The Mexican border town of Ciudad Mier emptied in mid-November. More than 6,000 inhabitants fled as rival drug gangs shot up the place with bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades, and rifles, threatening to kill anyone who dared stay. And so the drug trade, the most virulent of black markets, claimed another victim: an entire town.
As the drug gangs—the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel—escalated their war in Ciudad Mier, on the Texas border 250 miles south of San Antonio, residents took shelter in the nearby town of Miguel Alemán. The town’s Lions Club, pictured here, reportedly became Mexico’s first haven for victims displaced by drug violence, housing more than 300 refugees. Today, less than 20 percent of Mier’s population is back, says Maria Silvia Ramos, a town hall spokeswoman, and some 20 percent of businesses have reopened.
Cartel attacks on law enforcement officials have been particularly gruesome. During a firefight that lasted for several hours on Nov. 15, warring gangs pillaged Mier’s police station and chased the officers out of town. The police have yet to return. Above, military patrols photographed through the station’s shattered windows.
A bullet-riddled file cabinet in Mier’s police station. Mexico’s drug-war death toll has climbed to more than 30,000 since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, according to Mexican Attorney General Arturo Chávez. Of those, more than 12,000 took place in 2010.
Remaining residents attend Mass in Mier’s main cathedral. During the ceremony, they pray for peace and sing an anti-narcocorrido—an anti-drug-gang song intended to counter the popular narcocorrido genre, which glorifies smuggling, murder, and extortion.
The town’s military peacekeepers as seen through a bullet-riddled sign.
Large companies that can afford to provide their own security have not been deterred from building new factories in Mexico, but the drug violence has caused many small and medium-size businesses to shut down. Nevertheless, Mexico’s economy grew by roughly 5 percent in 2010, according to the central bank.
Over the past 10 months cartels attacked Mier’s infrastructure, at times cutting off the water and power supplies. Fighting continues along Mexico’s northern border, where cartels vie for control of smuggling routes to the U.S. Mier’s empty streets, once known for their colonial grace, are evidence of a growing exodus from the region.