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Crossfire towns

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

(Page 4 of 5)

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.

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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."