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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2010


A Town with Its Pockets Turned Out

From a quiet morning in Palomas to a US task force operating in Chihuahua.

Being in Palomas on a morning in summer is like being under a big green shade tree. The air is fresh and cool. Colors are more alive and full-bodied, from the butter yellow of the sunlight to the green and blue and brick reds of people and things.

I drove down in mid-June at about 10 a.m. Storekeepers were sweeping floors and sidewalks, and the day was still pluming upwards. Palomas is more Mexican during these hours, more by itself, more detached from the United States.

During the morning, the town is still sheltered from the brassy rays of sun in these 100-degree days that drain away colors and make them washed out and febrile by 2 p.m.

That morning I went from the Pink Store to the Presidencia (City Hall) to the Catholic Church on the plaza and to lunch at Tommy's a block to the south. I was the only customer at Tommy's and the streets were very quiet.

Palomas is still a town with its pockets turned out, since the beginning of this economic crisis. But it was peaceful. I honestly didn't feel that gnawing discord inside or under my skin that I described in detail in my last column. It's a little embarrassing.

A businessperson in Palomas complained that my last column, which exposed the unseen violence south of Palomas, caused them to get a lot of concerned phone calls from Americans. I didn't entirely realize how much people rely on what I write to know how safe it is there. I know it's an important issue.

I can only say that Palomas continues to be quiet this year. There have only been about five killings and disappearances since Jan. 1. If people were used to going to Palomas before 2008, when hell broke loose, they shouldn't be any more scared than they were then. The violence was just about at the same level then.

I know one dentist who makes appointments only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. so his patients will feel safe. Another gives clients a ride from the border if they ask for it. It's probably as good a time as any to go to Palomas.

There's a young bespectacled seminary student currently working at the office of the Catholic Church who just arrived from Juarez. He told me of the terror he felt just walking around Juarez, his native town. In comparison Palomas seems to be a haven from violence in northern Chihuahua.

Whatever the per capita murder levels are in Juarez and Palomas, it doesn't really matter. Measuring a city of a million people up against a town of 4,000 is comparing apples and oranges.

I don't have the faintest idea whether the Pax Palomensis will last one more day or a decade. I have no opinion. There may be a shooting on Main Street tomorrow or a levantamiento (kidnapping) of a dozen people some night next month. Or it may not happen for years.

But the state of Chihuahua is right now the most violent in Mexico. Yet another mayor in the Valle de Juarez (west of Juarez) was killed on June 19. President Rafael Camarillo of the departamento of Ascension, which includes Palomas, responded to the murder this way: "We're living through the worst crisis of security that we've ever seen, [police] agents are quitting, and we're having many problems with vigilance." Ascension had been part of a group that included the Valle de Juarez trying to promote security in their towns.

I can't shy away from reporting on these people in trouble. History is going on, and I think readers want to be informed.

There was a fascinating article in the respected Narco News Bulletin on June 12 about a US special operations task force, called "Task Force 7," that worked south of Palomas a little over a year ago. They were under the command of the Pentagon. This group provided training and advice to the Mexican army in several situations, including the uncovering of a mass grave about a half-hour south of Palomas in early May last year, according to the report. Apparently six skeletal corpses were found (which seems almost trivial in comparison with the uncovering of 55 bodies in Taxco on June 7).

This operation was briefly announced in Mexican papers, but I've never found anyone willing to give any more information about it, not even the number of bodies uncovered.

The reporter's source was a former CIA employee with a long resume for covert operations, William Robert "Tosh" Plumlee. Mike Levine, host of the leftist Pacifica Radio's "Expert Witness Radio Show," says, "Before I invited him on the air, because his story was so incredible, I vetted him through government agents, all of whom said he is the real thing."

Plumlee informed Narco News about the Palomas operation a month before it occurred, as evidence he had contact with Task Force 7. He claims the group has seven or eight members "working in a civilian capacity, meaning they are not in uniform." It's only one of several task forces working in Mexico.

Some of the other cases Task Force 7 has been involved in were the discovery of a Juarez sweatshop that was manufacturing phony Mexican military uniforms (which are used by drug cartels) and the hunting down of top drug trafficker Arturo Beltran Leyva, assassinated by Mexican Navy special forces last December in Cuernavaca.

The reporting of these "embedded" forces caused a small uproar when reported in the Washington Post, The Nation and other publications.

The Mexican government has an absolutely desperate need for more training and expertise, with only 95% of the killings in Calderon's drug war having been investigated, as reported by El Universal. But the controversy arises because of the deeply stained history of US covert operations in Latin America and elsewhere resulting in assassinations of political leaders and the overthrowing of governments.

Money has been coming in to Our Lady of Palomas from various directions, including this column, but there is still a lot of misery in Palomas, of course. One of the bright spots in town is the provision of 1,500 meals a day in July to school-age children on vacation in Palomas by Victoria Tester and Espeanza Lozoyoa. You can send donations for Luz de la Esperanza to Esperanza Lozoya, PO Box 38, Columbus, NM 88029, or contact the SC Palomas Outreach coordinator at (575) 536-9726 or childrenofpalomas@yahoo.com Visit visit the Palomas Outreach donor barrels and boxes at the Food Basket stores in Silver City and Bayard, and at Diaz Farms and Snappy Marts in Deming.

Chad Stinard of Our Lady is working to get a goat project going. Goats are a very sustainable source of food because they have lots of kids and are light eaters. If anyone would like to ask about this project or make tax-deductible donations to the regular Food Project, contact him at Our Lady of Palomas/Food Project, PO Box 622, Columbus NM 88029, at (575) 531-1101 or at cstinard@gmail.com

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

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