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The Chihuahua Express

A trip from Santa Fe to Mexico reveals the growing influence of the narcoguerra

November 24, 2010, 1:00 am

By late morning, the land outside the van’s windows becomes desolate and barren. Despite the growing heat, Juan has fallen asleep in his heavy coat and ski hat. 

The conversation with Eva shifts to American politics. She shakes her head unhappily.

“On Veteran’s Day, we had a party, and everyone was celebrating,” Eva says. “They were all happy Susana Martinez won. I wasn’t. I was hoping [Democratic candidate Diane] Denish would win, even though the polls said Martinez was ahead.”

Eva Vázquez and her goddaughter, Salma, take frequent trips to Ciudad Juárez, the violence-plagued city across the border from El Paso.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

In Eva’s opinion, many Mexican immigrants voted for Martinez “just because of her name and because she speaks Spanish. They didn’t actually analyze what she said—that she wants to take away our driver’s licenses and stop immigration.”

On the national scale, she says, “The Hispanos voted Republican because Obama said he would do immigration reform and he didn’t.”

When asked if she’s noticed a decline in new immigration to the South Valley, given the US economy, Eva shakes her head. Mexico’s economy, she says, is still worse.

“The majority of us come here to work,” she says. “The economy is bad in Mexico, and there’s so much corruption. It’s good to have your job, your house—that’s why we risk it and come here.”

The economy may not be growing, she adds, but the risk is.

“Everything [has changed] because of the narcotraficantes,” she says. “People who want to cross, they kidnap, rob and kill.”

A few long, scrubland-lined miles after Hatch and then Las Cruces, we pull into a parking lot on the US side of the Santa Teresa border crossing. 

Santa Teresa’s motto, on the New Mexico Border Authority’s website, is “Modern! Convenient! Fast!” Nacho says it’s much safer than coming in through El Paso to Ciudad Juárez. A hot wind whips sand devils up from the desert as we pile out of the van. Nacho unloads the trailer while Eva explains that we’ll have to switch to a different van for the Mexico portion of the trip.

Within minutes, Juanito, who will take us the rest of the way through Mexico to Chihuahua, appears in an almost identical van. He explains that he’s a few minutes late because one of his passengers had to solicit a visa for entry to the US. He launches into a story about people in his van some time ago who tried to cross the border without papers and were arrested.

“I was ready to leave them, to say I’d never seen them before and they weren’t with me,” he tells us. Behind me, Eva gasps.

“What happens to people who don’t have their papers?” she asks worriedly.

“They deport you,” Juanito says.

“I don’t have my papers,” she whispers as a group of American customs officials flag down the van. She has a driver’s license and Social Security card, she explains, but not her proof of residency. In general, no one seems quite sure of what the Customs and Border Protection officers will want.

Juanito rolls down the window.

“Buenas tardes,” a blond, blue-eyed officer says in flat, unpracticed Spanish. 

“Buenas tardes,” Juanito responds.

“Papers,” the officer says.

With a rustle, the documents make their way to the front of the van. Eva sighs with relief when they wave us on.

At the next customs stop, Juanito holds out an open palm—another step in this border-crossing dance—and, wordlessly, the passengers who are bringing back things to sell (clothing, coffee, sugar, utensils) pass forward $5 and $10 bills. 

The next obstacle in the course is a roadblock manned by Mexican federal police. There are rifles everywhere and, to one side, a sniper crouches behind a makeshift screen of tumbleweeds.

Two soldiers approach Juanito. They look like teenagers, and they wear their helmets strapped on tightly, with the chin straps cinched just below their mouths. After a few cursory questions, they motion us forward. On the Mexican side of the border, there’s a seemingly endless line of cars waiting to cross into the US. People sit on the hoods of their cars, playing cards and talking. The odd vendor hawks gum, candy or peanuts. Somewhere near the end of the line, a brass band plays.

“Sometimes the lines stop for hours,” Sonia says. “It happens when they find drugs. They have to detain the person and, sometimes, they just close the border.”

Last year, approximately 2.5 million people entered the US through New Mexico’s two main ports of entry, Santa Teresa and Columbus. David Zapp, the supervisory Border Patrol agent for the area that includes El Paso, Texas, and all of New Mexico, says apprehensions of illegal immigrants have decreased since the Border Patrol more than doubled the number of agents it has in the area—from 1,278 to approximately 2,700—over the past five years.

“That increase of manpower, infrastructure and technology has frustrated the smugglers, which has increased the amount of border violence we’ve seen,” Zapp says. 

The Border Patrol has been working with Mexican authorities to create better security, Zapp says, but that hasn’t stopped the violence. And the murder of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz this March has stoked fears of its spreading to the US.

Just past a final army stop, Eva gathers her things and touches my shoulder.

“Be careful, and don’t tell anyone you’re a reporter,” she says gravely. “Don’t be scared because, if they see that you’re scared, they will mess with you. Just be careful.” 

But, she repeats, she’s never witnessed any violence. She taps Taciturn Cowboy on the shoulder.

“Have you?” she asks.

“Oh, yes,” he says. “Many shootings.”

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