Laneice Brooker has not felt the direct fury of the vicious drug war stretching along the Mexico-Texas border.
But the unpredictability of that violence has gripped the 27-year-old Foreign Service officer at the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros. She avoids certain parts of town and tries to alter her daily routine. Most of all, she wonders when it might hit near her office, her house, her family.
“You don’t know what may happen or where,” she said last week. “It can happen in the best neighborhood or the worst.”
The drug-fueled tension in Mexico weighs heavily on Foreign Service workers posted along the border. Many who came to Mexico with the expectation of a mostly low-key assignment have been jolted by the brutal warfare among the drug cartels that has ripped apart communities and killed more than 18,000 people across Mexico since 2006.
The recent gangland slayings of an American Consulate worker and two others in Ciudad Juárez, a city across from El Paso, is yet another reminder of the danger faced by Foreign Service workers in Mexico and across the world.
Postings in dangerous and potentially violent parts of the world are recognized as part of the job, several veteran diplomats said. Diplomats receive special training to avert threatening situations, and those in especially risky posts receive hardship pay.
The most visceral reminder of that sacrifice is seen in the State Department’s lobby, where a plaque honors the more than 230 American Foreign Service officers who have been killed in the line of duty.
But the attacks have been particularly jarring in Mexico – one of American’s closest allies and where vacationers have flocked for years. It’s not Kabul. It’s not Baghdad. It’s not Islamabad. And that could be part of the problem, a career diplomat based in Mexico City said.
“This is a country that as Americans we all grew up feeling pretty safe in, pretty comfortable,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We tend to drop our guard. And that puts us in a more potentially dangerous situation.”
“Certainly, everybody in the building was aware things were getting worse outside,” said Laura Dogu, the consular section chief at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, who noted the increasingly dire travel warnings put out by the State Department.
Even before the attack, edginess and security had increased at the Juárez consulate, said another employee, who asked not to be identified. Staffers, for instance, were told to stay away from certain areas, including a favorite local hangout, El Reco Bar, near the consulate.
“It’s not normal here anymore, at least not now,” said the employee, whose activity now consists only of going to work and going home. “The sad thing is we’ve seen this violence for years around us, and I knew it was just a matter of time something like this would impact us.”
Earlier last week, senior U.S. officials said the consulate office in Juárez had been the target of recent threats.
And consulate staff members are refusing to give up one of the basic tenets of diplomacy: connecting with people face to face.
Even in Juárez, where employees are coming to grips with the horrific killings, that willingness to interact with locals won’t change, said Dogu, the Juárez consular section chief.
“We all joined to be able to serve in a variety of situations, including this one,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we will go about it blithely, but we will adapt and do our best to get the job done.”