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for people who care about the West

A brave woman now runs a border town

 

I live in the flat, scruffy desert of southwestern New Mexico, a half-hour from the Mexican border town of Palomas. There's been a war going on in Palomas for over two years.

A dusty town of 5,000 people, Palomas has more murders per capita than any city in the world, some say. I talked recently to people who live there, mostly by going to little grocery stores. They estimated that 50 to 60 people have been murdered this year, though you'd never guess it if you just strolled through town.

The violence has hardly affected either Columbus, N.M., five minutes from the border, or Deming, N.M., where I live. There's virtually no spillover.

But it has deeply damaged the economy of Palomas, which partly depends on the dentists, oculists and pharmacists that have catered to Americans for years. Americans are staying away in droves.

A couple of years ago, our government's building of a border wall that stuck up like a giant metal comb prevented Palomas residents and other Mexicans from crossing illegally to work. The tanking world economy also caused a Japanese car-parts maquiladora to close. Now, there are almost no jobs, and hunger is rampant.

A little over a year ago, in September, I first met Maria Lopez in the mayor's office. From her nametag I could see she worked for a Mexican social service agency, Desarrollo Integral de la Familia. She told me about the hunger, and how she realized the donations she used to get for the organization often came from "narcos" -- drug dealers -- who had either died or fled.

I started asking for donations for Maria's work in a column I write for a regional paper, Desert Exposure, based in Silver City, N.M. Several times I've gone bouncing over rutted streets with Maria and her assistant, Tere. We've developed an important friendship, although we have wildly differing tastes.

One day, Maria decides to distribute food wearing a new pink Norteño-style cowboy hat, which she pops on to her head with an impish grin. She adores high-heeled shoes -- one pair bright red, another silver. I stumble in shoes over a half-inch high.

I asked her once, "Do you wear them when the roads are muddy?" "Como no (of course)," she shoots back, smiling.

Maria remembers her farmworker father in Durango, Mexico, crying because he couldn't feed his nine children. This inspired her rather single-minded purpose -- feeding poor people.

Maria has a visa to cross to the United States, and cashes the donation checks there because there's no bank in Palomas. I saw her once at Peppers Supermarket in Deming, walking with her hand on the forearm of a male friend, looking a bit like visiting royalty.

On Oct. 8, the mayor she worked for, Tanis Santelis Garcia, was kidnapped, brutally murdered, and burned in his car south of Palomas. The killers will probably never be identified. This was a great shock to me, even though I'd often heard rumors of his corruption. He didn't deserve to die. Then I was astonished to learn that Maria had been appointed to take his place as mayor.

The killing happened on a Thursday, and I met Maria three days later in front of the Dollar Store. We were within walking distance of the border, where her husband waited for her.

She was still struggling over the death of the mayor, whom she loved. She spoke fervently of her intention to get help for her people "con todo mi corazon" (with all my heart). She had already gone back to her home in Palomas by Saturday morning, less than two days after the killing. There aren't many people I know with a firmer faith than Maria. I tore a picture of a lion from a magazine I had and gave it to her. She already knew what it was to be a lion.

I saw her a few weeks later in her windowless mayor's office. I was nervous about how she'd handle the position. There was the danger involved, of course, along with the stress of running the town – she'd told me her education stopped at the sixth grade.

But with her long mane of hair cut at a stylish new angle, it was clear that she was facing her job with poise. A paperback Bible lay beside her on the almost bare desk.

The drug war in Mexico is ugly, senseless and mean beyond belief. It destroys everything. Most Americans just think, "I'm not going there." I would almost turn my back on the situation myself, if it weren't for people like Maria. Honestly, it's humbling.

Marjorie Lilly is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Her column is called Borderlines, and she can be reached at me_lill@yahoo.com at Desert Exposure in Silver City, New Mexico.