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Mexico’s "business class" refugees

Drug and gang violence is pushing Mexican elites to buy their way to safety using a special class of U.S. visas available only to the rich.

Soldiers are seen through a pile of marijuana being incinerated at a military base in Ciudad Juarez. Drug violence in Mexico has worsened dramatically in 2009. (Photo by Reuters)


SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Hard work and acumen earned Pierre Oliver Gama Valdes fabulous affluence at 34.


As a Mexican living in his country’s sprawling capital, however, neither his wit nor wealth could protect his family from criminal gangs’ extortionist threats. On the contrary, success made Gama a marked man, and left him in constant fear for his wife and two children.


In the U.S., however, Gama’s money grants him privileges — explicit ones, sanctioned by the federal government.  A $100,000 investment and a bit of paper work bought his family a ticket out of the lawlessness spawned by Mexico’s civil drug war, enabling them to settle as legal residents in San Antonio, Texas. And it put them on a clear path to citizenship, with almost no questions asked.


Gama, an energetic, athletically built man with intense brown eyes, is part of a new immigration phenomenon: Tens of thousands of Mexico’s most affluent and entrepreneurial citizens are fleeing to California, Texas and other states. They are securing obscure U.S. business visas that allow them to invest in American enterprises. They are the elite upon which Mexico had been developing its economy, until President Felipe Calderone launched his crackdown on the country’s vicious drug gangs.


Now, they form an exodus that some Latino leaders are comparing to the post-Castro departure of Cuba’s ownership class after the 1959 revolution. Battle-scarred families are arriving on midnight flights after nightmares with kidnappers — heinous ordeals that leave them lacking feet, ears and fingers.


In Gama’s case, an escalating series of kidnappings, threats and the disappearance of a close friend’s child prompted his perfectly legal flight north. “I started thinking, ‘I’ve got to leave this place,’” said Gama, who has two young children. “You see the whole world differently when you have children. Before something more happened to them, I wanted to get out of Mexico.”


Many thousands of wealthy, educated Mexicans have been swept up by this northward tide, according to interviews with the immigrants and with American business leaders, realtors, trade associations and with seven U.S. immigration lawyers handling their visa applications.


“The scale is larger than anything we have seen in 80 years,” said prominent San Antonio business leader Henry Cisneros, the former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary. “This trickle is growing into a very stout current. Virtually everyone I talk to cites examples of people in their circles of family and friends who have been robbed or kidnapped who are coming here.”


These business class refugees are exploiting an obscure set of American resident visas known as the “E” and “L” series. The visas allow wealthy Mexicans to essentially buy their way out of immigration entanglements that commonly block their less affluent countrymen, simply by purchasing or launching businesses — regardless of their language skills or personal ties to the U.S.


To fulfill the visa requirement, they are opening businesses stateside: restaurants, storage facilities, import-export companies, and even a strip club. And in an unusual turn of events, in the midst of the economic crisis, many southwestern cities that have had an uneasy relationship with Mexicans spilling across the borders are now seeking them out. San Antonio, for one, has opened foreign outreach offices to facilitate and welcome them.


Gama typifies many of the city’s most recent newcomers.


In August, along with his business partner Manuel Octavio Espejo Pantoja, he bought a tiny cafe in north San Antonio on an L visa. Then they simply moved their families to town, with instant legal residency.


Ironically, it was Mexico’s drug war and criminal legacy that helped make Gama and Espejo rich. They built a thriving firm that sells body armor and hires out guards, and they own a private nationwide mail service for banks, many of which don’t trust the government system. The businesses, which employ some 500 people in Mexico, are now being run by associates without the means to flee. Gama still manages his businesses, but from the safety of the U.S.


Inside their new restaurant, amidst take-out menus, faux-granite tables and freshly-painted peach-colored walls, Gama does most of the talking. He recounts an escalating series of extortion plots, kidnappings and death threats against their families, and describes short-term “express kidnappings” for ATM money.


As part of an extortion attempt six months ago demanding two million pesos ($148,000), someone placed a funeral wreath at Espejo’s home doorstep bearing the name of his youngest daughter. That was the final straw for both partners.


Gama and Espejo now say their last concern is whether the Texas restaurant ever turns a profit. Neither have any prior restaurant experience. “I am willing to take losses as long as it keeps me in America,” Gama says. “This is all about my kids.”


A class divide


In contrast, less affluent drug war refugees, such as municipal cops, journalists and peasants, face U.S. detention, deportation proceedings or chancy political asylum cases.


As GlobalPost has reported, the political asylum route is complex, time consuming and unpredictable. Some U.S. immigration judges reject well-documented asylum claims on grounds that the law doesn’t apply to victims of crime. Some panicked families have been sent packing back to Mexico. 


“The situation is bad, but not asylum bad,” said Ramone Curiel, a San Antonio immigration lawyer who reports a significant upswing in E and L visa business. “People come to me and say we’re high profile and there’s a possibility of a kidnapping. But when I tell them about the asylum process their minds shut off. I pretty much steer them away from asylum.”


