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Deborah Bonello for AFP
March 13 2012 – EL PASO, Texas — El Paso, one of the safest US cities, now hosts a growing number of human rights activists seeking to escape persecution in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s most deadly city just across the border.
Some are on the run from Mexican drug gangs. Others seek refuge in their tranquil American neighbor because they fear the very soldiers who were deployed to protect them.
Saul Reyes Salazar and his activist family have paid a heavy price for lobbying against what they call the “militarization” of Ciudad Juarez.
Six members of the family have been murdered since 2008.
Reyes, his wife and kids now live in a cramped red-brick tenement house in El Paso, after receiving asylum in January.
“The first few days that we were in El Paso marked the first time in a long time that I could go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning without waking up in the middle of the night, or having nightmares,” he told AFP.
Around four years ago the family started denouncing alleged forced disappearances, murders and torture by soldiers deployed to the violent border city by President Felipe Calderon, under a nationwide crackdown on criminal gangs.
The crackdown has been accompanied by a rise in brutal killings — some 50,000 nationwide since it started in December 2006.
Just in Guadalupe, a small town of 3,000 on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Reyes counted 180 dead, 26 disappeared, and the dumping of eight unidentified bodies.
The family, which set up a bakery business in the town, began receiving threats as they started to speak out against the violence.
And then they became victims themselves.
“Maybe we’re safer here,” Reyes Salazar said in his small, dark kitchen in El Paso.
“But I don’t feel good knowing that there is still so much evil there.”
Carlos Spector, the family’s lawyer, has won a handful of similar cases.
He says 21 human rights defenders have been killed in the state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juarez lies, since the army was sent there in 2008.
“Most of the asylum cases we’re handling and we’ve seen are crimes of state, as opposed to drug-related. None of the cases we’ve won are drug related,” Spector said.
“All of the cases have targeted the Mexican government as the perpetrators of the crime and the US Government has agreed with us by granting those cases.”
Wherever the threat may come from, there are some for whom it is too late.
A mother who fought a two-year battle to bring her daughter’s killer to justice was shot dead in December 2010 outside government offices where she was holding a vigil in Chihuahua City, the state capital.
A security video shows masked men pulling up in a car outside the offices and Marisela Escobedo trying to flee by running across the street, before a gunman shoots her in the head.
Her killer remains free.
Norma Andrade, who became an activist after her 17-year-old daughter was abducted and killed by suspected drug traffickers, fled south to Mexico City late last year after she was shot six times outside her Ciudad Juarez home.
She said last month she would seek to leave the country after being attacked again outside her Mexico City residence.
Meanwhile her daughter, Malu Andrade who is also an activist, has received threats and an arson attack on her Ciudad Juarez home.
“It makes you so paranoid,” she told AFP.
For those activists who choose and manage to flee, life on the other side, just a stone’s throw away, is a big change.
Reyes and his family are grateful for their new-found freedom but they left everything behind — their business, their belongings, their lives.
“Now we find ourselves in a much more vulnerable position financially, with fewer options for social activism,” Reyes Salazar said.
“I miss Mexico… I think the dream of everyone in exile is to be able to return to their country one day.”
Editing by Sophie Nicholson