By JERI CLAUSING and JUAN CARLOS LLORCA, Associated Press
SUNLAND PARK, N.M. (AP) — While much of New Mexico is west of the Rio Grande, this dusty enclave of 14,000 residents is the only U.S. city located on the Mexico side of the river, on the same side as — and just across the border fence from — Juarez.
But it's more than the anomalous location that lends to the town's persistent reputation as a self-contained banana republic.
When state police descended on the dysfunctional community before the March elections, the reaction wasn't so much surprise as "what now?"
And that would be the latest allegations of extortion and financial kickbacks among municipal officials, and, more colorfully, that a mayoral candidate tried to force his opponent out of the race with a secretly recorded video of the other man getting a topless lap dance.
But what is relatively new in Sunland Park and in other troubled border cities and towns is the harsh response to such shenanigans. State and federal agencies are cracking down on border town corruption as part of the larger effort to battle Mexican drug cartels.
"Everyone turned their heads for so long," said Richard Schwein, a former FBI agent in nearby El Paso, Texas, where at least 28 people have either been convicted or indicted recently for voting scandals or awarding fraudulent contracts. Then, when the Department of Justice and the FBI made it a priority, "Bingo!"
Another example can be found 70 miles west of El Paso, in tiny Columbus, N.M., where authorities a year ago arrested the mayor, police chief, a town trustee and 11 other people who have since pleaded guilty to charges they helped run guns across the border to Mexican drug cartels.
That corruption that seems endemic to the border towns can be blamed on a mix of small-town politics, an influx of corrupt government practices from across the border, and, of course, the rise of the cartels and their endless supply of cash.
"If you're (a small town police officer) making $35,000 a year, and someone offers you $5,000 cash ... and next month there's another $5,000 in it for you, you've just (substantially increased) your income by not being on patrol on a given road," said James Phelps, an assistant professor with the Department of Security Studies and Criminal Justice at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.
The U.S. attorney for New Mexico, Kenneth Gonzalez, says more local officials have gotten caught up in scandals as federal authorities put a more intense and sophisticated focus on border towns as part of their attempts to thwart the cartels.
"A result of that intense scrutiny is that we more than likely are going to ensnare someone abusing their position," Gonzalez said.
In Sunland Park, an inquiry into local elections turned into a major probe by multiple agencies.
State auditor Hector Balderas said that broad cooperation among agencies shows that law enforcement is starting to realize that "many crimes are interrelated."
"I think law enforcement agencies and other agencies are now learning that these fiscal problems are symptoms of potentially greater corruption," Balderas said. "And a village or municipality can be infiltrated by criminal elements very easily."
Dona Ana District Attorney Amy Orlando stated in court that Sunland Park's former mayor pro tem and then mayor-elect, Daniel Salinas, 28, had boasted to his codefendants in the cases there that he had ties to the cartels and could call on them to have people who testify against him killed.
Salinas' attorney vehemently denied those allegations.
The two dozen felonies filed against Salinas to date focus on corruption of the financial and voting processes. Although he won the mayor's chair, he was barred from taking office by the terms of his bail.
So allies on the City Council recently named a political newcomer to the job. The new mayor, 24-year-old Javier Perea, most recently worked as a jewelry store employee at an El Paso mall. He replaces former Mayor Martin Resendiz, who dropped a bid for Congress after admitting in a deposition that he signed nine contracts while drunk.