August 18, 2008

Public hospital in El Paso treating victims of Mexico drug violence at taxpayer expense

08:15 AM CDT on Monday, August 18, 2008
Los Angeles Times

EL PASO – Lorenzo de la Torre Torres was on the cusp of death.

Drug cartel hit men had pumped the deputy police chief with more than 20 bullets and slightly wounded his boss, after a wild car chase in Nuevo Casas Grandes, the Mexican city the two were supposed to control.

Paramedics airlifted the cops 130 miles to Ciudad Juarez. Within hours, however, the two men were taken by ambulance to El Paso's Thomason Hospital.

For the next two weeks, Mr. de la Torre was treated at taxpayer expense. El Paso police and sheriff's deputies stood guard around the hospital 24 hours a day, wearing bulletproof vests and holding semiautomatic rifles. All but one entrance to the building was closed, sending visitors through metal detectors.

It was neither the first nor last time that the arrival of a gunshot victim from Mexico has sparked a lockdown at the publicly owned hospital.

The only hospital within a 280-mile radius to offer state-of-the-art trauma care, Thomason has become an unwilling treatment center for law enforcement officials and others wounded in Mexico's drug turf battles.

Thomason has treated 28 people wounded in Mexico, spending an estimated $1 million, according to hospital administrators. Nineteen were U.S. citizens or had dual citizenship, and the rest had legal permission to enter the country.

The most recent was a 1-year-old Juarez girl crushed by a runaway pickup after gunmen killed the driver in an apparently drug-related hit.

El Paso leaders are frustrated and angry at the cost and risks brought about by their unexpected guests.

"It seems we don't find out until they walk in the hospital door," El Paso Mayor John Cook said. "If I, as the mayor, cross the border, it takes me a lot longer than it's taking some of these wounded folks. Clearly, some deals have been made at a higher level of government, and we didn't know about them."

El Paso officials in July took their worries to Washington, D.C., where Homeland Security officials assured them that there was no diplomatic deal to bring the drug war's wounded to Texas. Still, they want the federal government to reimburse their costs.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents assisted in escorting one high-ranking Mexican police official into the U.S. and provided armed security for him at Thomason Hospital, according to Roberto G. Medina, special agent in charge of ICE's Office of Investigations in El Paso.

Mexican officials have repaid the hospital fully for only one of the Mexican officers it has treated and made partial payment for another. Thomason has gotten about $314,000 back from the patients, their employers, insurers and state and federal funding, according to hospital spokeswoman Margaret Althoff-Olivas. Thomason administrators expect that most of its costs will have to be borne by the state and federal government, she said.

Thomason does not want to accept the patients but have no choice under federal law. About half – including the Nuevo Casas Grandes police chief, who had only a hand wound – did not need the Level 1 trauma assistance provided.

El Paso County Sheriff Santiago "Jimmy" Apodaca said he does not like having to pay deputies overtime to guard the hospital.

Sheriff Apodaca said he saw little reason to worry that drug-war violence would cross the Rio Grande. But he was taking no chances.

"Bordering on Juárez, the most violent city in Mexico and one of the most violent cities anywhere besides Iraq, you're always vigilant," he said. "But those people [hit men] down there know who they're after, and they know how to get them."

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