CIUDAD MIER, Mexico — 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."