Border town struggles to recover from gun scandal

August 27, 2011 - 10:10 AM

COLUMBUS, N.M. (AP) — Federal prosecutors have all but wrapped up their prosecution of a Mexican gun smuggling ring that snared the mayor, police chief and a trustee of this quiet, dusty border town where chile field workers and refugees from different sides of Mexico's violent drug war apparently coexist peacefully and without fear.

But the new mayor says resolution of the case is little consolation for Columbus. The town was defrocked, losing its reputation and sense of trust, and was brought to the brink of financial ruin by its former leaders now being tried in the conspiracy.

And that "is just the tip of the iceberg," said Nicole Lawson, a former city employee and losing mayoral candidate who was appointed to take the reins after Mayor Eddie Espinoza, former village trustee Blas Gutierrez and police chief Angelo Vega were accused of helping smuggle more than 200 guns into Mexico.

The now jailed officials also left the town's record-keeping in shambles. The police department has been shuttered to save money, and Lawson said has no idea how many guns, protective vests and computers are missing. Water and sewer service continues only because a laid off city worker volunteered her time to keep grant funding on track. Recreation activities were shut down for most of the summer. Most of the city's remaining 15 workers have had their hours cut and benefits eliminated.

And Lawson herself — who is also one of three city EMTs on call seven days a week — says she is putting in about 100 hours a week in hopes of saving the city from bankruptcy.

"It's horrific. These people not only had their trust violated by the people that were supposed to be serving and protecting them, but they have lost their income entirely or their ability to seek medical treatment.

"They have fallen through the cracks," she said, and yet some are still working.

The town's previous claim to fame was a 1916 raid by Pancho Villa. Neither hard financial times nor charges of official misconduct are new for Columbus, population about 1,800, which is made up of mostly small, one-story houses laid out on a grid in the flatlands of the Chihuahua desert with views of mountain ranges on all four sides.

Former mayor and Martha's Inn owner Martha Skinner says she had just finished cleaning things up from her predecessor — who was caught embezzling — when Espinoza defeated her in 2006.

"I just don't want to know anymore. I can't stand it," Skinner said.

But this case was particularly shocking because the charges went well beyond the traditional forms of municipal chicanery like embezzlement to running guns across the border into violence-plagued Mexico.

"I was surprised, by the reasons" they were arrested, said Martha Rodriguez, who owns Hacienda de Villa, the other inn in town. "I think it was a blow — the abuse of power. I am Mexican, and when you see a Mexican revert to the same thing that is going on there, it's shocking. You want it to be getting better."

Indeed nearly everyone in this town — which is about 90 percent Hispanic — has some ties to its cross-border neighbor of Palomas, Mexico, where kidnappings, beheadings and other forms of drug-gang violence occurred.

So far, however, the border has been an invisible line that violence hasn't crossed.

Javier Lozano, a former Mexican police comandante in Palomas with a self-acknowledged list of enemies, is now more safely established as Columbus' elected municipal judge. He also helps his wife, Skinner, run the bed and breakfast that never locks it doors. He said he still crosses over to Palomas, but must exercise caution.

A few blocks away, a man that Lozano said had to flee Mexico and his extensive Mexican real estate holdings quietly goes about the business of serving food at his restaurant. Lozano said that it would likely be fatal if the restaurateur tried to return the three miles to Palomas.

On the U.S. side, however, Lawson can't even remember the last homicide. There hasn't been one since she arrived in 2002. There have been a few burglaries, she said, and parked cars have been shot at.

So shuttering the three-officer police force was probably one of the easier decisions Lawson has made. The county sheriff already patrolled on the perimeters and Border Patrol vehicles are more prevalent on town streets than people.

Columbus has many challenges ahead, Lawson said.

The town is essentially creating new financial books for the past few years. Debts mount and bankruptcy is close. Granting agencies are demanding repayment for fraudulent billings, including one for $24,000 and one for $26,000.

"Right now we are only looking at one week at a time," she said. "Today, we've got about $42,000."

Which might sound good, but the town's insurance payment of $85,000 for the fiscal year that started two months ago is due.

"If you could have messed it up, it looks like we did," she said. "Every time we get something squared away, we find a few other things."

For instance, she said, the town recently discovered that its gross receipts tax had not been collected or paid properly for a number of years.

"So we turned ourselves in," she said. "Hopefully we will be forgiven the fines and penalties for that."

Meantime, the gun smuggling case against the former town officials is nearing an end. Suspended police chief Vegas last week changed his plea on conspiracy smuggling and public corruption charges to guilty, the last of three town officials to plead guilty in the case that has now seen all but two of 14 defendants admit being involved in the plot.

The indictment didn't say who specifically on the other side of the border received the guns, only that they were crossing into Mexico with a ready market among drug cartels. Vega faces up to 35 years in prison, Espinosa faces 68 years and Gutierrez could be sentenced to almost 300 years.

Lawson voted for and worked for Espinoza and said she's not sure how it all went so wrong

"He just started making all the wrong choices I guess. I believed in him. The man had great potential," said Lawson, who was appointed by the town trustees to fill Espinoza's term. "He could have been the best mayor."