As evening falls on southern Mexico, Sarah (not her real name) is shopping at a fruit market a block from her house. It is Friday, and her father, an investigator for the State Judicial Police, is home relaxing on his night off. Wearing blue jeans and an unbuttoned shirt, he is sweeping his front porch, waiting for his daughter to return and make dinner.
Sarah pays for the food just as a rush of black SUVs with no license plates speed past her along the road. She recognizes them instantly as they pull up to her home in a cloud of dust. Men in dark masks with AK-47s jump out and run toward Sarah's front door. Two of them are wearing police patches. One of them is her father's commander.
"They're taking your dad! They're taking your dad!" shouts a little girl in the store. Sarah tries to run, but her legs won't churn fast enough. Everything is in slow motion. She watches the gunmen drag her father out onto the street while he screams, "Show me the arrest warrant! Don't take me!" Sarah sees the men punch her mother and shoot her father in the leg, before hauling him into a truck and driving away.
By the time Sarah gets home, all that is left of her father is the blood-stained pavement. He has not been seen since.
For Sarah and her family, years of intimidation and abuse by corrupt police officers have come to a head. Her father, a member of the anti-kidnapping unit, had discovered that his commander had taken a young girl hostage and that he and other cops were working for the cartels.
Sarah's father tried to bring his commander to justice, denouncing him to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, but there were no arrests and it just made him a target. Crooked policemen and cartel thugs had threatened to kill him, beaten Sarah and raped his wife, but he refused to work for drug traffickers.
After the kidnapping, Sarah and her mother rushed to the Public Prosecutor, but officials refused to take a statement. The women told nearby police agencies about the corruption and abduction, but no one would help. In desperation, Sarah went to the state capital to ask the military to intercede, but once again, she was turned away.
Sarah spent the next few nights in hiding at her uncle's home. She needed to get farther away. Sarah had family in Juarez, and while going to one of the most violent cities in the western hemisphere for sanctuary is like going to hell to cool off, her uncle put her on a plane.
When Sarah landed, she found out that her uncle had been murdered outside the airport for helping her escape.
In Juarez, Sarah met up with her mother and two younger brothers, who also had managed to get away, and for two months they hunkered down in an apartment.
"I was living in shock," says Sarah. "I was unable to understand that life as I knew it was over forever. I was so scared that I only stayed inside, living in my world of fear."
One afternoon, Sarah's mother received a phone call from a hometown friend. Her father's commander was threatening to kill Sarah's grandparents if they or any family member spoke to the fugitives. Even worse, said the friend, the commander and his troops knew where Sarah and her mother were hiding in Juarez.
"I felt like my world was collapsing," says Sarah. "I did not know where to turn or where to run."
The next morning, Sarah and her mother heard over the radio that the United States was offering protection. Sarah had never thought of living among los gringos; her life was in Mexico, where the 21-year-old was already halfway through law school. But now she was out of options. The corrupt police knew her location, and they were coming.
Later that day, December 30, 2008, Sarah, her mother and her two brothers walked up to the Paseo Del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso and turned themselves in, requesting asylum.
Sarah was separated from her family and placed in a detention center for more than a year while she waited for her day in immigration court. When a judge finally heard the case, her claim for asylum was denied and she was ordered back to Mexico. The evidence — that cops working for a drug cartel had beaten Sarah, killed her uncle, abducted her father and raped her mother because her father fought against their illegal activities – was moot. Sarah did not meet the U.S. government's standard for asylum.
If the line between the Mexican government and the drug world ever existed, it is less distinct now then ever. Cartels take over one village, town or state at a time, and buy police departments and armies along the way, fighting for control of precious drug routes and dollars. Since 2006, more than 28,000 people have been killed in the drug violence in Mexico. If someone speaks up, he is silenced, usually with a bullet made in the United States. Mexican citizens have nowhere to turn. Except north.
But unlike refugees from other war-torn nations who were living under the violent thumb of drug lords and found safety on American shores, the United States is accepting only a fraction of the number of Mexicans seeking asylum. In the midst of a politically unrecognized war, fueled by Americans' demand for illegal drugs and their ever growing arsenal of easily available weapons, the U.S government turns a deaf ear to Mexicans who are running for their lives.
In a shabby office of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center minutes west of downtown El Paso, attorney Eduardo Beckett and his staff of unpaid interns, who hail from some of the best law schools in the United States, are scrambling to finish Sarah's appeal. The deadline is less than 48 hours away, and there is still a lot of work before they can file the paperwork with the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Virginia.