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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Wife of slain El Monte civic leader tells how night out with friends morphed into horror

'You never think this kind of thing can happen . . . to innocent people,' Betzy Salcedo says.

January 03, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson

Reporting from Gomez Palacio, Mexico — They were aware of the dangers. Agustin Roberto "Bobby" Salcedo and his wife, Betzy, knew that this town, like much of Mexico, was no longer the tranquil spot it had been.

"I've been coming regularly," Salcedo's widow said Saturday of her hometown. "We knew how bad it had become."

And yet, the Salcedos ventured out for a few beers the night before New Year's Eve.

"We were just going out with a group of friends," Betzy Salcedo said, speaking slowly and casting her eyes downward. "You are careful, you look around, but you never think this kind of thing can happen . . . to innocent people. We were having a good time. Then we were in the mouth of the wolf."

Hours later, Bobby Salcedo was dead, hauled away from the bar with five other men, their bodies dumped in a dried-grass field on the outskirts of town.

Arrangements were being made Saturday to repatriate Salcedo's body. The 33-year-old, who was born and raised in the Los Angeles area, was an assistant principal and school board member in El Monte.

His slaying underscores the random volatility of the violence in Mexico and the ease with which the pain it causes can seep past the country's borders.

The Salcedos might also have been lulled into a false sense of security by outdated memories and the comfort of old friends.

Betzy Salcedo cited an old Mexican saying: He who doesn't owe anything has nothing to fear. She always figured that people who had nothing to do with drug trafficking would not be targets in the country they loved.

One can follow the gruesome news out of Mexico, much of it involving the government's ongoing war against powerful drug cartels, yet still feel a sense of immunity -- that "it can't happen to me," that the dangers are remote. It is a common thought among many Mexicans, a defense mechanism, perhaps.

But now Betzy Salcedo and her family are bitter. Mexico has become a poison to them.

The Salcedos and their companions had ended up at the Iguanas Ranas bar on Miguel Aleman Boulevard in Gomez Palacio on Wednesday night.

By day and to the uninitiated, the strip may seem harmless enough. There are dives with names like Mens Club-Boomerang, but also taco stands and convenience stores. The Iguanas Ranas is painted almost whimsically with, as its name suggests, bright yellow and green frogs and iguanas.

At night, however, the environment shifts. "We don't even go out at night anymore. We are exposed to everything," said Gerardo Gonzalez, the bar's accountant.

Routinely, he said, gunmen commandeer cars from passing motorists, demand bribes, enter bars to lord over the patrons. "We are living in times of terrible, daily crime," said the lifelong Gomez Palacio resident, whose nephew was kidnapped and shot to death on Christmas Eve.

It didn't used to be like this. Until about two years ago, the Iguanas Ranas admitted families -- parents with their children. But then the violence started. About that time, several men were kidnapped from the place and killed.

This year the bar has endured a bomb threat, an extortion threat and robbery. Things have gotten so rough that the owner is considering shutting it down, Gonzalez said.

Betzy Salcedo, 26, remembers the days of her youth, when she and friends could go out at any time of day or night without thinking twice. "That's all completely gone," she said.

Bobby Salcedo's brother Juan, a banker in the Los Angeles area, added: "I've read all the stories. Sixteen bodies found here, bodies there. But I always thought it was [happening to] bad people. You mind your own business and you'll be fine."

Gomez Palacio is an industrial city in the northern part of Durango, one of the deadliest states in Mexico last year as two drug gangs battled for territory. That battle is part of the nationwide fight involving drug traffickers and the government that has claimed more than 15,000 lives in three years.

In December federal police intercepted a shipment of more than 400 pounds of crystal meth, a few days after intercepting a similar amount of cocaine, both being transported through Gomez Palacio toward the U.S. border.

Police stations in Durango state came under grenade attack Dec. 14. The former mayor of Gomez Palacio was kidnapped Dec. 6 (and eventually released) and the local police chief, Roberto de Jesus Torres, was gunned down the evening of Dec. 2 as he left his home.

On New Year's Eve, a few hours after Salcedo's body was found, two detectives were kidnapped in the middle of the day. Their bodies were left in the bed of a pickup on a major highway on the outskirts of Gomez Palacio.

Investigators reported no new developments in the Salcedo case Saturday. They repeated that they were looking into whether any of the people killed with Salcedo had criminal ties, but had found none.

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