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Crossfire towns

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

(Page 3 of 5)

But Palomas is still reeling. Its population dropped from 12,000 to 8,500, says Mayor Garcia, leaving many scared and disoriented.

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Poverty work is a family franchise. Lozoya is part of an unusual cross-border symbiosis with her sister, Guadalupe Sanchez de Otero, who runs a program in Columbus for the elderly. Both sisters, along with their father, a St. Louis social worker who'd raised his family in gang neighborhoods, started their outreach in Columbus 15 years ago when Ms. Otero opened her home to children as a better place to spend their days than in the fields with their parents.

Their work often meant crossing the border to help the families in Mexico. So after Lozoya's own children grew up, she moved a few miles south to Palomas in 2005. And she stayed put as the violence began: "I knew that to really help the people here, I had to move here."

The sisters' work – in its similarities and differences – is symbolic of the psychological divide between Columbus and Palomas, America and Mexico in this era of violence.

Ironically, it was the drug violence that gave Lozoya a chance to sink roots in Palomas, where she'd struggled to support her work by baking and selling cakes. She finally was able to buy a building for her senior center last December because the owner, threatened by drug traffickers, had to leave town in a hurry. There were hardly any windows with glass left, and all the wiring was ransacked before she moved in.

A short woman whose sad face often dissolves into a sunny smile, Lozoya's principal job today is feeding 40 seniors – many former factory or migrant field workers with no benefits. She funds the bare-bones operation herself – it costs her $50 a day, and she travels north to raise money from American donors, asking them to sponsor a senior for $10 a month or donate food or clothes.

Though her move here coincided with the violence, she doesn't flinch. One day, as she was watering trees in her backyard, gunshots rang out. She shuttled her two granddaughters, whom she is raising, into her home and headed toward the incident. "I don't feel scared for myself, but for all the young people who can get wrapped up in this," she says. "They look up to the drug traffickers, especially without other viable work options."

It is with a certain degree of envy that Lozoya looks north at her sister's different circumstances.

Ms. Otero's quaint community center – the Andrew Sanchez Memorial Youth Center, named after their late father – boasts a bingo board on the wall, an old piano, and pool table. Photos of visiting politicians and grants won adorn the walls.

But Columbus does have its own needs. Luna County is one of the poorest in the US – half the population of Columbus lives below the poverty level. Otero's center feeds seniors and runs summer youth activities.

While Lozoya is forced to think about which teen is at risk of becoming a drug dealer, Otero's main concerns are how seniors will pay for utilities and medical care.