Eleven blocks from the Texas border, hundreds of destitute Mexicans are gathered in a shelter, escaping what they fear is certain death.
Within walking distance of the U.S. port of entry at Roma — a hilly town of 12,000 speckled with church steeples, fast food signs and discount stores that is nestled between Laredo and McAllen — a Lions Club community center in Ciudad Miguel Alemán is the temporary home to citizens fleeing nearby Ciudad Mier, which was reportedly overtaken by the Zetas drug cartel early this month. The epicenter of the latest outburst of violence is just a 10-minute drive from the Rio Grande.
Sharing space with foam mattresses, boxes of basic food staples and pallets of bottled water are seniors in wheelchairs, babies sleeping on floors and shell-shocked parents watching their children play — multiple generations swept up in the mass exodus from the small agricultural town.
“There were three vans riddled with bullets in front of our house,” said 20-year-old Catalina, a Ciudad Mier refugee who asked for anonymity to protect her family from retribution. “Then we continued to hear gunfire in the streets. I grabbed my daughter and my husband and parents and we left.”
Catalina had time to grab some baby formula and a few clothes, she said, but left everything else behind. Other refugees reported hearing verbal warnings for the townspeople to flee — “men in the streets” telling them it was time for them to go.
About 200 residents remain in Ciudad Mier, down from more than 6,500 before the exodus began, said a social worker from that town.
Some fleeing the violence have been in Ciudad Miguel Alemán for more than a week, others for just a few days — but all are now forced to live in temporary quarters usually reserved for victims of natural disasters. Red Cross units arrive regularly with supplies, and a doctor is present round the clock. The community center's new occupants, estimated by the office of Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernández Flores to be more than 400, share two bathrooms and one shower.
An official with Mexico’s public assistance and welfare agency, Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, said Saturday that authorities will be there as long as they're able — and as long as people keep flowing into the center. The official, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his safety, said the Lions Club, which is receiving between 20 and 30 new refugees a day, is also receiving assistance from the neighboring cities of Reynosa and Camargo and the state of Nuevo León, which shares a small swath of the Texas-Mexico border with Laredo.
An official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Roma said that despite the embattled Mexican town’s proximity to the U.S., agents were operating there without an increase in manpower. Traffic continued to flow northward on Saturday, and officials were busy with southbound inspections, checking buses and commercial vehicles heading into Mexico.
The Desarrollo Integral de la Familia official in Miguel Alemán said Mayor Servando López Moreno asked that the center be used as a shelter after refugees began arriving at the city’s municipal offices on Nov. 5, the same day the presumed leader of the Gulf Cartel, Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, was killed by Mexican military and law enforcement after an hours-long standoff in the border city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville. The center had been without additional security since the exodus, but on Saturday municipal police forces arrived to guide traffic near the center.
Ciudad Miguel Alemán has witnessed violence this year, the official said, though not on the same level as the border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo or Reynosa. The Mexican military keeps a constant presence in the city, however. Baby-faced soldiers squat behind sand bags and tote automatic weapons just feet from the customs checkpoint, blanketing the small town with the same aura of uncertainty felt in the country’s larger cities on the border.
Across the border in Roma, the news wasn’t anything new to a former Mier resident who fled the city once and for all in February. The woman — another who asked not to be named out of concern for her safety — said the small town has been inundated with violent attacks since she left. It presumably started when the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, former allies in their attempt to oust rival drug cartels from the plazas that extend from northern Mexico to South Texas and beyond, began waging war against each other.
“It’s been only since this week that people started paying attention [to Ciudad Mier],” she said. As patrons began filing into her sister’s restaurant for Saturday’s fight between Manny Pacquiao and Mexico’s Antonio Margarito, her nieces produced cell-phone pictures of burned-down buildings and charred cars from earlier this year. Family members huddled near the restaurant's entrance traded rumors of daytime murders and black SUVs with armed gunmen rolling through the town. A niece, who formerly worked at Ciudad Mier’s municipal offices, said the town had been without a police force since February.
In a statement released Saturday, the Tamaulipas governor said federal reinforcements will arrive shortly to the war-torn city in hopes that “residents living in other towns can return home with a greater sense of peace of mind.”
It might not be enough for the family now exiled in Roma. The woman’s sister, also a former Mier resident, said her hometown used to be a “magical place” (the federal government's secretariat of tourism has officially dubbed the city with the moniker “El Pueblo Mágico”) and regaled reporters with stories of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s brief stint there in the 1950s to purchase arms and train for his successful overthrow of the Cuban government. She says Roma is now her adoptive home.
“We are living in historic times,” she said.
Meanwhile, across the border in Ciudad Miguel Alemán, 20-year-old Catalina eyed a different future. She has no job, and no designs on trying to migrate to the United States for work. She doesn’t want to try to make the trek illegally either, as thousands of her countrymen do every year.
“I am scared to cross [the Rio Grande]. I am scared for my daughter. She is the only one I have,” she said. When asked if she plans to wait out the situation in Ciudad Mier and return, she paused, then said, “I want to go get some things, some furniture and other belongings. But I will never return. I will live here.”