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Op-Ed Tue May 08 2012

Mexican Chicago: How our Families Feel the Drug War from Both Sides of the Border

By Latinos Progresando

shutterstock_29096323.jpgI met with a man who works with the Mexican community to raise money to build hospitals and schools. His job sounds charitable, but it can be tense and dangerous when he works with Mexican towns that are occupied by drug cartels. He would not talk to me about the violence he's encountered.

He was apologetic. He explained that the drug cartels had already approached him and given him two choices: If he does not speak about the drug cartels, they promised they would leave him alone to do his work. If he does speak about them, they promised they would come and "get him." He has stayed silent since.

He has stayed silent, even though he doesn't live in a Mexican city controlled by drug cartels. He actually lives in Chicago. My conversation with him took place in a restaurant in Pilsen.

The Mexican drug war may seem distant, but in reality the Mexican drug war isn't just in Mexico. The drug cartels' influence has already stretched to Chicago and they are already affecting Chicagoans, with threats, anxiety and even direct violence. I see the effects of the Mexican drug war almost every day, even though I live and work in Chicago.

For example, a few months ago, a woman looking for assistance with her immigration paperwork, explained to a caseworker why she had immigrated to the United States from Mexico:

"You know those mass graves [that the drug cartels created] that [the Mexican police] dug up? Yeah, my brother was in one. He was kidnapped along with my dad. We still can't find my dad."

A few years ago, if anyone talked about a mass grave in Mexico, I would have been shocked. But, now, these conversations are commonplace. Almost every Mexican in Chicago has a story about a friend who was killed, a cousin who was kidnapped, a car that was hijacked, someone whose body parts were chopped off, or ransom money that was raised and then mailed off to kidnappers.

And, unfortunately, the drug violence that informs these stories is becoming more and more commonplace, too. The drug cartels are gaining money and power, and neither the Mexican nor the American government has been able to effectively suppress them. The drug trade is seeping across Mexico, which means that kidnapping, fear and bloodshed is spreading across Mexico, too, even reaching quiet rural towns and areas like Veracruz far from the strategically important US/Mexico border.

The Mexican drug war holds sway over Mexican Chicagoans, and in meaningful and painful ways. As a result, more and more Mexican Americans must worry about relatives and friends whose lives are literally in danger, and the high risk makes visiting Mexico difficult.

Many still make the trip from the U.S. to Mexico, but they all hear the same anxieties and warnings from their neighbors and relatives: "Are you stupid?"; "Are you crazy?"; "Don't visit Mexico." Don't go to your hometown, don't vacation on the beach, don't go see how much bigger your niece has grown. My friend's cousin was getting married in Mexico, but the cousin was so worried about safety that she asked my friend not to travel down. My friend stayed in Chicago while his relatives attended the wedding ceremony and celebrated in Mexico — a story that is often repeated.

Someone else didn't take the same precautions. He, his wife, and his kids almost finished their long drive into Mexico. Ten minutes away from his hometown, the cab driving just in front of him suddenly stopped, blocking the road. To avoid a collision, he stopped suddenly, too, and watched as all four cab doors popped open and four men with machine guns stepped out. The men hijacked his car; everything happened so fast that his kids couldn't get dressed and had to hop out of the backseat barefoot.

Many men and women still make the trip to Mexico, even knowing the risks. Another family still drives to Mexico to visit their relatives, but they don't dress nicely; they don't pay for gas or food with large bills; and they don't wear flashy jewelry. Their road trip also takes much longer. Last year, they drove eight hours out of their way to avoid Mexican highways. They won't travel at night because it's too dangerous to drive after sunset.

Since many of them can't afford $600 to $800 plane tickets, they travel by bus. Going by bus means sitting still for about 60 hours straight and using the toilet on a moving vehicle. It means crossing the U.S./Mexico border at 1am. It means hearing stories about the 11 bus passengers that were shot and killed in Veracruz, the van that was stopped and hijacked on its way to Michoacan, and the decapitations that happened to some of the people who crossed the cartels. I know, because I joined those men and women on a bus trip this past December.

