- Associated Press - Monday, December 27, 2010

CIUDAD MIER, Mexico | Shell casings carpet the road outside a bullet-riddled subdivision on the outskirts of this colonial town in the Rio Grande Valley, abandoned by most of the 6,000 inhabitants following a nine-month battle by warring drug cartels.

Nobody lives in the 65 one-story white houses across the border from Roma, Texas, except the abandoned pets that roam the streets of the Casas Geo development. Like 90 percent of those who once lived in Mier, the subdivision’s former residents have fled to a shelter in the nearby city of Ciudad Miguel Aleman, Mexico’s first such haven for people displaced by drug violence.

While Mexicans increasingly have fled border towns up and down the Rio Grande Valley, Ciudad Mier is the most dramatic example so far of the increasing ferocity of war between rival drug cartels and of the government’s failure to fight back.

The state and federal governments say it’s safe to go back and that people are returning. One official even invited tourists to return. The scenes witnessed by the Associated Press say something else.

Even during daylight hours, a Mexican army squad nervously patrols the town. A bullet-riddled army pickup truck lies in the yard of the local military outpost, a metallic casualty of a recent ambush that locals say killed four soldiers. The army does not officially recognize that it even happened.

A man named Rogelio, 72, a migrant who retired after years of lawn work in Milwaukee and Chicago, has a question for them: “Where were they nine months ago?” He asked not to give his last name for fear of reprisals.

Almost everyone in town has had a relative kidnapped by the gangs, he said. “We have had nine months of gunfights, almost every night. Why did they leave us alone?”

Only about 400 people remain in the town. Most went to Texas or other Mexican cities. About 300 others are staying in a Lion’s-Club-turned-shelter in Ciudad Miguel Aleman with no intention of returning even though the clean auditorium with tiled floors covered in foam mattresses doesn’t feel much safer: A shootout a block away from the shelter sent them diving for cover last week.

Terrified refugees lower their voices so as not to be heard by the cartel lookouts. A heavily tattooed young man with a flashy, embroidered baseball cap and gold chains lounges on the sidewalk outside and interrogates a reporter: “What are you doing here? Who have you interviewed inside?”

Gabi, 18, a high school student at the shelter, nearly whispers that cartel gunmen left a man hanging by his neck from a palm tree in Ciudad Mier’s town square in June.

“His face was taped over, and they had cut off his hands and legs,” she said.

About half the houses in Ciudad Mier have bullet holes. The Casas Geo subdivision seems frozen in time; most residents left in the summer, and it was empty by early November. The houses show how people lived when the battle reached its height: armoires and wooden wardrobes pushed up against the windows in a vain bid to stop the bullets.

Holes gape in walls, windows and doors where high-powered ammunition made impact. On the entrance to the subdivision, someone daubed in paint “CDG” and a heart, a reference to the Gulf Cartel.

Outside the entrance, abandoned cattle wait next to the roadside for a rancher. Dozens of ranchers have been kidnapped and killed by the cartels since the war broke out between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel on Feb. 23. That is when the Gulf Cartel roared back into town to retake it from the Zetas; both see it as a lucrative trafficking route in a rural border area.

Two lucky horses are carted off quickly; their owners are too nervous to talk and speed away with the trailer bearing the animals. The only people returning to Ciudad Mier are stopping only briefly, to spirit off whatever possessions they can still rescue. One couple loads up everything they can rescue from their house - even the water heater - into their pickup before taking off. “It will be a year or two before I even think of returning,” the husband says.

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