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Border drug war is too close for comfort

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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.

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."

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."

The assurances of the sheriff and from the Border Patrol haven't calmed fears. Some of those kidnapped in Mexico have relatives in Columbus. Photos of men beheaded by the cartels pop up on cellphone messages here, a not-so-subtle warning of what can happen to those who betray the drug families.

Columbus residents who cross into Palomas say they are unnerved by the eerie calm of what once was a bustling, growing community of 7,000. The population has fallen by a third and tourist crossings have slowed to a trickle.

On a recent weekday the streets were empty, save for a lone mariachi band serenading a local man on his birthday.

There's no hospital in Palomas. The Columbus ambulance service averages a call a day at the border, mostly for heart attacks and pregnancies. Ken Riley, an EMT for the service who lives in Palomas, considers the nature of the call before deciding whether to meet his colleagues at the border.

"I have my own little rule," Riley said. "Any time there's a call for an ambulance at the port of entry, and it's for someone with a gunshot wound, I pull my covers up and stay in bed."

Columbus has had long-standing trouble keeping a police force. The latest crisis began three months ago when the town closed its dilapidated police station because of a faulty lock on the evidence room. Not long afterward, an officer was injured while trying to break up a bar fight and two off-duty officers were suspended. Then, the police chief resigned.

With no police station, and just one police officer, the town dissolved the department and asked Sheriff Cobos to take over.

But the sheriff's 30 deputies, based in Deming, cover an arealarger than the state of Rhode Island, and the county was asking for $26,000 a month to provide policing here. Residents felt exposed and they directed their fury at the mayor, Eddie Espinoza.

Like his constituents, Espinoza, a burly, combative 49-year-old retired Navy man, was concerned about the disintegration across the border. On a Sunday morning last year, he was undergoing a root canal in Palomas when bandits broke in and robbed his dentist. "It took all of three minutes," Espinoza recalled.

But the mayor hadn't had much luck with his police chiefs. Since his landslide election in 2006, six chiefs have left. A few quit; he fired the others.

"I don't know why it's so hard to be a police officer in Columbus," Espinoza said. "It's not that difficult to be a police officer." Some blame the mayor for hiring poorly.

"They have this history of hiring people we've fired, and then expecting great results," Cobos said.

One of the mayor's main critics is Robert Odom, a 58-year-old writer who moved here from Santa Fe, N.M., three years ago. Odom, the author of "Autobiography of a Redneck Hindu," about his spiritual journey, was elected a village trustee last year but resigned a few months ago in a dispute with Espinoza.

"We need our own police department, no matter what," Odom said, preparing a pot of French press coffee at the home he shares with his partner. "It's impossible to live next door to someone -- and we live literally next door to Palomas -- without being affected by what's happening in their yard."

Odom and 70 other residents signed a petition last month urging the mayor to "save our Columbus police." Espinoza seemed to get the message: within days, he appointed a committee to search for a new chief.

As for Odom and the petition co-signers, Espinoza said, "Columbus has its share of characters, and you've got to be able to be tolerant." He paused. "Sometimes it's difficult having to deal with the public."

Espinoza agreed with his opponents, though, that the city can't count on the county or federal authorities for protection. "The problem is that we're like a stepchild to everybody," he said. "We're just a small municipality."

It was, in fact, the drowsy remoteness of this community that attracted people like Skinner. Now 71, she came here 20 years ago from Glendale, Calif., and built Martha's Place Inn. She preceded Espinoza as mayor, and during her tenure the population tripled, driven mostly by retirees who fell in love with the mild weather, rustic beauty and low cost of living. (The top sale price for a home last year? $82,000.)

Farming has been the economic backbone, supplemented by tourists who came to see Pancho Villa State Park, Villa's death mask at the depot museum or the restored buildings on Broadway that figured in Villa's raid. A few came to see City of the Sun, a commune where residents live in homes built from rusted car parts, jalapeno barrels, tires, bottles and other recycled material. ("They're different up there, but they're nice people," said Linda Werner, the town librarian.)

But most tourists came to take advantage of inexpensive medical care and pharmaceuticals across the border. That trade has mostly evaporated with the drug violence.

Martha's Place has been kept afloat for the last year by temporary workers building the border fence. "The tourism business has been awful," Skinner said. "But that fence has kept us in business."

The inn's guests one recent week included a customs officer, a fence welder, a contractor working on lighting at the border fence and a Los Angeles writer researching his next novel. The welder was forced to check out early, though. Four state police officers showed up on a cold night and arrested him at gunpoint, leading him away in handcuffs to face an auto theft charge.

"There's nothing like a small town," Skinner said the next morning, pausing from a game of computer solitaire and smiling serenely. "It's like living in a comic book most days."

But that small-town charm is showing signs of fatigue.

"I wake up every morning and thank God my wife and I found this little place," local developer Gene McCall told the village trustees recently. Then, pointing his walking cane at the mayor, he added, "Let's keep it that way."

scott.kraft@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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