Amid Drug Cartel Violence, El Paso Students Make Daily Trek Across Border

The drug war violence that has driven many to stay away from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, but hasn’t scared off one group – the college students who make daily trek over the Mexican-U.S. border to attend school in El Paso, Texas.

The University of Texas-El Paso sits only a couple of hundred yards away from line that straddles the neighboring countries. During the 2010-2011 school year, 1,400 Mexican nationals were enrolled, administrators reported – many crossing the border everyday.

University students fear the commute, however. Yet the panic isn’t only about being robbed or struck by bullets in crossfire – it’s being set up by the Mexican cartels to unwittingly smuggle drugs.

“It could be easy for a person to put something in your bike or car,” said graduate student Alonso Fierro.

Students worry about this traveling to and from El Paso.

“I revise the trunk, and I revise under the car, the tires,” said Martha Rayas, who graduated from UT-El Paso with a bachelor’s degree and is now pursuing a Master’s in linguistics.

Fierro and Rayas recalled the story of a Mexican teacher who made a daily commute from Juárez to teach at an El Paso elementary school. Traffickers placed narcotics in her vehicle; Mexican officials discovered them and arrested her in Mexico.

The teacher was later released, but students have made it a daily habit to check their vehicles’ trunks and underneath their cars to make sure drugs aren’t strapped on.

Mexican national students believe it’s worth the risk, however, to attend the American university. Rayas, for example, wanted the opportunity to improve her English.

Still, in addition to the dangers involved making the daily cross, the wait time to cross a port of entry could last two hours. Some commuters choose to buy a yearly $122 Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) express lane pass that cuts their wait time to as little as 20 minutes.

Mexican students attending the University of Texas-El Paso who cannot afford out-of-state tuition can apply for Texas in-state tuition through a tuition assistance program called Programa de Asistencia Estudiantil.

Violence in Juárez has changed everyday habits for people who live there. Fierro said he only leaves home to go to school and work. He rarely stops anywhere in public for more than a few minutes.

“I don’t go to public places anymore. I just go to my house, be with my wife,” he said. “If I want to get something to eat I will just pick it up and take off.”

Less than a month ago he was robbed in a Juárez restaurant.

“Somebody opened the door for me and I said ‘thank you,’” he added. “And they said, ‘no, it’s not thank you. You should drop to the floor and give me your stuff, and give me your cell.’”

He said the robber got away with his cell phone – but they threw back his wallet because he had no cash on him.

Despite the violence of making the daily commute through Juárez, both students told Fox News Latino it is worth it for their education.

“You have the opportunity to get in contact with a lot of cultures,” Rayas said.

Mexican national students attending American universities are required to obtain student visas. Rayas said they are not automatically granted U.S. temporary workers visas, however, after graduation.

As far as the danger, Rayas added that the students, believing in the power of numbers, travel in packs.

“We stick together,” she said.

Patrick Manning is a Junior Reporter for based in El Paso.

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