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South of the Border

Looking Up in Ascension

Three years after lynchings, the Mexican town is
quieter but still troubled

by Marjorie Lilly

 

 

As I enter Ascension, Chihuahua, from the north, there are about a dozen Ministerial Police stopping and checking cars to see if they are stolen and if there are guns in the car. They do this at different times during the week.

Ascension 1
A man and child walk in the plaza in the troubled Mexican town of Ascension. (Photos by Marjorie Lilly)

The local police walk the streets with rifles dangling from their shoulders. They are much better armed than before the dramatic upsurge in violence between 2007 and 2011. Soldiers can from time to time be seen patrolling the streets in the back of trucks.

But otherwise Ascension presents the picture of a normal, healthy small town with vehicles bustling through the streets all day.

Ascension's central plaza is dense with trees that shelter lots of aging men and younger people from sun. A large white gazebo in the center hosts bands for Wednesday evening concerts, which people attend without fear now. Plastic banners hung on giant arches at the four corners of the plaza advertise candidates for beauty queen at the autumn agricultural fair. All appears calm.

 

Ascension, an hour's drive south of the border, had stories written about it in US news media on a national level after the Sept. 21, 2010, incident when two teenage boys were killed by a lynch mob. The five-member gang they were part of had kidnapped a young female waitress.

Fed up with the useless, often corrupt police and the endless kidnappings, townspeople ran after the boys, grabbed two with their own hands and ferociously beat

them up. Police tried to rescue them, but the teenagers died in the overheated police cars. Two others were detained and one fled.

The press took note because this kind of mob violence has been common in southern Mexico, but never so close to the US border.

The residents expelled the local police the following day. Almost immediately, the violence fell off substantially.

 

The people of Ascension had been desperate since at least May 2009, when they occupied City Hall and demanded that the army come and save them from the criminals. In August 2011, after the lynching, 26 local police fled town because they were being threatened by the drug gangs. The local police are now functioning again, but the state police were run out of town and the federal police have left after being called in on an emergency basis.

Former mayor Jaime Dominguez Loya says that at that time, there were about six kidnappings per week.

A woman in an office in Ascension says that during the worst time "my phone rang all day long" because of calls by extortionists. She remembers hearing friends tell about seeing "four dead people in one part of town or seven in another."

After these years of extreme violence and turmoil, residents now go out freely in the evenings. But there is still a prickly kind of fear of the now-underground drug cartels that people voice from time to time.

Some people feel there are more urgent issues than drug cartels right now. The water table has been going down for years because of the drought, and experts are predicting that water for all uses may disappear in Ascension within 5, 10 or 15 years. Also, hunger increased dramatically during the time of violence.

 

At the Junta de Agua, director Luis Reyes talks about their program in the local schools to teach kids to conserve water. They hand out bottles, pencils and thermos bottles with the slogan "Cuide el agua" (take care of water) inscribed on them. The Junta de Agua also metes out fines for wasting water and installs public water purifiers.

Ascension 2
Sergio Gonzalez, recently elected mayor.

The former director of another water group, COTAS (Comite Tecnico de Aguas Subterraneas), left the organization, apparently frustrated by not being able to accomplish what he wanted. I speak to the new director, Sergio Blancas, at the roadside stand for Tecate beer where he works sometimes, besides being a farmer. Part of his mandate is to regulate the drilling of wells. But he claims that growers are getting illegal permits through bribes, and that he can't do anything about it without traveling to Mexico City.

Almost all Blancas is doing is monitoring water wastage — an important issue — and working with politicians to make some progress on drip irrigation. "If we can't avoid this crisis, we hope the government can help us," says Blancas.

Ascension had several inches of very welcome rain this year, but Blancas says, with a big grin on his face, that because of "the Mexican way of thinking," this will probably just make people relax their efforts to conserve water.

 

About 25% of farmers' wells have dried up in Ascension, according to Jose Luis Garcia, director of the Fondo de Aseguranza Agricola "La Mesilla." Not many farmers have gone out of business, but many have reduced their crops by 40% to 50%.

Only a very few growers have started doing drip irrigation to conserve water in the municipio of Ascension, as compared to Luna County, NM, where almost all farmers have installed drip systems.

 

 


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