PALOMAS, Mexico The pace of business in Palomas, Mexico just across the border from Columbus, N.M. is slow this holiday season. It may have something to do with the kidnapping of a dentist, Dr. Ricardo Fierro, on Nov. 25.
That afternoon, three armed men entered the Fierro Dental Clinic office and escorted Fierro to a waiting vehicle. There is still no word on his whereabouts, even though he is believed to be in good condition. Fierro had the largest dental clinic in Palomas.
But none of the eye doctors, dentists, pharmacists or gift stores in Palomas has closed their doors after the incident. Combined with the drug-related violence along the border and the U.S. recession, cross-border businesses have been hit hard.
Some professionals confess to fear, and others won't talk to the media. But Dr. Miguel Garcia of Medical Vision Optical spoke freely.
"Now business is a little better," he said. "Last week it was 70 percent off, but it's 40 percent off now."
Garcia said Fierro is hard-working and his efforts were appreciated by all.
"He's been here for 30 years," Garcia said. "Right now we feel sad, not only for the city, but for all the customers. Right now it's a mess."
At the Pink Store
There are Americans on the streets in Palomas, street vendors hawking sunglasses and CDs, and occasionally a tour bus. But because of the violence, car and foot traffic have declined substantially from where they were three years ago.
And in June, when American citizens needed a passport needed cross back into the U.S., business slumped even more.
"This summer was the worst we've had in 20 years because of the passport issue it was 70 percent off," said Ivonne Romero of the Pink Store, a combination Mexican craft store and restaurant, in November. "Now we're 50 percent maybe 40 percent off from our previous years."
Her store still gets large groups of tourists. She said an RV club called the Escapees visited restaurant not long ago. "There were 80 people down here for dinner," she says.
American Victor Ray sat getting his shoes shined in front of the Pink Store. He was from Montana, but has spent time working in New Mexico and Arizona, partly "to have dental work done here."
In October, Palomas businesses received another shock when Mayor Tanis Garcia was kidnapped by a group of men and found dead a half hour south of town.
Three weeks before his death, there had been demonstrations accusing Garcia of corruption, and the protests shut down City Hall. Some say he was involved in the drug trade.
His vice-mayor, Maria Lopez, is now mayor of Palomas. She denies he was involved with drugs.
It's hard to get reliable statistics on the violence in Palomas. Estimates by local business owners vary widely, from 10 to 60 murders or disappearances this year.
Some businesses make accommodations for clients who are nervous about the violence. The Lam Dental Clinic offers clients a lift to their office in a car.
"If you need a ride to or from the border, let Cynthia know," says Rossana Cisneros de Lam. "We don't do this too much."
She and Guillermo Lam are a husband-and-wife team that customers have come to know over the past 17 years.
"One time a week, a specialist from Juárez comes and does root canals and periodontal work," says Cisneros. "Wednesdays he comes, and we get a lot of patients."
But some days, she admits, they reduce their hours, and business has been really bad for almost three years.
Oscar Perez of American Dental Care, in the plaza behind the Pink Store, said they've shifted their schedule.
"We've changed the times for appointments to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.," he said. "We changed for the clients, and everybody feels safe. Right here, people walk two blocks from the border."
Most of the cross-border business owners have not reached the point of financial desperation, Perez said.
"They are not selling their houses," he said.
"A lot of dentists and oculists don't want to go out of town," says Miguel Garcia. "People call and want to know how things are. We say everything is fine."
He adds there is no danger for the visitor, it's more of a local problem.
"The business people are giving a vote of faith to this town, and therefore they continue working," Garcia says. "They feel they need faith to do business."