing death rate. If the pace of killings continues this year, the murder rate could reach 1,600 homicides for every 100,000 people (in New Orleans, the 2009 murder rate was 52 per 100,000, the highest in the nation, according to FBI data).

Cartel leaders have told entire towns to vacate or be decimated. They've burned homes and churches and left in their wake residents paralyzed with fear. The aftershocks extend far from the epicenter of the violence, bringing fear and confusion - along with legions of armed guards, and refugees from the bloodbath - to Fort Hancock and other rural Texas border outposts.

Morales Lerma's funeral passed without another murder; the slaughter to the south has yet to bleed across the border.

Yet no one disputes the need to be prepared: As El Porvenir and the rest of the Juárez Valley have descended into chaos, law enforcement has crushed into the small towns of Hudspeth County. More officers - state, local and federal - work more hours with more firepower during every hour of the day.

Though Hudspeth County residents fret for their southern neighbors - especially family members who cannot escape to the United States - many welcome the protection from the nightmare just across the Rio Grande.

The number of uniforms in the Juárez Valley has increased, too. Mexican military troops set up checkpoints on the highway and patrol the villages with automatic weapons at the ready. Mexican federal police are ever present.

But petrified residents say their presence has done little to curb the killing. Some believe the soldiers are at least complicit in the cartels' dirty work and may be actively doing drug lords' bidding.

"The population is fearful of the soldiers," one El Porvenir resident says. "They are always beating people up for information."