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Crossfire towns

Eye-to-eye across the US-Mexican border, two communities confront drugs, guns, and misconceptions.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 2009

Drug-war gunfire on the Mexican side can literally be heard just across the border in Columbus, N.M,.

Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor

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Columbus, N.M.; and Palomas, Mexico

The dust and heat of the Chihuahuan Desert blanket these twin border towns in sleepiness – the better to draw tourists and retirees looking for a cheap place to relax or settle; the better, too, for secretive gunrunners headed south of the border and illegal immigrants and drug smugglers headed north.

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So it's no surprise that Esperanza Lozoya seems a bit shell-shocked and never far from tears as she points out Palomas's "historic" landmarks in Mexico's drug wars. Here is a pock-marked wall where a friend's son was gunned down last spring; there, near the elementary school, is the weed-strangled lot where she had to help a neighbor identify two bodies left in the grime; further along is the house with no window glass, where someone tossed a grenade; and then there are the empty houses of a quarter of the town's population – including the police chief – that has packed up and left.

In 2008, when Palomas became a flash point in the deadly rivalries between Mexican drug traffickers, Ms. Lozoya, like many here, found herself diving for cover in her own backyard. While Ciudad Juárez, a city of 1.5 million 80 miles east, had 1,600 drug-related murders last year, Palomas was statistically more dangerous with 40.

Palomas is a town of 8,500 scared residents. And their 2,300 neighbors on the US side in Columbus, while not terrified, are wary of the violence and its effects on the image and economy of the region.

Americans have generally watched in disbelief as journalists, businessmen, police, soldiers, and bystanders are caught in increasingly gruesome violence, from drive-by shootings to beheadings and worse. But most just see it on TV. Nowhere are Americans more affected than in towns like Columbus, where gunfire is so close it has hit the border checkpoint and where gunshot victims, gasping their last breath, scramble for haven.

"People say to me, 'Why did you move to Palomas? Are you crazy?" says Ms. Lozoya, an American social worker who lives and works on the Mexican side.

Though violence decreased when Mexican troops were called in last fall, the US concern about Mexican mayhem is whether it will creep north.

"It's like having a kindergarten next to a shooting range," says Raymond Cobos, sheriff of Luna County, which encompasses Columbus. He plans to beef up patrols to run 24 hours near the border. And, he says, he never knows when trouble will flare up: Mexican authorities discovered two mass graves totaling possibly 10 bodies near Palomas in May. In states along the 2,000-mile border, governors have called for the National Guard. Washington, too, is sending federal troops and high-tech equipment to strengthen border security.