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Gunshots in the Distance

November 10, 2010

After a deadly gun battle across the border in Mexico forced the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College to close their joint campus for multiple days last week, the institution welcomed back anxious students, faculty and staff Monday. And though the drug war continues to escalate in the city of Matamoros, located across the Rio Grande about a hundred meters from the institution, security officials insist their campus and those on it remain safe.

John Cardoza, chief of Campus Police, said he received word from the United States Border Patrol just before 4:30 p.m. Friday that a significant gun battle was taking place south of the border. Mexican helicopters were visible and shots could be heard from the campus, he added.

That afternoon, the university was scheduled to host a major soccer tournament. At their closest, the college’s athletic fields are about 100 meters from the Rio Grande, which marks the U.S.-Mexican border. For their safety, the athletes and spectators for the tournament were escorted into the nearby recreation center that was away from the immediate border area.

“By that time, we had assistance from the city of Brownsville and other police departments,” Cardoza said. “We blocked off the entrances to campus and told everyone to stay away from the border. Once we had that in place, and after evaluating from all of our sources, we made the decision to cancel everything for that night. Since my biggest concern is for the safety and welfare of our students, I also recommended to the president, provost and vice president that we shut down on Saturday and Sunday as well.”

In addition to the soccer tournament and a few classes, the institution’s annual homecoming celebrations were also postponed. The university has dormitories on campus, and they were put on lockdown Friday afternoon. Residents were, however, allowed to remain in their dormitories over the weekend. Cardoza noted that this weekend’s campus closing is not unprecedented for the institution. For example, the campus shut down for multiple days last year after cross-border gunfire struck the recreation center and a car in the college’s parking lot.

As with last year’s incident, Cardoza confirmed that none of the university’s students, faculty or staff were hurt or killed in Friday’s violence. Last month, however, a student was murdered while on a trip to visit his relatives across the border in Mexico when the bus he was riding on was hijacked.

After two days back on campus this week, Cardoza added, everything is pretty much back to normal. Still, he did note that his campus police officers have upped their visibility around campus and are working double shifts this week in case of a resurgence of border violence.

While he admits that drug-related activity along the border has increased in recent months, Cardoza defended the security of Brownsville and his campus.

“Of course anytime bullets go up in the air, they’ve got to come down somewhere,” Cardoza said. “There’s always the possibility that they might come over to our side of the border. Still, we have a number of proactive measures in place and we’re always telling our students, faculty and staff to be alert. … We are a safe community, and people should never hesitate in coming to our city or campus.”

Photo: UTB/TSC

An overhead view of the campus noting international border and fence, which has been built.

Bobbette Morgan, chair of the university’s academic senate and professor at its College of Education, left campus Friday just before Cardoza announced the lockdown.

“You could hear shooting coming from across the border,” Morgan said. “Also, when you see helicopters flying around, that’s a major sign that there’s some activity going on over in Matamoros. You could see clouds of smoke from grenade launchers and things like that. There was this certain smell in the air. It’s sort of like when they are tarring a roof.”

Morgan said that, while she and her colleagues are getting used to all of the violent activity across the border, and faculty genuinely applaud campus security, she recently altered her daily schedule because of the violence.

“This is very serious,” Morgan said. “It’s escalating every day. I see this kind of thing occurring more often [rather] than less. You have to make some changes in what you do. I mean, one thing I’ve started doing is bringing my lunch every day so that I don’t have to come and go from the building multiple times during the day. I feel safe in the buildings here, but I just don’t want to take that extra exposure outside anymore.”

Morgan said she has not heard from any faculty or staff members talking about leaving the institution out of concern for their safety.

Rosalinda Rangel, vice president of the Student Government Association and a graduate student in public policy and administration, echoed Morgan’s solidarity with the institution and the general feeling of safety despite the recent uptick in border violence.

“Are we afraid at times?” wrote Rangel via e-mail. “Yes, but we are afraid because we don’t know exactly what is going on across the border. Is that the university’s fault? No. Campus Police has made several presentations regarding student safety. Students, on Friday, were escorted from the [recreation center] to their cars. Border Patrol agents closed the streets. Although, this does not occur on a regular basis, I think the students here at UTB/TSC know that proper measures are being taken by our administration.”

About 200 students at the university — which serves about 12,000— are from Mexico and cross the border daily to come to classes. Rangel did so for years. This year, however, she lives on campus in a dorm.

“Some of [those students who cross the border] are scared,” Rangel wrote. “Some of them have grown accustomed to it. I don't want to speak for them. I can only speak for myself and my experience. Last semester, I was crossing every day. I am a graduate student so most of my classes are at night. To tell you the truth, I would leave campus as soon as I could because I did not want to cross the bridge after dark. I would hate it when I had to stay for class until 10 p.m. Again it had nothing to do with the institution, I was just afraid of driving home alone, and I am sure some students feel the same way.”

Rangel has not heard any students express such concern about returning to the institution that they want to transfer.

“The worst enemy we have is fear,” Rangel wrote. “And we cannot allow the fear to consume us like it has consumed our neighbor.”

 

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