Eye-to-eye across the US-Mexican border, two communities confront drugs, guns, and misconceptions.
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Suddenly talk of spillover violence has made it to talk shows across America. Most people in Columbus dismiss the hype – so far. But the psychological divide it creates poses a legitimate question: Could violence spill over into the US?Skip to next paragraph
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As border towns go, it's pretty humdrum. Undocumented immigrants showed up in backyards here until border fencing was erected. But the last international violence was back when Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa raided this patch of US territory in 1916, killing 18 Americans. Since then, the border separating Columbus from Palomas has been heavily trudged. For years, Americans crossed south for cheap eye and dental exams, often topped off with a burrito platter. More than 400 students from Mexico cross daily in the opposite direction to attend New Mexico's schools. Columbus firefighters put out flames in Palomas until it got its own fire station last year.
As violence engulfed Palomas, Columbus remained remarkably calm. It's a similar scenario all along the border: Ciudad Juárez's 1,600 murders – a quarter of all drug-related murders in Mexico – compares with just 17 in El Paso, Texas, last year; Palomas's 40 compares starkly with Columbus's none.
But notoriety and increased border enforcement that has steered the illegal immigrant trade elsewhere, has brought hard times to both towns. Even as governments on both sides tout unprecedented levels of cooperation, the neighbors themselves have never been more leery.
"The casual interaction between residents and citizens that was the fabric of cross-border communities has been devastated," says Tony Payan, an expert on drug violence at the University of Texas, El Paso.
The border is a place of intermarriage and international commerce, but now parents think twice about taking their children south to visit relatives. Americans opt for other dentist chairs; 3,500 Palomas residents have simply left. It's a divide that persists long after the turf wars move elsewhere.
And yet if it's those who straddle the border whose lives are most disrupted, they share a common burden with the rest of the US. Violence won't necessarily jump into Columbus, but drug traffickers, facing a sustained crackdown, could move deeper into the US where illegal drug markets thrive.
"They will move to where they can hide," Mr. Payan says.
Along the border, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, alleged head of the Sinaloa cartel and one of the most wanted men in the US, has been fighting rivals like the Gulf cartel, and Palomas got caught in the power struggle. Locals say warring intensified in mid-2007, after smugglers lost important corridors into the US due to beefed-up border patrols and completion of a new fence.
Palomas Mayor Estanislao Garcia estimates that 80 people were either killed or disappeared over a 15-month span as rivals duked it out. The entire police force in Palomas quit and its chief sought asylum in the US in March 2008. Since then 200 Mexican Army troops came fanning in and violence abated as rivals have moved on to less patrolled towns and cities.