11/22/2011 12:57 pm ET

Mexico Drug Violence Touches Both Sides Of The Border

For Sara Muniz Moran, a 63-year-old nurse from Tucson, Arizona, the epidemic of violence across the border in Mexico has touched home.

In late August, her grandson Brad Xavier Muraira Perez was killed when Los Zetas drug cartel set fire to the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico, killing 52 people trapped inside. Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation.

Now, like many U.S. residents with family in Mexico, Muniz said she lives in fear of the seemingly inevitable bad news.

"We live with our hearts in our mouths," said Muniz, close to tears. "We don't know when we will hear that something terrible happened to someone in the family."

The fear over the drug-related violence visited on the Casino Royale has not only pervaded Mexico but also touched families across the border.

President Felipe Calderon launched an assault on the drug cartels when he took office, utilizing security forces and the Mexican military. The ensuing "Drug War" has led to violent deaths for nearly 50,000 people in the past five years, including police, soldiers, cartel members and innocent victims.

Muniz said she fears most for her daughter, Samara Perez Muniz, who survived the deadly attack in August.

"It's like torture waiting for news from so far away," Muniz said. "I ask God for strength. My daughter is very vocal about whom she believes is responsible for the attacks. I fear for her safety."

More than 150 people were in the casino when the blaze was set on Aug. 25, 2010. Most of the 52 killed were women and elderly people who had been playing bingo. The victims included 18-year-old Muraira Perez. His mother, Samara Perez Muniz, survived and filed a lawsuit against the casino.

On Oct. 4, Rodrigo Medina, governor of the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, of which Monterrey is the capital, announced the arrest Jose Rafael Torres Bautista. The 18-year-old Los Zetas ringleader was one of seventeen people arrested in connection with the Casino Royale arson.

The investigation of the blaze has been hampered by the mysterious disappearance of video files that contained scene of the Casino floor at the time of the attack.

Monterrey, known as the "Sultan of the North" for its booming economy and industrial zone, has seen a rise in violence over the past couple years. The city is the site of a territorial war over the region between two drug cartels: the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas. According to government figures, the number of violent deaths attributed to organized crime in Nuevo Leon has tripled in the recent months, from about 400 in January to 1,335 in September.

Monterrey, a metropolitan area that includes other major municipalities, has been the scene of countless murders, shootings and decapitations.

"Although a state of emergency has not been declared, Monterrey residents are on a self-imposed lock-down," Perez Muniz said. "Nobody leaves their homes after 11 p.m. and many small businesses are threatened with violence if they do not pay 'dues' [to the cartels]. Executions are a daily occurrence. This is a city at war."

With the surge in violence, thousands of Mexicans have fled the country -- legally and illegally -- to escape the bloodshed. The drain has taken a toll on the economy.

A study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released last June states that more than 40,000 Mexicans have sought asylum abroad since the war on drugs began in 2006.

The numbers for Mexicans who fled to the U.S. because of violence range from 30,000 to 150,000. Last year, 3,231 Mexicans asked for asylum. Only 49 applications were approved, or about 1.5 percent of the applicants. Within Mexico, at least 230,000 people were displaced because of drug violence and other factors.

Like many other U.S. residents with relatives south of the border, Sara Muniz Moran urges her daughter to leave Mexico and join her in the United States.

"I am encouraging her and my other children to seek political asylum in the U.S.," she said. "We fear for their lives. It's torture to worry constantly."

An earlier version of this report appeared on AOL Latino's Spanish-language news channel.