GUADALUPE DISTRITO BRAVOS, Mexico » Her uncle, the mayor who gave her the job nobody else wanted, warned her to keep a low profile, to not make too much of being the last remaining police officer in a town where the rest of the force had quit or been killed.
But in pictures for local newspapers, Erika Gandara, 28, seemed to relish the role, brandishing a semiautomatic rifle and wearing a purple hoodie instead of a uniform. A patch covered an eye swollen from a bee sting.
“I am the only police in this town, the authority,” she told reporters.
Then, two days before Christmas, a group of armed men took her from her home, residents say, and she has not been seen since.
It was an ominous punctuation mark on the wave of terror that has turned this cotton farming town near Texas into a frightened outpost of the drug war. Nearly half of its 9,000 residents have fled, local officials say, leaving block after block of scorched homes and businesses and, now, not one regular police officer.
Far from big, infamous cities like Ciudad Juarez, one of the most violent places in the Americas, the war with organized crime can batter small towns just as hard, if with less notice.
The cotton towns south of Juarez sit in territory disputed by at least two major drug trafficking groups, according to government and private security reports, leading to deadly power struggles. But the lack of adequately trained police officers, a longstanding crisis that the government has sought to address with little resolution, allows criminal groups to have their way.
“Small cities and towns are really highly impacted,” said Daniel M. Sabet, a visiting professor at Georgetown University who studies policing in Mexico. “They offer strongholds organized crime can hold and control.”
Some towns consider themselves so vulnerable that they have gone out of their way not to antagonize criminals. Believing that those involved in organized crime would be less inclined to harm women — and because fewer men are willing to take the job — local officials have appointed a handful of women in the past year to senior police ranks in small cities and towns here in Chihuahua, the country’s most violent state.
After a spate of violence in a neighboring town, Praxedis Guerrero, local officials selected a 20-year-old college student in November as police chief to run the force of nine women and two men, hoping that criminal networks would see her as less threatening.
Marisol Valles, the young police chief, has made it clear that she leaves major crimes to state and federal authorities to investigate. Really, she said, she just reviews civil infractions issued by other officers and rarely leaves the office.
“I am more like an administrator,” said Valles, who does not carry a gun or wear a uniform.
But the criminals have not discriminated. Hermila Garcia, the woman appointed police chief of Meoqui, a small city in central Chihuahua, was killed Nov. 30 after only a month in the job.
Guadalupe tried to put a nonthreatening face on law enforcement by appointing Gandara chief in October. But it appears that she tried — or at least talked about — taking the job more seriously, to the regret of her uncle, Mayor Tomas Archuleta. He had good reason to counsel a low profile: He took office after his predecessor was killed last summer, part of a wave of assassinations of local officials across Mexico.
“I told Erika, ‘Be careful,’ to not make waves,” Archuleta said, openly frustrated by the picture of her holding the rifle.
Like Valles, her role is more to issue citations, leaving serious crimes to state and federal authorities.
Guadalupe has plenty of them to investigate. There are as many abandoned homes and businesses — several of them gutted — as occupied ones. One recent morning, four homes smoldered from an attack and two people had been shot dead with high-powered weapons, the bullets leaving several gaping holes in cinder-block walls.
Few people here leave their homes after 5 p.m., and see soldiers and police officers only briefly after a major crime or when they are guarding the monthly delivery of government pension checks for retirees.
“We lock ourselves in most of the time,” said Eduardo Contreras, 26, as he watched residents douse and pick through the embers of their smoldering homes.
In a voice choked with tears, Maria Torres, 70, who grew up here, said, “This is so sad what has happened here,” as she carried a sign for a church service.
Archuleta, the mayor, said the town mainly gets its protection from soldiers based at a recreation center in Praxedis Guerrero. Maybe, Archuleta suggested, not having local police officers is better. He said local residents had told him that common crimes like burglary had dropped out of fear of drawing the attention of a military patrol.
“There aren’t any” minor crimes, he said, his voice dropping to a near whisper.
But townspeople disputed that, complaining that the soldiers or state and federal police officers were rarely seen except after major violence had occurred.
“There is no police, no fire department, no social services, nothing here,” said the middle-aged matriarch from one burned-out home, declining to give her name for fear of reprisals. “People get away with everything here. Nothing gets investigated, not even murders.”
Not long afterward, a four-truck caravan of federal police officers arrived from another town, hopping down from their vehicles, taking notes and asking her and other family members for a word. The family refused even to open the gate for the police, apparently out of fear of being seen talking to them, and the officers moved on. The officers appeared to be taking stock, driving from crime scene to crime scene and taking notes, but not mounting a forensic investigation.
At the site of the double murder in the morning, one officer dabbed at a pool of blood and body fluid on the driveway with a stick; another picked up a piece of flesh and playfully tossed it at a companion.
Gandara may not have investigated much deeper. Local police officers in small towns usually play a mostly preventive role, refereeing minor disputes, handling the town drunk and quieting rowdy teenagers, city managers said. Many are not armed.
Archuleta would say little else about his niece, Gandara, citing an investigation by the state prosecutor’s office, which would not comment on a motive. But he noted that he had turned to her when nobody else would take the job. She had experience as a security guard and appeared not to be involved in any criminal activity, he said.
“Who knows what people do in their private lives,” he said, “but I did not think she was involved in anything.”