Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Palomas, a Battle Ground for the Drug Cartels

Palomas Mexico is a small dusty border town on the other side of Columbus, New Mexico. Some of you are familiar with Columbus New Mexico right?

Hidden in plain sight at the seemingly prophetic intersection of Interstates 9/11, lies the town of Columbus, nestled firmly in the footprints left by the dramatic events that transformed the United States at the turn of the 19th Century.

The sleepy little border town of Columbus is notorious for being the last town in the Continental United States that was invaded by a foreign military force. On March 9, 1916 Mexican revolutionary leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa led five hundred men in an attack against the town, which was garrisoned by a detachment of the U.S. 13th Cavalry Regiment. Villa's army burned a part of the town and killed eight soldiers and ten residents before retreating back into Mexico. It was reported that over 100 of Villa's men were found dead.

On the other side of the border from Columbus is it's sister town of Palomas, a quiet small town that draws US tourists who come here for the cheap dentist and eye exams, and to buy souvenirs while drinking a beer at the corner taco stand. But don’t be fooled by the empty quiet roads and an occasional tumble weed moving across the dusty roads. The tourist have almost completely stop coming to Palomas particularly in fear of the crime wave that has been reported by the main stream media, particularly in neighboring cities like Ciudad Juárez.

But little do people know that the small town of Palomas has one of the worst murder rates in Mexico. While Ciudad Juárez a city of 1.5 million, just 80 miles east, had 1,600 drug-related murders last year, Palomas was statistically more dangerous with 40. One moment it can be deadly quiet and another moment it can be deadly, , , , well, , , , deadly.

There is no doubt that the eerily tranquil Palomas, a town of 8,500 scared residents, is suffering from a decline in revenue from a lucrative tourist industry. And although seen from the outside Palomas seems peacefully quiet, deep from within, another business is bustling with activity. Organized drug cartels are fighting for dominance in one of the very few left over unguarded point of entry ports in to the US. The drugs cartels have made their presence known, being driven out of places like Ciudad Juárez which has a large remarkable military and federal police presence.

Once affiliated with the dominant Juárez cartel, loyalties had vacillated after the rival Sinaloa cartel sought to take over Palomas's lucrative cross-border drug-smuggling business. 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. The combination of American guns and dollars, Colombian cocaine, government corruption and internal feuding caused by the arrest of a few mid-level cartel chiefs has since sparked the tinder into an all-out war. It is now unclear which cartel controls Palomas.

In response to the wider national crisis, in which the casualties have included scores of police officers, President Felipe Calderón has deployed 200 soldiers in Palomas alone but the violence has continued unabated.

Rough estimates are that up to 200 families left Palomas last year, including the entire Palomas police force who quit in fear of being killed and its chief sought asylum in the US. Since then the town has been unable to keep police officers, most have been executed in public, while some fled to the US border while being pursued by cartel assassins (sicarios).

And there was the case of the man behind the wheel of a van that coasted into the border station dead; his wounded passenger had reached over to press the gas pedal to make it to the border. This is the average life in a border town among a drug war. Just last Thursday the mayor of Palomas was shot and killed after being abducted -- an act of violence that sent shockwaves rippling across the border.

The slaying of Mayor Estanislao "Tani" García was the highest-profile homicide in a small town. Initial findings indicate that García was abducted in the morning and his body was found around 1pm. They said he had been shot, but it was not know how many times or with what kind of weapon. The Associated Press says his body bore signs of torture.

Officials also said García's burned vehicle was found south of Palomas near where the body was found. A motive for García's killing was under investigation. It was unknown whether it is linked to the drug cartel war but the killing bares all the signs of a gang style execution. García, who was in his second year of a three-year term, was married and had three children. The violence in little town Palomas will certainly intensify before it gets better.

Palomas has become the flash point in the deadly rivalries between Mexican drug traffickers. Americans watch in disbelief as people are caught in increasingly gruesome violence, from gang style executions to beheadings. The increase in violence in towns and cities along the US border concerns Americans about the Mexican mayhem creeping north. New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson has even called for the National Guard to beef up security along the border on this part of the country and Washington has been massing federal troops and high-tech equipment to supposedly strengthen border security.

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. Captain Harvill point to Phoenix, which recorded 368 kidnappings last year, and he noted that drug running is more likely to affect big cities, where drugs sell for more money in bigger markets.

It is 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. So far Columbus has seen very little violence spill over for a long, long time, at least since the raid from Villa.

Although Columbus remains unfazed by the violence on the other side of the wall, the people in Columbus have reason to be leery.

The Lonely Dentist Town

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