Juan Fraire Escobedo’s mother was gunned down in 2010 while protesting outside the state government offices in Chihuahua, Mexico, two years after his teenage sister was killed in Ciudad Juárez. Saul Reyes Salazar, a former city secretary in the nearby town of Guadalupe, buried six members of his activist family in three years. His nephew Jorge Luis Reyes, who was orphaned by the age of 19, takes comfort in knowing where his mother is buried so he can leave flowers at her grave — if he ever steps foot in his native Mexico again.
“The Mexican government paints a picture that everyone dying in Mexico is because they’re related to the cartels,” Fraire said of the murders stemming from the government’s battle against drug trafficking. “That’s a lie.”
Now, Fraire and the Salazars are exiles, the term preferred by them and their lawyer, Carlos Spector of El Paso. They are displaced Mexicans seeking refuge north of the Rio Grande after fleeing a government-sanctioned war in Chihuahua, where thousands have been slaughtered since 2006. Staying there, they believe, means they could be next to die.
They have bonded through their common tragedies, and formed Mexicanos en Exilio — Mexicans in Exile. In the process of filing paperwork to become a nonprofit, the group is planning lecture tours to raise awareness about its members’ plight and the tragedy that led them to become foreigners in a land they never wanted to call home.
Spector said the group is still learning how to best draw attention to its message: raising awareness of what it says is the systematic slaughter of the Mexican people. The group also knows it is capable of upsetting all sides of the American political spectrum on issues like border security and immigration.
“We are going to shake things up,” Spector said. “Nothing is being left off the table. We have to do something.”
The group has 50 members, including reporters and activists who were threatened for refusing to stay quiet, people who Spector said were targeted first when the military arrived in Chihuahua in 2008. Relatives of those who have perished, at the hands of criminals or soldiers, have also joined — out of fear for their lives, and also to fight for justice for their slain relatives.
David Carter, a member of the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas, which espouses conservative views on immigration, including broadening immigration-enforcement authority for local law-enforcement officers, said that he did not think the group would contribute anything to the “basic problem of securing the border with the nature of their organization.”
He said he is concerned that criminals are coming to Texas to escape enemies in their country, but reiterated that that was not what he thought Spector’s clients are doing.
“That is separate and distinct from these people that are seeking regular political asylum,” Carter said.
One member of Mexicans in Exile is Cipriana Jurado, a human-rights activist who opposes President Felipe Calderón’s deployment of the military to Chihuahua. She was approached by a stranger who said that if she continued her protests, her name would be added to the list of activists gunned down in the border state.
“I left in June 2010 with two of my kids,” she said, adding that she thought she would eventually be able to return. “That wasn’t the way it happened. My fellow activists were eventually murdered.”
The exiles credit their lawyer for saving their lives through his representation, which has garnered most of them the chance to live as peacefully as they can in Texas. Though wealthy Mexicans can apply for investor visas or other legal means of entry, the exiles had no choice but to seek asylum.
Many in the group appear anxious at times, but their spirits remain strong. Some have argued that seeking justice in Mexico — where impunity reigns and the majority of murders remain unsolved or not even investigated — is a quixotic endeavor. But Spector and the exiles argue that they are not tilting at windmills but are instead focused on an enemy they can name, one who can don a hit man’s disguise as easily as a soldier’s uniform.
“I think that there is no smoking gun, but there sure as hell is a smoking army,” Spector said. “I’ve gotten so many reports and eyewitness testimony; it’s not anecdotal. Worst case is the military is involved. At best they’re incapable of defending anybody.”
Reyes said his former townsfolk know the military is either aiding the drug gangs or performing the crimes themselves. They say they can tell that the gunmen are not local because of the way they dress, the way they talk.
“It’s a strategy employed by the Mexican government,” he said. “If they have soldiers from Chihuahua in Chihuahua, it’s difficult to give them orders. So from Chihuahua they send them to Oaxaca, to Guerrero, and they bring them from the south here.”
Spector and his clients recently held forums at the University of Texas at Austin, where students listened to exiles tell stories about armed men arriving at homes and businesses, sometimes with Mexican soldiers in tow, to conduct “cleansing exercises” of their enemies, who are rival traffickers as well as people who speak out against them.
“When I talk to them, it’s like I am talking to the cartels — they’re the criminals,” Fraire said of Mexican officials at a recent panel discussion. “These people killed my mom. These people are criminals, but I don’t have a choice. We’ve been investigating, and we’ve provided some information and we’re going to see what they’re going to do.”
Fraire said his sister, Rubí, was killed in Ciudad Juárez in 2008. A suspect was arrested but released by the Mexican authorities. His mother began a two- year campaign seeking justice, which eventually led to a confrontation with the governor of Chihuahua during a news media event. Days later, security cameras recorded her murder at the Palacio de Gobierno de Chihuahua in Chihuahua City, the state capital. No arrests have been made.
The group plans to ask the Texas congressional delegation for help. Spector said that because the Mérida Initiative — a $1.4 billion aid package to Mexico, Central America and Haiti meant to help those governments combat organized crime — is aiding the Mexican military, the United States government should rethink its policy.
“We have clients that have their feet cut off. This is Taliban stuff. It’s intolerable,” he said of alleged military atrocities. “The narrative has got to be changed. Like Saul said, you can embarrass them as being crooked, corrupt, racists, whatever. That doesn’t mean anything. But money does.”
Spector acknowledged that in Texas, some congressmen on key committees hold extreme views on immigration and border-security issues. But he said they hardly need the issue of the exiles to fuel their rhetoric.
“If they want to keep Mexicans at home, help them out,” he said. “Help create democratic institutions. We can turn their nastiness into something beautiful in terms of support.”
On the positive side, Spector said he has seen a new attitude from Mexicans or Mexican-Americans who take offense at any criticism of Mexico. They interpreted it as a call to militarize the border, and as an affront to all the Mexican people, he said.
“I think that narrative has changed because of the human-rights activists that have been forced to leave,” he said.