I couldn't sleep for almost two weeks before I left. When I visited Mexico three or four years ago, I didn't have to process so much anxiety. Four years ago, when I told my friends I was traveling down to Mexico, they told me where to eat, to shop, and what murals to see. Now, though, when I told my friends I was traveling to Mexico, they told me about drug violence.

One friend told me that last year, in her hometown, the drug cartel put flyers on each resident's door, establishing their control. The flyers said, "We will leave each of you alone for Christmas and for the holiday celebrations, but we know who you are. Come January 1st, we will be coming to talk."

Another friend told me that in certain parts of Mexico, I shouldn't use the word "Familia," because there's a cartel named "La Familia" and saying their name means punishment. Instead of saying, "I'm going to visit my family," I should say, "I'm going to visit my aunt" or "I'm going to visit my grandmother." Tiny words or wrong expressions can mean the difference between a peaceful afternoon and a kidnapping — possibly between life and death.

All these stories were floating around in my head when I got on the bus. Then, about 48 hours into the bus ride, we crossed the border. It was just after 1am, but after we crossed, everyone was awake, talking and happy we made it. After crossing the border, we all tried to settle down and get some sleep, but about an hour into Mexico, the bus slowed down suddenly, and everyone got up and did their best to look out of one of the windows. Everyone turned to each other and whispered "what's going on?" "Can you see anything?" The front door of the bus swung open and a man in a ski mask, with a machine gun, and a military outfit climbed on board.

He explained that this was part of the government's anti-narcotic, anti-weapon efforts. As part of these efforts, everyone had to wake up, put on their coats, and get off the bus. When we stepped outside, there was nothing but miles of flat desert surrounding us. There were no streetlamps; the only light came from a giant bonfire the soldiers had started on the side of the road. The soldiers separated the men and the women, patted each of us down, opened our bags, and then told us to have a nice trip. When we got back on the bus, everyone was tense and awake. I told the man sitting next to me, "Man, this has never happened to me before." He said, "Yeah, Mexico has changed."

When I finally arrived in Guadalajara, I drove down the highway with my dad to our family's house. We drove right past a man on the side of the road, standing next to a car with its hood popped open and waving a towel like he needed help. My dad told me, "Don't stop for anybody around here. Don't ever stop for anybody on the road; you can't do that anymore."

I remember hitchhiking as a teenager in Mexico. I'd walk around town, wave to a car, the people would stop and take me down the road to my destination. Today, most of the trip was dedicated to stories and rumors about the violence that is happening and what I should and should not be doing. "If you go to Ocotlan, do not honk your horn at anyone! The other day someone honked their horn at someone crossing the street and that person was with the drug cartel and shot them." When I asked my family how things were in our hometown, they said, "Oh no, nothing is going on here, it's not bad at all. They've only killed one Federal, and a few people, but that's it."

There are so many stories going around about kidnappings, people being shot for honking their horns, or people's heads being found in coolers on the side of the road that it's hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction. But these stories translate into real anxiety for those living and traveling in Mexico. People would rather overreact than make a stupid mistake.
Mexico has changed, and that means that the issues and concerns that Mexican Americans deal with have changed, too.

Speaking with a Mexican leader in Little Village, she mentioned to me that one of the reasons that it was difficult to do anything about the issues is that too many people remained silent. "People fall into one of three buckets: either they advocate and risk being killed, they know
what's going on and fear for their life so stay silent, or they walk around as if there is no problem. Unfortunately, most people are scared or in denial."

Many of the policies and methods meant to address the needs of Mexicans in Chicago haven't changed with the times. Mexicans in Chicago have families and friends who are constantly in danger. In the best-case scenario, it's hard and uncomfortable to speak about what's happening; in the worst-case scenario, it's actually dangerous to speak about the cartels and the violence. But open communication is necessary.

