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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  February 2011

By the Numbers

Seeking the truth in Palomas and Mexico's drug war, with the help of statistics.

When I was in the Columbus library a few days ago, I noticed a round-faced boy about 12 years old watching a video on a computer about a young Mexican man (an actor) being held hostage by drug-cartel thugs.

The scared-looking man was being forced to walk through a rolling, barren landscape startlingly like a scene that might have been taped a few miles to the south in Mexico. It's as if there were a mirror set up at the border that reflected onto the computer screen. The boy's mouth hung open a little as he watched, completely drawn into the dire drama.

What struck me was the calm, absolute control shown by the armed man standing near the victim. It reminded me of the demeanor of cowboys in the old TV westerns. "You just move along now, and don't look back," they'd say. Sociologists probably claim this expresses a desire for power on the part of the video viewers.

This drug war is a real war and a virtual war at the same time. Many photos and videos of dismembered bodies and gun battles are shown on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for adolescent boys to gape at. I've heard they even do this in classrooms sometimes.

That afternoon I went to Palomas. Late in the day I spoke to an anonymous business manager in an anonymous store (for his protection) and asked him how many killings there were last year. He guessed "between 30 and 50," to my surprise. He slung around numbers like 200 or 300 murders for the past three years in Palomas. He was as credible as anybody else I know.

A car mechanic working hard on a farmworker's car in another part of town said he didn't think there were any fewer killings last year than the previous year, and maybe even more. I joshingly said that maybe he was a drug dealer. He answered with mock solemnity, "Yo soy un hombre de paz" ("I'm a man of peace").

These numbers make me think my estimate of two-dozen murders in my last column was off the mark. As I've said, I don't spend nearly enough time to get an authoritative figure. It would cost too much and be too dangerous. The Ministerio Publico in Palomas knows they don't have complete figures because families are often too scared to report killings. It would be hard for me to talk to some of these families, too.

Axel Figueroa, a former UTEP student now working a cash register in a grocery store in Palomas, told me in December, "Yes, there have been murders; yes, kidnappings. But there are many rumors, and you never know what's true."

Nothing could be a more exact statement. You just never know what's real. One hears every kind of rumor in Palomas. I've heard some pretty well-developed rumors that some businesses in Palomas were founded on drug money, something very hard to prove. The employees at the Pink Store said that the three decapitated heads didn't really appear in the main plaza. The man who runs the public restrooms on the plaza told me that former Mayor Maria Lopez used public funds to repair her house, when the exact opposite was true: She used her own money to feed poor families, and the holes in the ceiling of her son's bedroom still hadn't been fixed. I've even heard that the assassinated mayor Tanis Garcia has been seen alive in Phoenix. This is my favorite rumor. I think Tanis would have a laugh at that.

Year-end statistics for 2010 came rolling out in early January. The Zeta weekly of Tijuana (which has nothing to do with the feared Zeta cartel) published some interesting statistics in the second week of January. These numbers were higher than those generally used by others in the press, who often say "over 30,000," but Zeta is a respected magazine. They are well-known for their editor being assassinated by drug sicarios in 2004. The statistics come from the public prosecutors offices in Mexico's various states. The Zeta writer claims that these are minimal figures because they don't include the many disappeared or those buried in clandestine graves.

According to Zeta, the total number for those killed in President Caldern's drug war since he took office in December 2006 is 40,627. It says 19,557 were killed in 2010 alone, way higher than last year's 11,753.

In 2010, 14 mayors were killed, part of a total of 20 for Caldern's term. Mayor Tanis Garcia of Palomas was one of four mayors killed in 2009. Fifteen journalists were killed in Mexico last year, bringing the total to 56.

The state of Chihuahua is clearly alone at the top of the list for executions in Mexico, with 4,375 — just about twice as many killings as the next state, Sinaloa, with 2,204. (According to El Diario de Juarez, 3,111 of the killings in Chihuahua occurred in Juarez.) Baja California, where Tijuana is the capital, follows with less than half the previous figure — 1,003. Durango, the state of Mexico, Guerrero, Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon follow, with from 839 killings down to 720 each. The states with almost no executions were Puebla (7), Yucatan (7), Campeche (3) and Tlaxcala (2).

Out of nine major drug capos either killed or detained that Zeta mentions, one detainee of local interest was Luis Carlos Vasquez Barragan, known as "El 20." The Oct. 24 Proceso magazine says Vasquez was the operator in charge of our "neighborhood," so to speak — Puerto Palomas, Ascension, Nuevo Casas Grandes, Janos and Puerto San Luis — before he was picked up by the Federal Police of Mexico on July 25. He was one of the three top leaders of La Linea, the armed branch of the Juarez Cartel.

The economic crisis continues in Palomas, and the hunger is especially severe in the winter, as usual. All donations to the Hunger Project of Our Lady of Palomas will be gratefully accepted.

There have been changes at Our Lady of Palomas recently. Chad Stinard has taken a new job in El Paso and there will be a renewed commitment to the women's cooperatives in Palomas and Columbus. Food distribution will be carried out by co-op members and will focus on the very elderly and families with handicapped members. Donations to the Education Project and the Goats Project will be forwarded.



AIR Coffee in Bayard will host a Valentine's Day party on Feb. 12, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., to sell the cooperatives' products. The New Mexico Women's Foundation Rag Rug Festival on March 5 and 6 at the Farm and Ranch Museum in Las Cruces will include cooperative products.

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

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