VILLA AHUMADA, Mexico — A massacre here two weeks ago has turned this once sleepy town into a ghostly emblem of the drug violence that has swept Mexico over the last year and a half, gutting local police forces, terrifying citizens and making it almost impossible for the authorities to assert themselves.
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El Heraldo de Chihuahua
In Villa Ahumada, Mexico, on May 18. The night before, dozens of gunmen killed six people in the town, including two civilians who were together in a pickup truck, and abducted others.
Jim McKinley on Mexico’s drug cartels. (mp3)
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On the night of May 17, dozens of men with assault rifles rolled into town in several trucks and shot up the place. They killed the police chief, two officers and three civilians. Then they carried off about 10 people, witnesses said. Only one has been found, dead and wrapped in a carpet in Ciudad Juárez.
The entire municipal police force quit after the attack, and officials fled the town for several days, leaving so hastily that they did not release the petty criminals held in the town lockup. The state and federal governments sent in 300 troops and 16 state police officers, restoring an uneasy semblance of order. But townspeople remain terrified.
“Yeah, we’re afraid, everyone’s afraid,” said José Antonio Contreras, a 17-year-old who was threatened by the gunmen. “Nobody goes out at night.”
Tourists driving south from Texas to the Pacific Coast beaches pass through Villa Ahumada on Highway 45. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when this dusty town on the railroad tracks was best known for its roadside burrito stands, its good cheese and its having recorded one of the coldest temperatures in Mexico — 23 below zero in January 1962.
In recent years, however, it also became a way station along one of Mexico’s major drug smuggling routes. Villa Ahumada lies about 85 miles south of El Paso on the main highway from the city of Chihuahua to the border city of Ciudad Juárez.
Mexico’s drug violence has by now become so pervasive that it is infecting even small communities like this one, which has fewer than 9,000 residents.
Around the country in the last 18 months, more than 4,000 people have been killed in similar attacks and gun battles, even as President Felipe Calderón has tried to take back towns where the local police and officials were on the payroll of drug kingpins.
This week, seven federal officers died in a gun battle with cartel henchmen when they tried to enter a house in Culiacán, Sinaloa, a city notorious for its traffickers. The officers had been sent to the city, along with 2,700 other soldiers and agents, to track down a reputed drug kingpin believed to have ordered the assassination of the acting federal chief of police, who was killed in Mexico City on May 8.
When the police arrived, banners were hung in the city taunting the officers and saying the reputed kingpin, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, reigned supreme in Culiacán.
In Villa Ahumada less than two weeks after the massacre, people remained so cowed that even the mayor and his police commissioner declined requests to be interviewed. When asked who the gunmen were and why they had come, most of the residents who were interviewed shook their heads and whispered that spies were everywhere. In private, however, some acknowledged that the town had long been home to narcotics traffickers in league with a reputed drug dealer, Pedro Sánchez Arras.
Frightened residents, who did not want to be identified, said Mr. Sánchez’s agent in the town was Gerardo Gallegos Rodelo, a 19-year-old tough guy who went around with an armed posse. It was rumored that he and Mr. Sánchez had links to a drug cartel in Ciudad Juárez that is controlled by the Carrillo Fuentes family. Law enforcement officials did not confirm the claim.
Several residents said Mr. Gallegos and Mr. Sánchez had also seemed to enjoy good relations with the local police. People shrugged and tolerated the arrangement. The town was peaceful, after all, some said. It seemed best to leave well enough alone.
“Wherever you are in Mexico these days there are drug dealers, not just here,” explained Raúl Moreno, 64, a day laborer. “They didn’t bother anyone. No one bothered them.”
The trouble started, people here say, when Mr. Gallegos was killed in a shootout with a group of reputed gangsters in Hidalgo del Parral, in the southern part of Chihuahua State, on April 6.