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Mexican Teens In Different Worlds Share Tragic Fate

At a community center high in the rough western hills of Juarez, Lupe sits on a worn love seat inside a small counseling room. Outside, a harsh wind splats desert sand against the window pane. Out of safety concerns, she doesn't want to be identified by her last name. Lupe agreed to meet at the center; she doesn't feel safe talking in her neighborhood, where her son was killed last summer.

Monica Ortiz Uribe for NPR

Tanya Lozoya's parents stand by a mural of their daughter in her softball uniform, painted in the backyard of their home near El Paso, Texas. A stray bullet killed the teenager on May 16, 2009, while she attended a baptism party in Juarez, Mexico. She is one of more than 30,000 casualties in Mexico's drug war.

He is one of the more than 30,000 people killed in the past four years in Mexico's war with drug cartels. Many were gang members or somehow tied to the cartels; many were police or soldiers. Others were random bystanders. They were old and young — like Lupe's son.

'The Biggest Tragedy Of My Life'

Lupe works at one of hundreds of maquiladoras, or factories, in Juarez.

"Life here is very difficult. When I married, I had to get a job so that I could help my husband," she says.

On a salary of about $10 a day, workers like Lupe manufacture parts for cars, cell phones and flat-screen TVs that later end up on store shelves in the United States. The workers live in poor squatter communities that are breeding grounds for criminals.

"There's a family of drug traffickers who live nearby. They recruit people from around the neighborhood. They watch and wait for just the right moment. Then they attack," she says.

In her son's case, the right moment came when Lupe's husband became sick and died. Lupe worked overtime to make ends meet and couldn't spend much time with her kids. Her son, Oscar, soon dropped out of school and began hanging out with the family of drug traffickers. They had children his age. They drove nice cars and lived in a big house. Oscar never even owned a decent pair of tennis shoes.

"That was beginning of the biggest tragedy of my life," Lupe says.

Her son soon began working for the drug traffickers. One day, the 18-year-old saw two fellow traffickers murdered by rival gangsters. Because he was a witness, that meant the end for him, too. Lupe says the gangsters ran over him with a four-wheel-drive truck. When she went to identify the body at the funeral home, she could barely recognize her son.

"And that's the image that I carry with me everywhere, when I eat, when I sleep, at every moment — my son's face torn to shreds," she says.

Lupe's son might have had a different future. As a boy, he got good grades and he was a promising saxophone player. But, Lupe says, once he was sucked into the drug gang, he couldn't get out.

An Abrupt, Unexpected End

Less than a mile from the Mexican border, Tanya Lozoya lived a far different life.

Her parents emigrated from Juarez to the United States hoping to give their children more opportunities. Tanya was a 15-year-old freshman at an affluent high school in nearby El Paso, Texas.

"She was very intelligent. She was a bright girl, very generous, very kind," says Veronica Lozoya, Tanya's mom. Her daughter was a straight-A student. She was in student council, honor society and softball. Her room was filled with school trophies. She dreamed of going to Harvard to study law.

"The teachers would always tell me that they wish there could be more students like her. That they wish she could be cloned, because she was very special," Veronica says.

No one expected Tanya's life would end so abruptly.

Innocents Killed

Like so many families who live on the border, the Lozoyas have relatives on both sides. On May 16, 2009, the family attended a baptism party at a home in Juarez. They sat in the living room with relatives when all of a sudden two strangers broke into the back of the house. They were gangsters. One chased the other into the living room and out the front door while shooting his gun. Everyone in the room dropped to the floor.

"When I got up, I turned around and she was on the floor just laying. She won't move. There was blood everywhere, but I didn't know if it was hers, and I started screaming for help," Veronica says.

A stray bullet punctured Tanya's neck. She died instantly.

"I wish it was a nightmare, because you wake up in a nightmare and it's gone. But it's not a nightmare. It's reality. It's a cruel reality that you have to live day by day, knowing that your daughter is not here no more," she says.

Inside the modest Lozoya home, Tanya's picture is everywhere. Her father, Abraham, tattooed her image on his bicep. And in their backyard is a mural of Tanya in her softball uniform, smiling. She is among the more than 200 Americans killed in Mexico since 2007.

Veronica Lozoya calls Tanya, her only daughter, her best friend. In a war fueled by the U.S. appetite for drugs, Veronica says it's wrong that innocents like her daughter die.