VILLA AHUMADA, Mexico (Border Report) – The crowd of downcast men and women gathered in a circle in the empty space where they normally prepare and sell burritos to travelers along Mexico Highway 45 day and night.
Some had placed flowers at the base of a pillar and taped photos of coworkers they had seen and talked to just a day earlier. Others comforted women in black under the roof of the empty structure – the wives and daughters of burrito vendors, window washers and cooks crushed dead when a semi, for reasons still under investigation, veered off the road.
The tragedy that claimed the lives of six men and four women has rocked this bus and truck stop town between Juarez and Chihuahua City. It also has raised questions about the safety not only of the locals who make a living literally by the roadside but also of the thousands of Mexican and foreign travelers who pass through the town.
Some residents interviewed by Border Report complain that trucks and buses routinely ignore the 40 kilometers-per-hour (22 MPH) speed limit. They say authorities should install speed bumps or bollards to slow the traffic that runs through the middle of town.
Border Report tried to speak to the city’s mayor but was told he was in a meeting and would be in another meeting after that. Several Chihuahua state police cars could be seen patrolling the town on Thursday.
The truck driver, identified by Mexican authorities only as Saul A.D., remains in police custody while the crash is under investigation. Witnesses told Border Report they saw the semi crash into a parked vehicle and crash into the stalls; a Chihuahua state official told local media the driver veered off after another vehicle cut off the semi.
Most residents insist their town is safe, and want to put the tragedy behind and get back to work.
“No one saw this coming. It just happened and we’re still trying to understand what happened,” said Jose Luis Soto, a vendor who went home after his shift ended at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, minutes before the truck struck the crowd.
Soto said he’s sad for his coworkers and their families and will miss them, but he is looking forward to getting back to work. The cooperative that occupies the Union de Vendedores Benito Juarez is closed while its members mourn.
“We will be back in business soon. We will keep working, perhaps not with the same enthusiasm, brothers, but we need to go on because our families need us,” said a union leader who spoke to those gathered in a circle.
Lalis Ramirez, whose cousin was among a dozen others who survived the crash with some injuries, said she will never forget those who died. “I knew Velito – they called him The Turtle. I knew Omar and his uncle, ‘The Pineapple.’ I also knew Little Omar. I knew all of them except the ones who sold roasted grasshoppers; they only came here recently,” she said.
Villa Ahumada has garnered international fame because of its asadero-style cheese. Buses routinely stop here so riders can get down and buy some burritos or cheese for the road. Many of those riders as well as visiting motorists come from U.S. cities like Denver, Albuquerque and El Paso.
Rocio and Fernando Perez live in El Paso but frequently drive to Chihuahua City to visit relatives. They said the tragedy is regrettable but have no plans to change their routine.
“We don’t stay too long. We just eat something and go on our way,” Rocio Perez said.
“It’s a peaceful place. People are very friendly and their asadero cheese and burritos are very famous. We have driven here for many years,” added Fernando Perez.