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Crossfire towns

Eye-to-eye across the US-Mexican border, two communities confront drugs, guns, and misconceptions.

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Drug-war gunfire on the Mexican side can literally be heard just across the border in Columbus, N.M,.

Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor

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The dust and heat of the Chihuahuan Desert blanket these twin border towns in sleepiness – the better to draw tourists and retirees looking for a cheap place to relax or settle; the better, too, for secretive gunrunners headed south of the border and illegal immigrants and drug smugglers headed north.

So it's no surprise that Esperanza Lozoya seems a bit shell-shocked and never far from tears as she points out Palomas's "historic" landmarks in Mexico's drug wars. Here is a pock-marked wall where a friend's son was gunned down last spring; there, near the elementary school, is the weed-strangled lot where she had to help a neighbor identify two bodies left in the grime; further along is the house with no window glass, where someone tossed a grenade; and then there are the empty houses of a quarter of the town's population – including the police chief – that has packed up and left.

In 2008, when Palomas became a flash point in the deadly rivalries between Mexican drug traffickers, Ms. Lozoya, like many here, found herself diving for cover in her own backyard. While Ciudad Juárez, a city of 1.5 million 80 miles east, had 1,600 drug-related murders last year, Palomas was statistically more dangerous with 40.

Palomas is a town of 8,500 scared residents. And their 2,300 neighbors on the US side in Columbus, while not terrified, are wary of the violence and its effects on the image and economy of the region.

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