EL PASO, Texas — The U.S. Department of State is keeping Ciudad Juarez listed as a specific concern for those who need to cross the border, but many El Pasoans need to keep going.
They go for family and businesses, so they make adjustments and take their chances. For some, the price is high.
The familiar border aroma of onion, cilantro and jalapeno rise in Rosemary’s kitchen in El Paso – the same way they once did in her home in Juarez.
“I still imagine myself cooking, cleaning,” she said.
For 17 years, the El Paso-born American rose at 4 a.m. to make the trek back and forth across the international bridge, and she did it all for a man.
“It just gives me a great sadness because I sacrificed so many things. I sacrificed a lot of things being in Juarez,” Rosemary said. I sacrificed family; I sacrificed friends because I wanted to be with the man that I loved.”
Together, the couple built a house from one room and a thriving little enterprise.
“He built his business starting with nothing but a shovel and a little truck,” she said.
While Rosemary commuted to El Paso for her job, her husband worked seven days a week building their future.
Then, in 2009, cartel violence consumed the city.
“A lot of my husband’s friends who had the same types of businesses had all been killed already,” she said.
Rosemary’s extortion nightmare began and everything about the couple’s future was threatened.
“That put our life, his life, the life of our family in danger,” Rosemary said.
The couple starting handing over $200 a week from his business.
“I begged him and I pleaded with him to move here to El Paso and he refused. He said he was not going to give in to anybody and that he came to this life with nothing, and he was going to leave with nothing,” Rosemary said.
The nightmare went on for a year, and then, the extortionists wanted more.
“The day that he was shot, I was at my job here in El Paso and they told me that they had shot someone inside the business of my husband. It was all over the news,” she said.
In an instant, Rosemary’s husband’s life was over. Her life was over and she knew it. In a matter of hours, with the help of family in El Paso, Rosemary packed up everything she could and moved back home.
American business owners by the dozens would follow suit.
“It was us, it was our neighbors, our neighbor got shut down for a year, and then, our neighbor next to him – they assaulted him twice,” said Luis Gallegos, who owns a staffing company.
In 2009, an extortion threat arrived at the door step of Arias and Associates, Gallegos’ company.
“I got a call in the afternoon, we were right here and they called us that all our employees are locked in,” Gallegos said. “They wouldn’t let them out because the federal police had just gotten executed a just 10 feet from our door.”
Soon after, the Gallegos family would be trapped in a gun battle while stuck in Juarez traffic. Their teenage son witnessed a man shot to death by automatic gun fire.
“We were panicked,” Gallegos said. “We were shocked, but our employees were like, ‘Well, it happened to me when I worked over there at the liquor store.’”
But they were not so cavalier about cartel crime. Their thriving staffing business provided a workforce to some of the 150 “maquiladoras” (factories) in Juarez, and it immediately went into stealth mode.
“The business, everything, is all being handled over the phone,” said Hossana Gallegos, Luis’ wife and business partner.
Luis said that they would not conduct business at night and would avoid staying late in the afternoon.
“If we go, we don’t even call our employees,” Hossana Gallegos said. “We don’t tell them that we are going to be there.”
Hossana and Luis, who are Americans, operate their business in Juarez as though they are phantoms. They are doing as many Americans commuting to Juarez now must do. They drive modest cars and constantly change their routines.
Although security measures are not openly discussed, these business owners say it’s an adjustment being made by all, including maquiladoras.
“You see a lot of increase to the security,” Luis Gallegos said. “They’re shutting streets down. The access to the plants is more difficult.
The Mexican chamber of commerce reports more than 10,000 businesses have shut down since 2009.
It’s unclear how many of those businesses were American-owned, but Mexican business owners by the hundreds have sought refuge relocating to the U.S. side of the border. Most of them move their businesses revenue to the states.
They represent a growing social and professional network that meets at a restaurant on a regular basis.
Statistics from the state department show that there may be no going back to a prosperous pre-cartel Juarez anytime soon.
The state department warnings remain in place in Juarez calling it a specific concern.
The number of non-immigrant visas to the United States has increased steadily since 2009 and continues to rise. State department numbers show Juarez has one of the highest murder rates in Mexico.
Immigration and human rights attorneys representing those seeking asylum in the United States agree that safety remains a rapidly deteriorating concept in Mexico despite what its politicians push to the public.
Meanwhile, Americans trying to run their business with one foot in each country wistfully wish for days past before commuting got crazy.
“I would still commute every day, but it was not the same as before. I would always have to look behind my back. My husband would always be waiting for me as soon as I left for home and would lock the gates as soon as possible,” Rosemary said.
There seems to be no predictability factor as to whether Juarez can ever return to the days before blood began running in the streets.
“I was happy living in Juarez; I had everything I needed around me,” Rosemary said. “I had a Sams, Walmart, and all the stores.”
Those in El Paso creating a booming bi-national community on the border say they are adjusting.
“As soon as you crossed the border, you would see the soldier and then there was one after the other, patrols, the trucks,” Luis Gallegos said. “They would pull you over, and you don’t see that so much anymore. And oddly, you feel safer now.”
As far as the economic impact in El Paso is concerned, given the businesses and business people and families who have moved here from Juarez, every indicator from numbers gathered by the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation show that all the stability and growth of the city’s economy is coming from our military base, and not from beyond the border.