Chicago is currently home to a large number of people who have been dealing with threats, missing relatives, and even relatives that have been killed. This has left many people dealing with issues like depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and addiction to alcohol or drugs. These addictions and issues have also translated to issues of domestic violence. As a result, Mexican-Americans need mental health services that are more accessible, affordable, bilingual, and with providers specially trained to address issues rising from violence across the border, and to make competent referrals. Currently, caseworkers across Chicago are scrambling to figure out how to deal with budget cuts in mental health services, compounded by the increase in the number of people needing help.

More broadly, American immigration law needs to find a way to accommodate victims of Mexican drug violence. Some people who are kidnapped and are lucky enough to be let go, are often told two things: 1) Keep your mouth shut about what happened and what you saw, and 2) You can no longer stay in Mexico; leave or you will risk being kidnapped again, or worse.

In Chicago, family members are receiving relatives that have either been victims or fear they will become victims of the drug war. People in these situations risk living in the United States undocumented rather than returning to their home countries where they fear persecution. In order to remain in the United States legally, an individual will have to file for some type of immigration benefit. Current immigration law, however, makes it extremely difficult, and in some cases impossible, for someone to apply.

One possibility is asylum. Asylum was created to protect individuals who either have been persecuted, or have a reasonable fear of future persecution based on one of the protected grounds (i.e., race, religion, nationality). As one expert told me, "It's not about changing asylum policy, it's about changing the way that our courts view people seeking help from Latin America."

In order to understand and provide for Chicago's Mexican community, Chicagoans need to understand the far-reaching influence of the Mexican drug war — an issue that is deceptively difficult. Although Mexicans make up the largest Latino community in Chicago, issues that directly affect the Mexican community, like the drug war in Mexico, aren't often analyzed or dealt with in a comprehensive way. Many headlines, radio programs, and TV specials feature stories about the drug war in Mexico, but those stories usually focus on big abstract issues, like economics and politics, or on narrow, and often the most horrific, case studies, that are not representative of what most people experience.

The violence in Mexico affects almost every Mexican in Chicago, and not just in the far-too- abstract or horror-story ways portrayed in the media. I've heard anxieties, concerns, and anecdotes about the drug war from almost every Mexican Chicagoan I've spoken to; not just those working on the front lines in politics or social services, but every day people, like my neighbors, stay-at-home moms — people just trying to make an honest living for their families.

This op-ed was written by an affiliate of Latinos Progresando, a non-profit that serves immigrants with the highest quality low-cost legal immigration services, community education/ engagement and advocacy organizing around policy that affects immigrants. It was made possible with support from Community Media Workshop.

Photo of El Paso US-Mexico border crossing by iodrakon /

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anthony / May 8, 2012 7:18 PM

Nice article but by not publishing the authors name and instead the vague Latinos Progresando it seems gapersblock is just compounding the problem of people remaining silent in the face of violence.

Andrew Huff / May 9, 2012 12:14 AM

Thanks for the comment, Anthony. We did encourage Latinos Progresando to name the author, but they chose to keep the author anonymous.

Malcolm Kyle / May 10, 2012 8:07 AM

When governments prohibit drugs they effectively and knowingly hand a monopoly on their sale to dangerous criminals and terrorists. Without a legal framework in which to operate, these black-market entities can always be expected to settle their disputes violently, while terrorizing many peaceful and innocent citizens in the process. Were the users of alcohol to blame for the St Valentines massacre in 1929? Of course not! It is just as naive to assume that one can compel all the users of Marijuana or Cocaine to simply quit, as it is to assume that all the users of Alcohol should have stopped drinking after the introduction of alcohol prohibition in 1919.

Mike / May 16, 2012 9:06 AM

Anthony, did you read the article and absorb it? Would you have given your name?

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