Warring Mexican drug cartels have claimed a new victim along the U.S. Southern border: the town of Ciudad Mier. Constant gunfights and spiraling violence between rival drug gangsters have forced the evacuation of the Mexican town.
A shelter for fleeing residents of Mier has been set up in the Lions Club in the nearby town of Miguel Aleman, and it has become, in the words of Mexico's Proceso magazine, the first refugee camp of the Mexican cartel war.
Some 300 families have sought sanctuary from intolerable conditions in Ciudad Mier, where hoodlums from the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas mafia are battling for supremacy. Their brutal turf war has engulfed all of northeast Mexico, which borders Texas.
"The situation is critical," says a ranch worker named Jose. "We can't live there anymore peacefully. There are gunfights night and day. Every morning we wake up to dead bodies all over town. People are really afraid."
At the Lions Club, a steady stream of vehicles pulls up to unload donated food, clothing, blankets and Bibles. Help is coming from the municipality of Miguel Aleman and from sympathetic Texans across the river in Starr County.
According to Mier refugees, only a few dozen residents -- besides the narcos -- remain in their town of 6,500. There is no city government and no police; almost all clinics, schools, cafes and stores have closed; water and electricity are spotty.
They describe cowering in their homes during firefights, in a town of shattered windows and torched businesses.
A Mier city official, who asked that his name not be used, reads from a desperate communique being sent out to the media and to anyone else who will help.
"We know of more than 111 kidnappings of local people. There is no social life -- no baptisms, no weddings, no family reunions. Everything is caused by the confrontations between the armed groups," he says.
Smugglers have long coveted Mier for its isolation and proximity to the Rio Grande.
Three years ago, the federal government named Ciudad Mier a Pueblo Magico, a "Magic Town," for the touristic value of its colonial buildings. But today, the city official says the federal military has abandoned them.
"We ask the army for help, and they never come. They come after everything is over, when they know there's nothing going on. They come in to haul off burned trucks and bodies," he says.
Several townsfolk say it was one particularly gruesome display that convinced them it was time to leave.
"They killed the brother of a friend of mine. They cut him in pieces and hung him in the plaza," says Maria Elena Tamez, wearing rosary beads and reclining on a plastic mattress. "They put a sign on him, but I don't know what it said."
She says her daughter and other children in the Lions Club shelter have nightmares about the dismembered man swaying from the tree in the plaza.
Several residents say the army told them to leave Mier last week because things were "about to get worse." It is not known if the military is planning an offensive to retake Mier, but that's what people here are waiting for.
Earlier this month, more than 600 federal troops were sent to nearby Matamoros to find and kill the infamous drug lord Tony Tormenta.
The national security spokesman for Mexican President Felipe Calderon was asked to comment on the Mier situation, but there was no immediate response.