SAN DIEGO — Elizabeth Silva was walking her younger sister to school when two hooded men burst into her house and pumped three bullets into her father. When her 14-year-old brother rushed out of his bedroom to see what was happening, he was also shot dead.
The killings in a sun-seared farming region of western Mexico prompted her to board a bus to the U.S. border to seek asylum, a hugely popular escape route in a remote area that has seen some of the country's worst drug-fueled violence. As gunfire rang in the distance, her family hurried out of the cemetery after burying the bodies and fled the same day.
Asylum requests from Mexico have surged in recent years and, while the U.S. government doesn't say from where within Mexico, The Associated Press has found that many are now arriving at the border from the "Tierra Caliente," or Hot Country, about 250 miles west of Mexico City. Word has spread there that U.S. authorities are releasing women and children while they await hearings before immigration judges, emboldening others to follow.
The AP counted 44 women and children from the Tierra Caliente released in San Diego in just one month, from Aug. 26 to Sept. 27, including the 25-year-old Silva, her 2-year-old daughter, mother, grandmother and sister.
Many from the town of Buenavista carry a formal letter from town official Ramon Contreras stating they are victims of persecution.
"The residents of this town are under death threat from a drug cartel ... please provide them the protection they request," the letter reads.
The Tierra Caliente is so completely ruled by one vicious drug cartel that residents in a half-dozen towns formed self-defense groups earlier this year to try to drive out the gang. Now, they are fleeing in droves, saying their rebellion has made them targets for cartel killings.
"There have been many, many families going to the United States to seek asylum," said Hipolito Mora, a leader of the patrols in the La Ruana neighborhood of Buenavista, a municipality of 42,000.
The Knights Templar cartel, a pseudo-religious gang that takes its name from an ancient monastic order, has set fire to lumber yards, packing plants and passenger buses in a medieval-like reign of terror. The cartel extorts protection payments from cattlemen, growers and businesses, prompting the vigilante patrols in February. That drew more attacks from the cartel, which sought to cut off the area's main economic activity, growing limes.
A Buenavista politician was hacked to death and a Navy vice admiral killed in an ambush. In April, 10 people were killed in a cartel ambush as they returned from a meeting with state officials to ask for help.
The flight from Tierra Caliente comes as asylum requests from throughout Mexico more than quadrupled to 9,206 in 2012 from six years earlier, when the Mexican government launched an offensive against drug cartels. The Department of Homeland Security says an average of 11 Mexicans sought asylum daily at San Diego border crossings from Aug. 9 to late September.
More than 90 percent of asylum requests from Mexico are eventually denied. To be granted asylum, an immigration judge must find an applicant suffered persecution or has a well-grounded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion. Immigration lawyers said most asylum seekers are held in detention centers, but Silva and many others have been freed while awaiting a decision.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, criticized DHS for the releases, saying the asylum seekers may never return to court. "I am concerned that credible fear claims are being exploited by illegal immigrants in order to enter and remain in the United States," he wrote Janet Napolitano in August, before she stepped down as DHS secretary.
DHS said in a statement that custody decisions are made on factors including ties to the community, flight risk and criminal record. They wouldn't comment on releases.
Some asylum seekers have said they were turned back at the border, including Isamar Gonzalez, 20, of Buenavista, and her mother. "We told them we wanted asylum and they laughed at us," Gonzalez said.
But many others make it across after an initial screening. Candelaria Aguilar feared the cartel would kidnap her 14- and 10-year-old sons and turn them into hit men. She made the trip to San Diego after her sister-in-law called from Los Angeles to say she had been freed pending a court hearing on her asylum request.
"It got me fired up," said the 30-year-old single mother, who also was released by U.S. immigration officials with her children last week after one night in custody. "This is the only way out."
Ynez Valencia Valladares, 23, said she boarded a bus to Tijuana with her children, ages 7, 5 and 3, unsure what to do after her brothers were killed on the family ranch. A Tijuana taxi driver told her to claim asylum, and she and her children were released after one night in custody.
Elizabeth Silva's path toward asylum began when the hooded men kicked open the door to the family's home in Apatzingan around 8 a.m. on Sept. 2, killing her father, Jorge Silva, 47, and brother, Jose Manuel Silva, 14, according to the Michoacan state attorney general's office. Police made no arrests and haven't disclosed a possible motive. Silva suggested it had something to do with extortion payments.
"Everyone in town pays up," she said. "Everyone."