Night and Day
Palomas spruces up and feels safer during the daytime. But after dark is sometimes a different story.
It's not that big a deal any more for me to cross the border into Palomas. It's not as hard for me as it was in 2008, the first year of the violence, or after Mayor Tanis Garcia was killed in October 2009.
Three days after that event happened, I was so afraid walking along the main street that I felt as if the sidewalk would swallow me up, and I couldn't even quite make it to the Pink Store.
But for quite a while it's been quiet in Palomas during the day, if not at night. I hardly think about the violence when I'm crossing the border, except for a tiny niggling fear in the back of my head. The more I go there, the less scared I am.
The mayor elected last November, Miguel Angel Chacon, is spiffing up the town quite a bit. Crosswalks have been painted; the trees in the central plaza have been pruned radically.
The Saguaro supermarket near the Port of Entry finally closed because of declining business, and a large, expensive furniture store from Nuevo Casas Grandes now fills the building. (It's a little hard to understand where their clients will come from.)
What's even more impressive is that the Calle Zaragoza, the cross street that runs past Leo's Pottery and La Favorita Bakery, has been extended for many blocks. It's actually a four-lane street, and it almost makes you feel you're in a city. (I'm not sure what the purpose of the street is. The space reserved for maquiladoras is over on the east side of town.)
Roberto Rodriguez, painting signs on the wall of the baseball diamond west of town, agreed that a lot of things were looking better because of Chacon. He tells me, "Esta tranquilo!" (It's quiet) and then admits, smiling, "I don't look for problems." And he says that what the town needs is "a big factory," as everyone else knows, too.
My impression of Chacon, and that of a lot of other people, apparently, is that he's honest, hardworking, and making good-faith efforts to bring a maquiladora into town.
A couple weeks ago I got a lot of criticism piled on me, again, from a businessman in Palomas who blames what I've written for his lack of clients. This has happened more than once before.
In Palomas' long crisis their businesses are like sinking ships. What has affected these businesses that serve Americans—the dentists, oculists and so forth—is their customers' fear of violence. This is a personal disaster for these owners, and they're afraid.
It isn't easy to be just in this situation. But an update on the situation in Palomas might be helpful to some people. I'll try to give a sense of the size and shape of the violence as exactly as I can.
The number per capita being killed in Palomas is probably still higher than in Juarez, as I claimed close to a year ago. But Juarez is far different because killings happen there at virtually any time of day or night, while in Palomas they're happening almost entirely at night right now.
Innocent people are very much more likely to be killed in Juarez than in Palomas, according to articles I've read and Juarenses I've talked to.
If someone wanted to go to Palomas, I wouldn't tell them not to go. But if they were afraid, I wouldn't push them.
If someone were shuddering at the thought of going to Palomas, they'd probably be surprised at how nothing seems to be going on when they got there. The atmosphere isn't tense.
You might find young people with nothing better to do than chat and giggle in a grocery store and share a recipe for rice with "azafran" (the word for saffron but really safflower) sprinkled on it, as happened to me. I've been to another grocery store where a woman sat with her hair sticking out all over while her cheerful teenage daughter worked on it. Life goes on as usual for a lot of people.
But I'm not going to forget that the majority of residents get into their houses by nightfall. The librarian in Palomas, who goes home right after work, says she's concerned that teenagers aren't able to go out and have fun like they should anymore.
She agrees the daytime has been quiet for a long time but says, "You never know, a spurt of violence could happen any time."
Other Mexicans are staying away from Palomas just as much as Anglo Americans. A couple of farmworker families I know used to like to go to Palomas on the weekend for a taste of their home culture, but they don't go anymore. Mexicans can be just as chicken as Americans, and it isn't because of my column. They hear about the killings by word of mouth.
Business people are struggling in Palomas, but it's not necessarily because of the press. Mexico is a sick country, and they shouldn't be trying to "shoot the messenger," as I've sometimes felt they might literally do, they get so angry.
If someone knows how I can help these businesses thrive and also maintain integrity, I'd like them to let me know.
Last year I reported that a human rights official in Mexico speculated that the road through Ascension and Casas Grandes and down to Madera could be the worst route for violence in the country, although it wouldn't be apparent to a tourist.
Right now it is clear that the state of Tamaulipas on the Gulf Coast is far worse. It's been suspected for months, but the news was blacked out because of violence against journalists.
After the discovery of a mass grave with 72 immigrants in August in San Fernando, they’ve just uncovered another one with 177 bodies, apparently of Mexicans this time. Drug cartel members have reportedly been kidnapping men and women off intercity buses, maybe as a means of forced recruitment into the cartels, and raping women openly. Seventeen local police were arrested for helping the norcos commit and cover up the murders.
It seems like a combination of Nazi Germany and a Stephen King movie to me.
The human rights official, Gustavo de la Rosa, also said by email that the Valle de Juarez, east of the city along the Rio Grande, has been the worst area for a long time, but is included in Juarez murder statistics. It just happens to be in a crucial path of the drug dealers.
For a list of organizations in need of your donations that are working to help the people of Palomas, see www.desertexposure.com/palomas.