GUADALUPE DISTRITO BRAVO, Chihuahua — Remnants of small-town charm were still visible last week from the outskirts of this Mexican border city as bolls of damp cotton weighed down branches and a rancher slowly chased a stray cow headed for the highway.
But shades of the years long drug war that gripped this gritty part of Chihuahua state known as the Valley of Juárez remained intact. Abandoned buildings where broken windows reflected graffiti were common, and unmaintained streets and empty shops sat near the town square.
The emptying of Guadalupe comes at a time when officials in Ciudad Juárez, about 30 miles away, are promoting tourism and celebrating a decrease in bloodshed after years of carnage that claimed thousands of lives.
Many Guadalupe residents have fled to Texas cities including Fabens, directly across the border, and El Paso.
Among them is Gerardo Gamez, the former city leader of the main political group here, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which is also the party of the Chihuahua governor, César Duarte Jáquez, and of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Gamez left Guadalupe with his parents and is seeking asylum in Texas. They are being held in an immigration detention center in El Paso, said his El Paso-based lawyer, Carlos Spector, who has represented at least 300 Mexican citizens seeking asylum in the United States. Spector said Gamez’s flight after being threatened by criminals highlights the continued and systematic takeover of municipalities in Mexico by organized crime. And it is happening right under the government’s nose.
“It’s a new era of violence that we’ve seen in the Valley of Juárez and in Guerrero,” Spector said at a news conference last month.
Spector is trying to draw attention to the situation in Guadalupe by comparing it to the higher-profile violence in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, where 43 students went missing after a protest in the city of Iguala. At least 56 people, including some police officers, have been arrested in connection with the missing students. The state’s governor resigned last week, and the city’s mayor and his wife have been named as suspects.
The Guerrero unrest shows that the Guadalupe violence “is not an isolated incident,” Spector said.
“We’ve been screaming to the heavens since 2008,” he said. “It represents an entire country.”
Guadalupe’s population was listed by the Mexican government in 2010 as about 6,500. Spector estimated, based on the mayor’s tax revenue collections, that there are now 2,500 people in the city, down from 17,000 in 2008.
Former residents of the city say that if history is an indicator, the area will remain a violent smuggling route.
“Whoever controls Guadalupe controls all the drug routes in the area,” Martin Hueramo, a former member of the Guadalupe City Council, said in Spanish. “Trafficking here has existed since the demand for drugs has existed.”
Ivan Castañeda, a former soldier in the Mexican Army, said he fled the city after leaving the service. He said the local police in Guadalupe are now taking orders from the Sinaloa cartel, which fought with the Juárez cartel to win control of the lucrative smuggling route that sends narcotics to El Paso and beyond.
Castañeda and Hueramo are both seeking asylum in El Paso. Their cases are pending.