The female police chief of Guadalupe, Mexico, has not been seen or heard from since being abducted two days before Christmas.
Erika Gandara was a former radio dispatcher for the police department in the town of 9,000, which is just across the U.S. border, one mile from Fabens, Texas. The previous police chief was murdered and decapitated; his head was found in an ice chest. Gandara, 28, a single woman with no children, was the only applicant for the job and its salary of $580 per month.
One policeman was murdered during Gandara's first week on the job. By the time she became chief, the entire force of eight patrolmen had either been killed or fled. She was the sole law enforcement representative in a Juarez valley town that was part of the war between competing drug cartels for access routes into the U.S.
Relatives feared for her safety and urged Gandara to keep a low profile. But she refused, posing with her rifle for newspaper interviews. Then, at 6 a.m. on December 23, 10 gunmen pulled up to her residence, dragged her out of the house and set the home on fire. She has not been seen or heard from since.
Many of the houses in Guadalupe have been burned down by the cartels, for whom drug-running is no longer enough. They want complete political control over towns and territories along access routes to U.S. highways and the lucrative drug market. So while the violence in big cities like Juarez has gotten a lot of media attention, little has been written about small towns like Guadalupe, where the situation is even worse.
"We have no police, no security, no electricity, no water, nothing," said one 25-year-old woman who was afraid to give her name. She stood outside her stone house making a small fire from roof tarp just one mile from Texas -- but the scene seemed more like the Stone Age.
Guadalupe is not the only town in Mexico without a police force. In a small town near Monterrey, the entire force quit after two officers were found beheaded. And this week, the police chief of Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Laredo, Texas, was gunned down along with two of his bodyguards.
Many of those who live in the towns without police protection have fled to other areas, or across the border to the U.S. But many are unable to leave.
"My house is here," one construction worker told me. "I have nowhere to go and no money to leave. So at night when there is shooting we all just stay inside. Of course we are scared."
In the debate over how to handle the violence now raging in Mexico, the concern is that small towns like Guadalupe, where the locals are left to fend for themselves against powerful drug cartels, may be the first in a growing area of territory along the Mexican-U.S. border where the state has been defeated.
Steve Harrigan currently serves as a Miami-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 2001 as a Moscow-based correspondent.