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 killed in border states this year to at least seven.
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.
"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," said Montalvo.
In the face of 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 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 to the Associated Press 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.
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.
Still, he once announced the death of a murder victim before the body had been found.