CHICAGO -- Cipriana Jurado still weeps when she thinks of her longtime friend who was gunned down in the violence-plagued region of Ciudad Juarez, just below the Texas-Mexico border.
Now in Chicago, Jurado said she was warned after the January slaying that she could be next if she didn't leave town.
The veteran human rights activist is part of a steady trickle of Mexican nationals who have been fleeing to U.S. cities amid a Mexican government war against drug cartels in Juarez that has led to 2,850 deaths so far this year, with criminals and authorities alike alleged to have committed atrocities.
Jurado said that after her friend was murdered, forcing her to escape with her two children, "I was full of sadness and outrage and I felt very impotent."
Chicago's population of Mexicans from the northern state of Chihuahua, where Juarez is located, is relatively small, at about 650 people in 2007, according to the Mexican government's most recent estimate. Nonetheless, there are families here whose relatives there are in danger. And newcomers from Juarez live in the shadows, whether in the U.S. legally or not, experts say.
"It is likely that there are dozens of people who've fled to Chicago from Juarez" in recent years, said Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, who has been studying Mexican drug cartels and the effects they've had on Mexican migration to U.S. cities.
And this holiday season, returning to Mexico can be dangerous. The Mexican government has warned residents returning from the U.S. that they should drive in convoys to avoid being robbed or attacked.
Campbell said he is assisting a half-dozen Mexican nationals who recently fled to American cities, where these individuals are seeking U.S. asylum after being threatened by members of drug cartels.
"I think the odds (for asylum) are against these people, even though their claims are very legitimate," Campbell said.
As they monitor the news about Juarez, natives of the city who now live in Chicago dread phone calls from loved ones back home with details about a kidnapping or worse.
When Benjamin Gamino, 55, left Juarez three decades ago, it was a quaint border town bustling with visiting U.S. college students and American soldiers.
Since then, Gamino has watched from his home in Cicero, Ill., how his native city has deteriorated into one of the most dangerous in the world, which news accounts have said rivals Baghdad in its daily violence.
Juarez's crime eventually closed the distance on Gamino, when criminals began extorting money from his younger sister, who still lives there, he said.
His sister Rosa Emma Gamino owned a beauty shop for more than 20 years, paying profits to two local drug cartels that threatened to kill her if she didn't pay. The business failed about three years ago.
"I thought, 'How can somebody try to get money from somebody who doesn't have any?' " Gamino said.
Rosa Gamino remains in Juarez. Her older brother is now trying to create a local group to somehow help relatives there.
Nohemi Garcia's horror came when her brother was deported to Juarez during the mid-1990s. Gaston Cano wound up opening a store there and was later approached by cartel members for monthly payments that he could not afford. He closed the store this year.
"My family has great fear not only for my brother and his family, but for other family members that have told us how bad the situation is," Garcia said.
Jurado said her journey to Chicago stems from abuses by Mexican soldiers dispatched to Juarez to fight the drug cartels.
Almost immediately after the military's arrival, Jurado alleged, she and other activists began hearing from families accusing the soldiers of human rights violations.
Campbell, the university professor, said such charges are common but often unexplored.
"People say they fear the government just as much as the cartels," he said.
In April 2008, three plainclothes men allegedly detained Jurado for 22 hours, telling her that they had a warrant for her arrest after she participated in a protest against the military. A federal judge dropped the charge of "attacks on public roads," according to an Amnesty International report.
But, last year, soldiers began to regularly patrol near her house. One group of armed men tried unsuccessfully to enter the home, Jurado said.
Then, in January, fellow activist Josefina Reyes Salazar -- a friend of Jurado's also investigating cases of military and police abuse -- was shot in the face by a group of armed men.
Fearing for her life, Jurado fled with the help of Amnesty International, arriving in Chicago over the summer on a temporary U.S. visa.
Due to return with her children to Juarez next month, Jurado said she is torn over whether to petition the U.S. government to extend their time in Chicago.
During a recent event at DePaul University, Jurado spoke passionately about the violent landscape of a border city whose bloody atrocities are far removed from many Chicagoans.
But the message resonated with Gamino, who sat uncomfortably by himself in the back of the lecture hall listening to Jurado's nightmare.
"I started to remember things that happened to me," he said, still shaken after the event. "It's one thing to listen to something on the radio or read about it, but it's another to listen to somebody in person tell their story."
With that, Gamino walked out into the Chicago night, while Jurado made her own way home. Bound by their experiences, the two never met.
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