BORDER CROSSING: Others' history of bloody violence stemming 'safe' border town flow
By Jennifer Edwards and Courtney Bacalso
Published: Sunday, June 22, 2008 1:35 PM CDT
CIUDAD ACUNA, Mexico — The main street is in permanent fiesta mode. Signs canopy Hidalgo Street in friendly neon, taco carts edge along with homely tortillas in plastic bags and cheap mescal is on offer in the curio shops.
But since last year, the party has gone out of this party town located four hours from Midland, and once-busy shops are feeling the pinch.
Locals say far fewer visitors are crossing the bridge to come into Mexico, that the border violence in places like Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo has left a taint on all border towns.
“Everybody wants to come to Mexico, but they are afraid to come,” said Jose Pepe Treviño Jr.,
owner of The Golden Brush, a curio shop on Hidalgo.
He rests on a dais covered with T-shirts, across from a rack weighted with bottles of tequila and mescal. Compact and weary-looking, Treviño estimates last year, about 80 people a day would visit his shop. These days, it’s more like 60.
He blames the 25 percent reduction on bad press that seems to equate all border towns with violence.
Recent news stories have focused on paroxysms of violence in which powerful drug cartels are lashing back at the country’s attempts to oust them and shut down lucrative drug routes.
By the end of May, more than 1,400 Mexicans had died in those battles — 40 percent more than the same five months last year, according to an ABC News report.
Many of those slayings have taken place in escalating violence in Ciudad Juárez, a city of more than a million that butts up against El Paso. Drug violence also continues in Nuevo Laredo, though an official said slayings are down by 55 percent in its American border city, Laredo.
“We’ve actually had a dramatic decrease in our homicide rate last year ... we had under 10 for all of the last year,” said Officer Joe Baeza, public relations for the Laredo Police Department. This year, there have been six murders, three of which were related to domestic violence, according to statistics later supplied by Baeza.
Meanwhile, authorities in Tamaulipas, the state where Nuevo Laredo is located, reported 42 were slain in Nuevo Laredo, 20 of whom were tied to narcotics trafficking.
Calls to the public affairs office for the El Paso branch of the Customs and Immigration Enforcement office were not returned.
Baeza cited the efforts of the Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, to increase military presence in border cities and his increased crackdown on drug cartels, though those factors have been cited in the increasing conflicts between Mexican police and military and drug cartels in Juárez.
However, such organized violence does not boil over in such grand fashion in smaller border cities like Ciudad Acuña or Ojinaga, Mexican cities located less than five hours away from Midland.
“The violence is spreading quite a bit along the border,” said Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan, the West Texas representative for the Texas Good Neighbor Commission.
Still, in the past three weeks, open violence related to drug trafficking resulted in four deaths in Ojinaga — including a police officer and three individuals machine gunned to death, he said.
Cpt. William Rattay, of the Del Rio police department, said Acuña, for instance, has had some drug-related deaths though he was not certain how many.
“We have people go across every day and it’s usually not a problem,” he said. “As long as you stay on the main drags, I think you’re fine. It’s not the Wild West.”
Yet, people still fear coming, Treviño said.
“Even the Mexican people (in the U.S.) are afraid to come,” he said.
Jamie Aleman, who owns Casa de Nacho, a neighboring curio shop, agreed.
“If something happens (in Mexico), in the U.S., there is a big sign: Don’t go to Mexico,” he said. He feels that is unfair because “the gangs fight with each other, not the tourists.”
In order to cope with declining revenue from tourists, many of them Texans, Treviño’s even had to cut out one of his favorite habits — going to see a movie Thursday nights.
“It’s been four months,” since he quit the flicks, he said. “We are waiting for better times.”
The scare hasn’t just impacted businesses south of the border; it’s hit some cities on the U.S. side hard, too.
North of the border
A city of about 35,000, Del Rio sits squarely across from Acuña, population 125,000. A road and four pedestrian bridges link the two cities but much more connects them than those arteries.
Del Rio has a transborder economic interdependence with Acuña, Del Rio native Jay Johnson-Castro Sr. said.
“You have to understand, Acuña is ‘just the other side of town’ to us,” Johnson-Castro added, as he and his American companions shopped at a pottery store.
They ordered several ornate pieces as they killed time before attending the quinceñera, or 15th birthday party, for the daughter of one of his employees.
Johnson-Castro owns a bed and breakfast in Del Rio. Villa Del Rio guests stop over on their way to Acuña and other Mexican towns.
Sarah Boone, co-owner of the bed and breakfast, said occupancy has declined 50 percent in the past three years. She attributes the decline to the perception that the entire border is dangerous.
“We aren’t Nuevo Laredo, Juarez or any of our sister cities along the border,” she said. “It’s very safe over here and it makes no sense to blackball the entire border. You wouldn’t see people blackballing Houston if Dallas had a rash of crime.”
And the decline in tourism in the area has caused Acuñans to make fewer shopping trips across the border.
In 2001, Acuñans comprised of 20 percent of the shoppers at Plaza del Sol, the mall in Del Rio. Their purchases totaled 60 percent of the dollars made at the mall on a given day — 80 percent on a Mexican holiday, said its general manager Blanca Larson.
“While they come in few numbers, they make more or larger purchases,” Larson said. “But we’ve seen a decline in the past couple of years despite the Mexican economy getting stronger.”
With fewer tourists going to Acuña, money isn’t coming back into Del Rio like it had been.
“What happens in Acuña affects Del Rio,” Larson said. “We really rely on each other.”
Meanwhile, Acuña officials have taken measures to ensure the security of tourists who do make it there.
A month ago, Acuña officials began taking more measures to ensure the safety of tourists, Acuña’s tourism director Hector Arocha said.
The city opened a small satellite office near the Amistad Bridge tucked away in between dentist offices on Hidalgo.
And fliers have been handed out to tourists indicating the fines if ticketed and contact information in case of any problems, Arocha said.
“We have to take special care of our tourists,” Arocha said, “because a lot of our families live off the tourism here — our taxi drivers, waiters, barmen and shopkeepers.”