Mexodus is an unprecedented cross-border, bilingual student-reporting project that documents the flight of middle class families, professionals and businesses to the U.S. and safer areas of México because of soaring drug cartel violence and widespread petty crime in cities such as Ciudad Juárez. 

Historically the more than 500,000 Chihuahuans who reside in the U.S. went there seeking work, but during these last three years insecurity has driven many to cross the border.

In spite of the efforts by federal and state authorities to provide security, many people have had to abandon the state due to these types of problems. Those leaving have ranged from public officials like Marisol Valles García, the chief of police of Práxedes G. Guerrero, who recently asked for political asylum in the U.S. after receiving threats from organized crime, to families from there far removed from the political arena.

Such is the case of Iván Zaldívar, a 19-year-old ex student of the Chihuahua campus of the Tecnológico de Monterrey. He was in his second semester studying mechatronic engineering when he had to leave home along with the whole family after a threat to his mother, Miranda Valles, a businesswoman, of whom they demanded money to receive “protection,” and, when they didn’t collect, burned one of her businesses.

Criminality on the Rise

There are many cases like this one. According to the Federal Preventive Police, in 2002 only 53 telephone kidnapping cases were reported, but in 2008 the reports went up to 53,000. Today, nationally Mexican criminals carry out 760 extortions daily, of which 62 percent of them are paid off, on the average, up from the 34 percent that were paid in 2008.

The modus operandi of organized crime for extortions is to demand money from business people in exchange for protection with the promise they will not be bothered again.

If their demands are not met, they themselves will force the companies or businesses to close and begin to threaten the families. They frequently kidnap a family member to increase the pressure.

Managing Their Business from a Safe Distance

In Ivan’s case, his father is a rancher and has real estate businesses, whereas his wife has franchises selling cosmetics and beauty salons. One of her places was burned down in broad daylight while there were people inside because she refused to cooperate with the hoodlums.

“They called my mother and demanded money. She hung up and the next day they burned down one of her places with a Molotov cocktail while there were people inside,” said Iván.

For this interview about the details and the fate of his family, Iván asked to remain anonymous, therefore none of the names here are their real ones. When asked where they were, Iván requested it not be divulged for the same security concerns for himself and his family. However, he confirmed they are living somewhere in the U.S., and that they all left their country due to the increasing lawlessness experienced these last few years.

He said that from one day to the next they were flying out of the country, it was all very fast, he didn’t have time to take anything, his house was left intact, fully furnished and their cars parked outside. His mother went ahead a week before without telling her children the truth.

“She told us she was visiting an aunt, but she was really in the U.S. doing all the paperwork. One day my father said we are going to live in another country and the next day we left.”

Iván’s family, consisting of both parents and two brothers, had to take an emergency leave out of the country because of a death threat to their mother trying to extort money in exchange for her life.

Her businesses remain in operation although she is out of the country. Iván’s parents are still managing them from their new residence, by telephone or by internet, with the managers of those businesses.

His mother has a total of four nail and cosmetics businesses, two in Chihuahua, one in Delicias City, and one more in Juárez. The one that was burned was in Chihuahua and she preferred to not disclose the address.

The Threats Continue

Iván says that although they left the country, the problem continues. The extortionists, it seems, have no intention of letting up until they get their money. 

“Through their managers they’ve sent my mother messages still demanding money and leaving threats.”

He said that they are living with relatives until they find their own house. It seems they aren’t planning to visit family and friends in Chihuahua very frequently because it could be a very dangerous and difficult situation.

It would be enough, he said, to visit four times a year, though he doubts it will be possible. They have no plans to return to live in the country, much less to Chihuahua. They will wait until the security changes for the better; however, they have felt safer in their new residence.

“We have been more comfortable and relaxed than in Chihuahua. But I have found out that things happen here similar to those over there. People are killed, kidnappings, drugs … the good thing is that the police here is more effective, and at least they come when you call them.”

Blessed Dual Nationality

The family’s immigration situation makes it a challenge to remain in the U.S. -- although they are living legally in the country, their children are there with student visas, without any guarantee of being able to stay there permanently, although they can go to school and study.

However, they are much luckier than others, since their mother is a U.S. citizen. This fact was important for processing all the documents for the rest of the family -- at present they are applying for citizenship. It well seems that they are planning to stay indefinitely, if in fact it isn’t already permanent.

With respect to their own problem, Iván and his family don’t foresee any solution that will allow them to return to their home in the near future to a life without extortions and threats against them.

“Who knows, if we pay them we don’t know if they will leave us alone, perhaps they will ask for more money later or threaten my mother again. Who knows, I don’t think so, what if some day they kidnap one of us. It’s better to stay here.”

Other Forms of Intimidation and Extortion

On other occasions, when hoodlums don’t want to get regular payments, they fake the kidnapping of the child of someone with high income. After they receive the amount demanded they don’t call back and the child appears perfectly okay because he or she was never really kidnapped.

This last case is what happened to Adrián Durán, a nephew of the owner of an important radio station in the state of Chihuahua. One day he received a call from a man with a serious tone of voice who told him to stay in a hotel room for two days, telling him if he didn’t do it they would kill his parents.

The instructions were that he was to say nothing to anybody and to keep his cell phone turned off or the agreement was off. He followed the instructions, thinking he was protecting his family.

The extortionist then called his parents and made them believe they had their son. Frightened, they tried to call him, but his cell phone was turned off. They paid the ransom. After the two days, Adrián went home thinking he had saved his family.

This type of situation has prompted hundreds of families to leave the country -- along the northern border area alone, 18.5 percent of the houses are abandoned. The residents have immigrated, in most of the cases, according to the National Institute for Statistics and Geography [INEGI in Spanish].

There are hundreds like Iván and Adrián -- perhaps thousands -- of families are faced with similar situations. Sometimes they are freed; others end in tragedy, with the death of family members or closing of their businesses. This is the present climate of violence against which nongovernmental agencies and civil society have emphatically cried out: “No more violence.”  

This article is reprinted from Borderzine.com.