EL PASO, Texas — For many Mexicans fleeing brutal drug violence in Ciudad Juarez, the Texan city of El Paso, just across the Rio Grande, is an oasis of calm.
But some still prefer to stay on the Mexican side of the busy border crossing as they don’t want to leave family behind or struggle to adjust to American life.
The towns may be just a stone’s throw away from each other but they are also worlds apart: Ciudad Juarez is the deadliest city in Mexico while El Paso is one of the safest big cities in America.
Every night this week the names of thousands of victims of Ciudad Juarez’s drug violence are being projected onto the wall of an immigrant hostel in El Paso.
“Voice of the voiceless” is a homage to some 8,000 people killed in Juarez, a fraction of the more than 50,000 deaths blamed on Mexico’s drug violence since the start of a military crackdown on drug gangs in December 2006.
Some people taking part in the homage in El Paso are victims’ relatives who made the difficult decision to flee across the border, leaving families and homes behind.
“They brutalized my stepson three years ago. A child who was playing in the street found his head. That’s when I decided I wouldn’t stay in Ciudad Juarez,” said a Mexican woman who only gave her name as Mariana.
The 78-year-old said she was resigned to living permanently in El Paso, a growing refuge for well-to-do Mexicans fleeing the violence in Juarez.
The government of Felipe Calderon — which faces complaints of abuses under the military crackdown and criticism of the spiraling death toll — points to a drop in violence in Juarez in recent months.
The city, lying on major drug trafficking routes, still has Mexico’s highest murder rate, some six per day, but that is down from around 10 in 2010.
Around 80 percent of inhabitants of El Paso, a city of some 650,000 people, are Hispanic, mostly Mexicans with family across the border.
As in typical in border cities, many used to cross at weekends for a family dinner or party.
Mariana, who has had a house in El Paso for 30 years, would visit friends and family and go shopping in Mexico but now she keeps her distance, even from the border bridges to Juarez.
“That’s all over now. You can’t live there any more. I’m anxious that something will happen to my grandchildren, but my daughter-in-law doesn’t want to live here. She says it’s very boring.”
Though the cities lie side by side and may look similar at first glance, daily life in Mexico is very different from that in the United States.
As night falls, the flickering lights of Juarez are visible from El Paso. On the US side near the border there are no lights or sounds. It seems like a deserted city.
“People don’t turn on the lights because electricity is expensive,” said a man who gave his name only as Ernesto, a Mexican who works as a waiter in the only restaurant open on a Saturday night in the center of El Paso.
The former Juarez resident said that Mexicans are used to days and nights filled with noisy, bustling activity and find it “very hard” to live in tranquil El Paso.
But he said he now preferred the safety of El Paso to the daily fear of being a victim of violence in Juarez.
The surge in brutal killings in recent years in the Mexican border city is just the latest in a long history of violence, including the notorious, unsolved killings of some 400 women between 1993 and 2000.
Juarez resident Elena Duran, entering El Paso to visit a relative who no longer dares to visit her, said she was “resigned” to living on the Mexican side of the border as she did not have the means to change her situation.