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Mexican city struggles to stem flight of fearful residents

By Javier Estrada,
Unease after the killing of cartel leader Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen sparked an exodus Ciudad Mier.
Unease after the killing of cartel leader Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen sparked an exodus Ciudad Mier.
  • Hundreds of residents of Ciudad Mier fled because of violence
  • Many businesses have closed, and others have moved
  • The new mayor wants to promote a new image of the historic town
  • He wants to get the local economy booming again
  • Mexico
  • Gulf Cartel
  • Crime

(CNN) -- Erasing the scars of bullets and violence is the motivation of Alberto Gonzalez Pena, the new mayor of Ciudad Mier, Mexico, a small town just across the border from Texas.

Mier has been the scene of recurring confrontations between rival drug trafficking organizations and federal forces during the past year. The threat from the cartels was so bad that hundreds of families fled the town last year, becoming some of the first drug war refugees in Mexico.

"We want to erase the image that somehow keeps some people from returning. They have an erroneous take of our situation. We have a prosperous city here," said Gonzalez, who assumed office at the end of December.

The violence spiked at the beginning of 2010 in Mier, which had a population of 6,500 before the exodus.

Since 2006, the year President Felipe Calderon took office, there have been 96 killings in the town -- not including 25 executions -- and 71 armed confrontations, according to federal government statistics.

Gonzalez's administration began without the 25 people who made up the city's police and transit authorities, he said. He estimates that Mier is currently protected by 300 army troops and says he will not reactivate the local security forces until he receives instructions from the state and federal governments.

"I have not appointed the police officers; I do not want to appoint them," he said. "I am waiting for the state government and federal government to determine what strategy we are going to pursue for that."

Gonzalez said the priority of his three-year term will be to improve the local economy, which has been damaged by the lack of security. Nearly 150 businesses have shut down, and some have moved to the neighboring cities of Miguel Aleman, Reynosa and even places in the United States.

"We are making a plea to local businesses. We are asking them to bet on our town, to return to set up shop," Gonzalez said.

Among his goals is the reconstruction of 303 properties damaged by confrontations between rival drug gangs since February 2010. The project will create more than 220 temporary jobs, he says.

With a budget of 1.2 million pesos, funded by a state agency, the project will repair homes in a 15-block area that were damaged by bullets and grenades, according to a government document.

One of the most damaged historic buildings was the police station, which was burned and shot at by gunmen. All of the patrol cars, weapons and archives were lost.

The deepest scars, however, are not on the walls of the buildings, but in the residents who abandoned the town and have not returned.

In November of last year, about 100 families left for Miguel Aleman because of the increasing sense of insecurity that followed the killing of one of the top leaders of the Gulf cartel, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, by Mexican marines.

"People have still not returned because they rented there, have a contract, maybe they found a job there, maybe they are waiting for the employment situation to improve here permanently," Gonzalez said.

When the exodus to Miguel Aleman happened, that city opened up a shelter to house around 300 people, most of them poor, and offered them food and medical attention.

In September, two months before the flight from Mier, the federal government recorded the highest level of violence in four years in the city -- 42 killings and 39 firefights.

The state of security in this region, known as the "small border," has led to the possibility that the mayors of five towns, including Mier, will establish a joint agenda.

"That's one thing we talked about when we were mayors-elect, that we had to look for a way that we could strategize together with the governor," Gonzalez said.

Government statistics and human rights organizations say that before 2010, violence in Mier was minimal. According to the Center for Border Studies and Promotion of Human Rights, only two killings were documented there in 2009.

Between 1993 and 2009, on average, the city had only one murder per year, the organization said.

"I think in time, the governor will determine the way or strategy that they will use" to combat the violence, Gonzalez said.

About 8 percent of the drug-related killings in Mexico happen in Tamaulipas state, where Mier is located, making it the third-most deadly state in the country.

"Before this, our town was recognized for the cultural, the historical and the touristy" features, Gonzalez said. "Our proposal is that this image that we will give will help to have people return and remember the historic city -- the cultured city -- that is Mier."