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A Tree Grows in Palomas

A revived park symbolizes a town's changing spirit.

 

In Palomas, neighbors have created a kind of free zone where people and trees can flourish.

It's a park on the far west side of town, a block in from the border. One warm evening recently I drove by and saw dozens of children climbing over cheerful yellow, green and red playground equipment and swings. Relaxed, smiling parents with strollers chatted on benches. In one corner of the park, a fierce volleyball game was in progress.

It may not sound remarkable, but it's the only park like this in Palomas. There's an updraft of good feelings there. Life vibrates from the trees and playground equipment.

A couple nights later I went back to the park and a church was holding a fundraising event with pop/rock musicians in the gazebo singing religious songs to electric instruments. There were fruit-flavored aguas for sale, warm pots with beans and salsa, and a man frying whole tilapia on a grill.

I asked a woman selling food at a folding table if she knew anything about Pancho, the jefe de los narcos, who had been shot a couple weeks earlier. She turned up her nose in disgust (not fear) and said she didn't want to say anything.

The park, psychologically but not physically, is a safe zone from crime and the drabness of poverty.

Five men got together four years ago and decided to make it happen. One of them is the owner of a car body shop named Hector Ramirez. He showed me some official papers with the name of the group, Comite de Vecinos [Neighborhood Committee] "Pancho Villa."

The park has thrived on donations. Palomas provided the volleyball net and basketball hoops. Columbus donated a picnic table. A regidora named Carmen at City Hall provided two streetlights. The Deming development group Border Partners found people to build playground equipment. McDonald's in Deming donated its giant play equipment called the Toboggan, and Palomas zoologist Joel Carreon helped get the trees.

I wondered why they have planted so many trees, and Hector responded, "To have a green place in Palomas—a forest." I counted 65 pine trees, many just a couple of feet tall and ringed with tires, plus maybe two-thirds that many deciduous trees.

There are informal volleyball and basketball games of school kids and adults, with official T-shirts.

"No one used to come," Hector said, speaking of the time the park existed without the new equipment and trees.

But the night of the fundraiser I counted 22 cars on one side of the park and 12 on another. "During [school] vacation, the number doubles," he said. "There's not enough parking."

People say they stay till 9 or 10 at night without worry. "Families socialize here, children play," said Hector. "What matters is what you feel inside, because of what you do for others." He poked my forearm with his knuckles, showing his enthusiasm.

He said that if they find drunks hanging out in the park, he calls the police and they're taken away. The vandalism that has occurred has slowed down.

I also asked Hector what he knew about "Pancho." He said he doesn't know anything.

 

The man known as the jefe de los narcos in Palomas was killed on the first weekend in May. It didn't happen in Palomas. Depending on whom you talk to, it happened either at the entronque (the T in the road a half-hour south of Palomas) or in Janos, over an hour south of the border.

Everybody knows his name was Pancho, but nobody seems to know his last name. Rumor has it he was killed by some higher-up in the Juarez Cartel, which he belonged to. (The Juarez Cartel controlled Palomas before Calderón's war and still does.)

He's probably already been replaced.

The kind of power he had is hard to define. All I know is what I hear in scraps of information from people. I heard from one man that he ruled over everybody in Palomas, in that if you said or did something that displeased the cartel, you would be forced to leave town or even be killed.

"He controlled everything," another man said. "The police needed to tell him what was going on."

He ruled over the group of narcos who kept a watch over the town, checking vehicles to see if any drug competitors were moving into their territory. This group, or committee, existed before the drug war. A woman I know said, "In these last years, I think it's more obvious." Not everybody knows they used to be there.

The people I've talked to speak negatively of the drug traffickers, and roll their eyes when you talk about them. They wish they would go away.

But Pancho was also known to help the elementary school that his daughter went to. He had the school thoroughly cleaned and had some stones removed that were dangerous to the kids. He also paid for a school festival. Someone who worked there said, "I miss him. He used to come every few days."

I've heard one young woman say that the police and the narcos were "the same thing."

But the police are not necessarily all ogres. On another occasion this same woman said she has a friend who told her, "My husband quit [the police] because they always had to obey orders." This occurred even to the point of "sending him to a house to pick up a body." The husband left town. This happened a year and a half ago.

The young woman I interviewed said, "If my husband was hurting me, the police would arrest him." Hector Ramirez trusted the police to get rid of drunks in the park.

 

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The drug organization's structure still persists despite Calderón's drug war, like tough tendons that are almost impossible to cut, while remaining harmless and invisible to most people. The general feeling among those I talk to in the streets, businesses and homes is that you won't get hurt if you don't say the wrong things about the drug traffickers. The organization has basically gone underground.

I don't have to work up my courage anymore to go to Palomas. I hear that "health tourists" are returning more and more.

Visiting Palomas is probably not too different from visiting Italy at the height of the Mafia's powers, which millions of American tourists did over the years. Probably any poor country that you visit has crime networks unseen to tourists.

Palomas has changed dramatically in practical terms for most people in the last three or four years. It's a world apart from what it was, though crime's vague forms still float beneath the surface.

 

 

 

To help the people of Palomas, see our list of resources
at www.desertexposure.com/palomas/index.php.

 

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

 

 



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