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Skirting the shadows

Assessing the need for caution in Palomas


U.S. State Department travel warnings for Mexico, issued just before Christmas, tell travelers to “exercise caution” when going to Palomas. But I think they’re just flat wrong. I don’t know exactly what those warnings mean. People just need to leave town before about 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. That’s all they need to know. I really haven’t felt any apprehension when going to Palomas for roughly three years.

I heard about one murder that happened in Palo- mas last year, a well confirmed disappearance of three men, and another less confirmed disappearance of a young man.

But last year was a very quiet year for Palomas, despite the ghastliness of these crimes.

The murder was horrific – a man killed his wife by cutting her head off in their garage. A neighbor who saw the body says he couldn’t sleep for two nights. One American woman believes there was narco involvement, but this hadn’t occurred to anybody else I spoke to. I happened to be visiting with someone around the corner on the hot autumn afternoon when the wife’s body was carried off in a white van.

One of the three disappeared men was the son-inlaw of a woman named Reyna who runs a shelter for elderly people that’s been listed in this paper for the purpose of donations. Reyna’s daughter is left with four children. They’ve searched everywhere for her husband and have left signs in stores asking for his whereabouts.

The last disappeared person was kidnapped recently, and his mother thinks he’s still alive.

None of these events happened near the main street in Palomas, and they really pose no danger to tourists.

There may have been more murders last year committed outside city limits or disappearances that happened in secret, too, but 2014 would still have been quiet.

Oscar Campo, the “ministerio publico” in Palomas for two years, says he can’t give out statistics on murders.

“We’re not authorized to do it,” he says. “It would be a reason for being fired.”

The ministerio publico acts as a representative of the Attorney General’s office for the state of Chihuahua.



No phone calls

“You have to go talk personally to some department of public relations in Nuevo Casas Grandes,” Campo says. He says you can’t even make a phone call to get statistics, because it’s too dangerous. Some of the drug people have been known to call for information, he says.

It sounds as if, in some bizarre way, he’s trying to keep the number of killings a secret, but I suppose it’s true.

Campo’s office is the picture of tranquility. Beside his desk an open door leads to a second-story porch with ornate wrought-iron work. He says he’s never been threatened.

He is a huero (light-colored person), and he struck me at first as an Anglo-American except for the Spanish words coming out of his mouth. In my half-hour talk with him, he seemed to me a reasonable, conscientious official.

He’s been a lawyer in the Attorney General’s office for 15 years, including a position in Juarez from 2005 to 2010 during extremely violent times. But he offers no repertoire of lurid stories.

Campo says that, after the violent years and the almost complete absence of investigations of murders in Juarez, “there are slightly more investigations going on.” He shows no rage about this, or even discontent. He has an unruffled confidence in Mexico’s institutions.

“There’s definitely more instruction about how to do investigations in the whole state,” he adds.

There have been changes in the past few years in Chihuahua’s judicial system, he says. “The trials are now oral,” Campo says. “Before, everything was written. Before, there was one judge, and now three judges make decisions in each case.”

He represents Palomas residents in a court in Nuevo Casas Grandes, the center of the judicial district called Galeana, which includes Ascension. He agrees it’s odd he has to drive 2 and a half hours to get there when Juarez is only 1 and a half hours away.

Campo walked me to my car to get a copy of Desert Exposure. Three yellow mongrels approached us, oozing friendliness.

“Are these your guard dogs?” I joke. He laughs.

The narcos continue their shadow government in the area of Palomas.

It’s just been in the past few months that I’ve heard of the new jefe of the drug people in Palomas, since the man named Pancho was killed over a year ago.

The new man is called El Zurdo (Lefty). He doesn’t operate as openly as Pancho, who was well-known in Palomas. But this may just be because of the time of year, one person guessed. A woman I know says that years ago El Zurdo used to be friends with her sister.

When mayor Talaco (Estanislao Sanchez) took office, there were rumors he was threatened, although he strongly denies it.



‘Many truths uncertain’

I’ve heard from a good source that a narco from Palomas was heard to say, “I rule in Colonia Modelo. I rule in Colonia Victoria. I rule in Seis de Enero,” referring to the three little towns south of Palomas.

The mayor of one of the towns in the Palomas area, I’ve heard, has had to divide his tasks with a narco. A couple people say the police “no se meten” (don’t get involved) with some law enforcement issues because they themselves are cowed by the narcos.

There has even been a man who has worked for the drug people distributing food to the poor. He took the job because he himself has a big family to feed. A friend asked him, “Are you afraid?” and he said, “Yes.”

The intertwining of the drug world with the seriously corrupted democratic government in Mexico and the web of lies often make me think of a passage from a lyrical section of Alejo Carpentier’s 1953 novel The Lost Steps, where he describes a jungle in Venezuela:

“Here everything seemed like something else, creating a world of appearances that hide reality, making many truths uncertain. The alligators that lay in the depths of the submerged jungle, immobile, with their jaws held open, looked like rotten wood clothed in dog-rose; the reeds looked like reptiles, and the serpents appeared to be lianas, if their skin didn’t have the nervures of precious wood, the eyes of moth wings, the scales of pineapple, or rings of coral.”

The reign of the narcos in Palomas seems light right now. It’s not a reign of terror, although its perpetuation is absolutely serious. Ordinary people live their ordinary lives, but don’t talk about the narcos openly. They aren’t in rebellion, as some are in Guerrero and other states, and may never be.

But there’s an uneasiness underneath the skin that won’t lie completely still.


Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming

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