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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009


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Remembering Tanis

In the wake of the mayor's murder, Palomas is rife with rumors.


Tanis is gone. The mayor of Palomas, Estanislao "Tanis" Garcia Santelis, was abducted in the morning of Oct. 8 and found about 20 miles south of town, pumped full of bullets and burned inside his car.

At the memorial service in City Hall, tears poured down staff members' faces and his widow Lupita's face was collapsed in grief, while musicians wailed ranchero songs.

It's a terrible time in the state of Chihuahua right now. A respected radio journalist in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Norberto Miranda, was gunned down right in his broadcasting studio on Sept. 23.

Norberto Miranda's last article informed the public that a record 25 people had been killed in Casas Grandes in September. His murder and one other made 27. In Juarez, after a brief lull in killings in the spring, the monthly death toll is higher than ever.

Palomas had not experienced many killings for a year. But the assassination of Tanis has left the town confused and divided.

The last time I saw Tanis was maybe a month before he died. I was at City Hall talking to Maria Lopez about distributing food. He whizzed past us as he came in the door, as was typical of him. He put his arm around my shoulders for an instant and said hello, smiling his big smile.

I was actually pretty cool with him, as I usually was. I'd heard a few rumors about him being corrupt, which I couldn't prove or disprove, so I just felt kind of cynical and kept my distance.

But when I heard about his murder I was in shock all day. I couldn't stop crying at first. I'm sure many people in this cross-border community reacted the same way.

Even if he was corrupt, he didn't deserve the death sentence. What I remembered was his vitality and his smile. He had a smile that went from ear to ear and lit up the space around him.

Who Tanis really was is being debated a lot. He was definitely controversial. Some people just assume he was involved with drugs and sneer when you talk to them.

I wasn't aware how controversial he was until the last couple of weeks of his life, when there were demonstrations against him in front of City Hall. The issues were corruption and city workers' salaries.

But for months, I and other Americans spending time in Palomas had been aware of an extreme level of general criticism and rumors flying around town. Tere claims Lucero keeps work supplies for herself, Javier is sure Manuela's business is corrupt, and so forth.

I thought that maybe this was a healthy sign that Mexican society is shaking off some bad habits. But there is something so mean-spirited about all this. "I've never seen anything like it!" said one activist who had spent years in Tijuana.

The demonstrations against Tanis make more sense when seen in this context. Maybe it's part of the "psychosis of violence" people are always talking about in the Mexican press.

The demonstrators were so forceful that they shut down City Hall. The Deming Headlight published a letter written by Tanis in his last days. In it he used his legal skills to try to persuade the Chihuahua government to break up the demonstrations because they were shutting down necessary services in Palomas.

The demonstrators were abusive toward some people I can't name for fear of harming them.

The rumors after Tanis' death range from him being involved in drug dealing to him standing up to the drug dealers. There's also a widespread rumor that city employees involved in the demonstrations paid a hit man $500 to kill Tanis. It wouldn't be hard to find someone to do that in Palomas.

I can't claim I knew Tanis well. I wasn't analyzing his accomplishments or even thinking about him much before this happened.

But I recently talked by phone with a very on-the-ball person named Hoss McDonald, in Silver City, who knew the mayor better than I did and said some very interesting things. They'd been fellow members of the board of the orphanage in Palomas.

McDonald has been on the board for over a decade. He said Tanis and his wife Lupita went to lots of their meetings and seemed to genuinely care about the orphanage. According to McDonald, Tanis did much more for the orphanage than any other mayor.

He believes Tanis Garcia was clean. This Baptist called him and his wife "good Catholics." He assured me he knows how engrained corruption is in Palomas, and years ago he had to deal with a staff member of the Casa de Amor who was corrupt.

McDonald remembered one incident not long before Christmas 2008. Tanis at that time asked the orphanage board to pray for him because of threats he'd gotten. "He was afraid because he refused to go along with past corruption."

McDonald has thought a lot about this. "If he was corrupt," he told me, "you would expect him to blow smoke at you and sweet-talk you. But he asked us to pray for him."

He clearly had a lot of respect for Tanis and doesn't think the foul play was of his making.

A week or so after Tanis was killed, there was a short interview with Sheriff Raymond Cobos of Luna County in the El Paso Times. With his crime-analysis skills, he said he can tell there were at least five people involved in the assassination. He thinks they were organized criminals. He believes Palomas residents know how to use the "political process."

But I hope Cobos doesn't ignore certain rumors because of his presuppositions. These are extraordinary times in Mexico, and a lot of rationality is being blown to bits.

I wonder about the possibility of cross-border law enforcement cooperation to investigate this important case. This murder shows every sign of being ignored in Mexico, as are almost all murders.

Tanis' brutal assassination may have been the result of the lack of consistent press coverage or forums for opinions in Palomas, so that rumor-mongering ends up being the only recourse people have.

In the last article Norberto Miranda wrote, there were three paragraphs counseling people in Casas Grandes to stay calm amidst the "general hysteria."

He wrote, "We all should be careful when handling information that circulates through the streets, given that an infinite number of eyes and mouths exist, many of which see more and say more than what really happened. Let's be cautious and not let the psychosis eat up our society."

This message should be listened to these days.



Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming. Contributions to help fight hunger in Palomas can still be sent to: Maria Lopez/DIF, c/o Desert Exposure, PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062.





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