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COLUMN ONE

Border drug war is too close for comfort

Tiny Columbus, N.M., a haven for baby boomer retirees seeking cheap living, small-town values and solitude, can't quite believe that a bloody brawl has broken out on its doorstep.

February 19, 2009|Scott Kraft

COLUMBUS, N.M. — The day began gently here on the U.S.-Mexico border. The cold, starry sky gave way to the orange smile of a sunrise.

Over at the Pancho Villa Cafe, short-order cook Maria Gutierrez whipped up her egg and chopped tortilla special. Down the street, Martha Skinner, still in her housecoat, brewed a pot of coffee for guests at her bed and breakfast. Her husband, the local judge, walked two blocks to his courtroom to hear the week's entire caseload: one pet owner cited for keeping her dog chained up, another for allowing her dog off-leash.

Columbus, a settlement of 1,800 people clinging to a wind-swept patch of high desert in southern New Mexico, was a picture of tranquillity.

But less than three miles south, in the once-quaint Mexican town of Palomas, a war is being waged. Over the last year, a drug feud that has killed more than 1,350 people in sprawling Ciudad Juarez has spread to tiny Palomas, 70 miles west, where more than 40 people have been gunned down, a dozen within a baseball toss of the border. More -- no one knows how many -- have been kidnapped, and the Palomas police chief fled across the border last year and has asked for political asylum.

Now Columbus is on edge. A haven for baby boomer retirees seeking cheap living, small-town values and blissful, if unpolished, solitude, Columbus can't quite believe that a bloody brawl has broken out on its doorstep. The anxiety increased recently when Columbus disbanded its five-member police force after a local political squabble, putting its safety in the hands of the county sheriff based half an hour away. Many are ruing the decision. Angry and fretful residents packed a recent village trustees meeting to argue the case.

"What is going on across the border is going to go on for a while, folks," said Joseph Rivera, a regal figure with a bushy, silver mustache who works for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "People are leaving Palomas like jack rabbits and coming here."

Robert Odom, a former town trustee, warned that the town was pushing its luck. "So far, knock on wood, it's been narco-traffickers attacking their own people," he said. "But it's only a matter of time before it spills over here."

The last time an internal war in Mexico spilled over into Columbus, as every schoolchild here knows, was in 1916, when the Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa led a predawn raid that killed 18 Americans and touched off an international incident. A yearlong U.S. military expedition in Mexico failed to capture Villa.

Time healed those wounds, though. A state park and a handful of businesses in Columbus bear Villa's name. And the town celebrates his assault each March by inviting Mexicans on horseback over to reenact the raid.

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Like so many towns hugging the 2,000-mile frontier between the United States and Mexico, Columbus and Palomas are inextricably linked.

Several hundred children, most of them U.S. citizens born to Mexican parents, cross from Mexico daily to attend public school, while some Columbus residents commute daily to work in Palomas, or to see the less expensive dentists, pharmacists and auto mechanics there.

But another, newer brand of cross-border activity has fed the town's paranoia. Several residents of Palomas have bought property in Columbus recently, paying cash.

Skinner, the B&B owner who's also the town's lone real estate agent, had her best sales year in 2008, even with the market nationwide in a nose-dive. New Cadillac Escalades, and cars with thousand-dollar chrome rims, have appeared suddenly, in a town without a single traffic light.

Columbus residents think they know what those trends mean: The men who traffic drugs in Mexico are moving their families to Columbus for sanctuary. And where the drug lords go, residents assume, violence is sure to follow.

"Everybody knows this is happening. It's a small town and everyone knows everybody else," said Eugene Sierra, 57, a former Columbus police chief. "Our concern is that they'll be followed by people who want to do away with them, and innocent people in the line of fire will be hurt. Without any law enforcement here, it's wide open."

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Columbus would appear to be about as well protected as any border city in America.

The crossing here is flanked by six miles of 15- to 18-foot-tall fencing and another 35 miles of waist-high vehicle barriers. Motion sensors and cameras sprout among fields of onions and jalapenos, and a beefed-up Border Patrol force of 350 has helped drive arrests of illegal crossers to a tenth of what they were two years ago.

Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos said drug seizures are down sharply, and violence linked to Mexican drug cartels remains rare -- though the shooting death of a 15-year-old high school student in Deming late last year appears to have been drug-related.

"There are definitely drug connections here, but it's hard for them to carry on their trade openly," Cobos said. "So they have to go way, way underground."

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