Life amid Mexico’s unfettered violence

Enedelia Estrada Tovar had no idea she was shot.

When the convoy of armed men arrived in her village in northeastern Mexico, she and her neighbors scrambled to get out of the way. Under a sudden hail of bullets, the soft-spoken 56-year-old’s first thought was of others. “The convoy suddenly arrived, and I started helping the other families, telling them to get inside,” she told CNN.

She didn’t realize she herself was bleeding profusely, as she scrambled to move her deaf and frail elderly father to safety.

“I didn’t feel anything. Nothing at all […]. I just asked my father ‘come with me. Let’s go.’ And we ran into a little room inside the house where the whole family went to hide. It was not until a while later that I realized I had been shot, because I noticed I was bleeding a lot,” Estrada said.

Estrada lives in Villa Union, just 40 miles south of the Texas border city of Eagle Pass. This small town of only about 3,000 in the Mexican northeastern state of Coahuila, made headlines around the world last month, when an hours-long gunfight battles between a criminal group and security forces there left buildings riddled with bullet holes and claimed the lives of 25 people.

Altogether 19 members of the criminal group died as well as four police officers and two civilians, according to Coahuila state’s attorney Gerardo Márquez Guevara. In the aftermath, police confiscated 17 vehicles. Four had been fitted with sniper rifles.

The attack had been designed to terrorize the local population, said state governor Miguel Ángel Riquelme after the attack, citing testimony from two suspects: “The two people detained have said that they were sent by the Cartel of the Northeast to instill fear in Coahuila.”

They may have succeeded — there is a sense of fear now in this town, that once might have been described as sleepy. Another resident of Villa Union, who preferred not to be identified for fear of reprisals, tells CNN she’s glad she never opened her door. “I would’ve been taken down,” the elderly woman said. The gunshots were so loud, she said, that at first, she thought they were explosions at a nearby gas station.

Mexican Army and Navy troops now patrol the streets of Villa Union, dispatched by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to reinforce security in the state. Municipal workers have been devoted to repairing the badly damaged town hall, sweeping away debris and picking up broken objects under guard of military personnel. But despite the patched holes, it remains plainly visible that a barrage of bullets once fell on its walls.

The attack happened one day before López Obrador celebrated his first year in office. The former Mexico City mayor had been elected to the country’s highest office in part because he promised to improve security in Mexico, but his country’s death toll from violence is rising instead.

Mexico saw 22,059 murders in the first nine months of this year, compared to 21,581 in the same period last year. Extreme recent attacks like the one in Villa Union and last month’s gruesome massacre of three Mormon women and six children in northwestern Mexico have also drawn global attention — and even offers of intervention from its neighbor to the north.

López Obrador has promised an exhaustive investigation into the Villa Union attack, while arguing that some areas of Mexico are becoming safer under his watch. “Do you remember how the situation used to be in La Laguna (a region in Coahuila and Durango states)? The incidence of crime there has gone down. A security plan was implemented, and it has produced good results. (The Villa Union attack) is a rare case and not something that Coahuila experiences frequently,” the president said two days after the attack.

López Obrador originally campaigned on promises of an innovative security strategy that would consist of “hugs, not gunshots” (abrazos, no balazos… it rhymes in Spanish). By hugs, he meant a series of social programs to reduce poverty and inequality and eliminate incentives for impoverished youth to join criminal organizations.

Despite the year’s gory headlines, he appeared to double down on that strategy in a December 1 national address. “We haven’t declared war on anybody — only on corruption and impunity,” he said.

“It’s clear the president doesn’t see the need, at least publicly, of declaring that he will change his strategy to reduce violence in the country. It remains a strategy of ‘hugs, not gunshots,’ even though he didn’t specify it that way,” former White House and Pentagon official Ana María Salazar tells CNN.

“Even though the president insisted in his address that violence is going down, the truth is that data indicates the opposite. It seems like these criminal organizations are achieving greater territorial control in different parts of the country and that type of violence and power requires a totally different strategy,” Salazar also said.

Back in Villa Unión, Estrada lies in her bed in recovery. She is unable to walk. And she will find it hard to forget how difficult it was to staunch the bleeding, after finally realizing she had been shot in the foot.

The wounds for Estrada and her neighbors are not only physical. Whatever the president’s assurances, residents in quiet Mexican town say the attack has changed their sense of security, perhaps forever.

Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.

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