Sinaloa, Juarez gangs battle
Federal investigators say Villa Ahumada is a key stop along one of Mexico's busiest drug smuggling routes, where the Sinaloa cartel has been
challenging the Juarez gang for control. The military staffs checkpoints miles outside town, and soldiers and federal police roll through each day,
but residents are largely left on their own. The town of 15,000 is about 80 miles south of El Paso, Texas.
"In the small towns, the narcos want to have an open sesame," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "They
want to be able to pass through as they see fit, and they've got the muscle to enforce that, but it's unfortunate for the residents. This is where
you've got enclaves of failure."
Cartels treat these towns as fiefdoms — in some communities, everyone from the furniture owner to the barman to local officials pay a kind of tax to
the gunslingers, border expert Victor Clark said. The extortion not only gives gangs an extra income, it also makes clear who's boss.
"In land occupied by organized crime, society's rules are completely altered," said Clark, a lecturer at San Diego State University who has studied
one such town in the Mexican state of Baja California. "This is their territory, and you pay them for protection, or they will kill you."
Villa Ahumada has been without a city police force since May, unable to find anyone brave enough to take the job. Even Mayor Fidel Chavez fled for a
time to the state capital, Chihuahua City, last year. After the army and state police pledged to have more of a presence in town, he returned and put
10 residents in charge of reporting suspicious activities to the authorities.
But there was little these unarmed citizen patrols could do when heavily armed assailants in black ski masks drove SUVs into town last week, kicking
in doors and carting off nine residents in blindfolds. They called state authorities, closed their office and fled.
The gunmen had already executed six of the hostages near a desolate ranch called El Vergel, about 30 minutes north of town, by the time soldiers
swooped in. The other three kidnapped men were rescued as soldiers rappelled into the desert from helicopters to chase those fleeing on foot. By the
time the shooting stopped, 14 suspected pistoleros and one soldier were dead, and townspeople felt more desperate than ever.
Villa Ahumada is a town where scruffy dogs amble down gravel streets alongside slow-moving pickups. The economy depends on highway travelers stopping
to eat at countless wooden burrito stands, but business has dropped by 50 percent since last week's violence, and the mayor has criticized the media
for harming tourism. He declined repeated requests by The Associated Press for an interview.
Some residents are stepping forward despite the risks to demand more safety. Nine men applied to be police officers this week as part of a renewed
effort by the state of Chihuahua to establish a presence in town.
"These are all people from the town who want peace and security for their families," said Manuel Rodriguez of the Chihuahua State Public Safety
Department. He was administering an exam Monday designed to evaluate their skills, character and psychological stamina, with questions like: "Do you
consider men and women equal?" and "What would you do if there was an attempt on your life?"
(visit the link for the full news article)