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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008


Peace — of a Sort — Comes to Palomas

After the military's arrival, people are no longer afraid, but they're not sure.

Palomas is at peace again after supplementary troops made their entrance in early April. I never thought I'd be relieved to see Mexican army trucks in the street, almost like a scene from the Pinochet coup in Chile. But the people I've talked to in Palomas consistently agree that things have been tranquilo since the soldiers arrived.

I was stopped once a few blocks west from the main street by two Indian soldiers with big guns slung over their shoulders who asked to check my car for weapons. They've been doing this throughout town. There were at least a dozen soldiers guarding nearby street corners, but I didn't feel especially afraid.

There is now stability after a month and a half when the border town saw 30 or even 40 deaths or disappearances. This was a bloodbath like Palomas had never seen, a turf battle between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels — Vicente Carrillo Fuentes vs. Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman.

Some say what started it all was the arrest of former Juarez police commissioner Raul Reyes Gamboa in mid-January in El Paso. He was charged with bribing a US Customs official to transport marijuana across the border. In a truly "hands across the border" operation, the drug cartels avenged themselves in the assassination of Juarez police officers.

During this period Palomenses have been "leaving in droves," said a bi-national auto mechanic there. It's not just because of the violence but because incomes from businesses were diving perilously.

Some people went to Ascension, Casas Grandes or to their hometowns farther south. Others crossed north into Luna County. A woman in Deming, from rural Sinaloa, said her aged father in Palomas got sick of hearing the cuernos de chivo (AK-47s) going off around his house at night, and decided to move to Sonora.

This has left Palomas a lot less dusty and smoggy from vehicles passing through the streets. There's a changed atmosphere. In fact, Palomas and southwest New Mexico have seen an extraordinary spring with clear blue skies and temperatures hovering around 80. There's been a lot of wind, but few of the semi-overcast days that I've thought of as typical for April.

The air is saturated with sunlight day after day, and the sky seems wider than usual. These halcyon days are only intensifying the serious drought we're in, but few people mind, with such perfect days to revel in.

In early April I went to Palomas with a degree of trepidation. I was nervous for my own safety and imagined I might be hearing lots of stories of violence. I went to visit a women's crafts co-op meeting in a room renovated by people from Deming and Silver City.

When I arrived, there were women and a bunch of kids at work or playing. About five women were in the process of moving into the front room of Socorro's house, where Janet gave a workshop with the women sitting around the kitchen table. She showed them how to improve the woven shoes they were making for the project, how to make them fit better.

Everyone was engaged in the workshop and showing some of the beautiful things they had for sale in this room with the walls painted different colors — yellow on one side, blue on two opposite sides, red-orange on the other — and the killings seemed miles away. Socorro came back from an errand and was beaming with that bright sun she always has inside, even though there had been some violence against family members.

This co-op started to organize a few months ago, and sold their crafts for the first time, with great success, at the Camp Furlong Day celebration in Columbus on March 8. The birth of the co-op happened right in the middle of the throes of violence. One of the best things I've ever seen happening in Palomas occurred during the worst period ever.

"Everyone who was killed was involved with drugs," a very level-headed participant named Carla said to me after the workshop. I heard the same thing from a woman working in the Pink Store. (And I've also heard about a couple of exceptions)

It turns out I was wrong about the businessman I talked about in my last column who had been "levantado" (kidnapped). Both these women said he'd actually been selling drugs on the side. "What could you say to him?" was the comment one woman made. All agree he was "nice" and "good."

That's the thing. The drug trade reaches widely and deeply into a border town like Palomas, to all kinds of people. I remember a man on the east side of town who used to pick chile in Hatch but was deported for transporting drugs. I always felt he was honest with me, and he had a really funny way of chasing their silly little dog in his yard.

To Mexicans, especially young ones, there's a glamour to the drug business that I've never understood. Narco-corridos have been hugely popular, of course. But to me drug trafficking has always seemed ugly, depraved, mean and nasty, with an odor to it something like the acrid smell of a just-fired gun.

Not all Mexico is this violent. Even about every other place in Chihuahua is more peaceful. I've spent a month in the central Mexico city of Zacatecas and it was worlds removed from Palomas and Juarez — peaceful and up to its ears in charm.

The soldiers have been the saviors, but it's reasonable to wonder what kind of abuses the army is carrying out. In their anti-narcotics operations they have been known for all kinds of dirty-war style torture, putting sacks over people's heads to asphyxiate them, bobbing their heads under water, tying them up. This could be going on in Palomas.

When someone is killed because he was involved in drug trafficking, it partly cancels the grief or outrage one might ordinarily feel, unfortunately. It's not as if 30 people were shot in an anti-government demonstration in the plaza central. The violence has just mostly blown over and most people are glad it's over.

Carla said flatly, "I'm not afraid for myself," because she isn't a trafficker and doesn't expect to be a target. But she says she's afraid for her young son who comes home on weekends from working in Phoenix.

Other people echo her sentiments. They're not afraid, but they're not sure.

Palomas residents are still somewhat afraid, and don't expect that the wave of violence has changed things forever. "It's the border," said a man in a little grocery store. Things will probably be back to "normal" in a while.

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

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