Guest Columns

SMITH: CROSSING THE MEXICAN BORDER

Drug traffickers may be waiting out troops

Palomas, Mexico — “You better wear your bulletproof vest,” Arlin says when I tell him that I’m going to cross the border to Palomas, Mexico. It’s 8:30 a.m., and we’re sitting in the Patio Café in Columbus, New Mexico, the tiny town that Pancho Villa raided on March 9, 1916. Arlin and his wife live in the Columbus area and are describing their concerns about what’s happening here along the border. Drug traffickers buying houses on the U.S. side. A recent shootout in which they claim an AK-47 was used. A small local police department in turmoil with the mayor having fired six police chiefs in the past two years.

Two and a half years ago, when we drove across to visit Palomas, it was a favored shopping area offering cheap beer and liquor and an excellent store and restaurant called the Pink Store. Then, it, too, got caught up in the growing wave of border violence, and there were some 40 killings. In addition, the border has been tightened up on the U.S. side. You now need a passport to come back into the United States.

Now, Mexican soldiers have been sent to the border to take over from local police. Has this intensified security made it safer? Crossing over, I’m very nervous. I have my dog with me, but she weighs only 5 pounds, and, although she’s noisy, she isn’t going to scare anyone off.

A girl asking for change at the border.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

At the far end of Palomas’ one paved street, a Humvee full of soldiers passes us. Another one is stopped by a convenience store. A man with helmet and goggles is on the turret with a machine gun.

South of town, we continue on a two-lane road through stark but beautiful desert-like countryside. In several spots, the road curves through cuts in the rocky hills, where striking murals are painted on the dark rocks. The only other car I see is a tan sedan that seems to be maintaining a steady distance behind us. Finally, I make a quick U turn and accelerate back towards the border.

On the left is a shrine made of cement block. I stop to talk to two men who are loading an old pickup truck with rocks. A little boy watches out the truck window. His name is Cristobal, his father is Manuel, and the grandfather, Julio. As Cristobal pets my dog, Manuel warns me repeatedly, “Watch out. Palomas is safer, now but there have been many robberies along this road.”

Back in Palomas, there aren’t many cars lined up to cross the border, but it takes an hour to get through. Only one Border Patrolman is checking cars, even though earlier I saw six agents standing around inside the building itself.

If Palomas is a drug crossing point, the locals certainly aren’t receiving the benefits. As we wait, vendors of all ages work their way up and down the line of cars, offering Chiclets, window washing, CDs, dark glasses, cowboy hats or just holding out plastic cups and asking for some change. They are all surprisingly polite, even in face of severe poverty. Although we converse in Spanish, they all say, “Thank you and in English as I hand out a pathetic handful of coins and dollar bills.

A Saint painted along highway south of Palomas, Mexico.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

At a roadside grocery store, the manager, a woman named Kiki, says the beer business has picked up since the soldiers began patrolling — lots of Americans are coming across the border to stock up. But there’s nothing for ordinary working people to do but sell trinkets to those who wait in the long lines of cars.

About 10 miles from Columbus, as we head north to Deming, we go through a checkpoint. A helicopter sweeps overhead, and an aerial surveillance balloon watches from high in the sky. The amount of manpower committed to this effort is enormous.

Back in Deming, I mention the trip to Robin, who manages the motel where my dog and I spent the previous night. He is optimistic and says that he has rented a small apartment in Palomas for about $100 a month. He goes down there for two or three days every week, and it’s much safer than it was a year ago.

What does this all mean? The presence of Mexican soldiers has cut down on the violence in Palomas, but the surrounding area is just as dangerous. And, more important, their presence may be moving the traffickers into the United States.

It has become much more difficult to come back across the border. Is that impeding the traditional flow of business between our two countries?

After the flurry of interest created by the visits to Mexico by Hillary Clinton and President Obama, the United States seems to have backed off from doing anything controversial or significant — such as cracking down on the flow of heavy weapons across the border. The whole issue has dropped out of the news. Although we’re spending millions, I wonder if anyone knows what we’re accomplishing.

Morgan Smith served in the Colorado House of Representatives, as commissioner of Agriculture and director of the Colorado International Trade Office. As director, he opened Colorado’s office in Mexico and led numerous trade missions there.