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The Town of Lonely Dentists

Palomas, Mexico -- This is the little border town that discount 
dentistry built. There are the usual liquor stores and curio venders, and even 
a cantina with a Statute of Liberty on the roof. But mostly the streets are 
lined with storefront clinics offering crowns, dentures, cleanings.
 Walk-ins welcome! As the sign promises: “American standards at Mexican
 prices,” where a porcelain filling and a shot of Novocain will set you 
back about $60.

We went looking for dentists to talk about the hard times created by
 the storms of violence along the border. In the video, you can meet Jesus
 Jasso Salazar, who came here a decade ago to make his living with a drill
 and learned to say “open wide” in English. Most of his patients were
 Americans, until they got scared away by sudden surge in kidnappings and 
killings. Jasso used to be busy all day long in his two-chair clinic. Now 
he sits reading books in his own waiting room.

That’s the thing about drug violence. It can hollow out a place.
 Dentists have been the bedrock of this community for years. Now they’re 
moving on.

Palomas is an historic site because right across the border, during 
the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa and a force of 1000 men raided a small town east of
 the boot heel of New Mexico called Columbus. They killed 18 people and burned the town 
before they rode out. It was the only foreign military invasion on U.S. soil
 in modern times.

A year ago, the chief of the Palomas police, Emilio Perez, ran over
 to the U.S. side, seeking the safety of political asylum after his deputies
 suddenly quit, fearful that they might soon become one of the corpses that were
 dumped on the edge of town.

While in Jasso’s waiting room, we spoke with Rosa Rodriguez. We asked her, casually, if she thought violence had changed the border much. “They killed my son,” she replied. Her boy, Marco Antonio Saenz, was 17 years old and a high school senior in Deming, N.M, about 30 miles north of here. “He went to a party and some gangsters picked a fight and hit him in the head with a bottle,” his mom said. He died a few hours after the attack. That was two years ago. “He was a good boy,” Rodriguez said. “He liked to babysit.” She had his picture in her wallet.

Rosa Rodriguez holds a picture of her son, killed two years ago. (Travis Fox/The Washington Post)

By Travis Fox and William Booth  |  June 18, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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