CIUDAD MIER, Mexico (AP) — Schoolchildren once again chatter and scamper across the town plaza where drug gang gunmen last year torched the police station and left the remains of a dismembered man.
By night, townsfolk play volleyball across the plaza from the station, whose charred stone facade has been repaired. The plants are trimmed and streets that once echoed with gunbattles are quiet and clean. Ciudad Mier again is starting to look like it deserves its tourism promotion as a "magical town."
But most businesses are shuttered and there aren't many cars on the streets, which are often patrolled by Army trucks. The mayor estimates that about a third of Mier's 8,000 people have not returned. Most are still terrified by nine months of gang battles, killings and disappearances that caused them to flee a year ago.
"When we live through an experience in the flesh, people keep that image," said Mayor Alberto Gonzalez Pena. "And sometimes it's difficult to erase."
The confidence in Mier, or lack of it, has become a test of President Felipe Calderon's latest strategy in pacifying territory that had been overrun by drug gangs in a conflict that has killed roughly 40,000 people nationwide.
A battalion of 653 soldiers arrived in October and paraded through the streets behind a military band when Mexico's army opened its first "mobile barracks," to safely house troops trying to re-establish control in violent areas.
Many residents waved at the soldiers and held signs expressing thanks. The Mexican Defense Department said then the new troops would "without doubt generate confidence and calm" and restore normalcy in the area.
Calderon is expected to formally inaugurate the barracks on Thursday and similar posts are being planned elsewhere across the violent north.
So far, though, the army has brought security, not confidence. Everybody knows the soldiers are not supposed to be there forever.
Mier sits along a road linking territories controlled by feuding drug gangs, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, and it has become an example of Calderon's "clear and hold" strategy for using troops to suppress violence and restore calm, said Samuel Logan, managing director of the Southern Pulse risk-analysis firm specializing in Latin American organized crime.
He says that approach is unsustainable because a temporary army presence cannot substitute for permanent civilian policing.
Now entering his final year in office, "Calderon has to do something," Logan said. "And he's going to find himself in a pinch between getting something done on one end, which would mean more of these mobile barracks and, on the other, proving that he is pushing for a more permanent solution vis-a-vis increased training for the police force."
Mexico has increasingly turned to troops to take on law enforcement because repeated cleanup crusades have failed to cure the corruption and lack of professionalism that plagues the country's police forces, which are often infiltrated by organized crime.
When Gonzalez tries to coax his citizens back from Texas cities across the Rio Grande and other Mexican towns, he tells them Mier was an intensive-care patient when they left, but now is walking under its own power. Little by little, a phrase used by nearly everyone in Mier these days, the town is recovering, he said.
Those still here now gather in the park or plaza in the evenings, feeling safety in numbers under the protective gaze of soldiers. But they don't stroll in the streets. And the edges of town remain eerily unpopulated. People there feel exposed. They're not comfortable identifying themselves to strangers and one quietly assured a reporter that the narcos are still watching.
Founded as an agricultural settlement in 1753, Mier is known to historians as the site of an assault by more than 250 Texas militiamen in December 1842. The Mexican army took most prisoner and 17 were executed after drawing black beans from a pot in a lottery to determine who would die.
Until recently, Mier was a picturesque town about halfway along the Texas border between Laredo and Brownsville with a few well-preserved colonial-era buildings. The town was surrounded by ranches famed for dove and deer that drew hunters from both sides of the river. Those ranches also lucrative drug-smuggling routes.
In February 2010, gunmen attacked the police station and seized several officers. Violence peaked that November with days of near-constant fighting and hundreds of townsfolk fled to the country's first drug war refugee shelter in the nearby city of Miguel Aleman.
Two weeks later, Calderon's administration announced it would send more troops to reassert government authority in the states of Tamaulipas, where Mier is located, and in neighboring Nuevo Leon.
Some of those forces are now at the new mobile barracks. It sits in a clearing of scrub land near the cemetery south of town and is surrounded by a high fence and a wide, cleared perimeter. A few low-slung buildings surround a pole flying a large Mexican flag.
The army says that the entire base can be picked up and reassembled quickly elsewhere, but the buildings' solid walls give an impression of permanence.
A second mobile barracks is being built in the Tamaulipas city of San Fernando, where 193 bodies have been found on a ranch in 26 mass graves. Mexican authorities believe the dead were mostly migrants kidnapped from buses and killed by the Zetas. Less than a year before, 72 Central and South American migrants were killed there, also allegedly by the Zetas.
On Mier's north side, the last neighborhood out of town is littered with broken windows and piles of brush. Some of the fiercest fighting went on here among the 65 small, squat homes at a low-cost housing complex.
Cinderblocks stacked high behind front-room windows are reminders of some residents' futile efforts at self-defense. Though built in just 2003, not a single home is inhabited today.
Some residents fled to relatives' homes or rentals in the city center, while others left Mier altogether. The homes have been so thoroughly looted and damaged, families would need a substantial amount to make them livable again.
"We need the people that have money, the people that in Mier build things, the people that generate jobs," Mayor Gonzalez said. Those people just aren't returning as quickly as they left, he said.
The talk of Mier recently was the imminent reopening of the restaurant at the Hotel Asya on the freshly paved Alvaro Obregon Avenue. Many hope it will bring back jobs and offer a much-needed dining option.
Just a block up the street, business at a small company that supplies bottled water to homes and businesses is up 20 percent over last year, said owner Jesus Gomez.
Still, that's only half what it was before violence struck and twisted the lives of the citizens.
"We didn't leave the house," Gomez said. "You wanted to drink, hang out, you had to do it at home. Now, he said, he can go out with friends until midnight without worrying.
Past a state police bunker behind city hall, Alvaro Obregon Street meets the main plaza, where schoolchildren cluster around benches during lunch and a vendor sells tacos from a street-side stand.
In the evenings, the town sets up volleyball nets in the plaza in front of city hall. On Thursday nights, it shows movies there.
A splash of color comes from a newly reopened flower shop along the plaza, where bear-shaped flower arrangements of white chrysanthemums sit alongside yellow spider mums, sunflowers and small white daisies.
Arturo Hernandez recently moved from another border city, Piedras Negras, to open the shop for his father-in-law. He wasn't around for last year's violence, but he feels it.
As he scraped thorns from red roses, Hernandez said he quickly noticed that there were few stores of any kind open in Mier.
"Since I've been here, yes, there have been sales, but when there's a funeral. ... For gifts, no."