EL PASO, Texas — Eder Diaz and Manuel Acosta were Americans whose lives straddled the border, business students attending classes at the University of Texas at El Paso but living in Ciudad Juarez amid family and friends.
They had been on their campus, a peaceful enclave of grassy plazas flanked by breathtaking desert mountains, just hours before they were gunned down last week in Juarez, their car riddled with bullets as they headed home.
Commuting from Mexico to the United States was as natural to them as taking the Holland Tunnel from New Jersey into New York. It's a life many border residents continue to embrace even as the death toll from the drug war in Mexico continues to rise.
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Six Americans were killed in Juarez last week alone, and the U.S. State Department says more than 80 Americans have been killed this year in Chihuahua, the state where Juarez is located. That's already more than the 79 homicides of U.S. citizens in all of Mexico in 2009.
Roughly 1,400 of UTEP's 22,000 students live in Juarez and cross the border to go to class, even though many are Americans who could live in safety on U.S. soil. One is Ruben Tarango, a 21-year-old sophomore who was born in El Paso but lives with his parents and sister in Juarez.
"I was born here. I'm an American. But really I'm Mexican," Tarango said. "I've got my whole life in Juarez."
The international business major rides a bus to the border, walks across the bridge over the Rio Grande, then hops another bus to campus, a process that takes 45 minutes and would be longer if Tarango did not use the faster-moving immigration lines for Americans. Students who drive across the border daily say they often must endure lines of an hour or more.
Tarango was mugged outside his family's home last year but still says he'd rather reside in Juarez than El Paso. Even the deaths of Diaz and Acosta haven't changed his mind.
"If you aren't caught up in bad things, you'll be OK," Tarango said. "Of course, they weren't doing anything wrong. But it was just their destiny, their bad luck."
Acosta, 25, had been on pace to graduate in May with a computer information systems degree from the College of Business Administration. Diaz, 23, had just declared his major — international business — and dreamed of becoming a Fortune 500 CEO.
On Monday, students gathered for a campus memorial service, some wearing black and others just happening by in jeans and Texas Longhorns T-shirts. Even casual observers fought back tears.
Diaz's father, Armando Diaz Marinelarena, said he had urged his son to leave Juarez — to go to school in San Antonio, where he had a sister, or Las Cruces, New Mexico, with his brother.
"He said, 'No,'" Diaz Marinelarena said, his voice cracking. "He said, 'I'm happy here, close to you.'"
Some Americans in El Paso are making fewer trips south because of the violence. Crista Arteaga, a 19-year-old UTEP nursing student, lived in both Juarez and Texas until two years ago, when she started returning to Mexico only on weekends.
"They've started killing people who aren't to blame, who have nothing to do with drug dealers," she said. "It's almost like you hear nothing but gunshots in Juarez."
Ricardo Blazquez, director of UTEP's Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, lives in El Paso but visits friends in Juarez every weekend. He's not ready to let go of his cross-border heritage.
"Many of us are not prepared to do that, no matter what," Blazquez said. He added, however, that walking the streets of Juarez today, "there seems to be a numbing silence, a numbing silence that is very unnatural."
Americans killed in Mexico have tended to be people who cross back and forth regularly. Some were with Mexican friends or relatives who were the targets. Others were hit by stray bullets.
Other Americans may have been specifically targeted. U.S. consular employee Lesley A. Enriquez and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, were shot and killed in their car on a Juarez street in March, after leaving a children's birthday party. Suspects later told investigators that a drug gang known as Azteca ordered the killings, claiming Enriquez helped rival gang members get visas. Investigators deny that Enriquez was involved with drug smugglers, however.
More than 54 percent of the 384 Americans slain in Mexico from October 2002 to June 2010 died in border areas, and most of the border killings were in just three cities: Tijuana, with 90 dead; Juarez, with 53, and Nuevo Laredo, with 29. Mexico City, meanwhile, had just seven deaths of U.S. citizens in that time frame.
"If you go to Mexico City or Merida (the capital of Yucatan state), the homicide rate is either about the same or far less than what you would find in major cities in United States," U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual told The Associated Press. "But then you have Ciudad Juarez with 191 (homicides) per 100,000, the most violent place in the Western Hemisphere.
"The border has become complicated, and it becomes difficult for people going back and forth."
Juarez is a city held hostage by a nearly three-year battle for control of drug smuggling routes between the cartel bearing the city's name and the Sinaloa cartel. More than 6,500 people have been killed there since the start of 2008. Across the country, more than 28,000 people have been killed in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon launched his national assault on organized crime in late 2006.
Even as the U.S. government warns citizens not to travel to Juarez, there are on average around 85,000 people coming and going every day, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Roger Maier, the agency's spokesman in El Paso, noted that many people in the area have strong ties on both sides of the border.
"We are two nations, two cities, but very much one community," he said.
Long reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writer Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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