SAN ANTONIO — Hard work and acumen earned Pierre Oliver Gama Valdes fabulous affluence at 34.

As a Mexican living in his country’s sprawling capital, however, neither his wit nor wealth could protect his family from criminal gangs’ extortionist threats. On the contrary, success made Gama a marked man, and left him in constant fear for his wife and two children.

In the U.S., however, Gama’s money grants him privileges — explicit ones, sanctioned by the federal government. A $100,000 investment and a bit of paper work bought his family a ticket out of the lawlessness spawned by Mexico’s civil drug war, enabling them to settle as legal residents in San Antonio, Texas. And it put them on a clear path to citizenship, with almost no questions asked.

Gama, an energetic, athletically built man with intense brown eyes, is part of a new immigration phenomenon: Tens of thousands of Mexico’s most affluent and entrepreneurial citizens are fleeing to California, Texas and other states. They are securing obscure U.S. business visas that allow them to invest in American enterprises. They are the elite upon which Mexico had been developing its economy, until President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on the country’s vicious drug gangs.

Now, they form an exodus that some Latino leaders are comparing to the post-Castro departure of Cuba’s ownership class after the 1959 revolution. Battle-scarred families are arriving on midnight flights after nightmares with kidnappers — heinous ordeals that leave them lacking feet, ears and fingers...

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Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Felipe Calderon.

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