E-1 and E-2 visas give residency leading to citizenship for Mexicans who are involved in trade or invest in certain types of U.S. businesses, renewable upon government inspection every three to five years. L visas enable executives who work for international companies to transfer themselves and family to the U.S.


American consulate officers reviewing the applications consider only that financial and business performance requirements are met, said Edward McKeon, minister-counselor for Consular Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Fear of violence or criminal gangs is irrelevant.


“We don’t care why they want to do it,” he said. “If they’re qualified, we issue them. They might want to go to be closer to their girlfriend. We don’t care. In fact, that’s probably a good reason.”


The exact number of wealthy Mexicans taking advantage of the visas is unknown because data from the past year — a period for which the numbers are predicted to be a particularly high — has not yet been made public.


But State Department consular officers in 10 issuing posts scattered along the U.S. Mexico border and the interior — more than for any other nation — are keeping very busy.


Immigration statistics published by homeland security show the number of issued E visas more than doubled from 7,893 in 2005, just before President Felipe Calderon mounted his war against drug cartels, to 16,411 in the first nine months of 2008. The number of L visas issued during the same time periods jumped from 25,429 to 33,675.


California is the top destination, followed by Texas. San Antonio has emerged as an epicenter for this surge, although San Diego, Los Angeles and other border state cities get their fair share. Estimates tend to fluctuate rather wildly, with local business leaders and service industry professionals who help with relocation offering unsubstantiated estimates ranging from 30,000 in the last two years to as high as 100,000 for San Antonio alone.


Reports indicate that 2009 will be a banner year as the violence has intensified.


Luis Escobar, a kidnapping survivor who made his move on an L visa six years ago, runs a San Antonio company that specializes in helping wealthy Mexicans relocate their businesses and families.  He has brought 259 families to San Antonio since January.


But Escobar said his outreach in Mexico now overwhelms his capacity, bringing in more than 23,000 inquiries so far this year.


“The reason is Calderon’s decision to fight against the drug dealers and the violence,” Escobar said. “Because of the situation, these Mexicans are looking for another option to live.”


Brutalized elite


The new arrivals are showing up defeated and downtrodden, with horror stories of kidnappings, torture and extortion, Escobar and others say.


Anthony Matulewicz, an immigration lawyer in McAllen, Texas, says E and L visas have practically overtaken his practice over the last two years. Many of his clients are extremely wealthy, but that didn’t protect one from having four of five fingers on one hand chopped off.


Some two dozen of these new arrivals, through intermediaries, declined GlobalPost interview requests over several months on grounds that they fear jeopardizing loved ones and businesses back home.


The problem with them talking is that they have links in Mexico, and if they talk too much, they may feel uncomfortable about what might happen to friends, business and relations in Mexico,” said San Antonio immigration lawyer Hope Camp. “It’s not a safe place.”


But professionals who deal directly with the new immigrants, such as real estate agents and attorneys, describe a population of walking wounded.


Escobar, for instance, recounts a wealthy tycoon who showed up in San Antonio last month, missing a foot.


The businessman’s kidnappers hacked off the foot at the ankle without anesthesia, he said, and sent it to family members to urge faster ransom payment. As soon as they secured the businessman’s release, the family fled to San Antonio and became Escobar’s clients, first so the victim could be committed to psychiatric facility and second so no one would have to return.


Escobar is now helping the family arrange L visas so the man and his family can stay.


Another family walked into Escobar’s offices this summer after kidnappers released their traumatized son with a message cut into his chest that read: “Next time, when we say $500,000, we mean $500,000.”


Still another wealthy executive arrived with his family in San Antonio last month, catatonic. Escobar said the client’s captors had forced him to spend 35 days in an underground water storage tank before ransoming his freedom. A blindfold that never once came off has permanently disfigured the man’s face.


“We know people who have had these [experiences] have to be taken care of in a very different way because one can make bad decisions out of fear,” Escobar said. “The people cry in my conference room. What can you tell them? You have no clue what these incidents do to these people.”


Tragedy’s Bounty


Although they are loath to say so, San Antonio city boosters know Mexico’s tragedy is America’s gain. Those coming are opening huge bank and investment accounts, buying real estate, shopping and enrolling studious children in local schools.


San Antonio keeps foreign trade offices in Monterrey, Gaudalajara and Mexico City conducting “outreach on a daily basis,” said Beth Costello, director of the city’s international affairs department.


Costello said the city is well aware that “people are increasingly uncomfortable in Mexico… and if people come and open their businesses in San Antonio, we want Mexican citizens to feel comfortable.”


Patricia Stout, who owns a large travel agency in San Antonio, has served as an officer for a local Mexican business association called The Impresarios, which is involved in the Mexico outreach effort. The group routinely sends emissaries to stage seminars in Mexico. These are aimed at luring business people who are already predisposed to leave their country for security reasons.


The response has been overwhelming this year and last, she said.


“This is a phenomenon,” Stout said. “The people who are doing it are people who can afford it. These people are bringing businesses. They shop like crazy. They buy homes. They buy cars. People with money and education are coming here to make their new life. That is something worth talking about.”