AUSTIN, Texas — One day in April of last year, four-year police veteran Jose Alarcon and his partner, Capt. Felipe Galindo, detained two armed drug dealers after making a traffic stop in Juarez, Mexico. It didn't take long for the Juarez Cartel to learn about the bust.
The cartel had a network of street spies, and it had so thoroughly infiltrated the department that thugs routinely used the radio dispatch system to issue commands.
On Alarcon and Galindo's squad car radio, the voice of a cartel thug broke in and ordered the two cops to release their detainees immediately — or else. The duo complied with the order, and the drug dealers, for whatever reason, were gunned down by cartel soldiers a couple of hours after their release. Alarcon and Galindo were then dispatched to the bloody crime scene. On their way, the cartel voice broke in on their radio with another message: no matter that they'd done as instructed. Both officers were marked to die.
The next day, Alarcon and Galindo found themselves in a bloody gun battle. Today, the 26-year-old is in hiding from the Juarez Cartel with his wife and two children somewhere in Texas. In fleeing to the United States, Alarcon has joined a growing number of police officers, journalists, lawyers, businessmen and regular citizens who have fled their nation's violent drug cartels to petition for American asylum. Alarcon is one of the very few who has agreed to share the full details of his story and legal quest in a Dallas immigration court.
"If I ever have to go back to Mexico, and they find out, they're just going to kill me. I'm sure of it," he told GlobalPost recently through an interpreter.
His prediction might be put to the test. Immigration judges weighing these cases, more often than not, have sent Mexican asylum seekers back to face the cartels, according to a half dozen immigration lawyers who have handled these cases, from Texas to Pennsylvania. The judges are essentially ruling that asylum law, as currently written, does not cover foreign victims of crimes that have no political motivation. Other judges, though, have granted some asylum petitions.
Sometime early next year, a Dallas-based immigration judge will have to issue a ruling that could determine whether others like Alarcon will find sanctuary in the Dallas area.
Hoping that publicizing his story might help, Alarcon and his Dallas immigration attorney, Ludo Gardini, agreed to talk with GlobalPost. In return, they asked only that Alarcon's exact whereabouts not be revealed.
Alarcon's lawyer will have no trouble showing that police work is dangerous in Juarez. Torture houses abound, and decapitated corpses turn up with regularity. It's been that way since 2006, when President Felipe Calderon declared war on trafficking organizations. He deployed troops to retake entrenched cartel strongholds all over Mexico and remove dishonest public servants, especially in border towns that had been turned into drug transit hubs.
Calderon's campaign set off bloody conflicts between drug gangs themselves and also between those gangs and government forces. In Juarez, where two cartels are dueling for control of an important smuggling route amid thousands of federal troops, the body count for the year climbed to more than 1,900 at the end of October.
That already tops the total for all of 2008, according to tallies kept by the newspaper El Norte. At least 44 cops and federal agents are among that number. Money was once paid to top police commanders and distributed downward for obedience, but that all changed after Calderon launched his war.
"Now, there's no more money," Alarcon says. "It's 'You follow the rules, or you die.'"
Juarez officers have been slaughtered in broad daylight, assassinated in their homes, kidnapped and left mutilated at station houses. Once an officer is killed, folkloric songs celebrating gangster life — known as corridos — play over the police radio to emphasize the credibility of cartel life or death commands. At one point last year, the cartel erected a poster on a public thoroughfare. Under the heading "For those who didn't believe" were the names of all assassinated officers. Under the heading "For those who should believe" was a long list of officers still alive and working. Galindo's name was on that list, Alarcon says.
In this environment of terror, Alarcon and Galindo came to be more than just comrades over the years. They grew a deep trust of one other in a department where mutual trust disappeared years ago. After work most nights, they caravanned together away from the station, private weapons readied in laps, headlights turned off until one or the other of them was safely at home.
"I always respected him a lot," Alarcon says. "He saved a lot of his men's lives by getting them fast out of the wrong neighborhoods. He was my captain, but outside of the station, he was my friend."
During their four years together, the partners managed to avoid trouble with the cartel, until the April day they picked up the two drug dealers. Back at the station, none of the other officers would speak to the pair or go near them as though their death sentences might be contagious.
The following day, Alarcon and Galindo resisted going out on calls, knowing fellow cops would report their movements to assassins. And they knew the cartel monitored radio dispatches. When the shift ended, Abraham Carrillo, a rookie officer too new to have been corrupted, begged them to drive him to an auto parts store. Galindo didn't want to take him but gave in, and the three officers went to an AutoZone.
In the parking lot, a pair of SUVs screeched up, one on either side of their vehicle, according to gruesome press reports of the attack. Alarcon recalls seeing a man leap out with a fully automatic AK-47. The first fusillade hit the windshield and killed Carrillo in the backseat. Galindo, who was wearing a bullet-proof vest, managed to fire two rounds before seven bullets punctured his vest and body. Alarcon, largely unscathed, could manage only to fire his Beretta 9mm blindly; he emptied its 15-round magazine through the windshield. He believes he hit one of the assailants, because the shooting stopped. "I heard one of them say, 'Pick him up. Let's go,'" he says.
Amazingly, Galindo was breathing. The captain had stumbled out of the car and onto its hood. "He looked at me and started to turn purple," Alarcon recalled. He pulled his wounded friend back inside and tried to start the car. The engine wouldn't turn over. Alarcon used his police radio to call for backup, his last act as an officer.
Later that afternoon, a group of heavily armed gunmen arrived at Alarcon's house to find only his mother at home. Alarcon had hurriedly collected his wife and children, and fled over the border to El Paso. Alarcon's wife Claudia later told an American asylum officer what transpired at the house.
"They told my mother-in-law that whenever they find us, they were going to kill us," she said. "They wanted to kill the other person, but since my husband fired back at them, they now want to kill him because they want revenge." Asked what she believed would happen if she returned to Mexico, Claudia answered: "They are going to be looking for us everywhere. I think that they would look for us and kill us when they find us."
When Alarcon's asylum case is heard early next year, government lawyers and the judge will want to know if that threat had any real longevity. There is an answer.
Some days after the shooting, Alarcon was ecstatic to learn that Galindo had survived his wounds and was hiding out more or less illegally in El Paso. For more than a year after the shootout, the former partners stayed in touch. Galindo rarely went back to Mexico, only to pick up his disability checks and cash them. Alarcon hated that Galindo would risk those trips. But his former partner wasn't the same painstakingly careful man as he was before the shooting. Galindo assured him the appearances at the station were necessary if he were to earn his retirement pension in 2010.
"Felipe was hoping the assassins had all been killed since the shootout," Alarcon says.
In July, more than a year had elapsed since the ambush. Alarcon and Galindo, their friendship now sealed by their survival, planned for their families to spend a long weekend together in El Paso. Alarcon traveled with his family to spend time with Galindo and his family. They were going to kick off the weekend with a big barbecue — just as soon as Galindo returned from cashing one of his checks in Juarez.
But the cartel killers hadn't forgotten anything. They caught Galindo not far from the bank, where he'd lingered to chat with some friends. His wife heard the fast popping of gunshots and ran to find him dead on the sidewalk.