COLUMBUS, New Mexico (Border Report) ⁠— Esequiel Salas is excited about Columbus’ new expanded port of entry to Mexico, and so are many businesspeople on both sides of the border.

“We’ve gotten some very good reaction from the business community. There’s already a lot more traffic coming to our port ⁠— more trucks carrying goods. This is a good opportunity to grow our industrial park. It’s all very positive,” said Salas, mayor of this town of about 1,700 people 80 miles west of El Paso, Texas.

The statue of Pancho Villa in Palomas, Mexico sits on a pedestal in a park next to City Hall. (photo by Julian Resendiz)

But Salas and others caution that such growth won’t happen overnight.

“The port was redone mostly to facilitate cattle crossings. I think more people from Mexico who are in the cattle business will come here. I hope the new crossing encourages more people from the United States to come visit the Mexican side as well,” said Dr. Antonio Gonzalez, who owns Dental & Implant Center in Palomas, Mexico, south of Columbus.

Truck traffic at the Columbus port of entry nearly tripled in the past decade, to 16,401 commercial vehicles in 2018. The port has only a fraction of the passenger car traffic of bigger border cities, like El Paso. However, pedestrian traffic of northbound Mexican shoppers and workers, as well as tourists headed south, has gone up by 50,000 people, to nearly 277,000 in 2018.

The latter numbers reflect the area’s growth in commerce and population, as well as the emergence of Palomas as an alternative regional tourist destination, business owners said.

In the shadow of Pancho Villa

The first thing a visitor notices crossing into Palomas from Columbus is the larger-than-life statue of mounted Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, the reins of a charging horse in his left hand and a pistol in his right.

The statue of Pancho Villa in Palomas, Mexico

The monument marks the March 19, 1916 raid Villa led into Columbus, which resulted in the death of eight U.S. soldiers and 10 civilians. Elements of the U.S. 13th Cavalry Regiment repelled the raid, killing or wounding between 90 and 170 of Villa’s men, according to historians. The raid led to a year-long hunt of Villa by Gen. John J. Pershing, who returned home empty-handed.

More than a century later, Villa’s raid keeps bringing American and European tourists to Palomas, but others come for the Mexican experience, arts and crafts and affordable medical services.

“People who don’t live here or haven’t been down here have a completely different attitude. They think it’s not safe. We’ve been coming down here for 23 years and never had any trouble whatsoever,” said Nick Farrow, a resident of Deming, New Mexico.

The AeroCare Medical flight nurse said he and his wife often drive their vehicle into Mexico and characterized Palomas as “sometimes safer than Albuquerque”

Gonzalez, the dental clinic owner, and Sergio Romero, co-owner of The Pink Store, said Palomas businesses have developed a strong and loyal U.S. clientele in the past few years and hope the expanded border crossing will bring in more tourists. Most repeat visitors come from Deming, Columbus, Las Cruces, El Paso and Albuquerque, they said.

“Obviously, with the expansion, we’ll see more people. The port will facilitate exports and imports. More maquilas will come, more tool and equipment and more agricultural goods,” Romero said. “But we have to make sure we have more personnel (running the border crossing) to take advantage of this. We know they are short on personnel.”

Jesus Nunez, owner of a leatherworks and boot store on Cinco de Mayo, Palomas’ main street, isn’t as optimistic about a commercial boom. He said traffic to the new land crossing has been rerouted to a side street, so he fears less people will see his shop. “We want to have a meeting about that. … For now, I depend entirely on the customers I already have,” said Nunez as he crafted a cowboy belt.

‘Hidden jewels’ in Palomas, Mexico

Along with the Villa monument and the medical services offices, the Pink Store is one of Palomas’ top tourist destinations. One side of the store holds literally thousands of pieces of pottery, arts and crafts, metalworks and colorful figurines, some over a foot in length or height. The other side consists of a restaurant with roving musicians and a small bar.

“Seventy percent of our clientele is repeat customers. They come back because they enjoy a good time and we’re always friendly,” said Yvonne Romero, co-owner of The Pink Store. “It’s quite a treat that we get to meet people from throughout Mexico, the United States and Europe. Every day is something different and we learn about different areas” of the world, she said.

The store buys crafts from artisans in 14 Mexican states, from simple pottery to clay pieces with intricate detail and color drawings to handmade copperwares. The store also leads excursions to another hidden jewel two hours down the road: the Mogollon native American ruins in the Paquime dig, near Casas Grandes, Mexico.

Romero said that, much like Palomas, The Pink Store started small. “We started in 1988 and added a restaurant 10 years later. … the restaurant and shop complement each other very well,” said Romero, who was born in Juarez and went to school in El Paso, Texas.

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