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About the cover

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

Our Neighbors, los Narcotraficantes

Inside the drug war that echoes in Palomas.

There are rumors going around Palomas that the current number-one most-wanted drug cartel leader in Mexico, Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman, has been seen with his fleet of bodyguards in Ascension — one hour southwest of Palomas — in Casas Grandes, and in Parral.

I heard this from Padre Jose Abel Retano in mid-July, after Sunday mass, talking with him in the back pews in the large auditorium of the Catholic Church on the plaza in Palomas. He said he thinks there's been a sort of de facto takeover of Palomas by the Sinaloa cartel headed by El Chapo Guzman. He said, "This is what people are saying." He didn't claim to have the last word.

Retano wasn't comfortable with the word "won" — that one side had won over the other side (the Juarez cartel). It's just that everybody on one side has been killed off, he said.

I'm typing this column knowing that the situation in Palomas could change by the time the bundles of Desert Exposure hit the stands. But at this moment the little war in the town across the Mexican border has been at a near-standstill for over two months, except for three recent killings.

It seems that everyone on the street or in the businesses in Palomas says that the army's arrival in March turned the tide and made things more tranquilo. But extra army troops were deployed in Juarez, too, with no noticeable effect on the level of violence there. In fact the drug war reached its highest death rate in June with 139 killings.

I've wondered what happened in Palomas that makes the situation different. There's speculation by various people, but nobody I speak to seems to know for sure.

To a pair of law-enforcement officers in Deming that I had the opportunity to talk to, the lull in violence is almost negligible. They see the violence as a continuum that's far from over. The Sinaloa cartel has had Ascension and Casas Grandes in its grasp for a couple of years already, these two men say.

I've always been aware that there's a degree of danger in Palomas. When I moved here 12 years ago, I heard there were drug dealers there.

Amanda, the schoolteacher in the little town of Chepas west of Palomas, swears she once found herself in the crossfire between two men on the streets of Palomas in broad daylight. This was about 10 years ago. About that time I sat at a kitchen table with some young mothers in Chepas who said it was quiet there, but in Palomas the people were "locos."

Interestingly, the lawmen in Deming, who had deep family roots in Palomas, estimated that only about 10 percent of the families there don't have ties with drug dealers. But Padre Retano estimated about 10 percent do have ties, and another man in Palomas thought there was about one family on each block.

The men in Palomas didn't seem to be especially defensive. Part of the difference in perception could come from the tendency toward self-righteousness of some Mexican Americans who've grown up on this side of the border.

El Chapo (Shortie) Guzman is a folk hero and fugitive. It's believed that when Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo was assassinated in 1993 in Guadalajara, it was Guzman that the rival Arrellano Felix gang intended to kill. The cardinal and El Chapo had similar cars.

The authorities captured Guzman that year in Guatemala. He spent years in prison, running the Sinaloa cartel there in obscene luxury. But he escaped in 2001, supposedly hidden in a laundry van. It was just a few days before he was to be extradited to the US. The vast wealth of the cartel got him out.

Guzman is now warring not only with the Juarez cartel, which has been weakened, but with his former allies in the Sinaloa Cartel — the Beltran Leyvas. The decapitated Gulf Cartel in the east and their offshoot the Zetas are also battling for the plaza (dominance) in Mexico.

On March 25 this year Guzman was involved with a gunfight in a little town in Guatemala where 11 people were killed. For a while people thought he had died, too.

It's easy to see why some people worship him. It's his invincibility in the face of the authorities, especially the "pinche gringos" — the seemingly omnipotent hueros to the north. The ones who always get anything they want done with their money.

One commenter on El Chapo Guzman on YouTube says, with conscious hip misspellings, "Si no ubiera natcos no ubiera dinero" (if there were no narcos, there would be no money). So many Mexican guys believe this. Some comment "Viva Zapata!" while others say he'll burn in hell.

Something that gives credibility to the rumors about Chapo Guzman's visit to Ascension is that Guzman reportedly also made a visit to a restaurant called Aroma in Juarez in the second week of May. (This happens to coincide with the week nine people died in Palomas, the last major throe of violence.) His goons took pictures of the customers, took their cell phones, and locked the doors. Guzman stayed till 2 a.m. with a friend, returned the phones, and paid the bill.

With almost exactly the same methodology, he's said to have dined in a restaurant in Nuevo Laredo in 2005.

I've never learned all the complicated permutations of the Spanish family names of cartel leaders, their cousins and their intermarried spouses, which fit together like shuffled cards. I still have trouble telling apart the names of the Arellano Felix clan from the Carrillo Fuentes brothers. (The former are in Tijuana and the latter rule the Juarez cartel.) They sound alike to me. Their inevitable motes (nicknames) have a kind of jaunty poetry to them — El Chapo, El Mayo, El Azul, El Nacho, El H, El Mochomo.

But all these guys have sown whole graveyards of narco-bodies, and terror in the lives of many ordinary people.

Padre Retano says the narcotraficantes are maintaining a low profile in Palomas now. They're using smaller cars than before and renting houses instead of owning big houses like the pale pink one with the elaborate white wrought-iron fence around it that someone once told me belonged to drug dealers.

I asked Retano if some people involved in the drug trade have been so shocked by the violence in town that they've had a sudden surge of conscience and changed their ways.

"Conciencia?" he said, looking squarely at me, and pausing. "No. Tienen miedo (they're afraid)."

Things are still going on as usual.

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

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