Violence and Swine Flu Scare Away Mexican Dentists' American Patients

Jesús Jasso Salazar's dental practice in Palomas is struggling. "I used to see five patients every day," he says. "Now it can be a week without a patient."
Jesús Jasso Salazar's dental practice in Palomas is struggling. "I used to see five patients every day," he says. "Now it can be a week without a patient." (By Travis Fox -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 18, 2009

PALOMAS, Mexico -- Before the police chief here sought political asylum in the United States, after all his deputies had run away because of the kidnappings and killings, this was a nice little town to get your teeth cleaned.

People drove the 360 miles from Phoenix for some periodontal attention. Looking for a good deal on a new crown? As the signs all say (in English): No appointment necessary! Palomas was the Mexican border town that discount dentistry built.

Palomas is like Vegas, except people don't come to gamble, they come for root canals.

The one main street is lined with storefront clinics, some empty and open, others empty and closed. Before the violence from the drug war exploded here last year, 50 dentists were keeping their chairs warm morning, noon and night, serving an almost exclusively American clientele only too happy to get their wisdom teeth extracted for a song.

"It's a pity, really. Our patients are afraid to come back," said Oscar Quiñones, one of the lonely dentists, dressed in his crisp white smock, his drills idled by the brutal realities crushing Mexico's border economy into dust.

Quiñones went down the list. "There was the influenza," he said. "Very difficult for us." People suddenly didn't want somebody else's hands in their mouths. Especially someone from Mexico, where the global swine flu pandemic first emerged in April.

"Before that, there was the economic crisis," Quiñones said. "Then the government made everybody get papers."

On June 1, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency began to require travelers entering the United States from Mexico or Canada to have passports or special high-tech driver's licenses. A U.S. passport costs $100. Traditionally, dental tourists were in Palomas to save money -- on new dentures perhaps -- not to spend it, especially for a passport they were going to use to drive only three blocks into Mexico to hear that they should floss more often.

Noting this, the clinic where Quiñones works is offering clients with a new passport a $100 rebate on any dental work of equal or greater value.

Overlaying all this is the spasm of shocking drug violence that has swept the borderlands. A year ago, when it started to get bad here, the mayor of Columbus, a town just across the border in New Mexico, was sitting in a dentist chair getting a root canal when two pistoleros burst in demanding money.

There were bodies dumped at the edge of town, kidnappings and strange men driving fancy pickup trucks with expensive rims. In a story that ran in the Deming Headlight, a New Mexico newspaper, a popular dentist assured his clients that he was not dead, as rumored, just not in Palomas at the moment.

The violence has settled down. In the evenings now, the locals again cruise the main drag in their pickups, bouncing along to norteño ballads on their stereos, waving to friends. The brand new Mexican army post outside town might have helped.

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