The U.S. State Department said Friday it is evaluating threats surrounding the consulate in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez as hundreds with appointments for visa applications and other services stood outside the shuttered office wondering what to do.
U.S. officials gave no details on the threats that prompted an indefinite closure Thursday. The consulate is the only place that processes immigrant visas in Mexico.
"It is a very significant facility for us," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "There is some threat information that we received that we are evaluating. It is hard to know or judge whether the threat is related to the broad area where the consulate is or to the consulate itself."
Even as the State Department increases protection for employees and their families from the intensifying violence on the Mexican border, closing the Juarez consulate is the most drastic step to date — coming four months after drug gangs killed three people tied to the office.
About 300 people who arrived Friday morning — many from long distances — were surprised and irritated.
Maria Concepcion Morales traveled with two children 16 hours by bus from Zacatecas to be on time for her 7:45 a.m. appointment for a tourist visa.
"What am I going to do?" she said. "I don't have enough money to stay until Monday, when they're saying they will reopen."
Many complained of the lack of support for those stranded by the sudden closure.
"I told them I was outside and they said they had no information and hung up. What kind of help is that?" said Martha Lara Munos, who came from the central state of Morelos with two children and her mother to apply for a resident visa.
The U.S. Embassy said it would reschedule appointments for visa applications through its call center, and provided a number that U.S. citizens could call for passport appointment and other services.
The Ciudad Juarez consulate processed 124,145 immigrant visa applications in 2009, plus about 120,000 travel visas, the state department said.
The governor of Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located, offered security help to reopen the consulate because of the volume of Mexicans who need services and who cross the border there. Gov. Jose Reyes Baeza noted in statement that the Mexican Army, by bilateral agreement, can respond to security requests from the consulate.
A turf battle between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels has made Ciudad Juarez one of the world's most dangerous cities. More than 4,000 people have been killed in the city of 1.3 million since the beginning of 2009.
A U.S. employee of the consulate, her husband and a Mexican tied to the consulate were killed March 13 when drug gang fired on their cars as they left a children's party in the city across from El Paso, Texas.
Earlier this month, Mexican federal police said that a jailed drug-cartel enforcer claimed that the U.S. consulate employee, Lesley Enriquez, was killed because she had helped a rival gang obtain American visas.
But a U.S. federal official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity, said an investigation into possible corruption surrounding Enriquez came up with nothing.
On July 15, a car bomb killed a federal police officer and two others in Ciudad Juarez. Traffickers claimed responsibility.
The U.S. State Department has taken several measures over the past months to protect consulate employees and their families. It has authorized the departure of relatives of U.S. government employees in six northern Mexican cities.
The Consul General in Monterrey on Thursday said it is restricting American employees and their families from traveling outside San Pedro Garza Garcia, where they live, between midnight and 6 a.m.
Two weeks ago, the consulate in the border city of Nuevo Laredo warned U.S. citizens there to remain indoors as drug gangs fought gunbattles and blocked streets with hijacked vehicles.
Associated Press writer Desmond Butler contributed to this report from Washington.