SANTIAGO, Mexico — Bladimiro Montalvo has one of the most dangerous jobs in this colonial town, and in all of Mexico. He's the mayor.
The soft-spoken 67-year-old teacher distributes school supplies, organizes a job fair and works on improving the library. He also tries to avoid ending up like his predecessor, who authorities say was kidnapped and shot to death last month by his own police officers, linked to the Zetas drug gang.
Three other small-town mayors in northeastern Mexico have been killed in the last month – the latest on Thursday, raising the total number killed in border states this year to at least seven. On Friday, the mayor-elect of Gran Morelos, a town the border state of Chihuahua, was shot and critically wounded.
Mexican drug cartels have increasingly targeted such officials as they fight the government and each other, seeking control of drug markets and routes to the United States. They use isolated, lightly patrolled towns to hide and to stash kidnap victims, weapons and drugs. They must co-opt or eliminate authority figures like mayors to assert control over both residents and police.
Santiago, a scenic town of 40,000 nestled against the Sierra Madre mountains, is in the state of Nuevo Leon, which borders Texas. It sits on an older, less-traveled highway that drug gangs use to reach Tamaulipas, another violence-wracked state on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Authorities said Montalvo's predecessor, 38-year-old Edelmiro Cavazos, was killed by his own security guard and other police in retaliation for his attempts to oust corrupt officers.
"The slogan of Edelmiro Cavazos was 'the best part of Santiago is its people,' and it was his people who turned him over," said Montalvo, who has armed guards outside his city-hall office door.
"At first there was a lot of sadness because Edelmiro was a good man with a big heart who wanted to do good things for his town. And now there is fear. People are afraid."
On Thursday, gunmen killed Mayor Prisciliano Rodriguez Salinas and a personal aide in the town of Doctor Gonzalez, about 30 miles east of Monterrey. Hidalgo Mayor Marco Antonio Leal Garcia was gunned down in August while driving with his 10-year-old daughter, who was wounded.
El Naranjo Mayor Alexander Lopez Garcia was shot to death by hooded gunmen on Sept. 8. San Luis Potosi Gov. Fernando Torazo said the mayor had asked for help cleaning out corrupt police officers.
More than 28,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched his war on drug cartels in late 2006. In northeast Mexico, where the most recent mayor killings happened, violence surged this year after the Zetas broke ranks with their former employer, the Gulf cartel.
In the face of such bloodshed, many mayors simply ignore drug problems, even as their towns are overtaken.
"Sometimes it's better not to know," said Mayor Raul Mireles of Sabinas Hidalgo, a hamlet of farmers and cattle ranchers on the highway leading to Laredo, Texas. "The only thing I can tell you is that I don't interfere with anyone."
Gunmen have lobbed grenades twice at Sabinas' police headquarters and drive openly in caravans on the dirt roads. Earlier this year, soldiers rescued 16 people held hostage by the Zetas at a ranch in Sabinas.
"We see them here riding in their big cars and one can tell they are bad people," said one Sabinas housewife who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "At night, if you don't have to go out it is better to stay home. We live with fear here."
Mireles, as he spent a recent afternoon working on preparations for the town's annual fiesta, insisted drug trafficking is "the federal government's problem."
High-ranking officials and mayors of larger cities have well-armed security details and armored cars but most also consider organized crime a federal problem and few get involved in combatting it.
Mauricio Fernandez, the outspoken mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia in Nuevo Leon, is an exception.
With the support of wealthy constituents, Fernandez has fired dozens of officers suspected of drug ties, bought state-of-the-art patrol cars and improved officers' training in his city of about 122,000. He pays his officers $1,000 a month plus benefits – three times the average salary – to keep them from working for drug gangs for extra money.
"I didn't want things in San Pedro to keep getting worse because you let things run and before you know it all your police officers are working for organized crime," Fernandez said.
While running for mayor, Fernandez set off a national debate over ties between politicians and gangsters when Mexican news media broadcast a recording of him telling supporters that he knew top drug traffickers lived in the town and had an interest in keeping it quiet. Fernandez acknowledged making the remarks, but he said they were taken out of context. He once announced the death of a murder victim before the body had been found.
San Pedro is wealthier than most other Mexican towns, which often have unprofessional, ill-equipped police forces with officers making an average of $400 a month.
In Santiago, Montalvo said federal and state police are patrolling the town while he works on rebuilding Santiago's police force with more qualified, better trained officers. He said the force is down from 160 officers to 25, and the police who remain don't patrol and work in civilian clothes whenever needed to avoid being targeted.
Residents said that in the last two years, caravans of suspicious cars began roaming Santiago's dirt roads and locals started getting kidnapped. Shortly after, police officers began getting killed.
The violence sapped the tourism that had been Santiago's main source of income. The town of cobblestone streets lined with gourmet restaurants and art galleries around its plaza, a waterfall and a man-made lake, was a weekend destination for residents of Monterrey, 18 miles away. Now tourists shun the area, terrified residents avoid going out at night and many shops are for sale or rent.
Montalvo took on the job of trying to bring back Santiago after talking it over with his family and putting his own fears aside. He said he accepted the position out of a sense of duty to the town where he is watching a fourth generation of his family grow up.
"I'm from here, I have lived here all my life, I was born here," Montalvo said. "It was the moment for someone to assume this responsibility and I received the support of a lot of people to do it."