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

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    Drug-war gunfire on the Mexican side can literally be heard just across the border in Columbus, N.M,.
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    Javier Lozano, the town judge in Columbus, N.M. poses for a photo next to the old Columbus jail. Columbus is 3 miles north from the border town of Palomas, Mexico.
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    Esperanza Lozoya, a resident of Palomas, Mexico, stands where she helped identify drug-war murder victims. Violence has chilled cross-border relations.
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    Children from Mexico cross to Columbus, N.M., for school, but parent-teacher conferences are no longer held on the Mexican side.
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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.

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.

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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.

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?

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.

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

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.

It's not that Columbus is totally unscathed. The director of the US port of entry in Columbus, Charles Wright, has collected five stray bullets that have ripped across the border. He says at least 10 gunshot victims have sought US medical care, cases that Otero, who moonlights as a town paramedic, knows firsthand. In one case, the man behind the wheel of a van coasted into the border station dead; his wounded passenger had reached over to press the gas pedal to make it to the border.

But despite the proximity of violence, it is not likely to "jump across the border," says Capt. Steve Harvill of the New Mexico State Police in Deming, 30 miles north of Columbus. Captain Harvill and other experts point to Phoenix, which recorded 368 kidnappings last year, and they note that drug running is more likely to affect big cities, where drugs sell for more money in bigger markets.

One worrisome trend is aggression directed at authorities. The Los Angeles Times reported last month that "El Chapo" allegedly instructed his cartel to step up violence against officials if need be. And US Customs and Border Protection data show 1,325 incidents of violence against officers in fiscal year 2008, a 23 percent increase from the previous year.

Ronald LeBlanc, assistant chief patrol agent in the El Paso sector of US Customs and Border Protection, pegs this to frustration: "We are taking their business away from them."

The US Justice Department estimates that Mexican drug traffickers operate in 230 US cities. While most victims, both in Mexico and the US, are involved in organized crime, the situation has led to unprecedented US-Mexican cooperation.

In March, the Obama administration announced new resources headed to the border including: doubling the number of border agents and tripling intelligence personnel; stepping up border inspections to stem the illegal flow of guns southward; a $700 million Justice Department effort to combat Mexican drug cartels in the US; and a Drug Enforcement Administration push with 16 new positions on the southwestern border and four new teams to target Mexican methamphetamine trafficking nationwide.

Some officials wanted more. Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked for 1,000 National Guard troops.

Other officials think that's too much. "It is a waste of resources and sends the wrong message about how things are at the border," says Mayor Richard Cortez of McAllen, Texas. "There are serious problems on the Mexican side ... those problems don't exist on the northern side of the border."

Columbus Mayor Eddie Espinoza, agrees, especially now that violence in Palomas has ebbed: "If the need were there, I would support it, but at this time I do not see a need."

Yet if both sides of the border are relieved that shootings no longer disrupt afternoons, both are struggling with the economic consequences. Maria Gutierrez at the Pancho Villa Cafe in Columbus stands in an empty restaurant and says that if the situation does not improve by next year, she may buy a food cart to sell hamburgers and nachos at the border crossing.

In Palomas, things are far worse. On a bright afternoon, it feels all but boarded up. The Americans from Tucson, Ariz., and Denver who came here to fill their cavities and buy eyeglasses are gone. Ricardo Fierro, a dentist who started his business 40 years ago, used to have 75 clients a day. "They'd walk out because they'd get mad at how much time they'd have to wait," he says in his cavernous office where eight reclining dental chairs and 29 waiting-room seats are empty.

Mayor Garcia says the unemployment rate among Palomans who stayed is 60 percent.

The impact on families has been tough. Almost all of those of Mexican heritage in Columbus have family across the border, like Socorro Hernandez, who has lived in Columbus for 12 years. Since the violence flared up she hesitates to take her kids to their weekly visit with their father, who, because of a prior deportation, cannot enter the US. "As a mother, of course you worry," she says.

Faculty from Columbus's elementary school, where two-thirds of the 500 students come from Mexico, typically do parent-teacher conferences in Mexico three times a year. But this school year they made the trip once – and the packed community center in Palomas was under heavy military guard. "It's sad," says principal Hector Madrid. "You want to put a microphone at the border ... and scream, 'We are still here, we still love you, we still love your kids.' "

And some of those who chose Columbus for a slice of tranquility in this beautiful stretch of high desert are rethinking their choices.

"It has affected me; you think, 'I don't necessarily want to be here,' " says Betty Dean, whose husband's great-grandfather was killed in the Pancho Villa raid of 1916. "At first it was busy, busy, fun, fun, fun; we'd go to Palomas to eat," she says. "Now everyone is on edge."

And Lozoya says that edge extends north where she's finding Americans reluctant to sponsor Mexican children and elders anymore: "Now everyone thinks all people in Mexico are bad." She tells anyone who will listen that because of the violence, her town has been left without viable incomes.

Apart from her volunteers, she relies on her family in Columbus. Where Lozoya lacks most everything – clothes, medical supplies, and often food to serve – Otero steps in when she has a surplus of shoes or shirts. It goes the other way, too: If the health department needs information about a family in Mexico, Otero asks Lozoya to investigate.

They are, in their own small way, bridging the divide that is forming here and along the rest of the US-Mexican border – a divide that for those here is more devastating than the violence that has stolen so much of both nations' attention.

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