RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. An Arizona rancher was murdered last month. Authorities suspect an illegal immigrant, and that case crystallized fears that drug violence in Mexico will cross the border. It led New Mexico's governor to send the National Guard to patrol his state's border. The governor of Texas had already ordered state troopers to the border region. As NPR's John Burnett reports, for many people, the fear is very real.

JOHN BURNETT: Last week, they held a town-hall meeting in Fort Hancock, a sleepy agricultural town on the border, about an hour east of El Paso that looks like the bleak set of�"No Country for Old Men."

Sheriff ARVIN WEST (Hudspeth County): Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you all for coming tonight.

BURNETT: A couple hundred residents crowded into the grade-school gym to hear a chilling message from Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West.

Sheriff WEST: You farmers, I'm telling you right now, arm yourselves. As they say, the old story is, it's better to be tried by 12 than carried by six. Damn it, I don't want to see six people carrying you.

BURNETT: His warning was prompted by the killing of the Arizona rancher and the spiraling violence a couple of miles away in Mexico in a region known as the Valley of Juarez. The notorious smuggling territory is being fought over by the Sinaloan and the Juarez cartels. Curtis Carr is a farmer and county commissioner.

Mr. CURTIS CARR (Farmer, Country Commissioner, Hudspeth County): One of the men that works for me had five people killed in front of his house over there this past weekend, and he's moving his family over here this week. So it's serious over there, you know. Whether or not it's going to spill over here, I don't know.

BURNETT: Nobody�knows. The sheriff warned citizens to be alert and report strange vehicles on their streets. But at the same time, don't succumb to fear.

Sherriff WEST: We haven't had anybody kidnapped here yet, but it could come. We haven't had anybody killed here, but that could come.

BURNETT: The violence in the Juarez Valley directly affects this little Texas town. For instance, two weeks ago, gunmen in the Juarez Valley killed the Mexican relative of a Fort Hancock high school student. When the student's family in Fort Hancock heard about it, they crossed the border at 10 a.m. to see the body, and took the student with them. School superintendent Jose Franco picks it up from there.

Mr. JOSE FRANCO (School Superintendent, Hudspeth County): By 10:30, they had stabbed the relatives that went with him, which included, I believe, his grandparents, with an ice pick. My understanding is that the gentleman is like 90 years old, and they poked his eyes out with an ice pick. I believe those people are still in intensive care here in a hospital in the U.S.

BURNETT: Franco says the boy has isolated himself from other students so they won't ask him about the gruesome attack that he witnessed.

The Valley of Juarez has a long history of human and drug trafficking. There's lots of open farmland for illicit activity. It's close to the city of Juarez, a major smuggling entrepot. It's right across from Texas, with Interstate 10 only a few miles to the north. And the river is no deterrent.

So this is the Rio Grande?

Agent JOE ROMERO (U.S. Border Patrol): The mighty Rio Grande. This is it.

BURNETT: Veteran Border Patrol Agent Joe Romero stands on a levee overlooking the international river, which this time of year is only a trickle.

Agent ROMERO: You can literally walk across the river and, some times of the year, not even get wet. And with the ease at which you can literally cross the border here from one side to the other, this made it very lucrative and appealing to anybody trying to smuggle in whatever contraband they had.

BURNETT: In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has erected 44 miles of tall, steel fencing across from the Juarez Valley, and doubled the number of Border Patrol agents. As a result, marijuana seizures in this area have fallen 97 percent in the past four years. But none of this has dampened the drug mafias' vicious competition to dominate the Juarez Valley.

This is the sound of a house on fire in Esperanza, one of several farm towns in the Juarez Valley terrorized by the narco war. A large blood stain on the back door marks the spot where the owner was executed. More than 50 people were killed in the Juarez Valley in March.

Arson and murder are the tactics being used to drive out rival traffickers, as well as the general population.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: Eight members of the Villareal family stand beside the highway, their bags packed, waiting for the bus. We're all afraid because of the killings, they say. There's no security, no work anymore. Farmers have abandoned their fields.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: You know it's bad when people are fleeing for safety to Juarez, the most murderous city in the hemisphere. Late word is that on Wednesday, the Mexican government sent dozens of federal police and soldiers to the Juarez Valley to restore order. Across the border, the sheriff has increased patrols in Fort Hancock.

John Burnett, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And this weekend, friends and family of that rancher murdered in Arizona will gather for a memorial service. NPR will be there, and we'll hear their thoughts about the growing border violence on Monday's MORNING EDITION.

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