EL PORVENIR, Mexico Mexican drug hitmen are shooting up houses and terrorizing remote farming towns on the U.S. border, forcing residents to flee, as they try to secure key trafficking routes into the United States.
In the latest flare-up of border drug violence, masked, heavily-armed men are torching homes, firing on shops and businesses and have killed at least three local politicians in a cluster of towns near the deadly drug war city of Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas.
Residents in the cotton and alfalfa-growing town of El Porvenir say dozens of people have been killed this year. Local police have fled and many residents are seeking asylum in Texas or crossing the border to stay with relatives, they say.
"Here, everyone is afraid. We are seeing so many killings," said a woman in El Porvenir, across the border from the Texan town of Fort Hancock, declining to give her name.
President Felipe Calderon has staked his political future on reining in the drug killings that worry investors, tourists and Washington. He has sent 8,000 soldiers and federal police to the Ciudad Juarez area alone to try to defeat the cartels.
But the area outside the city's manufacturing zone, known as the Juarez Valley, is rapidly becoming a no-man's land where despite an army presence, people are abandoning towns and politicians are too scared to campaign for local elections in July. Journalists rarely venture into the area.
Residents say a rumor that drug gangs have given people living in El Porvenir two months to leave or be killed has left the town in a state of psychosis. Schools are half-empty, businesses are shuttered and houses, farmland and family cars stand abandoned in the scorching hot cinder-block town.
Troops manned checkpoints around El Porvenir on Thursday.
MAN SHOT 40 TIMES
Some fleeing residents told U.S. Border Patrol agents that hitmen left a hand-scrawled sign in El Porvenir's main square last week telling people to leave. No one interviewed by Reuters had seen the sign.
"There are lots of threats but nothing public," said Victor Quintana, a lawmaker in the Chihuahua state Congress who has close contacts in the area. "The message in the square is just a rumor, but they are telling some people to leave."
Bloodshed has exploded around Ciudad Juarez as local cartel boss Vicente Carrillo Fuentes fights off an offensive by Mexico's No. 1 fugitive drug lord, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman.
The recent killing of two Americans and a Mexican linked to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez sparked outrage in Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Mexico this week and pledged to help broaden its drug war with social programs.
On Thursday, suspected drug hitmen killed two people in El Porvenir, shooting one man more than 40 times inside his home with automatic weapons, Chihuahua state police said. "The killings are inexplicable because they happen meters from soldiers on patrol," said one El Porvenir resident.
Drug trade sources told Reuters that many of the victims in El Porvenir and nearby towns appeared to be working for the Juarez cartel, suggesting a push by Guzman for the area.
Dozens of people are seeking asylum in Texas with "credible fear" claims, U.S. border agents and sheriffs say, although exact numbers were not immediately available.
"Every week there's more killings over there, more executions," said Mike Doyal, chief deputy in the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Department, over the border. "It's just a very apprehensive situation for us because we don't know what to expect next."
The U.S. government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to train Mexican police and provide helicopters and drug-spotting equipment, but a poll this week in Milenio newspaper showed a majority of Mexicans believe the cartels, not the army, are winning the drug war.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray)