Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
TUBUTAMA, Sonora - The silence is pierced by an anguished cry.
"Everybody in town knows who the killers are ... They burned down my house, my ranch, they threw grenades. I want justice!"
It's Jorge Mendoza López, whose three brothers were kidnapped and presumed killed last Sept. 17, presumably by drug traffickers. His shouts get attention of the crowd gathered at the plaza Tuesday and distract Tubutama's mayor, Santos Castañeda Barceló, who asked for a moment of silence to mourn the killing of three town officials.
Mendoza López demands answers from Sonoran legislators, who have traveled from Hermosillo to this mission town 40 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border as part of an armed convoy of politicians, officials and reporters. Guarding the group are dozens of armed agents from the Mexican military and Sonoran police.
The Sonoran Legislature has moved the day's regular session to Tubutama to publicly approve a new law that lets municipalities like Tubutama request state police resources.
Perhaps no place in Mexico needs help like Tubutama. It used to be a popular stop on tours of Americans wanting to see beautiful mission churches.
Then drug gangs started warring on the roads connecting northern Sonora's mission towns. The town's last policeman, 34-year-old Julio Adrián Paz Robles, was killed May 29. Mayor Castañeda Barceló's staff members Gerardo González Méndez and Sergio Vázquez Díaz were shot dead a year ago in San Jorge - a village close to Tubutama. Their bodies were found inside a green pickup without license plates.
Last July 1, a shootout between rival traffickers competing for drugs and smuggling routes left at least 21 people dead and six wounded, Sonora's attorney general says. The violent confrontation occurred on a deserted stretch between Tubutama and Sáric, about 12 miles south of the Arizona border near Sasabe.
Since then, hardly anybody dares to drive those roads. Grocery distributors no longer make deliveries. The town's only gas station has closed and now serves as a checkpoint where members of the Mexican military sometimes monitor who goes to and from Tubutama.
Many of the town's residents have fled. Mexico's census bureau says Tubutama and its six surrounding villages have 1,751 residents. Mayor Castañeda Barceló estimates that at least 300 have left.
On this hot, humid afternoon, with dozens of masked state policemen standing guard and a helicopter watching over the plaza, Mendoza López is among the few who dares to speak to the visitors.
"They pretend they don't know who kidnapped my brothers. They are afraid to talk," Mendoza López yells to reporters.
He tells how masked gunmen broke into the family's house in Sáric one night and kidnapped his brothers. He hasn't found their bodies, and today he's in Tubutama looking for help.
"There's bad stuff going on here, but nobody wants to talk," says a woman from Hermosillo, who's in Tubutama trying to persuade her mother and two sisters to leave with her. "I'm afraid of reprisal against my family."
"We are all very afraid," says a young man watching the legislative session from the other side of the plaza. "We are alone, there's no police."
He also refuses to give his name.
Fear is the new ruler of Tubutama, clashing with the calm of the Mission San Pedro y San Pablo de Tubutama and of the clean, white houses surrounding the plaza.
Even Mayor Castañeda Barceló says he's still alive only through the grace of God.
"Of course I'm afraid. I'm a human being," he says. "We are here without protection."
NO SPEAKING OUT
Tubutama residents don't just hesitate to speak out - they hesitate to speak at all. Some women sitting with their children in the plaza avoid eye contact with strangers and ignore the visiting reporters.
The government says last year's shootout was the result of a dispute between drug gangs. But locals will not acknowledge that.
While the Legislature meets on the street, the Rev. Anastasio Franco Gómez tells visitors that Tubutama was a quiet town until 2004.
"I served at the funeral of two young men," he says. "People said they were killed because of drug trafficking. Since then, it hasn't stopped."
Eight years ago, when he moved here, children played in the plaza. "Now we are all very distressed about the situation. … We are losing our young people."
Residents carefully avoid using words like cartels and drugs. One young father outside the church with his wife and children says "they" don't mess with people who are not involved in the drug trafficking. But still, he says, things are pretty bad.
"Right now, with the presence of the military, we've had groceries," he says. "But in the past months, we didn't have anything. No gas, nothing."
Two stores remain in Tubutama, and one of them opens only when a distributor from Nogales comes with milk and eggs. The elementary school has lost 60 of its 90 students and the kindergarten is closed. The high school is still open, but students complain about the lack of resources.
"At school, we need a lot, there's no trees, no fields for sports, we need help," says a student who's attending the legislative session. "We try to continue with our normal routines ... A year ago we didn't even want to go out."
The tours that for years brought tourists on weekend trips to admire northern Sonora and the missions founded by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino were suspended last year because of drug violence. In April the U. S. State Department advised Americans to avoid "nonessential" travel to certain parts of Sonora. That includes the towns of Sáric, Tubutama and Altar, as well as the eastern edge of Sonora that borders the state of Chihuahua.
"People used to visit here, lots of tourists, but since last year they don't come," says the young father outside the church. "I've been here all my life, and it's never been this bad. People are just afraid."
Outsiders are afraid, too.
The legislative session is guarded by 250 state policemen, 60 trucks and two helicopters. That's in addition to the dozens of state investigative policemen and the Mexican soldiers guarding the roads for the armed convoy escorting 29 legislators, 32 journalists and dozens of staff members from Hermosillo to Tubutama and back.
Even an armed guard cannot make the group feel safe - or make them want to stay.
Legislators say they are happy that, because of the security they brought with them, the children of Tubutama have the courage to come out and play in the plaza for the first time in months.
As quickly as possible, they approve a new law that will eventually bring police resources to Tubutama. No locals are invited to speak and drug violence is not addressed.
Legislators tell residents they bring a message of peace, and then they are ready to leave.
Their job is done.
The convoy leaves Tubutama after less than four hours, and residents retreat back inside their houses. The plaza and the streets are empty once again.
"It's good they came," a woman says, as she gets ready to leave the plaza. "But let's see if that changes something."
Contact reporter Mariana Alvarado at 573-4597 or email@example.com