EL PASO — Norberto Lee’s tranquil life was abruptly struck with tragedy when his father was shot and killed by masked gunmen in front of their place of business in Juarez after he refused to pay protection money to gangsters.
For months his father had been receiving phone calls demanding payoffs. “The calls began after my dad arrived from a trip, but he only told one of my brothers who then told my mom and then she told me. I told the rest of my siblings and we thought it was best for him to come to El Paso,” said Lee.
His father came to stay in El Paso for 10 days but felt uneasy and was unable to stay any longer. “My father’s entire life was based on the business and he didn’t like managing the business from across the border,” said Lee.
Three months later, on an April morning in 2008, Lee and his younger brother arrived earlier than usual to work. They were working on the daily preparations when he heard his father’s car arrive followed by his screaming. “He was being held at gunpoint and was refusing to get into the car with the menacing men,” said Lee.
The elder Lee was shot three times in the back, stomach, and leg, and died after 10 days in a coma. At least 7, 386 persons have been killed in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, within the past three years. Thousands of families have become victims of the daily violence, as the war between drug cartels spawned an environment of lawlessness.
Lee, 22, was born in Cuidad Juarez. He happily lived eighteen years of his life with friends and family before his life took the unexpected turn for the worst. Three years have passed since the assault and death of his father, Carlos Lee, 54.
His father started the family-owned business that for thirty years provided supplies to major companies in the state of Chihuahua. He taught Lee and his older brother how to operate the business and as they grew older they took charge of most of the business.
His father would only go in the mornings because he was also a volunteer and founder of a group for Alcoholics Anonymous in Juarez. He took pleasure in helping and counseling friends and family members of the AA group. “He was very well known and loved by everyone involved in the group,” said Lee.
Lee admitted he was his father’s favorite. Being the penultimate of seven children, his siblings would get upset because they also felt he was his father’s favorite. “I could ask him for anything and he would never say no,” said Lee. He would go to the gym with his dad and he didn’t have to work as much as his brothers. Lee said he was not like that with any other of his siblings.
His father’s death completely changed Lee’s life. A month after the murder, he moved to El Paso with his younger brother and mother to begin a new life away from the violence that had already caused so much pain.
“I miss everything about Juarez. All of my friends are still over there,” said Lee. Learning to live in El Paso without his father was difficult. He was used to a different form of life.
Lee and his family did not worry during the first few months of their exile, because they had money to pay for the rent, but soon money ran out and he had to find a job.
The cost of his father’s surgeries and hospital stays added up to about $10,000 and the bank in Juarez was not allowing them to retrieve their own money. “The bank keeps giving us excuses saying that my father was in major debt and that the company that would send us the product is also fighting for the money and that they are suing us,” said Lee. The bank continues to keep that money.
Their family business closed and his studies at the university were suspended because he had to find a job instead in order to survive. It became a struggle for him to keep jobs because he was not used to it. He would only last two to three days and within a year he went through seven jobs.
It wasn’t until six months ago that he finally found a job he was happy in, at an auto parts store. “I really like working there because of the ambience and because I did a nine month internship as an auto technician at the David L. Carrasco Job Corps,” said Lee.
Lee hopes to continue studying something related to an automotive career. His brother and mother returned to Juarez four months ago.
Lee would still prefer to live in Juarez but the safety of El Paso is something he would not give up. “If Juarez was still the same as before I would like to go back, not because I don’t like El Paso, but because I have my friends and family over there,” he said.
Editor’s Note: This is another in a continuing series of Borderzine articles on the migration to the U.S. of Mexican middle-class professionals and business owners as a result of the drug-war violence along the border. We call this transfer of people and resources, the largest since the Mexican Revolution, the Mexodus.