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Law and Order

Police and citizens of all types are enforcing calm in Palomas.

 

These are stunningly beautiful days on the New Mexico border. Temperatures in October are not too hot or too cold, and the sky is a swept-clean, primal blue. It's the best time to visit Palomas, and about the best time to do anything at all.

The atmosphere is still a little murky in Palomas when it comes to local law enforcement, but it's not a dangerous place for Americans to visit. The town has gone way beyond the stormy years of drug violence that lasted roughly from 2007 to 2010.

I interviewed Comandante Juan Jose Juarez last month at the municipal police station on a side street in Palomas, in a dark green cement block building. Juarez was originally from Guadalajara. He's been police chief in Palomas for two years, after serving in Ascension and Galeana.

The décor inside is very spare. The comandante's office has a desk and two couches, one of which was a seat from a car. A young woman police officer, Carmen Borrunda, hangs around listening to us.

I bring up the subject of police abuses I'd heard about. He says every one of the police officers (a total of eight) had been fired over the past year. He stops and thinks, and then says with mild surprise, "Almost all of them were fired for abuses" — mostly for beating people. Carmen told me almost the same story before Juarez came into the room.

Juarez says the three prison cells in the station are filled on weekends, especially on Saturday night. The main reasons they arrest people are for drunk driving and, to a lesser degree, for "pleitos de parejas," domestic fights. American tourists, unless they get into trouble (which some do), are not going to have anything to do with the police.

The duties of the municipal police are very limited. They just watch over traffic and "prevent crimes." They'll go to a scene of a fight, but will refer the case to the Policia Ministerial only if there are any wounds.

Carmen is one of the first two female officers the department has ever had. It's a trend in the area, because male police aren't allowed to search women they have apprehended.

 

I expect Juarez to stonewall or waffle when I ask him about the narco jefe I'd heard of who helps maintain order in some parts of Palomas, but he doesn't. He says there actually are a few of these men, not just one.

These men cool things down especially in cases of young guys spinning their wheels as they drive through the streets. Juarez tells me, "They say 'te calmes, te calmes' (calm down)." They want to maintain order, according to him, because "they don't want police from other towns to come here."

I say to him, "This is very ironic, isn't it?" (referring to the fact that these men, responsible for so much terror, are now keeping the peace).

He looks me in the eye and says firmly, "Si."

But I'm not sure he sees the irony of himself, the policeman, talking about the narcos as if they were a normal part of the life of Palomas. They aren't his responsibility anyway, I guess.

 

The ordinary American tourist going to the dentist or a restaurant or the Pink Store won't ever get in the way of abusive police or narcos. I've never heard a single story of any tourist being harmed in the 16 years I've lived in this area, and I called a few long-time visitors to Palomas to confirm that for this story.

A few weeks ago I got ticketed there for parking in the wrong direction in front of La Favorita Bakery. The two policewomen and a young policeman told me to go to the station to pay a fine of $10. When I arrived, there was $9 plus a $20 bill in my wallet, and the guy let me pay just $9. I'm not quite sure what they'd do if the ticketed person didn't speak Spanish, but there was nothing scary about the experience.

The only problem with this story is that the scenario is different for Latinos. I know a Hispanic businessman in Deming who went to a restaurant in Palomas and found someone, possibly a drug dealer, staring at him with intense hatred. It was apparently a case of mistaken identity, and nothing happened.

The case I mentioned in October of a US resident being beaten and robbed by police is more serious.

But I think Latinos generally know about this already.

 

Another layer of law enforcement in Palomas that I've learned about recently is a group of ordinary residents who carry out a regular watch in the streets. They're on the lookout for any outsiders who may have a harmful purpose. A street vendor pointed out to me one of their cars that was about a block away.

Both Comandante Juarez and Mayor Miguel Chacon say they've never heard of this group. It's not clear to me whether the group is secret or just informal, but they are serious about not letting the drug violence take over Palomas again.

A man who sells burritos said one night he went to his van to get something at about 1 or 2 a.m. and he was stopped by one of these men. But the man soon recognized the vendor and let him go on his way.

It may be just a neighborhood watch committee, but the danger is that one of them might get hurt or hurt someone else. But I think they probably are one of the reasons things are so quiet in town.

A lot of Mexicans are desperately tired of the abuses of their police and army that have blended with the horrors of organized crime.

An interesting movement is going on in several towns south of Palomas including Ascension and Casas Grandes. The leader is a Mormon man I wrote about in July 2011, Julian LeBaron, who spoke at a meeting of Mexican peace activists at a park in El Paso.

LeBaron is a dual US/Mexican citizen who deeply identifies with Mexico. His speeches and letters to newspapers ring like a brass bell with a passionate love of freedom and a hatred of abuses committed against his fellow Mexicans.

His group successfully kicked the extortionate and violent federal police out of Ascension in June of this year. In early September a meeting of several hundred people in Casas Grandes, including 11 mayors and many farmers, denounced the extortion going on at the customs booth in Janos.

Maybe something will come out of the nightmare of violence that Chihuahuans have suffered. It's happening now.

 

 

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.



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