VILLA AHUMADA, Mexico – For people caught inside Mexico's drug corridors, life is about keeping your head down and watching your back, especially when the sun dips behind the cactus-studded horizon.
No town knows this better than Villa Ahumada, where the entire police force quit after 70 cartel hit men roared through last spring, killing the police chief, two officers and three townspeople.
Residents were left defenseless again last week when gunmen returned and kidnapped nine people, despite the soldiers manning checkpoints far outside town.
"This was a mellow town where we would walk along main street at night. But now we're too scared to even go out," said Zaida de Santiago.
For this lanky 14-year-old, everything changed last May 17. She was dancing at a neighbor's ranch when gunfire shattered the night. The party's hosts turned off the lights and silenced the music. The guests stood frozen, ears trained to the sound of automatic weapons as the gunmen raced down gravel streets in their SUVs.
When the sun rose hours later, the party guests learned that armed cartel commandos had killed the police chief and five others. Soon after, the rest of the 20-member force quit in fear.
"That day will always remain burned in my mind," Santiago said.
Federal investigators say Villa Ahumada is a key stop along one of Mexico's busiest drug smuggling routes, where the Sinaloa cartel has been challenging the Juarez gang for control. The military staffs checkpoints miles outside town, and soldiers and federal police roll through each day, but residents are largely left on their own.
Sliced by a railroad and the Pan-American Highway heading straight to the U.S. border, the town is one of many outposts across Mexico — many of them too small to appear on maps — that cartels need to dominate in order to ensure passage of their U.S.-bound loads of marijuana and cocaine. The town of 15,000 is about 80 miles south of El Paso, Texas.
"In the small towns, the narcos want to have an open sesame," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "They want to be able to pass through as they see fit, and they've got the muscle to enforce that, but it's unfortunate for the residents. This is where you've got enclaves of failure."
Cartels treat these towns as fiefdoms — in some communities, everyone from the furniture owner to the barman to local officials pay a kind of tax to the gunslingers, border expert Victor Clark said. The extortion not only gives gangs an extra income, it also makes clear who's boss.
"In land occupied by organized crime, society's rules are completely altered," said Clark, a lecturer at San Diego State University who has studied one such town in the Mexican state of Baja California. "This is their territory, and you pay them for protection, or they will kill you."
Villa Ahumada has been without a city police force since May, unable to find anyone brave enough to take the job. Even Mayor Fidel Chavez fled for a time to the state capital, Chihuahua City, last year. After the army and state police pledged to have more of a presence in town, he returned and put 10 residents in charge of reporting suspicious activities to the authorities.
But there was little these unarmed citizen patrols could do when heavily armed assailants in black ski masks drove SUVs into town last week, kicking in doors and carting off nine residents in blindfolds.
They called state authorities, closed their office and fled.
The gunmen had already executed six of the hostages near a desolate ranch called El Vergel, about 30 minutes north of town, by the time soldiers swooped in. The other three kidnapped men were rescued as soldiers rappelled into the desert from helicopters to chase those fleeing on foot.
By the time the shooting stopped, 14 suspected pistoleros and one soldier were dead, and townspeople felt more desperate than ever.
"We want some authority here. They kill here and no one does anything," complained a frail 67-year-old woman, gripping a cane as she walked past crumbling adobe homes.
Her daughter stopped her from giving her name, warning: "They might kill our entire family if you do."
Villa Ahumada is a town where scruffy dogs amble down gravel streets alongside slow-moving pickups. The economy depends on highway travelers stopping to eat at countless wooden burrito stands, but business has dropped by 50 percent since last week's violence, and the mayor has criticized the media for harming tourism. He declined repeated requests by The Associated Press for an interview.
Many townspeople have turned to God for answers, said the Rev. Fernando Nava, who presides over the Roman Catholic church.
"Fathers have lost sons, sons have lost fathers," he said. "This is affecting families, which is what the church is concerned about."
Some residents are stepping forward despite the risks to demand more safety. Nine men applied to be police officers this week as part of a renewed effort by the state of Chihuahua to establish a presence in town.
"These are all people from the town who want peace and security for their families," said Manuel Rodriguez of the Chihuahua State Public Safety Department. He was administering an exam Monday designed to evaluate their skills, character and psychological stamina, with questions like: "Do you consider men and women equal?" and "What would you do if there was an attempt on your life?"
Ismael Rivera, a lifelong resident, decided to apply after spending seven months as an unarmed guard.
"A lot of us don't know how to read or write," said Rivera, donning a black baseball cap with the word "guard" emblazoned in yellow across the front. "But they are going to give us the chance to study and work at the same time."
Rivera keeps an eye on things from the former police station, a small office where a yellow note on the wall lists the cell phone of a state police officer. Taped above it is a list of telephone numbers of federal officers. A toy Spider-Man and a picture of Jesus Christ adorn another wall. A bike with "police" painted on its rusty frame leans against the fence outside.
Joining the force is an opportunity to do something for his three children, but Rivera admits he's nervous.
"Of course, you are scared," he said. "You go home and you think about quitting."