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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Haunted by Mayor's Death

Albuquerque Journal

Palomas, Mexico — Just two weeks after arriving at his new post, the Rev. Antonio Velderrain Roman, the 38-year-old pastor of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church on the town's plaza, found himself presiding over the Palomas mayor's funeral.

It was Velderrain's abrupt introduction to the violence, much of it fueled by drug cartel power struggles, that has ravaged this small border town, emotionally and financially, over the last two years.

"The people are insecure. There's fear and too much violence," Velderrain said. "People are afraid to go out. Once it gets dark, there's no one on the street."

In perhaps the most high-profile act of violence last year, on the morning of Oct. 8, Mayor Estanislao "Tanys" Garcia was abducted as he drove his car in the plaza one block from the town hall and killed.

His bullet-riddled body was discovered about 20 miles south of town in a Chevy Malibu that had been set on fire. The crime remains unsolved, and no suspects have been named.

The town still seems haunted by Garcia's memory. His campaign slogan remains painted on several walls around town. Translated, it proclaims: "With Tanys Garcia (as mayor), everything will be different."

Last year at this time, Maria Lopez, a 41-year-old mother of three, was busy delivering bags of groceries to the town's neediest residents as head of the local social services office. Garcia was her mentor and friend, and, after he was killed, the town council appointed her mayor.

"I'm good," she said during a recent visit to her bare-bones office. "Very sad. Obviously, things are worse, but we are moving forward."

Lopez said that, like 2008, last year was rough on Palomas.

Fear kills economy

The economy of the town of about 8,000 used to depend largely on two groups: American tourists seeking low-cost prescription drugs, dental work and inexpensive meals; and northbound immigrants gearing up before illegally crossing the border. Now both of those revenue streams have largely dried up, as fear has driven away many of the tourists and the Department of Homeland Security has increased personnel and built miles of fencing and vehicle barriers on southern New Mexico's border.

During a recent visit, the town's plaza, once a gathering place for would-be border-crossers and smugglers, was empty. On the town's main strip, there were few tourists.

Several hotels that catered to border-crossers have been shuttered, and restaurants and clubs have closed. Lopez said many residents travel to the farming town of Ascension, about an hour away, to find work in chile fields.

"It's real bad," said the owner of a taco stand on the town's main street. "People are very edgy right now, because it (the mayor's assassination) was so unjust."

When asked his name, he pushed his hands into his jacket pockets, said "Pleasure talking to you," and abruptly walked away.

In 2009, Lopez said, about 60 people were either killed or disappeared in Palomas, with many cases suspected of being tied to drug-trafficking gangs.

The danger earlier led the town's police chief to flee and seek asylum in the U.S. in March 2008. The town is without its own police force for now, and Mexican Army soldiers, wearing desert camouflage, patrol the streets and conduct random vehicle checks.

On Thanksgiving Day, a well-known dentist, Ricardo Fierro, who treated many American clients, was kidnapped. He has not been released, and his family refused to discuss the matter out of concern for his safety.

Velderrain said Fierro was the last of eight locals kidnapped in a 10-day period in late November. One victim was found dead, but the others are still missing, Velderrain said.

Ivon Aguilar, owner of a Deming Optical store in Palomas, said the persistent violence has driven away more than 80 percent of her clients. The company closed one of its two stores in Palomas in July.

Many linked to drugs

Aguilar said many of the town residents are involved somehow in drug-trafficking. "Without exaggerating, about 30 to 40 percent of the people around here were or are or will be involved in narco-trafficking," Aguilar said. "It's a common thing."

Lopez said she did not believe Garcia was involved in criminal activity. In the weeks before he was abducted, the town hall had been picketed by local teachers who had raised concerns about the use of public funds. Lopez said the man she knew was dedicated to helping the people of the town, particularly its poor.

Lopez said she was not aware of any threats the mayor might have received, and she herself has not received any.

With the motive unknown, Lopez said she still does not know what to make of the mayor's slaying.

"It really disturbs me," Lopez said. "It bothers me because I saw this man work so hard for this town, saw him struggle and struggle, and then for this to happen ..."

Across the street from the simple town hall, which is fronted by a large statue of Pancho Villa on horseback, is the Lucky 7 bar, empty on a recent weekday afternoon except for the bartender.

Last year, armed assailants abducted the owner's son as he worked behind the bar. His body was later found at a dumping ground in the desert.

Bartender Carolina Cabrera, 26, said that her husband was abducted from the couple's Palomas home close to midnight in spring 2008 by a large group of armed men, one of whom trained his weapon's laser sight on her forehead to dissuade her from interfering. She later found her husband's body on the edge of town.

Asked why her husband would have been targeted, Cabrera said, "The truth is, I don't know. He got involved in something — I don't know what."

Asked how she reacted to the recent assassination of her town's mayor, Cabrera shrugged: "Not much. You get used to it."

Publicly, Mayor Lopez says she is not worried about her own safety.

"I knew there were bad things happening out there, but I never thought it would come to this — killing the mayor," she said.

When Garcia was kidnapped, Lopez said she was meeting with American officials in Columbus. She said U.S. Customs officials offered her and her family asylum in the U.S., but she declined. "I wouldn't know what to do over there," she said.

She also declined security from Mexican police.

"I've just got to go out and do my job," Lopez said.

For now, she is doing the city's business out of an unadorned office in the unheated city hall. And she is not running from the former mayor's memory.

On Nov. 2, for Day of the Dead celebrations, she hired a mariachi band to play at Garcia's grave, a rock-ringed mound of dirt marked by synthetic flowers at the town's cemetery on the southern end of town. Garcia loved music, Lopez explained. Some friends and Garcia's wife and two children attended.

"Wherever he is, I hope he keeps guiding me in ways so I can help this town," Lopez said, growing teary-eyed. "Wherever he is, I hope he's proud of me, and I'm going to continue trying to help his people."

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