NOGALES, Ariz.- A spate of drug-related killings the past few months in Nogales, Mexico, is keeping some residents in its U.S. sister city from crossing the border as they have long been accustomed to doing.
Even lifelong residents of the area are refusing to cross the border to see relatives or friends. Others are going less frequently or restricting themselves to daytime visits. It’s a dramatic change for what have long been close-knit communities.
Shopkeeper Ernesto Chavez said his wife no longer goes bowling or has lunch on Tuesdays with her sisters on the other side, a 40-year tradition.
Chavez, whose office supply store sits a half-block north of the Morley Avenue border crossing, said he told his wife a few months ago, “ ‘I’m not going to tell you not to go, but it’s your life, it’s your body.’
“And she decided not to go. As simple as that.”
Her sisters now come north to have lunch with her, Chavez said.
Shootings, grenade attacks and even beheadings have plagued other Mexican border cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez for years, but they have only recently arrived in Nogales and the state of Sonora.
Gunmen from drug-trafficking organizations have primarily targeted rival groups, but police and soldiers have suffered casualties in the violent swirl, too; the state police director was ambushed at a central Nogales hotel in early November.
What’s more, gun battles occurring even in daylight on public streets, near stores and in restaurants within a few miles of the border have paralyzed the Mexican city’s tourist-dependent economy.
In mid-October, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert warning Americans to be wary of Nogales, Mexico, because of the increasing violence. Residents say the graphic descriptions of the violence in the Mexican media have driven the message home vividly.
Maria Armenta, a secretary who works downtown, said she and her family used to visit her grandfather, aunts and uncles across the border three to five times a week, but that’s changed. She and her mother haven’t seen her grandfather for at least two months.
“Right now, we’re scared that we don’t know if we’re going to get caught in any of those shootings,” she said.
Young adults who typically would frequent night clubs in Mexico, where drinking at age 18 is legal, have also shied away. Alexis Kramer, a Nogales High School senior, said her classmates have been warned by their parents or realized that the clubs are located in an area where much of the violence has occurred.
“Many of us have friends across the line, or family, and we hear the stories, that after sundown they have to be home,” she said.
Even police officers are changing their habits.
Nogales assistant police chief Roy Bermudez said he and his family used to go to dinner in Mexico or take walks to the curio shops.
“And all that stopped ... I don’t want to subject my family to any undue harm or violence,” Bermudez said. “The way it is right now, you’re in a restaurant, and you don’t even know who’s sitting next to you, who these people are, and somebody comes in and just sprays the whole restaurant with bullets.”
Many people on both sides of the border are shocked, said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada.
“It’s a sad turn of events for this border community, because this is something we’ve never experienced before,” Estrada said.
“Nogales, Mexico, was like the last safe haven from this type of phenomenon,” he said. “And it’s changed the panorama forever. Things will never be the same. That doesn’t mean things won’t get better, but they’ll never be the same.”